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The Unstuck Country

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Chapter 1

"You win, Nii-san."

Taiga grinned, reaching down to help his little brother, Wataru, up. He was sure that Wataru hadn't fought to his fullest; Wataru almost never had in their fights, but it was not something that someone would immediately notice. It was a little hesitation there, a little softer blow there. He didn't blame Wataru for not wanting to be King, permanently; it was something that everybody would want to kill him for, especially if Wataru's half-human nature came out. Most Fangire didn't know Wataru as well as he did, didn't know that he was almost as powerful as Taiga, and they'd make the mistake of presuming him weaker just because one of his parents wasn't Fangire.

So, Taiga was more than willing to take the burden of King back on himself. He knew that Wataru would back him up when it came to challenges; Wataru would certainly be seen as an abomination to some, the result of the subversion of a Queen, the ultimate in what shouldn't be. Taiga himself knew that he'd previously seen Wataru as weak, or at least he'd wanted to believe so, because Wataru wasn't willing to hurt those he loved.

Wataru was never meant to be a King, Taiga decided. No, Wataru was meant to settle down, raise a family, and hopefully age correctly for a Fangire. Taiga himself would live centuries beyond his twenty-two years, and he couldn't imagine a future where Wataru wasn't by his side, supporting him. Yes, they'd had arguments, arguments that Wataru had won because, in the end, he was right. But now that Taiga understood, Taiga knew he wouldn't make those mistakes anymore.

"Yes, I do," he responded finally, grinning back at Wataru. "Don't ever do that again."

What "that" he meant, he didn't specify, but he knew that Wataru understood. And the broadening of Wataru's smile was a silent affirmation that he understood.

Their mother walked forward. Taiga still half-loathed her, she who had abandoned her kind for a human, no matter how extraordinary Wataru's father must have been. But still, there was an understanding in her face too, that face framed with unwashed hair, pale, with an eyepatch over one eye. She'd sacrificed a lot, and gotten back so little. A warning, perhaps, of why Fangire didn't love humans.

But looking at Wataru, Taiga could forgive her. And after all, wasn't that what love was about? Forgiveness?

Forgiveness for turning him over to Shima Mamoru. Forgiveness for leaving Wataru ignorant of his own heritage. Forgiveness for turning her back on her own kind for her own love.

Maybe love wasn't just about forgiveness, but included it, for there was nothing to forgive about what they were and what they ate. Of course, Wataru saw things differently; Wataru always did, his heart somewhere between human and Fangire. A heart that might have become even more Fangire had Taiga not been caught up with his own notions about love and the relationship between King and Queen, and let Wataru and Mio be.

If he'd done that, maybe Mio would still be alive, and loved him instead of betraying him. But he hadn't let go, and now he was faced with the consequences.

Gazing at his family, he resolved to make things better for them, and the rest of their kind.

Something that was easier said, than done.

* * *

He sipped at the water at Wataru's dining room table, relaxing after the trek home. If he looked closely off to one side, he could see where he and Wataru had made up for a lack of paper by crayoning on one of the walls. He wondered if his mother - who he hadn't known was his mother at the time - had just never bothered to wipe it off, or if Wataru had saved a little bit of it for some reason. Maybe it was just before Shima had taken him away, to be educated in Europe, and Wataru had kept some of it just to remember.

His gloved hand tightened, and he thought of how things could have been had Shima not been so foolish. Had he been allowed to grow up together with Wataru, discovering the true nature they shared together.

But Shima had his own faults, and for whatever reason he'd pulled Taiga away, he had. Yes, he was better educated, but he wished - well, it was stupid, wasn't it? Things had happened and he had to deal with them now. Shima's mistakes and his mother's and his own.

What could he do to fix these things? What could he do to make things better for his little brother, change things so that what happened to Mio didn't happen again?

"Nii-san needs to change things," Wataru said, sitting down. He'd made his own food, but Taiga was determined to change things. Wataru didn't... well, Taiga supposed if his little brother really wanted to continue cooking his own meals, Taiga shouldn't stop him. Wataru shad always reacted badly to Taiga's statements about the way things should be.

