Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Takumi and Ikoma.
Summary: Takumi resolves to crack the shell of a solitary young refugee who has arrived at Aragane Station.
Disclaimer: They belong to Kabaneri Committee and other relevant parties. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: This work was inspired by Vathara's story "Sweeten the Bitter Dregs". (Which incidentally is the best KotIF fic out there, and one of the best fanfics I've read all-time. Seriously, go read it when you're done here.) That story offered an explanation for Ikoma's one-lensed eyeglasses that made so much sense, it became instant headcanon for me. Having thus gained a why for the glasses, I wanted to explore how he actually came into possession of them; and naturally, I felt Takumi must have had something to do with that.
Submitted for the prompt word "Generosity" at Fan Flashworks, because dear Takumi is the very definition thereof.
Another station had fallen.
Takumi learned that grim news when he arrived at the depot for his day's work as an apprentice steamsmith. The train scheduled to arrive late the evening before had only just reached Aragane—and at once he understood the reason for its delay, as he saw the people slowly trickling from the inspection box attached to the first car.
He recognized the dazed and haggard look of them. Already in his young life, he had seen it too much. These were not ordinary passengers, but refugees: survivors rescued from a station overrun by Kabane. Their hollow-eyed faces still reflected the shock of having watched monsters invade their home… and even more terribly, the grief of losing loved ones. Among this mere fraction of a once-thriving station's population, few families if any would have escaped intact.
As they stepped off the train, this tragic stream of derelicts had to pass by the armed bushi who stood watch—tasked not with keeping anyone out, but keeping the refugees in until they had been searched for bite marks. It was Lord Yomogawa's strict order that Aragane would carry out its own inspections, even though for their own safety, the train crew would have examined everyone they rescued. Having to strip and be pawed over yet again was a further indignity for those who had already suffered so much, but Takumi respected the extra measure to protect his home station.
Perhaps the latest figure to disembark did not share that opinion, for he paused to make some sort of comment to the bushi. It earned him a snarled reply and a hard shove out the door that nearly sent him tumbling onto the tracks. Even so, he managed to keep his feet under him as he stumbled down the unloading ramp, emerging into Takumi's full view.
The bedraggled scarecrow of a boy looked to be about Takumi's age—and practically a quarter of Takumi's weight, which could not be healthy even for his much leaner build. Hastily jerked on after his inspection, his clothes hung lopsidedly on a bony frame, and the muddy-blond hair that hung down in his face did not quite conceal a bandage on his right temple. It was sagging at one edge, where the ruthlessly thorough inspectors must have peeled back even that to look at the wound underneath.
Then the bandage was hidden as the boy flinched and raised his hand, shading his eyes against the harsh white light that dawned on a broken-clouded morning after a stormy night. Maybe it was a natural reaction from someone who had been cooped up for so long in a dim and crowded train car; but in any case, the shock to his vision so distracted him that he nearly stepped into one of the train yard's more notoriously deep puddles.
Takumi intervened, hurrying forward to put out his arm and stop the other boy. "Whoa, look out! You don't wanna step there."
Halted, the boy raised his head and looked at Takumi. Beneath the hand that was still raised to his temple, he was squinting his right eye until it was almost shut. His left eye, however, was entirely open. For a moment it barely seemed to register Takumi's presence at all, yet the hard brown stare of it was… intimidating.
The expression took Takumi aback. In his time as an apprentice steamsmith, watching survivors of fallen stations come and go, he had seen the entire spectrum of reactions on their faces: anguish, bewilderment, numbness. But what flickered in this frail-looking boy's gaze was…
And not anger at the Kabane, either. At least, not completely. Takumi had seen that too—but this was somehow different. Whatever was smoldering behind that eye, it was directed as much at inner demons as outward monsters.
"Are you okay?" Takumi asked impulsively.
The other blinked, as if it was only in that moment that he had actually seen Takumi for the first time. Then his mouth hardened in a frown, and he pushed ungently past the larger boy.
