This is my little contribution to the .Hack fanfiction world – observe! A .Hack fic that doesn't actually have .Hack in its title. Whoa.

This story mainly revolves around the characters Subaru and Crim. I love this couple to death.

Lifeline is a seven part installment and is only one part of a three part series about the .Hack world. I will never, ever write the other two parts because I'm a lazy bum, but I would really like to. The idea is cool.

Read and review!

I don't own .HackSign.

Something Wicked

Part One: Lifeline

By Rio Grande

Chapter One: The Secret Lives of Lady Subaru and Crim the Red Lightning.

'It's hard, being famous in the Game.' Subaru reflected dully, shifting her hefty ax slowly over to her other hand and pressing herself closer up against a large, arching weeping willow. 'It's impossible to go unrecognized once you become a popular figure, because the World is such a small community to begin with. So, when I want to just be myself in this game... I am forever being recognized as the player I once was. I can never change people's image of me now.'

Subaru had found this aforementioned fact to be inherently true over the past six months. Six months.... it had been six months since she had become friends with the mysterious Wave Master Tsukasa, and embarked on an adventure that resulted in her revoking her position as head of the Crimson Knights. To be sure, Subaru had always known that just leaving the famed group of peace-enforcers would never rid her of her reputation as the brave 'Lady' Subaru ... she had just never counted on how much it would begin to annoy her, months after the group had been officially disbanded.

And so it was..... Subaru, formerly known as Lady Subaru of the Crimson Knights to nearly everyone in the World, was still currently recognized under that auspicious title to many old players too used to seeing the soft spoken, immaculate player in that light, flanked by her usual entourage of at least four Crimson Knights. And now she found herself in the irksome position of being utterly unable to shed the skin of the fearless leader who had, once upon a time, not only cleaned up but forever altered the game itself.

...... And it was this fact alone that made Subaru so hesitant to attempt any sort of spying ........ it was too risky she'd be recognized by someone, and have her cover blown. But it was a bit late to worry about that now, because the lithe, turquoise haired player could already hear her quarry approaching and she knew she was truly cornered now.

'Imagine, the ex-Lady Subaru – reduced to an eaves-dropping, nervous wreck. What's happened to me?' she wondered to herself, her large amber eyes growing dark with misery. However Subaru forcefully, and not for the first time, put these thoughts aside as she began to detect voices from the other side of the large old tree. Ah, they had stopped by the fence past the first field, just as she had predicted.

"Hey, I have an idea! Why don't we go down to that new vintage clothing store at the West Side Mall after we finish this adventure?" An energetic, feminine voice reached Subaru's ears, and she sank down farther along the tree until she was resting at the bottom of its trunk, completely invisible to the three people on the other side of it.

"Mimiru – why does it always have to be about shopping for you?"

Subaru winced when a second person joined in. That voice. It was her. It was ......

"What? Don't tell me you don't want to go?" Mimiru squawked, disbelievingly.

"Well, that's not what I meant exactly...." Tsukasa admitted. Subaru imagined Tsukasa averting her gaze, and getting that soft, concerted look on her face she always acquired when at a loss for words.

"Right. I didn't think so." Mimiru replied with a small giggle, and the chinking sound of her folding her bracelet encrusted arms, no doubt in satisfaction, could be clearly heard over the chirping of the birds that flew through the sky in small peppy flocks around the area of Dun Loireag. Subaru brought her knees higher up so that she seemed to be emulating a fetal position. The mere sound of their voices seemed to pitch her farther into her tangled, dark hole of depression. She didn't know why, but it was something about how casual they could be with one another. The comfort level......

"Well, that's all fine and good if you want to go shopping Tsukasa ...... but just where do you plan to get the money for this trip? Last I checked, you were already in debt twenty dollars...." a new, deep baritone could be heard, and Subaru knew that the male player Bear was in the company of Tsukasa and Mimiru.

"Aw, come on Da- Bear!" Tsukasa pleaded, a slight whine to her tone. There was a brief, awkward pause where everyone caught her near mess-up – but then Tsukasa continued on, undaunted. "I'll just need a few dollars...."

"Well, why don't we talk about this later. Say, after the adventure? BT is going to be waiting for us." Bear reminded the two girls. Subaru tensed as she heard the crunching sound of the large, middle age man beginning to move. It sounded as though he were walking towards the willow tree... and her. She tucked in her feet, covered in ankle high white boots, and hugged herself tightly. Finally, it seemed that she could make her body no smaller.

"Uh, and Sora." Now two more pairs of feet were traveling in Subaru's direction as well. She clenched her fists and sat up straighter. "BT and I sort of invited him yesterday...." Mimiru trailed off guiltily.

"Aw man, that weirdo? I thought we'd stopped talking to him now that we'd all agreed it was just too bizarre that he was a 4th grader in the real world..." Tsukasa pointed out.

The group came close to the willow, far too close in Subaru's opinion, before veering off to the side and heading towards the forest on the ax wielding player's right. They began to walk away with their backs to Subaru. The small girl quickly scurried over to the other side of the tree so that she was completely hidden again – but not before catching a fleeting glance of Tsukasa. When she did, she felt her heart unceremoniously drop into her stomach.

