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Monday, April 25th, 2011 05:40 pm
uakari: (Steampunk)
[personal profile] uakari

Title: Steam VII: Face to Face
Rating: M (overall rating)
Warnings: Violence, gore, sex
Summary: For Konnichipuu.  Steampunk AU: Civil war has torn the country of Nihon apart.  On an abandoned battlefield, a scrap-scavenger stumbles upon the sole survivor buried amongst the wreckage.  Why this man, why now, after everything that has gone before?

A/N: Apologies all around for the long delay on this chapter - I've been working hard on finishing the fic a very kind donor purchased for the Help_Japan auction, and decided that my baby needed to settle a bit on the back-burner for that. On the bright side, now that that has moved into editing phase, you all get an extra-long chapter! Hope you enjoy~!

 

Kurogane stared at the puttering pile of crap with as much disdain as he could muster. It wasn't as much as the abomination deserved, surely, but he was tired and, quite frankly, bored with being annoyed. This was the first he'd been allowed to move from the room he'd recovered in, and still had no clue as to where he was or just who these people holding him here were. He managed to curl his upper lip just a bit so there was no danger of anyone mistaking his mood. "Just give me a hoe," he demanded.

 

"Ohoho," Tomoyo chuckled softly, "Don't be ridiculous. How are you going to hoe with only one arm?" She cocked her head and set her hands on her hips, daring him to answer. "We have to open up that new patch over there," she pointed to a grassy patch off to the left of the exposed garden soil, "You can't do that with a hoe, anyway."

 

"Tche." Kurogane had very few doubts that he would be able to open the ground up – one armed or not – with very little trouble, but decided to bite his tongue. Tomoyo, for all of her unreasonable demands and even more unreasonably sized syringes, was the only person he'd met thus far that hadn't shaken his stomach or made him want to inflict catastrophic levels of property damage. The kid in the kitchen had been the worst – a complete micromanager who insisted on double and triple checking every menial task he'd been assigned with all the fervor of a miniature tyrant. His stone-faced keeper (or whatever the hell he was – Kurogane wasn't entirely sure; he seemed to cause more arguments than he prevented) was of no help whatsoever with his near-constant shrugging and sympathetic looks. Kurogane had only been too happy when that witch had barreled in, shrieking about how she could no longer stomach the noise, and herded him off to assist Tomoyo. She was at least pleasant to be around, even if she did seem to delight in teasing him and had stuffed him into this silly leather boot and cover-all combination that stuck to his legs and made his back sweat.

 

He stared back at the chugging contraption and, with an exaggerated roll of his eyes, pulled back on the lever to shift the rotary blades into drive. The tiller jerked forward, tearing through the packed soil at his feet, and continued on largely of its own accord. Kurogane frowned and followed behind, occasionally pulling or pushing at the steering levers to guide it around corners and between rows. This felt like…cheating, somehow. He'd never been fond of machinery to begin with, and the last several years had only cemented this opinion; war machines, farm machines – they all allowed people to live and die with too little effort. It was too easy to take life for granted when a push of a button or pull of a lever decided one's fate, too easy to lose track of what was truly important and get lost instead in frivolous pursuits…

 

He pulled the lever again as he neared the far corner, stilling the blades but leaving the engine to sputter (it had been a pain in the ass to get started to begin with, and he didn't relish the thought of repeating that particular little profanity-laden endeavor). It certainly had been faster than tilling the land by hand; he was willing to admit at least that much. Unfortunately, unlike tilling by hand, the rotary blades had a rather unsettling habit of kicking any sort of rock or other detritus back at their operator, and the untilled parcel of land Tomoyo had directed him to was littered with plenty of both. Tomoyo herself had already begun clearing the clutter away, tossing small rocks and fallen branches out and away from the main house with wild abandon and looking generally ridiculous as she did so. Kurogane forced down a grin and tramped over to assist.

It was much harder to work with only one arm than he had anticipated. The muscles still worked - even the largest of the rocks should have been no trouble to lift – but the rocks themselves slipped through his fingers, their smooth surfaces impossible to find purchase on. This was going to be a problem when he finally left here – and make no mistake, he would leave – though he supposed it might be useful in accounting for his whereabouts. He wondered if he'd be allowed to return to service-

 

"Kuro-gawuuuuuu!"

