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[personal profile] songbirdspeaks
Title: Skyship
Groups: Arashi, Kanjani8, Tokio, Becky, Haruna Ai
Characters: Aiba, Yoko, Nagase, Nino, Mabo, Ai, Becky, Subaru, Jun, Ohno cameos from Hina, Taichi, Leader, Ryo, Yasu, Maru
Pairings: Aiba/Yoko, mentions of Mabo/Ai and Yoko/Becky BFFery
Rating: PG-13 for implications
Word count: 14000
Warnings: Historical-steampunk AU, butchering of science
Summary: Aiba lives in the mountains of Chiba, working on his newest invention, the telephone. When Yokoyama Yuu, airship pilot, crashes back into his life--literally--he's not sure what to think.
Notes: This is set in Chiba, Japan, in roughly the year 1889. For the sake of world-building several individuals have been aged up or down from their real-life personas. Written for [personal profile] hatenaimirai_e for [livejournal.com profile] je_otherworlds 2011.



Aiba wakes when the sun saunters through the curtains of the tall window across the lab and lights up his face. There's a blanket tucked about his shoulders he doesn't remember bringing to the couch when he'd collapsed on it, and a warm fondness for Jun fills him up to match the warmth in the room. He swings his feet from the end of the couch to the floor, and the deceptive cool of the wood is a pleasant surprise. He stands, stretching lazily, and then turns his attention to the blanket, folding it lengthwise once, but then the smell of breakfast drifts into his nose. He lets the blanket fall onto the cushions of the couch in a pile, and trails across the lab and down the stairs in the corner to investigate his kitchen.
On the little round table nestled under the stairs is a plate of donuts--fresh, it smells like--and a note. Aiba reaches for the first donut--glazed with something yellow that smells like lemon--with one hand, and reaches down with the other to grab the note.

Jun's characteristic imperial swirl says "Remember to sleep in your bed tonight. And please eat, Aiba!", and neither of those are anything Aiba hasn't heard before. Below it, though, is Nino's scrawl. Usually Nino just invades the house when he's worried, demanding to hear about Aiba's work on automating the gliders they used as children.

"Aiba-san, I heard some news you might want to hear. Meet me at Naga-nii's. Nino."

Aiba chuckles around the next donut, a simple sugar because Jun knows he can't handle too much flavor and really get the best out of it. By the time he's finished the third donut and finished debating with himself about saving the other three for a midnight snack, the grandfather clock on the floor above him is ringing nine, which means it's time to get to work, before it gets too hot and he has to close the curtains on the five great, tall windows surrounding his workspace. Aiba's always worked best in natural sunlight versus the half-dim artificial light of his lanterns (even if he did invent them). If he has to spend hours bent over gears, trying to improve on the flight system of the gliders, then he's going to do it in a way that makes him comfortable. He cracks his wrists as he settles on his workbench.

It's time to get to work--for now, anyway.

---

Nagase's restaurant--technically it's a teahouse, but anyone who knows the proprietor's propensity for loudness (and public drunkeness) knows, Skyship doesn't deserve the title. Aiba steps inside the bustling familiar place, and by the time he's finished tugging off his coat and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt, Nagase's concierge Ohno has stepped into the front room.
"Oh-chan," Aiba greets, letting Ohno take his coat and hang it up, grinning widely at the older man. Ohno has been a constant in Nagase's restaurant for as long as Aiba can remember, a lackadaisical orphan taken in by Nagase after Nagase came home from the seas. Ohno's as close to a right hand man as Nagase gets--though to be honest no one was sure how either of them got anything done.

"Aiba-chan," Ohno answers, eventually, with his usual distracted fondness. Ohno seems a step behind everyone else, though it's not for lack of mental capacity or anything. Mostly it seems like he's too busy seeing too much for everyone else, or so Aiba thinks. "Kazu has a private room in the back."

"Fancy," Aiba says, amused, "did he beat Naga-nii at cards again?"

"Dice, I think," Ohno corrects him, and knocks on the door to the private room once, twice.

"Come in," a voice that can only be Nino's responds, and Aiba bounds in in good cheer. Nino is settled on the couch in the corner, boots piled under the end table and his feet curled up under his body. Both of his small hands are wrapped around a mug almost too big for them. Through the room drifts the signature scent of Jun's coffee, the only way there would be anything but tea (or, well, beer) in Nagase's 'esteemed establishment'.

Aiba grins at Nino, who only offers him a deadpan stare over the mug. "Come in," Nino says, "but close the door behind you, wouldn't want any bitter losers sneaking in."

The last is directed clearly over Aiba's shoulder, and Nagase can be heard grumbling about how he 'owns the damn place' at the end of the hall. Aiba shakes his head, giggles bubbling up as he settles at the other end of the couch, unbuckling his boots and tugging his feet from them before bending his left ankle under his knee. Next to the coffee dispenser--a special unit Nagase had commissioned from Aiba especially--is a plate of sandwiches, cucumber from the look of it, and Aiba plucks one from it to chew on while Nino prepares himself to talk about whatever he called Aiba in for.

Three sandwich halves later, Nino still doesn't seem ready to talk. "Nino," Aiba says, drawing the syllables out into a whine, "what's wrong?"

"I got a letter from Sho-kun," Nino says, slowly.

Aiba's chewing stops. "...did you?" he asks, weakly, "what does it say?"

"Sho-kun..." Nino pauses pointedly, "is fine. He's working as a telegraph operator now."

Aiba's smile widens impossibly slowly until it's nearly splitting his face. "So he's alive?! He survived the cruiser crash?!"
Aiba can't hold in the joy--he leaps forward and tangles his limbs around Nino, ignoring Nino's warnings about his coffee, and squeezes for a good, long moment.

He calms down, enough to loosen his grip and let Nino put his coffee cup down, but there's a grin on his face. "Yeah, Masaki, he survived the cruiser crash. All whole, even."

Aiba wipes his eyes, momentarily overcome. Sho had left for the army at nineteen, trying to escape the family pressure to take over their real estate business. He'd sent Nino letters every week, at first, telling about how freaky it was to float in the air and how he was finally getting at least acceptable at being a soldier, until they only get a letter saying he was going off to battle, and then nothing for nearly two years now. Aiba had always held that door open in his heart, because he'd grown up with Sho and Nino and Jun and Ohno, and finding out one of then had died was too much for him.
Nino elbows him into a more comfortable breathing position, and it's only when Aiba finally reaches out t grab another sandwich half that Nino speaks again.

"So how's fixing the tellyphone going?"

"It's a telephone," Aiba corrects automatically.

"That's what I said. Tellyphone. Have you gotten the talky part fixed yet?"

"The talky part works much better now," Aiba says, around a mouthful of cucumber and buttered bread, and swallows pointedly before he continues, "I think. I can't really test it on my own, though..."

"This is the part where I offer to let you fix the receiver you gave me and call me on it," Nino muses, aloud.

"Yep!"

"How are you going to fix it in my flat? And it's too big to cycle back up the mountain, you don't even have a basket on your bicycle..."

"Did someone say heavy things?"

"Naga-nii, how long have you been standing outside the door?" Nino complains.

"The whole time, pretty much," Nagase says, opening the door and peeking his head inside. The owner of Skyship is a fairly massive man, well built and sloppily dressed in clothes that are too nice for him. He grins, completely shameless as always, at them, and throws the door open.

"Is business really that slow at this hour?" Nino asks, eyebrow raised.

"There isn't much call for beer--or sake, what kind of Japanese people are these guys--are noon," Nagase answers, and he seems legitimately regretful about the idea that anyone would turn down alcohol, ever.

He steps inside the room. The heavy prosthetic part of his right leg makes a noisy, painful creak when he steps on it, and Aiba's nose scrunches up. Nagase had always refused to tell them how he'd lost half of his right leg in the war with the Americans in '54. Ohno was the only one who seemed to know anything about it, and even then only small parts. That was why Nagase had hired Ohno on in the first place--he'd inherited his mother's teahouse when he came back home, but running the place with only one working leg was difficult even for a man of Nagase's impressive energy and determination. Aiba had crafted the gear-heavy, moving prosthetic when he'd first moved from his family's restaurant in the town proper to his new home at the top of the mountain, as a gift for letting the five of them hang out in the back.

"That shouldn't be making that noise," Aiba says, sitting up and forward, "sit down."

"Oh, Aiba, it's fine," Nagase answers, but when Aiba gets up and pushes him gently toward the couch he goes.

"Do you have to fix him?" Nino asks, "I like knowing he's coming. It means I can escape--ow!"

Nino and Nagase fall into mostly good-natured arguing while Aiba kneels down to tug the cover from the shin of the mechanism off. He fiddles with a lever and squints, then jerks the foot around.

"Oh, I see," he says, and begins rooting through his pockets for something to root under the gears at the ankle. He finds a single chopstick in his left sleeve, and after a moment of inspection to make sure there wasn't anything on it, he deemed it acceptable.

"The gear at the ankle is blocked by--what is this?"

Nagase looks sheepish. "A cream puff," he says, "I wanted to save it for later."

