❯ .hack//SIGN – Then Again, Maybe Not ( Chapter 4 )

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

Subaru woke with a start to see early morning light streaming through the window of her study. Sometime around midnight she’d fallen asleep in her armchair, lost in thought as she stared at the remnants of the fire flickering on the hearth. No more than a few feebly glowing embers remained, now.
No messengers from Fort Ouph last night, then. She had to admit, privately, that she was relieved about that. She trusted Crim, but… he was impulsive, to say the least. She wasn’t at all sure that she ought to have agreed to go along with his odd plan, not without knowing rather more of the story… though a small, treacherous thought whispered that by the time she’d heard more of the story, it might already have ended in the boy’s death.
No, she’d… she’d done the right thing, she told herself firmly. She must have. Crim might leap before he looked, at times, but even so, she’d never seen him lose his footing upon landing — his judgment was good.
Still, she would be just as glad not to be involved too closely in the matter, if he could manage without her. She was a terrible liar, she knew; on the rare occasions she tried, she always worried too much, and that came out in her voice. In truth, she’d spent all of the past evening worrying over what to say, should she be confronted about Crim’s actions. She’d never really come to a solid conclusion on the subject, either.
Yes — better for all concerned if Crim dealt with this on his own.
There was a tentative tap at the door. She leapt to her feet, startled, and peered in the mirror over the fireplace, hastily smoothing down stray strands of hair in the hopes of looking as though she had awoken more than five minutes previously. Having done the best she could, she called, « Come in. »
The door opened. Ginkan was standing there, his face slightly pale. « M-milady Subaru. » He bowed deeply; she wished she could stop him doing that every time he saw her, but she’d given up on it some years ago.
« Ginkan! Come in. Is something the matter? »
« I — there — that is to say — I am sorry to disturb you, but I… wished to speak with you at the earliest possible moment. »
« What is it? » she asked, now alarmed. Ginkan rarely looked seriously worried about anything, but he did now.
« There was… » He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. « We had a visitor last night, milady. A young woman, a messenger from the Cobalt Knights. »
Subaru’s stomach twisted into a knot. Ginkan wasn’t supposed to hear of this. « We– we did? You spoke with her? »
Ginkan’s expression grew uncomfortable. « She asked to see you, milady, but it was late, and I did not wish to disturb your rest. »
« What did she say? »
« She came to ask confirmation of a request that the Cobalt Knights had received — that they hand over a demon they had taken prisoner. Milady– »
« What did you tell her? » She could not quite keep the urgency from her tone. « Is she still here? I– »
He blinked at this; for a brief moment he looked nonplussed. « I offered her lodging in the keep for the night, but she was in a hurry to be back. I told her to hand the creature over, of course. »
« You– » Subaru stared at him. « You did? »
Now he definitely looked puzzled. « Should I not have, milady? »
« What? No! I — that is– » She let out a shaky breath she had not realised she was holding. « I — I feared you would not. Thank you, Ginkan. I should not have tried to keep the matter secret from you; I am sorry. »
He considered this, and then said slowly, « You are welcome, of course, milady, and your apology accepted. But may I ask for an explanation? »
« Yes. » She swallowed. « Of course. It was at Crim’s request, you see… »
She laid the story out as briefly as she could, trying not to feel like a child caught misbehaving. When at last she had finished, Ginkan said only, slowly, « I… see. »
« Thank you for telling the messenger as you did, » she added hesitantly.
Once again he seemed to be choosing his words carefully; she wondered at that, but was too relieved that an argument had been avoided to give it much thought. « I did not know the contents of Crim’s letter to you, milady, of course, but when the messenger spoke his name… I assumed that this was the matter of which he had written, and I knew you had said you would do what you could. I… trust your judgment, milady, always. »
« Thank you, » she said quietly.
« You are most welcome, milady. Now, there are other matters to which I must attend, if I may? »
She nodded.
