Title: Steam, Chapter IX - Short Circuit
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?
Kurogane scowled at the back of Touya’s head as the other man turned on his heel and stormed back up the winding staircase, hair whipping wildly in the wind stirred by the speeder’s engines as it soared away from its platform and out of sight. Typical. Everyone had once again run off, leaving all the heavy lifting and clean-up for him. He glared up at the retracted ceiling and debated leaving it open to whatever ravages nature felt like throwing through it, but thought better of that after a quick calculation of the whining, screaming, and scolding that was likely to ensue and returned to the crank with a sigh.
The last several days had been a stark reminder of just how long he had spent recuperating; the accompanying atrophy of his muscles hadn’t appeared extensive at first glance, but was clearly evident now in both the ache of his arm and his general exhaustion after only a moderately taxing day of work. Or maybe it was just the inevitable strain that came of depending on one arm to do what had once been the work of two. Either way, he was grateful to the kid for his help. He certainly wasn’t a bumbling idiot like Touya would have him believe, nor was he a well-intentioned klutz like Fay seemed to imply; he was a good kid – a capable kid – he just needed a bit more guidance than either man seemed inclined to give him.
And speaking of guidance…neither Touya nor Fay had let him anything to work on for the afternoon. He supposed he might take stock of their inventory and make up a couple of whatever looked depleted, but he had no idea of how much of what they kept on hand at any given time, or what the exact ratios of the alloys required for any given product were, or even where he might begin to search through the organized chaos that littered the shop to find out. He settled, in the end, for rolling his eyes and cursing the utter dysfunctionality of the entire enterprise.
Resigned, he pinched the index finger of his glove between his teeth and pulled his hand free, casting the empty vessel off to his side to grace the ever-growing collection of useless crap on Fay’s workbench. There was no sense in wallowing here all day with no work, especially not when navigating the twisted corridors of this…house…thing was still proving to be the bane of his existence. (Twice in the past three days he’d been found by Tomoyo, hopelessly lost in search of a damned toilet. The most recent misadventure had found him trapped in a small room with what had appeared to be several over-sized rats, one of whom had charged him, wielding a long and distinctly mechanical-looking tail, before Tomoyo had appeared and reassured him that it was only a simple house rat and that he was probably hallucinating any “mechanical appendages” from over exertion.) His apron joined the glove in short order and he bounded quickly up the staircase.
The doorway from the shop opened up into a narrow corridor which led, in one direction, toward his rooms (and, he assumed, the others’ rooms as well). The other direction led…well, that was the entire point of this exercise, wasn’t it? There was a distinct dearth of lighting toward that end of the hall which, while obviously intended to discourage this sort of exploration, was only serving to pique his curiosity that much more. He reached back into the shop’s doorway and plucked the gas lamp that sat at the corner railing of the landing, and, after managing to scorch three of his fingers lighting the blasted thing, he set off down the dark end of the corridor.
Kurogane didn’t spare much time to examine the walls here, overly adorned with oil portraits though they were, preferring to hurry on toward the far end of the corridor, which came to an abrupt end at a simple, undecorated doorframe. At first tug, the latch appeared to be locked, but with a firm shake and a well-placed kick to the hinges, it opened without much trouble. Stepping through, he found himself midway along the wall of a massive ballroom – or what had once been a massive ballroom – its tall, brass-woven windows were draped with luxurious silks and their peaks crept high into numerous vaults in the ceiling. The walls were paneled with a deep rose colored plasterwork and accented with white and gold trim that was only interrupted along the far walls by sprawling pastoral murals. The room might have been called grand, had it not been so disused. Well, perhaps “disused” wasn’t the correct word; the room was certainly used – cluttered and piled high with wooden crates and draped with oversized schematics – just not for anything resembling grandeur.