"Well, yeah ...... but now I sort of pity him more than loath him, you know? Like, he must have a really messed up life to act this twisted in the game at only age nine." Mimiru confessed with a melancholy lilt to her tone.

Tsukasa had changed her appearance in the game somewhat, now that her true gender had been revealed. Her outfit and Wavemaster accessories had remained the same, but her face and hair had changed notably. They had become more feminine and true to the real Tsukasa, the one Subaru had met briefly in the real world after the Aura incident had finished ...... Now, she and Tsukasa didn't meet much anymore. Subaru shot the short girl one last longing glance before disappearing again.

"It's true. I think maybe we should even become better friends with him," Bear suggested, and the smile was clear in his voice.

"Aw man, you guys......" Tsukasa sighed, obviously exasperated with her two best friends. Mimiru's melodic giggle could be heard in the distance as the trio disappeared into the dense woods, off to hunt for treasure on a level 10 adventure with their fellow companions – the cunning B.T and the slightly demented Sora.

'Tsukasa ... you seem so happy. So happy with your new family. With your best friends,' Subaru reflected, finally relaxing now that the white haired Wave Master had finally left. No one had walked by during that encounter to reveal her as Lady Subaru to the oblivious coterie of friends, and she had not jumped out from her hiding place, begging them to let her go on the adventure with them, just this once. So, all things considered, everything had transpired relatively well.

'I'm so weak.' Subaru scolded herself harshly. 'If it matters that much to me, why don't I just go up to them and ask to be included? I know they would accept me, and be happy to have another experienced hand on the mission. They are my friends. Friends. So why am I hiding from them?'

'Because you know, in your heart, you don't really belong with them. Not anymore. You don't belong with those three anymore. You don't belong with hi-her...... anymore.'

Subaru sighed heavily and let her eyes drift close while resting her large, jewel encrusted ax on her knees, her pale hands hanging listlessly off the silver blade. Her countenance was somber and despondent. However, unless a person knew the girl well, they would be unable to gauge this fact from just looking at her, since there was very little outward difference to a depressed looking Subaru and a content looking Subaru. No, Subaru's face was more often than not totally devoid of all expression, and only the closest of her friends could truly read her. In fact, considering how very few friends the young girl had, that would narrow down the number of people who truly understood the inner-workings of Subaru to just about......

"Hello, pretty Lady." A long shadow fell over Subaru's figure, blotting out the fake sun.


And it would just figure that one of those two people who knew Subaru so well would choose that moment to stop by for a friendly chat.

"Crim." Subaru slowly raised her head to respond, her tone calm, as though she had been expecting the taller player to sneak up on her the entire time. Inwardly however, the younger girl was jerkily quaking with fear.

'Why now?' Subaru thought to herself, mentally flashing a rather disturbingly grim smile. 'Why did he choose to see me now? We've hardly talked in two months, and now.......'

The lanky male player decked out in bright red robes, and wielding a long, thin scythe kneeled down slowly next to Subaru. She wondered distantly where Crim had popped up from, since they hadn't scheduled a meeting as they usually did when he was playing the game - but the thought became lost when Subaru noticed just how serious and un-characteristically somber Crim looked, clashing with his previous, light hearted greeting. Biting her lip, Subaru carefully averted her gaze without looking too conspicuous and quickly got to her feet, leaving Crim kneeling on the shaded grass alone.

"What are you doing here, Crim? You're hardly ever out in this area of the game......" Subaru admitted in a slightly accusing manner. This was not good. He would know... if no one else would, at least Crim would know something was up. And he might ask questions. It was what he was best at, after all.

"I could say the same of you," the older, male player pointed out lightly, following suit and also standing, only to end up towering over Subaru by a good two feet. "Might I be so bold as to ask why YOU are lounging by yourself in the Dun Loireag fields, Lady Subaru?" he continued, flashing the same friendly smile that enamored so many girls to the handsome fighter/business man. But Subaru knew better – that smile was just a mask. A mask not so dissimilar to the one she always wore herself.

"It's truly none of your business, Crim," Subaru pointed out in her soft, breathy voice, adding an edge of steel to her tone as she lifted her chin up defiantly.

"Hm, I see." Crim said, leaning on his long spear for support and continuing to grin good naturedly.

"I was just enjoying the view. I happen to like this domain. It's very beautiful..." Subaru lied. Not about the area being beautiful – for sure, Dun Loireag was renowned for its soft, comforting quality and beautiful rolling mountains in the distance..... Subaru just didn't happen to like it, was all. It brought back too many painful memories.

"Oh yes. Very beautiful indeed." Crim agreed, his tone so obviously mocking that Subaru had to repress a hurt flinch. What did he think he was doing? "And, naturally, your visit here would have nothing to do with the frequent attendance of a group of three experienced players who usually like to meet up in the field directly behind you – would it?" he asked, his wide grin slipping somewhat as he touched upon what he knew to be a sore spot for the female heavy-ax wielder.

Subaru stared Crim in the eye for a long moment, a completely neutral expression on her face. Crim returned the penetrating gaze in full, looking deep into the amber eyes that so resembled his own in the Game, his smile now completely gone. Being a successful business man, Crim was not short on experience when it came to games of intimidation. Whatsmore – he had personally taught Subaru everything she knew about staring people down. There was no way SHE could avoid him, or the subject he had been trying to broach since first coming upon the girl hiding in the shade of the willow tree...... and they would be getting to the heart of the matter soon enough.

