Sounds of pots and dishes clinking against one another drifted up the stairwell and through the open door and slowly, but inexorably, dragged Fai awake. He raised his head to peer out the window. Given the faint glow in the eastern sky, the sun was just beginning to rise, but it wasn't visible because of the gray clouds packed together across the sky.
He slowly disentangled himself from Kurogane, who had mercifully remained on his back for the rest of the night. Fai was glad to see that the pain had drained from his expression and that he seemed to resting more comfortably.
A set of clothes sat on the low chair by the door. Though the top set was clearly men's clothes, they were far too small to fit Mika. Fai held up the shirt. It would be a little loose - no surprises there. He vaguely wondered where it had come from.
After the multitude of worlds they'd been subjected to, they had all become pros at deciphering the application of assorted clothing articles. The shirt, pants and vest were easy. The two wide bands of brown fabric, however, stumped him, and he tucked them into his pocket. The pants were a little long, and he'd left his boots downstairs, following suit when Sari and Mika had shed their footwear upon entering the house, so he rolled the cuffs up and padded barefoot down the narrow, steep staircase.
Dinner had been served in the large workroom the previous night, so Fai followed his nose and ears to the kitchen, unsure of the way. Low counters ran around the three full walls and were only broken by a sink and stove. A tall island took up the majority of floor space in the middle of the room. The top was covered in engineering drawings similar to the ones he had spilled last night, as well as a loaf of bread, plate with sliced cheese, some spreads of unknown origin and a stack of plates, silverware and mugs.
Sari perched on one of the tall stools, sketching furiously on one of the diagrams and chewing on her lower lip as she worked. The kettle on the stove behind her started whistling, and she sat back, surveyed her work, gave a slight nod of satisfaction, and slid off the stool to retrieve the boiling water.
"Morning!" She spotted him in the doorway when she moved and smiled brightly. "Come on in, get some food." Her gaze dropped down his frame and back up. "Good lord, those clothes are loose on you, aren't they?" She jabbed a finger at the food. "Eat!"
Despite common misconceptions, Fai wasn't skinny for lack of eating; it was just that nothing ever stuck to his body. Ashura had speculated that most of it was converted to power for his magic, but he hadn't gained weight after loosing his magic. In retrospect, his appetite had dropped noticeably when he became a vampire, so maybe it had all balanced out. Now that part of his magic was restored - his stomach chose to interrupt that thought with a low rumble – he was starving most of the time.
"Would you like some tea?" Sari asked over her shoulder.
"Yes, thank you." The bread smelled delicious up close, and he cut a hefty slice and spread a dollop of fruity-looking jam over it. The diagrams under his elbows drew his attention. He shifted his weight off them and pushed the top two apart so that he could see the entirety of the sketch. A hand reached into the line of his vision and set a mug on the corner of the paper.
"I didn't get much sleep last night." Sari admitted sheepishly, shoving her pencil into the base of her ponytail and cradling the mug of tea between her hands. "Your automaton is spectacular. I'm hoping I can look at him today, but I had some ideas for how to shrink down the engine to fit into something that small."
"Automaton?" Fai remembered her using the word last night, but hadn't had a chance to get a clarification.
"Mmhmm, a mechanical creature. But I've never seen one so complex! I can't even imagine how you program it to speak, let alone the complicated movements."
"Mokona's not mechanical!" The protest interrupted them from the doorway. Mokona made a flying leap from Syaoran's shoulder to the edge of the island.
"Well, then, what are you?" Sari leaned close to it.
"Mokona is Mokona!"
Fai smiled at her exasperated look. "Believe it or not, Mokona is as alive as you, or me or Syaoran-kun. There's nothing mechanical inside it."
"You're serious?" When he nodded, she shook her head and held out her hands to Mokona.
Mokona stuffed a slice of cheese into its mouth and hopped into her palms.
"It's like magic." She marveled. "Amazing." She poked and prodded at Mokona a little, grinning when it giggled and squirmed. "Oh look, it's snowing!" Sari pointed to the window behind their heads, and they turned as one to see the fat snowflakes begin to drift by.