He stepped carefully around the crates, gaping at the intricate designs scrawled across the long swaths of parchment. He was unable to make heads or tails of most of the schematics – huge mechanical monsters with multiple sets of arms and legs, rolling pods with belted wheels, wire-framed nightmares fitted with bats’ wings – though there were more recognizable designs of looms and mechanized harvesters as well. This surely had to be where the idiot spent his time dreaming up the contraptions he’d kept Kurogane busy constructing pieces for, though he hadn’t imagined Fay capable of designing such…what was the word for these? Intricate? Outlandish? Unnecessary?
He was vaguely aware of a creaking as he looked, and only thought to turn back to the door in time to see it disappear altogether, blending seamlessly into the paneling. He considered, for a second, heading back and working out how to open it again, but shook it off and continued to wind his way through the chaos – it probably just needed a good kick, anyway. The designs became more and more bizarre the further in he waded, and he paused to trace his finger over one schematic in particular – a high-riding, six-legged walking machine with a spindly set of arms and wire basket where its mouth ought to have been…if it had needed a mouth. It seemed familiar, somehow, though only vaguely, as if he’d seen it in a dream (or, more likely, a nightmare). He marveled at the many pieces plotted out and measured across the yellowing parchment, tangled into working groups, and finally assembled into the beast itself; a twisted jig-saw puzzle, designed and snapped together by a madman.
He was distracted from his musings by a sharp peal of laughter – loud and genuine and foreign sounding to his ears after weeks of naught but Fay’s false, hollow chuckles. He followed it toward the opposite wall – where it continued on as a muffled chattering, eeking out from behind a stack of crates and supplies – and stepped around the corner of the pile apprehensively, wary of whom he might be running into this time. He was certain that anyone he might want to meet had left for the afternoon, but, with the exit slammed shut behind him and hidden so immaculately within the paneling, this could prove to be the most expedient way out of this…place.
Unsure as he had been of what to expect on the other side, he hadn’t even considered the possibility of finding Yukito perched in Touya’s lap, leaning closely over an easel with pen in hand, or the possibility that the two of them would be laughing hysterically at whatever obscenity he had just scrawled there. Hell, he hadn’t seen Touya smile the entire time he’d been here; seeing him laugh and press his face closer to Yukito’s ear like this was almost unsettling…
It wasn’t to last, however; Touya’s back straightened as he caught sight of Kurogane, and his eyes narrowed in irritation. Wordlessly, he slid Yukito to his side on the bench they shared and stalked toward the edge of the pile that had concealed them. “How did you get in here?” he demanded, puffing out his chest to full girth.
Kurogane bit back a snort. For all of this guy’s posturing, he was maybe three-quarters of Kurogane’s size (if he was being generous) – certainly not anything resembling a serious threat. But, after a week’s worth of snarling and snide remarks from the other man, Kurogane was itching for a fight and Touya was presenting a very appealing target for his rage. He pointed over his shoulder, “Door.”
“It was locked.”
“There was a lock?” Kurogane sneered. Oh yes, he grinned as Touya bristled, just a few more steps and take a swing, you son of a bitch… He wasn’t even concerned with what they’d do to him at this point – it couldn’t be much worse than living under lock and key as he already was.
Yukito, it seemed, was worried – at least about the potential damage the two might do to each other and the…whatever room this was – and quickly inserted himself between the mutual glaring. “It’s a bad lock, Touya. You said yourself that it needed to be fixed,” he turned back toward Kurogane, eyes still invisible behind his dark lenses, but his expression conveying every bit of seriousness they could not, “You should go back now. Touya’s not comfortable with people in his studio.”
Kurogane did snort this time – at the notion that this mess was anything more than a glorified junk yard, piled high with years’ worth of bad ideas and broken dreams. Studio, indeed.
“You won’t find what you’re looking for in here, anyway,” Touya snarled over Yukito’s shoulder.
Kurogane’s eyebrow lifted at this. He had no idea what he was mean to be “looking for,” but wasn’t about to let the opportunity to wind Touya a little tighter slip by. “And where will I find it?” he snapped.