« Then good morning to you. » He swept her another bow, and then disappeared out the door.
* * * * *
Crim was pretty sure that he had, at some point, had a good reason for going to all this trouble.
He could not, however, bring it to mind at present. It might have been all right if he’d only been able to persuade the Cobalt Knights that he could handle the prisoner on his own. In that case he might have been able to explain things, make the boy see that he bore him no ill will. But as it was, the Cobalts had decided that if they were to give up a murderer to Mac Anu, they were going to see that he got to Mac Anu, and Crim knew he would only have made them more suspicious than they already were had he tried to refuse their assistance. It was not an unreasonable request on their part, given how much damage the boy had done already.
And it still might have been all right… if only Kamui Shibayama had not, somehow, persuaded her commander that she ought to be among the demon-boy’s guard. Something wasn’t right, there: the young woman was practically dead on her feet after having made the journey once already, and given that there were plenty of others far better rested, there had been no obvious and sensible reason for her not to remain behind. But the commander had been insistent.
Well, I’m not the only one who can refuse to explain myself, Crim thought ruefully. You get what you give, huh? He wished she hadn’t come, though. The other two who had joined him were stolid and largely silent and betrayed about as much emotion as rocks, but Kamui was boiling over with anger and practically exploded at the slightest annoyance, and Sora, unfortunately, was very well aware of this. And wasn’t helping. At all.
Since they’d set foot on the road, he had been chattering away cheerfully and incessantly, about, it appeared, absolutely anything that came into his head. It was a nice day, didn’t everyone think, and weren’t they glad that he’d come along so that they had an excuse to spend such a nice day out in the fresh air and sunshine and open countryside, rather than stay back in that boring little town beating up prisoners or however they normally passed the time?
And it would be fun to go through Fort Ouph, wouldn’t it, and was there any chance they could stay for a few hours before going on to Mac Anu, because there was this really good restaurant there, he couldn’t remember the name right now but it was right on the Edge, which meant you could watch the clouds go past almost underneath your feet while you ate, which was pretty neat.
And, incidentally, while he was on that subject, was it true that when people died in the Fort, their bodies were dumped over the Edge, like he’d heard? Because he knew that scholars thought that the Fort was floating over an endless amount of empty space, but how did they really know there wasn’t anything down there? And if they were wrong, wouldn’t it be a bit surprising for the people living waaay down below, if every so often a dead body came crashing through the roof… although he supposed they’d just move someplace else, eventually, unless maybe they were cannibals, in which case perhaps they wouldn’t mind so much.
And wasn’t that a very interesting-looking plant they’d just walked past, and did anyone know what it was called? And did that cloud over there look sort of like a dragon to anybody else, or was it just him?
…And on. And on. And on.
And on.
Eventually Kamui had hit him. It hadn’t had quite the effect she’d intended, however. Admittedly Sora had, at that point, stopped talking, but only because his teeth had lodged in her hand.
Thankfully, Crim had managed to get the two of them separated before anyone suffered serious harm — and the Cobalt mage accompanying them, though not a healer by trade, had managed to stop Kamui’s hand from bleeding — but still… only two hours on the road, and already it had been a long, long day–
« Hey, look at that boulder over there. Can we go climb it? I bet you can see all the way to– »
« No. »
« Oh, don’t you like heights? Okay. Can I go climb up it? »
« No. »
« Aww, you’re no fun, » the boy sulked. « How ’bout– »
« Listen, kiddo, » Crim interrupted; this was the fifth variant on this particular exchange that they’d had so far. « For the last. Gods. Damned. Time. You are not going anywhere, except to Mac Anu. »
« Hey, language, la-n-gu-a-ge. » Sora drew the word out in a sing-song tone, giving it several more syllables than should by rights have been possible. « That any way to talk in front of the Cobalts? They’re picky about that stuff. Oi, now I come to think of it– » He rounded on Kamui. « I got a thrashing yesterday, just for swearing at one of you, why doesn’t he? No fair. »
Her lip curled into a sneer. « You’ll get another pretty soon, demon, if you don’t shut up. »
« Ha! Like to see you try. How’s your hand doing? » Sora smirked, the mocking sing-song returning to his voice. « Mister Cri-im, that nasty ol’ woman’s threatening me again, make her sto-op… And that’s half-demon to you, thank you, » he corrected Kamui primly, resuming a more normal tone. « Well, prob’ly. Quarter, half… something like that, if I had to guess, which I do, ’cause do I look like I ever met my parents? And you people might’ve taken that into consideration, I mean, sheesh. Here’s this poor, homeless, starving little kid, living on the streets, reduced to thievery just to stay alive, and he gets attacked by– »
« Sora? » Crim interrupted hastily, before Kamui’s dour glare and clenched fists could turn into anything more openly violent.
