Title: Light
Author: Jordanna Morgan (librarie@jordanna.net)
Archive Rights: Please request the author’s consent.
Rating/Warnings: G.
Characters: Ikoma and Takumi.
Setting: General.
Summary: Taken captive with Takumi, injured Ikoma witnesses his friend’s trust yet again.
Disclaimer: They belong to Kabaneri Committee and other relevant parties. I’m just playing with them.
Notes: This started as an idea I joked about to a friend—only to end up becoming much longer and more involved than I expected. It was written for the monster prompt “Vampire” at Spook Me, and the prompt “Someone is Captured” at Genprompt Bingo.

 

Light

 

Ikoma couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew something wasn’t right.

The Kotetsujo’s visit to Ogura Station had begun auspiciously enough. The train’s arrival that morning was met with predictable reserve by the local nobles; but upon hearing that their visitors offered new Kabane-killing weapons for trade, caution was turned to interest. Miss Ayame and the bushi arranged a demonstration of Ikoma’s jet bullets for the station’s chief, Lord Fukunaga. Ikoma himself, as a mere steamsmith—not to mention a Kabaneri with an inhuman secret to protect—was not asked initially to attend the meeting of nobles. However, one of the bushi came to fetch him a short time later, saying that Fukunaga insisted on meeting the designer of such impressive new technology.

In short order Ikoma was presented before the nobles of Ogura, to personally answer their questions. He was nervous at first, ever wary of his true nature being exposed, but Lord Fukunaga’s admiration and enthusiasm soon put him at ease. Although a humble young man by nature, he was still more than human enough to be flattered by praise of his technical skill. He knew his innovations could make a real difference for mankind—and recognition of that fact by the head of a large and prosperous station meant more lives could be saved by his work. That at least was a legitimate reason to be proud, and it left him feeling quite pleased with himself long after he was dismissed from the nobles’ audience.

And then, a few hours later, he and Takumi were approached by two lovely young women while looking for supplies in the marketplace.

“Ikoma!” called out the taller girl dressed in yellow, rushing up to grasp his hand as if greeting an old friend. “I’m so happy we bumped into you! We were both so impressed by those new bullets you showed our father today!—I and my sister here are Lord Fukunaga’s daughters, by the way. We both wanted to meet you again!” she shrilled, as the shorter sister in blue nodded vigorously and smiled.

The bemused Kabaneri raised an eyebrow. He recalled seeing the two ladies among the onlookers at the weapons demonstration, but he hadn’t noticed that they were so enthralled.

Beside Ikoma, Takumi was completely failing at not staring at the sisters. He gulped and grinned dumbly as the first one cast an inquisitive glance his way.

“Oh—this is my friend Takumi,” Ikoma said hastily. He couldn’t resist cracking a tiny smile as he added, “He actually deserves a lot of credit for our jet bullets, too. I never could have completed the designs if he and some of the other steamsmiths on the Kotetsujo hadn’t helped me.” …For example, by hauling me back onto the train when I thought I was nothing but a monster.

The assertion immediately won Takumi a share of the two fawning girls’ attention.

“Really?” breathed the girl in blue, latching onto Takumi’s arm. “You have to tell us all about it! It’s so lucky you were both able to escape from Aragane Station with the amazing work you’ve done…”

Ikoma enjoyed the way Takumi’s cheeks flamed red, and hoped his stammering friend didn’t entirely lose control of his tongue.

The yellow sister squeezed Ikoma’s hand, prompting him to realize only then that she still hadn’t let go of it. “I know! Why don’t you come home with us for dinner? That way you can tell us all about yourselves—and I know Father would love to see you again too. You will, won’t you?”

“That’s a great idea!” the blue sister chimed in, all but hanging on Takumi’s arm. “Oh, do say yes!”

