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The Stranger That Appears

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When Juto arrives, the first thing he asks is, "How's he doing?"

Nix's face lights up. "Remarkably well," he says. "Really, it's incredible how much fortitude you both have -- of course, it's what we were aiming for, but to think you could surpass our expectations so much --"

"Thanks," Juto says before that can go any further. Another lecture on their weird biology is entirely too much information, and not really what he meant. "Is he awake?"

"He is," Nix says. "And he's asked about you. Do you know, I think he's growing fond of you. And he hasn't even had the chance to be fully socialized the way you have!"

"Right," Juto says. He smiles uncomfortably. "I wouldn't want to keep him waiting." He ducks past Nix and slips through the curtain that separates the makeshift lab from the equally thrown-together tiny hospital.

Elgar is sitting up in bed, his face turned toward the doorway -- probably watching, but with that damn visor on it's impossible to be sure. "I thought I heard your voice, First," he says.

"I said I was coming back today, right?" Juto says. He comes over to stand next to the bed, tries to look Elgar in the eyes. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm not an invalid," Elgar says, but he sounds sort of pleased that Juto would ask. This close, Juto can see a little hairline crack running through the visor's right lens. Probably he put that there. And he had every reason to do it at the time, but it doesn't make him all that proud to look at it now.

"Why don't you take that thing off?" he asks.

Elgar recoils a little, one hand coming up in a blocking motion even though Juto hasn't moved. "Why?"

Because you don't need it anymore, Juto thinks. Because I want to see your face. "I thought you might want to go into town," he says. "If you're feeling up for it."

"Of course I'm up for it," Elgar says.

"But you wouldn't want to go as Elgar," Juto says. "He's not a terribly popular guy these days."

Elgar snorts. "I should do what you've done, First? Change my clothes, introduce myself by some other name, try to forget what I am?"

"I didn't try to --" Juto stops when he realizes how loud his voice is. "I haven't forgotten," he says. "That's why I'm here. Because of...what we are."

There's a pause, while Elgar holds very still and Juto tries to stay quiet and not keep arguing. Finally, Elgar reaches up and slips the visor off. It's obvious immediately why they wore it -- his eyes are wide and blue, and they make his face seem much younger and softer.

"Thanks," Juto says, and sits down carefully on the edge of the bed, setting down the bundle of clothes he brought with him. "That's already a good start."

"A good start," Elgar repeats. Juto wonders if he has any idea how needy his expression looks now that his face is exposed. "What next?"

Juto reaches out carefully, runs his fingertips over Elgar's braids. "These should come out," he says. "They're really distinctive."

Elgar shifts closer, half turns his back so Juto can reach the twist of black and red silk that holds the braids up at the crown of his skull. "Go ahead, then."

"You want me to do it?" Juto asks.

"It was your idea," Elgar says. His back is tense, muscle sharply outlined under bare skin.

"Okay," Juto says.

He never did his own braids -- he remembers a girl whose job it was to redo them whenever they got too messy. Too ordinary, too human. She was one of Claire's playthings, but he can't remember her name, if he ever knew it to start with. He does remember how she always pulled the braids tight, and he definitely remembers the ache on the left side of his scalp until they'd had time to start slipping loose again.

Undoing them is the easy part, though. Juto unties the wrap that holds them together and separates the individual braids. Elgar sits quietly, just waiting, as Juto starts to loosen the first one. His hair is satin-smooth, heavy, kinked from being bound up for so long. He tenses again when Juto starts to ease free the tight row the braid traces across his scalp, and Juto tries his best to be gentle.

"Probably be a lot more comfortable when we get these out, huh," he says.

Elgar shrugs one shoulder. "That was never important," he says.

Juto nods, even though Elgar can't see him. "I remember. It's different now, though."

"For you," Elgar says. "I haven't agreed to live like you, First."

"Yeah? You have some other plan?" Juto says. He's kind of being a dick, but Elgar needs to hear this stuff from somebody, and better him than Crocell or Rue.

Elgar jerks away, turning sharply. Juto's fingers are still tangled in his hair, and it pulls. "I should never have needed one!" he says. "If you hadn't turned on him --"

"He threw me away!" Juto retorts. It's not quite true, and even he knows that, but --

"You were defective," Elgar says.