Abruptly, Subaru tore her eyes away from Crim, spinning on her heal so that he was given a view of her practically naked back, complete with a delicate set of pure white wings. She sucked in a sharp breath, and realized that she had become slightly disturbed over something she had seen in her companion's glittering orbs. She couldn't place what it had been – but there was something odd in Crim, bubbling just beneath the surface of his usually blithe visage. And if she could detect this even in his Player Self...... then it must have been truly potent.

'I don't have time for this. I do not have time for Crim's games.' Subaru thought fiercely, secretly angry with herself for not being able to handle Crim's invasion the way she wanted. But, then again, she had never been able to truly win against Crim when he wanted something so she didn't see why this time was going to be any different.

The only question now was – What did Crim want? And if it was what she thought it was... then how did he know?

"What did you want to speak of, Crim." Subaru asked, her voice uncharacteristically hollow. Apparently, her morose tone gave Crim pause, and if Subaru had bothered to look over her shoulder she would have seen a rather hurt expression on the fighter's face. He and Subaru were friends – long time friends – and yet she was talking to him as though it were some great burden to merely be near the roguish man.

"Well gee Subaru, don't be so excited to see me after nearly two months." Crim huffed sarcastically, marching forward to stand in front of Subaru again, leaning lazily against the tree and propping his two handed spear up next to himself. Subaru glanced up at Crim sharply, apparently having already fully composed herself.

"I thought we had skipped out on the pleasantries this meeting when you started our conversation by interrogating me," Subaru shot back, her tone as light and gentle as ever, but the meaning behind her words as scathing as though she had just screamed her statement. Crim sighed heavily, and folded his arms. Oh boy, he had really come into this all wrong......

"Listen, I'm sorry Subaru, I just...... I don't know, actually. I just wasn't thinking. I didn't mean to talk to you the way I did, back there, honestly. I saw you there, sitting all alone by the tree, waiting for Tsukasa and his friends to pass... and you looked so different. So unlike the Subaru I've come to know and respect. I was ...... worried about you. That's all." he finished, letting out a long sigh.

"You don't need to be worried about me Crim." Subaru quickly assured her friend. "What you saw..." She realized distantly she was rather embarrassed over the fact that Crim had spotted her in that moment of weakness. "It was nothing. I just haven't been that close to Tsukasa lately, and I was hoping to not have an awkward confrontation. That's why I was hiding."

'But if you didn't want the awkward confrontation – why did you come to see Tsukasa at all? I know you didn't just wander over to this part of the World by chance.' Crim thought grimly, taking pains to make sure his controversial thoughts didn't show up on his face.

"Crim...... what are you thinking?"

Crim cocked his head at Subaru, watching carefully as she stared up at him with large eyes that, for a second, greatly resembled those of the girl he had once met all those years ago – dressed in a pink skirt and top, stumbling along her way through the game, nearly sick with nervousness and completely inexperienced. For a second Subaru looked like the confused, uncertain child she had once been – before Crim had taught her how to always play the Game so that she was in control.

For the first time in a long time, Subaru didn't look in control. In fact, she looked utterly lost.

"Are you....... happy, Subaru?" Crim decided to start out with, something in his heart tightening uncomfortably as the raw emotion in Subaru's face retreated and disappeared back behind her confident mask. But it was too late; he had seen for a fact that his Subaru was hurting, and the damage had been done. Now, there would be no deterring him.

"Happy?" she repeated, as though testing out the word to make sure it wasn't dangerous, or held some sort of hidden meaning. "Yes. I'm fine. Is this what you were worried about Crim?" she paused thoughtfully once more. "Do you think I'm depressed?" Crim blinked, surprised yet again by Subaru's finely honed talent for picking up on hidden messages.

"Of course not!" Crim said, chuckling lightly and letting his usual, easy grin slip back onto his face. "I just thought you might be having a bad day," he mentioned, the lies coming easier now that it seemed they were both determined to feed each other as much false information as humanly possible. "And I wanted to make sure everything was all right. I know things have been hard for you ever since Tsukasa was adopted by Bear......" That much, at least, was the truth.

Subaru bit her lip, and the hand around her ax tightened noticeably. Was she so transparent? True, Crim was a remarkably astute person – but she had taken great pains to carefully hide her feelings away, and it was almost a blow to her pride that her defenses had been so quickly and effectively destroyed by this one man.

"I see. You worry too much Crim, really. I'm doing just fine... there is no reason for me to be effected by events taking place in Tsukasa's life. I'm sorry to have distressed you," she added at the end, inserting a bit of obligatory Subaru politeness to the unusually tense conversation.

"Hm," Crim murmured, not readily agreeing or disagreeing with Subaru's last statement either way.

They stood like that for a while – Subaru with her usual regal posture, one hand tightly gripping her ax, and her chin jutting upwards in a show of subtle defiance towards the man who at times was as much her mentor as her friend – while Crim lazily rested against the gracefully arcing weeping willow, his expression calm and casual, but his arm always ready to swipe up his spear if a sign of danger presented itself. The sound of artificial wind sweeping through the fields reached the couple's ears, and was a sharp reminder to them of just how awkward their current silence was.