« Yup? »
« You heard the nice young lady who hasn’t killed you yet. Shush. »
« Hey, I just asked a perf’cly reasonable question, and she practically bit my head off. How come I’m the one who’s got to be quiet? »
Two hours, this had been going on now. Frankly, Crim was only barely resisting the urge to chuck both Sora and Kamui off the nearest handy cliff and have done with–
« Are we there yet? »
All right, or maybe just Sora.
* * * * *
It was a tired, disgruntled and ever so slightly worried Sora who finally arrived in Mac Anu, two days later.
His fears about the Cobalts’ precautions had proven more than justified. They had replaced the cuffs he’d worn in his cell with silly, flimsy little scraps of paper bearing more of the Knights’ odd variety of mage-writing. The things should, in theory, have torn off with a few seconds’ work.
This they had not done.
What they had done, and were continuing to do, was sap at his strength, making his limbs feel as if they were dragging heavy weights along with them. And though they didn’t sting whenever he tried to move, like the ones in his cell had done, they did if he tried to move too quickly. In Sora’s book there was no such thing as fighting fair, but even so, he considered that this was about as close to cheating as anything he’d ever seen.
Crim had actually been bizarrely decent about the matter, stopping frequently to let him rest. Kamui had been less so. At least she’d grown sensibly wary of Sora since he had tried to bite her hand off, but said wariness had manifested itself in a tendency to wear chain-mail gauntlets, which he was fairly certain his teeth wouldn’t survive if he tried to bite her again. Unfortunately, she’d also worked out that while he was quick enough to dodge most of the blows she aimed at him, the line between being quick enough to duck and being quick enough to set off the enchantments binding him was so fine as to be invisible. She’d found this rather more amusing than Sora had, and had pounced on any excuse to take advantage of it.
Other than all of that, the journey had been fine — entertaining, even — right up until they’d reached the Gate to Fort Ouph, at which point it had turned out that Crim was not entirely stupid. They’d been just about to step through the Gate when he had stopped, given Sora a long, careful stare, turned to one of the Gate guards and said, « Excuse me — have you got any rope? »
Sora had kicked, hit, and generally refused to hold still, but eventually Crim had threatened to knock him unconscious and drag him the rest of the way, and since at that point the Knights’ enchantments had been pretty close to knocking him out anyway, he’d sullenly given in. So now his hands were tied behind his back, and his feet were tied together. He could still walk, if he took short steps, but if he tried to run he’d trip himself up and, given how his luck had been going, would probably break his neck. He had protested that the Knights’ spells were surely enough to keep him from getting away; Crim had very calmly replied that they hadn’t been enough to slow him down a few minutes earlier, and Sora, reluctantly, had had to concede the point.
Well, face it. You knew you didn’t have a hope in hell of getting away from them, not really. Not unless they were all completely incompetent. Though he didn’t like to admit it, he knew he’d made most of his escape plans simply in an effort to keep himself from thinking about what the Crimson Knights were going to do to him. He tried consoling himself with the thought that at the very least, they had to be better than the Cobalts, but this invariably ended Yeah, but so was that dragon I met last week, and it tried to eat me alive. Besides, I’ve done a lot worse to the Crimsons than I have to the Cobalts, so things may sort of even out.
