Author's Notes: This story takes place after .hack/INFECTION but before .hack//MUTATION, and presents an interlude that happens between the two games. So there might be a few spoilers for the second game. Be aware that this fic also shifts between first and third POV, but the speaker should be easily recognizable. This is my first venture into this fandom but I'm so enamored with the idea of Kite/BlackRose that I just had to try my hand at it. I've taken liberties with various aspects of "The World" since I'm only halfway through MUTATION and do not know much of anything yet. Keep that in mind as you read. Please enjoy.

Rage Against the Twilight

By Goldberry

We thought things would change and that was our downfall. Or maybe it was only me that assumed The World would be restored, made perfect once again after Skeith's defeat. It's hard to tell what she is thinking, but at least I know that that was the one truth in my head.

Win. Just win one more time and it will be over.

It feels silly to me now. To think that I was so naïve, purely confidant in the strength of my Bracelet and the power of my friends. Data Drain had begun my journey for the white girl, surely it would end it.

Silly.

Even as the gold rings collapsed into nonexistence around me, I knew it was the same. Players around me whispered of Protected areas and read aloud messages from the Board that spoke of seemingly undefeatable monsters lurking in the darkest dungeons. Must be a virus, they said, and shrugged it off.

It was then that I began to doubt. What was I doing there? What was I hoping for? Orca. Yes, that was what kept my feet on the path, my hands curled around the hilts of my twin daggers. But if all my struggles were in vain, what was the point? Maybe it was time to just do it. Log out. Close down the program, switch off the monitor and close the door. Go back to being a normal teenager, doing schoolwork and making weekly visits to his friend in the coma ward.

I might have done it too, if it hadn't been for the simple fact that here, in this World, I might still be able to make a difference. Of course, if I had cared to admit it to myself, it might also have been because I wasn't quite ready to let go of this new feeling I was having. Need. That's what it was. I was needed in the World. I alone had the Bracelet. Not even the great Balmung could do what I could do. I wasn't really proud of that fact, after all, Data Drain was the cause of Yasuhiko's current state, but there was this quiet sense of duty in me then. It was Orca the white girl had wanted but it was me who taken up the burden of the Bracelet.

It would be awhile before I realized that others shared that weight with me.

* * * *

BlackRose was not the most patient character. Even in the real world, she had never really liked waiting. Her mind wandered too much, thoughts bouncing around in her head until she was forced to confront issues she would have much rather left gathering dust in the corners of her mind. She was a worrier, as her mother liked to tell her. If left to mull things over, she would stew in all the 'what ifs' and 'should have beens'. It's why she was usually so impatient and headstrong.

She was trying to keep herself from thinking too much.

It was a good trait to have in a battle-based world, where you struck first and asked questions later, but in the real world it could be quite troublesome. Hence the allure of The World. Here she could be her true self without really worrying about what other people thought. They were all strangers, milling around trying to add meaning to a few scant hours spent taking out emotional aggression.

It was great.

Or it would have been if not for the heavy cloud hanging over her. For the Heavy Blade, BlackRose, The World was no longer just a game. The lines between computers and reality were blurring and she was walking that line like an acrobat walks a tightrope. Without a net. And with large hungry lions waiting below. Oh, and there actually was no tightrope.

"See?" she mumbled out loud, kicking at a suddenly offending clod of grass. "This is what happens when you're late. I start talking to myself."

Kite. He seemed to be taking up more and more of her thoughts as well as her hours spent in The World. It was funny really. He was almost her complete opposite. Quiet, kind, courageous. Well, she supposed she was somewhat courageous herself, but that was usually just a result of sudden anger or her usual impatience. Kite's bravery was somehow more pure than hers, a product of a general desire to protect something.

Someone.

She knew he carried the Bracelet because he hoped it would lead him to answers that would save his friend, the legendary Orca. She believed in Kite for that reason but also because she too had someone to save. She had never told him of her brother. Not because she didn't want to but because it was somehow harder to get the actual words out. It was easier to keep it inside, where it could hurt only her. Kite had enough problems, she did not want to add another. Especially when it might make him believe that was the only reason she was fighting with him.

Because it wasn't.

"Ugh! That's it! If I stay here another moment I'll go completely crazy!" Hefting her huge broadsword, she stood up from where she had been sitting on the docks of Mac Anu. Around her, a few other players glanced at her, drawn by her sudden movement, but quickly hurried onward, only a few of them gasping in sudden recognition.