"How?" he asked. He'd listen to Wataru this time, after so long not listening to him. Wataru was wise beyond his years, far wiser than he should have to be, and Taiga's heart ached at how grown-up Wataru had turned out to be.

Wataru was quiet for a moment, and then smiled at Taiga. "Humans aren't cattle, Nii-san. Some Fangire understand that. The others... I don't want Fangire to starve, but...."

He doubted any Fangire believed that, though some of them liked some humans. Like their mother had liked Wataru's father, like that Tortise Fangire had loved a human girl. Some humans were just special, like Wataru had been when Taiga had thought him human. But some Fangire had gone out of control, endangering themselves and their kind, and there had to be an end to that, too. Human technological evolution wasn't the only threat to his kind.

"Wataru, I promise that most Fangire aren't like the ones you went after," Taiga said. He'd taken a look at some of Wataru's targets thanks to Bishop, and for the most part, they were attacking more than they needed to - with a few exceptions, like one or two that were explicitly breaking Fangire law anyway, and Taiga didn't care about. "Most Fangire were like Mio, actually. If Mio hunted more than once or twice a month...." Mio had needed to eat more, but he'd never dared criticize his Queen. Nor would he do so now. She'd been so mixed up in the end, loving him, but loving Wataru more.

Someday, he'd find someone... well, there would never be someone like Mio, but surely there had to be some Fangire girl out there that Wataru would love and who would love him back. Someone shy and quiet, as Mio-like as he could manage.

In the meantime, he still had problems, but the first one was getting Wataru to come along on whatever plans he made.

"Oh," Wataru said quietly. "But still... humans aren't cattle. The Fangire need to find another food source."

"How?" Taiga asked, before he could shut himself up. The word had come out so petulantly, but then again, what did Wataru expect him to do? His people needed to eat. They needed to survive.

"There has to be something... you run a technology-funding company, Nii-san...."

Wataru was right, but Taiga turned away. There was something embarassing about getting fired from one's own company after being defeated by one's half-human little brother and losing the support of the one other remaining Checkmate Four member. Taiga wasn't sure on how he would recover Development and Pioner, but he swore he would. If nothing else, if he was planning to do anything, it would be nice to have some money and a company behind him.

"And I'm sure Shima-san would be happy to help out, too."

Taiga was about to say something sharp, and then he realized that Wataru was right. No matter how it hurt his pride to go to a human company, if it made Wataru happy... well, it made Wataru happy. And he had to admit that Wataru hadn't come out too badly, considering everything, so human blood had to be of some use. Killing those who could benefit the Fangire, if incidentally, served no purpose.

It still didn't make him happy, but at the moment, having Wataru happy was the most important thing.

"Why would I go to him?" he asked anyway. Because he still had his pride.

"Because Shima-san would help you, Nii-san," Wataru said. "I'm sure Shima-san wants the fighting to end, too."

Taiga resisted saying that it was the humans' own fault anyway, that they should behave like the cattle they were, just because he knew Wataru would object and he needed Wataru's love and support. Mostly support, as Wataru was one of the few standing between him and a potentially messy death, but still, he didn't say it.

His phone rang, and Taiga pulled it out of his pocket. "King?" a voice asked. It was Tosho, one of the "board of directors" for Development and Pioneer, one of the older Fangire who had taken on that role. He'd always been a nervous sort, so Taiga wasn't totally surprised that he'd call. Of course, that left what he was calling about, which Taiga hoped was not more challenges to his throne or punative action on his assets.

"Yes?" he asked impatiently.

"Your majesty, we thought you'd like to know that we heard about what happened to Bishop and... well, the Board is waiting for your directions."

Taiga thought about that. It might be a trap; but it might be a genuine offer by a fear-laden Board of Directors, if they'd presumed he'd killed Bishop. "News travels fast," he said, testing Tosho.