"Actually, Crim, I have to g-"

"Subaru, there was something I wanted to bri-"

They both stopped in mid sentence and stared at each other expectantly, before simultaneously letting hesitant smiles slip onto their faces.

"I was just saying that I really must be going now. I have things to attend to at home," Subaru explained placidly. Crim nodded slowly, sensing the urgency in Subaru's voice. Something told him not to keep his young friend any longer than was necessary.

"Right. Well, what I had to say can wait then. I do plan on seeing you again soon, Subaru. It's been too long since we've been able to just talk or spend time with one another – and especially now that your responsibilities concerning the Crimson Knights are gone, I was hoping we would be able to see more of each other." he admitted, determined not to let Subaru go again.

"Well, perhaps now that you're back from your business trip......" Subaru suggested, clearly pointing out that it had been no decision of hers to purposely stay away from Crim.

"Yeah, I'm sorry to have gone off like that on such short notice,"

"No, I understand." Subaru quickly assured him, her tone of voice abruptly going from distant to purposeful. "For as much as I've always had my share of commitments to shoulder in the Game, you've been burdened by much more pressing responsibilities in the real world. I would never hold it against you for having a real life," she explained, showing compassion to her long time friend, and at the same time revealing a shred of bitterness that had always lingered in her heart.

Crim strongly suspected this bitterness stemmed from Subaru's condition in the real world. Being confined to a wheel chair, he guessed, didn't really make it easy for a young girl to have much of a social life. He knew that the majority of Subaru's interactions with people happened souly in the Game, and that she had always slightly envied Crim's ability to lead an adventurous life both on and off line. Crim's eyes softened as he continued to look upon the lovely picture of Subaru, working hard to erase all traces of pity from his gaze, for he knew that Subaru abhorred pity almost as much as he did.

The thing was, practically the only person in the world Crim had ever felt any degree of pity for...... was Subaru. He supposed that this was because he had always liked and respected Subaru so much more than many others in his life, and often felt it was very unfair that she of all people had to be saddled with such a terrible disease at such a young age. But Subaru, despite her delicate condition in real life, was never to be confused with a pitiable person, and Crim always remembered to keep this fact first and foremost in his mind. His Subaru deserved much more than soft words and despairing glances.

"Well then, I suppose I'll be seeing you around Crim." Subaru said, nodding her head once at the tall player, before a quiet explosion of gold ribbons surrounded her form and she was gone from Crim's sight in a flash, quite effectively terminating the confrontation.

"You are not one to be pitied, Subaru," Crim repeated out loud once he was sure Subaru had logged off, straightening up grabbing his spear once more. "But I strongly feel that you are in need of help right now."

Twenty-Five stories above the streets of East Tokyo, and residing in a rather spectacular corner office with glass windows that extended from the ceiling to the floor, accompanied by an opulent oriental rug that covered almost the entire floor, sat a successful CEO of Zuzahara Software.

Today the usually confident and cool business man was looking a bit bedraggled as he sat hunched over his silver laptop, one hand supporting his cheek as he gazed at the glowing screen with no expression on his handsomely chiseled features. He had been up all night surfing the message boards of the World, and realized he probably looked something like a train reck, and was certainly not at all ready for the upcoming meeting his secretary had scheduled for that afternoon ... but he didn't care. For the first time, he didn't mind if the World interfered a bit with his actual life.

The man sat up straighter and abruptly raised his arms to the ceiling, yawning loudly and cracking his back. He frowned lightly at the feeling of his restrictive suit making it hard for him to flex his arms, so he quickly removed the jacket and was left only in a white button down shirt and an expensive silk tie.

Touya was quite an attractive man, but he liked to think that he had made it to the top of the pecking order of Zuzahara Software not simply based on the fact that he was an incredibly dashing, 26-year old entrepreneur known to make the ladies swoon ... but rather by merit. He had, after all, attended one of the most prestigious colleges in all of Japan, graduating at the very top of his class.

Touya also liked to imagine that he hadn't landed this well-paying (If not slightly demanding.) job thanks to the fact that his family was quite well off themselves, and that his father was not exactly an unknown character in the business world. But Touya knew that, in fact, many of these aforementioned, and rather superficial facts had greatly contributed to his overwhelming success at so young an age ...

So he tried not to dwell on disheartening facts like that overly much, and attempted to simply work his hardest and take his job as seriously as he could. He hoped that if he did this long enough, people who often considered him a rich spoiled brat, or someone who had only become successful merely because of extensive connections – might see him as an equal if they were ever to get to know Touya or actually see him at work.

This had been a goal Touya had been striving to achieve from the second he left college, and even for many years before that, when he realized he wanted people to respect him for more than just his money. This had transformed him into a rather stony, but incredibly intelligent, young man.

Rarely could one ever find Touya involved in anything but his job, or concerned with anything that didn't apply to Zuzuhara Software. He was completely committed to running the multi-million dollar corporation, and this fact often led him to partake in long business trips over seas, often to Britain or America, where Zuzuhara had long had strong ties. Thanks to this, Touya's demeanor was often very serious and cold, and though it was rumored that he had a fairly amusing sense of humor when in the company of his closest friends – very few people ever saw anything but Touya Sunada's business face when in his company.