In hindsight, perhaps that was the moment something had started to feel just a little bit off. It was not at all normal for girls of noble breeding to gush over a couple of steamsmiths… But on the other hand, with the state the world was in, maybe some people were finally starting to realize that it wasn’t rank or birth that made a decent person. Lord Fukunaga certainly hadn’t shown any reservations about Ikoma being “just a steamsmith”, so maybe he’d passed that openmindedness on to his daughters as well.

And besides… Glancing at Takumi, Ikoma grinned. The heavier steamsmith was barely managing not to drool as the blue girl clung to him. This situation had to be a dream come true for him, and the Kabaneri certainly owed his friend for sticking by him through all they had experienced; for trusting him even when he hadn’t trusted himself. If being associated with Ikoma could earn Takumi a good time for once, he more than deserved it.

Ikoma’s inability to eat normal food made the dinner invitation tricky. Even so, he thought he could make a reasonable excuse for abstaining. While Takumi enjoyed the meal and the ladies’ company, he could sip mere water and talk with Fukunaga, probing the noble’s receptiveness to helping the Kotetsujo reach even more stations with his jet bullets. It could be a successful evening for them both.

“…Okay,” he agreed just a little cautiously, but he felt an inner warmth at the way Takumi’s face lit up. “If you’re really sure your father won’t mind—we’ll accept.”

 

So it was that ten minutes later, a very welcoming Lord Fukunaga himself was throwing open the doors of his house.

“Ah, Ikoma! I’m delighted to see you again so soon. Thank you for kindly accepting my daughters’ invitation. …When they heard I was thinking of asking you to come, their insistence sealed the matter,” he added with a sly wink.

Ikoma raised his eyebrows at that. Despite the girls’ coyness, running into them was evidently not such a coincidence after all—and he wasn’t sure what to think about the fact that Fukunaga was so eager to personally see him again. The steamsmith wondered suddenly if he was getting in over his head. Maybe he should have left all discussions with the noble to Miss Ayame after all.

However, before Ikoma could consider what to do now, Fukunaga was ushering his daughters and their guests inside. He led them to a windowless inner room where a table was set with a lavish supper. Two bushi were seated against the wall, alert but relaxed; Ikoma presumed they served as bodyguards, but they didn’t look as if they were expecting any trouble.

Takumi’s eyes grew big as he surveyed the spread on the table, but Ikoma felt only a twinge of ruefulness. With his altered body no longer able to digest them, the sight and aroma of delicacies worthy of a noble’s table did nothing to stir his stomach.

…Not that he wasn’t a little hungry for his own kind of food. In the commotion of arriving at Ogura Station, he’d managed to miss his morning ration of blood, and then with the weapons demonstration and shopping… He chided himself for not taking care of the matter sometime earlier, but there was nothing to be done about it now. In any case, that small oversight should have posed no problem. He would be fine for a while longer, and he could eat when they got back to the Kotetsujo.

Still, that wasn’t all that was bothering him. To be so fussed over by a noble felt gratifying, but… weird, even if his skills had earned the attention. At least Ikoma thought so. Takumi either hadn’t considered it, or simply wasn’t about to question it. When invited to sit down at the table, he was more than happy to oblige—especially when those girls continued to hover attentively.

“Come, Ikoma, don’t be shy. Please do join your friend,” said the beaming Fukunaga.

Returning a wan smile of his own, Ikoma hesitantly moved to sit beside his fellow steamsmith who was already diving into the feast. “I appreciate your kindness, sir—especially for Takumi. But I’m sorry if you went to any trouble over me. You see, I’m… under a vow of fasting right now. I’m afraid I can’t share your meal.”

The reaction that flashed across Fukunaga’s face was fleeting; but in that moment, he looked distinctly put out.

“Really, now?—But surely you can break it for such an occasion. After all, brilliance like yours must need good nourishment—and you deserve rewarding.”

The Kabaneri shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t touch anything more than water. But I’m glad for this opportunity to talk to you again about my jet bullets, sir. My hope is that with your help, we can reach more stations with this new technology, and save a lot more lives from the Kabane.”

