Author's Notes: .hack/G.U. is property of CyberConnect2, and I'm making no financial profit from the use of their characters. I said I'd start working on this story almost a year ago, and I'm sorry it's taken this long to complete the first chapter. I'm deeply grateful for the kind feedback Victorious received, so hopefully this will be a worthy follow-up. Comments are always welcome, including concrit.
A week had passed since the latest in a series of recent miracles: their marriage in The World. Kaoru wondered if that was too short a space of time to mark an anniversary. Probably, but he'd celebrate each new day they spent together. Every hour, every shining moment.
His love was accepted, wanted. He was growing strong enough to stand by Ryou's side, to make him smile, defend him from harm, be the person he sought out for no reason other than to share time together. Because Kaoru had been brave enough to try, and Ryou had been generous enough to respond…
Presently though, Ryou was offline, and Kaoru had a task in the real world. Something he was determined to do, no matter how much it daunted him (a sense of heavy unease focused in his stomach, as though he'd been swallowing lead bullets).
At least there wasn't much traffic in the neighbourhood, at this time of day. He'd just take a brief walk, to a fixed point and back again, trying not to make such a useless journey look strange. It shouldn't take more than ten minutes, which wasn't long to be exposed to the outside world, by ordinary standards. It truly wasn't. Ten minutes was enough to clear one floor of a simple, low-level dungeon. Not much could have a chance to go wrong in ten minutes…
The Promise Card had been a huge gesture on Ryou's part, and Kaoru intended to match it, somehow, eventually. To prove himself worthy here as well as online. It was shameful to struggle at things everyone else found effortless, and so maybe it was foolish to take pride in overcoming those problems. But Ryou never mocked things like that. Even if he didn't understand, he took it seriously, he offered encouragement in his own understated ways. And Kaoru would repay every instance of those kindnesses, with interest. Somehow, eventually…
Ryou had never actually suggested that they meet offline, and Kaoru wasn't bold enough to raise the issue himself. Still, he had a feeling it would happen. Phone calls, pictures, details about their real lives…such things wouldn't be exchanged if this was meant as a purely online relationship, would they? He didn't feel it was wrong to think that way, like it was expecting too much. He just had to prepare patiently for that day.
Kaoru stepped outside, drawing a slow breath of the mild autumn air to steady his wavering nerves. The weather looked okay; clouds veiled the sun, so its light couldn't dazzle, but they weren't dense enough to threaten rain (though rain might be welcome, making other people less likely to venture out). He turned to shut the door, but his eye was drawn to the lock. He froze. Did he have a key? …No, he'd forgotten all about a crucial detail like that.
Faint nausea struck, realising what a mistake he'd almost made. To be locked out when there was nobody else home… He hurried back indoors. It took a while to find a key, to trawl through memory and confirm it was the right shape, and a while longer to build up another burst of confidence, re-checking his clothes to be sure he looked okay, his phone to be sure the battery was charged (it had lain unused for years before Ryou first called, but still functioned, albeit sluggishly at times).
But he could do this. He'd imagine Ryou walking beside him, hand in warm, reassuring hand, or pretend this was The World and he could log out anytime he felt overwhelmed, that there was some sort of safety net in place. He didn't have to interact with anyone, merely exist in a similar (yet still separate) place. He hadn't always been this afraid, even as a child…
For a second time, with carefully restrained trepidation, he stepped out of the door. And kept walking, trying to hold his head high, wishing he could emulate Endrance's effortless grace. There was a strange sensation, but not an unpleasant one, quite apart from his anxiety, and it took time to realise exactly what it was - the awareness of not being closed in by walls, of being surrounded by so much space. Some extra quality infused the non-artificial light, and the non-contained air…it was so subtle, he didn't recall noticing it back when he'd left the house freely. Perhaps he'd just forgotten.
There was a sense of vitality in it. And the street was empty, without anything worthy of alarm. Some of the houses he passed – walking uphill, since this was all built on a slope – had flowers in little patches of front garden, and his gaze lingered over them. No roses, though. Anxiety still bore down on him, but not unbearably, not conqueringly.
Eventually Kaoru turned around, and surveyed how far he'd come. Not as far as he'd thought, but enough for today. And looking downhill he could see the distant ocean, slate-blue and calm, less beautiful than The World's but instilling fondness despite that.
Maybe, one day, Ryou would go there with him…
"You sold all of them?"
"Every last one!" Gaspard replied brightly. He'd set up shop in Breg Epona today, selling high-level items to high-level players. People claimed it was his cute PC that made him such a popular front for Shop Acorn, but Haseo suspected there was more to it than that. The kid was a better businessman than he looked.
"Well, good job. I'll see if I can get more on this quest with-"
"Hi Haseo, Gaspard!" Atoli's voice interrupted, carrying over the general noise of the Root Town. Her winglike cloak fluttered out as she hurried towards them; somehow she looked more in her element here than anywhere else, like she might suddenly take flight into the bright blue skies. Halting in front of the shop, she bowed deeply in greeting. "Whew! I'm right on time, aren't I?"
"Hey there, Atoli. Got held up at Moon Tree?"
"Just a little! So what's in Shop Acorn today?" She clasped her hands behind her back, leaning over the counter to look.
"I'm selling lots of items for the new alchemy quests," Gaspard said, beaming, "and we've got a rare spell-boosting accessory for healers, too!"
"Ooh, yes, that's nice…"
"I'll give a big discount if you want it." A good businessman, but still a kind kid at heart.
Atoli smiled, waving her hands in denial. "No, no, I couldn't accept that!"