Touya supposed this was why he had become so very fond of 'The World', and of the character he played... Crim 'The Red Lightning.' This light hearted, amusing character embodied all of the aspects of his personality he kept bottled up when on the job, which was almost always, and allowed him to act as he pleased without having to worry about being judged.

Touya could care less if Crim was labeled as a bird-brained playboy, or if he was considered a traitor to the Crimson Knights ... no, Touya truly reveled in being able to exist in the Game with no concern at all for his reputation.

However, this way of playing the game truly did force him to draw a very clear line between the game World and the real World. He was a firm believer that the two places should never intertwine, and he did not partake in offline meetings or the sharing of personal information while playing the game, as some characters insisted on doing.

In fact, the only time he had ever, ever made an exception for this strict rule he had created for himself was with ...... Subaru.

He had given Subaru his home number the day he left the Crimson Knights, under the guise of a 'Magic Spell' for his dearest friend in the Game. If anyone were to ask him why he had done this... why he had broken his own most important rule when it came to the Game for one quiet slip of a girl ... Touya probably wouldn't know what to say. However, he suspected it came from the guilt he had felt at the time, realizing he was going to be leaving all of the responsibilities of leading the Knights on the shoulders of poor Subaru. Or, it might have been because he knew Subaru better than anyone else in the world at the time, and he understood that she wasn't as strong as she seemed, and that knowing that she had someone to talk to if the Knights became too much for her to handle would give her more confidence.

Or the notion might have been born from something more intense... or perhaps even a bit more personal ... but thoughts like that only got Touya into trouble, as he had found it, and his friendship with Subaru was too important to Crim (And Touya as well.) to risk ruining it with something that might never have worked in the first place.

However, now Touya strongly felt that Subaru was in need of his help again, and he didn't know if leaving her with a phone number was going to work this time around. Not that Subaru had ever called Touya after he left his number with her the first time – but he hadn't expected her to, either. From the start he knew that they both understood that the number was just more of a promise. A promise that he would always be there for Subaru if she wanted him, and it was also proof that Crim trusted her enough to give something as personal as his home number to the younger girl.

"I will always want to be known as Lady Subaru's Crim." Had been his parting words to her... and it was true. In the Game, there was no one as important to Touya or Crim as Subaru.

And it was because of that reason, and that reason alone, that Touya had stayed up half the night before his big meeting with all of the heads of Zuzahara Software (For the Japanese branch, at least.). He had been going through old message boards and skimming some of his saved e-mails he had long ago discarded after he had deemed them unimportant, attempting to obtain more information about one small item that had been becoming more and more talked about as the days went by. Its finer details ... well, really, just its details in general ... were still vague, but Crim had been using his connections to find out more about the new mystery item in the World – and the results had been very interesting.

Crim was sure that Subaru had already heard about the item he was currently researching, but this didn't bother him in the slightest. In fact, Touya was positive that there was no item he could find that Subaru wouldn't already know about, since she had dedicated the past six months or so to helping out system administrators and old friends with getting out glitches, hackers, and bugs in the game. She probably knew quite a lot about this mysterious item, especially if it was as spectacular sounding as he had heard it was ... but that wasn't the point. The point was that this was all an attempt to get Subaru's mind off her problems, and maybe, just maybe get the truth out of her ... although he knew better than to really press an issue like the one he was dealing with. His main objective was simply to help his friend out, not interrogate her. After all, he wouldn't appreciate it if Subaru tried to dig into his personal life. On the other hand, this wasn't the first time Crim had taken an interest in the 'real' Subaru's life, and it probably wouldn't be the last.

The last time Crim had suspected something was wrong with Subaru in the real world, she had admitted that she had been confined to a wheel chair for about a year due to a terrible disease called Hyrdomyelia, and that she had been, at the time, undergoing some risky surgery for it. The subject had come up when Crim had continued to bug Subaru about why she had been abruptly logging off and neglecting her Crimson Knight duties (When really he had been worried about her sudden, morose turn in attitude...) and she had eventually caved in and told him the truth.

Subaru had been in a terrible car accident a year before she entered the game,and had suffered spinal trauma because of it. She was unconscious in the hospital for a week after the crash, and when she woke she found that there was a great deal of pressure on her spinal cord. The doctors dismissed it as nothing since Subaru seemed to be in fine condition otherwise, and nothing was showing up in the x-rays. But when Subaru, weeks later, began to feel her lower body weaken, and the pain increase, she was taken back to the hospital for an MRI.

Soon it was discovered that the crash had widened the central canal of her spinal cord, and cerebrospinal fluids had pooled into this newly created vacuity. That was the pressure Subaru had been feeling, and it was also the cause of her lower body weakness. She had Hyrdomyelia, and a mere two days after the virtually untreatable disease was diagnosed, Subaru found herself confined to a wheel chair, possibly for life.