"How do you keep this place warm?" Syaoran asked the question that had been on the tip of Fai's tongue. The house didn't have any visible source of heat. Given the architecture, Fai would have expected a wood or coal stove to be hulking in the corner somewhere, but hadn't seen one.
"Oh, that's thanks to the geothermal spring." She pointed over her shoulder in a vaguely northeast direction. "We have hot water coming out of the ground at the base of the valley over there. It's so hot that it should come out as steam, but we pump it up under pressure to keep it liquid, release the pressure so that it flashes to steam at the surface and use the steam to turn a set of turbines. That's where our power comes from. We then pump the steam around the village to heat the houses and our water. And it exhausts…"
"At the statue." Fai murmured, remembering her comment. "After all of that, it's hot enough to burn?"
She shook her head, "Usually not, and certainly not in the winter. During the summer, though, everyone typically has their vents closed in their houses, and the exhaust is a lot hotter. It's just a good policy to always assume it will hurt you, as opposed to taking that chance."
Syaoran leaned forward, breakfast clearly forgotten, and engaged Sari in an in-depth question and answer about the mechanics of it all.
The faint sound of footsteps came from upstairs, and Fai excused himself from the table, though his absence was scarcely noticed.
The bed beside him was empty, and Kurogane leaned over each edge to check the floor. He wouldn't put it past Fai to wait until the middle of the night and move to the floor. Luckily the room was empty. It was far too early in the morning to try and beat some sense into him.
He shoved himself up on his good arm and rotated the other shoulder around, wincing when some of the attachments stretched painfully and pulled at the tender muscles. The floor was surprisingly soft and warm under his feet, considering he didn't remember any carpets. The pile of Fai's clothes he'd stepped on seemed unperturbed by the glare he directed at it.
He wasn't angry at it, per se. The frustration originated more from embarrassing memories than anything else. Red flushed across his face. He had never been able to forget the sight of Fai wandering around their room starkers in one of the first worlds they visited. Not that he was particularly concerned with putting those images out of his mind anymore.
Since that particular incident had been restricted to the confines of their room, Kurogane was fairly certain Fai wasn't wandering around the house nude. His gaze fell on a stack of clothes by the door, confirming his suspicion.
The pants were very similar to what he normally wore, and the sleeveless shirt fit comfortably around the sore attachment point. The mobility of his mechanical arm had been decreasing recently. He reached for the over shirt, winced in pain, and tried again with the other hand.
After three tries where he not only couldn't quite get his arm high enough to easily pull the shirt over his head, but had to stop each time because the fabric kept getting snagged on the rough bits of his arm, he whipped it at the bed with a snarl of frustration. He hated feeling weak. He needed his arm. Hell, he'd even used it last night to slap that asshole's hand away from Fai, and the pain that gesture had caused was still a dull ache in the back of his shoulder.
Kurogane retrieved the shirt and tried again. Regardless of the damage he caused himself, and despite the fact that Fai had shown himself more than capable, albeit unwilling, of defending himself, Kurogane would always intervene. Just because Fai had learned to cope with pain didn't mean that he should be forced to.
The shirt caught again partially over his shoulders.
"Morning, Kuro-rin! There's breakfast downstairs." The bright voice could only belong to one person. "What are you doing?"
"It's stuck, idiot." He growled and tried not to imagine how ridiculous he looked with his arms shoved over his head and bunches of fabric obscuring his face and shoulders.
"….you really are hopeless."
The last time those words were uttered, they were accompanied by a soft expression - a true smile that Kurogane had not seen before and had only caught fleeting glimpses of since.
Fai rose to his tiptoes to reach Kurogane's arm, untangling the sleeve and slowly lowering it over metal muscles and connectors. A piece of the upper sleeve caught around his wrist, and Fai stretched farther to reach it. He reached out a hand to balance, his fingertips just barely touching Kurogane's abs.
His muscles jumped under the feather light touch, felt even through the fabric. The shirt finally pulled free, and he lowered his arms slowly, palms ghosting scarce millimeters from Fai's hips. At this distance, it would be so very easy to pull the irritating mess that he'd somehow managed to fall in love with into his arms.
The world backed away for a moment while his hands hovered indecisively.
Fai had suffered. Not only was he older than Kurogane, but he was far more damaged than he ever let on and far more solemn than the happy facade indicated.
