Author's Notes: .hack/G.U. is property of CyberConnect2, and I'm making no financial profit from the use of their characters. Comments are greatly appreciated, including concrit.
Ordinarily, Endrance wouldn't have been able to wander through the arena stands with so little recognition, so few envious stares and giddy strangers moving to block his path. That was nice, but…the cause for it was truly awful. Someone else held the crowd's focus today, not in glory but pure hate, stirred to a bubbling frenzy by a madman. Lies and slander that raised a roaring tide of boos, until Endrance was forced to mute his headset.
AIDA's presence was thick as flies around a corpse here; he imagined it as a bitter taste in the air, though it had once been so sweet and melodious, so warm to the touch. So comforting, such miserable makeshift bandages around a bleeding heart. And not at all tempting, when he thought of what filled his heart now - no matter whose form it stole.
He blocked out the negativity by sinking into his own thoughts, his secret plan to right this injustice. Perhaps it would backfire and he'd become a Lost One, but even that wasn't too frightening. He would collapse into Haseo's arms, and dream of him day and night. Perhaps Haseo would visit him in the hospital, and break his coma with a kiss like a fairytale prince (it played out in his mind's eye: Haseo held his thin, IV-fed hands, and there were gauze-white roses beside the bed). Perhaps…
But nothing else mattered so long as this ended in Haseo's victory, Haseo's safety. It gladdened Endrance that he could think such unselfish things now; he was becoming a better person, stronger with every heartbeat, and this would be how he proved it, how he showed his gratitude. All for love.
Nausea twisted Haseo's stomach in real life; a searing pulse of anger shot through his skull, cased in its M2D. It wasn't that Sakaki had talked trash about him – Haseo wasn't a child, he could take that and dish it out damn well too – it was that everyone else had believed it, eaten up every stinking, rancid lie like it was prime roast beef.
…And yeah, tiny fragments of it hadn't been made up. Skeith was the only reason he'd succeeded in the Demon Palace tournament, he could admit that. He'd been bursting with so much stupid pride back then – but everything had turned out okay, regardless! And he'd risen above all that now. He was the good guy!
You couldn't really blame a person for the crap they did under AIDA's influence. Still…
A nervous squeak from Atoli brought him back to the present. Some punk had elbowed her, knocking her off-balance; Kuhn caught her arm before she fell, and joined Haseo in glowering at the culprit (whichever of the gang facing them was the culprit).
"Hey now, that's no way to treat a young lady!" Kuhn said.
"How about the way to treat a cheater?" somebody shot back, to a chorus of mutters from people without enough guts to raise their voices.
Haseo clenched his fists. Lumina Cloth was a PK-friendly zone now. The first flash of a weapon being drawn and he'd – no, he'd probably lose his temper and make the situation worse, but he couldn't let his friends put up with this treatment. "You think I don't have the energy for another fight today? Go on, get out of here!"
He had mixed feelings as the gang shuffled off, shooting dirty looks over their shoulders, but relief was in there somewhere. It really wouldn't have been smart to vent his anger in a random street brawl.
"You okay, Atoli?" asked Kuhn. She nodded meekly. "Haseo, I know you're upset, but it's best not to rise to their bait if you can help it. Let's just leave Lumina Cloth for now."
"Yes. I'd like to go somewhere more peaceful," Atoli announced, hands folded neatly over the front of her dress. "Um, will you be alright too, Haseo?"
"Don't worry about me."
It wasn't strictly a yes, but he was glad they took it that way, and the party disbanded. Instead of following them to the Chaos Gate, Haseo turned towards the city's lower streets. It didn't matter that he was by himself – he wanted to be, to unwind and patch together his thoughts. One hundred was the Terror of Death's record, and there were probably less than a hundred people on this server right now.
The stairs leading down were smooth as marble. They'd be cool to the touch, if The World was sophisticated enough to give sensations like temperature. The plastic of his M2D still felt uncomfortably hot, itching against his forehead. He'd take a break soon, but not yet; to log out right after a conflict would feel like running away, even if nobody else was around to see things that way. He needed to stand his ground.
Haseo turned a corner, and hesitated.
Endrance was at a balcony's edge, gazing out over the twilight cityscape, oblivious to anyone else. Shoulders hunched, arms wrapped around himself, face downcast. Feeling bad, feeling guilty? Well, he should be. To hell with him, the traitor.
But it wasn't that simple, was it? Endrance sparked more difficult emotions than just the raw burn of anger. Confusion a major part, since he'd acted so devoted before, like he'd follow Haseo to the ends of The World even if he didn't care about the Lost Ones or AIDA (and maybe he didn't, after all). Had that loyalty switched off as fast as it'd switched on? Was he really the selfish person he'd seemed when they first met, and all those vows to become stronger were just lousy poetic garbage?
Haseo walked forward silently; only at the last moment did Endrance sense something, whirling around to have one arm caught in Haseo's grip.