 

Kurogane dropped the rock he was hefting to glare at the wisp of flail streaking across the garden. It was barreling toward him at top speed, seemingly completely unaware that it was kicking up loose dirt and making a complete wreck of his freshly plowed rows. And yelling. Yelling some horrible abomination of his father's name-

 

"It's Kuro-" his protest was cut short by it running directly into his chest and knocking the wind from his lungs.

 

"Kuro…puu?" Fay smiled up at him, teasing a finger up the front of his coveralls and winking.

 

"Ku-"

 

"It's so wonderful to see you up and about, Kuro-pon!" Fay cut him off, "Although, I was really surprised to hear they'd put you to work out in the garden already! It's so dirty out here! You really must be as terrifying as they all say if Yuuko chucked you out of the house already! But –oh!" Fay let go long enough to stare at Kurogane in horror, "They didn't even give you eye protection while driving the big, bad roto-tiller? You need goggles!" He reached into his – something, Kurogane wasn't entirely sure just what – and produced a comically small set of blue tinted goggles…which he promptly leapt up to slap around Kurogane's head.

 

"What-" Kurogane tore at the metal buckles binding the ridiculous things to his head, "-the hell are you doing? What the fuck is wrong with you?" He chucked the offensive goggles over his shoulder and glared.

 

"I'm helping!" Fay announced happily. "I felt so bad that poor, wounded Kuro-tan was being made to do manual labor that I hurried up here to help him out!" Fay produced a large wrench from his leather apron and swung it enthusiastically against his palm, "Now, where did you leave that mean old machine?"

 

Kurogane watched in mute horror as Fay skipped across the lawn toward the puttering tiller and cringed as Fay crouched over its smokestack, stroking his chin thoughtfully, before banging the head of the wrench against the outer casing. Seemingly satisfied by the great puff of smoke that billowed from the stack at this, Fay chuckled and plopped down to sit cross-legged next to the sputtering contraption. "Come here, Kuro-buu," he waved enthusiastically, "Let me show you how to fix this."

 

"It doesn't need to be fix-" the words caught in Kurogane's throat as Fay's wrench and spun and cogs and wheels and bolts flung themselves to the ground. "What the hell are you doing?" he shouted instead and stomped toward the rapidly increasing shower of metal bits.

 

"Fixing this, Kuro-lin," Fay assured him absentmindedly and plucked an odd-shaped, hollow chunk of metal from the now-choking tiller. "See?" he waggled the metal bit in front of his face, "Do you know what happens if you take this out?"

Kurogane's eyes grew wide as thick black smoke curled out from the engine and snaked its way around Fay's outstretched arm. The coughing and sputtering continued for a moment, rapidly increasing in tempo as the black cloud coiled tighter and tighter, until finally the overworked motor folded in on itself briefly before blowing back outward and showering everything in a three foot radius with a generous smattering of soot, smoke, and oil.

 

Fay glanced back at the wreckage and wiped the mess from his cheeks. "Huh," he rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "Well, this is why I brought out the goggles. Where did you put them, Kuro-rinta?"

 

Kurogane stared back at him, soot-stained and dumbfounded, wondering what in the hell the last ten years had done to this man. He was all too familiar with shell-shock; he'd seen some of the bravest men in his squadrons crippled by the jerking fear-reactions and driven half-mad by hallucinations of previous battles. It was inevitably distressing, and something he had never truly gotten used to witnessing, no matter how many times it claimed one of his comrades. But this

 

This was something else entirely. In all of his long years fighting and commanding troops, he had never, ever run across something capable of reducing a once bright and respectable (well, semi-respectable, at any rate) man to such a…a…a…blathering dumbass! He could feel the inchoate rage building in his belly, forcing its way up through his chest to where it would explode in short order from his mouth-

 

His imminent verbal expulsion was interrupted by a loud hiss and the replacement of black billowing smoke with heavy steam. He wrenched his accusing eyes away from Fay long enough to determine that Tomoyo had emptied a bucket of water over the tiller and was now regarding the two of them with a curious expression.

 

"Tomoyo…" Fay whined before Kurogane had regained his wits, "Now I'm going to have to take the whole thing apart to be sure you didn't knock any of the smaller bolts loose." He buried his face in his hands in mock despair.

 

"You were going to have to do that anyway, you moron!" Kurogane shouted, "What the hell were you even thinking?"

 

Fay slowly eased himself to his feet, swiping at his leather apron to remove some of the soot deposited there and frowning when his blackened gloves left and even larger mess. "I was thinking," he murmured, "That this afternoon had been awfully dull, and wasn't a bit of excitement in order?" He grinned.

