Summary: There's a new guy in town, an inventor, and if Tao can steal a few interesting things from him, he'll be able to eat for a few days, maybe longer. He might even get enough to able to get out of the town!
Tao's wish comes true, just not in the way he expected.
Steampunk au! 8D This is all lorspolairepeluche's fault, haha.
I made no effort to make them sound like they were in a 'western'.
If you've been wondering about me being less prolific this year, this fic is the reason for it. Been working on this since January. It's mostly done at eight parts altogether and I'll be posting each part on Wednesday.
'Cog' is currency.
All You Have to Do is Breathe
By Dark Ice Dragon
Moonlight glinted off the lock barring Tao's way. It wasn't the kind everyone used, something new but he got his tools out and started tinkering; he couldn't waste time trying to figure out how everything worked by looking at it.
As his tools slid in, Tao could tell this task was going to be difficult; just as the outside wasn't something he'd seen before, the inside wasn't spaced like he'd thought it would be either.
Tao was used to opening a lock by feel, but those were locks he was familiar with. This was more delicate, his tools moving in different directions than he expected. If this was what was being used to close a simple stable door, then what was inside?
Tao had seen the blond stranger coming into town with a fully loaded wagon behind him that morning. There had to be something valuable, something that would get him a lot of money. And then he could get something to eat. He just had to get in. The longer he took, the more chance of being spotted. The house was out of the way from where people tended to walk but he didn't want to risk trouble.
His tools felt too big for the job and Tao stopped after the fourth time they slipped from where he wanted, taking a breath. This wasn't something he could rush, as much as he wanted to. Still. Tao was sure he was making progress, getting a picture of what was inside.
It took Tao longer than he wanted, but he grinned at the satisfying 'click' as the lock snapped open. Hah. He eased it off the catch and slipped it and his tools into his pocket; he didn't want to leave the lock where it was in case he got locked in. Tao leaned forward and listened through the crack. There was a horse in there, an impressive shire even from the distance Tao had seen them at, but he couldn't hear anything moving inside. He hadn't disturbed them. Good. That was one less thing to worry about.
He scurried in and it was dark inside, the only light coming in from the open door. The place smelled musty, unlike a horse, but the place had been unlived in for months until the stranger had come to town.
Tao peered into the stalls as he crept further in, but they were empty. He went slower than usual, his footsteps louder on the hay-free floor.
The wagon on the other side of the stable, as well as a door connecting to the house. Exactly what Tao needed.
A clack to Tao's right made him freeze, and he peered at the block of shadows next to him. There was a slight shimmer and Tao picked out a looming shape as he heard the clip of horseshoes coming towards him.
"Oh, you are gorgeous," Tao breathed, watching the horse's reaction. Up close, his head didn't reach the horse's shoulder and moonlight caught the lines of muscle down their neck and chest. The mane was long, covering their eyes and stopping below the bottom of the chest. Tao didn't get to see a lot of flesh horses since most horses in town were built to help with the farmwork. That way, the owner didn't have to waste time cleaning up after or feeding the horse, and they didn't have to worry about overworking the horse. The only time Tao got to see a flesh horse was when travellers passed through and the town was so out of the way that was rare.
The horse shook their mane, but didn't seem spooked by his presence. Good. That meant less chance of them making noise and waking up the owner.
"I'm here to take a few things, that's all," he whispered to them. "Nothing important, don't worry." And damn, it must have been a long time since he'd talked with someone if he was talking with a horse.
But horses were nice – they weren't judgemental or demanded taxes just for coming to work. Unlike humans, they were nice and simple.
The horse didn't move and Tao carried on with his business.
Tao peered into the wagon. It was empty. Of course. He would have to go into the house for something valuable.
When Tao tried the door connecting to the house, his eyebrows shot up when it opened with no resistance. Huh. Though with that lock outside, it was no surprise if the owner thought that was enough. Still. He'd been able to open it, and he was sure most thieves would have smashed it off or around it to get in.