He was pretty sure that Mac Anu had some laws somewhere about not torturing little kids to death. He just wished he was as sure that this protection extended to thieving, murderous little demon-kids. He wasn’t about to ask, though, not with Kamui listening; she would find the prospect far too entertaining. So he trudged along the city streets in more-or-less silence, for once too tired and preoccupied with his thoughts to bother with trying to annoy anyone.
One odd thing had happened shortly after they came into the city, though: Crim had made an attempt to get rid of the Cobalts, though he hadn’t pressed the issue when they insisted on staying. Sora had to wonder about that. All right, so I probably can’t go anywhere right at this instant, but just you give me a few minutes to get these cords loosened up… The man had been paranoid enough up to now; surely he had to realise that even now, it wouldn’t be a good idea to relax his guard.
As it was, though, there wasn’t a lot Sora could do, and so at last they arrived, uneventfully, at the walls of the keep. The boy mustered up the most cheerful farewell to Kamui that he could presently manage, and had the minor satisfaction of seeing her fists clench ever-so-slightly as she glowered at him. And then Crim was ushering him through the gates, and then the gates were clanging shut behind him…
He tried to ignore the uneasiness that had been gradually settling in his stomach over the last few hours, and the thought that went with it: I’m dead, aren’t I.
When they were a few steps down the path, however, Crim stopped and looked over his shoulder for a moment as if waiting for something. Sora, puzzled, followed his gaze. Kamui and her fellow Knights were just visible through the ironwork, walking away down the cobbled street.
After watching them for a few seconds, the man blew out a breath that sounded almost relieved. « All right. » Sora looked up at him curiously — something in his tone had changed.
Crim nodded to him. « All right, » he repeated. « There’s a few things we ought to get sorted out now, I think, but first — here. Turn around, I’ll untie your hands. »
Sora blinked in surprise at this, and then, a little sheepishly, held up his hands for display. One wrist was still tangled in the thick cord, but he’d at last succeeded in working the other loose just a few seconds ago. « Um. Beat you to it. »
The man shook his head wearily, and muttered, sounding more exasperated than angry, « Why am I not surprised? Well… anyway. There’s a bench over there. How ’bout you sit down for a few minutes? I’ve, ah… got a certain amount of explaining to do. »
Five minutes later, Sora was doubled over and laughing so hard that he could barely breathe. « You, » he gasped, when at last he could speak again, « have got to be joking. You’re telling me this whole thing was a — a bluff? »
Crim coughed. « Well, pretty much. Yeah. »
A lot of questions were occurring to Sora at the moment, but one in particular stood out among the crowd, and really, it pretty much summarised all the others.
« Why? »
Crim shrugged. « Not all of us like the way the Cobalt Knights do things. And I don’t just stand by and watch, when I see things I don’t like. »
The boy shook his head in disbelief. « You are out of your bloody mind. You realise this? »
« And you’re still alive, » Crim said sharply. « You realise that? A thank-you would not be out of order, here. »
« Oh, yeah. » Sora was still chuckling. « Thanks. Really, honest. You… you have no idea. » About a whole heck of a lot of things, apparently. Well, hey — what you don’t know won’t hurt you. With a sudden surge of energy he pushed himself to his feet, and went on brightly, « Anyway, I guess I’ll be going, then — don’t want to trouble you any longer, you know — thanks again… » He didn’t have a whole lot of hope that it would actually work, but, feeling that anyone stupid enough to rescue him might just be stupid enough to fall for this as well, he turned around and started to stride briskly away. He’d gotten his feet untied while Crim was explaining the situation to him; the Cobalts’ enchantments still dragged at his limbs, unfortunately, but he thought he would be able to keep up a decent pace at least until he was out of sight, at which point it shouldn’t matter so much if he fell over.