Kurogane had pushed him once in Tokyo, too terrified at the prospect of loosing him to worry about the possible ramifications of his actions. He'd lost him anyway, at least for a little while. For all of his bravado and self-confidence, he wasn't sure that he dared to rush him again.
But the fingers pressing against his stomach were making it awfully hard to resist.
A deep-toned bell sounded six times from beyond the window, followed by the haunting melody they'd heard from the statue last night.
"Ah, sorry. I'm interrupting."
They both jumped. The chimes had covered her approach. Kurogane yanked his shirt the rest of the way down.
Sari leaned on the doorframe and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "It's time to get to work. I'll be downstairs."
"Alright!" Fai broke away from him.
His hand moved of its own accord, catching the narrow wrist. "Mage."
"Kuro-tan?" The goofy smile faded slowly under Kurogane's serious gaze.
"Be careful." He didn't know what working with Sari would entail, but he also hadn't missed the scars on her hands and forearms, and Fai wasn't exactly known for promoting his own safety.
But, damn it, that hadn't been what he'd meant to say.
"Are you worried about me, Kuro-myo?"
The teasing expression on Fai's face faltered and was replaced with the one reserved for the times when his ribbing solicited an unexpected response.
A hanging of brown and tan batik fabric at the very back of the vaulted workroom concealed a narrow door. Sari swept the hanging aside, tossing the folds of fabric over a hook above the door, and unlocked it. She turned to gesture Fai through and stopped, eyeing Kurogane. "And just where do you think you're going?"
Kurogane met her gaze. "You said it was time to get to work."
"For us." A gesture indicated herself and Fai. "Mika will be down in a few minutes. Given what the kid seems to be interested in, I figured he'd be happier working with him on the bikes."
"Kuroi too." Fai chimed in. "He was very interested in Mika's bike."
"Well, of course. He's the husband."
Fai blinked. The conversation had slid sideways out of its expected progression. The tone seemed to suggest that he'd made a very stupid statement. He really needed to get a better clarification on those terms.
The fact that Kurogane was being effectively banished from their presence was either a blessing or a curse, and he couldn't quite decide. This morning had been dangerous. In such close proximity, Fai had been only heartbeats away from tightening his grip on Kurogane's shirt and pulling him into a kiss. The prospect of taking that final step left him trembling in abject terror.
Sometimes he was fairly certain that he needed to be a braver man. The real Fai probably would have stormed up to Kurogane and declared his feelings long before this, and as much as he tried to be his twin, some personality traits simply couldn't be emulated.
In fact, Kurogane's personality was more like his twin's than his own was, which meant that Kurogane should have already….
"Are you okay? You look like you're going to throw up."
He smiled quickly. "Just worrying about whether or not I'll be able to help you. Kuro-tan can tell you that I'm usually more trouble than I'm worth."
"Well, let's find out, shall we?" Sari pushed him ahead of her.
The doorway opened into a crowded but well-kept store. Prosthetics of all shapes and sizes hung in three tiers on the walls. Spare gears, wires and tubing – the use of which he couldn't even begin to understand – were sorted and kept in bins on floor around the perimeter of the room. The center of the room had a circular raised platform with a chair sitting next to it and an assortment of measuring and marking implements. The wide window at the storefront looked onto a deserted street. A wood and cloth mannequin dressed in clothes similar to Sari's stood in the window with one side of its skirt hooked up to its hip to reveal a full-length artificial leg.
Fai turned back and watched Sari straightening out the fabric hanging to cover the open doorway. "Is it common for people here to loose limbs?"
"Well, most of the wives either work at the power plant or with the drilling company – we're looking for other reservoirs of heated water. We have safety regulations, but accidents happen. I'd say about half of us have an artificial piece somewhere. Not to mention the husbands. They're in here about every other day." She shrugged. "Mostly it's fingers, toes, and some eyes. Some have lost feet or hands, and only a couple have lost entire limbs. And that's just the wives. The husbands, well, that's a whole other story."
Since she didn't seem inclined to elaborate, he didn't push the subject. He linked his fingers with a prosthetic hand, pushing it around to watch the articulation of the joints. "You made these?"