 

Kurogane's upper lip pulled back in a sneer as he wrestled with the moral voice in his head that insisted that it really wasn't okay to punch a crazy man in the face. Said voice was currently winning, but only by the thinnest of margins; Kurogane was only too acutely aware that the entire contraption could well have exploded and cut short his hard-fought and won life. He wasn't in the mood to die so suddenly from something so idiotic as a misfiring engine, and certain not after he'd so recently recovered from a battle injury. What kind of asshole-

 

"Let's not worry about it for right now," Tomoyo said quietly, placing a steady hand on Kurogane's forearm, "I'm sure that Fay knows what he's doing. He is our head engineer, after all," she paused to glance at Fay, concern coloring her face, "You will be able to put it back together within a few days, won't you?"

 

Fay smiled brightly and saluted with his wrench, "Of course, my dear," he bowed forward with a sweeping gesture of his arm, "Anything for you. But, I think you should leave this end of the garden alone. The other one is so much prettier…"

 

Tomoyo chuckled at this, though Kurogane was keenly aware that her eyes were still trained on him, likely scouring his face for the slightest indication of violent intent. Well, she would have to settle for disappointment; he wasn't so unguarded as to let his anger get the better of him. Not here, anyway, not in this strange house (Was it a house? From the outside it looked more like a small fortress or heavily fortified palace with its dark stone walls, barred windows, spires and turrets. He had no trouble at all envisioning a sniper taking aim at him from the higher windows…), filled with insane women with pointy objects who saw no apparent danger in letting clearly insane individuals near combustibles. No, for now the best course of action was just to put up, shut up, and get the hell out of here as soon as possible.

 

"Come on now, Kurogane," Tomoyo said, gently taking his arm, "Let's get you cleaned up before dinner. Fay – take that down to the shop. And try to avoid running into Touya, if at all possible. He's already in a foul mood from something you said to him earlier."

 

Kurogane tugged his arm back impatiently. "I can clean myself up," he huffed and stalked off toward the back entrance, casting a final disparaging glare at Fay. Tomoyo only chuckled again and followed closely on his heels.

 


 

This was infuriating. Well, no, that wasn't entirely true. This was embarrassing beyond all reason, and the simple fact that he felt embarrassment was infuriating. So, while the end result was probably the same, this entire exercise was fueled less by rage and more by concentrated humiliation. Not that it mattered; there was no way in hell he was wearing that cravat.

 

"You need proper attire for dinner," Tomoyo insisted, "Yuuko won't allow you at the table without it. Now, let me just-"

 

Kurogane's tipped his head backward and hissed a heavy stream of air through his teeth as she looped and fastened the ruffled slip about his neck. He couldn't understand what was so wrong with a bow tie or even one of the newly fashionable hanging neckties that he knew for a fact were hanging in this room's wardrobe. Of course, he didn't understand much about this girl, apart from the fact that she seemed to delight in embarrassing him, and managed regularly to creep under his skin in new and terrifying ways to draw out pointed reactions he was sure he should have been capable of stuffing down. It had been bad enough when she had insisted on helping him bathe (worse when she had announced that he had no reason to be embarrassed about this because she had been his nurse, after all, and had therefore seen everything there was to see and was, frankly, unimpressed) – he certainly didn't need her to swaddle him in bandages he was perfectly capable of tying himself and stuff him into overly exuberant dinner wear like some sort of life-sized doll. It wasn't even that he so much minded the clothes she had chosen (overly lavish and decorated with exorbitant frills and ruffles and metallic baubles though they were), but the constant mothering and refusal to let him get on with things and look after his own damned self was irritating at best and downright suffocating at worst. He wasn't a goddamned invalid, after all.

 

"There you are," Tomoyo's eyes sparkled as she eyed him, "You look lovely."

 

Kurogane closed his eyes briefly. "Thanks," he managed through gritted teeth.

 

"Oh," she bit her lip apprehensively, "One more thing." She quickly darted over to the nightstand and rifled through the drawer, eventually fishing out a small box of pins. Within a moment she was back by Kurogane's side, swiftly snatching up the empty left arm of his jacket and expertly folding and pinning the free-floating vessel into a neat little nub below his shoulder. He sighed; he really didn't need to be reminded of his lacking limb, but then he supposed he didn't really need a floppy, vacant sleeve swishing at his side either. She patted her handiwork with her fingertips and stepped to his front for a different angle of inspection. Seemingly satisfied, she grinned and offered her arm. "Shall we?"