"Elder Dawn said she was keeping magical watch and knows that Bishop is no more," Tosho told him. Taiga could easily imagine the man pulling at the collar of his shirt. "We're satisfied that you are the true King, despite what Bishop said."

Dawn was an ancient Fangire, devoted to the mystic arts, or at least that's what she was supposed to be, given he wasn't sure magic existed. But Wataru had apparently made a trip into the past not that long ago, saving him - from what Wataru had said to their mother when he thought Taiga wasn't listening. Wataru was sometimes too modest for his own good - and maybe Dawn had sensed the death of Bishop and the revived King. It would save him a lot of frustration if they all just accepted that he was too powerful for them and wasn't going anywhere.

"Good," Taiga said. "I'm sure that all of you can find us new investments while I'm taking a day or two off. I need to take care of some... issues." He knew that Tosho and the others would take that to mean challengers, not the vacation he was planning to take. He deserved it, after all that he'd done and had been done to him. And he needed time to think, he had to admit. And make sure he wouldn't be betrayed the first time he stepped into Development and Pioneer.

"Understood, King. We await your return." The words were followed by a dial tone, but Taiga didn't care. As long as they understood, that's what mattered. And if they had something planned... well, there were some people still loyal to him; he'd feel them out. And he wouldn't go in without Wataru, under the pretense of taking his younger brother in to see the place in full.

He was King. And he wasn't stupid. Bishop had to have had people loyal to him too, and they had to be found and executed. He was sure all the killing would bother Wataru, but some things had to be done.

"Who was that?" Wataru asked, and Taiga had to admit that he'd forgotten his younger brother was there.

"One of my people at Development and Pioneer." Whether Tosho was truly "one of his people" was a good question, but in the loosest sense, he was. "It seems that they've decided that they should listen to me instead of Bishop." Of course, now that Bishop was dead, that was an easy choice to make. But still, at least they recognized that.

"They should listen to you," Wataru said, looking steadily at Taiga. "You're King, after all. But, Nii-san, you can't go it alone."

"I don't intend to go it alone," Taiga told him. "I fully intend to bring you with me, Wataru, because I don't trust some of them not to be still loyal to Bishop... or at least his principles." Had he not been King, he was sure he'd be dead, or shortly so, for even listening to Wataru's beliefs. Because if he'd been resistant to them, he could only imagine how people who had been alive for five hundred or more years would think of them.

Wataru nodded, much to Taiga's relief. "I'll be there for you, Nii-san," he said. The small smile on his face let Taiga know that at least one person in the world supported him fully, and he didn't have to worry about... at least on the loyalty end. As Wataru's older brother, he knew that there were obligations on his end regarding his little brother, ones he couldn't shove off. Nor did he want to, honestly.

Of course, he knew his priorities; reestablishing things with Wataru – who seemed to be loyal to him anyway – took a backseat to reestablishing his authority with his people. Well, the rest of his people, not counting his family.

"What do you need me to do?" Wataru asked.
Taiga smiled. Yes, Wataru, now that they'd figured things out, would follow him pretty much every step of the way.

"Just be there with me, in case things get ugly." Most people didn't realize that Wataru was the current wielder of Kiva, much to his advantage, and he didn't even register as Fangire – at least neither to him nor Mio, based on Mio's reaction when he'd led the two of them to Mother's cave. He'd always felt something, but he'd never connected things together until Wataru had lost his henshin in front of both himself and Mio.

"I will, Nii-san." And with that simple statement, and Wataru's smile, Taiga felt that he could do anything.
Nevertheless, Taiga was glad for his brother's support as he walked into Development and Pioneer. By and large, the staff was Fangire; there were a few clueless human employees, but by and large, he'd staffed the place with his own kind, the better to cover things up with. In a way, being a Development and Pioneer employee was the safest thing to be for a human, for none dared lead the human police to suspect anything extraordinary at the funding company.

The receptionist was Fangire, and she stared for a moment before bowing respectfully. At least they'd told the lower ranks, or at least the administrative staff. Taking the opportunity, he nodded at the receptionist before heading deeper into the complex.