"I build them, sell them, and repair them. We're a one-stop shop." Sari pulled a heavy leather apron from behind the counter and threw it over her head. The tools in the pockets jingled. "We've got a couple of orders to fill before we open the shop. Come on."
He touched a couple of the prosthetics on the way back to the workroom. The machining and detail were exquisite.
"Oh, and we're going to be working with a lot of hot metal and small rivets and screws. You'll want to tie your sleeves back or you'll either light them on fire or manage to knock everything on the floor."
When he undid the cuff and started to roll them up, she stopped him. "There should have been a couple of bands with the clothes."
So that's what those were for. He fished the slightly stretchy bits of cloth from his pocket and shoved them over his bicep.
Hydraulics hissed behind the door, and Mika grabbed the wide handle at the base. With a gentle tug, he set the door sliding upwards on its rails. They ducked under it into a long warehouse.
Five bikes sat against the right hand wall. The one closest to the door was covered in a waxed leather, fitted tarp, but the visible ones appeared to age away from the door. All were in beautiful repair, but the farthest one was constructed of battered metal pieces that looked to have been cannibalized from no less than fifteen other machines.
Mika followed his gaze. "Man, I do not miss those days. Don't get me wrong, I loved my first bike, but there's only so much you can do with race money, especially if you want to eat." He swept the cover off the closest bike with the air of a magician and ran a hand over the burnished casing over the piston. "Alright, Syaoran was it?" A brief pause was given for confirmation. "Syaoran-kun, can you grab that control box? Something was running strangely with the connectors last night and I'd like to take a look at it."
The control box had four buttons arranged in a square and a twist of wires coming from one end and disappearing up into the ceiling. Mika pressed a button, and a hum echoed from the farthest corner of the warehouse. "I only use it occasionally." He confessed. "And I store it at the far end, otherwise I would be constantly smacking my head on it."
A hook hanging from a wide crosspiece slid down the length of the building at just about eye level.
"Knock, knock!" A female voice called out over the din of the crane.
Mika twisted, made an adjustment to the position of the crane and set the control box on the floor. "Hey! What are you here to steal today?"
"What, I have to be here to borrow something? Can't I just be stopping by to wish you good morning?" The newcomer spread her hands in an attempt at innocence.
"I guess there is a first time for everything."
"Oh, I'm hurt!" She swept her long braid back over her shoulder and mumbled. "I was also wondering if you have any four and a quarter wire casing."
"I knew it!" Mika's voice took on a teasing tone, but he capitulated. "There should be some in the shelves on the back, but you're going to have to dig for it yourself."
She offered a greeting to Syaoran and Kurogane as she passed.
"That's Ami. We're family by marriage - she's Sari's brother's husband."
While it had been a little strange that both Mika and Sari had so easily accepted two members of the same gender as being husband and wife, the cultures they'd encountered on their travels had wide ranging viewpoints about those type of relationships, and it wouldn't be the first open society they'd been dropped into. The reversed gender for the two terms, however, threw him for a loop. "She's the husband?"
"What? You think I can't ride a bike?" Ami had a brown loop of tubing tucked under her arm.
The confrontational tone set him on edge. "What the hell does that have to do with being the husband?"
"Were you raised under a rock? Wives work, husbands ride." The word 'idiot' was implied in her tone.
Suddenly Sari's odd assumption that he would work with Mika made a great deal more sense. Mokona's way of introducing them seemed to have streamlined them into their career choices in this world.
He nudged the door open with his elbow, juggling the bags of groceries while kicking clumps of snow off his shoes. The snowstorm had lasted all day, relentlessly piling up several inches of accumulation over those hours. The store had been relatively quiet because of the weather – only a couple of customers had stopped in to pick up the prosthetics he'd helped Sari repair. The rest of the time had been spent building a pre-made hand. He'd expressed surprise that she even bothered to make any ahead of time, and she'd demonstrated the adjustment screws that changed everything from circumference to length to flexibility and allowed for precise fitting of the pieces to their recipients.
"When someone looses a limb, the last thing they want to do is sit around and wait for a mechanic to create a new one for them. By pre-making an adjustable prosthetic, I can cut that wait time in half." She'd explained.