That was another reason she hated waiting, at least in The World. It seemed that both her and Kite had been making quite a name for themselves on the Delta server. Now if she lingered in one place too long, she became the subject of stares and whispers and lame attempts to get her member address. Her only justice was that Kite seemed to suffer even more from it, especially after there had been several sightings of him with Balmung, and even Helba, two very talked about players. If he kept it up she wouldn't be surprised to see a Kite Fan Club spring up soon.

"Oi, little lady." A glance over her shoulder revealed a swaggering Long Arm leaning on his lance with what he must have thought was a sultry pose. "Aren't you— "

"No."

She settled her sword on her shoulder, ignoring him. Unfortunately, her hasty interruption didn't phase him in the least. He simply dropped the point of his lance in the floorboards at her feet, effectively blocking her path. She glared at him but he only smiled.

"They said you were a bit rude, but I happen to like a girl with spunk. What do you say about joining my party?"

"I'd say you're wasting your time and mine. I don't join up with strangers." Blatant lie since she had had no compunctions about joining Kite in the beginning, but there had been something about him that told her he was honest. This guy… He was just a creep.

Stepping over his weapon, she walked on, intending to gate out and write a really steamed email to Kite reaming him up one side and down the other for ditching her. The letter would never be sent of course, but it would definitely make her feel better after the day she had had. She made it to the beginning of the bridge before the stranger's voice stopped her.

"What if I told you that I had seen a little girl in a white dress?"

BlackRose felt herself stiffen in the real world, the action mimicked by her alter ego. She turned slowly, her fingers tightening on the hilt of her sword as she gazed at the now smug looking Long Arm. He looked like any other character. Long dark hair pulled back by a lengthy bandana around his forehead, green eyes in a face neither handsome nor ugly. He wore armor of normal levels and his weapon was not a rare type but something anyone could buy at the nearest weapons dealer. In a crowd of players, she would have never noticed him. That worried her and when she finally spoke, her voice was tight.

"Who are you?"

His lips twitched in a victorious smile. "My name is Cort and I have some news that I think will be of interest to you. Will you come with me to Delta Dancing Passed Over Trinket?" The tilt of his head told her he did not think she would refuse.

In one of her lightning quick decisions, she nodded once while simultaneously sending a FlashMail to Kite. There was no immediate response and she almost ground her teeth in frustration. Where was he?

Managing not to sigh aloud, she exchanged member addresses with Cort and allowed herself to be added to his party. For a moment, looking at his cocky grin, she almost changed her mind. It felt strange to be going somewhere potentially infected without Kite, but she really had no choice. The opportunity was too good to lose, especially after Skeith's defeat and the white child's subsequent disappearance.

"Alright," she said briskly, "Let's get going already."

Cort bowed to her as if she were some sort of Lady and BlackRose struggled to maintain her composure in the face of his mocking. Kite was really going to get it for not meeting her.

* * * *

Kite was in big trouble. Every second that ticked by making him later and later for his meeting with BlackRose was another angry word thrown at him by his fiery companion. He was really going to get it.

Sadly enough, it hadn't even been his fault. He had had to stay after school and copy the history notes from one of his classmates only to find that the copy machine was broken. After visiting another store he finally managed to locate a copier that actually worked but by then he knew he was coming perilously close to standing up BlackRose. He had grimaced just thinking of the tirade he was going to get when she laid eyes on him.

Imagine his surprise not to find her sitting on the dock waiting for him.

Out of breath from running headlong through the streets of Mac Anu, he looked around for any sign of his friend, hoping to catch a glimpse of pink hair among the other players. BlackRose was stubborn and it was unlike her to give up on him, even when he was half an hour late. Maybe she had gone to the Recorder's or got caught up in some last minute shopping. It wouldn't have been the first time.

Why then did he have this sinking feeling in his chest?

"Where is she?" he said quietly and jumped backwards as a childlike voice answered.

"Oh, the Heavy Blade that was sitting there? She went off with a guy just a little while ago." A small petite Blade Master jumped out from behind a stack of crates, stifling a yawn behind one hand as she smiled at him. He watched her curiously, wondering what she had been doing hiding there, when his question was answered by a tall male Heavy Blade who stepped out from behind the crates after her. Kite's eyebrows rose and the girl blushed, reaching her arm back to scratch her neck self consciously.