 

"Mmm," Kurogane grunted as he slipped his own arm through hers and followed her spritely steps into the hallway.

 

His earlier irritation at her constant presence quickly faded as they wound their way to the dining hall through dark hallways and narrow chambers. The entire building seemed to have been constructed with internal defenses in mind, and functioned as much as a distraction as it did a residence. Either that or it had been constructed with absolutely nothing in mind (no plan, no purpose, and quite possibly no coherent though) – the winding hallways twisted and split around piled rooms, ran up and down stairways and crashed to abrupt halts in unmarked dead-ends. Where the hallways opened into broader corridors, the floors were littered with podiumed sculptures and ancient suits of armor – some aged and rusted beyond repair, some polished to a dull shine that glinted in the dim light of the gas lamps – and magnificently stuffed and manicured mounts of wild deer, moose, boars, and several exotic species that Kurogane didn't recognize, jutting out from the walls. Together, the creeping walls and congregation of ostentatious floor art created an obscenely well-decorated labyrinth that was going to take him a least a week to learn to maneuver. He memorized the pathway as well as he could, noting the most striking pieces of art and architecture to begin with – he had no doubt there would be time to memorize the lesser details in the days to come.

 

Their wandering eventually led to an ornate set of oak double doors which opened easily at Tomoyo's gentle touch. The room they opened into was paneled with the same dark wood trim as Kurogane's, and rich velvet drapes blocked most of the light streaming in from the oversized windows. The little light available in the room poured off of a brassy chandelier which hung low over a round, tiered table set with china in the center of the room. The seats around the table were empty apart from a slight man with silver hair and round, dark red glasses resting on his nose. He perked up at the scuffle near the doorway and waved amicably.

 

"Tomoyo!" he smiled, then twisted his face into a not-quite-frown, "And who's that with you? I can't quite make them out…"

 

Tomoyo tightened her grip on Kurogane's arm and practically dragged him to the table, stopping only to pull out the chair next to the silver haired man for him and gesturing sharply for him to sit. "This is Kurogane – Fay's latest rescue pet."

 

"Oh for-" Kurogane growled, "Would you stop-"

 

"Kurogane," Tomoyo cut him off with a smile, "This is Yukito, Fai's first rescue pet."

 

Yukito laughed at this and offered his hand, flinching only slightly when Kurogane nearly crushed his fingers in an over-enthusiastic grip. "We seem to be accumulating at a rapid pace here," he chuckled, "Though Syaoran seems to be in better shape than the two of us," he paused, wincing slightly, "You're going to have to excuse my forwardness – I can't see well anymore, only a small bit in my left eye," – he lifted the deep red glasses slightly off the bridge of his nose to reveal extensive scarring around his battered eyes – "So I've only heard rumors." He paused for a moment, seeming to regard Kurogane with all the vision he claimed to lack. "You didn't flinch," he said after a moment, "So you were a soldier, after all."

 

Kurogane balked and cocked an eyebrow. "I should have been wearing a uniform," he growled, "It's not like it was a secret."

 

"I'm sorry," Yukito said immediately, "I didn't mean to imply anything. I was a surgeon, before I came here, and the uniform-"

 

"That's about all he needs to know, Yuki," a voice sounded from their side. Kurogane looked up to find a dark-haired man scowling around a large serving tray hefted on his shoulder. He stomped quickly to the table and set the tray – steamed greens and loaves of bread from the look of it – on the upper tier of the table, never letting his glaring and suspicious eyes stray from Kurogane's face.

 

Kurogane returned the glare with equal animosity. "And you are?" he barked, unimpressed with this little ploy for dominance.

"This is Touya," Yukito answered as the dark-haired man pulled out the seat next to him and sat with a huff, "He's unhappy that another person has been brought here, so you're going to have to forgive him."

 

Kurogane glowered past Yukito and shrugged. He really didn't blame this Touya – he wouldn't have been pleased about strangers invading his home in the middle of a war either. Especially not this deep into the outer territories, where animosity toward the army was the strongest and the rebellion the most fanatical. It wasn't difficult to understand why; in the ten years since the military initiative against Celes had begun, the outer territories had been the hardest hit of all Nihon. First to be attacked by the invading Celesians, they had also found themselves the most heavily militarized – entire farming communities had been fortified, their sons conscripted and their lands commandeered for bases and natural resources. Many had been wiped out; more had been shunted into enduring poverty. What had begun as simple revolts against the seizure of their lands had grown into a larger rebellion against the very government that fought to protect them. Nihon was now left fighting a war on two fronts, though it refused to acknowledge the civil war brewing within its own boarders while the threat from Celes remained. After years of being stationed in the outer territories, Kurogane had ceased to wonder where their animosity stemmed from, though his name and rank demanded he refrain from sympathizing.