Aiba throws the old pastry at him, groaning. Nagase pulls the prosthetic back on, strapping it over his thigh, and picks up the cream puff. He looks at it, considering for a long moment, and then pops it into his mouth.

"That's disgusting," Nino says, putting his coffee mug down and pulling a face.

"It's still good!" Nagase says around the mouthful, and waves a merry goodbye as he trots out.

Aiba can't hold back at least a little laughter, and Nino snorts once the door swings shut.

"Did... Sho-chan say anything else in his letter?" Aiba asks.

Nino makes a face. "He said he heard that, uh, that he'd met Murakami at the telegraph center. Maru and Yasu started up their courier business after all, and Ryo-chan is piloting the newest cruiser model."

"Shibutani-kun'll be happy to hear that," Aiba says, thinking of Nino's next door neighbor.

"Probably," Nino agrees, "I didn't tell him yet, thought you might want to know first."

"Did he hear anything about... anyone else?" Aiba asks, hoping.

Nino looks sad for him. "Nothing," he says, "at least, nothing that Hina mentioned."

Aiba nods, putting on a happy face. "I'm sure he's fine," he says, and unfolds himself from the floor. "Come on, then, I have to fix your receiver--what did you do with it?"

"I put a cream puff in it."

---

Aiba crawls into his bed, halfway wishing he hadn't promised Jun and Nino he'd sleep in a bed tonight. There were twenty-five steps around the circular perimeter of the lab up to the loft where his bed was perched, and he'd felt every single one of them in his exhausted trudge up the stairs.

He remembers the summer Kimitaka and his family rolled into town. It had been right after the Americans and their steamboats and airships had landed in Japan, an unstoppable force of technology and their so-called Manifest Destiny. The Yokoyamas--three brothers and their parents--had moved into the neighborhood next to Aiba's when they were mutually twelve, in a neighborhood filled with Osaka transplants looking to get away from the American military presence and the high smokestacks of the Osaka shipyards. Chiba was a popular destination largely because it was already filled with people moving out of Tokyo for much the same reasons, so the growing group of loud Kansai kids around the neighborhood was nothing surprising. When Kimitaka's mother opened up a laundry service, Aiba's mother had sent him by to drop off a bag of dirty dish towels from the family restaurant, and when Kimitaka had answered the door they'd wound up friends. At sixteen, however, Kimitaka's father disappeared, and Kimitaka took it upon himself to support his family the only way he could. He'd left with only a note saying he'd be back someday, and the only indication he was even still alive were the continuing checks to his mother.

Aiba curled up under the blankets. Aiba Masaki's philosophy for life was that as long as you were still alive you could be happy, so knowing that Kimitaka was at least alive was enough to keep him from marching across the continent and finding the idiot. Knowing that Hina-chan--who had been Kimitaka's closest friend--hadn't mentioned him was disheartening.
"Well, nothing you can do about it in the middle of the night," he declared to the silence of the house, and shut his eyes experimentally.

He's asleep for an hour, perhaps two, before the storm begins. The heavy drive of the rain s a comfort, at first, but then the thunder and the winds starts, and Aiba sat up, rubbing at his temples. Abruptly, a crash from below made him scurry to his feet, looking down below to the lab, and the fact that he hadn't actually closed the windows had him running down the stairs. At the bottom, he very nearly fell--there was already water all over the floor--but he caught himself just in time. There were five great windows, tall affairs with curtains that came down when he pulled a lever, each controlled by a simple wind-up closing mechanism. He usually closed them all before he went to bed, but the weather had been so nice when he finally got home he hadn't bothered--clearly a mistake. He stepped carefully over a puddle and righted his half-finished world map on his way to wind up the windows. By the time he'd gotten through four of the five, he was soaked almost entirely through on his right side, an unfortunate side effect of walking around in a circle. When he reached the fifth window, he discovered the mechanism was damaged, and he had to fight against it. A crack of lightning above him--he looked up--and the flash of it illuminates--something. Aiba squints at the sky, and another flash of lightning clearly shows an airship of some kind, and it's not going up. It's going down. Toward the mountain. Toward a crash. Aiba turns and speeds across the lab, stepping over a fallen bookcase, and nearly flat outs runs down the stairs, toward the front door. He remembers to put on shoes, half-buckling them, and then he's off, ignoring the fact that he's going to be sick for a week after this for sure.

The airship is sinking fast now, close enough that he can see it sinking even without the lightning as a nightlight. By the time Aiba makes it from his house at the base of the mountain to halfway up the muddy trail, the airship has landed--if by 'landed' Aiba meant 'crashed in a messy fashion'.

"HELLO?" he calls, into the wind, a useless attempt to feel like he's doing something helpful. He ducks between two trees toward the last place he'd seen the falling machine.
By the time he finds the crashed airship, the storm has calmed down some. Aiba draws in a breath when he sees the ruined machine--it's a mess of broken wings and smoking exposed mechanisms. Aiba rushes to the scene, tugging back the wing and digging through the mess around the cockpit. He runs his fingers over the door hidden over the wing, and tugs on the safety release--Aiba remembers working on a similar system as a commission when he'd decided he didn't want to be a restaurant chef.

"Hello, are you okay? Excuse me! Hey! Can you hear me? Are you awake?"

The pilot is wearing the dark blue of the Japanese Imperial Fleetr, his dark hair long over his eyes and eyes shut. He's collapsed against the other side of the ship, but Aiba can't see any blood--which might be good or bad. Aiba leans carefully forward into the cockpit, and shakes the shoulder of the pilot desperately. "Hey!" he says, and the pilot jerks, grunting. "Wake up!"

"Wha--" the pilot's eyes flutter.

"Come on, wake up! We have to get you out of here!"

"I--what--" The young man seems at least barely awake now, a groggy, still nearly unconscious kind of awake, but he responds when Aiba tugs on the sleeve of his jacket, and he's able to help Aiba unbuckle the harness over his chest so that Aiba can pull him out of it. The young man manages to stumble out of the ship, but his weight seems too much for him and Aiba has to get an arm around his chest, half-holding him up.

"Woah, okay, I got you," Aiba says, "come on, can you walk at all?"

It's a long trip back down toward the house, but Aiba manages to get the young man to the couch and under a pile of blankets nearly as think as the couch. The young man struggles to stay awake as Aiba walks around the room lowering the curtains and closing that last open window.

"Go to sleep," Aiba tells him, wringing out his own shirt with a sigh.

"I--only if you do, too."

"Trying to bargain?! We barely know each other!" Aiba grins, though. "Cleaning up can wait for the morning, I guess."

The young man fades from consciousness after that, and Aiba reaches out to brush the hair from the young man's face. It's easier to see what he looks like now that there's an actual light-source, and Aiba's eyes widen when something dawns on him.

Abruptly, Aiba stands, turning around and reaching for the wet jacket he'd piled on the edge of his worktable when he'd put the young man on the couch. He opens it up, tugging at the shoulders of the coat. There's no mistake--the neat standard kanji of the last name on the pocket of the coat isn't lying.

Yokoyama Kimitaka--or, well, Yuu, apparently--is asleep on his couch.

---

Aiba falls asleep in his bed, like he promised Jun and Nino, but he sleeps fitfully, waking repeatedly over the course of the night to check on his guest. He wakes for good with the sun, and when he goes downstairs he discovers Kimitaka has developed a fever. By the time he's finished brewing tea and eaten one of his remaining donuts, the sun is trailing through the curtains again. He sets the tray down next to the couch and pulls up a chair.

"Hey, wake up," he hisses, "Kimitaka-kun!"

Kimitaka stirs, slowly. "What'd you call me?" he asks, fuzzy.

"Kimitaka-kun?"

"How d'you... know that name?"

"We grew up together, Yokocho," Aiba says, dipping into another old nickname.

"Shit, Aiba?"

"So you do remember me," Aiba says, thankful for that at least.

"How could I forget," Kimitaka grumbles, "I got that letter you sent to Army Command, you know."

"The one where I told you happy birthday and that you're an enormous moron?" Aiba guesses.

"Yeah, yeah that one. I wanted to write you back and tell you to shut up but... it seemed wrong."

Aiba scowls, shoving the cup of tea into the other man's hands. "Drink," he orders, "I have a lab to clean up."

"Aye aye," Kimitaka says, "for what it's worth, I'm sorry for leaving so suddenly."

"Well, you're back for now, at least."

"And, uh... don't call me Kimitaka."

Aiba puffs out his cheeks, annoyed now. "Why?" he whines.

"I like Yoko better," Kimitaka answers, looking into his teacup. He sounds so melancholy Aiba has to give in (at least for now).

"Will do, Yokocho~"

"That's not any better..."

---

Aiba stands, hands on his hips and a grin wide across his face. "Finally done," he announces, looking at the freshly ordered experiments and half-finished inventions set up on his various tables. He turns on his heel to ask K-Yoko, he tells himself, Yoko--if he wants lunch, and smiles fondly. Yoko is asleep again, blanket tugged up under his cheek. Aiba crosses the room on mostly-soft feet and tugs the blanket over Yoko's legs.

He'll make lunch and then wake his houseguest.