He didn’t get more than two steps before Crim’s hand latched onto his collar, and the man said grimly, « Nice try, kiddo. Get back here. »
Sora glanced over his shoulder and grinned ruefully, trying his best to look suitably chagrined and — more importantly — like someone upon whom it would be perfectly safe for Crim to turn his back for, say, five minutes. « Figured it was worth a shot. »
« Yeah, well. » Crim returned the grin, but Sora got the uneasy impression that the man wasn’t falling for it; this impression was strengthened when the grip on the back of his neck redoubled. « Don’t push your luck. Now get back here, sit down, and don’t make me tie your damned feet together again, understood? »
Sora considered this. He did not, right now, really want to gamble on the assumption that just because Crim didn’t know who he was, none of the Crimson Knights did either, and as such most of his instincts were screaming at him to run as soon as he got the chance. A few more sensible of his instincts, however, were voicing the opinion that yes, he could try to run… but if he did, would he please give them plenty of time to get far, far away, first, because they didn’t really want to be stuck in his body when the Cobalts’ enchantments went off yet again, thank-you-very-much. He had to admit, he was starting to think that the latter crowd had the right idea. The last few days had been very long ones.
« ‘L right, all right, » he grumbled. « Sheesh. No need to be so cranky about it. » He fell sullenly back onto the bench, and tried to ignore how good it felt to be off his feet. Maybe it really wasn’t that likely that any of the Crimsons would recognise him. Maybe he’d just stick around for a few hours…
« Thank you. Now– »
But a soft, feminine voice prevented him from saying more. « Crim! Th-there you are. I — one of the guards on the gate told me that you had arrived. »
The speaker was a young woman, slender and pretty, her face framed by teal-coloured hair; Sora had never seen her in person before, but there were enough portraits of her about that she was easily recognisable as the city’s ruler.
The exasperation faded quickly from Crim’s face, Sora noted in mild amusement, before the man got to his feet and turned to face the newcomer. « Subaru, » he said warmly, and bowed. « It’s good to see you. You’re looking well. »
« Thank you. » There was an oddly stiff note to her voice, but it faded as she turned to Sora. « And you must be Mr. Sora, » she said politely.
Sora was struck with a momentary coughing fit. « Mister Sora? » he repeated incredulously, and glanced towards Crim, who gave him a reproving look. « Uh — are you sure we’re all speaking the same language, here? »
« Was I mistaken? » Subaru asked.
His lips twitched. « Uh… no. No. Not — not mistaken as such, Lady. It’s, um, not what people normally call me, ‘s all. » As an afterthought, he added, « On the other hand, mostly people call me you little bastard, so I’ll grant you it’s a step up. »
Subaru’s brows rose slightly, but she said only, « I… see. »
« Anyway, yeah, that’s me. Hi. » He found himself a little bit cheered by the sight of her. Of course, he knew as well as anyone that appearances could be deceiving, but… there was an indefinable air of gullibility about the young woman, and from all he’d ever heard of her, he doubted that it was an affectation. Good. Gullible is good. I likegullible. Suddenly feeling that it might not hurt to appear at least vaguely polite, he hopped to his feet and, rather belatedly, bowed.
Crim gave him a dubious look at these newfound good manners, but the Lady only smiled. « No need for that, » she said gently. « Do come inside, both of you — are you hungry? I shall ask someone to send food up from the kitchen, if you like. »
That does it — getting the heck out of here can definitely wait. A free meal was not to be passed up. « Yes, please, » Sora said hastily, before Crim had even opened his mouth to accept or reject the offer. No need to fake the slight urgency in his tone — he had gone without food plenty of times before, but there had been even less of it than usual over the last several days.