 

The attitude certainly didn't surprise him, though he was fairly confident that he hadn't fallen in amongst a group of rebels; what had that witch said? A den of thieves, draft-dodgers, scavengers – standard, run-of-the-mill cowards and refuse. They certainly didn't seem to be militant, and they had saved his – a soldier of Nihon's – life, but he would keep his guard up just the same.

 

"He forgets that Yukito was the same way," Tomoyo chuckled, which only shifted Touya's glare to her. She smiled sweetly and patted his shoulder as she waltzed from the table toward a second entrance at the far side of the room. "Yukito, you can keep the peace here while I help bring in dinner, right?"

 

"Of course!" Yukito smiled, "If Touya gets out of line, I'll bend him over my knee."

 

Kurogane's eyes widened slightly at the bawdiness of this comment, but kept his mouth closed as Tomoyo departed and left him alone with the unlikely duo. He studied his reflection closely in the china while the two chattered quietly, seemingly immune to his presence at the table. It was, if nothing else, exhilarating to find himself so completely and utterly ignored after his recent tenure of constant companionship, and he relished his moment of quiet.

 

It was, of course, almost immediately interrupted by the return of a particular loud idiot carrying a tray of bottles and glasses, which he balanced precariously at the edge of the table while one hand fiddled with something just below the rim. Within a moment, an ignition was plainly audible and the lowest tier of the table began to chug slowly about its axis. Fay distributed the glasses next to each plate as they worked their way around and filled each with a generous helping of whatever liquor filled the bottles. Kurogane scoffed as Fay stopped the table's rotation just as unceremoniously as he had started it and took a seat opposite Kurogane, grinning all the while.

 

"You clean up well, Kuro-sama."

 

"Goddamn it…"

 

"There is to be no vulgarity at my table," an imperious voice declared. Kurogane looked up to find the insane witch doctor leaning against the doorway he had come through with one hand at her hip, surveying the small collection of people gathered around the table. "Which probably means you're doomed to spend most of the meal in silence, Kurogane," she grinned and waltzed forward to take a seat next to Fay, "Where is everyone?"

 

"We're right here," Tomoyo answered from the opposite doorway. Like Touya before her, she carried a large tray stacked with dishes and was accompanied by a second, ginger haired girl and an exhausted looking young man pushing a cart. She smiled at Kurogane and motioned to her companions, "This is Sakura and Syaoran, Kurogane. I apologize, Yuuko, there was some trouble in the-"

 

The door behind them banged open against its accompanying wall as the miniature tyrant Kurogane recognized from his earlier work in the kitchens stumbled through backward, wielding an enormous cauldron. His stone-faced keeper followed close behind, one hand pressed tightly against his ear and the other hefting the Mokona previously used to guard against Kurogane's free movement and a nearly identical black counterpart.

 

"You JERK! I wasn't the one who nearly blew our cover! YOU were the one who couldn't be arsed to practice walking in heels ahead of time! And who uses a shoe as a dagger, anyway? I swear, working with you is like-"

 

"Watanuki," Yuuko cut him off sharply, "Now is not the time."

 

"-Kitchen," Tomoyo finished with a grin, "And this is Watanuki and Doumeki."

 

"Huh?" Watanuki set the cauldron on table with a thud and looked around confusedly until his eyes settled on Kurogane,

 

"Oh, right." He settled irritably into a chair and continued to glare at the man he'd entered with as he pulled out the adjoining seat.

 

"Now that we're all settled in," Yuuko said once the fidgeting had subsided, "Let's begin dinner with a toast to our new companion's health. Kurogane, it's nice to see you're making a full recovery. And Watanuki and Doumeki – it's good to have you back with us once again. While Touya is doubtless a capable chef, truly, nothing compares to your dishes."

 

A chorus of "cheers" accompanied raised glasses around the table, with the exception of Touya, who pointedly left his glass resting on the table and reached instead for a serving spoon.

 

"Now," Yuuko continued, twisting the dials on the Mokonas' foreheads and sending them hopping across the table, "There still remains the question of just what to do with you while you're recovering. It seems that the kitchen is not a good fit," she paused to cast a meaningful glance at Watanuki, who narrowed his eyes in turn, "And it seems you had trouble in the garden as well."

