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Hearth by the Ashes

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“While her sisters were given beautiful dresses and fine slippers, Cinderella had only a filthy smock and wooden shoes.”

-The Brothers Grimm, Cinderella

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Yuu groaned in frustration as the screwdriver once again slipped from the old, rusty screw he was trying to take out with painstaking effort for little progress. The head of the screw had long been stripped to a mangled, unusable mess, and this wasn’t the first time Yuu’s grip had slipped, causing a loud screech to echo through his machine shop as he scratched the metal plating that formed his ankle. 

He sighed to himself and tried again, knowing that it would be worth it once he finally got this last screw undone. With a white-knuckled grip --in his left hand, at least, since his right was made of metal, something he thought would be far more useful in a situation like this than it actually was-- Yuu tried yet again, cringing at the protesting screech the screw made as Yuu tried to force it loose. 

Finally, he had it undone enough that he could wrench it free with a pair of pliers, and he sighed in relief as he tugged the metallic foot free, leaving it dangling from the rest of his leg by a mangled mess of wires. 

Immediately, there was a loud banging on the wall next to him, the sound of the used netscreen dealer in the stall next to his rudely protesting to the noise. Yuu scowled, knowing that he probably couldn’t even hear anything over the hustle and bustle of the New Tokyo Marketplace, but he was always looking for something to complain about. If he wasn’t complaining about something Yuu was doing, the silk merchant on the other side of Yuu’s shop was. The noise Yuu made even though they could hardly hear it, how disorganized Yuu’s machine shop usually was despite the fact that they couldn’t see it unless they walked out of their own shops… They even complained about the acrid smell of machine oil and grease, even though Yuu knew it was overpowered by the scent of the freshly baked honey buns in the bakery stall across the street. Yuu knew it had nothing to do with any of that, and everything to do with the fact that people just didn’t want to work next to him.

His internal chronometer told him Shinoa had been gone for 15 minutes and 36 seconds, and he drummed his fingers on the table anxiously, waiting for her to get back with his replacement foot.

He’d had that same foot ever since his father had died, and had long since outgrown it, but Krul insisted that it didn’t need to be replaced. She’d much rather spend her precious money on someone who ‘deserved it’, like her three biological daughters, who she loved to spoil rotten without bothering to cough up the pocket change to buy Yuu the bare necessities. What was the point? Why should she spend her money on the filthy little rat her late husband had picked up off the street? Yuu knew the only reason she kept him around was so that she could reap the benefits of his hard work. 

After months of overworking himself, Yuu finally managed to scrape together the money he needed for a new prosthetic foot without Krul being able to tell any change was missing when she demanded payment for letting Yuu live under her roof, even if Yuu’s ‘bedroom’ was a spare broom closet at the end of the hall.

He wondered if his real parents had ever loved him. Had they treated him well? After all, they knew him before he was 30% machine, a subhuman freak that the rest of society considered unworthy to breathe the same air as they did.  Yuu supposed he’d never know. It had been nine years since his adoptive father found him in that shipwreck and saved him. Yuu couldn’t remember what his life was like before that, and if his memories hadn’t come back by now, there was no way they ever would.

Yuu was shaken from his thoughts by the sound of children singing in the street outside his booth. “--Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” They burst into a fit of giggles as they all collapsed onto the pavement.

Yuu smiled and shook his head to himself, listening to the pleasant sound of their laughter as he picked up the wire-cutters and started working on fully detaching the still dangling foot. The old nursery rhyme about pestilence and death had gained popularity over the recent years, and though that fact was grim, it did amuse him to watch people passing by glare at the children giggling in the dirt as they had to step around them, inconvenienced by others enjoying themselves. Yuu adored children because of that.

“Kouta, get back here!” Mahiru shouted from the bakery across the street. “I told you not to play so close to--” She cut herself off as Yuu looked up, her expression tightening before she looked back down at her son, who was obediently running back from where he had fallen, 5 feet from the front counter of Yuu’s stall.

