❯ .hack//SIGN – Guests at the Keep ( Chapter 6 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

A/N: Still reeling over the fact that this won Best AU/Divergence in the Maximum Challenge. Very, very, very happy about that!
On which subject: If you haven’t yet, then (after you’ve finished reading this chapter) go check out the rest of the winning entries; they’re awesome. And then go vote in the People’s Choice poll. Only six people have voted on Best of the Best so far.
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Six: Guests at the Keep
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For a long while after Subaru left, Tsukasa sat staring dully out the window. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be here. Make it go away. I don’t want to be here.
She shut her eyes, trying to remember the Voice’s words.
You want to get back there? You will.
Now, she thought bitterly, would be good. Aloud, though barely audible, she whispered, « Get me out of here. »
But there was no response. Not that she’d expected one; she wasn’t even sure, after all, that she was talking to anything more than a unusually vivid figment of her imagination.
A small, detached thought suggested that she should probably be a little worried about talking to voices in her head, although it went on to add that compared to everything else that was presently going on, that was probably a very minor worry. She ignored it; she didn’t have the energy to think about anything very much, just now.
And so she stayed sitting, motionless, on her bed, staring at clouds through the window. Not watching them — watching would have required more focus than she presently felt she could muster — but staring, unseeing, in their general direction, as words echoed over and over in her head.
I don’t want to be here. Get me out of here. I don’t want to be here. I hate this. I don’t want to be here…
Unseen and unheard, someone watched, and listened, and smiled.
* * * * *
Inside the entrance to the keep, Mimiru sank onto a stone bench and buried her face in her hands. Gods, if Tsukasa didn’t hate me before, she must now.
« What the hell are you talking about? »
For a few seconds, she had only been able to gape stupidly at the young mage. It was not until Tsukasa had rolled her eyes and turned away, shaking her head in scorn at the reaction, that Mimiru had found her voice. Even then, it had been a little shaky.
« T-Tsukasa, wait. You — you — you seriously don’t know? You don’t remember? »
The other girl did not stop, but only tossed over her shoulder, « Full marks for observation. »
Mimiru hurried after her. « Tsukasa, listen, this is serious. I’m serious. You — you disappeared, days ago. The Crimson Knights have practically been turning the whole plane inside out, trying to find you. If — if you really don’t remember, this must sound completely crazy, I know, but I swear it’s true. »
Tsukasa made no response, but started to walk a little more quickly. Without thinking, Mimiru reached out, put a hand on her arm. « Tsukasa, will you listen– »
Mimiru shut her eyes as the scene replayed in her head. Damnit, I was only trying to help. Everybody’s been worried sick about her. Would it kill her to act, for five seconds, like she actually cares about all the trouble her vanishing act caused? Gods, she is such a — such a selfish little twit, sometimes….
She looked up as she heard the footsteps approach, and was not surprised to see Lady Subaru round the corner a few seconds later. The footsteps were far too light and soft for the confident stride of a Knight on duty; by contrast, they sounded as if the Lady hesitated even to disturb the air of the keep over which she ruled.
Belatedly, Mimiru hopped to her feet, inclining her head in a slightly awkward bow. « Mi-milady. »
« Miss Mimiru. » Subaru’s voice was as quiet and shy as her tread, and despite her minor awe at being in the presence of nobility (without tripping over her own feet this time, thank any Gods), Mimiru found a part of her mind thinking, ruefully, From up close, it’s kind of hard to believe she rules the entire plane, isn’t it?
She stifled the thought firmly as Subaru went on, « I have just been to speak to your friend. »
« Tsukasa? » Mimiru grimaced, thinking a little guiltily of her mental tirade a few moments earlier. « Friend, uh,might not be exactly the word I’d use, but… » She shrugged, abandoning that thought, and said instead, « I barely got to see her at school, after the headmistress got hold of her. Is, uh — is she all right? »
Subaru’s brow creased. « I understand she is in good health, but she does not seem to be in such good spirits. » She shook her head, a troubled expression crossing her face. « I am sorry; I asked if you might see her, but she was very adamant that any visitors would be unwelcome. As I was clearly included in that, I did not like to press the issue much. Perhaps in a few days she will be feeling better. »
« Oh, I don’t know, » Mimiru muttered, making a face. « Sounds like she’s right back to her old self. » Realising she had said this aloud, she went red, and quickly amended, « Uh — sorry, milady. It’s just, um… » Unable to find words to express the sheer aggravation that was Tsukasa Shouji, she shrugged helplessly, shaking her head. « She’s… kind of difficult to get along with, sometimes. »
« So I have been told, » Subaru said gently, no reproof in her voice. « Still, I understand you are one of few who have made the effort. »
Mimiru had to admit that in the circumstances, this was self-evident; she was the only one of Tsukasa’s classmates present, after all, and most students in such a strange and disturbing situation would have attracted at least a handful of concerned friends and well-wishers. Nonetheless, she found herself a little embarrassed by the minor recognition, and stammered a half-hearted denial.