---

It's a slow week of recovery. Evidently Yoko's landing had been just gentle enough to keep him from anything worse than deep bruises across his chest, a cold, and a killer headache. He nearly trips down the stairs from the lap to the main floor at one point, but beyond that he settles back into Aiba's life fairly comfortably. As the week draws to a close and Yoko finds his strength back, his eyes drift more and more often toward the windows in the lab, until finally he interrupts Aiba's work fixing the tall grandfather clock in his sitting room.

"Where's... where's my ship?"

"Still up on the mountain, I guess," Aiba says, "no one really comes out here unless they're looking for me, and I made it into town yesterday to make sure they all know I'm alive."

"I need to get back to her--I need to get back to base, eventually, but I should start with the ship."

"The wings were broken--do you know how to fix an airship like that?"

Yoko seems sheepish. "I know a little--enough to keep her flight-ready..."

"If you haul her to a safer spot, I'll fix her," Aiba says.

"What? No, I can't let you do that. You've already saved my life."

"Please," Aiba turns to look at him, "it would be the most exciting thing ever to work on a military airship! Think of everything I could learn..."

"All right, all right, but only if you'll let me pick up the chores around the house."

"Well, only if you really want to..."

"I want to. I want to help you out somehow. Okay? So it's a deal?"

Aiba thinks for a good, long moment. He'd wanted to get back to work on the telephone, if he could, but there was so much opportunity in looking at someone else's work, and he had time, didn't he? He'd been laughed out of the inventor's convention in Kyoto for his telephone ideas, it wasn't like he was competing with anyone.

"It's a deal," he agrees, and Yoko's milliwatt smile tells him it was a good choice.

He looks at the ship, and realizes it might have, in fact, been a bad choice after all. The starboard wing is busted up, the wire and canvas torn and cracked, but the core of the pipe holding it to the airship's body is nearly undamaged. The port side, however, was nearly taken sheer off, and he'll have to find a way to strengthen the place where he intends to reconnect the wing. The engine has damage all along the front from the crash, but the parts are easily replicated and Aiba begins setting aside the gears and pistons necessary almost immediately. Thankfully, the aether-generator that's the source of flight for all flying machines is intact, so he doesn't need to use his painstakingly collected aether to repower the airship.
Yoko picks up sweeping and scrubbing with remarkable aplomb--his 'lie about my age' plan had apparently not gone over as well as he'd hoped when he'd left for the navy, and they'd had him scrubbing decks until he was good and legally aged, no matter how well he'd done in an airship when the older guys had let him take one out for a spin. Now, he explains to Aiba conversationally as he cleans the windows and Aiba bends over a smelting iron and a piece of wing, he gets to be the older guy keeping an eye out for restless kids looking to fly.

"Well," he corrects, "I do when I'm actually on the ship."

Aiba's been resisting from asking this question for days now, but he sees the opportunity now and can't hold back. "Where do you serve, anyway?" he asks.
Yoko doesn't even falter. "The TOKIO, with Admiral Matsuoka."

"Really?! That's the most advanced ship in the fleet~ she has the biggest aether generator in the whole world!"

"I know."

"And she can hold up to three hundred passengers and crew! That's crazy!"

"I know."

"And the wingspan is as wide as--"

"AIBA. I know."

Aiba grins. "Sorry," he answers.

"'s fine," Yoko answers, looking a little embarrassed, "she's, uh, she's a good ship. Good crew, too, mostly."

"Mostly," Aiba agrees, "you're on it, after all."

Yoko throws his sponge at him.

---

Yoko shakes him awake in the morning.

"Aiba," he hisses.

"Whaaaaaat?" Aiba manages, burrowing deeper into his pillow.

"Do you want miso?"

"Huh?"

"Do you want miso for breakfast?"

"Sure," Aiba mumbles, reaching out blindly to grab Yoko's sleeve, "but later. Sleep!"

"Aibacchi, let go of my shirt," Yoko grumbles, with a certain fondness, "I'll call you when it's ready--don't go back to sleep, oi!"

Yoko calls him down an hour later, looking awkward. "How much did you want that miso?" he asks.

"Why?" Aiba asks, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

"No reason," Yoko answers, voice high and nervous.

"Yoko!"

"I... uh... I messed it up. Three times." Yoko scrubs at his face, flushed to his ears in embarrassment.

Aiba giggles despite himself. "Give it me," he says, and pushes past Yoko anyway, sniffing the bowl of soup seriously. There's something wrong with it, to be sure--it smells off--but judging by the fact that Aiba's never-used recipe book is open on the counter he tried kind of hard. So Aiba picks up the bowl--it can't be that bad--and tilts it toward his lips.

"Thanks for the meal," he says, and goes bottoms-up.

Okay, maybe it can be that bad. Aiba hacks as he swallows it down, and Yoko bustles over to smack his back. Aiba forces a smile. "It was fine!" he says.

"It was terrible, I tried it," Yoko answers, rolling his eyes. His hand is still pressed to the center of Aiba's back, his fingertips perfectly still on Aiba's shoulder blade. Aiba reaches out to pat Yoko's shoulder, and abruptly they both realize how close they are. They separate, Aiba taking the empty bowl to the counter and Yoko going to the table to sit and eat. Aiba escapes to work on
the airship as soon as he can.

---

The ring of the doorbell comes as a surprise. Yoko is outside, getting the gardening Aiba is far too easily distracted to do done, so Aiba has to answer the door himself.

"Yo~"

"Nino-chan," Aiba says, "what are you doing here?"

"Checking up on you," Nino answers, "you forgot to come down and look at this thing." He has the second telephone cradled in his arms. Aiba blinks, and then Nino is shoving it into his arms.

"O-oh," Aiba says, "I completely forgot, I was working on other things!"

Nino's eyes narrow as he follows Aiba up the stares. "Are you feeling okay?" he asks, pointedly, "you look a little scatterbrained. Even for you."

"I'm fine!" Aiba says, quickly, "really, Nino-chan, just distracted, there's so much for me to work on and so little time to do it~" Yoko has asked him not to mention his houseguest--just in case it got to the wrong ears. The Tokio is not yet at war, Yoko had said, but that didn't change the fact that Japan was at war with Russia in certain parts of the continent.

"I mean... if you're sure," Nino says, "are you coming to dinner this weekend?"

"Ah, yes, that's this weekend isn't it," Aiba muses, putting the telephone down on the table with a thump. He rubs his hands on his thighs, thinking, and remembers Nino had asked him a question.
"Oh, yes, I'll be there. Don't worry~"

"Don't make the juice again," Nino orders.

"But it was good!"

"To Oh-chan."

"That's enough for me! Ow--all right all right! I'll make the gelatin." Aiba dances away from Nino while he says it, thinking about all the fun he usually has with the gelatin molds he'd made.

"Not if you want anyone to eat it, you're not," Nino answers, settling on the work bench and scowling.

"Nino-chan is the meanest~" Aiba complains to the ceiling, sliding onto the bench next to Nino and poking him in the cheek.

"Stop it," Nino says, "what else are you working on?"

"Strengthening aluminum by layering it," Aiba answers.

Nino nods slowly. He usually gets the gist of what Aiba babbles on about from one moment to the next, but he's a novelist, not a scientist, and the extent of his interest is what he can use in the plot of his next book. He lets Aiba go on about the structural integrity of repaired aluminum for fifteen minutes before he excuses himself. Aiba walks him down the stairs, and it's only once they're at the door that Nino reaches into the pocket of his waistcoat and unveils Jun's latest gift, a bag of western style hard candy.

"What flavor is it?"

"I don't know, Aiba, he wouldn't give me any," Nino answers, rolling his eyes.

Aiba has the bag open in a moment, and presses one into Nino's palm. "Thank you for coming to see me," he says, bright and pleasant.

Nino shrugs. "'s fine. Don't get yourself all cooped up in here all the time, okay? You're the kind of guy who needs to see people."

"Everyone needs to see people," Aiba scolds, "yes, even you."

"Eh, the life of a hermit suits me just fine. Bye, Aiba."


"But what does it do?" Yoko asks, eyebrows furrowed as he looks at the telephone curiously, "you never explained it to me." He's sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing with one of the two telephones while Aiba sits at the table and works on the so-called "talky part" of the damaged one Nino had delivered earlier.

"You talk into that end--"Aiba points it out--"and the sound comes out at this end--"he lifts his end of the phone.

"But how?" Yoko demands.

It's something Aiba has heard before. He uncurls from where he's been hunched over the telephone for a good half hour, and pads across the room to the china cabinet he's converted to store old stuff. A pair of paper tubes connected by a piece of yarn is piled behind a broken raygun and a machine spider with only seven legs, and Aiba plucks it loose. "Okay so the way it works is kind of like the way these work," Aiba begins to explain.

"What are they?" Yoko asks, blinking, and Aiba laughs, sitting across from Yoko and handing him one of the tubes.

"Put it up to your ear," Aiba says, motioning. Yoko raises an eyebrow and does what he's told after a moment. Aiba lifts his end to his lips and whispers, "Kimi~taka~"

"I told you to stop calling me that!" Yoko complains.

"I'm sorry?" Aiba answers, moving the tube to his ear, "what was that? I can't hear you!"

