Author's Note: To the Creepers Trying to Pair the two year old AI in the body of a nine year old little girl with the eight year old man in the body of a fifteen year old boy . . . That made more sense in my head . . . Stop It!
Well then, this was fun, if a little bit generic and predictable. But sometimes you need generic and predictable. At least, that's what I think.
Now, onto the conclusion of the side story. Please standby for your regularly schedules Halkegenia Online v3.0
Halkegenia Online – Arrun Parallel Stories – Melancholy Hearts - Part III
True to her word, Yuuki had been quick to make herself useful. Saito had explained his business, that he was in possession of her Sensei's lost handbag and that he hoped to return it and retrieve the one belonging to Nanami.
Yuuki had nodded vigorously, taking him by the wrist before practically taking off into a sprint, it had been all Saito could do to keep up as he was led inside. "Irene-sensei should be around here somewhere, I think. She's usually a pretty early riser, but she and the other teachers got in really late last night, so she might just be getting up." The Imp girl told him. "Don't worry though Saito-san, we'll find her."
"Well, that's a relief." Saito answered politely, genuinely thankful for the help, before turning his attention to their surroundings. "So this is how the Children have been living." Saito said as he followed close behind his guide. He'd heard from the other doctors, but this was the first time he'd had an opportunity to see for himself.
Arrun Home had been founded out of one of the larger guild halls, buildings meant to act as bases of operations for large groups of players organized into Guilds. The interior was furnished with a multitude of rooms so that each guild member could be provided with a personal, customizable space to keep their equipment or simply hang out with friends.
After the Children had been moved in, it hadn't taken long for those single rooms to be outfitted with basic furniture and the beds to be replaced with bunks so that the children could be dormed two to a room. The better to keep the young Faeries together and at ease in this unfamiliar world, and to give them some sense of connection with one another as a sort of surrogate family.
Peeking through half opened doors, the Sylph youth was able to spot little touches of home in the form of items crafted by the children, colorful curtains, wood carvings hung from ceilings, and hand sewn, stuffed toys piled atop beds. Through one doorway, he even glimpsed a small doll house set up on a windowsill, a dollhouse from which he was sure he saw someone looking back.
The common areas too, entry hall, dining, and living rooms, had been changed by their occupants, decorated cheerfully with colorful banners and drawings made by the children. Shared belongings, books, balls, and board games, were packed tightly onto shelves along the back wall of the living room. Coats hung from hooks in the entry hall and shoes had been stacked neatly in their alcoves. The dining room tables were still half filled with children eating breakfast and talking loudly and happily amongst themselves. Everything looked used, with the small scuffs and scratches that would never have been modeled in game but were to be expected of casual carelessness.
They were making their way back towards the kitchen now, another space changed by the reality of the transition. Kitchens in ALO had been much, much too neat in Saito's opinion. More like models in a demo home, or a children's doll house used to pretend, rather than a functional space that was actually used to prepare food.
Arrun Home's kitchen couldn't have been further from that virtual ideal. It was noisy for one, filled with the clang of metal implements and the slopping -clank- of plates being washed by hand. It was also crowded, cluttered up with pots and pans hung from hooks on the walls, mason jars lining open cabinets, counter tops cluttered with cutting blocks, knives, ladles, spatulas, and all of the other things needed to make a meal. Saito was impressed. He imagined that with what was contained in the kitchen, someone could make almost any sort of food that had been possible in ALO.
Another thing that separated the kitchen from its formerly sterile virtual existence was the smells. Not just one or two simulated scents, a medley all mixing together into something that was impossible to describe. 'Just what had they had for breakfast?' He wondered as his nose scented in on the distinct smells of leafy herbs. Whatever it was, it smelled wonderful and reminded Saito that he'd skipped breakfast.
Mostly though, it was the people. A normal MMO kitchen would have only been home to one person, the NPC or Player chef. Using the game controls, cooking for one person or one hundred made almost no difference. But real cooking was a collaborative effort as much as anything. Terrible as he was in the kitchen, Saito could still wield a knife well enough to cut herbs and vegetables, and here it was no different with over a dozen young Faeries filling the room.
'More of the dorm helpers.' He noted the armbands worn by three of the children and the brightly colored handkerchief tied up in the hair of a grown Puca woman who was supervising.
"Hey Yuuki-chan!" One of the helpers, a fiery orange haired salamander boy with bright red eyes, stopped his work long enough to smile and wave. "I didn't see you at breakfast this morning. We've still got some leftovers."
Yuuki returned the boys greeting. "Good morning Jun, and no," shaking her head vigorously, "I'm heading out pretty soon, so I thought I'd get a bite in the market with Shiune and Nori."
"Oy, you get to have all the fun!" The boy pouted.
"That's the life of a courier for you. Full of romance and adventure!" The Imp girl stopped her triumphant grinning, turning serious again. "Say, have you seen Irene-sensei this morning?"