Subaru openly admitted to Crim that this development had greatly upset her, and that she became far more introverted and depressed then ever before because of it. While she was receiving treatment for her disease she was homeschooled, and soon lost contact with the few friends she used to have. In addition, the few possible surgeries she was able to undergo for her unique disease were risky and painful, and she quickly found herself, in addition to being paralyzed from the waist down, chronically depressed.

So, in an effort to help her keep her mind off the grim realities of her life, Subaru's parents introduced her to the World; a game where she could be anyone she wanted, and where she would be able to walk again. Subaru immediately fell in love with the World, although she wasn't very good at it at first. It made her feel truly alive again, and she reveled in the fact that to the average player she looked completely normal, and wasn't treated specially because of her disability. When she met Crim, and formed the Crimson Knights, she felt better than she had in years.

Subaru also confided in Crim about the nature of her car accident – a bunch of teens illegally racing in the streets and causing trouble had slammed into her father's car, almost totaling it. It was at that point that she began her personal crusade against people who would try and hurt or harass innocents, in real life as well as in the World. Crim found this absolutely admirable.

However, no matter how much information Crim was able to get about Subaru, in turn, the small girl never chose to inquire about Crim's real life... and Touya appreciated that very much. He had no misconceptions that Subaru didn't know that he liked things this way, too. But that was just one of the aspects of Subaru and Crim's relationship that made them so close.

And now it seemed the only way to preserve their precious friendship and help Subaru once more was going to have to be by starting from the beginning,in a sense. Touya could only hope that his plan worked, and that Subaru didn't completely close him off because of how distant they had been as of late. Touya hadn't meant for that to happen, either ... he had just thought it would be better to stay away when he had been under the impression that Subaru was somehow involved with the odd character Tsukasa, and a part of him realized that it would be a bad idea for him to get in the middle of that relationship. In the beginning, because he admitted he might have been a little jealous of how easy it was for Subaru to open up to Tsukasa, and later because of how delicate and potentially dangerous the situation seemed to really be.

It was only months after the Aura fiasco was over and done with that Touya noticed Subaru distancing herself from Tsukasa ... and Tsukasa's reluctance to do anything about it.

"Knock knock!" a cheery, feminine voice reached Touya's ears, and his bloodshot eyes widened dramatically. Was it nine O'clock already?

"Come in," he said, sighing heavily and running a hand through his shoulder length, wild black hair.

The large mahogany door at the other end of the room swung open quickly, and a tall, curvy woman strutted in, clutching a thick file to her chest. She walked right up to Touya's finely polished desk and abruptly dropped the file loudly in front the worn looking man.

"Morning Mr. Sunada. Mr. Thompson from our American branch had these faxed over earlier. Wants you to review them before he starts selling the modified, English version of Zuzahra 4.5 in August." Ai Usamora, Touya's 25-year old assistant, said blithely, giving Touya a smirk that plainly said she realized that it was Monday – but she really didn't give a damn. There was still work to be done. Speaking of which....

"Touya!" Ai gasped, loosing the formalities with her boss as she got a good look at the usually well groomed man. "What's wrong with you? You look like you just rolled out of bed ... and you have that huge meeting in two hours! You can't go in like this!"

"I'll be fine. Don't worry so much," Touya said, heaving a sigh and waving off Ai's concerns. "I just had a long night, is all." Ai raised one thin eyebrow and quickly leaned over Touya's desk, glancing at his computer screen.

"A long night playing that stupid game, I see," she huffed, leaning back and folding her arms across her impressive bust. "I don't know why you like that thing so much. All you ever do when you're not working or traveling or going to dinner parties is play that stupid RPG game. It's a waste of time, in my opinion." she snorted disdainfully, while flicking a lock of her long, wavy raven mane over her shoulder.

"Lots of people like playing in the World, Ai," Touya remarked dryly. "It's the most popular game in every industrialized country on Earth."

"Well, in any case, I wish you would stop playing around with your toys and spend some more time with me," Ai purred, her demeanor changing abruptly. She sashayed around the large desk and wrapped her arms around Touya's broad shoulders. Touya's expression remained impassive as the attractive woman stroked his cheek, and let one hand slide down his arm teasingly. An alluring purring sound reached Touya's ears and he felt his lips turn down ever so subtly.

"Or, at least, if you won't spend time with me... I wish you'd use all that time you spend frolicking around in fantasy land to properly prepare for your important meetings. I bet you haven't rehearsed for it at all, have you?" Ai asked critically, stepping away when Touya failed to respond to her playing and placing her hands on her hips.

"You know I'm always prepared for my meetings. I wouldn't just disregard my job for my hobby." Touya insisted firmly. Ai nodded, as though to say 'Of course, of course,' and then turned to head out the door, swishing her hips as she did so. Touya tried not to watch as she left, grumbling and shutting his laptop.

"Okay, whatever you say boss. I'll be back here to check up on you around 10:45. Don't forget the PowerPoint presentation." she called over her shoulder, her bright red lips curving into a suggestive smile.

"I finished it two days ago!" he called after her, determined not to let Ai make him look like some World junky. He wasn't a total Game nerd... was he?

'Why did I have to hire such an attractive assistant?' Touya thought to himself despairingly, collapsing back into his chair once he was sure Ai had made it back to her own office.

'Because you're a male with normal human needs.' he answered himself flatly.