Yoko scowls, and brings the tube to his mouth. "I said," he says, "cut it out."

Aiba nods, throwing up a thumbs-up for Yoko, "cut it out? But it barely got here!"

Yoko giggles.

Outside, Nino takes a moment to congratulate his sense of suspicion--paranoia, Jun always calls it, but Jun doesn't know what he's talking about. Then again Nino's not sure if he likes being right. There's clearly been something off about Aiba lately--Nino hadn't been lying when he'd called Aiba the kind of guy who needed to talk to people to live, and Aiba had been distracted or absent for two weeks now--but knowing that he's... harboring somebody? Harboring a childhood friend whose family thinks he might be dead? Keeping it a secret from everybody--though Nino knows that the moment Aiba spilled it to anybody he'd have to spill it to everybody he meets (which makes Aiba the best kind of secretkeeper, most of the time). Sitting close together on the floor and giggling secrets between heated looks that make Nino uncomfortable to look at.

Nino goes home and stares at an empty manuscript.

---

Aiba works late into the night, and while usually Yoko gives up and falls asleep on the couch, snores punctuating Aiba's distracted humming, tonight he stays up, playing with the yarn and paper telephone and looking out the window. Finally Aiba's splitting headache is too bad for him to keep working, and he stands, stretching. "I'm going to bed," he tells Yoko over his shoulder, and Yoko looks back at him from where he's been leaning out the windowsill. Yoko nods, silently, and turns back toward the sky. He looks so lonely Aiba can't help but walk across the room and wrap his arms around Yoko.

"Slumber party?" Aiba offers, remembering years of fighting over who got the good futon and not actually sleeping much.

Yoko looks at him, long black hair half-covering sleepy eyes, and answers, "only if you keep your hands to yourself this time."

"That was only the once," Aiba sniffs, leading the way up the stairs to the loft, "you're still angry about it?!"

"Yes, I am," Yoko answers, sounding mostly serious.

Aiba rolls his eyes and sets about unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt while Yoko fluffs pillows and gets comfortable. By the time he's finished laying his clothes over the back of the single chair in the room, pulling on a yukata (he's mostly made the transition to western wear--it's easier to work on an invention in a tightly buttoned shirt--but some things will just always be more comfortable), and slid into the bed, Yoko is half asleep next to him.

"Stay up past your bedtime?" Aiba teases, and Yoko sticks his tongue out at Aiba.

"Lights out on ship is 10, so yes, I'd say I am up 'past my bedtime'," Yoko answers, "sorry I like sleeping on a regular schedule."

"When is lights on?" Aiba asks, curious.

"It changes depending on what time sunrise is," Yoko says, "or if I'm on rotation for something that has a night shift, I guess."

"What do you do on the ship?" Aiba asks, wide awake and excited now.

"A bunch of stuff--I mean I fly my little ship, but that's a support ship, that's for supply runs and pickups and suppressing fire during airship battles, but otherwise I do whatever they need me to do. I worked in the mess when I first started, but I'm not really a great cook. I do a bunch of stuff for the maintenance team, keep the aether generator area clean and fix the wing mechanisms, they break all the time because they wings are so big..."

"Ah, Yokocho is so important~"

"I am not. Anybody can do all of that stuff."

"No, Yokocho is important," Aiba repeats, serious. He leans his head on his palm to look at Yoko, somber now. "Why did you leave without saying goodbye?"

"I didn't want anybody to stop me," Yoko answers.

"No, Yokocho, why did you leave without saying goodbye to me?" Aiba clarifies.

Yoko sighs. "I figured... I figured that if I saw you I wouldn't be able to leave, okay."

"Yoko, what does that..."

"I was a kid full of feelings I didn't understand. Don't--don't make me spell it out, Masaki, please--"

Aiba wants to press him for the truth, more than anything. But the way Yoko says his first name, low and intimate and pleading somehow, warms him inside, and he reaches out to ruffle Yoko's hair.
"You called me Masaki~" he chirps.

"Stop it with that stupid face."

"It's dark, you can't see my face!"

"I know what face you're making."

"I'm going to kick you out of the bed," Aiba threatens, and laughs when Yoko grabs his hip.

"You're welcome to try," Yoko challenges, which sparks a wrestling match that ends with Yoko forcing Aiba half-off the bed and grinning in triumph (Aiba can feel the smile against his shoulder).

"I give, I give," Aiba groans, "I can't breathe, get off me--"

Yoko hauls him back onto the bed, and they pant at each other for a moment with matching grins before they manage to calm down. Aiba piles himself half-atop Yoko, feeling brave and touchy and happy, and says, "good night," into Yoko's throat.

---

"Yokoyama," Nino says from the kitchen table when Yoko comes down to make breakfast. Yoko's in the middle of looking for the bag of rice, and he squawks, turning around.

"Ahhhhh--Nino?"

"Yo," Nino answers, sitting back in his chair and crossing his legs at the knee, "fancy seeing you around here."

Yoko's fingers twitch. "Uh... yeah," he says, fidgeting.

"What are you doing here, Yoko? Why haven't you been into town to see your family? Why is Aiba lying? For you?"

Yoko looks pained, thoughtful. "I can't see her," he says, and Nino kind of believes it, "if I see her it'll kill me, Nino, I can't go back until the job I left to do is done, I can't come home and then leave again. I know this sucks, that I shouldn't have done it this way, but it's all I've got right now."

"What, and Aiba is no big deal?"

"Aiba understands. He's always--he rescued me. Saved my life, maybe. Aiba is different."

"You know he's kind of isolated himself up here since you left? His parents said they'd build him a wing off the back of the restaurant but he told them he had to get away from everybody. Because of you."

"Clearly he didn't succeed very well, he talks about going into town and seeing you and Matsumoto-kun and Ohno-san all the time!"

"And since you've been here he's been down once," Nino answers, voice taut, "he was doing okay and then you crashed--literally!--back into his life. He's been working on that telephone for a year now--did you know they kicked him out of university because of that thing? And now he's spending his time on--what? You? Your ship?"

"If I could fix it myself I would," Yoko answers, flushed with emotion, shame and anger and guilt all at once, "but I can't, okay, and I'll be out of his life soon enough and you can have him back, all right? Do you think I wanted to land here and ruin his life?"

Nino's fingers press into the tabletop. "When will it be done?" he asks, quietly.

"Soon," Yoko answers, sighing, "I can see it all over his face."

"If you leave without saying goodbye I'm going to track you down and fill your pants with pudding again," Nino tells him, which breaks the tension just enough to make Yoko's lips quirk.

"Have you written the great Japanese novel?" Yoko asks.

Nino scratches his head. "Almost," he says, "almost."

"I read the one about the guy who worked in the restaurant," Yoko says, turning around and going back to rooting for the bowls.

"You know how to read?" Nino asks, and Yoko groans.

"Am I serving you breakfast?" Yoko demands.

"No, you'll probably spit it in," Nino muses, "...don't tell Aiba I was here?"

"I don't want to think about you any more than I have to," Yoko agrees, and Nino laughs his way out.

---

"Wait, you want me to send this in a telegram?" Aiba asks, looking at the mess of letters and numbers, "are you sure?"

"Yes," answers Yoko," that's what I want you to send. Exactly like that, Aiba, I mean it."

"Okay, okay," Aiba answers, "am I going to get an answer today?"

"You should," Yoko answers, "she wasn't far from here."

"All right, I'll be back--can you finish looking at the engine?"

"Will do. Have a good day~"

Aiba sends the telegraph easy enough--predictably he gets a weird look from the girl who works at the post office--and decides to wait in town for a reply. He leaves the post office, thinking, and turns on his heel toward the Skyship. He's not going to go have beer with Nagase and Oh-chan, though--across the street from Skyship is Jun's bakery, the Bambino. The glass-front elegant shop was always busy, though that was equal parts Jun's extraordinary baking and candy-making skills and his charismatic personality (and face), and Aiba has to duck around a pair of chattering schoolgirls to get inside.

"Jun-pon~" he calls, waving, and Jun stands up from his taffy-making machine at the nickname.

"Aiba-chan," he calls back, smiling, "I'll be with you in a minute."

"Take as long as you need, I'm waiting for a telegram," Aiba answers, and bends over the glass case where Jun's cakes are displayed. He pulls his tongue between his lips, eying all of the cakes in turn, from the chocolate-frosted mousse-filled creation covered in sprinkles at one end to the dainty white lemon-filled cake at the other end.

"Looking for something special?" Jun asks, leaning on the counter, "having a gala I'm not invited to?"

"Of course," Aiba answers, "a costume ball in my lab!"

Jun laughs, and Aiba joins him.

"Having an old friend over for dinner," Aiba says, finally, "he's only here for another day so I thought we'd have something special with dinner."

"Anyone I know?" Jun asks, blandly.

"Probably not," Aiba answers, "the family moved away a while ago."

"All right," Jun answers, "what does he like?"

"Pudding," Aiba says, immediately, "he likes pudding."

"So, what, I should make a cake with pudding in it?"

"Exactly!" Aiba chirps, "Jun-pon is so smart~"

Jun rubs at his forehead momentarily, but then he turns and starts back toward the kitchen, talking to himself.