He turned to Wataru. "Hopefully they haven't booby-trapped my office," he said, and Wataru looked at him like he'd pronounced the end of the world. Sometimes, his little brother was so innocent. "They might, Wataru, I doubt it, but they might." Even though it was really stupid to try to kill someone who had taken out a previous King twice, there might be someone ambitious enough to do so.

He stepped out to see one of the other board members – Watanabe, this one was, Into The Fourth of a Lemon Rind his true name. Despite his name, he was reserved, not sour. "King," he said, and turned towards Wataru questioningly. Of course, as Taiga guessed, he didn't know what to make of Wataru.

"This is my little brother," Taiga said simply. "Kurenai Wataru."

"The… um… result of your mother's…." Watanabe looked at Wataru appraisingly. "Ah."

"Yes, what made her lose her role as Queen," Taiga said, speaking firmly, letting Watanabe know that he wasn't to be trifled with on this issue. "None the less, he is my little brother."

He didn't mention the part about Kiva; he and Wataru might need the element of surprise.

"Ah." Watanabe was starting to look nervously at Wataru, and Taiga wondered what the man had heard, and if he and Wataru still had the element of surprise. "He had… declared himself King, had he not?"

"A lot of people try to declare themselves King," Taiga said, sidestepping the issue. "He and I have reached an… understanding about that."

"Someone would have to be foolish to try for your throne, my lord," Watanabe said. "Will you be coming back to work soon?" He adjusted his collar, as if things had become too hot.

"Soon," Taiga agreed. "I have things to do… there are ideas that I want to present to the board." Assuming he decided to present the whole thing to the board at all. An alternate food source would be a radical change, and Taiga didn't even pretend that people would instantly accept it.

"Understood, King," Watanabe told him, bowing and leaving.

Taiga waved him away, more than happy to see him go. He had a lot to do; checking out his office was only one of them, though at least he knew that some weren't likely to challenge him.

"Let's go, Wataru," he said, nudging his brother into the elevator.

They rode up, and Taiga couldn't help but smile a little as Wataru stared at the walls along the hallway to his office; being a Fangire-run business, Development and Pioneer was a bit more decorated than the standard human-run one. He unlocked and stepped into his office, after making sure nobody was in there waiting to challenge him, and was somewhat relieved to see that nobody was that stupid quite yet.

His own office was slightly more decorated than the hallway outside, thanks to Bishop's influence and Kurosawa's own skills. No matter what he thought of Bishop, Taiga had to admit that the man had good taste, and Kurosawa sometimes seemed like he was meant to be an interior designer than the assistant to a King. Kurosawa had been amazing, really.

Not sure what was safe yet – after all, if Bishop had betrayed him, who else would – he instead took only a few things, including a couple of proposals for funding. He'd need them to study if he was to write a proposal of his own, and he'd be the first to admit he had no idea what a proposal looked like.

Being King pretty much meant being a well-aimed gun for Fangire interests. Kurosawa and Bishop and the board had been the ones to select the targets, he'd just taken care of them, protecting the Fangire as a King should. Just as Mio should have, had she ever taken to her position as Queen. Taiga had realized shortly after her death that while Mio had steel behind her gentle frame, she would never have made a good Queen.

And not because of her gentleness, either. It was because Mio had made up her mind not to be Queen, because she had been in love with Wataru. There was a certain stubbornness in Mio, a certain desire to have things her way. It had shown in her eyes when she'd coldly informed him that she understood the consequences of loving a human, had shown in her hesitation to kill the traitors whose crime was love. She refused to be a weapon because that was not her nature; she loved strongly, even to the end, loving him but loving Wataru more.

It was, he was sure, what caused her to step in between the two of them, to save him from Wataru. She was terrible at speaking her mind, his Queen, and he hadn't been the most observant, either. He was a weapon, not she, and she had paid the price.