Inside, Tao peered around the room he found himself in. Tables lined a wall and there was one in the centre of the room. There were a number of suitcases piled on top of each other on any available flat surface. Had the owner brought them in and got tired halfway through?
Tao picked up one suitcase from the closest pile and opened it. His eyes widened at what was inside. There were a number of machines the size of his palm tied down so they wouldn't bash into each other. He could hear them ticking and he unclipped one to get a better look at it. Tao was sure he knew what they were – he'd never seen them that small before though. He itched to open it to see how it worked but Sam liked the things he stole to be pristine as possible and if Sam could dock Tao money, he would.
Was the owner of the house making or selling these? Or both. That would explain why there was so many suitcaes around him.
Tao tucked the machine under his arm and wandered further into the room, curious what was in the rest of the cases.
The next one he opened was larger than the first, only two machines inside. He set the machine he'd picked up next to the luggage and he hefted one up and inspected it. Or tried to. It was a box, Tao got that much, but it was too dark to see what it was. He used his fingers to explore the contours and edges.
"What is this?" he muttered, turning it over in his hands again. And how much was all this worth?
"A camera," a mild voice answered behind him and Tao flinched, almost dropping it. Shit, he'd gotten cocky and distracted, too focused on the machines and not enough on his surroundings. Tao wasn't standing close to the window so he had a chance of getting out without being recognised.
Tao shoved the machine back even though the other person must have seen what was in his hands to name it and he span around, his heart thudding.
Tao was shorter than the owner (not surprising – most people were) but there was enough distance between them, as well as tables and chairs, that he could get away with enough luck. Which he never had, but this once he could.
"You wouldn't get that much for it, unless the person knew what it was." And. The man was still talking. He knew Tao was stealing something, unless the man was trying to distract him? "This davy lamp on the other hand-" The owner picked up something close to him and Tao tensed, not sure which direction to dive when it was thrown at him. "-would get you more as it's more recognisable."
The owner set it down again, Tao tracking his hands. He let go of it, lifting his hand away. He wasn't going to throw it? "But if you work for me, you would get a steady outcome."
Tao narrowed his eyes at the owner's face, trying to see his expression. It was too dark and Tao could only see the outline of his features – they told him nothing.
"That's…nice," Tao managed. "Why me?" Was the guy still sleeping? Who offered a job to someone they'd caught stealing from them? Especially without knowing the other's face?
A soft chuckle and Tao picked out a curve of the man's lips. "Dark Spear likes you, and she's a good judge of character."
"Dark…Spear." The man's hands were empty and Tao couldn't see any weapons on him. Unless he also made small ones that were easy to hide. His hands weren't in his pockets or behind him.
"The horse you passed as you entered."
Oh. …But how did the owner know that? The man had come from deeper inside the house, not the stable behind Tao – he couldn't have known where Tao had come in. "And if she didn't like me, she would have made a lot of noise?" Tao had to keep the man distracted so he could make an opportunity to bolt.
"Ah, no." The man brushed his hair away from his shoulders. "She would have kicked your head in."
Nice to know the man was honest.
"I'll think about it," Tao said after a pause, taking a testing step away. There was no way he was going to accept an offer like that, seeing how they'd met.
The man nodded, not closing the gap. "You can take whatever you like."
He…had to be lying. Unless he was far richer than Tao thought and didn't care about his belongings or money.
"And my offer is still open, if you reconsider."
Before Tao responded, the man turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Tao heard footsteps going further away without any hesitation, and it did seem like the man was leaving.
Unless it was to go around - or to alert the sheriff.
Tao dashed forward and grabbed the item the man had picked up earlier (he couldn't doubt the man's logic about recognition and it would be easier to carry), making sure it was the right one. It was, and it looked like it would do what the man said it would.
With it in one hand, Tao ran for the door connected to the stable, grabbing the door before it smashed into the wall.
He didn't want to find out if what the man had said about the horse kicking people she didn't like was true.
She seemed fine as he ran through and Tao made it outside with no trouble.
No-one was waiting for him, and he couldn't hear anyone approaching, but Tao kept running.
He'd made enough mistakes for the night.