"Don't log out."
Endrance winced, leaned back, turned his face away to keep their eyes from meeting. It was such a stark change that for a second Haseo wondered if this wasn't Endrance's real player, if Sakaki had hacked his account and set up an impostor. The hope that brought was snuffed out when Endrance spoke.
"Haseo, I… I don't think we have anything to say to each other." The tone was no different, the inflection, anything. Not a hacker, then. Just a common traitor.
"Are you serious? You won't even explain why you've switched sides?" Haseo tried to shake Endrance's arm, to get some sort of honest reaction, but it was like the other PC had frozen, gone so tense he barely seemed to be breathing. What, was he holding his breath in real life?
"…Nothing could make you understand. It's a waste of both our time…" Endrance pulled himself together, pushed Haseo's hand from his arm and side-stepped away. A casual flick of the hair, a direct stare with all the icy distance from his days as Emperor (AIDA, then – had another AIDA got hold of him?).
"Then what was all that 'I love you' stuff about? You're going to abandon the other Epitaph Users, put all these people in danger, because you outgrew a crush? That's the most childish thing I've ever heard of!"
Endrance took another step back, crossing his arms defensively over his body again; a crack in the ice. "That's…unkind, Haseo."
"Unkind? Look at who you're siding with!" Haseo yelled – and damn it, when had he started yelling? Better to talk calmly with Endrance, reason with him, persuade him to rejoin Project G.U. – if he couldn't do that then nobody else would be able to, would they? "Er…look, Endrance. You're upset because I didn't acknowledge your feelings enough, right? Is that it? …I'm sorry. But if you come back then I promise I'll try harder. You don't want to throw everything away and go back to your old self, do you? You want to keep moving forward, like in that email you sent me, until we can both look at the world from the same place. Okay?"
Endrance was silent for some time. Haseo wasn't great at reading expressions, but he could tell what he'd said had made an impact, that it was being considered. Endrance reached out, hesitated, then placed a hand lightly against Haseo's cheek (and there was some kind of warmth there, though The World wasn't that sophisticated).
"But Haseo…you only need me because I'm an Epitaph User," Endrance murmured, quiet and regal and thoroughly scornful. "It's not because of who I am…"
He logged out in a spiral of blue light.
"That was an interesting run-in you had with Haseo," said Sakaki, backlit by the Serpent of Lore's myriad monitors.
"You think so? I found it rather tiresome..."
"I hope that's true, Endrance." Three sharp jabs on a keyboard, and a muted replay of the Lumina Cloth encounter flickered into life above them. Endrance avoided looking at it, choosing Sakaki's devouring gaze instead. "Remind me again why you switched allegiances. After all, you seemed terribly fond of Haseo, once upon a time."
Endrance could do this, could play this part. Imagine he was still infected by AIDA, that fear swaddled in false hope, that apathetic malice. Push everything else down until he could stand on it, suppress it, shelter it from Sakaki's scrutiny. Act like Haseo's words hadn't wrenched his heart and made his hands shake around the controller in real life. The Serpent of Lore never blinked. "…Because he rejected my deepest feelings. I don't wish to be reminded of that, every time I see his face… I don't wish to aid someone who can't take me seriously."
"He hurt you? Angered you? Made you feel worthless?" Sakaki bared his teeth in a grin.
"And you'll give me a chance for vengeance." There was a perilous, electric sense of power here, in lying to the face of this all-knowing, all-reaching enemy.
"Indeed. But I was wondering – you formed an attachment to that old AIDA of yours too, didn't you? What would you say if I offered a replacement?"
Endrance faltered, just for a moment. "I don't require any power besides my own, but if you insist then I shan't refuse…" There could be no other reply; he needed to act fully obedient to Sakaki or everything would fall apart.
"Hmm. No, I don't believe you do require anything extra. Very well, go – and remember to level up before the title match. Then you can rip Haseo's heart out and do whatever you please with it." Sakaki laughed and made a dismissive gesture. Endrance nodded, turned, walked away, a flawless sculpture of self-control.
He wasn't an aggressive person by nature, but oh, he couldn't wait to slice that man into a thousand and one pieces. And Haseo would be so amazed, so glad; though Endrance felt a pang of disappointment that Haseo truly believed he'd been betrayed. Never mind. It just meant that Endrance needed to explain again, state how sincere his devotion was. He just needed to explain, and surely Haseo would be kind enough to forgive him this deception…
- I heard there are nice items at ∑ Starting Love's Two Wings. Want to come? -
It wasn't the most eloquent short mail, but it was all Haseo could manage without feeling awkward (which was stupid, because he knew he'd get a positive reply). If the area words hinted at anything, that wasn't his fault; Gaspard wanted new things to sell at Shop Acorn, and Haseo had agreed to look for them. Now the insanity of Sage Palace was over, he could scrape together some time in between worrying about AIDA and making sure his school grades didn't slip. He'd learned his lesson about taking friends for granted.