“It’s not like wires are contagious…” Yuu muttered under his breath, looking back down at his work-table and grabbing his thick leather gloves, covering his right hand first so he didn’t have to look at the metal plating that made everyone seem to hate him so much. He was lucky, for a cyborg. His mechanical parts could easily be covered up with long sleeves, pants, and gloves, which he usually wore anyway. Sometimes it got hot, but Yuu always thought it was worth it to be able to pass for entirely human. Many other cyborgs weren’t as lucky, but at least strangers on the street didn’t glare at him. Only those who knew what he really was… other than that, most people just ignored him, but being invisible was better than being hated.

He picked up the fuse puller he had amidst the pile of various tools on the side of the counter, keeping his head down to avoid Mahiru’s icy glare. One by one, he worked on disconnecting the wires, biting down the irritation at the blinking red light in the corner of his vision that told him the limb was being disconnected. He was well aware of that, as he was the one disconnecting it.

It only took a few minutes for Yuu to disconnect all the wires, since he didn’t bother to even try untangling them, but when it was done the rusted hunk of metal fell to the concrete with a satisfying clank. 

Though, as much as Yuu wanted to, he knew he couldn’t just leave it haphazardly tossed on the floor like that, so with a groan, he got off his chair and climbed under the counter, picking up the mechanical foot and cleaning it off with a few lazy swipes of a washcloth that had also fallen on the floor at some point. He doubted he’d need the rusted hunk of metal again, but the least he could do was wipe it off a bit and set it on the corner of the work table. 

There was a loud thud from above Yuu’s head, startling the young mechanic, and in an answering thud Yuu accidentally smacked his head against the underside of the counter as he got up.

Yuu scowled as he rubbed the back of his head, standing up fully as he finally got a look at whoever had just loudly set their stuff on Yuu’s counter, though the scowl immediately faded when he saw that it was a face he recognized.

Yuuchan

Not from real life, of course. Not from the faces he saw around him as he went on about his daily life. No, the face Yuu recognized in front of him, he knew from every netscreen in the Eastern Commonwealth, displaying his picture on countless news broadcasts and gossip shows. There wasn’t a single person in the entire world who wouldn’t recognize the person who stood in front of Yuu, with wide, surprised, cerulean eyes, and slightly curled blond hair mostly hidden by the grey sweatshirt he wore with the hood pulled up.

Mika

The surprise in the man’s expression melted into an apology after a moment. “Sorry, I didn’t realize anyone was under there. Are you alright?” 

Then, as if Yuu needed any help figuring out who the man was, letters flashed across his vision.

Prince Mikaela, Crown Prince of the Eastern Commonwealth

ID: #0082719057

Born 1 May 103 T.E.

FF 88,987 Media hits, reverse chron

Posted 14 Aug 126 T.E.: A press meeting is to be hosted by Crown Prince Mikaela on 15 Aug to discuss the ongoing Letumosis research and possible leads for an antidote--

Yuu’s eyes widened in shock for a moment, briefly wondering if he was hallucinating. The display faded away after a moment, and Yuu was glad no one but him could actually see it or the red light still blinking in the corner of his vision, since they didn’t actually exist outside of Yuu’s head. 

Awkwardly, he attempted a bow, nearly falling over himself due to momentarily forgetting about his missing limb. “Your Highness,” he said, looking back up at the Prince with silent gratefulness that his missing foot was concealed underneath the countertop. 

The prince cringed, casting a glance over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard Yuu before he leaned in closer towards the mechanic. “I don’t suppose I could ask you to, um-” he put a finger to his lips in the gesture for ‘keep quiet’. “About the ‘Highness’ stuff?”

Well that explained why he was concealing his face from most of the public with a hood, Yuu supposed. Hiding from the people who would undoubtedly swarm him with adoration and countless questions if they knew who he really was.  Though that still brought up more questions about why the prince was there in the first place, at a machine shop in a marketplace.

“I- right, sorry. Uhm… can I help you?” Yuu asked, trying not to stumble over his words too horribly, but it was hard not to with those Cerulean eyes looking down at him with such intensity, far brighter in real life than on a screen. 

“I’m looking for Hyakuya Yuuichirou. Is he around anywhere?” The prince asked, looking over Yuu’s head to see if there was someone else in the shop, perhaps hiding amongst the shelves of ongoing projects or spare parts in the back. 