Tao staggered against a tree in George's farm, leaning against it as he caught his breath. His heart was hammering, his blood racing around his body, but that was the only thing he could hear. No-one had followed him, and he hadn't dropped the lamp.
He patted himself down to make sure he still had all his tools – huh? There was something there he didn't recognise. When he dug into his pocket, he pulled out the lock.
Tao groaned, rubbing his forehead. Dammit, he hadn't put it back.
So it was his now, for whatever use he had for a lock. Which he didn't. He couldn't go back and give it back to the owner; that would identify him as the thief. And if he tried to put it back on a different night, he would get caught, he knew it. He should have been caught three times already tonight – going back would push his luck too much.
Shaking his head, Tao slipped the lock back into his pocket and kept going to reach further safety. He should get rid of it, but he wanted to see how it worked under a better light. By the time he'd taken it apart, it wouldn't be recognisable anyway.
Tao drummed his fingers on the counter. "Well…?" He hadn't slept much the night before, the events keeping him up as they repeated themselves in his head, refusing to let him sleep. He'd also stayed up to make sure he wasn't surprised or followed and he could feel the lack of sleep in his headache and irritability.
Sam, one of the few people who would talk to Tao, hummed. Though Sam had a reason to keep talking with him. He was getting on in years, his hair more grey than brown, and even with his glasses on, his squinted at the machine. "You got this from the new guy?" he asked, inspecting the bottom of it.
Tao nodded. "Yeah." There was no reason to lie – no-one else had that kind of machinery on their property. It was too well made, its design like nothing Tao had seen before.
"Hm." Sam put it down and then looked at him. "Ten pieces."
"Te-" Tao spluttered at the offer. "The materials alone in that are worth triple that!" They weren't things that could be bought from any store.
Sam shrugged, unruffled. "And it's unique – it's easier to track down. I don't want to attract trouble. When he tells the sheriff something's been stolen and describes it?" Sam shook his head. "The guy probably knows it on sight."
Not with the number of the machines he had, but Tao kept his mouth shut, trying to keep the scowl off his face. He didn't think he was successful. "Or you could melt it down." That would hide what it had used to be.
"Hey," Sam said, giving him another shrug. "If you're not happy, you can find someone else to sell it to."
Tao did scowl at that. "You know-" He bit off his retort at Sam's smug expression, smiling behind his moustache. "Fine," he said, holding out his hand. "Give it to me."
"Pleasure doing business with you," Sam said, throwing a sack of coins onto the counter.
"Yeah, whatever," Tao muttered, snatching the tiny sack and counting what was inside to make sure Sam hadn't short-changed him further. It was the right amount – and that meant Sam had never meant to pay him more if it had already been prepared.
He shoved the sack into his pocket and left.
"Asshole," he said even softer, opening the door to cover it.
But he had money now. Not as much as he wanted, but it meant he could get food.
Rose's lips twisted at the money in Tao's hand, her eyes raking over the coins, not going for what Tao had asked for. "And who did you steal that from this time?"
"I earned it," Tao insisted, keeping his hand out. It was true. He'd worked to get it, like everything else.
Rose's expression stayed the same, unmoving. "Mmhm, just like the others."
"Look," Tao said, going for one last push, knowing she was close to refusing him, and maybe she already had, but he had to try, "I have money, and you want it." That was what mattered, right?
She narrowed her eyes, sneering. "Not yours." She jabbed her finger at the door. "Out."
"Dammit," Tao hissed when he was outside, strangling the sack inside his pocket. There was no point having money if he couldn't spend it.
Really, the best action he could take was leave. Find some place that wouldn't label him as an outsider as soon as they saw him.
Tao sagged, blowing air through his teeth. That wouldn't happen and Tao knew it. The place didn't exist in this country. To even get out of town, he needed more money to meet someone who was willing to let him travel with them. But chances were, they would think he would steal their belongings after talking with the rest of the townsfolk. Which was hilarious, seeing how he'd been shoved out the cart he'd been travelling in with his belongings still in the cart.