So Aiba goes home with a cake box in one hand and a gibberish telegraph in the other, ignoring the fact that Yoko will be leaving in two days at the latest.

"Honey, I'm home," Aiba calls, and Yoko grunts from the kitchen counter, his back toward Aiba.

"Let's eat in the parlor tonight," Aiba says, putting the box of cake on the kitchen table and the telegraph atop the box, "we eat in the kitchen ever night."

"I forgot you have a parlor," Yoko confesses, "do you even use it for anything?"

"Seeing my mother," Aiba answers, shrugging, "I bought this place from an American woman who wanted to use it as a fashionable get-away cabin, she wanted a western parlor for parties." He steps up from the kitchen to the circular back of the first floor, lighting the lanterns in the parlor-cum-dining room and opening windows. The parlor is rarely used, and it shows in the way the couch is puffy of newness and there's a line of dust along the side table in the portion of the room he uses as a dining room.

"Dinner is mostly done," Yoko calls, "set the table?"

"Of course," Aiba calls back, and goes to the rarely-used china cabinet to fetch plates and the nice chopstick sets.

Yoko finishes putting the food down on the table, and cocks his head. "Aiba, it's a big table, why are we sitting so close together?"

Aiba laughs. "What, so we have to yell at each other across the table?"

Yoko considers it, and sits down at Aiba's right elbow.

"What's in the box in the kitchen?" he asks, when they're mostly finished, making a game now of putting stuff they don't want on each other's plates and stealing what they do.

"Jun-pon made a cake," Aiba answers.

Yoko doesn't ask what they're commemorating.

"Wait, is this cake filled with pudding?! Aiba, you're the best ever," Yoko manages around two full cheeks of cake and pudding, looking as happy as a pig in a mudpit. Or a Yoko in a pudding pit, Aiba thinks, and laughs when Yoko manages to get pudding on his nose.

"I know I am. Wait, you have--"he reaches out and wipes it off with his thumb, fingertips brushing against Yoko's cheek, and pulls back as if burned, wiping his thumb on his napkin.

After they've finished the cake--and it's a fight to get the last few bites down--they flop on the floor in the parlor together.

"Finishing the cake all at once was a bad choice," Aiba groans, holding his stomach and shutting his eyes.

"You're telling me," Yoko murmurs, lying on his side with one of his knees pressed against Aiba's thigh, "ugh, I forgot how filling cake is."

"Do they not feed you cake in the navy?" Aiba asks, squeezing one eye open.

"I don't know if I'd call it cake," Yoko says, "more like 'a pile of paper covered in frosting'."

"That's not cake, that's torture," Aiba agrees, and Yoko laughs.

"Oh, ow," he immediately says, "I don't want to move~"

"Me neither," Aiba answers.

They lay there for an hour, maybe, in a space between sleep and unbearably painful wakefulness, until the ringing of the clock wakes Aiba.

"I got a reply for your telegraph," he says, carefully.

Yoko sits up, looking serious. "Oh," he answers, "I guess I should, uh, take a look at it?"

"I did wait around for it, after all," Aiba answers, and they drag themselves off the floor together.

"What does it say?" Aiba asks, peering over Yoko's shoulder at the piece of paper.

"Admiral Matsuoka says the Tokio is grounded northwest of Tokyo, because of a problem with the aegen," Yoko translates carefully, "and he says if I think you can do anything about it I should bring you, because no one else has been able to figure anything out."

Aiba's eyes are bright when he grabs Yoko's arm and turns him around. "You're taking me with you, right?" he demands, "I spent most of my time at university working on aether generators, they're just so interesting and and and Yokocho!!!"

"Stop giving me the puppy face, I'll take you with," Yoko answers, sighing heavily, "just remember to tell people you're going away."

"Ah, right," Aiba says, "well, I'll have to think of an excuse while I finish working tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Yoko says, raising an eyebrow, "it'll be done tomorrow?"

"Unless I blow something up putting the aegen back into the engine tomorrow," Aiba answers, "which, okay, certainly possible, but let's have a little faith, shall we?" He offers Yoko a bright grin.


"Should we try it out?" Aiba asks, hands on his hips. The skyship is repaired, the wings straight and safely attached. It's been scrubbed down and the dented front has been hammered out to round perfection.

"Yeah," Yoko says, ducking inside, "wait here. If she crashes I don't want to kill both of us."

"You're not going to die," Aiba answers, shutting the door to the cockpit and stepping back while Yoko flicks switches and tugs the lever to set the aether generator a-humming. The whole ship buzzes when he does, and it slowly rises from the ground. Yoko sends it forward, up, and around the mountain before he comes back to rest, a grin wide on his face.

"It's perfect, Aiba," he tells him, a rush of excited words spilling from his mouth, "we can leave as soon as you're ready."

"Let me get my bag of tools."

"THIS IS SO MUCH FUN~"

Yoko winces. The airship is a supply ship designed to hold boxes of medical supplies or food behind the cockpit. It's got a narrow cot between the storage drawers, so that he could take shifts with a second pilot during long flights, but the cot is high up. The few times he'd ever flown with a second pilot in the back he'd had boots pressed against the back of his chair, but Aiba had insisted on turning around, so his excited exclamations are pressed right up against Yoko's ear.

"Can you lower the volume?" he asks, "just a little?"

"But look at how amazing this is! We're flying! I've only ever been on a train before!"

"Yes, Aiba, we're flying, and we're going to be crashing if you keep yelling in my ear," Yoko answers.

"I have faith in you," Aiba chirps.

"Not comforting," Yoko answers, and sighs, "are you holding onto something? We're coming into the shipyard and we're in the little ship, it's our job to get out of the way of the cruisers, not theirs to get out of mine."

Aiba grabs the back of Yoko's seat. Yoko figures at least Aiba's not clutching his head.

The Tokio is a majestic ship--it is clearly the center of the entire shipyard, rising high and wide above even the classic battlecruisers--and the top deck features a housing for the emergency-use supply airship Yoko has flown for the past three years. The airship he's flying now.

"Lieutenant-Commander Yokoyama, sir!" Yoko will never tire of hearing that. He nods to the salutes, glad he decided to wear his uniform on the flight instead of Aiba's extra clothes, his wardrobe for the past three weeks.

"You didn't tell me you were an officer," Aiba says, sounding hurt.

"It's not really a big deal," Yoko answers, shrugging, "like I told you, I do a little bit of everything around here anyway."

"Well, yeah, but you have a fancy title! People salute you! You order them around!"

"And it is the best feeling in the world," Yoko agrees, smiling pleasantly to himself, "calm down, Aiba. Come on, we're going down two levels to the navigation deck--Aiba--you'll have plenty of time to look at that later!"

Aiba is examining a light--"oh, right, but this is so much brighter than mine, how is that--okay, okay, I'm coming!"

"What--is this an elevator?" Aiba's eyes are very round, "we talked about them in my physics class but we never actually used one..."

"The Tokio has seventeen decks," Yoko answers, running off facts drilled into his head when he took his post, "there are stairs and an emergency ladder shaft, but with a ship this big it made sense to try something a little different." As he speaks, he runs his palm over the orb in the wall of the elevator, lighting up the display, and presses his finger to the number 14. "We're on deck sixteen--the observation deck and landing strip above us is seventeen."

Aiba squats to get a better look at the display, the light of the orb lighting his face a dim pink. "This is amazing," he breathes.

Yoko can't help being impressed himself, for a moment. "She really is a great ship," he agrees, smiling.

Aiba watched the light that is the elevator's location on the display cycle around to fourteen, and stands to face the opening door, bouncing on his toes. His eyes flick all over the place, trying to take in everything at once, and he lets Yoko tug him along the hall by the sleeve without complaint.

"Aiba--Aiba! Welcome to the Tokio's navigation deck." Yoko pushes the door open, and pushes Aiba through.

Aiba looks up, and his jaw drops a little. "...oh my."

Yoko laughs. "That's what they all say," he says, and follows Aiba into the center of the room. The navigation seat--instead of piloting it with a wheel, like a boat or a small airship, the great cruisers used a system much like the one the Tokio used in her elevators, with an orb that could be tilted one way or another for banking and spun forward or back to rise or fall--was empty at the moment, the pilot's orb dark. There are windows along either side of the deck, and that's where Aiba goes first, investigation the map and telegraph station as he walks around the deck. Finally, he turns and hops right up into the pilot's chair, running his fingers over the various buttons and mechanisms.

The door swings open again, and Yoko looks back over his shoulder. "Oh, first mate Becky!" he greets, grin wide and teasing.

"Yokoyama! You're finally back! And stop calling me that!"

"Of course, Becky-chan~"

"Commander Becky, you. Who's in the chair?" the tiny woman asks.

"Ah--Aiba!"

"What is it?" Aiba asks, looking up. He stops.

"This is Commander Becky," Yoko introduces awkwardly.

"Well hi," Aiba says, scrambling to stand up and stumbling off the platform. Becky doesn't look impressed under her long hair and artfully tipped hat.

"I can already tell this one's not a soldier," she says to Yoko, who nods in agreement.