"…I'll be fine," the muttered answer drifted back.
With a frown of his own, Takumi turned to look around. No one who had already gone through the inspection appeared to be waiting for the boy, and no one who came after was following him from the train. He was alone.
Alone in an unfamiliar station, with the challenges of survival as an orphan ahead of him—and who knew what horrors behind him.
Takumi wondered if the scarecrow boy would really be alright after all.
Over the next two weeks, Takumi thought a lot about that boy… but he didn't see him.
He did encounter numerous refugees. Those lucky enough to have relatives at other stations moved on, but most had nowhere else to go. Takumi saw them around the town, looking for food, looking for work; trying to survive and fit in. He asked them if they knew a scrawny blond boy with a squinting right eye, but no one had any idea who he was talking about. As the days passed, he almost began to feel as if what he'd seen was only a ghost.
So it was a tremendous surprise to him when the boy reappeared at the depot one morning: this time wearing a steamsmith's uniform, and standing awkwardly beside the overseer of the apprentices.
"I'd like you to meet Ikoma. He's… new to Aragane Station," Master Yuji obfuscated, with a slight wince. "He's got real talent at working with his hands, so we're giving him a job here."
Takumi raised an eyebrow. If crusty old Yuji was actually complimenting him out loud, then the scarecrow boy—Ikoma—really must have shown great potential.
Throughout that brief introduction, Ikoma stood looking visibly restless, never once meeting the eyes of another person. The bandage on his temple was gone, but on his right hand he wore a glove with the fingertips cut off. Granted, that might have been a detail Takumi simply missed in their first meeting; but in any case it was hard not to notice now, because Ikoma kept fidgeting with the glove, tugging on it or clenching his fingers over his palm.
After being dismissed by Yuji, the apprentices scattered to go about their work. Takumi looked around for Ikoma, but the little phantom had vanished again. Most likely he was shuffled off somewhere by an older steamsmith to begin learning the basics of steam-engine maintenance. Even during the midday lunch break, while the rest of them sat or sprawled under the warm sun with their food, Ikoma was nowhere to be seen.
Until, from over Takumi's shoulder, he heard a quiet voice he remembered.
Eyes widening, Takumi straightened from his habitual possessive hunching over his meal (seriously, just because he was stocky by nature, it wasn't fair that he was a favorite target for food-stealing pranks). He turned to see Ikoma looking down at him. Although the smaller boy had shown no discomfort under the electric lights indoors, he was once again squinting that right eye in the bright sunshine of the train yard.
"…Uhm?" Takumi mumbled, hastily gulping down a mouthful of food.
"I said thanks. You know—for keeping me out of that puddle before." To Takumi's astonishment, a pale and tired smile crossed Ikoma's lips. "I did remember. In fact, it's kind of bothered me ever since that I didn't thank you… so I'm glad I got to do it now."
Then, before Takumi could say a word, Ikoma simply turned and walked away.
Takumi was left thinking that Ikoma should always smile. It made the otherwise sullen-looking boy seem like a completely different person.
He wondered if he could do anything himself to make that smile appear more often.
In the following days, Ikoma remained elusive. Presumably he was busy learning the job; rumor had it that Yuji and the senior steamsmiths were quite taken with his aptitude. At times Takumi saw him going about his work in the train yard, but there was never a chance to speak with him. Ikoma always disappeared somewhere at lunch, and no one seemed to know where he had found living quarters.
The mystery of his midday vanishing act was only solved when, one day, Takumi happened to go into the roundhouse near the end of the lunch break—and noticed Ikoma tucked away in a corner, behind some equipment lockers. He was reading one of Yuji's technical books about steam engines, while the cup of weak tea and small dish of pickled vegetables that sat beside him looked untouched.
"Hey," Takumi murmured, poking his head into Ikoma's no-longer-secret nook. "Have you eaten at all?"