“…Of course,” Fukunaga agreed, gesturing for one of his daughters to pour their guest a glass of water. “A worthy goal that I would be happy to support—and to that end, I have a proposal for you.”

Ikoma blinked behind his one-lensed glasses. “You do?”

“I’m afraid what you can achieve while living aboard a train must be quite limited,” Fukunaga continued. “To produce enough of your jet bullets to save the greatest number of lives, what you need is the resources and facilities of a station.”

“That’s true,” Ikoma nodded. “Which is why it’s my hope that you’d be open to forming a partnership. If we could mass-produce jet bullets here, the Kotetsujo could carry them to other stations.”

“Precisely. …And I assume you would remain here yourself to oversee the manufacture?”

That suggestion took Ikoma by surprise. For a brief moment, the thought of being based at a station to personally develop his weapons was tantalizing; but he realized just as quickly that above all else, he could not be separated from the Kotetsujo’s community of Aragane survivors. They were his sole source of nourishment, opening their veins for him willingly—because only they could accept him as he was, after the shared learning experiences that had forged a trusting bond of mutual reliance between humans and Kabaneri. They were his people, and he needed their understanding kindness to help him survive his own nature, just as surely as he needed their blood.

He slowly shook his head in answer to Fukunaga. “No. I should be there to support Miss Ayame when she meets with other station chiefs. I’d be the best one to answer any questions they have about the jet bullets, like you did. And besides, I have a duty to help protect the train against Kabane…”

Oops. Ikoma realized the last statement was a slip when Fukunaga’s eyebrows raised.

“You? But you’re a steamsmith, not a bushi. Surely fighting the Kabane isn’t your place.”

Before the Kabaneri could find words to answer, Takumi proved he was not too absorbed in good food and doting company to be aware of the conversation. He put down his chopsticks and flashed a smile at Fukunaga. “Like the man said, he knows his weapons best—and that means he knows how to use ’em best. Our bushi are still learning a thing or two from him.”

Ikoma wasn’t sure whether his friend had noticed his error and was trying to give a plausible explanation, or merely talking up his skills even further. Either way, he felt an embarrassed heat in his face as Fukunaga turned to gaze at him speculatively. “It seems you’re even more extraordinary than I thought.”

“Uh… thank you, sir?”

“It’s all the more reason to press my own argument.” Fukunaga leaned forward, his eyes steely. “Most of my peers would be too foolish to acknowledge it, but I know a man of your genius is too valuable to be risked in fighting. You should be safeguarded within station walls, devoting your full time and effort to creating even greater advances in weaponry. That is what I’m offering you, Ikoma. I want you to remain with us, and become a citizen of Ogura Station. Here you would no longer live in constant danger from the Kabane, and we could provide you with all the resources you need for your work.”

There was an undeniable appeal to the proposal. With its cramped space and severely limited supplies, working aboard a train wasn’t easy. Even the humble workshop he’d spent five years assembling at Aragane allowed him to do so much more, like creating his piercing gun—and the experimental rig that spared his life when he was bitten. If he could have an established work space at a station again, with the full backing of its chief… how much more technology could he develop to destroy the Kabane?

At least for now, it could not be. With the secret of his nature and need, it would be impossible for him to make a home anywhere but among those who cared for him on the Kotetsujo.

It was really alright, though—because that was home already.

Resolutely he shook his head once more. “I’m sorry, sir. The Kotetsujo is where I belong. I couldn’t have accomplished the things I have without the people on that train—and I can’t leave them.”

As Fukunaga took in the finality of Ikoma’s tone, there was an unmistakable darkening of his eyes.

“I see… Well then, Miss Ayame and the rest of your comrades must be quite remarkable to have earned such devotion. As a token of respect, I’ll drink to them before we begin discussing the terms of partnership you have in mind.” He lifted his cup from the table. “Might you at least break your fasting vow far enough to join me in this?”