Not that Taiga himself minded being a weapon. After all, protecting his people, keeping them safe and superior, was important to him. To make sure that the Fangire as a whole survived. His mother had committed many sins, but most of all to Taiga's mind was that she'd left him to be raised by Shima, who was laughable as a foster father, not letting him be Fangire.

But then again, Mother and Shima did have a way of screwing things up. Their mother had left Wataru criminally unaware of his heritage, making him think he was human. Her love affair had rendered her truly insane that way.

Of course, then again, that love affair brought him Wataru, so he really couldn't complain that much.

They were heading back to the elevator when another elder, not on the Board but old enough to be, rounded the corner. Dawn in the Eye of a Heron's Tree was talented, but he didn't blame her for staying out of politics and sticking to magic.

"Professor Isakawa!" Wataru exclaimed, and Taiga turned a little to see that Wataru was smiling. Obviously he knew Dawn in some way, and Taiga was curious as to how.

"Kurenai Wataru?" Obviously Dawn knew his younger brother, as well.

"Professor Isakawa's one of my best customers," Wataru explained with a grin. Which made sense; Dawn's was some kind of music teacher.

"And Wataru's my younger brother," Taiga said, stepping forward.

"Ah," Dawn said, studying Wataru. "You truly do take after your mother. Her talent was music, you know."

Wataru blushed. "I'm not as good."

"Well, given that our King has other interests, I was hoping that she'd pass her love of music on to someone," Dawn said. "You truly are your mother's son. Your mother and I had many interests in common and I hope that we find some time in the future to discuss things. Your mother was a truly amazing woman, until she went astray…."

"I… she gave me a love of music, but…."

"She also conveniently forgot to tell Wataru about his heritage," Taiga said, bothered by the smiles on both their faces.

"At least she taught him something, King," Dawn said, with a hint of reproachfulness. "The rest… well, best taught by someone who hasn't abandoned what we are. I miss your mother, but I'd rather remember the times when she hadn't turned traitor. The fact that your brother seems to have turned out well despite everything…."

"Well, um, she did leave me alone after I was about six," Wataru said quietly. "I really only had Kivat and a few others…."

Dawn, to her credit, looked horrified. "If only I'd known! But you never seemed Fangire to me, Wataru-kun. Just a talented human. But don't worry; you'll live long enough to learn all you need to learn."

"In any case," Taiga said, interrupting, "I'm sure you'll have time to catch up."

Dawn was already muttering to herself about lessons and classes and enrolling Wataru in school, making Taiga want to facepalm. Well, if nothing else, Wataru was in no danger from Dawn, as long as he toed the line when it came to Fangire. At least Dawn might be willing to forgive Wataru's lack of education, given everything, just as he had shortly after he'd found out what happened to his brother..

In fact, having him spend time with the elder wasn't a bad idea, even as Taiga didn't want Wataru to spend time with her. It was probably irrational, but it was music that had led his mother astray, or at least her love affair with Wataru's human musician father.

Not that he would have given up Wataru for the world, but that still stung, and it hurt that he couldn't enjoy the thing, the bond, that Wataru had with their mother and with Dawn.

"You'll have to forgive me, King," Dawn replied. "I'd just given up hope to see someone with your mother's blood and talents, and that Wataru-kun is Fangire… or at least I assume so, from what I've divined."

Taiga forced himself to smile. "Of course."

"Then I shall meet up with Wataru-kun sometime," Dawn said. "Have a good day, King, Wataru-kun."

With that, she passed them, and Taiga paranoidly wondered if she was going to try to enter his office. But she hadn't lived for five hundred years by being stupid, either.

"Let me take you to lunch," he said quickly, eager to reclaim his brother's attention, as Wataru was still staring after Dawn. "I'm sure you're hungry."

"Yes," Wataru said, still distracted, and Taiga had to tug his little brother to the elevators, Wataru absently following him.

They left Development and Pioneer without running into anybody else important, and soon Taiga was handing Wataru a helmet. He was briefly distracted by two arguing teenagers – well, at the shiny CD-shaped puzzles of some sort hanging from their belts, anyway – but soon he and Wataru were on the way to the restaurant.