It was not unheard of for people in long distance relationships to use The World as a convenient meeting place and it was obvious that the two had been having a secret rendezvous. He blushed suddenly, wondering if that's what they thought he was meeting BlackRose for.

"Uhm, my friend left with another player?" he asked, making an effort not to emphasize the word 'friend'. That would be childish. "Do you know where they went? I was suppose to meet her here but I was late."

The Blade Master shook her head disapprovingly. "You really shouldn't make a girl wait, you know. It's rude." She eyed the man next to her who was suddenly very busy staring at his feet. Kite sweatdropped. "But I did hear him ask her to go to Delta Dancing Passed Over Trinket. I don't think she was too happy about it but they left about ten minutes ago."

That sinking feeling in his middle was growing. "She was upset?"

The Blade Master tapped a finger to her lips thoughtfully. "Not upset, no. More like unhappy. I don't think she liked the guy very much." Her eyes narrowed at him suddenly. "You really should be more thoughtful. Leaving her to fend for herself like that. You never know what creeps are just hanging around, trying to get girls' member addresses."

Kite ignored her scolding. "Did you get a look at the guy she went with?"

The Blade Master hesitated, trying to remember, but the Heavy Blade answered for her. "He was a Long Arm, nothing really special about him. Wore a red bandana around his head." The man frowned. "Come to think of it, I haven't seen him around before and we know almost everyone that comes to this server regularly.

Kite's stomach had now twisted itself into knots. He managed a brief "thank you" to the two before pivoting quickly and taking off towards the Chaos Gate. As he dodged players and tried to keep from falling to the pavement stones, he sent BlackRose a FlashMail, crossing his fingers that he was simply overreacting.

There was no response.

A frown crossed his face and his bit his lip in worry. If she was with this mysterious Long Arm somewhere then it should have been possible for him to reach her. Had she changed her mind and logged out? No, he couldn't see her doing something like that. Once she made up her mind, it stayed made up. Which meant one of two things: she was ignoring him or she was in trouble. He hoped it was the former.

Golden rune circles lifted around the Chaos Gate as he put in the keywords the Blade Master had given him. Taking a deep breath, he took a better grip on his Masterblades, closed his eyes, and gated out.

* * * *

There was definitely something wrong with the strange Long Arm, Cort. The deeper they progressed in the dungeon, the more antsy and less level headed he became. By the time they reached the bottom level, BlackRose had begun to question why she was still following him. After all, he was certainly no Kite. His leadership qualities were virtually nonexistent. He activated every portal they came across and then stood back to let her make the first strike in order to see how big a hit she was going to take. He healed only himself and barely glanced back to make sure she was still behind him. It was strange. She didn't like following someone she didn't trust. She and Kite watched each other's back and he had never let her down. They looked out for each other, they were partners. Cort only looked out for himself and as she stumbled along behind him, weary from the countless battles, she felt her stubborn will rise up and take hold.

Stopping dead in her tracks, she planted the tip of her Claymore into the dirt at her feet and leaned against the broad hilt in an effort to catch her breath.

"I'm stopping," she announced loudly, watching with a certain satisfaction as Cort wheeled about to glare impatiently at her. "I need to rest for a moment."

"Well, the rumors don't do you justice," he said coldly. "You're more of a coward than I thought you were."

The words hit home like a knife in her heart and she felt her whole body stiffen in response, her fingers curling around the hilt of her weapon.

"What?!"

"I thought for sure the mere hint of that girl would light a fire under you, but it seems I was wrong." He shrugged. "Well, perhaps this is far enough."

With a speed that astonished her, Cort lunged forward, his spear whistling through the air as it sought to run her through. It would have too if she hadn't already been in motion, racing forward while bringing her Claymore up and over her shoulder to slam hard against her opponent's side. It wasn't a wounding blow and she hadn't meant it to be. She had no idea why he was attacking her or how he had known about Aura, but she wasn't about to kill him before finding out.

No matter how much she may have wanted to.

The force of her sword blade made Cort hit the wall like a rag doll but he seemed neither hurt nor winded by it. Instead he smiled that cocky smile of his.

"There's that spunk," he said and in a move so fast she couldn't follow it, he jumped at her, pushing her onto the ground with her arms above her head and held there by one of Cort's hands. With the other he threw her Claymore out of reach and picked up his spear again. Looking up at him, BlackRose felt a heavy blanket of dread settle over her as her eyes caught the sight of a bright green glow under his jacket on his right side. She gasped aloud.