Looking chagrined and rather annoyed at having been discovered, Ikoma quickly snapped the book shut. "I'm fine."
There was that word again. The one he'd used as he walked away on the day he first arrived—when Takumi had been quite sure that he really wasn't fine.
"Uh, yeah, that wasn't what I asked." As Ikoma put away his neglected meal and began moving off toward the massive doors that opened onto the train yard, Takumi followed him doggedly. "Even us apprentices get enough pay that we can eat alright—but you're still skin and bones. You're gonna pass out on the tracks or something if you don't get some food in you."
"I eat. Don't worry about that."
Takumi briefly wrestled with himself. "Well… How about I bring you something different tomorrow? I guess it's kind of obvious, but I like food—so sometimes I splurge a little on the good stuff. Have you ever had umeboshi?" The thought of sharing his small hoard of treats pained him, but this kid clearly needed it.
Ikoma halted abruptly at the threshold of the doors. His shoulders stiffened, and he breathed in deep before turning to face Takumi.
"Look, I don't want your food. And I'm sorry, but I don't want—this. What you're trying to do." He spread his hands expansively. "I'm not here to make friends. I'm just here to work… and to learn." His gaze turned away toward the towering west gate of the station, the fingers of his right hand fisting over the palm of his glove. "So someday, I can make a weapon that can kill the Kabane."
And there again was the anger Takumi had seen in Ikoma's eyes the first time they met.
…This was bad. Takumi had seen refugees with no surviving family become withdrawn and reclusive, avoiding new relationships for fear of being hurt again, and he'd guessed Ikoma was simply like that; but this was something much more unsettling. This was vengefulness—and no one who witnessed a Kabane attack firsthand had ever talked that way before. Any survivor in their right mind knew better than anyone how impossible—how suicidal—the very idea of trying to fight those monsters was.
If that was really what was going on in Ikoma's slightly dinged-up head, his very sanity had to be in doubt.
"Ikoma…" Takumi wavered uneasily.
The other boy hunched his shoulders, shook his head. "Never mind. Just forget I said anything." For only a moment, he glanced back. "And you'd be better off if you'd just forget me, Takumi."
He strode briskly out into the train yard, wincing and shading his eye as the sun fell upon him.
Takumi stared after Ikoma, and wondered what he could do to save that extraordinary lunatic from himself.
Contrary to Ikoma's advice, Takumi thought quite intently about him for the rest of the day. Even after he went home to his shabby room, after he wolfed down his dinner and climbed up into his hammock to sleep, he continued to fret over the things Ikoma had said.
Whoever Ikoma may have lost at his home station, he didn't expose his grief for them on the outside; but now Takumi knew it was consuming him on the inside. It was dragging him down to the point that he didn't even care about his own life and future. His words made it obvious. Anyone who said they wanted to fight the Kabane was really just saying they wanted to die—because everybody knew death was the only possible outcome of trying such a thing.
So then, what Ikoma needed was to be pulled out of himself. He needed to be lifted up from that misery stewing within him, and shown that his life wasn't over. He needed to realize that those he had lost were not the only ones in the world who could care about him… and that letting people care about him again wasn't a bad thing.
That last one was going to be the tricky part.
In search of ideas, Takumi replayed the afternoon's encounter over and over in his head. The stubborn stiffness of Ikoma's body language. The faint tremor in his voice when he said forget me. His wince at the sun in his eye…
Takumi tumbled out of his hammock so fast, he almost landed on his face. He dressed quickly, and in the night-darkness, he hurried down the street to Master Yuji's cabin.
It was no surprise to see candlelight still glowing in the old man's window. The urban legend around Aragane was that Yuji was an immortal spirit who never slept… although, granted, that might have been mostly a concoction by the adult steamsmiths. They rather enjoyed scaring the apprentices.
Undaunted, Takumi crept up to the open window. "Uh, hey… Master Yuji?"