"Ah, hello again," a familiar voice said behind him, and Tao whirled around, taking a step back.
Shit. Shit, he had to run. It was the owner of the house from the previous night, a filled paper bag tucked under an arm and a top hat perched over his long blond curls. Tao must have been more visible than he'd thought if the owner recognised him without seeing his face. If the man pointed him out now, he was in trouble.
"Hah, you'd better stay away from him, Dr. Lee," Sheriff Jaredson said, swaggering up, his thumbs hooked onto his belt. Tao's heart jumped, ready for him to bolt, but if he did that, that would give the sheriff permission to shoot him in the back. As if Jaredson needed any excuse to. "He'll steal your teeth while you're talking with him."
"I don't know," the doctor said, smiling at them both. "He looks trustworthy."
And he wasn't telling the sheriff. That… Why wasn't he? The man had recognised Tao, knew he'd stolen something from him…
"That's because you don't know him yet," Jaredson said, snorting. "But I'm sure you've seen his type before."
"'His type'?" The doctor glanced at him. "No, I haven't."
Tao stared back. What was going on? The conversation wasn't going in the direction he thought it would.
The sheriff shook his head. "It's your belongings, Doctor. If you find something missing, it'll be him," he said, jerking his chin towards Tao.
Right. And he got blamed for anything that went wrong, even if he had nothing to do with it.
"I'll keep that in mind," the doctor said.
"Fine," the sheriff said with a shrug. "I'll see you when he does steal something of yours." He walked off.
The doctor (Lee, wasn't it?) turned back to Tao once he was gone, and his smile was still there.
"Would you like to go somewhere quieter?" Lee asked, tilting his head away from the people in the street.
"Why," Tao said, glancing at them. No-one was staring, but Tao would prefer to not be in the open. Being alone with someone else wasn't high on his list to do thing either, not if he got beaten up.
Lee had protected him though. Maybe he wasn't like the other townsfolk.
Tao gave him a slow nod and Lee started walking towards one of the streets leading off the one they were on.
"I still need an extra pair of hands," Lee said, his voice soft enough to not carry.
Tao blinked, not believing what he was hearing as he followed. "I can't give it back," he said, matching his volume, and even saying that much was too much of a confession and Tao expected himself to be surrounded by angry townsfolk. Why was the man trying to seem so helpful?
Lee's smile didn't dim like Tao thought it would. "You're fast."
That was it? That was all Lee was going to say about him stealing and selling his belongings? "Why...don't you care?" Had it been anyone else, Tao would have been beaten up or killed.
"I can quite easily make another," Lee said with a shrug. "I made that particular piece during a sleepless night."
A. A sleepless night. Tao was sure other people would have taken days to make that, but it explained the sheer number of gadgets inside the man's house, if he could make them that fast.
"Why do you want my help?" As Jaredson had said, there were far more 'trustworthy' people than him who could do what Lee needed, and better. For a higher price.
Lee's smile turned soft. "Dark Spear likes you."
"...And that's it." A horse liked him. That was a nice thought but that couldn't be the only reason and Tao wanted to know what he was getting into first.
Lee tilted his head, stroking his chin. "You were able to get past my lock as well. Most thieves would just break it - you kept it in tact."
"Uh, about that." Tao glanced around, making sure there was no-one around. There wasn't and Tao dug the lock out of his pocket. He hadn't had the time to study it like he'd wanted to yet. Lee's eyebrows rose at the sight of it and Tao stepped closer to him, holding out the lock.
Lee took it with a nod.
"Impressive," Lee said, turning it over. "There's hardly any scratches."
Tao rubbed the back of his neck, shrugging. Why was he saying it like he'd done something amazing? "It's just a lock." There was a limit to how complicated they could be so even he could work it open.
"Ah, I think you misunderstand," Lee said, chuckling as he pocketed it, "there's few people who would be able to open it without resorting to brute strength or bypassing it completely."
"…Oh." That's what he'd meant.
Lee nodded. "So it would be nice to have someone around who can keep up."