“Uhm, I’m Hyakuya Yuuichirou,” Yuu answered.  Technically, his name should’ve been Tepes Yuuichirou now, since Krul had gone back to her maiden name after Yuu’s father had died, and had the names of her three daughters switched as well. But according to her, Yuu wasn’t worthy of sharing their family name. It was fine though, Yuu didn’t want to share a family name with that woman anyway. 

The prince’s eyes widened briefly in surprise. “You’re Hyakuya Yuuichirou?” He asked. 

Yuu didn’t know why he seemed so surprised by it, but he answered anyway. “Last I checked, yeah,” he answered, tugging the hem of his glove up higher on his sleeve, even though his arm was already fully covered.

“The mechanic?” The prince clarified.

“No, I just go by the same name and sit around in this machine shop anyway because it’s fun for me,” Yuu deadpanned, looking down at the android on the table to avoid the intense weight of the prince’s stare.  It probably wasn’t wise to speak to the Crown Prince like that, but it certainly was a lot more fun. “May I help you?”

In lieu of an answer, the prince bent down slightly, craning his neck in such a way so that Yuu had no choice but to look at him, holding Yuu’s gaze with eyes that were warmer than Yuu thought such a shade of blue could ever be. The prince dashed an easy smile at Yuu when their eyes met, straightening but making sure Yuu’s eyes followed him instead of going back to the table. “Sorry, you’re just not exactly what I expected.”

“You’re hardly what I expected either,” Yuu said. He thought the prince would be all fancy clothes and glamorous smiles, not the type to ever set foot near Yuu’s shop. Yet here he was, in an old, too-big hoodie and jeans, his hair falling into his eyes in an oddly adorable sort of way.

Yuu looked down at the android Mika had placed on the counter, recognizing the older model despite the fact it looked as though it had just come out of the factory, with a sleek, pear-shaped body and a glossy white finish. “What’s wrong with your android?” 

“She won’t turn on anymore,” Prince Mikaela explained. “She was fine just the other day, but suddenly she just… shut down.”

Yuu turned the android so he could get a better look at the access panel on the back of her head, glad that he had something to focus on so he wouldn’t trip over his words or made a fool of himself. “Have you had any issues with her before?”

“Not as far as I know. The royal mechanics give her monthly check-ups to make sure everything’s working properly, and I don’t think they’ve forgotten anything.” Yuu nodded in understanding, examining the control panel more closely to see if he could find anything wrong. Nothing stuck out immediately, which meant he’d probably need to do a more thorough inspection. 

While Yuu looked the android over, he saw out of the corner of his eye Prince Mikaela’s gaze curiously wandering to Yuu’s mechanical foot on the countertop. Idly, he picked it up, wiping off a smudge with the sleeve of his oversized hoodie, examining the once flexible toe-joints that had gotten creaky and stiff over the years. 

“Aren’t you hot?” Yuu asked as a reflexive attempt to take the prince’s attention off Yuu’s old foot. Though, when the prince’s full attention returned to Yuu, he immediately regretted his decision and looked back down at the android. It was a stupid question anyway. He was wearing a sweatshirt in the sweltering heat, clearly he had to be hot… in more ways than one.

For a moment, Yuu thought Prince Mikaela’s cheeks might’ve tinted pink, and he looked almost embarrassed at the question. “Absolutely dying,” he answered with a glare upwards at the sun. “But, I’m trying to be inconspicuous.”

Yuu bit back a comment about how that wasn’t exactly working considering how quickly Yuu had recognized him, supposing that the lack of a swarm of adoring girls and paparazzi meant Prince Mikaela’s disguise was at least somewhat effective. 

Picking up a screwdriver and refocusing on the android, Yuu decided to once again change the subject. “So if you have fancy royal mechanics, why aren’t they fixing your android instead?”

“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, and couldn’t get her to turn back on. So, someone pointed me in your direction.” He set the mechanical foot back on the counter, looking curiously at all the other tools and scrap metal parts on the counter. “They say you’re the best mechanic in New Tokyo. I was expecting a tired old man, not someone so…”

“Young?” Yuu offered. 

“That’s one way to put it,” Prince Mikaela said with a slight chuckle.

“Well, I’m flattered, but I’m sure your royal mechanics are far more skilled than someone who works in a stall at the marketplace,” Yuu pointed out, opening up a different access panel within the android to see if there was something wrong with this section that a team of skilled mechanics had somehow missed.