"Aiba is an inventor," he tells her, "he's here to take a look at the aegen core."

"Oh, well hello," she answers, "Commander Rebecca of the Tokio. Happy to have you."

Aiba nods, clearly itching to get back to his investigation of the navigation system, and Becky shakes her head, hiding a laugh behind her hand. "Go back to that while I talk to the Lieutenant-Commander," she suggests.

Aiba's attention is off of them immediately, and Becky turns back toward Yoko, looking concerned. "Are you all right? What about the airship? Why didn't you contact us earlier? Where even were you? How'd you crash? Are you sure this guy's going to be able to help us out?"

Becky can be a little hard to follow, but she and Yoko have been sharing postings for almost five years (how had they both survived together this long?) and he picks up the rhythm of her questions soon enough. "Uh--I'm fine, I was bruised and I had the sniffles for a couple of days. The airship took a nasty hit but she's better than new now thanks to Aiba. When I left to distract our pursuers the Admiral told me I would have to get home on my own, and Aiba was too busy fixing the 'ship to send a telegram for me, so I never bothered until it was done. I was in Chiba, there was an electrical storm and it overloaded my aegen. Lost navigation and had to take an emergency landing. And yes. Probably. I think. He knows a lot about little aegens so it can't hurt."

"He can't be any worse than the other stiffs we've had in here," Becky muses, "and at least he'll be more entertaining to watch. You stay put here, Lieutenant-Commander, I'm off to check things up for the Admiral so I'll let him know where you a--Admiral Mabo! Hello, sir."

Yoko snaps to attention automatically, turning on his heel. The foremost Admiral of the Japanese Imperial Fleet was a man as impressive and imposing as the ships he had helmed. He was dressed now in his full dress uniform, characteristic sun-blocking spectacles perched high on his nose and hat tipped back on his head. He pushes his spectacles down his nose to get a better look at Yoko now.

"Yokoyama," he booms, "you're alive, then? All good news?"

"Yessir," Yoko answers. He's never quite sure how to act toward the Admiral--Matsuoka Masahiro was a man as personable as he was physically terrifying, but Yoko had been his subordinate since Yoko had lied his way into the army at seventeen. He'd watched Matsuoka rise through the ranks, and it was a combination of gratitude and remembered childhood terror of being caught and expelled from the army that kept him from calling the older man "Matsu-nii" like many of the other crew members.

"Mabooooo," Becky had no such issues, apparently, "aren't you supposed to be leading an intelligence meeting with the other brasss?"

"I run the meetings, I can do them as fast as I want," Mabo answers airily, poking her in the forehead, "don't you worry that pretty little head about it, kid."

"Stop calling me that!"

Mabo looks over Becky's head and narrows his eyes. "Who's in my chair?" he asks.

"You mean who's in my chair, Masa~hiro~ oh, are we not alone?"

"Ugh, so that's why you snuck out early?" Becky demands.

Mabo takes a moment to look unconvincingly wounded. "Becky-chan," he says, "what are you implying?!" He pointedly doesn't look at the woman next to him.

"You know exactly what I'm implying," Becky grumbles, but Yoko interrupts her.

"Hello, Ai-chan!" He would call Captain Haruna Ai, foremost pilot of the foremost ship in the entire fleet, by her title, but any time he did it she would simply pout and complain until he gave in, so Ai-chan it was.

"Oh, Yuu-chin," she says, winking obnoxiously, "it's so good to have you back~ Now. Who is in my chair?" Her eyes are narrow--she's in scary pilot mode now.

"Uh, that's the inventor who rescued me--Aiba! Come here and say hello the Admiral and the Captain!"
Aiba looks up over the top of the chair, and offers a friendly smile. "Hi!" he greets, "nice to meet you. Aiba Masaki."

"Pleasure to meet you too, as long as you can fix my ship," Mabo answers, his wide friendly grin a little out of place over his dress outfit.

"I can't be totally sure until I see it, but I think I can help," Aiba answers, confidence oozing from every pore as he adjusts the strap of his bag of tools over his shoulder.

"That's exactly what I like to hear," Mabo says, and claps Aiba on the shoulder so hard his knees buckle. "I'll take you on a tour of the ship. Ladies, Yokoyama, we'll meet you tonight."

Aiba looks back over his shoulder as the leave the navigation room--Becky and Ai have turned toward Yoko with matching grins. Aiba shudders--terrifying.


"This is our telegraph station--yo, Murakami, where are you going in such a hurry?"

"I was meeting Ohkura for lunch," Murakami answers, and that's all he gets out before Aiba is talking to him.

"HINA-CHAN~" he chirps, and Murakami blinks.

"Who the--Aiba?"

Aiba grins widely, and Murakami bursts into laughter. "What the hell are you doing here?" he demands.

"Trying to fix the aether generator," Aiba says, "after we finish touring the ship, anyway."

Murakami nods sagely. "Good luck with that," he answers, "I don't know about you but seeing a ship this pretty be grounded is depressing."

"It is, I flew in with Yokocho and it was the best feeling in the world," Aiba says, "it's a shame to have this ship stuck on the ground."

Murakami has frozen. "Yokocho as in--Yoko Yokocho?"

Aiba winces. "Yeah," he says, "he kind of crashed in my backyard."

"I know what I'm doing with my lunchbreak," Murakami says briskly, and nods goodbye to them both as he slides out of the communications office and back into the hallway.

"Murakami knew Yokoyama?" Mabo asks curiously.

"Yokocho kind of left without mentioning anything and no one's been able to find him," Aiba explains, keeping it vague.

Mabo nods sagely. "Well, let's get on down toward the heart of my pretty ship, shall we?"

He leads the way to the tenth deck--Matsuoka Masahiro doesn't do anything by half, he'd informed Aiba, and that included taking shortcuts when he doesn't really even need to. Aiba had agreed that it was easier to really see all of the innovation going on, like the chutes that let departments send things from one area of the ship to another. Mabo had laughed.

"And then I told him that if he gave me any more lip I was going to throw his damn raygun at him. Damn kids--oh, hey, Mabo."

"Taichi, Leader!" Mabo grins at them both, "meet our repairman. Aiba, Requisitions Officer Kokubun and our Mess Hall man, Joshima. But we all call him Leader."

Aiba ducks his head to them both. They're both fairly compact men, but strapped to Taichi's hip is a massive raygun the likes of which has never seen, so that automatically makes him look far more impressive than he might actually be. Joshima--or, er, Leader--is wearing a pleasant smile, but he seems to be thinking very hard about something.

"Ah, I left the soup on the burner," Joshima announces suddenly, "sorry, have to go, excuse me--"

Mabo and Taichi share a chuckle. "I swear Leader gets ten years older every week," Mabo says, "or just more forgetful. Did he get into the cooking wine again today?"

Taichi looks thoughtful. "Probably not," he answers, "he would share it with me if he had~"

"And you would have shared it with your captain, right?" Mabo asks, "so that he keeps looking the other way when you sneak girls into your quarters?"

"I have the best captain ever, of course I would," Taichi answers, smirking.

"You are full of more bald-faced lies than anyone else I have ever met," Mabo informs him as he hauls Aiba along.

"Thanks for the compliment~" Taichi calls after them.

"And here... we have the heart of the Tokio," Mabo announces. The doors are joined with a bright green orb--Mabo taps it and pulls a key from his pocket to unlock it, and the doors slide themselves open.

It's easily the most amazing thing Aiba has ever seen in his life. The massive aether generator is a sphere set into a metal structure of webs and surrounded by machinery the likes of which Aiba can only dream of tinkering with. Aiba walks forward on the catwalk until he's directly below the aegen, looking up with wonder at the blue and white swirling surface.

"It's... it's awesome," Aiba manages.

"Keep watching," Mabo advises him, "watch the way the surface keeps jumping."

Once Mabo mentions it, the instability in the aether is easy to see. Generally, produced and gathered aether was chaotic--a result of limiting something that was meant to simply exist--but once it was compressed into one place it existed stably. That was the entire reason it could be used in air travel. The generator for this orb appears to be working to keep it compressed, which was limiting output, which kept the ship from flying.

"It can't release aether to float you because it can't keep the aether in order," he says to Mabo.

"Gussan says it's like there's a whole bunch of aether leaking," Mabo adds, "it's producing a whole hell of a lot, but what we're actually getting into the engine is barely enough to hover off the ground."

Aiba pulls his lip into his teeth, and begins digging through his bag immediately for a notebook and pencil. Time to get to work. "I'll be here if you need me," he says, distracted. What could possibly be causing this? Sheer energy overload?

"If you can manage to fix this," Mabo says, interrupting him, "the Imperial Navy is prepared to commission you to finish work on the telephone you announced at the inventor's symposium last year."

"The one I got laughed out of?" Aiba asks archly.

"Your work has always been laughable--until you finish it," Mabo answers, "everyone knows that paper that came out of the Imperial University about wingspan and air lift is yours, you know."

Aiba shrugs. "I don't really care about recognition," he says, "but I don't like it when people laugh at my ideas--ideas that worked, in small experiments, even before I really started my work. If you guys will pay for me to do bigger tests I might be able to finish by the end of the year. Just in time for the next symposium. But first, the aegen."

