Author's Notes: Written for the "Harlequin Romance" challenge at the KuroFai community on Dreamwidth, where an author takes an actual Harlequin romance story summary as inspiration for a KuroFai fanfic. Modified from original Harlequin Romance summary:
Discovering an abandoned baby in the backseat of a taxi was not on hotelier Fai Fluorite's agenda. Luckily, a stunning stranger comes to his aid—and piques his interest. But before Child Services can arrive, a snowstorm strands the trio in Fai's luxurious Colorado cabin.
Youou Kurogane wants to resist Fai's advances, but Fai's care and concern for him and the baby soon have him melting. As the snow falls and the heat sizzles, it's not long before Kurogane's sleeping in Fai's bed. And he finds himself wondering if their temporary arrangement could have permanent effects...
Feathery clumps of ice crystals fell slow and soft over Mercy Hospital, building up a thick white blanket to cover the dark, slushy mess that the previous night's snowfall had been trampled into. Visiting hours were not yet over but the temporary population of the hotel was at a low ebb, and the holidays were long enough past that the emergency room was no longer kept busy and holding tenaciously on to the faint aroma of drunken regrets at all hours. Instead of fist fights and fender benders keeping the doors open almost as often as they were closed, now there were only the usual winter's load of coughs and fevers to occupy the small medical center. The place was quiet but filled with a low hum of steady activity like a somnolent cat purring contentedly away, just waiting to be disturbed.
Headlights pierced the gloom that heavy clouds cast across the area even at midday, chasing wild shadows across the building as a taxi cab quickly made its way through the roundabout and stopped in front of the emergency room doors. A security guard detached himself from his coffee and desk, making his way outside with an awkward mix of slowness due to weight and haste due to curiosity. Mercy was small as far as hospitals went, though favored by locals for its friendly staff, and it was rare to see a taxi drop someone off.
"Got an out of towner?" the guard asked affably as the cab driver hurriedly got out and began squeaking through the thin layer of new snow to the rear passenger side. The cabbie looked worried and the guard tipped his hat back a bit as he tried to peer into the interior of the vehicle. "We all right in there?"
"I'm right enough, but my fare's messed up," the cab driver replied, pulling open the door. "Dunno if she got a bug or bad drugs or what, but she hasn't made a peep since falling in."
"Oh hell," the portly guard murmured as the cabbie's increasingly louder calls of "hey Miss" went unanswered. The girl slumped inside was little more than a pale, peaked face floating in the darkness. The dimness of the ill-lit vehicle and her dark, thick clothes - woolen cap, heavy coat and bedraggled boots - swathed all other features in shadows and shapelessness. A wheelchair was fetched and then the two men both moved to maneuver the light - and disturbingly limp - form out of the car.
"Oh hell." Both their hands came away wet and glimmering darkly in the yellow glare of the outdoor lights, and the cab driver grimaced and wiped his hands on his jacket while the other man began wheeling the girl into the ER. "Why didn't you take her to General?" the guard asked, referring to the larger, much more modern hospital with its renowned surgical teams.
"I didn't know she was hurt," the cabbie protested. "She just said 'Mercy' so here I am."
The automatic doors opened up, buffeting the men and their charge with warm air tainted with antiseptic and cleaning solution and then closing with a whoosh behind them. The unconscious young woman was soon the center of attention, bringing the quiet waiting room to life and then disappearing through another set of doors, but this time lying flat on a gurney wheeled briskly by a pair of business-like nurses in colorful scrubs. There was a bit of an awkward shuffle in the waiting room then, ending with the security guard mumbling something about getting the now blood-soaked wheelchair cleaned up and wandering off with it, leaving the taxi driver torn between kind-heartedly worrying over his passenger and pragmatically - and none too hopefully - calculating his chances of eventually collecting his fare.
The cabbie lingered a while, folding up his bloodied jacket and giving his hands a thorough going-over with some disinfecting gel and tissues, but no one made a reappearance and the clerk at the reception desk proved to be too uncertain or unimaginative to give him any ideas of how best to go about invoicing an unconscious unknown. Finally he settled for leaving his name and contact information with the clerk in the hopes that his fare would recover and turn out to be a responsible young lady of comfortable means who always honorably discharged her debts. With one last mournful sigh over his financial losses, the driver waved his way out and began shuffling through the snow to his cab.