 

"I didn't have trouble," Kurogane snarled indignantly and jabbed his fork forward to point at Fay. The white Mokona, paused near his plate, opened its mouth threateningly and he quickly set the fork back on the table. "He was the one who nearly killed us by blowing up the tiller."

 

Fay snorted. "Don't be ridiculous, Kuro-tan. I only pulled the valve hinge to clean it – you weren't in any danger."

 

"Don't play stupid with me. There was smoke and an explosion."

 

"Yes," Fay continued, grabbing the black Mokona and bending the arm until it spat a bright red sauce onto his plate, "You tend to get smoke when you close off the exhaust port. And the explosion…well, think of it as more of a loud cough," Fay paused long enough to fiddle with something beneath the table again, which promptly set the top tier rotating. "Also – I think you may have better luck expanding the south end of the garden, rather than the north. It gets more sunlight and we could probably dig a culvert down to the edge to bring in water run-off from the hill."

 

Yuuko set a serving spoon back against the table and cast a confused look at Tomoyo. "I thought we had decided on the south side?"

 

Tomoyo frowned. "We discussed it. But it's so rocky, I thought it would be better to go with the north end this season – we need to get the seeds started as soon as possible."

 

"Hmm," Yuuko considered this, "You're correct in that. Still, I don't want you ripping up the north end. I think we can spare a couple of people to help you clear out the south while Fay repairs the tiller. That should keep us on schedule." Tomoyo nodded politely as Yuuko turned her attention back to Kurogane. "It would appear," she said slowly, a wicked gleam dancing across her eyes, "That you have abominably little experience working with engines."

 

Kurogane cocked an eyebrow. "And?" he demanded.

 

"Ah," Yuuko grinned, "It's our primary source of income here. If you're to be useful, and pay off that debt you owe us, it would be advantageous for you to learn something."

 

"Tche," Kurogane eyed the rotating table and the metallic rabbit-things bouncing across it, depositing saucy messes on the diners' plates, and was suddenly acutely aware of the quiet chugging of the motors within each. He sneered. It was pointless luxury; the table certainly wasn't accomplishing anything that a set of wheels beneath its tiers and a small push from a human hand couldn't – it wasn't even doing all that great a job spinning itself, truth be told. And the Mokonas appeared to be nothing more than condiment dispensers that (for some ungodly reason) doubled as flame-throwers. "I'm not interested in producing frivolous garbage so that you can line your pockets," he said levelly.

 

Several sets of eyes around the table widened, but Yuuko only laughed and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Such vigor!" she exclaimed after she had calmed herself somewhat, "I can only assume that you're referring to some of our simpler gadgets around the house when you say 'frivolous garbage.' You might be right," she paused to chuckle again, "However, one can't build a masterpiece without creating a few pieces of glorified scrap along the way."

 

Kurogane felt his lip pull back as one of the glorified pieces of scrap paused once again at his plate, this time showering his serving with a deluge of red glop, and stared back at Yuuko.

 

"Everyone must practice their craft," she said, "Surely you were trained in combat. Or did you burst from the womb with a sword in your hand?"

 

"That wouldn't be terribly surprising for Kuro-sama," Fay grinned. Kurogane glared back at him.

 

"Perhaps a good teacher is what you require," Yuuko pinched her chin thoughtfully, "Fay has been instructing Syaoran in some of the finer points of engine production. If he were to take you on as a second apprentice, you would be able to work off some of what you owe him while gaining skills that would allow you to pay off the remainder of your debt to us as a whole."

 

Touya bristled at this. "Surely you can't be serious," he spat, slamming his fork down on the table, "It's bad enough that we have one completely untrustworthy hack in that workshop – we certainly don't need a completely unknown stranger down there as well!"

 

"A fair point," Yuuko conceded, "Though, really, there's nothing especially…sensitive being built down there at the moment. And, even you must admit, if he proves to be trustworthy, he would make a remarkably good test candidate for some of our more advanced research." Kurogane followed her eyes as they traveled away from his face and stopped to rest conspicuously on his empty shoulder. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, wondering how he was meant to respond to a look like that.

 

He was, mercifully, spared from having to respond at all by Touya slamming his fist into the table and rattling the china. "He is a soldier," Touya growled, "And not only that, he's taken the name of Reed's late second-in-command – he's obviously a loyalist, not a conscript. If you think there is any way that I am allowing him access to any of our work-"

 

Yuuko held up a hand and lowered her eyes to quiet Touya's rage. "Once again, Touya, you have a fair point. However, if you truly wished to judge people on their names or family, then surely my own name and family connections to Fei Wang Reed would have prompted you to shun my assistance."