"You really do mean me," Tao said, his shoulders lumping, and hah, how could he 'keep up' with Lee if he couldn't grasp what he was saying?
"I - okay," Tao said, tugging at his own collar to give his fingers something to do. "If you're sure." It would be nice to be around someone who didn't look down on him on sight.
Lee brightened. "As we'll be working together, introductions should be in order. I'm Frankenstein Lee," he said, lifting his hat in greeting.
Tao stared at him; no-one did that for him. "It's…Tao," he said once he got his brain working again.
Lee didn't say anything, waiting.
"Just Tao," he added, dropping his gaze, his stomach twisting. It wasn't like Lee would be able to say his family name anyway. Or be interested in what it was.
"Ah, I see," Lee said, nodding. He turned away, looking at him over his shoulder. "I haven't had breakfast yet; you're welcome to join me if you wish."
Tao's eyebrows shot up and he nodded. "Uh, yeah." Tao felt like a stray following after Lee's heels, but food had been offered and his stomach had been wanting to be filled for a week.
Tao's mouth watered at the smell of Lee's cooking, hearing the meat sizzling in the pan. He hadn't had that for a long time. His stomach was anticipating getting food, chewing on itself.
The then ducked his head and played with the edge of the table, pressing his nail into it. He didn't bothering to sweep his hair away from his eyes. "So what do you need me for?" It was better to find out as soon as possible. He would get a free meal before Lee found out he couldn't do what he needed.
"Fetch the items I need, your input on what I'm working on, general conversation; things like that."
Tao nodded along as Lee listed - what?
He lifted his head to gape at Lee, whose attention was still on the pan, moving the meat around.
"Those should be easy enough for you," Lee continued. "If you're interested, I can teach you in more detail what I'm working o-"
Tao burst out laughing and he saw Lee turn around from the corner of his eyes. "There's no point teaching me - I can't read." So much for that. There hadn't been much need to know while working on the railway – they were told what to do and a direction and that was it.
"You can't-? Hm." Lee's expression didn't close off, studying him. "You won't need to read for everything, but I can teach you that as well if you wish to learn."
Tao stopped, staring at him. "You're...okay with that? But it'll take ages for me to learn." Why wait for him to learn if there were other people ready that could do it?
"Oh, I doubt that," Lee said, shaking his head. "You were able to figure out what was needed to be done with the lock and undo it on your first encounter with it. To do that, you need to be at problem solving and a good thinker."
Tao pursed his lips, glancing away. It hadn't been his first try; it had taken him a few times to get it right. "That's different." He liked manipulating machines, breaking them down to find out how they worked. The stuff he found tended to already been broken though, stuff that had been thrown away.
Tao shook his head. "Because that's not learning." Wasn't it obvious? "It doesn't matter if-" He stopped himself, gritting his teeth. It didn't matter at all.
"You proved you have a good grasp on how to solve a given problem and spacial awareness," Lee said, his voice calm and patient.
"Why..." Tao trailed off. This was too confusing. "Why are you being so nice?"
Tao glanced up at the sound of the skillet being placed in the pan and his eyes widened at Lee approaching. Tao tensed. Damn, so that was it. He was too much of a nuisance.
Except when Lee reached over, the movement was slow and Lee kept a close eye on his face. Tao wasn't sure what he was looking for or if he found it, but Lee didn't grasp his arm to throw him out, but placed his hand on Tao's shoulder, giving him a pat. "Because I want to be. No more reason than that."
Tao stared up at him, trying to find the lie in Lee's face. He couldn't see any. "I - really?"
Lee smiled. "Really. Now," he said, going back to his pan, "that should be breakfast ready."
"Uh..." Tao locked his gaze down on the table again as he listened to Lee moving around. "Thanks," he whispered. For giving him a chance.
"It's no problem," Lee said, setting the plate filled with food down in front of Tao. "Eat, enjoy." There were sausages there, eggs to and potatoes.
"Hah, I will." Tao knew from the smell. The fork went smoothly through the sausage and Tao didn't bother with the knife, picking it up whole and taking a bite.