While Touya liked to tell himself that he had kept Ai with him for so long because she was really quite intelligent when she wasn't being scathingly haughty, and a really good assistant ...... he also feared it had something to do with the fact that they had been on and off lovers ever since he hired her, about a year ago.

All right, so it wasn't exactly abiding by office policies, but considering that this was one of the only things Touya ever did that didn't strictly follow any and all rules laid down by Zuzahara Software he didn't feel too guilty about it. Besides, it wasn't as though he was actually carrying on a serious relationship – he and Ai were really just physically attracted to one another. They had great sex, but if she were ever to move in with him, Touya wasn't quite sure if he would be able to restrain himself from shooting the beautiful vixen. There were times when her gold-digging tendencies and high maintenance lifestyle just became too annoying to bear, no matter how well bred or elegant she was.

Besides... Ai just wasn't the type he could commit to. No, Touya's type was softer in her demeanor, and less snappy. She chose her words carefully, and she was always thoughtful. She didn't throw around her intelligence or title to show off, as Ai tended to do when at fancy parties with Touya, and she was kind and compassionate at all times. Touya worked with enough conniving scum bags all day – he didn't need to be in a relationship with one, too.

And so, Touya got to work on the final adjustments for his power point presentation while skimming over the faxes from America, and trying very, very hard not to think about who his description of the perfect lover resembled, almost uncannily.

Later that night Subaru found herself roaming the streets of the ex-Crimson's Knights original base of operations. She casually strolled down the beautiful, dimly-lit cobblestone streets of Mac Anu, her face as blank as she could make it as she tried to calm herself down from the day's earlier activities.

It had been Crim's idea to make Mac Anu the Crimson Knight's Head Quarters. Subaru dimly recalled it was because he had mentioned it reminded him of Venice with its numerous canals and ancient, beautiful apartments lining cobblestone streets. Subaru suspected that if it were possible to smell in The World, Mac Anu would be constantly surrounded by the scent of fresh flowers and exotic perfumes, sophisticated and mysterious, with a tinge of the canal's own odors.

Subaru came to a stop as she reached the small bridge that passed over the canal, leaning over its side and resting her face on her free hand, desperate not to look tired or defeated, but finding it inexplicably hard to stand with her usual confident posture suddenly. She gazed into the murky depths of the water below, letting out a long, heartfelt sigh. She had been excessively sighing as of late, and couldn't seem to stop. Indeed, everything she said or did seemed to be grounds for a good, healthy sigh, but she knew it made her look constantly forlorn.

This was probably why she had been on the receiving end of Crim's mild interrogation, earlier in the day. She supposed she should have been more aware of how her current attitude was affecting those around her, but she had to admit she just hadn't anticipated Crim's unprecedented questioning session, and it had left her quite rattled. Had it been any one else, Subaru would have been able to handle the confrontation swiftly and painlessly, probably ...... but because it was Crim, suddenly the event was a whole different ball game, and an emotionally draining one at that.

'I should stay away from Crim, for now. No good can come of his snooping around. And I know that's what he wants to do ... he wants get involved in my life again.' Subaru thought to herself knowingly, her emotive eyes reflecting the glowing, misty patterns of the canal water. She frowned lightly.

'Well, not this time. Crim can't always have his way.' She decided firmly. What did he care if she was acting a bit off? It was none of his business what happened to her outside of the game ... it had never been. Crim just had an uncanny knack for involving himself in Subaru's life.

Subaru wasn't trying to pretend she had never appreciated Crim's attention and care. Once upon a time, in fact, the knowledge that he worried about her welfare deeply had been one of the only things that held her together day after day. But she thought she had become stronger than that. After the adventure with Tsukasa she finally thought she was well enough to exist independently, and didn't need the help of an older player or the assurance of having an entire army behind her to keep together. As it would turn out, she hadn't even been stable enough to continue a healthy relationship.

Being best friends with Tsukasa had been everything she had hoped for at first. The odd female player had even been comforting, because for once Subaru felt as though she was taking care of someone else, as though someone out there needed her as much as she needed them. However, over time, and with the help of Mimiru, Bear and Tsukasa's various other acquaintances, the young girl had begun to change.

Much like Subaru, she became less dependent on others, was able to speak her mind and say what she wanted to when she wanted to. She laughed more, and especially with Bear as her surrogate father, began to enjoy just living in the real world more. This should have meant things with Tsukasa and Subaru's friendship would have improved to...... but it didn't. In fact, to a still rather introverted Subaru, it felt as though Tsukasa was leaving her in the dust as she matured and began to develop into the real Tsukasa, the one that had been repressed by years of torment and fear.

It was as though Subaru couldn't connect with Tsukasa as deeply as she used to, and eventually even light conversation began to become strained. In the beginning they had met quite often in the real world, sometimes with Mimiru, to just hang out and bond like normal friends ...... but over time Subaru found herself becoming intimidated by Tsukasa, what with her new wonderful life and outlook on life. It was as though her emotional improvements counteracted Subaru's, and for every time Tsukasa jumped another hurdle and worked towards becoming a normal girl once more, Subaru fell farther and farther back into being the unsure, secretive person she had once been.