Juto's fist comes up before he's even thought about it, and the only thing that stops him from throwing the punch is the look on Elgar's face. He's not going to fight back. He's not going to try to get away. He's just going to take it, and that takes the wind right out of Juto's sails. Hitting him won't change anything, won't be anything new.

Instead Juto leans forward and gets Elgar by the shoulders to pull him close.

Elgar goes tense as sprung steel in his arms. "What are you doing, First?" he says flatly, barely a question.

"Nobody's ever hugged you," Juto says. That's not a question, either. He remembers what it was like.

"It's a human thing," Elgar says.

Juto shakes his head. "We're not that different," he says. He starts to move one hand, rubbing Elgar's back. "We can feel anything they can."

Elgar shivers in his arms. "It's not what we're for," he says.

The first things Juto thinks of to say -- you don't have any orders now or you don't have to listen to him anymore -- wouldn't be any comfort. The idea of disappointing Master is still awful even now that he's been bound to someone else. Juto holds on tighter. "It's...I think it's okay to be more than he made us. That's not letting him down."

Elgar laughs, harsh, brittle. "As if your opinion counts," he says. When Juto tries to pull back, though, Elgar's hands come up and catch in the back of his shirt. "First," he says, barely more than a whisper.

Juto reaches up and runs his fingers through the silver half of Elgar's hair, the long straight fall they never braided. "I'm here for you," he says.

Elgar lets him do that for a little while, just leaning into him and breathing slowly. Eventually he says, "You didn't finish my braids."

"Sorry." Juto smiles, his face buried in the hollow of Elgar's neck, but makes sure to stop that before he pulls back. "Here, let me help."

He takes it pretty slow, smoothing each lock of hair between his fingers, letting the soft weight of it slide. It feels pretty good to do, and he thinks Elgar must like it, too, from the way his shoulders slowly relax. Maybe it's going to be okay. Juto hopes so. Bringing Elgar back here was his idea.

"You don't know what it feels like, do you?" Elgar asks, when Juto only has a few braids left to go. Juto's still trying to figure out what he means when he clarifies: "Not having a master."

"I --" He wants to say yes, of course he does. Wasn't that what he was doing on Highwind Island? "I...I don't know. I don't think so. Not the way you mean it." He tries to keep his hands moving while he thinks about it. "When I was on the island, I guess I still belonged to him, even if I didn't know it." He laughs sheepishly. "And even without knowing I had a master, I was still doing what I was told all the time."

"It hurts, First," Elgar says, and his voice cracks. "I should be able to feel him there. I should know where I belong. I should have orders. And there's nothing." He bows his head, runs his fingers through his loosened hair and pulls on it. "Just silence." He's shaking again, but when Juto tries to put a hand on his back he flinches away. "Why wasn't it you? You were the one who failed! Why are you the one who -- who --"

"Elgar," Juto says. He feels awful, feels responsible, like -- it was Master's choice, not his, to make Elgar after Juto failed. But it was still because of him. And all the expectations were because of him, because of things he'd done before Elgar was even alive. "I'm sorry."

Elgar glares at him, but it looks a lot more hurt than dangerous. "Why you?" he says. "Why did he want me to be you? Why are you the one who has a new master? I followed my orders!" He crumples in on himself. "It isn't fair."

"It isn't fair," Juto agrees. "He's not a good master." He can't help flinching then, but the pain doesn't come. He belongs to Zephie now.

"He's the only one I've ever had," Elgar says. "I wouldn't know."

Juto wants to hug him again. Compassion is definitely not what they were made for, but if he can learn it, Elgar can too. Didn't Nix say they've been surpassing expectations? They can be human in all the ways that count, if they just try.

"Come here," he says, and this time Elgar doesn't tense up so much when Juto touches him. He leans into it instead, his head on Juto's shoulder, his hair spilling loose over Juto's arm.

"First," Elgar says. "Why are you doing this?"

Juto rubs his back slowly. "I don't want you to hurt," he says. "We're the same, only you didn't get any of the chances I did. And I...I want you to." Elgar holds onto him, too tight, but Juto doesn't pull away. "Maybe...maybe there's a way to bind you to a new master, too, the way they did for me. I'll ask -- we can go ask Nix together. If you want."

Elgar nods. "Yes," he says. He doesn't let go, though.

But that's okay. Juto's not going to rush him. He can take all the time he needs.