Subaru said nothing to this. Instead she continued, « So I should like to ask you for a small favour, if I may. »
Mimiru blinked. « Um. » A favour for the ruler of the plane? « Uh… wh… s… um… sure. I mean, uh — yes, Milady? »
Subaru smiled, and spoke hesitantly. « I only wanted to ask — I do not think Tsukasa trusts anyone here, very much. From what you have said I understand that you do not think she trusts you, either, but — you are, at least, a familiar face to her, and I — wondered if you would stay at the Keep for a day or two. I realise you would be missing school, but if she does find she wants company, someone to talk to, I think it would be best if someone she knew was present. Would you mind? There are plenty of guest rooms. »
Mimiru paused, considering this. That Tsukasa would decide she wanted company, she felt, was very, very improbable. That Tsukasa would decide she wanted Mimiru’s company — that was probably best categorised under When the sun rises on Gadelica City.
Both of these, however, seemed downright likely when compared to the chances that she would be invited to stay, as a guest, at the Keep of the Crimson Knights ever again. And this place had to be a step up from school dormitories.
Grinning at the Lady of Mac Anu, she said brightly, « No problem! »
* * * * *
The afternoon wore on into evening, and the sun sank beyond the city walls, bathing the Keep in reds and oranges. For a time, the melancholy glow spilled into a small training yard Edgeward of the central keep. The yard was empty at this hour, save for two people.
One was a small, slender figure, clad in loose white pants and a pale blue shirt, her turquoise hair pulled neatly back from her face. She was holding a short, plain wooden staff, and proceeding slowly through the motions of a training form, blocking and striking at imaginary opponents who had been carefully choreographed to move at one-tenth speed. Her movements were graceful enough, but her lone spectator, currently sitting unnoticed in a shadowed corner of the yard, thought that they were a little too controlled, a little too hesitant. The form was not a difficult one, and should, with plenty of practice and good teaching, have flowed with ease.
Subaru turned, beginning to raise the weapon to head-height as if to ward off an invisible blow — and froze, realising at last that she was being watched. After a long, uncertain moment, she drew herself up to a normal standing posture, lowering the staff to the ground. « Crim, » she said, her voice quiet and neutral. « I apologise — I did not realise I had company. »
Inwardly, Crim shook his head in disappointment. Stopping for the slightest distraction? I didn’t teach you that, Lady. But he doubted the criticism would be welcome, or heard. So he shrugged, and said only, “I was passing by, out for a walk, and saw you. Hope you don’t mind.” Before she could say whether she minded or not, he added, “What happened to your father’s battle-axe?”