"Hello, Haseo…" Endrance appeared with his usual promptness, and his usual absent-minded greeting; his behaviour now was just the same as before the tournament, though he was a tough person to read. Either he blurted things out in a grand sweep of emotion, or drifted around in his own little rose-tinted world. He accepted the party invite, then gave a brief, enquiring glance around.
"Hey. There's no third member today, just us. The monsters aren't too strong."
Endrance gave a hazy smile. "That will be nice… Shall we go, then?"
Haseo input the words and warped through the Chaos Gate. The area was a storm-swept field, all greys and blues and splashes of moonlight over the ocean. Lightning flared discordantly with the distant thunder of a monster's tread.
"Cloudy fields…" Endrance murmured, and tilted his face upwards. "It's a shame we can't feel this rain upon our skin. I haven't felt it in the real world for such a long time."
Haseo didn't understand that right away – but of course, Endrance never went outside, did he? They'd talked about it before, but it was hard to keep in mind when most of The World was outdoor environments. "Uh, don't you ever think you're missing out on more than just the rain?"
"I know that argument, but…all I could think of before were the unpleasant things I was sheltering from…"
"What could be that bad?"
"Since it's you asking, Haseo, of course I'll tell you anything. But it wasn't one major problem, as such. A thousand pebbles can weigh as much as a boulder, you know…" Endrance paused, so long that Haseo thought the conversation had ended. Then he added, "I was always so shy, and couldn't connect with anybody… I didn't enjoy my time at school, and began to fear that even complete strangers harboured ill will towards me…" He made that familiar shielding gesture, arms crossed tight over the body, emphasised by this pelting rain and gloom.
"Lots of kids have trouble at school, but they still manage." It felt like a lame reply, but Haseo remembered their argument through the ice at Indieglut Lugh. Giving Endrance too much sympathy got him nowhere; downplaying his troubles seemed to help him best.
"But some have weaker hearts than others, crushed more easily under pressure…"
"Don't make such melodramatic excuses. You're not weak anymore, are you?"
"…That's right. I…don't feel nearly as weak as I used to be." Endrance lowered his arms and raised his head, the anxiety melting from his posture.
"Right. And I haven't seriously thanked you for stabbing Sakaki yet, have I? But you saved me, so…thanks, and I'm sorry for doubting you." There, Haseo had said it, so this awkwardness – this guilt at having lost faith, or annoyance at not being told the plan, or whatever it was - could fizzle out and let them start the item hunt. He could add more, like you really surprised me, or I never thought you could pull off a plan like that by yourself, but that might sound insulting.
You impressed me, maybe, or I'll trust you totally from now on.
"…You don't have to thank me, or to apologise. I forgave you the moment it happened," Endrance replied, smiling in a very rare way.
"Perhaps it's a good thing we can't feel The World's rain, after all. Because then we'd feel the coldness of it, and if we slipped then we might also gain bruises…" Endrance mused, though they were back in Breg Epona now, suspended amid pale, peaceful blue.
"You should talk with Atoli sometime. She's always wishing she could smell the flowers."
"Oh, I can't see how there'd be a problem with adding scents."
"Anyway, how many of those items did you get?"
"Five…but you're welcome to them, Haseo. After all, I wasn't the one who needed them." Endrance replied, and opened the trade window. Today had been a wonderful day, to spend time with the one he loved after such a long, painful absence – a truly wonderful day. But Haseo was hesitating, as if he wanted to say more. "Is everything okay…?"
"Just something you said in Lumina Cloth. But that was because you knew Sakaki could eavesdrop from the Serpent of Lore; you didn't mean any of it. Because you know that being Epitaph Users isn't the only reason we're friends, don't you?"
"I'm happy for you to confirm that, Haseo…"
"Oh, come on! I always invite you to do things outside of Project G.U. business. And I sent you that rare greeting card. And okay, after I've traded with most people they don't start declaring their love for me to the entire street, but honestly? I missed all of that stuff once it wasn't there anymore. I guess…it's nice." He shifted about as he spoke, from crossing his arms to raking a hand through his hair, as if these were difficult words to say (though they oughtn't be; Haseo was a bolder person than Endrance in almost everything).
"Knowing you're loved should always be pleasant, shouldn't it?"
"Maybe, but… Never mind. Thanks for coming along today." Another pause, and then Haseo reached out to touch Endrance's arm, letting his hand rest there for a moment before hurrying off towards the guild shops.
Endrance blinked, closing his own hand over that place to preserve the sensation of contact. Then he simply stood there, caught by a possibility too precious and tentative to think about directly, until a short mail flashed up on-screen.
- You won't believe this. Gaspard says we got the wrong items from the wrong area (but he'll sell them anyway, LOL) -
It shouldn't be possible, but Endrance couldn't remember when sunlight last felt as warm as Breg Epona's.