« Well, then. » Subaru looked him up and down for a moment, as if only now really seeing him. Sora did his best to look pitiful, but not a lot of work was needed there, either. He was skinny even at the best of times, his clothes had definitely seen better days, and he felt a sudden faint spark of gratitude towards Kamui for leaving him with a couple of nicely dramatic, albeit painful, bruises. Shame there wasn’t some half-dried blood streaked down the side of his face, he thought critically, but that couldn’t be helped now; his shirt was hiding what blood there actually was, which seemed a complete and utter waste of good drama if ever there was one. Ah, well — even without it, he ought still to be a sight pathetic enough to win any naïve idiot’s sympathy. And there were so very, very many naïve idiots in the world…
Like, for example, the one standing five feet away from him right now — for indeed, much to Sora’s satisfaction, Subaru’s gaze softened instantly. « Of course. Come with me — I shall send someone at once. »
Sora trailed a short distance behind her and Crim as they climbed the short flight of steps atop which the building’s entrance sat. He had no intention of abandoning good food, but the Lady and her former second-in-command seemed to be rather preoccupied with the awkward silence that had quickly settled between the two of them, and Sora was curious to see how far behind them he could lag before they noticed his absence.
As he was following them through the arched entryway, a young woman with dark brown hair, tan skin, and a distracted look about her came hurrying out and nearly walked directly into Lady Subaru. She looked up just in time, however, and froze, wide-eyed, upon finding herself face-to-face with the ruler of the city.
Subaru inclined her head slightly in greeting; the action seemed to shake the girl back into life. « Mi-milady! » she stammered, and gave a quick, nervous bow. « I — I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going– »
« Never mind, » Subaru said, giving the girl a faint, reassuring smile. « No harm done. »
« Uh — right. I — uh — a-apologies again, milady. » The girl, her face by now rather red, hopped awkwardly to one side to put herself out of Subaru’s way, giving another uncertain half-bow as she waved for the Lady to go by. When Subaru and Crim were both safely past her by several feet, she began to head out the door again, but still craned her head around to watch, wide-eyed, as they walked away.
It was thus that, just as she reached the top of the steps, she almost ran over Sora. He skipped out of her way easily, but, on general principles, stuck his foot out as she went past.
« AUGH! »
By the time Crim and Subaru came hurrying back to investigate the scream and the series of quick thuds which had followed it, the shaken girl was slowly picking herself up from the foot of the steps, where she had landed face-first.
Subaru dashed down the steps to help her. « Are you all right? »
Crim gave Sora a suspicious, narrow-eyed stare; he returned a shrug and a look of blank innocence. « She wasn’t looking where she was going. » Turning to the girl, he added helpfully, « You ought to look out — there’s a step there, miss, » and waved at the stair in question.
« I — but — y– » The girl shook her head in apparent puzzlement. A little belatedly, her lips thinned. « I worked that one out, thank you. »
Crim cleared his throat pointedly; Sora blinked in feigned surprise and glanced back to the man as if in dawning realisation. « What — hey, you think I tripped her? I told you, she fell over the step — didn’t you, miss? » he added, once again rounding on the girl, who despite her mortified protests was now being helped to her feet by Lady Subaru.
« I– » She stared at him for a moment, and then at the step, and then glanced uncertainly at the Lady of the city. Inwardly, Sora grinned; the girl looked far too embarrassed to make any kind of accusation in front of her ruler. Outwardly, he maintained his expression of injured innocence as he waited. « I — think I must have, » she said at last. « Er… I mean, I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going — uh, look, I’m really sorry to have caused a fuss. I’m fine, honestly; I really ought to be getting back to school… »
Her face burning, she practically fled. Sora waved goodbye to her, and then, still grinning to himself, turned away and followed Lady Subaru into the keep. That had been fun. All in all, this day was definitely looking up.
* * * * *
All in all, Mimiru thought, the day really couldn’t have been much worse. How she could be one of the best in her year at swordplay, and yet seemingly unable to walk across a room (outside of weapons practice) without tripping over her own feet, was a continual mystery to her.