The passenger door was still ajar, making the man grimace at both the disturbing stain just barely visible on the back seat and the realization that all the warm air had long escaped. His heater was an indifferent piece of equipment at best and he definitely didn't want to put his bloody jacket back on. Resigning himself to at least several miles of uncomfortable cold, the driver prepared to shut the car door when the sound of the hospital doors opening and a shout made him pause and turn back hopefully. Perhaps the girl had regained consciousness and had sent an orderly out with her wallet. It was unlikely, but not impossible, and the cab driver was the type of person who had never quite lost that childish habit of hoping for small grade miracles to offset life's many disappointments.
"Wait wait!" a man called out, hurrying out from the building, waving one gloved hand and carrying some bags with the other. "Can I share that cab with you?"
"You can have it all for yourself," the driver replied, cheering up instantly though his initial hopes were disappointed. His last fare would probably remain unpaid, but here was a new one to keep him from wasting gas just getting back into the city. As a bonus, the stranger looked quite healthy. "I'm the driver. Where d'ya wanna go?"
"Rather a long way, I'm afraid," his fare said with an apologetic laugh, white teeth glimmering in a fair face framed by pale hair and an even paler scarf. "I have a cabin just past Elk Ridge."
A street lamp lit the man from above, setting a nimbus about his blond head, and when the cab driver had done some quick math he could have blessed the man for an angel. It would be a long drive but still far better than cruising past restaurants and hotels with a hastily washed and unpleasantly damp cab, hoping to rack up enough quick trips around the city to make having gotten out of bed that morning worthwhile.
"It'll be a good four hundred at least," came the cautionary calculation, and then the cabbie smacked his hands together happily when the stranger didn't even bat his big baby-blues.
"That's fine," was the cheerfully unconcerned reply.
"Well get on in then and let's get you up into the mountain air!" He began to get out of the way so that his new - healthy and wealthy - fare could get in but then jerked himself to a halt as he remembered the bloodstain. "Err, but wait wait, get in front. The heater doesn't work too well in the back and you'd be frozen before we got halfway there."
The truth was that the heater didn't work too well in the front either, but the stranger did not seem to be overly suspicious even when he hastily threw his folded up jacket over the stain in the back seat before scurrying out of the way so that the man could set his luggage down in the back. Doors were soon slammed shut and the engine revived, and the cab drove off in a flurry of snowflakes. In less than a minute, the area was silent again, and in twenty minutes even the tire tracks and blood spatters were hidden under a fresh layer of snow.
Elk Ridge was within driving distance of suburbia. The distance was not what anyone would call "easy" but to make up for all the blind curves and bright yellow signs warning of rockslides and avalanches and icy roads, the journey was more than picturesque. The road itself was modern and well kept enough, but to one side was sheer rock decorated with scrubby evergreen and snow, and to the other side was clear air, a dizzying drop and a breathtaking view. Drivers kept their eyes fixed religiously on the road, but any passenger with at least a smidgen of appreciation for nature and no traces of vertigo could easily spend the entire drive staring raptly out their window.
At dawn, the mountain range blushed pale peach and pink and nectarine, and fog blanketed the hills and valleys below as thickly as snow draped over the peaks above. Morning sun burned away the white mists and seared the skies into a stark, steely blue that was somehow all the more beautiful for its severity, or brought light only to backlight heavy clouds that seemed like a ponderous ocean rolling and roiling in slow motion. On clear days, the sunsets were like ripened versions of dawn, rich and ruddy, burning yet somehow dark. Night brought both velvety blue-blackness and the pure white of either snow or stars, but this was a sight unappreciated by most. The roads were frightening enough by day; few dared them at night.
There were those who made the long trip into town or the city often enough that they had all the twists and turns down the mountain practically memorized, but they were smart enough to be snug at home or safely at the bottom by the time darkness fell. It was not common fear that kept even the locals off the road at night, but common sense. The dark was a friend once you passed a certain elevation. Once the stars began outshining the street lamps and humanity humbly took its rightful place at nature's feet, there were no longer unnatural things - criminals and creepy crawlies - lurking in the shadows.