Subaru’s face flushed slightly, and she glanced down at her thin arms. “Children can be unreasonable about things, but I did realize, eventually, that it would always be too heavy for me to lift. »
« Fair enough, » Crim agreed amiably. « What happened to yours, then? I know that one was light enough for you. »
She bit at her lip for a moment before saying, rather stiffly, « Ginkan thought it unsafe for me to be practicing with it. »
Safer than getting into a battle and not knowing how to use the damn thing? But again, some things were best unsaid. « I’m… glad to know he cares for your well-being. »
An odd look flickered in Subaru’s eyes for a moment, but her face remained unreadable. « He is very reliable, » she said levelly. « I have been lucky to have him working for me, these past few years. »
In other words, he doesn’t pick up and go chasing off after the open road with no warning, Crim’s thoughts supplied, and then ruefully added, Well, again: fair enough. « Good to hear. »
There was a long pause before he asked, mildly, « So some of your Knights saw Sora safely to a guest room? »
Subaru nodded stiffly. « He is under guard. »
« Good. Thank you. » Crim made a face. « Beats me if I know what to do with the damn kid, though. »
« As I said earlier– »
« Mac Anu can always find places for homeless children in its boarding schools. » Crim rubbed wearily at his forehead. « Yeah. I’m… not convinced that’s a good idea, in this instance. »
The Lady of the city tilted her head to one side, doubt in her eyes. « He didn’t seem such a bad child. »
Crim hesitated, wondering if there was a tactful way to answer this honestly. If there was, however, he couldn’t find it. « He killed one of the Cobalts who attacked him, » he said bluntly. « Injured a couple more. And there were a lot of them. »
Subaru’s eyes widened; this, she clearly had not expected. « He’s only a child. »
« Yeah, well. » Crim shrugged ruefully, thinking back over the last couple of days. « A ten year old demon-kin is still demon-kin, and he’s a hell of a fighter, I’ll give him that. I wasn’t kidding, earlier, when I said he needed guards. Look– » The man sighed. « Under the circumstances — any half-demon in their right mind would fight, if they were cornered by Cobalts. Not much chance of survival otherwise. So, personally, I can’t fault him for that, but that doesn’t mean I trust him, either. »
« I see. » Subaru did not quite frown, but there was the hint of a frown in her eyes. « I did not realise the situation was quite so… complicated. »
Crim grimaced. « Mm, well. Helping him out seemed like a good idea at the time. »
« You couldn’t have left him to the Cobalts, of course, » she said flatly.
Yeah… you try traveling with the little idiot for a couple days, and see how you feel on that score. Crim kept this thought to himself.
« You are sure he has no family? » Subaru asked.
« None that he’ll talk about. Claims he never met his parents. »
Now she did frown, albeit barely. « He must have had a very difficult life. »
« He’s good enough at making life difficult for other people, » Crim muttered.
Subaru ignored this. « If he is not to be put in school, though, I do not know that there is much Mac Anu can do for him. I dislike saying so, but… »
But the city has its system, and doesn’t work outside it very well, Crim supplied mentally.
« Perhaps… perhaps with proper… precautions, safeguards, » she ventured a moment later, « he would not be such a danger? Some of the academies, for instance, have many well-trained magi among their teachers and staff, and some warriors as well; surely, if someone kept a close eye on him, they could deal with any — problems he might cause? Or try to cause, » she added. « I am sure they have all dealt with… troubled students before. »
« Maybe, » Crim said noncommittally. He had a bad feeling about it, but it was probably that or try to drag the kid off to some other city, and see if they could deal with him, and that didn’t really look like a better option.
As much to buy himself time to think it over as from actual fatigue, he yawned. « But how ’bout we discuss it tomorrow, huh? He’s not the only one who just had a long journey. »
Subaru inclined her head politely, but when she spoke, the stiff, level neutrality had returned to her tone. « Of course. You are welcome to stay in the Keep for the night– »
He waved this away. « No need, » he said shortly. « I’ll go find a room at the Haven. »
Her lips thinned very slightly, but she said only, « Then I shall see you on the morrow, Sir Crim. »
He bowed, and left.
* * * * *
She was running barefoot through a forest, as fast as she could, and laughing.
Bet you can’t catch me!
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed like this, not in bitterness or cynicism at the stupidity of the world, but in sheer exhilaration, at movement for the sake of movement. And right now, she wasn’t going to try to remember. The cold, fresh air felt good on her face, as early morning sunlight filtered down through new leaves and dappled the forest floor with shadows. It was a perfect moment, and not one to be spoiled by thinking about anything.
A light, childish voice, tinged with laughter of its own, sounded behind her, and she glanced back over her shoulder. A little girl with white hair was running after her, and Tsukasa remembered: they’d been playing tag. Feeling slightly chagrined — it didn’t do to go running so fast when you were playing with someone half your size, but she’d got caught in the moment — she slowed to a jog. « There you are, » she called back, grinning. « Thought I’d lost you. »
The girl beamed. In a blink, she was beside Tsukasa, and whacked her on the arm, although not very hard. « You’re it! »
And then she was racing away again, giggling cheerfully. Tsukasa waited for a moment to give her a head start (and, admittedly, to catch her breath. )
When the girl had disappeared among the trees, Tsukasa started after her, dodging leaves and branches that suddenly seemed far more determined to get in her way than they had a few minutes ago. She ran around the edge of a dark thicket of some unidentifiable, thorny plants —
–And stopped, staring at the brilliant river of red which met her eyes.