"Irene-sensei?" The boy named Jun gave a small shake of his head. "No . . . wait, I think Tarken was showing her something. I know he was doing something up on the roof of her room yesterday while Takai and Ophelia-sensei kept her busy. I think it was a birthday present from the crafters. I don't know what he needed all that black paint and pipe for though ." The salamander frowned. "Guess it was supposed to be a surprise. Hey", he turned to the Puca woman, "Ophelia-sensei, have you seen Irene-sensei this morning?"
"I think she's still in bed." Turning to face them, Saito recognized the woman from the night before. She was indeed the Puca who had been with Irene at the Dicey Cafe, and now looked on with sleepy hazel eyes. "We got in really late last night. Irene-chan and I had to go back to the restaurant because she lost her handbag . . ." Ophelia explained, pausing as she caught sight of Saito. "Oh . . . you're that Doctor from yesterday. The one who helped out Irene-chan and . . ."
Saito smiled as he held up the purse. "Actually, I just came to return this to its owner and get back the one belonging to my friend." He supplied helpfully. "If it's around here, it's best if I just take the other one back right now." No need to bother that young woman. If she was busy running a place like this, her friends had been right last night to urge her to relax a little.
"I see, I see." Ophelia nodded tiredly. "I don't think Irene-sensei put it in the normal lost and found, I think it's up in her room. She was going to take it to the watch HQ while she was out shopping . . ." A quick shake of her head. "You can go up and take a look if you like. Yuki-chan, you still have your key, right?"
The Imp girl replied with a small nod and a pat of her pocket. "Un, the one Irene-sensei had made."
"Then go ahead, I know Irene-sensei trusts you." Ophelia gestured before turning back to her work in the kitchen. "Oh! Gauri-kun, can you make sure the embers are damped out in the bread oven? Then take the ashes out back please. Miska-chan, I'll help you with putting those away!"
"Come on." Yuuki was tugging at Saito's wrist again, setting off for a stairway that led up to the second floor.
"So you're a Doctor, Saito-sensei?" Yuuki asked. "A medical doctor?" There was a small pause as the cheery smile faltered. "Sorry, I'm guessing, you seem like you'd be a doctor of medicine."
"Yes. At the hospital." Saito confirmed. "I'm . . . well I suppose I'm the chief of medicine now. Is something funny about that?" He noticed the change in Yuuki's countenance. Her smile had returned, and also her mirth.
"Sorry. I'm really sorry." Yuuki started to giggle. "I was just thinking, a cute Doctor coming to see Irene-sensei . . . And also a real gentleman." Saito flushed. Cute? It wasn't that he hadn't heard it before, Nanami's kind words and Kiriyu's teasing. But there was a world of difference hearing it from this girl. Yuuki's eyes sparkled. "It's like something out of a manga. I bet Saito-sensei is really popular with girls too."
The Sylph shook his head ruefully. "Not really . . . Just one actually." Just one, very special one, a long time ago.
Saito had entertained the idea a few times. He knew there was no shame in finding someone else, and that it would not have lessened his love for his wife. But he hadn't been able to endure the thought of going through that sort of loss again. And besides, even if he had, that time of his life had been long over, even before Musumi had passed away.
"Oh?" Yuuki looked confused, suddenly her eyes went wide. The small Imp stopped so suddenly that Saito nearly slammed into her. "Oh. Oh . . . Saito-sensei, I'm sorry." Yuuki spun around with the same speed and grace she'd exhibited in the yard, nearly causing Saito to fall back off of the landing, a pained look in her cherry eyes.
"No, not at all." Saito told her gently, steadying himself with a hand on the banister, falling so easily into the old routines, comforting patients, parents, sons and daughters, it was something he had grown very good at.
"It was because of the Transition . . . Wasn't it." Yuuki looked to the side. She appeared almost ashamed. "It took you away from her."
Saito blinked, ah, so she thought . . . "It's nothing like that Yuuki-chan." Saito placed a hand lightly on top of the girl's head. "Actually, she's been gone for a long time before the Transition, so I've cried all my tears already. And besides, you shouldn't feel bad about bringing it up by accident."
Yuuki listened, nodding her head slowly. "But still . . ." She fell silent as quickly as she had begun. The bright sun that was Konno Yuuki seemed to have been veiled by an overcast of gloom. "Hey, Saito-sensei . . ."
"Yes?" He tilted his head.
"How do you . . . ?" Suddenly, the Imp girl lost her nerve and shook her head. "No, never mind. Let's get you to Irene-sensei's room, I have to hurry to Arrun Tower after this."
Yuuki kept moving forward, smile returning, but Saito couldn't exactly say that it was like nothing had happened. She appeared quieter, more subdued, she'd lost her brightness, and there was nothing he could do to bring it back. He wondered who she had lost, or maybe who she had left behind.
Up to the third floor, and then the fourth, more dormitories. When Saito asked, Yuuki told him that the classrooms were located in one of the out buildings along with the workshops where the children were allowed to practice their trade skills and teach them to others. They were permitted to use their allowance money to buy materials and make goods for sale or they could get permission to join an apprenticeship down in the market. Either way they got to keep their earnings, but they had to save half of their profits for a 'rainy day'.
"Irene-sensei wants to teach us all to be responsible with our money." Yuki explained proudly, the excitement of a young woman earning her own wage for herself for the first time.