In the city, people carried weapons and chained shut their doors and feared for their lives despite all this. In the suburbs, parents checked under beds to settle their children's minds and left their porch lights on to settle their own. On the mountain, people walked with wolves and bears and were at ease with themselves so long as they remembered to bring their brains and balls when they left the house. Some carried guns, but it was primarily to provide for themselves, not protect.
Elk Ridge was a populous, bustling place perched cozily on the side of the mountain like a pretty little cluster of wildflowers growing out of a crack in the rocks. The population was nothing in comparison of the suburbs nestled in the shadow of the great mountain range, but still healthy enough to keep two grocery stores competing good-naturedly with each other. It was something like a resort town, but without ski lifts or snowmobile trails or indeed anything being rented at all except for cabins. The allure was not sport but solitude and the enjoyment of nature, and there were enough people interested in paying for these things to keep Elk Ridge thriving without ruining it at the same time with too many upgrades and modernizations.
The main road led to and ended at Elk Ridge, and multiple rougher roads led from the town to the rentals and privately owned cabins. A two-story building huddled at the crossroads of some of these glorified trails, almost blending in to its surroundings with its plain wooden walls and snow-capped roof. It was a general supply store, and offered a way to stay stocked without having to venture into the comparative bustle and brightness of Elk Ridge. The store seemed to exist out of sympathy to those who had escaped into these mountains for the sake of privacy and did not want to even be seen by too many, much less have to make friendly chat with them as they refreshed their supply of milk and bread.
The interior of the store was in keeping with this idea, offering a large selection of life's necessities though not in much variety. There were many items, but only one or two choices for each. If you wanted milk, you bought Colorado Creamery and you could pick between non-fat and definitely-a-lot-of-fat. There was not an option of percentages of fat. There were boxes of non-dairy milk for those not blessed with a natural tolerance to lactose, but it was plain and simple soy. There was no almond option, and certainly no colorful letters advertising strawberry or chocolate. There was just one brand of toilet paper, the cereal selection did not take up an entire aisle all by itself, and you could choose between just two types of toothpaste; regular and children's.
If you wanted your groceries in anything other than paper bags or your own two hands, you had to bring your own bags. Customers did not even have a choice as to who rang them up; the store was owned and operated, maintained and stocked, opened and closed all by one man. Youou Kurogane, twenty-four years young but carrying himself like he was much older.
He was not sociable, but then again, his customers were not the sort of people who threw Twitter-fits if they did not receive a satisfactory amount of deferential eye contact, polite chat and smiles. He kept his store well stocked and did not charge exorbitant prices. More was not asked of him, and that suited Kurogane just fine. Though eschewing small talk and treating his paying customers with the same brusqueness that he offered to idle passers-by, the storekeeper considered himself to have excellent customer service where it counted.
He did not run a late-night convenience store to ward off boredom with salties and sweets and questionable movies. He did not run a specialty boutique store to cater to whims and fancies. His official business was providing essentials and necessities, not luxuries and conveniences. The store had its regular opening and closing times, but he lived on the second floor of the wooden building and very rarely left the place for more than a couple of hours. No matter the ungodliness of the hour, he could be counted on to answer the door and would do his best to provide what was needed. That was his idea of customer service, and he was proud to offer it.
He had other reasons for staying, working and living here as well, but they were not ones that he was in the habit of sharing.
Up among the trees and rocks, the solitary man could have run his life and business however he wanted. His shop was necessary enough that his customers would have put up with higher prices and more inconvenience than he currently offered, but Kurogane stuck to his established routine with almost stubborn strictness. Life was quiet but the setting was beautiful, and the man seemed to feel no yearnings for excitement or variety. At the very least, he expressed no such yearnings, even if he did feel them.
Into this peaceful setting drove a vehicle one evening, disgorging a stranger who was on his way up to his private cabin. Such an occurrence was nothing too far out of the ordinary, but Kurogane would later look back and compare the event to the mailman dropping off a bomb.