“If one of them would recommend you, I think you’re a lot better than you give yourself credit for.” 

Yuu’s cheeks turned slightly red at that, and he looked down more intently at the android to hide it. Yuu supposed he did have a point though. Prince Mikaela wasn’t the first to voice surprise that the supposed best mechanic in the city was a young boy, especially since Yuu tended to look younger than he actually was, since becoming a cyborg had stunted his growth. Though, most were surprised because they didn’t know the reason Yuu was so skilled. Generally speaking, when developing an understanding of machines, being part machine himself helped. Yuu didn’t broadcast that information though, wanting to keep the fact that he was a cyborg a secret from as many people as possible. He might go mad if everyone in New Tokyo looked at him with the same disdain Mahiru did.

“Sometimes androids just get old and worn out. It might be better for you to just get a new one.” Yuu didn’t see why that would be a problem for a prince, since usually people would only go through this much effort to have their android fixed if they couldn’t afford a new one. 

“That’s not really an option, unfortunately. This android contains top-secret information. It’s kind of a matter of national security, so I really need to get her fixed as soon as possible.” 

Yuu looked back up at Prince Mikaela, his lips parted for a moment as he considered asking why the hell he was trusting some random marketplace mechanic with a matter of national security. He didn’t have to ask in the end, as after a solid three seconds, the corner of the prince’s lip twitched. “Just kidding, she was my first android. My reasons are purely sentimental.”

An orange light flickered in the corner of Yuu’s vision next to the still-blinking red one. Apparently his optobionics had picked up on something Yuu didn’t see, some sort of tell Yuu had missed. 

He was used to the orange light. He saw it quite frequently.

It meant that someone was lying.

“National security,” Yuu muttered in a dull tone. “Funny.”

The prince tilted his head to the side, as if he was challenging Yuu to call him out on his lie. Clearly, he didn’t know that Yuu practically had a built-in lie detector. Whatever. People lied to Yuu all the time, and he didn’t actually care what the prince’s motives were. Yuu just needed to fix the android and get on with his life.

Turning his attention back to the machine on the table, Yuu focused on the engraving on the back of the android’s head. “Tudor 8.6 model,” Yuu read. That would make the android over twenty years old, which might as well be ancient by android standards. “She looks to be in perfect condition, so I’ll probably have to conduct a thorough examination to figure out what’s wrong… but I wonder…” Yuu’s voice trailed off as he had an idea, abruptly bringing his right fist down hard on the side of the android’s head, causing the prince to jump in surprise.

The android fell over onto its side,  but remained unmoving. Yuu frowned. “Hmm, I guess not…” 

At the prince’s rather confused and slightly alarmed stare, Yuu shrugged. “You’d be surprised at how often that works. I figured it’d be worth a shot since I doubt the royal mechanics would be the types to try and fix something by just hitting it really hard.”

“Are you certain you’re Hyakuya Yuuichirou?” The prince teased with a laugh, prompting Yuu to just roll his eyes. 

“Pretty sure we’ve been over this. Do you need to scan my ID chip or something to believe me?” before the prince had a chance to answer, Yuu heard the familiar voice of a rather excited android shouting his name as she ran towards Yuu’s shop.

“Yuu-san I’ve got it!” Shinoa said triumphantly, setting the shiny new metal foot on Yuu’s countertop next to the prince’s android. “It’s so much better than the old one! Only lightly used, and I managed to get the dealer down to only 600 univs. Plus, it looks like all the wiring’s already compatible!”

Yuu tried to hide his mortification at Shinoa’s abysmal timing, snatching up the foot and dropping it behind him, coming up with an excuse before Shinoa could say anything else and give Yuu away. He supposed he couldn’t exactly be irritated at the prince for lying anymore. “You’re a lifesaver, I’m sure Masanori-san will be delighted with the replacement foot for his escort droid.”

Shinoa tilted her head to the side. “Masanori-san? I don’t compute.” 

Yuu smiled at her through gritted teeth, nodding towards the prince. “Shinoa, say hello to our latest customer, His Imperial Highness.”