The restaurant that Taiga took Wataru to was a small one, Fangire-run. Taiga was sure one of the owner's relatives worked at Development and Pioneer, but he wasn't sure how or who. They weren't that important, after all. He'd treated Mio to meals several times at the place, and he intended to treat Wataru there many more.

Settling down, he let Wataru order and got his traditional glass of water. He'd noticed that Wataru ordered modestly, just like he'd eaten modestly, and Taiga wondered if this was something that their mother had instilled in him or something else had happened.

"Thank you for lunch, Nii-san," Wataru said as they waited for the food. Taiga was sure they wouldn't be waiting long; he'd always had fast service when he took Mio to the place.

"It's nothing," Taiga said, waving the words away. "What did you think of Development and Pioneer?"

"Well," Wataru said hesitantly, "It's a very nice place, Nii-san."

"It is," Taiga acknowledged. "What did you think of the people?"

"Um… well… I didn't expect to see Professor Isakawa there. Does she work there?" Wataru asked.

"She's not on the payroll," Taiga said, "But it's traditional to listen to one's elders." Bishop and Kurosawa had drilled that into him. "Especially powerful elders like Dawn."

"Dawn?"

He realized he'd never used the woman's true name. He doubted Wataru even knew what it was. "It's the shortened form of her true name – the name we keep for all time. Because we have to change identities every few decades, our parents give us names that are all ours. For example, hers is ' Dawn in the Eye of a Heron's Tree'." Mine is 'The Fang Strikes the Shattering Clock'. I'm sure Mio's had to do with dresses, as fit her; I'm not sure about yours, or if mother gave you one." He should have asked their mother, but he'd had other things on his mind at the time. Wataru had a right to a true name, after all. He hoped that she hadn't gone so insane that she'd left Wataru nameless, as if he was human.

"Because Fangire live centuries," Wataru said, as if reciting something. He looked over at Taiga and added, "Kivat told me years ago on how long Fangire lived. You're going to live a long time, aren't you, Nii-san?"

Something deep inside Taiga dropped when he saw Wataru's expression. Of course, Wataru still thought of himself as human, despite everything. "So are you, Wataru," Taiga said firmly. "You are Fangire, after all. It's your birthright." And if his aging hadn't automatically slowed down like all Fangire young adults', Taiga would make sure he was treated until he did.

He made a note to ask Wataru if he had a doctor and if so, who he saw, later.

In the meantime, plans were already starting to form in his head. Wataru had never really experienced Fangire culture; other than his mother, he, like Taiga, had had few experiences with Fangire customs and culture. His own desire to push Wataru away from his human side had failed because he was thinking like a warrior. Because he was a warrior, of course. And so was Wataru.

But Wataru was more than that. Wataru was an artist, a musician. Dawn had emphasized that. And it didn't help that, thanks to everything, Wataru had seen his own people as the enemy, even at the point where he knew they were his people.

He was reminded of a time just before he and Wataru were torn apart, when Wataru had proudly told him that since Taiga didn't have to eat, Wataru wasn't going to eat either. He doubted Wataru remembered that, and the fact that he'd proudly announced a week later that he hadn't eaten for a week. Of course, Taiga had thought that he'd been exaggerating, but now he knew that Wataru probably had lived on Life Energy, and didn't even realize it.

But Wataru would never feed on humans. He'd likely starve to death if that was his only option, and Taiga had no desire to see that happen. If he wanted Wataru to be Fangire, he would have to show things in a different way than he had before.

"You remember that time when you said you wanted to be like me and you wouldn't eat for a week?" he asked suddenly. "When we were little kids."

Wataru nodded, a slight smile forming on his face. "I remember that. I didn't think not eating for a week was odd, and she let me for some reason…."

Taiga smiled broadly. Even though he wanted to crow about that, he knew it would turn Wataru off. This time he would do it slowly, let Wataru realize things. Take acceptance one step at a time, until Wataru realized what he truly was.

He hoped that it would work with the rest of the Fangire too.