The door opened and let in a flurry of fine snowflakes and a tall form bundled up in a ridiculously fluffy coat. Despite the thick fabric, the figure was long and lean and of such height that Kurogane put it in the "male" category as he eyed his potential customer. He almost revised his first opinion when the fur-lined hood shook back and revealed a face, pale and perfect, with big blue eyes bright even under the shadow of long platinum blond bangs. The wind and hood had tousled all that fine hair so that it wisped every which way and the person's nose and cheeks were rosy from the freezing temperatures, but somehow the stranger looked all the more beautiful for these imperfections. Thin lips parted in a half-smile and those brilliant eyes looked around the store as if at an unfamiliar realm, and Kurogane thought in the very back of his mind that it was as if a snow spirit had taken on human form and come curiously exploring.
And then the stranger opened his mouth.
"Hyuuu!" the blond trilled gaily, automatically raising an eyebrow on the shopkeeper. "It's freezing outside!"
No shit, Sherlock, Kurogane thought dryly, and stood up from where he'd been crouched, checking expiration dates on cough remedies and stocking thinned-out shelves from a little cart of neatly labeled cardboard boxes. His great height helped to make the simple movement eye-catching, and the newcomer homed in on him immediately. There was a minute pause as they met gazes, and then the blond surprised Kurogane by laying an I've-been-waiting-my-whole-life-to-meet-you kind of smile on him and stepping forward to greet him. Six foot five Kurogane, with broad shoulders, black hair that refused to lie down no matter how much hair product they were threatened with and rich brown eyes that looked wine-red in most lights, was used to first reactions to him being more on the cautious side. In the case of small children, sometimes tears were involved.
"Pleased to meet you," the stranger claimed, stopping at a polite distance and holding out one gloved hand, palm-up as if in supplication or gesturing to something. Kurogane was doubtful that it was in fact all that pleasant to meet him, but gave the offered hand a quick firm shake as they traded names.
"I'm Fai. I have a cabin a few miles up Valley Road."
"Kurogane," the shopkeeper replied succinctly, giving his last name only as was usual for him and mentally chalked up another mark against the stranger. He knew of the cabin and who owned it, as the staff who kept the place aired out, cleaned up and well stocked often stopped by his store to chat and shop. He also knew of the Fluorite chain of hotels and the rumors about the family that owned them. A family in name only, based in New York and famous for their high-priced luxury hotels and the ruthless, cutthroat business tactics that they used with everyone including - or perhaps especially - each other.
Generations of wealth built on a foundation of greed. A golden palace on a hill of bones. Kurogane despised them on principle as representing the worst of what modern cities bred up. Smog and smoke instead of clean air, preservatives and chemicals instead of simple fare, fame and fortune instead of solid values; all of these things were calculated to breed twisted caricatures instead of honest men in Kurogane's opinion. Rumors of affairs and blackmail and even murder clung to the Fluorite name, though nothing ever came out clearly in the courtroom or the public eye. There were also whispers of bitter fallouts between the newest generation and the old. They couldn't even unite among themselves in the name of greed.
Fai flitted around like an out of season butterfly, peeping at this and that and chattering away brightly. The coat was peeled off as the warmth of the store seeped into his body, and the dark blue sweater and black slacks that were thus revealed were neat and clean and clung just enough to show off a trim form. He was no less attractive and graceful as when he first stepped into Kurogane's domain, but this only served to irritate the shopkeeper further. The more pleasing the exterior, the more disgusting the assumedly filthy interior became by contrast.
Kurogane was tall, dark, and Fai seemed to find him handsome or at least well worth the effort to strike up a conversation with, but all the blond's pleasantries, compliments and questions failed to draw much more than a word or two in reply. Sometimes all that was forthcoming was a grunt from behind a cardboard box as the store owner doggedly devoted himself to his wares. The light, lilting chatter ebbed, dimmed and finally trailed off entirely, and after a brief silence Kurogane noticed a pair of boots very near his left knee. He followed the legs upward and then frowned up at the slightly contrite, mostly puzzled face smiling down at him.
Bastard even looked pretty from this odd angle.
"Not much a conversationalist, are we," Fai commented quietly, most of the bubbles in his demeanor popped. "Am I bothering you?"
Bothering implied that the stranger was significant enough of a presence to affect Kurogane, and that wasn't something he was about to admit to.