Shinoa’s eyes widened in surprise before understanding melted into her expression. Then, a smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. “Prince Mikaela, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said with a bow far more elegant than Yuu’s had been. In his defense, Shinoa had both legs, meanwhile Yuu was still balancing on one. “He’s even more handsome in person, don’t you think, Yuu-san?”

“Get in the booth, Shinoa,” Yuu grumbled, grabbing his android by the arm and yanking her around the countertop. 

“What? Am I wrong?” She teased, more quietly this time.

“I will deactivate you,” Yuu muttered under his breath. Shinoa simply continued to grin at the prince, whose cheeks were about as red as Yuu’s.

“You don’t see androids with much personality these days,” Prince Mikaela noted with a hint of amusement in his tone. “Did you program her yourself?”

“Actually, she came like that,” Yuu said, looking back at Shinoa who was setting Yuu’s new foot on the shelf behind him as though it was just another ongoing project. Which, technically it was. “I suspect a programming error.”

“I do not have a programming error!” Shinoa called out from behind Yuu. 

Prince Mikaela laughed once again. A strange, easy sort of laugh that Yuu wouldn’t have expected from a prince, yet it filled the air with a strange sort of warmth and made Yuu’s heart flutter. Yuu ducked his head down to focus back on the android.

“So, what do you think the problem is?” The prince asked.

Yuu shrugged, sitting down on his stool again and pulling the android closer to him to get a better look. He was probably breaking some rules of etiquette, but Prince Mikaela didn’t really seem to mind. “Not sure yet. I’ll need to run diagnostics and conduct a thorough examination. It’ll take me a few days, maybe a week.”

Prince Mikaela nodded in understanding. “Do you need payment up front?” he asked, holding out his left wrist, embedded with his ID chip.

Yuu shook his head. “I don’t accept payment unless I’m sure I can solve whatever the problem is.”

“How noble of you,” the prince said. Yuu wasn’t even looking at him, yet he could hear that warm smile in his voice.

“Says the guy who’s literally royalty,” Yuu muttered, prompting the prince to chuckle yet again.

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance you could have her done before the festival?” He asked, leaning over the counter to watch Yuu work.

“I think I could, but I can’t make any guarantees without knowing what’s wrong.”

“I know, I know,” Prince Mikaela murmured. “ Just wishful thinking.”

“How will I contact you when she’s ready?” Yuu asked, picking up a screwdriver again. 

“You can just comm the palace. Or, if you’re going to be here next week, I can stop by again?” Prince Mikaela offered. Yuu could practically hear Shinoa’s grin behind him before he even had a chance to answer.

“Oh yes that’s a good idea! You should definitely stop by again. Frequently, if you’d like. You know, just to check in on Yuu-san’s progress.”

Yuu spun around and gripped the screwdriver threateningly with a glare at Shinoa, but he turned back around to Prince Mikaela again before the gesture could look suspicious. He wouldn’t actually deactivate Shinoa, of course. She was his best friend, but sometimes he wished she was a little less embarrassing sometimes. 

“You really don’t have to-” Yuu started, but Prince Mikaela cut him off.

“It would be my pleasure,” he said with a nod of polite farewell. Yuu returned the nod, but didn’t want to test his balance again by trying to bow again like he was probably supposed to.

With that, the prince disappeared into the crowds, leaving Yuu with a broken android that probably contained a fair amount of secrets many people would kill for. A questionable choice of judgement, but Yuu knew he’d do his best to make sure all the information remained a secret, and to keep the android locked up when he wasn’t working on it.

“Prince Mikaela,” Shinoa mused with a grin, picking up the replacement foot off the shelf and walking towards Yuu. “Just think of what Akane will say when she hears about this.”

“My ears hurt just thinking about how much she’ll squeal,” Yuu muttered, though he couldn’t help but feel a small smile tug at the corners of his lips. Of Krul’s three children, Akane was the only one who was actually decent, kind to Yuu when the others taunted and mocked him. She was far too sweet to live with a woman like Krul, but at least she was well-treated. Akane had admired Prince Mikaela for as long as Yuu had known her, so Yuu couldn’t wait to tell her the story and see the way her face lit up in a smile. 

“Oh no,” Shinoa murmured, leaning down to get a better look at Yuu. 