"Oh?" Saito smiled politely. "It seems like Irene-san is a very responsible person."
"She's amazing." Yuuki asserted. "After the Transition, Irene-sensei flew to all of the Cities to find the children who didn't have anyone to take care of them. She brought all of us together." The Imp girl said softly. "And she works so hard to keep us that way. We just want to do what we can to help her."
"So that's why everyone seems so well behaved." The Old Doctor inside of Saito chuckled softly. Selflessness was such an easy thing for children to grasp. "That's a very noble sentiment Yuuki-chan." A little bit of her real smile returned shyly to her face.
They came to a stop before a heavy wooden door located in the far northern corner of the Guild Hall. If Saito hadn't got turned around, then they would be just below the stout tower that rose to form a fifth floor. A little placard beside the doorway displayed a caricature of a blue haired Undine wearing a scholars cap with the words Irene-Sensei's Charming Suite written in hand lettering.
"It used to be the office of the Guild Master." Yuuki said. "Giving it to Irene-sensei was the least we could do."
"And you're sure we can just walk in?" Saito wasn't so confident. Propriety if nothing else demanded he question entering a woman's bedroom without her permission.
Yuuki on the other hand appeared completely confident. "It's alright as long as you're with me, Saito-sensei. If she's not here I have permission to use my key."
Reaching out, Yuuki wrapped gently on the wooden door and then waited, arms behind her back, for an answer. When none was forthcoming, she knocked one more time and again waited. Yuuki dug around in her pocket before retrieving a key. The lock turned with a heavy -click- of its internal mechanisms. "Irene-sensei, if you're here, I'm coming in with a guest!" She called out loud and clear.
The door swung open smoothly on its hinges with barely a sound, Yuuki almost falling forward in surprise. "Ah! Tarken must have fixed it when he was here. Come on Saito-sensei, this way." Yuuki waved him towards the spiraling staircase that led to the top of the tower.
"I wonder if this building is based on anything?" Saito mused as they climbed the wrought iron steps.
"Like IRL?" Yuuki pondered the question. "Maybe. I heard Shiune and Ophelia-sensei talking about it once. Some of the buildings in Arrun and the other towns are definitely replicas of real world places with an ALfheim facade, but I think Arrun home is its own place." Yuuki grinned. "And even if it wasn't before, it is now thanks to all of us." The Imp girl stepped aside as they reached the summit, gesturing broadly to the room beyond. "And here we are! Pretty neat huh."
It would not have been wrong to call the place a Fairy Tale Suite, all stone, and glass, and canvas, and fantastical metal work. Saito breathed in, picking out the faintest trace of perfume spicing the air and bringing to mind the garden that he had tended back in Japan until he'd become too feeble to continue.
The room was big, the symbol of a successful Guild's Leader. The floor was polished stone, and the walls were covered in windows. Housed within a partial solarium. The panes that would have admitted direct sunlight were sheltered beneath movable copper panels, forming a partially opaque roof, and the wall windows were shaded by a three hundred and sixty degree awning. A pair of wide glass double doors were opened out onto a wrought iron landing, admitting a pleasant morning breeze.
Footsteps echoed on the stone as they made their way from the stairs.
The space itself was occupied by a large desk, currently littered with papers, a high backed chair and a pair of couches, stacked high with more papers and random bits of equipment, stationary mostly, and a coffee table that was spotlessly clean. They must have been left over from the room's original purpose as an office and meeting place, along with the book shelves that curved along one wall and the now thoroughly useless globe of the Earth sitting beside the desk.
Over beside the doors, a queen sized bed had somehow been wrestled into place, probably with the help of the antique looking pulley system out on the balcony, sharing an improvised bedroom space with a dresser and night stand, a floor ore lamp, plush looking armchair, and a looking glass.
Nor were these the only touches added by the room's new occupant, a Persian carpet was laid out between the bed and dresser, and canvas curtains had been installed around the room's perimeter to provide a degree of privacy. More canvas had been hung from the ceiling to partition off a small alcove near the back of the room, probably as a changing area.
"Looks like she's already left." Yuuki decided, putting hands on hips as she surveyed the cluttered space. "It wasn't this messy last time I was here, just hold on a second. Irene-sensei is usually a really organized person, so I'm sure it's here someplace."
Saito's ears twitches as he made out a noise, familiar, but out of place. "What is that?"
"Hmm?" Yuuki looked over to him. "What's what?"
"That noise?" It sounded like . . . water? Was it coming from outside? No, the distinct -thrum- of water passing through pipes was unmistakable to his ears.
It wasn't hard for him to identify the source. It was indeed a pipe, situated far above their heads where it breached the copper ceiling before making an abrupt turn and following the curve of the one of the supporting beams before plunging down the side of one wall.
"Weird." Yuuki looked up where Saito had pointed. "I never noticed that before. Is it for roof drainage? It's really sloped up there so I wouldn't think you'd need it."
"It wouldn't be out of place." Saito agreed. Things like the drains in the sinks of the hospital almost surely hadn't been modeled with fully functioning plumbing back in ALO. Something had filled in the blanks where the already amazingly detailed environments of ALO had fallen short. But when the devil had it rained recently?