"Ah!" He almost spat it out as soon as it was in his mouth, the sausage scalding his tongue. He panted instead, rolling it around, trying to cool it down that way.
He thought he knew what it would taste like. He was wrong. The taste exploded along his tongue and he craved for more, taking in as much food as he could at once, his stomach wanting to reach through his skin and absorb it right off the plate.
As soon as it was cool enough, Tao swallowed.
He froze when he saw movement, watching Lee set a glass of water beside his plate.
Lee wasn't giving him any disapproving looks over his 'lack of manners' but Tao slowed down anyway, swallowing before cutting smaller portions, keeping his head ducked and focusing on the food.
He cleared the plate and then picked up the glass, sipping its contents. The water was a cool balm to his throat and tongue, and he sighed at the feel of it.
"Would you like more?"
"Huh?" Tao blinked at Lee, who was sitting across from him, his own plate looking untouched yet.
"Would you like more to eat?" Lee repeated.
"Uh." Tao's stomach was stretched but he nodded. He didn't know when his next meal would be so he should eat as much as he could now. "Yeah."
Lee smiled at him and then stood up, bringing over his own plate.
"Wait," Tao said, his eyes going wide, "what are you-" What was happening?
"It's no trouble," Lee said, taking Tao's plate and replacing it with his own. Tao had been right - only one sausage had been cut in half. "I have more than enough to spare."
Tao didn't move, watching Lee put the plate in the sink and then collected a new one, putting more food on it.
Lee sat down again, his plate as filled as the one he'd given Tao.
He was full but he could have one more bite... And one more after that…
A few minutes later, Tao couldn't eat any more, no matter how much he wanted to, his stomach threatening to throw up everything he'd put in it.
"Are you full?" Lee asked, his own plate empty.
Tao nodded, not trusting what would happen if he tried to talk.
"Good." And he did sound like he was happy for Tao. Because he'd eaten? "I'll give you a few minutes to recover," Lee said, collecting the plates.
"I can-" Tao started, picking up his own plate, but Lee waved him down.
"Nonsense - I'm already standing. Rest for now."
Tao held out his plate, but didn't get up. "O...kay." Tao wasn't sure if he was going to get used to feeling lost around Lee, not knowing what to expect or expecting the wrong thing.
Lee washed the plates and Tao listened to the sound of running water, the warmth of the room making him drowsy. He jerked awake at the clack of the plates being placed on top of each other and he looked around, scratching the back of his neck in an attempt to stay awake.
It didn't work and Tao folded his arms under his head, resting them on the table. Just. Five minutes. He'd doze off for five minutes and then he'd be ready for whatever Lee wanted him to do...
Tao shifted, fluttering his eyes open. He was so warm... Whe - He jerked up, every sense jolting and he tried to find anything dangerous coming his way. Something slid off his shoulders and he grabbed it before it hit the ground and made a noise.
There was nothing coming for him, and Tao stared, swallowing at Lee, who was sitting on a chair closest to him, a monocle perched on his nose as he read a book.
The thing he grabbed was…a blanket. How long had he slept for? The light streaming in from the window wasn't that different from when Tao had gone to sleep, the angle saying it had been about an hour.
"Uh, sorry," he said, his voice rougher from sleep. He coughed to clear his throat.
Lee smiled at him, using his thumb to keep his place in the book. "It's no trouble - it's better to rest before learning."
Tao frowned. "But we'll just be sitting." He didn't need a lot of energy for that.
"And learning takes more out of you than you realise," Lee said with a soft chuckle, sliding a bookmark to where his thumb was, placing the book on the table.
Lee was a doctor, so he would know better than Tao ever would and Tao nodded, accepting it.
"Now then," Lee said, "are you ready?"
Tao didn't say anything, seeing the pile of blank papers by Lee's elbow, a pen not far from it either. So. Huh. He was going to learn how to read and write. Or try to. He didn't know what Lee saw in him, but he'd gotten a meal out of it before he disappointed the man.
"Yeah." It could be nice to try.
Next part will be posted next Wednesday!