She had found herself on a shadowed path, in a wood which had abruptly grown much darker. But the lack of light was almost made up for by the path’s carpet of bright red flowers, which grew so thick together that they completely hid the ground. In the distance, the little girl in white stood quietly amidst the blaze of colour and stared back at her, all traces of merriment gone from her demeanour.
Tsukasa glanced down at her feet. The flowers were spider lilies, their blossoms as intricate as they were bright.
They’re poisonous, you know, a thought whispered, but she barely heard it, and she walked forward as if drawn by an invisible cord.
The little girl waited patiently, the game forgotten, until at last Tsukasa reached her side. And then she looked up at Tsukasa, scrutinizing the young mage’s face, her clear blue eyes unreadable. Very quietly, she said, « Why did you bring me here? »
Tsukasa blinked. « I… don’t understand. I was following you. »
« Were you? » The ghost of a smile graced the girl’s face, and she turned to stare along the red path. Something in her expression suddenly looked much older than her apparent four or five years. « You know, they say when you see someone you’ll never see again, spider lilies– » (1)
–And Tsukasa woke, to darkness lit only by the wan moonlight that filtered in through the small window of her room.
For a moment she was disoriented by the abrupt awakening, the forest and the little girl in white still vivid in her mind. It hadn’t felt like a dream — and that was normal enough for dreams while they were going on, perhaps, but not so much after they ended. Dreams faded quickly upon awakening, she knew from bitter experience.
But then — it hadn’t actually felt like awakening, either. It just felt like she’d been there, and then, without preamble, had been here instead.
Not that it mattered much what it felt like, she thought. What mattered was what was: in this case, that she was lying in bed with a blanket pulled over top of her, and it was the middle of the night, and any fool in the World could have put two and two together to determine that she had just woken up from a dream.
So… it had been a dream.
A strange, hollow ache crept across her at that certainty. The river of lilies had been very beautiful, in a strange, mournful way, and the bright morning woods that had come before it–
She shut her eyes, trying not to think of what joy had felt like. It was entirely too painful.
They say when you see someone you’ll never meet again–
The young mage was so lost in her thoughts that when a quiet, muffled thud sounded from somewhere not far away, she barely heard it. It was only several seconds later that the sound actually registered, bringing her back to reality. She opened her eyes, but could see nothing in the shadows.
A cautious search of the small table by her bed found a candle, but though she knew there were matches somewhere, they eluded her questing hand. She could try to light the candle with a spell, but that was a risky business; fire magic was not her strongest suit, and she did not think she trusted herself not to set the bedclothes alight. Light magic was a safer proposition.
She closed her eyes again and this time focused, seeking, in her head, the ripples of the Wave which ran through everything. Speaking the right words was only part of spellcasting; you had to know exactly what and how to be thinking, at the time you spoke…
Under her breath, she whispered, « Rai Kan. »(2)
A ball of silvery light flickered into life over the palm of her outstretched hand, and one corner of her mouth twisted upwards. In all honesty, light magic was not her strong point either; the magi at her school said that earth was her born element. But she could manage this much, at least, without difficulty.
She glanced around the room. The light was not very bright, but it did reach to every corner, if only barely.
There was no one there.
No one? She frowned as, belatedly, she remembered. There had been two guards inside the door. As if it hadn’t been bad enough that the Knights had locked her up, they wouldn’t even give her solitude.
Their absence was not unwelcome, certainly, but it was… strange.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she stood up, and took a step towards the door.
And stopped, as the light reached what it had missed before: Two figures crumpled on the floor by the wall, completely motionless.
Words rang in her head, and her heart skipped a beat — but they were not spoken by the familiar, comforting voice of the cathedral. This was a strange, sly voice, and spoke laughingly; for a moment the laughter reminded Tsukasa, incongruously, of the cheerful game of tag in the woods.
My sincerest apologies, Tsukasa-Who-Doesn’t-Like-To-Be-Called-Miss, for my belated arrival. But nonetheless –I do believe you called. And I do believe I’ve answered! So:
What do you say? Ready to get out of here?
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Notes:
(1) In A.I. Buster 2, Hokuto tells Albireo, « They say that when you see someone that you’ll never meet again, spider lilies carpet the path in red. » I haven’t been able to find where this came from originally, though. Anybody happen to know?
(2) No, this isn’t a spell from the games, but I needed a name for a light spell that just lit up, without frying, zapping, or otherwise doing damage to anything.
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A/N: Feedback is always welcome!

.hack//SIGN – Meetings and Reflections