Without much thought, Saito and Yuuki followed the growing noise of flowing water to the windows, from there, it was easy to follow the pipe to where it met with one of the drainage gutters outside. Saito was no plumber, as his children would have been first to attest after a particular incident, but even to his untrained eye, the arrangement was improvised but well made. And in between the roof pipe and the drain . . .
"Weirder and weirder, and that noise . . ." Yuuki muttered, turning to the canvased alcove and the muted gurgling beyond. "I bet Tarken's made a mess in here and hasn't fixed it yet!" The Imp girl looked slightly annoyed just as Saito sluggishly made the last connection. "Oy." Yuuki sighed reluctantly. "Irene-sensei going to be mad. But I guess there's no helping it, I might as well see the how much damage he's . . ." Yuuki grabbed hold of the canvas divider . . .
"Wait!" Saito began, grabbing at Yuuki's wrist . . .
" . . . Done!"
The two Faeries stopped dead. Saito for one was thankful for his new heart, otherwise it might have given out on him.
Back turned, completely oblivious. Eyes closed and lost within an inner bliss as the water poured down from a spigot suspended overhead, falling into an improvised basin constructed from the bottom half of a wine cask, swirling as it drained out through the pipe cut into bottom. All she wore was the lukewarm water showering down on her.
Hair soaked a perfect blue, wetly clung to graceful neck and slim, porcelain shoulders, water dripping in rivulets from the tips of hair before dividing and flowing along the four translucent blue wings that had extended themselves, seemingly unconsciously to hang limply and follow the line of slender back, the arch of spine, and curve of hips down to . . . down to . . . Well, Saito admitted , the thought coming unbidden and unwelcome to his conscious mind, she was certainly healthy.
And at last observant as long ears perked, something shaking her from her inner reverie. The water Faerie Irene turned around, blinking long, soaking wet lashes in confusion. Their eyes met, both freezing at the same time.
"Uh . . . uhm . . ." Irene squeaked.
"I-rene-sens . . . I – Ur . . ." Yuuki looked between them in sudden vivid surprise.
"Ah . . . I . . ." Words wouldn't come.
Saito swallowed as he tried to think of what to do. Pulse pounding in his ears as his temperature started to spike. It wasn't his first time seeing a woman disrobed in the flesh, nor his first time when that woman wasn't his own wife. A doctor learned early to separate dignity from dress and to take an objective approach to nudity. Experience from eighty years of life told him how to act properly. Yuuki was right beside him, turning red as a tomato, all he had to do was step back, look away, and explain himself and this could all be defused.
The problem was that, while his experiences said he was eighty years old, his body was very urgently insisting that he was fifteen, reminding him that he was a man, that he was a boy, and that the person before him was very definitely a girl. So Saito did the only rational thing he could think of at that fool moment.
The Undine teacher had snapped out of her own shock, throwing arms around her chest, eyes growing wide as her tiny squeaks began to grow into a full lunged scream. Face growing as red as the eyes of the Imp beside him, Saito squeezed his eyes shut and thrust the purse into its owner's wet hands.
As it happened, this simply gave Miss Irene something to hit him with.
"So Shoichi-sensei. If that is your real name." The salamander from the night before, looking much more severe and tacit now that he was no longer under the influence of alcohol, towered over a seated Saito, making a show of the way that he gripped the scabbard of his katana. "Are you sure you want to keep claiming that you were only here to return Irene-chan's bag?"
"Since it's the truth," Saito said calmly, "Yes."
He'd acted against his own better judgment to enter the room without the permission of its owner. He'd take responsibility for that, but he wasn't going to be accused of being some sort of lecher by this man.
What a situation to find himself in, Saito thought. He really should have tried harder to explain himself, but between a furiously apologizing Yuuki and a naked Undine girl bearing down on him, he . . . well . . . he hadn't been in any condition to offer much resistance or explanation. His one saving grace had been Irene's general lack of coordination, it showed in her lack of physical strength and the clumsiness with which she used her Faerie body, likely a casual player then, someone who had yet to fully adapt to their new form. Mostly she'd just made an effort to bash him in the face over and over again with her hand bag, only stopping when Yuuki had intervened to pull her off of him.
Said Imp was seated beside Irene on the bed, the salamander swordsman Takai standing between them and Saito. Yuuki was presently torn between a look of shy embarrassment and struggling not to laugh, while Irene . . . Irene was . . . Saito shook his head as he tried to banish the image of peach against snow white. The young leader of Arrun Home, dressed hastily in a bathrobe, had carefully averted her eyes from Saito and Takai, holding hands lightly to her cheek in an effort to hide a blush.
"Uhm, Takai-sensei . . ." Yuuki started up. "Saito-sensei is telling the truth. He brought Irene-sensei's bag back and everything, see?" The Imp girl patted the azure purse.
Takai narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "A likely cover, Yuuki-san. But all that means is that he spotted Irene-chan last night. He was probably already planning to take advantage of her then." Sneering down at Saito. "Men like you make me sick."