After a moment, the senior steamsmith's wizened face popped up from the chaotic clutter jammed into his abode. He resembled nothing so much as a rat peering out of its nest.
"That you, Takumi? What are you doing out so late? We have an engine to rebuild tomorrow."
"I couldn't sleep. …I've been kinda worried about the newest apprentice." Takumi put on what he hoped was his most winsome smile. "It got me wondering. Do you have those old glasses Haru broke a while back?"
At that, a slow smile curled across Yuji's own face—and he let out a wheezing laugh.
"You'll find 'em in the shed," he said largely, as he turned to begin weaving between stacks of books and broken machines on his way back to his work table. "Just like everything else."
Grinning, Takumi headed for the ramshackle old shed behind the cabin.
Like the man himself, Yuji's junk shed was practically a legend in Aragane. No one knew exactly how long he had been squirreling away discarded objects there, but his hoard long predated the rise of the Kabane. Even in these days when a besieged humanity found its resources limited, and few people could afford to throw anything away, items thought irredeemable by their former owners still found their way here. Yuji spent every bit of his free time tinkering with this collection—and he shared it freely. If anyone in the station found themselves in need of some unlikely thing or other, he always seemed able to produce it, or at least something that could serve as a reasonable substitute. …Although, admittedly, it sometimes needed a little rehabilitating first.
Of course, considering old Yuji might have weighed eighty pounds soaking wet, the narrow pathway between the shed's mountains of contents was not exactly designed for Takumi's frame. After lighting a candle at the doorway, the boy sucked in his gut, held his breath, and carefully squeezed himself into the claustrophobic space.
In moments like these, he had to wonder how he'd gotten hired as a steamsmith in the first place. He was decidedly not the sort of kid they picked to go crawling underneath trains.
After about five minutes—which span entailed a scraped elbow, a few small crashes, the averting of a more disastrous toppling of a high stack of crates, and stepping on something unnervingly soft that Takumi was not going to look down at—he found his objective sitting in plain sight on a shelf. He risked exhaling just a little of his breath in a sigh of relief, and snatched up the eyeglasses. Hastily he squirmed back out of the shed, and only then gave them a more thorough examination.
They were Haru's old glasses, sure enough. A month or two earlier, while he was working on top of a train, they had slipped from his nose and fallen to the tracks below. Their impact with the iron rail had not only shattered the glass, but severely bent the wire-rimmed frame. Although Haru decided they were too far gone to bother salvaging, Yuji had naturally absorbed them into his mass of odds and ends.
Now they were just what Takumi needed for his plan.
He pushed out the remains of one lens that still clung to its frame—leaving even those small broken shards to serve whatever use Yuji might find for them. Then he went digging in the collection of old glass bottles piled next to the shed. Upon finding a pale-green one that seemed just the right size and shape to suit his purposes, he stopped by Yuji's window to offer a thank-you, and gleefully made off with both objects.
His next destination was the workshop at the depot, where he spent another hour on his project: cutting glass and grinding its edges smooth, carefully straightening the wire frame. At last a little glue brought his creation together, and he went home to snatch a few hours of sleep, feeling entirely pleased with himself.
As he drifted off, he wondered how his intended gift would be received.
The next morning, a smirking Master Yuji dispatched Ikoma to repair a long-disused hydraulic pipe in a far corner of the depot. That was where Takumi found him.
"Can we talk?"
Ikoma's shoulders stiffened, but he did not turn from his efforts to patch the badly weathered pipe. "I said everything I had to say yesterday. Besides, I'm working right now."
"Well, you can take a break. Master Yuji went to the trouble of sending you all the way out here so we wouldn't have anybody eavesdropping on us."
The reaction was highly gratifying. Ikoma whirled on Takumi, his mouth dropping open in a priceless gape of shock.
"What?" he sputtered indignantly; but any further words choked off into silence as he saw Takumi's hands rising toward him, clutching something between thick fingers.