Especially when Tsukasa started bringing the chipper Mimiru with her to every meeting with Subaru, the great chasm between the once close friends became even more apparent. The level of happiness and normality between Mimiru (who, rumor had it, spent most of her days in Bear's home, spending time with the two players.) made Subaru feel inadequate and nervous. Would she ever be as comfortable with someone as Mimiru was? Being close with people seemed to come unnaturally easy to Mimiru, and Subaru had a strong suspicion that the emotion she felt when watching Mimiru and Tsukasa share a casual inside joke was ...... jealousy.

And so Subaru had stopped calling Tsukasa to have meetings outside of the game, and started only seeing her in the World, which seemed to work better because it was easier to hide her emotions as a player. For a time. Eventually, however, even seeing Tsukasa become more and more at home with her new family in the game became unbearable to watch. Tsukasa and her band of friends, including B.T and Silver Knight, were becoming notorious in the game world, and extremely powerful.

Instead of aligning herself with them as she had once considered, Subaru had spent her time helping out administrators and friends higher up, because with her various connections and influence in the world many important players had jumped at the chance to have someone as knowledgeable as Subaru help them with various problems with the game. This only acted to further distance Subaru from the group however, and soon even their success made her feel alone and unacomplished. So she busied herself with missions and viruses she had to stamp out, and pretended it didn't bother her that she hardly ever saw Tsukasa anymore, and, even worse, that Tsukasa was doing nothing to fix the situation......

Of course, all of these feelings piqued a couple weeks ago when -

No. Now wasn't the time to think of that. It was never the time to think of that.

'Ring! Ring!'

A chiming alert sound informed Subaru ,who had been completely immersed in her own thoughts and had almost forgotten where she was, to the fact that she had just received an e-mail. This was not unusual to Subaru, who often received e-mail from administrators alerting the experienced player to new glitches in the system she could investigate. However the e-mail was not from an administrator or even from a powerful player who had once been aquainted with the brave Subaru during the world reformation and war almost two years ago.....

It was from Crim.

'Dear Subaru .... As I was skimming the message boards .... information about a certain item called the 'Key of Life' .... elusive, mysterious item ...... possibly very dangerous ..... thinking of us, old times ....... mission ...... very interested in learning the secret of the key ........ knew I could depend on an old geezer like you to be a strong partner ...... please e-mail me back ...... consider my offer ..... Crim the Red Lightning.' Subaru skimmed the letter, and then spent the next minute staring at it with a contemplative expression on her face.

The Key of Life, was it? Well, Subaru had certainly heard of this item, however she had only ever viewed it as a rumor. Of course, that was how she had once viewed the Key of the Twighlight, back when it too had been nothing but a vague idea on some of the more obscure message boards. And Crim seemed to be very certain that there was some truth behind its existence, and he usually had a 6th sense about this sort of thing ......

'I know was he's doing.' Subaru though to herself with a small smile on her pink lips. 'He wants to get me to open up again by working together on this mission. He thinks it will be as easy as that ......' Subaru found herself inexplicably annoyed with Crim, wondering how he could be so presumptuous as to assume that she would just break down and confess everything to him, like she might have considered doing a year or so ago, and even thought of just deleting the e-mail.

But then she remembered, she remembered how much fun she used to have when she and Crim were working together as partners, and how much brighter the world was when Crim was there to be a walking, humorous commentary about it all.

Subaru looked around her, watching players all over Dun Loreag travel together in groups, laughing talking and looking so at ease ...... everyone, it seemed, had others they could confide in and be close to, except her, standing on the bridge all alone with a heavy cloud above her head and a ton of bricks pulling on her heart strings. She stared at her hands, her eyes intense.

Why throw away this opportunity to be close to Crim once more? They had been distant for far too long, and wouldn't it be nice to be together as Lady Subaru and Crim the Red Lighting, at least for a time? Who knows, perhaps the Key of Life would turn out to be a real adventure, and that would certainly get her mind off of her problems. Yes. That was exactly what she needed, something to seriously distract her. These petty missions from the admistration were easy and usually led to nowhere, hardly giving her enough to do to keep her sharpened mind busy. But with Crim around, she knew things would never be dull.

'Why not.' she thought, looking up at the pink tinted sky, evening falling upon Dun Loreag quickly. 'Why not join up with Crim again? He was .... is one of my best friends, and he's done so much for me. And I .... I can't push everyone away forever. This could be good for me ...... as long as I don't let him get everything he wants. He can't know everything. I won't let him know everything.' She turned away from canal and began to slowly glide back onto the main road, becoming lost in the crowds, a single beacon of white light among the colorful diversity of players.

'I will just have to be very careful.'

Author's notes:

A pretty depressing beginning....... things have really gone downhill since the end of the series for little Subaru, and I didn't mean to make her so miserable, but it works with the story. Yes, Hydromyelia is an actual disease, and people can really get it in car accidents. It's pretty untreatable and pretty painful , and one of the only diseases that would serve my needs in this story. I don't believe they ever tell you exactly what's wrong with Subaru in the show anyway, but if they do and I just missed it, feel free to tell me. I'll come out with the next chapter as soon as possible, and please review!

Rio Grande.

P.S - Oh man, I love this new Quickedit function on! Finally, I can underline things!