Mabo leaves him to his work.

---

Aiba kind of sinks himself in his work over the next few days, asking for old papers on the properties of aether he hadn't thought to bring with him and testing things on a smaller scale. He's just not sure where the problem is arising, and it's kind of giving him a headache. Usually when he's hit a wall at home, he finds an empty space and shouts his problems to the empty air, and even if he doesn't have a solution by the end of his tirade he's in a place to start afresh. The problem is that there aren't any truly empty spaces aboard an airship. The quarters they gave him are single-person, but he's got neighbors nestled up close on either side who smack the wall if he sings too loudly while he's fixing his clothes and hair in the mornings. His second strategy--find your best friend and force him to show you a great view of the city--isn't going well either, seeing as he keeps missing Yoko by mere moments no matter where he goes.

It's only when he sneaks into Yoko's quarters and lies in wait that he manages to corner Yoko. Aiba shuts the door behind Yoko and grins widely, but doesn't expect Yoko's echoing shriek.

"Aiba what are you doing in here you should be working," Yoko scolds, trying to hustle Aiba out the room.

"Yokocho," Aiba complains, "I haven't seen you in three days. What's going on?"

Yoko settles down, pulling back and resting his hands on his hips for lack of anywhere else to put them. He's in a crisply pressed uniform today, and he's trimmed his hair, and he looks official and adult and ten different shades of ridiculously attractive. Aiba wants to ruin his uniform, wants to press fingers into his hair and leave it hanging over his eyes and--and he'd thought he'd left these feelings back with sixteen and heartbroken. He takes a deep breath.

"I'm just... settling back into work was harder than I thought," Yoko says, "you look tired, are you... are you all right?"

Aiba scratches the back of his head. "Just stressed," he answers, "I can't figure this aegen thing out."

Yoko fingers twitch on his hips--Aiba forces his eyes up. "If you're busy I'll go," he makes himself say.

Yoko's mouth settles into a line. "Aiba--Masaki," he says, and reaches out to grab Aiba's shoulders, "I'm not... I'm not too busy for you. What do you need from me? I'm not much help with this heavy physics stuff or anything, but I can--I don't know, track down another pudding cake, maybe...?"

Aiba steps in close and wraps his arms around Yoko's waist, pressing his face into the fabric of Yoko's uniform. "Just let me stay for a minute," he mumbles, feeling a wave of tired sweep over him as Yoko's arms wind around his shoulders.

"Got it," Yoko says, hiding a smile in Aiba's hair.

---

Aiba spends the night in Yoko's room, belly-down on Yoko's bunk while Yoko fills out paperwork, sketching plans and doing equations.

"Yokocho, I think I've got it," Aiba says, his eyes widening, "oh my god this is huge." He begins to scribble theory and equations across a fresh page, drawing a crude model. "I'm going to try to explain this, tell me if it makes sense. Aether compression works because the generator keeps the aether in the air around and the aether in the generator sphere in perfect balance. When you want to fly, you actually send out aether to make the aether on the ship less than the aether in the sky. You come down by creating more aether, making you... heavier, for lack of a better word, than the atmosphere. The problem with the aegen here aboard the Tokio is that to keep a ship this big in the air, you need to be able to expel a lot of aether to rise and produce a lot of aether to sink. But to rise we need to be lighter to start, and somewhere along the line the generator is losing the aether--not using it to send us up. Gussan and I looked at the numbers--I think the compressed aether is keeping itself from dissipation by slowly letting aether escape."

Yoko nods. "I got like half of that," he answers honestly, "but the picture makes sense!"

Aiba looks down at the diagram. "Oh, good," he says, "well, I know what to do, now."

"You do?" Yoko asks, "what?"

"We need a second aegen," Aiba says.

"We need a what?!" Mabo demands, "we have the biggest aegen in the entire fleet!"

"That's the problem," Aiba answers, "either we use the aegen you have now to build two smaller ones, or you send for a small pre-built one for us to install and recycle the lost aether from the original. Installing a second, small aegen won't take too long--I promise. I've done it with smaller-scale aegens before."

Mabo rubs at his temples. "If that's really the only way to do it, I'll put in an order," he says, defeated.

---

Aiba's with the team that takes the delivery--aegens aren't just kept around, they're used, and the supply ship that was on its way was taking it from a now-retired cruiser especially for them. When the ship touches down, Aiba has to laugh. "Ryo-chan, I thought you were a cruiser pilot," he calls out, and the dark-haired young pilot grits his teeth at Yoko's echoing giggles. Aiba dips his head into the storage area to investigate the status of the aegen.

"Man, I can't escape Chiba anywhere," Ryo groans, "no matter how hard I try--and I try damn hard. I'm only doing this as a damn favor to Matsu-nii!"

"Matsu-nii appreciates it," Mabo calls, making Ryo flush.

"Well, it's not damaged," Aiba announces, leaning out of the ship and giving them a thumbs up, "I'm going to get down to installing this thing. Good to see you, Ryo-chan!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ryo answers, rolling his eyes, "and to answer your question, I do drive a cruiser. But aegens are valuable cargo and they only wanted to send the best~"

"And we got you instead? We really must be having a tough time on the northern front," Mabo teases, and Aiba can hear Ryo's groaning.

---

"Is this going to work?" Yoko asks, creeping into the engine room when Aiba's doing his final checks. It's hot, this deep in with the engine running, so Aiba's shirt is unbuttoned at the throat and his cuffs are pushed up to his elbows. He's watching the aether generators run for a few minutes before he finally sends the 'all-clear' up to the navigation deck, trying to be as sure as he can that they're not going to fail.

"I hope so," Aiba answers, "it has to." Aiba pushes his fists to his hips, eyes scanning the smaller aegen.

Yoko leans over to mess with Aiba's hair. "It's you," he says, "it'll work."

Aiba takes a moment, his head ducked low in thought, and then he looks over at Yoko with a smile so wide it cuts his face in two. "You're right," he answers, "I thought I was catching your pessimism for a minute there. Shall we?"

"Whenever you're ready, sir," Yoko answers, offering an obnoxious bow.

Aiba laughs, and bumps his hip against Yoko's. "Let's get to work," he answers, and turns around to tap the message chute. He's had a note--'ready to go!'--written for an hour now, unable to send it. He lays the folded up note in the chute and closes the little glass door. Sending it to the navigation deck is easy--press the button and spin the sphere--and then all they can do is wait.

They don't bother sending back a note--the hum of the engines intensifies to a low rumble. Aiba runs his fingers through his hair, front to back, and watches with nervous eyes as the gathered aether begins to spin and the generator begins its work. "It's now or never," Aiba whispers, "come on, come on..."

The ship groans and grumbles--and begins to rise. Aiba isn't sure what to do with his hands--he rubs his palms together nervously and finally grabs Yoko's sleeve in both hands.

"Come on, come on," Aiba mumbles, over and over again, and the ship continues its slow ascent.

A message comes back, interrupting Aiba's hoping. It's penned by Becky, and there's a happy dancing doodle of Mabo in the corner below the blocky 'IT WORKS!!' Aiba grins at Yoko, exultant. It works--his idea works. Aiba bounces on his toes, and a gleeful shriek finds itself rising through his chest.

"It works--Yokocho--it works! It works it works it works!" Aiba leaps on Yoko in the heat of the moment, feeling like he's going to explode or burst from his skin or any other number of probably messy things but he's too excited to particularly care. Yoko is grinning too, his hands light on Aiba's sides, and his laughter matches Aiba's.

"It works," Yoko repeats, "you did it. Come on, upstairs to the nav deck, you don't want to miss her flying, do you?"


Ai looks even happier than Aiba, perched in the nav chair and putting the Tokio through simple flight exercises--up and down and around in a wide circle. "Well, she's never going to be the fastest cruiser in the fleet," Ai says, "but we knew that going in. Her nav system reacts like a dream either way."

Mabo claps his hands together once, and turns on his heel toward the comm station. "Murakami, send a telegram back to home base," he orders, "Aiba, you've done it."

Aiba is looking out the window, eyes wide as he takes in the city below them. He glances back to offer them all a nod of his head. "Happy to help," he says, "really. This is the hardest problem I've had to work on in months!"

Mabo looks thoughtful for a moment. "You know," he says, "we have room for you, around here."

Aiba blinks. "As a science officer," he guesses.

"As a consultant," Mabo corrects, "you could work on your telephone system in your own lab on deck five and help Gussan with maintaining the engines..."

Aiba's gaze flicks toward Yoko, who's staring at him with something between 'yes' and 'no' reflected in his eyes. "You're going to war," Aiba says, slowly.

Yoko's mouth tightens when Mabo says, "next month."

Aiba sighs. "I appreciate the offer," he says, "but I think I have to decline. I don't work well under that kind of pressure!"

Yoko's sigh is probably one of relief. Aiba thinks it's probably the right choice--probably.

"Then I'll send a report to headquarters to get you your funding," Mabo says, briskly, "and we'll find you someone to fly you on back to Chiba before the end of the week. We have to get to Osaka and go through some more flight training."