"You're infected," she whispered, not bothering to struggle against his hold of her. There was no point to it now. "I don't understand. Who are you? What do you want?"

He laughed. "Why, we want the Bracelet, of course." When she tried to say something, he placed a finger over her lips to silence her. "Yes, we know you don't have it. Did you think the System was blind? That we couldn't see what you two were doing?"

Her eyes widened, surprised. "You… You're part of the System? They why… what are you…"

"Infected?" he supplied lightly. "Well, as you know, these bodies are only characters, and though we can feel what they feel, it isn't real. Coming into contact with a Data Bug was an accident but the powers of the virus are quite handy." Powers such as making him almost impossible to defeat without Kite's Bracelet. Even as she watched, she could feel his infection spreading, slowly increasing his hit points towards infinite. When it did he would cease to become a normal player and she would definitely be in trouble. "The System Admin offered me lots of special goodies if I would do his bidding. New character, rare items." He smiled. "It truly pays to know the right people, doesn't it? Or in your case, the wrong ones."

She gritted her teeth, her trademark stubbornness forcing her not to give up. "So, you lured me here just to trap Kite? He doesn't even know where I am!" Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "And if you know so much about me, then I'm sure you realize I won't let you hurt him."

A lazy, victorious grin spread across Cort's features, somehow so much more terrifying than if he had slapped her. Leaning down until his mouth was near her ear, his breath ruffling stray locks of pink hair, he whispered to her softly.

"Ah, Rosy, I'm afraid you misunderstand me. I didn't bring you here to kill Kite. I brought you here so that I could kill you."

It was a complete shock when Cort's lance plunged into her bare abdomen.

For an instant, her vision went white and she cried out as her hit points dropped dramatically. Still hovering over her, Cort watched emotionlessly as her expression twisted with pain, the point of his spear still inside her.

"I know this won't kill you, not a character of so high a level, so I'm afraid I must also leave you with one last parting gift."

BlackRose barely felt it as Cort's lips met hers in a hard kiss, her mind was too occupied with the fact that she had just been severally wounded, but when he finally pulled away, she knew suddenly that his kiss had had a purpose. She spasmed almost immediately, her back rising off the cold stone floor as she screamed. Green flashes of binary numbers raced across her vision and he skin felt suddenly hot and cold at the same time.

She had been infected.

"Sorry to kiss and run, my dear, but I have a bounty to collect. I'll make sure to say 'hello' to Kite for you." Reaching over, the Long Arm pulled his weapon free, nonplussed by the weak cry of pain that escaped her. No, it was the angry shout that made him halt, his eyes going wide.

Kite stood in doorway, his face white with rage as he gazed at BlackRose's prone figure, his dark blue eyes flashing with something akin to hatred for the person who had done it to her. His voice when he spoke was cold and, recognizing it, BlackRose turned her head feebly, blurry vision bringing her the welcome sight of her vengeful partner.

She had never seen him so upset, not even when Skeith had Data Drained Aura.

"What you have done is unforgivable," he said, and lifted his daggers. But before he could attack Cort, BlackRose called out to him, her voice losing its strength.

"Kite! He's infected!"

The furious Twin Blade took a step forward but did not attack. For a moment, BlackRose thought she saw something like shards of green glass around his right wrist but the vision quickly disappeared as another wave of agony hit her, the infection racing through her system, corrupting her character. Across the room, Kite finished analyzing his enemy.

"You've been in contact with a Data Bug," he said grimly, gripping his Masterblades tightly. Cort twirled his spear in graceful acknowledgement.

"How observant," he said, wryly. "I'd expect no less from the famous player character, Kite. However, I don't have time for you to work up the nerve to Data Drain me, and neither does BlackRose."

Kite inhaled sharply, clearly torn between wanting to crack Cort down to a Protect Break and racing to BlackRose's side. Luckily perhaps for both of them, the Long Arm took the decision from him. With a jaunty wave, he took a Sprite Ocarina out of his coat pocket and vanished in a string of musical notes and gold rings.

In a flash, Kite had dropped his Masterblades and dashed to her side, collapsing next to her and lifting her head gently until it was pillowed in his lap. She tried to smile for him, make some arrogant comment about how Cort would get what was coming to him, but found she lacked the strength. The virus was already at work. Soon she would become so infected that Kite would have to… have to..

"Data Drain," she said, and then blinked as she realized Kite had understood her hoarse words. The Twin Blade shook his head vehemently, his mouth set in a grim line.