"Hey, you said you didn't want me to bring you any food—so I went with something else."
Very gently, Takumi placed the eyeglasses on the face of the smaller boy, who had instinctively cringed away from his hands.
After a second or two, Ikoma unfroze. He touched the wire rims with a bewildered expression. Only the right side held a glass lens: a green-tinted one, meant to shield his more sensitive eye from the sunlight.
Judging by the way both of his eyes opened wide then, it was working exactly as intended.
Takumi grinned smugly. "Sorry, but you were a little late with all that stuff yesterday about not being here to make friends… because you already have."
For a long and silent moment, Ikoma stared at Takumi, as a suspicion of moisture welled in his eyes behind the glasses. At last he slowly subsided against the pipe behind him, his light weight sagging down onto it…
And the rusted metal suddenly gave way, sending him crashing down on his back in the tangle of weeds that grew underneath.
Takumi burst into an immediate gale of laughter. He couldn't help it; and to his mingled astonishment and delight, Ikoma started laughing too.
"…You're kind of an idiot, you know," Ikoma remarked amiably, as he accepted the hand the larger boy offered to help him up.
There was a curious hardness under the palm of Ikoma's glove. Takumi noticed, but he made no comment on it.
"Well, you're kind of crazy," he retorted fondly. He brushed a few clinging bits of dead leaves from Ikoma's uniform, and then regarded him with a grin. "You're coming to my place later. If you won't let me bring it to you, I'll just take you to the food."
This time Ikoma didn't argue, and Takumi wondered if his efforts had really broken through something more than a rusty old pipe.
Dinner that evening was nice, even if it was in Takumi's dull and untidy room. After putting up only a little more resistance, Ikoma finally ate as if he hadn't tasted fresh vegetables and fish in ages—and perhaps he hadn't. At least not since he arrived at Aragane. It almost seemed as if his self-neglect was a strange kind of penance, born of the same inner turmoil that gave him his mad ideas about fighting the Kabane. For the moment though, in Takumi's presence, he deigned to push back that darkness and let himself have something good.
They talked comfortably enough, but Takumi could sense what was lacking. Their conversation was all about his own life, and the other steamsmiths, and Aragane Station in general. Ikoma adroitly deflected the slightest straying into any suggestion of his past. Although dismayed by that ongoing guardedness, Takumi ruefully supposed that winning the entire battle in one day was more than he should have expected.
But then, at the end of the meal, Ikoma grew quiet and pensive. His fingertips absently rubbed the frame of his new glasses. Even indoors, he was still wearing them.
"You want to know why my eye bothers me a little in the sun," he murmured at last.
Although Takumi felt his pulse quicken at the opening, he merely gave a careful shrug. "I just figured it got hurt when… you know." He hesitated. "When you had to get away from your station."
"Sort of. …Not like you probably think." Ikoma's gaze wandered away to the deepening twilight beyond the window. "The real truth is… I got a little too close to a suicide charge."
Takumi started and stared. Ikoma drew a trembling breath and peeled off his glove, turning his hand over to reveal a polished blue-green stone bound to his palm.
"You see… I had a sister."
Takumi was the first person to whom Ikoma told the grim story of his sister's death. After that, the bond between them was cemented; and Ikoma's heavy heart seemed to lighten. When he would grudgingly let Takumi drag him away from his work to do something fun, his smile appeared a bit more often. In time he even warmed a little to a few of the other steamsmiths, like the sweet girl Kajika who joined their work detail a year later.
What Ikoma did not do was give up his confounded idea of inventing a Kabane-killing weapon. Although in many ways he was moving on with his life, the guilt he confided to Takumi was still there—and he was still determined to do something about it.
For a long time, Takumi continued to worry over that.
But as months turned into years, and the two boys grew to be young men, he more than anyone was privileged to witness Ikoma's unique genius taking shape…
And sometimes he wondered if his best friend really could find a way to fight the Kabane after all.
2018 Jordanna Morgan