“What?” Yuu asked, growing slightly paler at the tone in her voice.

“You have a smudge,” she said, looking at where there was probably a dark smudge of grease on Yuu’s cheek. It wasn’t uncommon for things like that to happen, since Yuu did work in a machine shop all day and had never cared much about his appearance, but the knowledge that he had just spoken to the Crown Prince of the Eastern Commonwealth with a smudge of grease on his face was more than a little embarrassing.

“Of course I do,” Yuu grumbled, looking back at Prince Mikaela’s android. 

“I’m sure he hardly noticed it,” Shinoa said reassuringly.

“It doesn’t matter I guess. I just have to fix his android. I don’t have to impress him with anything other than my skill as a mechanic.”

“Mhm,” Shinoa hummed, clearly unconvinced by Yuu’s front of indifference.

Yuu huffed. “Just help me put this on before any other members of the royal family happen to stop by.” He snatched the metal foot from Shinoa, working on attaching the wires to their correct positions, wondering if Shinoa and Yuu had truly fooled the prince with their terrible lie to conceal what Yuu truly was. 

“Well, how is it?” Shinoa asked once Yuu had the final screw in place, noting with relief that it was far more cooperative than his previous foot had been. 

“It’s perfect, Shinoa. Thank you,” he said, flexing his toes experimentally, feeling a sense of relief that it fit perfectly. It was a little stiff, but that was to be expected since he had only just put it on, and it’d take at least a few days to calibrate the new limb properly to the rest of his systems. At least now he wouldn’t have to stuff paper into the toe of his left shoe so it matched the size of his right, human leg. Hopefully he’d be a little less clumsy now as well. He just hoped Krul wouldn’t notice, since she might actually murder him if she knew he’d secretly withheld money from her and spent it all on a foot, of all things.

He glared over at his old one, crinkling his nose in distaste. “You can throw that old hunk of scrap away-” 

Yuu was cut off by the sound of a scream so loud and bloodcurdling he was briefly worried it might overload Shinoa’s auditory processing units. Or his, but at least Yuu’s brain was still almost entirely human. When the screaming stopped, the marketplace became deathly silent. Merchants stopped talking to their customers to gawk. The children who had been playing hide and seek crept out from their hiding places.

Immediately, Yuu recognized the source of the noise. The scream had come from Mahiru, the baker across the street. Yuu climbed on top of the counter to peer over the crowd, his eyes meeting the sight of the baker, standing over her trays of pork-buns and sweet-breads, looking at her outstretched hands with eyes filled with horror and fear. 

Abruptly, Yuu clamped his hands over his nose and mouth, holding his breath at the same time realization rolled through the rest of the crowd in a tsunami of terror.

“The plague!” Someone shouted. “She has the plague!”

The square erupted into chaos and panic. The mothers who had been calmly watching their children play abruptly ran forward and dragged them away as quickly as they could, holding their shirt sleeves over their mouths. Yuu could hear echoes all around him as shopkeepers slammed their doors shut. 

Kouta screamed and ran towards his mother, but Mahiru held her hands out and yelled at him to get back, to run away as far as he could. The netscreen dealer next to Yuu grabbed the boy and took off with him, and Mahiru nodded to him in thanks, but anything she said after that was lost in the uproar. 

Yuu’s stomach twisted itself into knots with unease, knowing that if he and Shinoa tried to run, they’d immediately get trampled by the crowd. Still holding his breath, Yuu reached up and gripped the rope that connected to the top of the rolling door to his shop, grabbing the grease-stained cloth from the countertop as he pulled the door down. 

He and Shinoa were cloaked in pitch darkness, the screams fading to dull, haunting echoes. The summer heat became more intense in the small, stuffy room, but Yuu put up with it anyway, holding the cloth over his nose and mouth and breathing as shallowly as he could through that. 

“Yuu-san?” Shinoa asked, concern clear in her voice. Androids couldn’t get the plague… but despite what society seemed to think, cyborgs were not androids.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Yuu whispered. “She’s all the way on the other side of the square. We’re far enough away.” Still, Yuu moved to the opposite wall of his shops, amongst the shelves and old machine parts.

They sat there in silence and darkness, seconds ticking by like hours as they waited for the emergency hover to come and take Mahiru away.