They'd just about had things sorted out when this fellow had arrived, rocketing up onto the balcony from below when he'd heard the screams coming from Irene's room. He seemed to have good intentions, if only he wasn't so frustrating to deal with. 'Ah, now I remember, this throbbing is a migraine.' Saito thought as he rubbed at his temples.
At least the children were being kept out for now, the minders and older dormers watching after the little ones who had been frightened for their beloved Sensei.
"To be honest Takai-sensei, you were there when we met." Irene said softly. "So you should know it couldn't have been something Shoichi-sensei planned. And as a Doctor, shouldn't we at least give him the benefit of the doubt?"
"Hmph. Once Arcadia-chan gets back from the hospital and makes sure he is who he says he is. Sorry, but I still don't trust this guy. As defense instructor, I'm responsible for keeping everyone safe, Irene-sensei. And I can't quite buy it. Are you sure we met him last night?"
Saito sighed, Takai didn't remember. He didn't remember because he had been amazingly drunk last night, which was something of a dubious achievement for any Faerie who had the further enhancement of Battle Healing, as most swordfighters, Salamanders especially, tended to.
"Trust me Takai-sensei," Irene rose up from her bed, "It's him. You can ask Ophelia-chan."
"And Jun." Yuuki added. "They've both seen Saito-sensei and know that I got permission to come in here. Besides, Saito tried to stop me once he realized . . . well . . ." Blushing even more.
Once he'd recognized the sound as a shower spigot. It wasn't a noise he'd given much thought too in the past few months.
ALO had included baths, a luxury made available to players who purchased more expensive homes or stayed at the nicer inns. But showers had been viewed as too mundane to be included in a fantasy game and so had not existed in ALO proper. Those that had come to exist since had been the product of ingenuity on the part of the former players. Ingenuity like the cistern fed shower that had been constructed by the metal crafting dormers to show their appreciation for their Sensei.
A shower seemed like an odd gift, but given what he'd hear of Irene's schedule, having someplace inside of her own home to wash before climbing into bed must have been a tremendous luxury.
"I trust your judgment Takai-sensei." Irene clasped her hands before herself and performed a small bow. "And I appreciate you looking out for suspicious characters." Saito couldn't stop himself from scowling. Saying such things wasn't going to help his reputation. "But this is a case where I know for a fact that you are mistaken. Please go ask Ophelia and Jun if you don't believe me."
It was a sight to behold, the Salamander looking every bit the handsome Samurai, and the demure little Undine standing him down without even batting an eye. At last, Takai relented.
"Hnnn. If you're really sure Irene-sensei."
The Undine girl nodded without hesitation. "Completely."
"Then I have no choice but to accept it." Takai grumbled, but not wanting to look like he was letting Saito off too easily, he shot the Doctor a dark glance. "I'll be keeping my eye on you. If you don't want me to suspect you of something, then try to be less suspicious."
Saito gave a wary nod. Up until now, he'd thought he'd been completely innocuous.
Although they had been at their throats just minutes ago, the trio of young Fae all breathed a sigh of relief as the Salamander departed from the landing, slowing his fall with his wings as he stepped out into empty air. But it wasn't enough to relieve all of the tension in the air. Silence was suspended between them like a fog.
'All because I chose that moment to become conscious of it.' Saito wanted to kick himself, no, Nanami would be plenty able to do that when she heard about this.
In the end it was Yuuki who broke the ice, if only to make her own escape. Her fidgeting growing more energetic, the girl gave a small nod. "Well then, i-if it's alright Irene-sensei . . . erm . . . I have to uhm . . . I have . . . courier duty! Me and Silica-chan . . ."
"O-oh!" Irene perked up, quickly latching onto the change of subject. "The two star dispatches you mentioned last night?"
"Yeah!" Yuuki said quickly as she got up, waving her hands excitedly. "So yeah, I have to go meet with her. Silica's going to be mad if I make her sign the forms all by herself again. So I uhm . . ." Peeking out through one eye, the Imp girl saw her opening, a clear path between where she stood and the landing doors. Without a hint of warning, she kicked off into a sprint, wings flashing as she shot out into the sky. "I've got to go! Be back later Irense-sensei!"
Calls fading into the morning noises as Irene and Saito were left alone. Both most likely thinking the same thing. 'She caused us this embarrassment. And now she's run away.'
Irene recovered from her student's sudden escape, placing a hand over her lips as she smiled and then began to giggle. It was a liberating noise, kind, and soft like water chimes. Not at all the sound of someone who was angry. "I really am sorry again Shoichi-sensei, I've caused another mess for you with my clumsiness."
"Not at all." Saito said quickly, accepting a hand up from the floor. "I'm the one who wasn't thinking straight."
"Except when I started hitting you." Irene corrected. The Undine pulled back the cuff of her robe, examining where she'd managed to scratch his cheek. Pleasantly cool fingers examined the stinging little scratch that had barely managed to draw blood. "Please, I'm not a proper doctor, but I can at least help with that. Better than trying to do it for yourself."
"Oh . . . Of course." Saito presented the side of his cheek to Irene, listening to the melodic chanting as she cast a low level, long duration healing spell. The coolness spread from fingertips, dulling the pain and leaving behind only a faint itch as the magic did its work.