"So I guess this is goodbye again," Yoko says, awkwardly fidgeting against the interior door of his quarters. Aiba's got his bag open on Yoko's cot, trying to stuff all of his things back inside, and he looks up when Yoko speaks.

He smiles. "You'll be back eventually," Aiba says, tone pleasantly firm, "so it's more like 'see you later'!"

Yoko smiles, thoughtfully. "I'll be back in Chiba as soon as I can," he says, "so... wait for me?"

Aiba hauls him close for a hug. "I'll wait," he says, "as long as you need me."

Yoko's fingers shake a little when he pulls Aiba in tighter, resting his chin on Aiba's shoulder. "I won't make you wait forever," he answers. He sounds strange, his voice tight somehow.

Aiba pulls back to look at Yoko. "Yokocho," he says, concerned, "what's wrong...?"

"Masaki," Yoko says, eyes shut tightly, "don't punch me, okay?"

"Uh... okay?" And then Yoko's kissing him.

Aiba squeaks, fingers seizing at the shoulders of Yoko's shirt as he kisses back. "Yoko--"he says, between kisses--"how long have you wanted to do that?"

"Since I woke up and you called me Kimitaka," Yoko confesses, brushing the back of his hand over Aiba's cheek.

Aiba giggles, brushing Yoko's hair from his eyes. "Idiot," he says, fondly.

"You didn't do anything either!" Yoko complains.

"I'm an idiot too," Aiba agrees pleasantly, "but I thought you knew that?"

"You're an airhead, not an idiot," Yoko answers, rolling his eyes, "most of the time." He curls his fingers at the small of Aiba's back, and they share breath for a long moment before the sound of the message chute in Yoko's quarters interrupts them.

Aiba smooths Yoko's uniform before he steps back and sets his shoulders. "Well," he says.

"Yeah," Yoko answers, adjusting the buttons at his cuff nervously.

"Guess that's my signal to go," Aiba says, curling his lips in.

Yoko reaches out and squeezes his fingers before he steps out of the way.
http://writeordie.com/box.html?words=12000&time=0&mode=gentle&grace=23
"See you," Yoko says, "see you as soon as I can."

"See you soon," Aiba answers, and fixes the strap of his bag over his shoulder as he steps out of the room.

---

The phone is ringing. Aiba scrambles off of the couch to the other end of the lab, brushing sleep from his eyes as he fumbles with the telephone receiver.

"Hello," he greets around a yawn.

"Aiba-san."

"Nino-chan," Aiba says.

"I, ah, saw Yokoyama's mom today," Nino begins, and Aiba's heart stops for a moment. The Tokio had left for training exercises in Osaka after Aiba had left, as promised, and Yoko had sent Aiba one more letter saying they were heading north to fight the Russians. Then, nothing for six months.

"Did she say something?" Aiba asks, carefully.

"You know how his checks had stopped? Six months' pay came in today."

Aiba nearly drops the phone. "Anything else?" he asks.

"And, uh, she got a telegram from him. He's coming home."

Aiba does drop the phone, then, and has to reach down and pick it back up. "Whoops," Aiba apologizes, "thank you for--calling me."

"Ow," Nino says, "well, you're welcome, I guess. He didn't write you?"

"Why would he write me?" Aiba asks, putting promises and kisses out of his head.

Silence from Nino; finally he speaks. "Aiba... never mind."

Aiba blinks at the dial tone.


"Nino, why are we here?" Yoko asks, as Nino drags him to Jun's pastery shop in the middle of the morning. Jun waves hello, but he's clearly too busy running the taffy machine and filling danishes to try to have a conversation at the same time.

"You'll see," Nino answers, "hey, Subaru."

"Subaru-kun," Aiba greets, letting Nino push him into a chair.

"Hi," Subaru answers, head bent over a piece of paper and humming a tune.

"Subaru is three days late on a commission for the Imperial Palace," Nino informs Aiba, and Subaru grumbles something about Nino being behind on his wordcount for three weeks without missing a beat.

Aiba laughs as they bicker; Subaru is clearly most of the way along, scribing notes he already has in his head. Nino has a pad open on his knee, and he's drawing a flow-chart.

"They're late," Nino comments suddenly, looking at his pocketwatch, "if I got out of my flat before nine for nothing..."

Aiba can't take it any more. He scrambles from his seat and squints out the window. "If you're talking about an airship, it's right there," he says, pointing up.

"Does it say 'YAMADA'?" asks Nino, distracted, "in big orange and blue letters?"

"As a matter of fact," Aiba answers, "yes? And yellow polka dots?"

"That's it," agrees Nino, "come on, let's go say hi to our guest--Jun-kun, we'll be back!"

"We're not even open," Jun complains, "come back at eleven!"

"We'll be back in fifteen for the cake I ordered--and even paid for," Nino shoots back.

"We have a guest?" Subaru seems as confused as Aiba is.

"A very stupid guest," Nino answers sagely.

The Yamada Courier Service is known in Chiba as the fastest--and the loudest, to be honest--airship crew in Japan. Yasuda Shota had spent most of his childhood in the salvage yard, learning to put old parts in new machines, and the ship they lived on shows it. Yasu hops out of the cockpit, shaking his limbs out and pulling his goggles off of his face. The Yamada looks like it used to be three or four ships, smashed together and covered with a heavy coat of paint. Yasu looks like hisoutfit used to be three or four outfits covered with... well, not a heavy coat of paint, but almost.

"Maru-chan is getting Yokocho's bags," he tells them, as he approaches. He leans easily against Subaru, forcing down a yawn--"sorry, it's a long trip from Okinawa."

Aiba's figured it out by now. His eyes are as round as saucers as he tries to remember how to speak Japanese. "He's here, then?" he asks, voice high and breathless.

"Took you that long?" Nino asks, and doesn't push Aiba off when Aiba wraps right arms around his throat and squeezes.

Maruyama Ryuhei is a man made for smiling--the public relations half of the Yamada Courier Service is well known for his insistence on making his customers smile. He's got a trunk under each arm as he hops out of the back of the courier ship, and he apparently forgets he has them for a moment when he tries to wave--Yoko's complaining about 'damaging precious cargo!' can be heard as Maru attempts to re-balance them on his hips.

Yoko hops out behind Maru, rolling his eyes, but the smile playing over his face dies when he sees Aiba.

Aiba's eyes widen--Yoko's right sleeve is empty.

"Yoko," he says, quietly.

---

Yoko's mom throws a party to welcome Yoko home. Yoko looks like a tired mess for the first half, and he keeps avoiding Aiba, but Yoko's mom hauls him into the kitchen right after dinner and before dessert (courtesy Chez Jun) for some kind of talk, and he at least looks fairly pleasant for the rest of the evening.

"Yokocho," Aiba says, plastering a grin on his face when he finally corners Yoko.

"Ah-Aibacchi," Yoko answers, his hand shaking around his cup of water.

Aiba presses his hand to Yoko's back, gently, and leans his face next to Yoko's ear. "Are you okay?" he asks.

Yoko shrugs, his shoulder pressing to Aiba's chest. "As well as I can be," he answers.

"I knew you'd come back sooner or later," Aiba chirps, pleasantly.

"Not exactly how I wanted to make my grand return," Yoko admits, eyes sliding toward his sleeve, and Aiba slides his fingers around Yoko's hip and squeezes in comfort.

"Yokoyama! Want a beer?"

"Naga-nii," Aiba says, when Yoko has to look around for a place to put his glass in order to take Nagase's offer of beer, "think."

Nagase blinks--"oh, right, I forgot, it's not every day you meet a guy with no arm. You know, couldn't you make him a new arm?"

Aiba and Yoko both look at each other, then at Nagase's fake leg. "...can you do that?" Yoko asks, not sounding hopeful.

"I... I don't know," Aiba answers, his mind racing.

Nagase puts a hand on each of their shoulders. "Well, if you can do it you'll be more of a legend then you already are--I dunno if one normal guy can take all that awesome."

Aiba presses his tongue into the inside of his cheek. "Is that a challenge?" he asks.

"Only if you want it to be," answers Nagase, and he jaunts away--before he turns around to speak again. "Yokoyama, is your mom single?"

"KEEP AWAY FROM MY MOTHER."

---

"Aiba, the phone is ringing."

"Your arm is cold, stop touching meeeee--"

"It's made of metal, of course it's cold. Now go get the phone, I'm trying to cook! The miso is going to burn..."

Aiba sighs, standing to trot up the stairs and pick up the phone. "You could have picked up the phone and come back downstairs in the time it took you to wake me back up," he complains.

"Hello," he says, as he cradles the phone to his ear.

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AIBA-KUN!"

Aiba laughs. "Jun-kun, Nino-chan, Ohno-kun, thank you," he manages, before the three of them start talking over each other.

"Wait wait wait get him over here--oi! C'mere and wish him a happy birthday!"

"Aiba-chan? Happy birthday!"

"Sho-chan?! ARE YOU HOME?"

"For a week or two," Sho answers, pleasant, "how's your birthday going so far?"

The scent of not-ruined miso soup is filling the house, and Yoko is singing Subaru's Imperial March at the top of his lungs.

"It's perfect," Aiba answers.

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