"I'm all out of conversation," he replied flatly, with no trace of humor in his deep voice to make the statement into a proper joke. "I'm stocked up on everything else, though, so get what you came for and get out or else you'll get lost in the dark on your way up." This last little caution softened the "get out" and saved his response from being completely rude from start to finish. Barely. Fai seemed to admit it with plenty of good humor, smiling easily as if they were long-established friends and he knew that the other man was trying to be kind and funny and just failing spectacularly at it. It was obviously an act since they'd just met, and Kurogane looked upon the false front as proof that his prejudices were well-founded.
"I'm not actually here to shop," Fai admitted. "My cab driver had to stop and use your pay phone because his cellphone cut out mid-conversation, so I thought I'd come in and look around."
Kurogane was tempted to make any number of comments about how "looking around" could be accomplished silently or how the man should have stayed in the taxi cab instead of braving the wind just to track snow and dirt inside, but opening his mouth seemed like it would just trigger another avalanche of chatter so he stayed silent. Fai just got another non-committal grunt and then a look at Kurogane's back as the shopkeeper finished what he was doing and began wheeling away his supply cart without a word.
When he came back, Fai had moved further down an aisle toward the double-doors Kurogane had disappeared into and seemed to be waiting for him to make a reappearance. In another bid to get this annoyance out of his store, Kurogane grabbed a sponge mop and wheeled bucket on his way back out into the store proper and gave a pointed look toward the man's boots and the little bits of slush and soil that were melting off of them. Fai's smile turned into an almost exaggeratedly sheepish grin.
"Well, you're not benefiting from my conversation," the blond said a bit ruefully. "I suppose I should give you my custom to make up for insulting the purity of your floor." He put a gloved finger thoughtfully on his mouth and looked around, casting about for something to buy. It took the man a little bit to think of something suitable. Kurogane's store stocked mostly necessities and very little in the way of those random little things that one might pick up on whim, like decorative refrigerator magnets and postcards.
There were a few bottle opener keychains and lighters, but blue eyes passed over them without interest. His target was apparently something a bit better than a mere token purchase, which should have endeared him to a normal shopkeeper, but Kurogane's scowl only deepened as he followed the man around the store scrubbing up snowmelt. He wasn't really all that fussy about his floors, but he was not without hope that the constant squeak of the mop might guilt the man out of his building that much sooner.
They ended up in the far corner of the store where Kurogane kept a respectable stock of alcohol in locked glass cases. It was the one area of his shop with a good bit of variety and luxury to it. There were no "bottom shelf" bottles or boxed wines; everything was brand name and top dollar. The personality of the shopkeeper was still reflected in the fact that the vodkas were plain - no cranberry or black cherry, thanks - and the beers were all unapologetically alcoholic and calorie-laden. Non-alcoholic beer simply did not make sense to Kurogane, and as for "lite" options, he felt that if you wanted a healthy drink, you should stick to water.
"Am I still in the same store?" quipped Fai, having noticed the "take it or leave it" theme to the rest of the aisles and shelves.
"Unfortunately," muttered Kurogane before he could stop himself. Of course, he hadn't really tried all that hard. Fai just threw that "how cute, a joke" smile at him again before resuming his window shopping.
"This is definitely not the discount section," murmured the blond as he crouched down to read labels near the floor, and something - his tone, the quirk of his eyebrows, maybe even the way he still looked so perfect while hunched over with his lips pursed in concentration; Kurogane didn't know - made the shopkeeper frown and explain.
"People want to enjoy the scenery with a glass of Scotch, that's fine," replied Kurogane, resting one hand on the handle of his mop and the other on his hip while he waited. "But I'm not stocking a bunch of cheap crap so someone can come in with fifty bucks and then go drink themselves to death out in the woods because they're feeling crapped on and dramatic."
Big blue eyes were suddenly blinking up at him in surprise, and it made him bristle up and ask "what" in an irritable growl. He went unanswered despite the blond's more-than-probable willingness to engage in conversation as the front door opened again, this time much more energetically than when Fai had first entered. The second newcomer gave as contrasting a first impression to the blond as their respective entrances; the man was middle-aged, short and portly and ridiculously underdressed for the weather. The pay phone outside was enclosed in a booth and sheltered behind a windbreak besides, but it wasn't heated and a mere two layers of shirt and indifferent sweatshirt were no match for the freezing cold mountain air.