 

Touya's eyes remained cool. "That is an entirely different matter! You worked with our father! We've known you for years – this man shows up here and you decide on a whim that he's trustworthy? I don't understand what is going on in your head!"

 

"Calm yourself, Touya," Yuuko soothed, "I am not suggesting that we simply divulge all of our work to a complete stranger. I'm simply stating that, as we cannot allow him to leave, we have enough safeguards in place here to at least consider the possibility. Providing he proves to be a useful asset, after all." She eyed Kurogane once again, and he felt a cold shiver travel down his spine. There was a definite irony in having his honor questioned by this woman that he found he did not enjoy one bit. His earlier assessment had been correct – there was no love lost between these people and the military. Still, as viscerally as it affected him to hear his father's name bandied about as a smear, he held his tongue. He had known General Reed personally; after his father's death at the front, the general had been the one to step in and assist Kurogane in sorting out their estate and establishing himself as a leader in his own right. He had always held him to be an honorable man; these people had clearly been poisoned by the propaganda campaign that had taken such deep root in the outer territories. If they were indeed militant, he would deal with them later; for now, he had enough sense about him to see the forest for the trees.

 

Touya shook his head in exasperation. "You are far too trusting."

 

Yuuko threw back her head and laughed at this. "All these years, darling," she chuckled, "And you still doubt the veracity of my information network. You should know better than anyone that Inever trust what I can't verify."

 

Touya considered to stare coldly, but didn't argue the point further. Yukito laid a gentle hand over his and squeezed gently.

"Touya," he said quietly, "You can always go back to the workshop if you're concerned."

 

Touya seemed to consider this, then sighed and turned back to his food. "You can count on it."

 

Yuuko smiled broadly at Kurogane, "Well, then. It would appear that you'll have your work cut out for you. Here's hoping you're up to the challenge." She lifted her glass. Kurogane lifted an eyebrow. "For now, I think I will allow you free run of the house – though keep in mind it's very easy to get lost here, and even more difficult to find you once you have. And do remember, should you try to leave-" she tapped the white Mokona's forehead.

 

It spit a steady stream of flame directly toward Kurogane.

 

Kurogane narrowed his eyes and inhaled sharply. Just where had that idiot brought him?

 


 

The household was long dark, the majority of its dwellers having retired some hours earlier. Kurogane paced about his room, pouring over questions that still had no concrete answers. He had no idea where he was, no idea who these people were, what they were doing, or how Fay fit into this mess. He knew only that he was unwelcome, suspected, and possibly in enemy territory – though, truth be told, he had a hard time regarding any of them as actual enemies. Mostly they just seemed to be a collection of harmless recluses with odd hobbies, with the probable exception of that witch, who almost certainly had something up her sleeve.

 

The bare wood floor was cold beneath his feet as he plodded over to window, the light bed clothes he'd been given swishing about his ankles, and peeked around the heavy curtains. He had ruled out escape through it earlier – even if he had managed to bend the bars guarding their outer surface with his one arm, he would have faced a three-story drop down a sheer wall with nothing in the way of footholds, and even then would have found himself at the mercy of the expansive wilderness visible in all directions. He stared out for only a second before letting the curtains slip back to their original positions and abandoning the window altogether.

 

He padded back to the heavy door to the hallway, pausing to pick up the lamp from his table, and was pleasantly surprised when the handle creaked beneath his touch. Apparently they hadn't felt the need to lock him in, then. He opened the door slowly, quietly, and edged his way out into the hall. The darkness hung thickly – the wall lanterns had all been either doused or dimmed, leaving only the barest amount of light flickering about – and it was quiet apart from the steady stamp-plonking of the Mokonas up and down the corridor. Kurogane lifted an eyebrow as the black one skipped past him, perhaps blissfully unaware of his presence, or perhaps less cunningly designed than its white counterpart; either option suited Kurogane just fine as he crept away from his chamber. This was as good a chance as any to familiarize himself with the layout of this house…outpost…fort…whatever, and he was certainly not going to waste it.

 

"Sneaking out so late at night, Kuro-tan? Mommy would be most disappointed."