"That one was from the recommended spell list." Saito observed, a list of spells that every Faerie needed to know, posted up on the message boards for easy review. Saito had been the one who'd petitioned for its inclusion in point of fact. A healing spell with low demand that didn't require the advanced knowledge of a healer to use to full effect.
"Un." Irene nodded slowly. "It was hard to learn. I only really started playing ALO to fly, you see." Carefully brushing a strand of damp hair from her eyes. "I wasn't really interested in fighting or magic so I hardly bothered to train in either of them." She shook her head. "I'm a little ashamed, but until I met Takai-sensei and then got support from the Faerie Lords, I couldn't even promise the children protection."
"I suppose it's the same for me." Saito agreed, remembering his first day playing. Thank heavens for Nanami, he'd have been lost trying to navigate the game mechanics without her. "Don't be ashamed. We'd all be lost without the help we've given each other. Just be proud that you can help them in turn."
Irene cast her eyes downward, long lashes shading their soft blue. Lips moved softly as she spoke under her breath. "You're right, I know, but it isn't right for a teacher to need to depend on her students." Suddenly, Irene shook her head. "Ah, but you aren't here to listen to my thoughts. I'm sure you need to get to the hospital." She gestured over to her dresser, pulling open the top drawer, she retrieved a second bag, identical to her own.
"Nymph Scale Purse" Irene said. "I've never seen another one. Mine was a gift from a student of mine who was bowing out of the game, so it has some extra sentimental value." Presenting the bag to Saito with both hands. "That is, when I'm not smacking people with it."
"Not at all. I hope your picture wasn't damaged."
Irene shot him a surprised glance.
Saito stopped and raised his hands quickly. "I didn't mean to pry, I simply couldn't avoid noticing it."
Setting the bag down, Irene opened it swiftly, nimble hands sifting about until she found the small photograph, sighing with relief to discover it was undamaged. "Thank you for this too Saito-san." A smile returning to her lips. "The bag is special, but this is priceless to me." Looking back to the photograph fondly.
"She must be someone very special." Saito said the Sensei who had taken that photo for her. It was so easy to see, just by looking at the relief writ on Irene's features.
"You're right." Irene answered, only half paying attention. "Very, very special. I was so proud to work with her."
"And now you're continuing that tradition here." Saito said. "I think it's very noble of you Irene-sensei. It must be difficult at times with the children."
Another sweet giggle, Saito's rebellious heart skipping a beat when Irene smiled back. "Actually, the children are the easy ones. It's all the other teachers who can be a handful. They're all rushing ahead, so eager to help, sometimes they don't quite know how to handle kids. I really wish I had some more level heads around here."
"It's the same at the hospital." Saito agreed. "Amazing talent, but they need more experience."
Both Faeries sighed together
"Young people these days are just so over eager." Said in such perfect sync that at first neither realized the other had said anything.
Then, both suddenly realized what had just been said, looking up at each other.
By the time they were finished sorting things out, Saito's morning had gotten away from him. Since starting his work at the Hospital, he'd never been late for a shift. Kiriyu and the others would probably be getting worried about now.
Rubbing at the back of his neck as he stepped back out into the sunlight of the yard where the children were still at play, at least he'd gotten the purse back.
"Are you sure you're going to be okay walking back to the hospital alone?" Irene asked. Dressed in a blue, floral print Kimono, and carrying a parasol lightly over her shoulder to shelter herself from the sun, she had decided to accompany him to the front gate. "I did hit you pretty hard."
"You're not that strong, Irene-san." Saito chuckled kindly. "And I've taken my knocks before. I'll be fine." Just fine. Without thinking much about it, his eyes began to wonder across her features. Cute, small nose, soft, peach colored lips and clear blue eyes beneath thin blue eyebrows. Very cute, very beautiful he corrected. His mind still struggled to accept that the dainty young woman was in fact closer to retirement than her school days.
It really had been her birthday the day before, Irene had explained, blushing furiously, her fifty first birthday.
Saito hadn't meant to intrude on her private life, but Irene had been happy to tell him. She'd seemed almost relieved when he'd confessed his own age in return, even if she didn't quite believe he was as old as he claimed.
If Saito had actually stopped to think about it, there were probably more than a few individuals with the same story as Irene and himself. He might have been an outlier due to extreme old age, but people from all walks of life played games, even full dive games. There were bound to be a handful among sixty thousand players, veteran gamers who had started on 2D games before the turn of the millennium and never stopped, even a few old fogies like himself, too feeble to get out of the house but desperate for something new and different.
Like Irene who had started playing at the urging of her young pupil, a girl named Aoi who had been one of her students early in her teaching career and who had just so happened to have become a teacher because of her own beloved Sensei.
"Still, I am sorry about this." The Undine repeated her apology yet again. "If there's anything that I can do to make this up to you, please just let me know." Tucking her hands delicately into her sleeves. "I'm just glad to know that we have someone so dependable looking out for our health. Please keep taking care of all of us, Shoichi-sensei." Irene smiled and dipped into a small bow.