Warily Ikoma eyed the bottle of sake on the table. He didn’t know how alcohol might affect his system—and he had absolutely no intention of finding out in front of strangers.

“Only with water, I’m afraid,” he reiterated firmly.

Fukunaga looked irritated. However, he inclined his head gracefully, and waved a hand at his daughters. “Rie, be a good child and pour a cup for Ikoma’s friend.”

The shorter girl hurriedly complied. In an obscuring swirl of blue silk, she leaned over to fill a cup and place it in Takumi’s hand; and then, without any order from their father, both sisters made a swift retreat from the room. Ikoma was tempted to ask why they wouldn’t join in the toast, but by that moment Fukunaga was already raising his cup.

“To the Kotetsujo, and the valiant survivors of Aragane Station.” He tilted his cup toward Ikoma. “And to the Kotetsujo’s resident genius. May your talents help bring change to the world.”

There was an odd tone to the words. Ikoma fidgeted and ducked his head, self-consciously taking a sip of water. At the same time he was aware of Takumi downing a healthy swig of sake at his side, and hoped the bigger steamsmith wouldn’t get drunk in front of the noble himself. At least Kabaneri strength would be useful in hauling him back to the train if he did overdo it.

“Now what terms exactly would you propose?” asked Fukunaga, abruptly diving back into business.

Ikoma straightened his back and squared his shoulders, making his best effort to look professional. “It’s pretty simple, actually. As for the manufacturing of jet bullets here at Ogura…”

His words were halted by a gentle weight that suddenly leaned into his left shoulder. He turned to find Takumi sagging against him, blinking dazedly and fumbling the cup as he tried to set it down.

“Wow, tha’s… tha’s really strong sake…”

The cup spilled onto the table as Takumi slumped forward; and for a single moment Ikoma was gripped with a terrible realization. His shocked gaze snapped upward to Fukunaga, whose face had turned stony with grim resolve.

Then pain exploded across the back of Ikoma’s head, and he toppled alongside Takumi as the room plunged into darkness around him.

 

Sometime later, Ikoma was fairly sure he had awakened… but it was rather hard to tell, because everything was still just as black as the moment he’d passed out. He could see absolutely nothing, and he could feel nothing except for a dull, throbbing ache in his skull.

And also, after a moment or two… an insidious prickling of hunger.

Damn, not good…

Stifling a groan, Ikoma raised a hand to his face. The movement was partly to massage the pounding behind his eyes, and partly to ensure that those eyes were really open in the darkness. Not a single mote of light was visible in the unknown space where he found himself.

His stirring drew the attention of another figure invisible to him. There was a rustle of movement, followed by a waft of familiar scent as Takumi’s big warm body drew close. “Ikoma! Are you okay?”

Ngh… Head hurts,” Ikoma murmured, gingerly pushing himself up into a sitting position. He wasn’t going to mention the hungry part just yet… if only because he really wanted to not think about it himself. He was having enough of a hard time pulling his head together without the distraction of his inhuman appetite.

Takumi breathed out an angry hiss. “Yeah. Since you didn’t have the manners to drink his drugged sake like me, one of Fukunaga’s goons must’ve cracked you on the skull. They were sitting behind us.”

It was hard to follow even those relatively simple conclusions. Ikoma’s brain felt like shattered glass: he knew all the pieces were there, but they weren’t lining up properly. His fingers wandered to the back of his head, feeling a lump where he’d been struck, and a more disturbing faint crunch of already-dried blood. No wonder he was hungry. Blood loss and his body’s effort to heal would worsen the craving he had already felt after skipping breakfast—and who knew how many more meals by this time.

Why…?”

“I don’t really know, but I’ve got a guess. You remember Suzuki telling Kajika’s kids that story about a ‘Golden Goose’? Well, I’m pretty sure that’s what you are to Fukunaga. I think he wants to get you under his thumb and have you make more weapons for him—but for his own profit, not to help the world. …Kind of a stupid idea, since he won’t have a chance of getting away with it when Miss Ayame and the others see we’re missing. But I don’t think that guy’s really smart enough to have planned that far ahead.”