“You son of a-”
“Good Lord, can you smell the testosterone in this room?” a fourth voice broke into the conversation before Touya had the opportunity to push his way through Yukito. Kurogane didn’t need to turn his head to know it was that witch, but he did anyway to greet her with a heated glare. “Good afternoon, Kurogane,” she smiled, “It seems you’re a bit more canny than we gave you credit for.” She raked her gaze across his bristling face, eyebrows tilting slightly upward. “Perhaps you’d like to join me in my office?”
“Not particularly.” Somehow, he wasn’t surprised when she cackled loudly at this.
“Consider it a favor then,” she insisted, gesturing behind her, “A very large favor if you prefer.”
Kurogane considered refusing her entirely – the near certainty of getting into a brawl with Touya was definitely appealing – but something in her expression suggested that this could well be his only opportunity to get some much-desired answers. Maybe it was subtle twitch at the corners of her mouth, maybe it was the impatient click of her tongue against her bitten lower lip. Either way, he found himself agreeing before he was even fully aware of making the decision and following the swish of her long skirts through the archway and into an overflowing, but seemingly makeshift library. Kurogane cast one final glare toward the duo in the “studio” as Yuuko disappeared into the labyrinth of mismatched shelves and high-piled desks.
“Now, Youou,” she said as the latch clacked into position behind him, “You’re proving to be quite a troublesome house guest.”
“And very much living up to your reputation. For the most part, anyway.”
He could feel his confusion and incredulity spilling onto his face, mixing together into an expression that was probably far more vulnerable than he would have liked. His lips pulled tight as he fought to keep himself in control. “Most?” he growled, not willing to betray just how disconcerting it was that she knew his name, let alone whatever reputation he had held.
“Yes,” she hummed, tapping her fingers across the dark wood desktop thoughtfully, “Though I suppose it’s not every day that such a…lively dead man shows up on our doorstep. Now, Youou-”
“How do you know me?” he finally snapped, clenching his fists and stomping closer to the desk, “We’ve never met as far as I know and-”
“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed, realization brightening her eyes. Rather than answering, however, she ducked to dig through one of the drawers and rattled through the contents haphazardly, as though she had never seen them before. “Aha!” she finally declared, triumphantly producing a long silver chain and pendant. She offered these across the desk, dangling from an index finger.
His dog tags.
Kurogane kicked himself for not realizing it sooner – they’d been missing from around his neck for the entirety of his stay, and yet no one (besides this witch) seemed to give any indication that they’d taken them-
“Of course,” she smirked as he leaned forward to reclaim his tags, “It would be hard to mistake someone who looks so very much like his father.”
“Bullshit,” he recoiled, snatching the chain away and pressing his clenched fist protectively across his chest, “You couldn’t have known my father.”
“Only socially, of course,” she waved this away, “It would have been difficult not to have known a man of his stature in our circles. Back in those days…”
“And what circles were those?” he demanded petulantly.
Her face softened into a smile. “Well, certainly not as bad as anything you’re imagining,” she folded her hands across her nose and mouth and murmured quietly, “My my, he sneaks around the entire estate, pokes his nose into all the rooms he doesn’t belong, never gets lost in the same place twice, and yet somehow still hasn’t noticed the family resemblance.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She unfolded her hands only to scratch at her forehead. “Well, I suppose we are only about half-cousins at best, and the Ichihara side of the family is so intermarried…though he himself is obviously the product of rampant inbreeding, but that’s the Reeds for you-”
“Cut the crap. What are you talking about?”
“My third cousin, twice removed – that’s what he is!” she finally decided, “Though he might have been a brother-in-law, had life worked out a bit more fairly. I suppose it rarely does, though – or would you disagree?”