"I'm really not that amazing." Saito protested. "The credit belongs to the people working under me. They do most of the real work, I just teach them what I can."
Lord Rute had returned from giving Faerie Back Rides, the stout little Leprechaun telling the boys and girls that he needed to go now. One girl in particular, the tall Out of Time Gnome woman from before, leaned over so that Rute could pat the top of her head like he would with any of the other children.
"He's good with them." Saito observed quietly.
Irene smiled. "Rute-san works hard to help us. It's because of him and Thinker-san that we were able to arrange everything. He likes to check in on the children at least once a week to be sure they're getting what they need. Some people think he's pompous, but he has a big heart too." The Undine girl fell silent for a moment as she chose her next words with care. "This all has been so unexpected, hasn't it? But as long as we do what we can," Irene turned her head to the yard full of happy shouts and laughter, "And as long as we do our best at what we can. That should be enough, right?"
Saito nodded slowly, do what they could to survive and thrive. "Un." If they could all do that much, they'd be alright.
"I won't keep you any longer Shoichi-sensei." Irene began to gently nudge him towards the front gate. "I'm sure you have very important work to get done."
"It's fine. It's fine either way." Saito told her as reluctance took hold. In fact, this little excursion had brought some things to his attention that he hadn't thought much of before. The Sylph hesitated for a moment before turning back around. "Ah, Irene-san?"
The Undine blinked, pale blue eyes shimmering like the spring sea. "Yes?"
"I . . ." Irene tilted her head, waiting for his answer. "That is to say . . ." The way she clasped her hands, slender fingers lacing. Saito closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. "First Aid."
"First Aid?" Irene looked confused.
Saito nodded. What the blazes was he thinking? "You seemed disappointed that you only knew a few spells. Sooth is useful, but we've been trying to get more people qualified in basic First Aid. For that, you'd need to learn the spells and also the mechanics of using them. I assume the children get the normal bumps and scratches."
"And worse." Irene sighed softly, shaking her head. Watching her now, Saito didn't know why he hadn't seen the mannerisms of an older woman. Perhaps because on her they seemed so endearing. "We've had sprains, and even broken bones. Some of the children are still ill coordinated, and they can get very reckless with their wings, but getting them to stop has been just impossible."
"Naturally." Saito agreed. He hardly remember all of the details of his own childhood, but he was confident that he'd have gotten up to all sort of mischief if he'd been able to fly back then. "Undines have a natural talent for healing, it suits your affinities. And there are a few other spells that could be of help in an emergency." Spells that could even be life savers if someone was badly hurt. "I have a little bit of experience teaching healing magic." Saito stopped to correct himself. "Well, my students are better at the magic than I am. But . . ."
"Are you offering to . . . Tutor me?" Irene looked wide eyed.
"I . . ." What was getting into him? "I suppose . . ." Saito finished slowly. He could feel himself getting hot just thinking about how ridiculous he must have sounded. "Actually, it would be a student of mine, Kiriyu is much more knowledgeable so . . ."
It was even easier to see the blush coloring Irene's pale cheeks. "Well", a hand rose to pull at the collar of her kimono, "It's very generous, but I don't know if I'd have the time . . ."
"Of course." Saito sighed, relieved, and some small part disappointed. "In either case, it's been a real pleasure speaking with you Irene-san." Saito turned to leave.
"Uhm . . . Saito-san." The Sylph youth turned back in time to see the Undine girl covering shaking her head as she lost some inner argument. "I'm glad . . . That we ran into each other. It's considered rude in this place to talk about your other life. Obviously, I knew that there were more people like us, but it's nice to know for sure. If that makes any sense. Knowing that there's others out there is a little liberating."
"Right." Saito agreed. He knew what that isolation was like.
"And . . . Uhm . . . the Hospital is close by." Irene said very carefully.
"If you . . . If you ever happen to take lunch, we have tea around noon most days. The minders and I."
"So, you're inviting me?" Saito wanted to be sure.
"Un." Irene said soflty. "Hitting you like that, I'm sure I owe you. You could come back ten or twelve times as repayment."
"Ten or twelve?" Saito parroted. What was the logic behind that? Did every scratch cost a scone?
Irene furrowed her brow, thin blue eye brows coming together. "Uhm no, on second thought that's probably too much, it should be maybe seven?" She started to count off with her fingers, a tally that only she could possible understand. "Or . . . eight? If we serve finger sandwiches it should probably only be five erm . . . that is . . ."
"Maybe we can do both." Saito offered.
"I'll pay you back with tutoring lessons after lunch." He suggested. "My friends keep telling me to relax a little more. It would be a good change of pace for me, I think. And that way we'd be even."
"R-really?" Irene pressed the palms of her hands together, voice growing excited.
"Really. Just don't make the exchange rate too unfair." Saito warned with false seriousness. "I'll have you know the elderly get very grouchy when they feel they're being taken advantage of!" Saying it like that, Saito could practically feel how ridiculous he must have appeared. But hearing Irene's unrestrained laughter made it all worthwhile.