"No."

She snorted softly. "You idiot." Without Data Drain, she was sure she would become part of whatever it was that was causing problems within The World. What if she became part of the very force they were trying to stop?

"I won't do it," Kite said suddenly, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. "I've never Data Drained an infected character before." His swallowed. "You might end up like Orca."

Any other time, BlackRose would have been secretly happy to see him worrying about her so, but the glowing green patches on her skin kept her from truly appreciating the moment. She had begun to have feelings for the Twin Blade just before the battle with Skeith but had wrote them off as stress and the irrationality of starting a relationship with someone else inside an online game.

But there was just something about him. A gentleness, the ability to make anyone he met like him. Thought sometimes quiet and shy, he had an inner strength and determination that was the complete opposite of hers. She wore her bravery on the outside while trembling on the inside. But Kite had taken that in stride, never teasing her, a strong wall to her back. She had grown a lot while being with him and she didn't want to let that go. Not yet.

But if Kite didn't Data Drain her, she was sure she would never wake up in the real world. Not infected as she was.

Slowly, she lifted her right hand and placed it over his, where it was wrapped around her shoulders. Gazing up at him, she blinked against her hazy vision and gave him a half-smile with the energy she had left.

"I trust you."

It wasn't what he had expected to hear but it seemed to get through to him. His arms tightened around her briefly before he lifted her as gently as he could, carrying her to the dungeon wall where he helped her into a sitting position. She bit her lip through the pain of moving and squeezed Kite's hand as he stood up. He nodded once, understanding her silent message, and she breathed out as he crossed the room stiffly, clearly hating what he was about to do.

BlackRose closed her eyes.

"Data Drain," came the soft command and the Bracelet expanded, whirling panels of green and blue arcing outwards. She heard him grunt as he struggled to restrain the power of it and then there was a loud boom! and she was—

— being shaken by a distraught Kite whose dark eyes were full of tears. Upon seeing her eyelids flutter open he gave a cry of pure relief, and hugged her tightly, startling her as she tried to understand what had happened. Awkwardly, she linked her arms around Kite's neck, hugging him back and thanking her lucky stars he couldn't see her blush.

"I thought I had killed you," he said into her shoulder and sympathy welled up inside her. He was going to feel guilty about this forever unless she did something.

BlackRose laughed lightly. "Did you really think you could get rid of me that easily?"

She felt a small laugh rumble in his chest. "I guess I was being an idiot again." He pulled back then to get a better look at her. "Are you alright? Did it work?"

She nodded. "I feel fine, weak, but fine." She punctuated her next words. "You didn't hurt me."

Kite's face cleared of any remaining shadows and he smiled, a genuine Kite smile. Digging into his pockets, he brought out a Health Potion, Antidote, and Restorative and made her drink them all, watching to make sure every drop was gone. She did as she was told and as strength came back to her, Kite stood and offered her a hand up. Placing her hand in his, she let him pull her to her feet, watching as he gathered up his fallen Masterblades and her Claymore. As he gave her weapon back to her, she spoke what they were both thinking aloud.

"Do you think it's over?"

Kite's shoulders dropped, the heavy burden settling over him once again. It would not lift entirely until his role in "The World" was done and Orca awoke from his coma.

"No. I don't think we will see that guy again, his infection is too advanced, but as for everything else…" he trailed off and she spoke into his silence.

"Cort, that Long Arm, he was recruited by the System." At Kite's exclamation, she nodded. "I think the Admin's plan was to get rid of anyone connected to you so that you would give up the Bracelet to keep them safe. The System wants to delete us."

"But it can't," Kite answered slowly. "If it could, my illegal powers would have caused me to be deleted long ago." He gaze shifted to his wrist. "Do you think…?"

"It's protecting you?" she supplied, wonderingly. If it was, then Kite really had nothing to fear from the System Administrators. Her on the other hand…

"Stay with me," Kite said abruptly, his eyes riveted on the ground in front of his feet. She blinked at him, wondering about his sudden shyness, when he continued. "If the Bracelet protects me then, maybe, if you're with me… Please, stay with me."

Silently cursing the blush that rose in her cheeks, BlackRose hefted her Claymore onto her shoulder and offered her free hand to Kite, beckoning him.

"Come on," she said gently, "Let's get out of here… partner."

And, once again, Kite smiled.

THE END.

All comments and reviews are appreciated.