The stream of words wasn’t quite making sense to Ikoma at that moment, but he vaguely thought it would when he looked back on it at some later date. Maybe. Probably.

“I’m sorry, Ikoma.” Takumi’s voice became laced with self-recrimination. “It’s my fault you walked into a trap. I know you probably agreed to go with those girls to dinner just because I wanted to.”

Ikoma started to respond with a head shake, but he quickly abandoned the attempt when it felt as if his head nearly went spinning off. Takumi wouldn’t have seen the gesture in the dark, anyway… if the dark was actually real, and not something wrong with Ikoma himself.

“Wanted to talk to Fukunaga again,” the Kabaneri said tersely. He was sure he remembered at least that much. “Not your fault if they were after me. …Where are we?”

“Seems like some kind of storeroom. I couldn’t find a light, so I was feeling around before you woke up,” provided Takumi—which at least confirmed to Ikoma that he wasn’t blind from his concussion. “There’s a lot of wooden crates around us, and just one door on the other side of the room. It’s locked, but I felt a keyhole on the doorknob. So maybe you can pick it?”

A long breath shivered out of Ikoma. Lockpicking had been a skill of his since childhood, and it had saved his life before; but at the moment, the thought of delicately finessing a lock open was daunting. Dazed and shaky as he felt, he wasn’t sure he remotely had the coordination for such a task.

Even without seeing his face, Takumi knew him well enough to read the uncertainty in his pause. Warmth shifted nearer as the other steamsmith leaned toward him.

“Hey. Ikoma, talk to me. How are you really doing?”

“…Not so great,” Ikoma muttered candidly. “Hurt. Can’t think straight. …Hungry.”

To his credit, Takumi did not move an inch from Ikoma’s side, or hesitate for a moment in his answer.

“Okay. If you need blood, I can—”

No,” Ikoma cut him off brusquely, frightened by the thought of feeding directly from a wound. “You know I don’t want it like that. …I can hold out a little longer.”

“If you say so… but that means we’ve gotta hurry and get out of here.” A hand found Ikoma’s shoulder and squeezed. “Just hang on. I know you’re not feeling good, but I can’t get us out of here by myself. You’re gonna have to see what you can do about that lock.”

Takumi guided Ikoma across the room in the dark, and showed him where the doorknob was. As he reached into his pocket for the short piece of sturdy wire he always carried, his hand was alarmingly unsteady. He felt for the keyhole and managed to insert the wire; but when he began probing the mechanism of the lock, his fingers seemed numb and stiff and unwilling to obey him. He fumbled and scraped ineffectually against the tumblers, frustration growing until he quietly growled a curse.

Then he cursed again, much more vehemently, as the wire slipped out of his fingers altogether.

“What’s wrong?” asked Takumi’s voice from an arm’s length away.

“Dropped the wire,” Ikoma grumbled. He leaned down to feel for it, and heard sounds of movement that told him Takumi had joined him in the effort.

Small though it was, that bit of wire surely could not have gone far; yet after thoroughly combing the bare-wood floor for some distance from the door, neither of them could find it. Ikoma felt his anger rising to an irrational level, fueled only further by pain—and he struggled to push that anger down. After learning so well to live with his Kabaneri nature, he simply couldn’t snap here and now, stupidly locked up in a scheming noble’s closet.

And he couldn’t snap when his best friend was trapped with him.

That was why they had to escape quickly. They couldn’t wait for their friends to realize they were missing—because he didn’t dare trust himself alone with Takumi for much longer.

He clenched his fists and sat up on his knees, abandoning his search for the wire. “Maybe my strength would be enough to break the door.”

“I don’t know, but even if you could, that’d be noisy. If anybody is around to hear it, we’ll have bushi pointing guns at us before we can make it off Fukunaga’s estate. And besides, we can’t risk anybody figuring out that you’re not exactly normal.” Scuffling sounds as Takumi fruitlessly continued feeling around on the floor. “What we really need is a light.”