"Sir? I mean Fai...sir?" the man called, obviously flustered even just from the sound of his voice and though he expressed relief at spotting the blond as Fai stood up, his manner remained wound up.
"I'm so sorry but I have to go," the cabbie continued. "Go back down, I mean. I can't take you the rest of the way up. I've left your bags on the porch." The two met halfway in the soup aisle and stood talking for a minute or two while Kurogane minded his own business. The blond's subdued tones did not carry to the edges of the floor but the shopkeeper couldn't help but overhear some snatches of the cabbie's agitated explanations. The dark-haired man heard enough to raise an eyebrow - "police" and "investigation" - but stayed away and uninterested. It was not so much politeness as simply not wanting to be involved in anything to do with a Fluorite. This one or any of them, or even anyone at all that reeked so of the city and corruption.
Not that Fai actually stank of smog and slime. If anything the blonde smelled as clean and fresh as he looked, and just as his attractive person did, it just served to rub Kurogane the wrong way. Somehow it seemed like someone who came from such a city and such a family ought to seem like it somehow...to carry the taint in a visible way. But the blonde was quite simply beautiful and those blue eyes were unmuddied by avarice or heartlessness. If anything, Fai seemed eager to please, or at least eager to be thought pleasing.
Even now, he was walking his cab driver out, waving at him cheerfully after shrugging his coat back on and calling out last-minute reminders to be careful while driving, to not worry too much and to say hello to Penny and little Grace for him. Kurogane thought a moment and then strode toward the front, a forbidding feeling making his forehead wrinkle a bit deeper. If the hotelier was being ditched by the cab driver, that meant Kurogane was the one getting said hotelier dumped on him. A vague idea of persuading the blond to get in the cab too and make his merry way back down the mountain occurred to him, but the driver moved fast despite his short legs and when the door opened, he nearly ran right into Fai, who was hurrying back inside with bags dangling from his hands.
They did a little dance, circling each other so that Fai could edge in with his luggage while Kurogane looked out at the quickly fading lights from the taxi's tail lights and fared them well with a short sigh. When he stepped back inside, Fai's expression had changed from peppy to puzzled, and he turned to the taller man while hefting a rather dingy looking black duffel bag up.
"This one's not mine," the blond said, perplexed. Fai peered at Kurogane and Kurogane stared at the bag with a strange unease. It looked wet along one edge and he could have sworn the bag had just moved. "I wasn't sharing the cab with anyone though. I wonder if..."
The bag suddenly shifted and wailed in a thin, reedy voice and Fai yelped in understandable surprise, opening his hand to drop the handles mid-air and jumping back from the suddenly sentient duffel. Kurogane didn't think; he just moved, surging forward to grab at the handles with one hand and catch the bag from the bottom with the other. It landed squarely in his palm, solid and heavy and squirming. The weight was uneven against his hand and Kurogane swore as whatever it was (he knew what it was; knew that sound, remembered it, heard it echoing in his ears when he woke up sweating and choking on an unvoiced shout) almost tipped right out of his hand. He'd managed to grab the handles, however, and saved the bag from slipping away and onto the floor.
He broke out into a cold sweat at the thought.
"Oh my God, that scared me! Are there cats in there or something?!" Fai exclaimed, edging closer again. The high-pitched cry had cut off abruptly as the bag had dropped and now a faint whimpering and huffing could be heard, building up again toward another wail. Kurogane - heart hammering, breath finally coming back in shallow, unsteady gulps at what had almost just happened - carefully set the bag down on the check-out counter and grimaced as his left hand came away stained with dark red streaks from the bottom of the bag.
By his shoulder, Fai gasped softly but Kurogane had no attention to spare for the onlooker just now. He carefully pulled the opening of the bag up and away from the audibly upset contents of the duffel bag, worked the zipper open and then gingerly reached in with both hands to lift the occupant out, bloodstained towel and all.
"Oh my God," Fai repeated, breathless now and sounding about as stunned and sick as Kurogane felt. "That is not a cat," the blond commented weakly.
"No shit," Kurogane growled, finally tearing his eyes away from the whimpering infant in order to give Fai a scathing glare.