Kurogane stared back at her; her eyes sparkled expectantly, as if she thought he might have actually been making heads or tails of the nonsense she was spewing. He sneered – she was obviously insane, babbling on like this about family relationships and inbreeding and expecting him to somehow have a clue in hell what she meant by it all – and clutched the chain in his hand tight enough for the links to dig into his skin. She’d had his tags – that was enough of an answer for him, and he could comfortably get back to working on a way out of here without pondering their connection any further. Now if only she would provide him an opportunity to leave the office…
“No,” he said finally, remembering dully that her last words to him had been some sort of question, and took a step back toward the door.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t,” she continued, eyes toward his empty shoulder, “How are your injuries? Tomoyo says you’ve been insisting on dressing your own wounds; she very upset.”
Kurogane grimaced. He was well aware of exactly how upset Tomoyo was – she’d threatened to bind and gag him with the bandages she’d brought with her the night before, when he’d unceremoniously lifted them from her tray and begun winding them about his own shoulder, if he didn’t let her have a look. He’d felt it was a great compromise on his part to allow her even a glimpse; he’d been treating his own injuries for nearly thirty years and was doing a damn fine job of it, all things considered. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate her concern, it was just that it was damned insulting to be henpecked and fussed over for things he really could take care of himself. If something went wrong, she would be the first to know, but until then-
“Would you prefer I looked after you?”
“No.” That might have been more emphatic than was strictly appropriate, but diplomacy had never been his strong suit. “What I mean,” he corrected, “Is that I am very…grateful to Tomoyo. She’s kept me from becoming a fully dead man at your doorstep.” There. That had been at least a little diplomatic.
The teasing smirk that had turned her mouth for most of their conversation faded precipitously at this. The remaining frown was disconcerting at best and downright horrifying at worst, especially as he’d considered his last remarks to be amongst his more tactful utterings since arriving. She leaned forward against the desk, chin coming to rest on the open palm of one hand as she scrutinized him. “I’m afraid you don’t quite take my meaning, Youou.”
Her frown deepened. “When I say ‘dead man…’” she quirked an eyebrow at him, “Gracious, you really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what?” he could feel his exasperation pouring onto his face and cursed this woman for her ability to reduce him to this state. He was able to stand down battlefield horrors without so much as flinching, yet found himself being undone by half-flirtatious taunts.
She exhaled deeply and rose to her feet. “Have a seat,” she instructed as she wafted toward the far wall and began rifling through a number of oversized, leather bound books in a corner table.
“Suit yourself,” she hummed, still flipping through yellowed pages, “Though don’t say I didn’t offer. Aha.” Apparently having found what she was looking for, she returned to her seat behind the desk and shoved the book across its surface toward Kurogane. “I think you will find several things of interest archived here.”
He sighed loudly, but stalked to the edge of the desk to thumb through the pages. Inside was a chronological account of the war and Nihon’s political degradation, pieced together from painstakingly trimmed and varnished newspaper clippings – the sort of thing he might have expected to find in his grandmother’s library rather than in the collections of a recluse with no apparent connection to Nihon at large. The majority of the articles, unsurprisingly, were centered around General Reed and his campaigns against the Celesians; the more recent of these detailed the slipping public confidence in the monarchy and his eventual installment as acting head of state for the remainder of the war. A record father’s death at the front nearly fifteen years before was included here – also unsurprising as he had served as General Reed’s second in command for nearly a quarter century. There wasn’t anything especially “interesting” included here; it was a simple collection of dates and events that even a child could have collected...
It was rather odd to stumble across his own obituary in the backmost pages, but he supposed it was inevitable after his unit had fallen and he had disappeared here. His real surprise was that she had clipped it at all – he’d never been more than a Lieutenant, and had certainly never had the sort of public appeal his father had wielded. He was at least thankful they hadn’t included a ridiculous caricature of him – he’d never forgiven the artist who had contributed to his father’s death announcement. He picked at the yellowed corner of the snipping – they really needed to use better varnish to hold these to the paper if they didn’t want the entire thing degrading; there was no reason for this particular page to be as yellowed as it was-
“This is dated three years ago,” he growled, eyes snapping back toward the witch at the desk.
“So it is,” she agreed, continuing to stare back at him.