A long pause. And then:

“Listen, Ikoma. I’ve got an idea, but I already know you’re not going to like it.”

“What…?”

Before Ikoma could finish his query, Takumi’s warmth retreated from his side. He heard a few dull scrapes, and then a sharp grunt.

Ow… Crap, that hurt more than I thought.”

Warmth moved closer again—and Ikoma was alarmed by the sudden smell of blood.

“Takumi! What did you do?”

“Cut my hand on a nail from one of the crates.” A thump as Takumi dropped to his knees beside Ikoma. “Sorry, but right now we need you just a little more hungry. If your heart cage starts glowing, we can find that wire.”

Astounded, Ikoma wanted to fire back an incredulous retort; but he was halted by a nearly painful thud inside his chest. He sagged, bracing one hand against the floor as his already-aching head began to swim. His throat felt dry, and he was hungry… so hungry.

A trace of dull light pierced the blackness, flickering underneath his kimono. He blinked dazedly and pulled the garment open, allowing the reddish glow of the heart cage within his chest to spill forth freely.

Takumi wasted no time. He leaned forward, his gaze and fingers skimming over the splintery floor.

Got it! The wire just fell into this crack in the wood.” He held up the recovered tool triumphantly between finger and thumb—but his expression filled with concern when he saw Ikoma. The Kabaneri had slumped against the door, drawing heavy breaths as he struggled to cling to the strained thread of conscious thought in his mind.

“Whoa, easy, Ikoma. It’s okay. Here…”

Takumi scooted closer. Thick fingers were suddenly thrust in front of Ikoma’s averted  face. They touched his lips, and he tasted what he craved.

Restraint crumbled. Barely aware of what he was doing, Ikoma followed that enticing trickle to the cut on Takumi’s palm. He gulped every warm and savory drop he could lap up from it; but he never sank so far as to let his teeth touch Takumi’s skin. Even through his desperate need, the will to avoid hurting his friend was burned into his consciousness.

The room faded to black once more as the glow of his sated heart subsided. On pace with that darkening, he could feel his mind become clearer and his nerves steadier. There was still pain from the healing wound to his head, but now he could push past it and think.

Abruptly he jerked away from Takumi, curling into himself with a swell of miserable self-recrimination.

“…Idiot,” he breathed, unsure of whether he was saying it to himself or Takumi. He wiped his mouth with the back of his fist. “What if I would’ve—?”

“What, bit me?” An eyeroll was plainly conveyed in Takumi’s tone. “Come on. We both know you’d never hurt me.—Or I know it, anyway. You really need to get over this doubting-yourself thing.”

Ikoma’s breath caught. He swallowed and blinked.

“But it nearly happened before.”

“Yeah, once—after you’d almost been killed about ten times in one day. That’d make anybody lose it a little bit. And you weren’t used to being a Kabaneri then. You know how to handle it now.” A finger jabbed at Ikoma’s shoulder, although it was probably aiming for his chest. “It’s not like that heart of yours is some kind of caged monster inside you, Ikoma. It’s just you—and you wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Even if Ikoma was still not quite convinced, he knew it was futile to argue with his best friend’s immovably stubborn faith. All he could do was marvel at it… and be grateful for the light Takumi himself had always been in his darkest hours.

“…Thanks, Takumi.”

“Sure. So you’re feeling better now?”

“Enough to find a way out of here without smashing something, anyway.” Ikoma smiled faintly. “Give me the wire. I’m getting that lock open this time.”

Takumi’s hands found his in the dark, and carefully pressed the wire into his palm.

“Let’s do this. And hey, Ikoma?”

“What?”

“After Miss Ayame tells off Fukunaga for this stunt, and the Kotetsujo is outta here… maybe you’d better teach me how to pick locks.”


© 2018 Jordanna Morgan