But good grief… to fall down the stairs right in front of the ruler of the city and Sir Crim had to be some kind of all-time low. In all honesty, she’d thought — she could have sworn — that the odd little boy with them had tripped her up as she’d gone past him, but she hadn’t quite been able to bring herself to say so. He had looked like he had enough problems to deal with already, with his shabby, tattered clothes, and bruises down the side of his face.
Still — she’d fallen flat on her face, in front of Lady Subaru…
It just topped the day off, really. First she’d overslept, and then she’d had an exam, which she’d completely forgotten about and which had therefore gone very badly, and things hadn’t really gotten better from there.
At least one thing had gone right, though. The Crimson Knights had at last admitted that they could use all the help they could get in their search for Tsukasa, and she’d been one of the first to volunteer. All right, so her help would most likely amount to very little, but at least she’d be able to say she’d tried. It was better than nothing.
A couple of her classmates had been puzzled by her attitude. « She was always absolutely rotten to you. Why’re you so eager to help? » She wished she’d had a good retort to that. She and Tsukasa had never really been friends even at the best of times, and the best of times, such as they had been, were two years gone, now. But–
I want to help her, because… nobody ever has, I don’t think. Because she really doesn’t understand why anyone would want to. Because she thinks everyone only cares about themselves, and — I don’t want her to be right.
But she hadn’t seemed to be able to find the words to explain that to her fellow students, and so she’d only shrugged and said, « Because somebody ought to. »
The uncomfortable thought occurred that wanting to prove Tsukasa wrong wasn’t exactly the most selfless of motives. The ones who say they care… they just want to feel better about themselves, the young mage had said, once. Wasn’t that what she was doing?
She ignored this resolutely. It wasn’t the only reason she wanted to help, she reassured herself. It would just be a nice bonus.
Oh, great. For all you know her life could be in danger, but you’re here thinking about being able to say ‘I told you so.’
She ignored that, too.
By the time she was back through the school gates, she was so busy trying to keep her own rebellious thoughts under control that once again she failed to pay attention to the people around her, and — once again — nearly walked into someone. « Oh — sorry, » she said automatically, not even looking up.
This elicited a short, scornful laugh. « It’s been how many years now, and you still haven’t learned to look where you’re going. Why anyone trusts you with a sword in your hands, I don’t know. »
Mimiru’s head jerked up in disbelief at the familiar voice and tone. She stopped, and stared. « T…Ts…Tsukasa? »
Sure enough, the silver-haired girl stood there, staring back at her with a look of equal parts dislike and puzzlement, apparently uncertain what to make of this reaction. « Gods, it is you, » Mimiru breathed. « You’re all right! Where have you been? What happened? »
This was received with a strange, blank look. « I missed breakfast. I overslept. »
An odd, uncomfortable weight settled in Mimiru’s stomach, the initial elation at seeing her erstwhile ‘friend’ safe and sound now fading. « You– »
« I realise, » Tsukasa’s tone grew sardonic, « that absolutely nobody here can live without me for so much as five minutes, but good grief, Mimiru, from your reaction you’d think I’d disappeared into thin air for a week straight. What’s with you? »
« You… » Mimiru’s voice trailed off as she searched for words. « You’re joking. Tsukasa, that’s not funny. Everybody’s been worried sick about you. »
Tsukasa blinked, and then looked pointedly around at the calm, peaceful scene of a school supposedly on the verge of panic. « Yeah, right, » she said vaguely. « I can see that. »
« Tsukasa, knock it off, I’m serious. Where in the World have you been? The Crimson Knights have been searching for you for days. »
The young mage gave her another puzzled stare. At last, after a long, speechless moment, she sighed. « Fine, » she said in weary tones. « I’ll bite. Mimiru — what the hell are you talking about? »

.hack//SIGN – Confusion All ‘Round
.hack//SIGN – Meetings and Reflections