“Why the hell…?”
“Is this a fucking joke?” he snapped, flipping the heavy covers of the book closed and slamming his fist into their broadside. Was this a printing mistake? Why on earth would an obituary even have been published mistakenly for him then? He'd just accepted the orders that had put him in Takayama days before this - he wasn't even certain he had left Tokyo... Moreover, “Why do you even have this? Why mine?”
“I assure you it’s not a joke,” Yuuko said seriously, “And I find it’s very useful to keep records of this country’s movement and progress, don’t you? You’d be amazed at what you can find in the details.”
“They’re clippings from fucking gossip rags. There is nothing of value here,” he snarled.
“Perhaps. But they’re useful enough in their own way,” she continued, “For comparison to actual reports from the capitol, if nothing else.”
“You’re a traitor…”
“I am most certainly not the traitor,” she said sternly and pulled the book back to face her, “Now, the real question is: why is a man who has "died" twice standing in my office, looking as if he’s about to tear my throat out?”
“That is obviously a mistake,” he roared, stomping closer to lean against her desk. He was not going to be fucked with like this – if she wanted to play games, he was more than happy to pull them out of the realm of the psychological and back into physical reality. “A printing error.”
Very calmly, she flipped back to the pages he had been studying only moments earlier. “So many printing errors, from so many sources,” she murmured, her fingers dancing across the pages.
He snatched the book back. She was at least being truthful in that – his name was splashed across clippings on the following pages as well, and there at the heart of it all was a heart wrenching sob story penned by none other than General Reed himself, lamenting the end of the Suwa line and recounting the many deeds of bravery performed by the family across generations. He checked the date and scoffed. “This is fake,” he announced, shoving the book back toward her, “I’ve spoken directly to the general after this date. This was right after I was stationed at Takayama – he visited there only moths after this!”
“Ah yes, Takayama,” she said thoughtfully, “That would be where Fay collected you, yes? That’s still quite the frontier – were you there for the entire three years?”
“Of course I was – you don’t just get to leave.”
“Proving your mettle?” she grinned at him.
“Well surely you knew people expected you to fill your father’s shoes, once you had come of age, proven yourself on the battlefield.”
“Tche,” Kurogane snorted, “I was there to protect Nihon. Nothing more, nothing less.”
She screwed up her face, “Not much Celesian action out that way. In fact, I don’t recall hearing about much action at all that way, until most recently.”
He sighed and hung his head. “We were assigned to quash a local uprising.”
“Ahh yes, protecting the country from itself. A noble cause, indeed. Still, I find it hard to believe that it took an entire regiment three years to put down a farmers’ rebellion.”
Rage smoldered behind his eyes. This fucking witch… “It took longer than expected. Some traitor was supplying the locals with artillery.”
“Calm yourself, Youou,” she insisted, eyes growing wide, “I am not a petty arms dealer who supplies farmers so they can ride to their doom against the military. And stop clenching your jaw like that – you’re bound to burst a blood vessel.” She laced her fingers together and leaned forward, he expression far more gentle than it had been previously, “I, like you, am simply trying to make sense of these events. Now, did it take you the entire three years to put down the rebellion?”
“No, about two and a half. We were just finishing up fortifications when-”
“We were ambushed.”
“And you’re certain.”
“You saw the Celesian insignia on flags, uniforms? Heard Celesian commands?”
“I-” he paused, trying to remember. He didn’t like where this conversation was heading - there was no way in hell he'd been betrayed by the army he served - and he was determined to cut it short, if only he could remember exactly what had tipped him off that it was Celes attacking. He hadn’t needed any proof at the time – who else was going to attack them with that amount of fire power? Certainly not any rag-tag band of rebels – they had been a damnable pain to put down, but they had relied on stealth and guerilla tactics, not an outright assault. Why the fuck was that obituary still burning in his mind's eye? “Had to have been insignias,” he decided at last.
“Fay said he found you in the late morning, and that the ground was still smoldering.”