"Then, I might just take you up on that, Saito-san." Irene said when she got control of herself. "I'll be waiting to hear from you. Now, you have patients."
"And you have lessons." Saito agreed. "I'll see you later, Irene-san."
Parting ways at the gate, Saito was surprised when he reached the corner to see that she'd waited to wave back. She certainly was a charming woman, his antics aside. Saito thought as he adjusted his grip on Nanami's purse, something inside was weightier than he expected, causing the bag to strike his leg uncomfortably with each motion.
It was enough to make him stop and remove the source of the irritation, a small, brown paper parcel wrapped up with twine. It was heavy in his hand, weighty with the density of solid metal. A good thing Irene hadn't been hitting him with this bag.
'To Jii-chan. -Nanami.'
Saito frowned, this was what Nanami had been so disappointed about the night before. He wouldn't have dared to open it without Nanami's permission if not for the already torn paper that ripped a little more in his hand as he tried to put it back, revealing something small, and crystalline and beautiful. Well, he'd certainly gone through enough trouble to earn a peak, he thought guiltily.
Saito felt oddly angry as curiosity got the better of him. "She shouldn't be spending so much money on me." Taking the parcel apart with meticulous hands, if need be he could put it back together and act surprised. That way he wouldn't upset Nanami. It at least partly salved his conscience as he laid the little mechanism bare.
Fitting comfortably in his hand, it was about the right diameter, but much thicker than he would have expected once he recognized it for what it was.
Silver and glass, clockwork and brass, it's skin a tracery of thin, expertly etched lines that made it almost a work of art in itself. The watch face was ivory white and marked with roman numerals rather than the Halkegenian numeric runes. Which meant it had been made by either a Faerie or a local watch maker trying to gain entry to the Faerie market.
A pocket watch.
Had Nanami really been able to afford this? Saito wondered before feeling a second piece of paper folded underneath, a note in Nanami's characteristically neat handwriting.
'Always remember that your time is precious. - Nanami. P.S. Don't get angry, Recon and Kiriyu chipped in too!'
That just meant he had too more people to reprimand, Saito thought as he felt the thick, silver chain built to take the weight of the heavy mechanism. Such a selfish thing to buy for him. He shook his head as he carefully returned the watch to its paper wrapping and placed it back in Nanami's purse. Such a fool, selfish thing. But it was a precious gesture. And maybe if he took the advice, it wouldn't have been needed.
He'd started up again, traveling along the quiet side streets, lost in his own thoughts and feeling surprisingly at peace until fate brought him to one particular alleyway as a brunette headed little girl and her adoptive mother were traveling in the opposite direction.
"Oh, Shouichi-sensei." Kirigaya Yuki Asuna said softly. The young mother of Kirigaya Yui was dressed again for the morning heat, and carrying a large sack, empty, but waiting to receive fresh groceries. And beside her, Kirigaya Yui herself. "What a surprise to see you here."
"Good Morning Asuna-san. I had some business at the Children's Home today. And Yui-chan . . ." Saito stopped.
The brightly cheerful little girl from the day before was nowhere to be seen this morning, instead replaced by a terribly shy child who had very consciously moved behind her mother's skirt. Saito smiled painfully. Had he really been so bad yesterday?
"Oh, that's a strange coincidence. Yui chan has friends there, we were just on our way to visit." Asuna said as she gave her daughter a worried look. "Isn't that right Yui-chan . . . Oh, Saito-san?"
Crouching down so that he was level with Yui's dark eyes. The resemblance to Musumi was just as strong today as it had been the day before. And yet, now that he'd had a little time, it didn't hurt so much to see that face. Just the opposite.
Yui-chan was a beautiful little girl, bright, and warm, and so full of life. And most definitely not Musumi. And yet, she was so like Musumi that he knew for sure that she would fill her life and the lives of everyone around her with love and happiness. And there was nothing better than that.
He was grateful to have met her.
So now he had to do his part. "Sorry about yesterday, Yui-chan." Saito said simply. Big, dark eyes became even bigger and rounder. "I hope I didn't scare you."
Yui gave a very small shake of her head, releasing her grip on her mother's skirt to step forward timidly. She gave him a small smile. "It's okay. You weren't scary Shoichi-sensei." Yui said. "I was just worried I'd make you sad again and . . . oh . . . " The girl stopped as he put a hand on her head.
"I was sad yesterday, Yui-chan, very sad. But it wasn't your fault. I was just thinking about someone I loved very much who has been gone for a long time is all." He explained, pleased with how level he was able to keep his voice, and astonished he had the courage to speak at all.
"Love?" Yui tilted her head, looking up to her mother who smiled kindly. Closing her eyes, Yui smiled with relief. "So it wasn't bad?"
"No." Saito told her. "It wasn't bad. It just hurt for a little while is all."
After hurting for a very long time in his past life, and a very short time in this one, finally he could put it to rest. 'I guess it will be a little while longer before I join you, Musumi.' That was okay, he knew she wouldn't mind. That wasn't the kind person she'd been.
He closed his eyes, and for the first time in years, Shoichi Saito breathed easily. "But don't you worry Yui-chan," he shared her smile, "It's alright now."