 

Kurogane spun to find Fay leaning against the wall on the opposite side of his doorframe, his face partially obscured by a protruding wall lamp and his arms crossed casually across his chest. Like Kurogane, he was dressed in long-sleeved pajamas, but unlike Kurogane he also donned a ridiculous night cap, which barely stretched over his intricately knotted hair and bulged absurdly at the back where he had tied the tendrils into a thick binding, and a shaggy pair of fur slippers that undoubtedly served not only to warm his feet against the cold of the floorboards, but also muffle his steps. Kurogane cringed; he would need to put far more effort into keeping aware of his surroundings if he was being watched like this.

 

"What's the point of unlocking the door if I'm still being guarded?" he growled.

 

"I wasn't guarding you, Kuro-rinta," Fay sang with a smirk, "I was just heading back to my room and heard you stomping around yours, so I thought I would drop by and say good evening. Maybe bring you a warm cup of milk to help you sleep."

 

Kurogane narrowed his eyes, "Slinking in the shadows outside my door is a funny way to say hello."

 

Fay took a step away from the wall, waiving the complaint away, "I hadn't got the opportunity to knock before you came skulking out here like a spook in the night," he raised his eyebrows appraisingly, "Though I suppose only an idiot would try to escape in silk jammies."

 

"Tche," Kurogane snorted, not buying this line in the slightest. He scanned the hallway quickly for anyone else that might have been lurking, unnoticed, in the darkness. "I was looking for the toilet," he grumbled after a few seconds had passed.

 

"It's that way," Fay motioned over his shoulder, toward the opposite end of the hallway Kurogane had started down, "Need to powder your nose? It is looking a bit shiny under the lamps-"

 

Kurogane had had enough of this dance and rounded on Fay, eyes narrowed and lips pulling back into a snarl. "What the hell is this?" he roared, slamming a fist against the wall panels.

 

"What is what, Kuro-pon?" Fay chuckled, only a hint of nervous energy coloring his voice, "This is a wall," – he patted the panels behind him – "This is a door," – he repeated the action – "And this," he reached forward to dig his index finger into the bulb of Kurogane's nose "Is a big, scary puppy with more bark than bite," his grin grew impossibly wider, "Or so Tomoyo tells me…"

 

"You bastard," Kurogane hissed, "What the hell is this place you've brought me to? And what the hell are you even doing here? Last I knew, you'd been conscripted and, since you don't appear to be injured, you either ran or you've defected. A capital offense in either case. If you've brought me into a nest of rebels-"

 

Fay threw his hands up, palms outturned. "Oh please, Kuro-buu," he rolled his eyes, "Do any of these people look like rebels to you? Most of them couldn't win a fist fight, let alone have the stomach to plot against the empire. Do you really take sweet little Tomoyo for a traitor?"

 

Kurogane crossed his arms over his chest. "I've seen stranger things. And that witch woman seems to have an agenda-"

 

"And once again, you're so obsessed with the military and war and fighting that it hasn't dawned on you that her business might be completely irrelevant to your war efforts!" Fay spat defiantly.

 

"Then why am I being held here?"

 

Fay laughed. "Because you're a soldier. And just because something is irrelevant, doesn't mean it won't be commandeered. You have no idea just what-"

 

"You knew I was a soldier when you brought me here!" Kurogane snapped, not wanting a repeat of the lecture he had heard countless times from civilians around his outpost.

 

"So I did," Fay said with a frown and shirked backwards, "War does funny things to people."

 

"But not to you," Kurogane spat, "You're hiding out here, another listless musician without a cause. And now you've dragged me into your foolishness," he sighed and raked a hand across his face, "You seemed like so much more, all those years ago."

 

Fay's eyes went terrifyingly wide at this, and he quickly blinked them back to a normal size. "I," he started, voice quavering, "I have served my time. Ten years of service is too much to ask of any man, outside of yourself, it would seem. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed." He attempted to slither between Kurogane and the wall, then seemed to think better of it and pushed the larger man out of his way, disappearing into the long shadows.

 

Kurogane stared at his back for a moment, stewing in his anger. He supposed he might cut the man a little slack – he had saved his life, after all – but the evasive lunacy and outright contempt for simple answers that Fay spewed so easily made it almost impossible. Kurogane wondered once again what had happened to Fay over the past ten years; it was clear that the quirky, though intelligent musician was gone - replaced by this slippery, flailing idiot. It was infuriating enough on its own, doubly so that Kurogane couldn't fathom why.

 

Whatever. He was apparently going to be here for awhile – that would surely leave him no dearth of time to figure it out.


January 2013

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