“That would imply an early morning attack,” she said simply.
He was growing tired of this game – he had been there himself, he could have told her that much. He knew damned well what she was implying with this line of questioning and there was no way he had been that much of a fucking fool not to have seen it himself. “Just say what you mean,” he growled.
“What I mean,” she said quietly, “Is that it would have been dark and your vision skewed by the explosions. You claim to have seen Celesian insignias, but I wonder how accurately you could have seen them amongst all that.”
“The fuck?” he slammed his hand against her desk, shaking the entire thing and producing an incredibly satisfying flinch from the witch leant across it, “You’re suggesting that we were stationed there to be ambushed by our own men – if that was the case, why bother letting us go for three years? Why not just ambush Takayama itself, burn it to the ground and kill all the people there from the start?”
“You misunderstand,” she said quietly, and god, he liked her better when she was loud and obnoxious; whatever tended to follow from these moments of sincerity was proving to be far worse than the taunting, “Takayama itself was not burned to the ground. It was only your regiment that was destroyed. In fact, the city itself is being declared a new tactical outpost in direct response to the attack – the only organized military presence in the Western territories, I might add.”
Kurogane stared, dumbstruck. He had no reason to believe any of the words coming out of this woman’s mouth, but he was having difficulty finding any measure of dishonesty in the way she spoke; however absurd the trash she spewed seemed to him, it was apparent that she herself believed it. He backed away from the desk, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.
“I have the reports, if you’d like to see them,” she offered.
“No, I…” he fumbled.
“I understand that this is a shock,” she said, and her voice was surprisingly soothing, “I had hoped to find a better way to breach the topic, but it seems bluntness is always the best route with you. Can I offer you a drink?”
“Shame,” she frowned, “It’s an awfully nice vintage, too.” She stepped around the side of the desk and placed a hand on his shoulder, her face growing serious once again. “I’m afraid I’m not able to clarify this any further, which is why I had hoped you’d be able to shed some light on what had actually taken place in Takayama. Since it seems you have a stake in this as well, I’d like to offer my services in tracking down information on what exactly transpired. I have access to a fairly extensive network-”
“I refuse to be in any more debt to you,” he said quietly and shrugged the hand from his shoulder.
“I also understand that the words of a lowly doctor headquartered out in the wilderness aren’t worth very much to a man of your stature,” she smiled and stepped away, “And even less when you suspect me of managing all manner of criminal activity from here. So, I won’t trifle you with this again. The offer, however, shall stand for as long as you remain in our company.”
He nodded, now resolved more than ever to break free of this place and return…well, he didn’t know exactly, but some place that was more home than here. He was overly startled by reading his own obituary, he decided – there was no other reason for him to be this shaken by the words of a crazy woman otherwise. Once he was removed from here, he could sort out this business with the newspaper and hopefully, hopefully-
Fuck it all, just how good was her "information network?"
“Doumeki, if you’re quite finished lurking in the doorway, you can come in,” Yuuko announced suddenly, interrupting his thoughts.
“My apologies,” a quiet voice sounded from behind the door. There was a quiet shuffle as the latch was shifted and the door pressed open to reveal two men standing behind it, “We were told you were busy.” He extended his arm forward, shuffling a visibly upset Fay into the office from behind him. “Saiga sent news.”
Yuuko frowned. “I see,” she said simply and motioned for Fay to take a seat opposite her. “We’ll discuss it now. Doumeki, if you could take Kurogane to the kitchen and get him something to eat, I’m sure he’d be most obliged,” she nodded between Kurogane and the exit, “Probably something to drink as well – it’s been a long afternoon on all fronts, it would seem.”
Doumeki nodded politely and motioned for Kurogane to follow him. Once again, it seemed, he was not to be left alone, but at least this time his keeper seemed relatively…stable. As long as his spastic counterpart was not involved, that was. Kurogane cast a final glance back at Fay, wondering what had him so upset, as he followed Doumeki back into the maze of the library.