After the shop closed, they'd ventured out into the weather to get food. Sari had informed him that she wasn't used to having quite so many people in her house and, if they didn't stock the pantry, everyone was going to be eating what they had for breakfast for all three meals.
"Fai-san, welcome home." Syaoran took the bags from him, allowing him to bend over to pull off his boots. He handed one of the bags to Mokona, who balanced it on its head and wobbled towards the kitchen.
"Thank you." He straightened and stepped forward, noticing the puddle of melted snow only at the last minute. He stutter-stepped, hoping to avoid getting his foot soaked, but his momentum was already carrying him forward and forced him off balance. The boxes and papers in the hall were so precariously stacked that they provided little in the way of balance, and he flailed his arms for a stable handhold.
A hand closed around his upper arm, another around his waist and lifted him over the wet patch.
"Hyuu, Kuro-tan saved me!" Old habits die hard, and he did so enjoy the look of exasperated disbelief Kurogane always mustered when he said something particularly annoying. Only then did he realize that he was caught between Kurogane's arm and his chest.
"My word, public affection in the middle of the hall? There could be children around you know." The woman in the doorway addressed the comment over his shoulder to Kurogane before actually focusing on Fai. "Kudos, big man! I didn't think your wife would be such a looker." The words were punctuated by a fist bump to Kurogane's shoulder as she edged passed him.
The comment was so surprising that Fai completely forgot he'd intended to struggle. "Did you meet them today?"
"I met the woman – Ami. The man's her wife and also happens to be Sari's brother."
"He's the wife?" Fai leaned around Kurogane's bicep to watch the two retreat deeper in to the house.
"Hn. I asked the same thing. The way they use the terms is based off of occupation, not gender." He repeated as much as he could remember from Mika's description. "This town was started about fifty years ago when a group of miners discovered the geothermal spring. The technology for converting steam to electricity was apparently nothing new, but the idea of using naturally produced steam was unique. The power plant provides heat to this town, but also supplies electricity to the three towns down the valley to the south. This town built up around the power plant as more and more people moved up here to support the growing demand for power. The winters here in the mountains are harder and longer than what they'd been used to in the lower villages. It became tradition for the village to gather in the arena simply to keep from freezing when the temperatures plummeted. They'd bring in the vehicles to keep them from freezing. The gatherings always involved alcohol, which led to drunken dares and bets, and led pseudo-competitive racing in the arena. It quickly became the local entertainment. The employment is divided fairly evenly between the riders – who provide entertainment on a weekly basis – and everyone else."
"The next race is in two days. All riders are expected to participate, and Mika has agreed to take any winning as a partial payment for room and board. Your work with Sari will cover the rest."
Fai wished that the arms encircling him had loosened a little. With the grip Kurogane had on his chest, he would likely be able to feel Fai's heart falter a beat. Sari's words rose unbidden – Now, the husbands, that's another story. Given the scenario that Kurogane had described, Fai had no doubt that the husbands, on average, had a higher percentage of lost limbs than the wives. "You're going to race?"
"Don't worry about me." The words were accompanied by an almost instantaneous loss of pressure around his shoulders. Kurogane shouldered him into an upright position and stepped away.
Sari cradled the fluffy animal between her fingers – she had been carrying Mokona around since returning home and was still marveling at the sentience it had seemed to display, and pulled back into the lee of the doorframe. The tone of the conversation was hard to mistake, and eavesdropping was infinitely preferable to walking directly into the middle of it.
She saw the slight tremble in Kurogane's arms when he heard the fear in Fai's words – he must have heard it, she'd heard it all the way from here – watched him let go as fast as humanly possible to hide that reaction.
Kurogane may have been worried, but he clearly did not want to let that fear affect his wife.
Fai's reaction, on the other hand, was one of someone who was being treated as a comrade as opposed to a spouse.
"It's almost like they're not speaking the same language, isn't it?" She mused, forgetting for a moment that she was carrying one of their party.
"They've always been like that." Mokona murmured.
A soft snort met that statement. "It's a wonder they ever managed to get married."
After a week of 14 hour+ days and absolutely no free time, I finally got a chance to sit down and finish this chapter. Hooray! Like where it's going? Totally confused? Let me know if it's the later, because I know exactly what I mean, but might not be conveying it at all! ^^