"Don't be shy! You're part of Canard too, after all."
"Ah, but really-"
"No, really!" Gaspard paused, before his cheery expression crumpled with a cry of dismay. "Waah, I'm sorry! It just vanished from the shop's inventory. Someone else bought it while we were talking…"
"I had no choice. I can't wait around while you two argue politely all day," Haseo said bluntly. He opened a gift exchange window with Atoli, and handed the accessory over to her (and in his opinion, Gaspard had kind of overpriced it).
"H-Haseo, you're giving it to me?" She accepted it, then bowed again, laughing a little. "Thank you! I'll wear it all the time, I promise."
"So are we ready to start this quest?"
"Yes! We just need a third party member." Atoli hesitated, shuffling her feet, gaze drifting to the floor. "I, I don't mind if you want to invite Endrance…"
Haseo managed to keep his surprise to himself. "It's your quest. You decide who we bring," he replied, with a neutral shrug. It was a nice gesture from her, but he knew she'd been uncomfortable since the wedding event (well, after Silabus drew his attention to the fact). He wasn't sure why - if it was to do with Endrance being a guy, or if Atoli'd had a crush on Haseo herself, or maybe some totally unrelated third option - and didn't want to ask. No need to stir things up more.
Seriously, he wasn't immature enough to get mad at anyone who didn't think he and Endrance were the new Romeo and Juliet (never mind that those two ended up dead, so being compared to them was no real compliment). There'd always be people who weren't sure if you were with the right partner, for whatever reason.
Gaspard hummed contentedly in the background, oblivious to any drama. Atoli was quiet for a moment, then nodded decisively. "Invite him."
"…Okay. Thanks, Atoli," Haseo said, surprised at how much gratitude he felt. He wasn't sure what had motivated her to say that, when there were plenty of other people they could invite. Maybe she'd been planning it all along, or maybe it was because he bought her that accessory. Maybe he shouldn't over-think it.
"They invited me out after class, but their taste in movies sucks. I'm not going," Haseo announced. He was sitting on the edge of a platform; below, sluggish tides of lava cast up a golden glow, with the contrast of ice-white runes drifting through heat-rippled air.
Sif Berg wasn't a Lost Ground either of them frequented, but it provided beauty and relative privacy without the same weight of bittersweet memories Hulle Granz held for Haseo, or Indieglut Lugh did for Endrance. That made it a place to forge new memories, together – that was how Endrance saw it, anyway. Haseo was the one who'd chosen to meet here today, and he'd follow Haseo anywhere, always finding reasons to be glad of where they ended up.
And he was glad it was just the two of them, right now. Partying with Atoli the other day had been fine, more or less, but he'd always be happiest when it was just Haseo and himself.
"Won't they be irritated…?" Endrance asked. He knew that Haseo rated his classmates as less valuable than his friends in The World, but still…
"Nah, they're used to me. You think I'm all quiet and obedient in real life?" he replied with an air of dry amusement, then amended, "Well, maybe if I have to be. But I don't like tiptoeing around people all the time."
"Hmm… What do you think of that movie based on The World?"
"I was kind of sceptical, but the previews actually look good. I might go see it."
Endrance didn't respond right away, wondering if Haseo would suggest they go together. But he didn't, and then Endrance remembered something else he'd wanted to ask. "Have you seen Apkallu lately…?"
"Apkallu? Oh, you mean that picture, don't you?"
He hadn't expected glowing enthusiasm, but he hadn't expected such a sullen reaction as that, either. "You didn't like it?"
"Even if we're famous players, I don't get why anyone would draw pictures of our wedding. And some of the comments pissed me off."
"…That doesn't affect the image itself. I don't care about the responses it drew, and…I hope any negativity you feel won't tarnish your memories of that day."
"Like hell it would!" Haseo declared, with reassuring indignation.
"I see… I'm glad."
Endrance lapsed into peaceful silence, reminiscing. Sometimes he wished for a permanent mark of their marriage, but both their PCs wore gloves with gold bands already around each finger. Regardless, that was a nice coincidence.
"Damn, I lost track of time. I should log out soon."
"Isn't it rather early?"
"So? I'm tired. I'm taking extra shifts at my job, just for a while."
"At that store…? Why?"
"Hah. Can't say." Haseo looked away with an elusive smile. Endrance had no clue what that meant.
"…Nothing's wrong, I hope?"
"Everything's fine. If I had problems with money, my parents could step in and fix it," Haseo said, shrugging. "But they don't want me growing up with no sense of having to work for stuff. So they pay for essentials like rent on my apartment, but I don't get allowance. And right now I'm saving for something."
Endrance already had an idea that Haseo's family was well-off, and that he didn't live with them, but the facts had been mentioned in passing rather than a focus of conversation. If Endrance were a different kind of person, he'd envy such independence, but as it stood he was simply intrigued, and of course admiring. "Doesn't it ever put pressure on you? Having to do so much for yourself…"
"Not really. I mean, I'm used to it, since I got the apartment when my school first accepted me. See-" Haseo shifted away slightly, tracing a circle on the ground between them with his finger. "This is Tokyo. Here's where my parents live, here's where my father works." He pointed at two places in the upper-right section of the circle, not far apart. "My middle school was around there too. But my high school's over here." The lower section. "Moving the whole family would've been a pain."
"And you had to attend that particular school?"
"Well I'm not bragging, but places there are pretty sought after. So yeah, that's when I got the apartment. My mom was around there a lot at first, but they know I can handle things by myself now."
"You're as reliable offline as here, then…"
"Maybe. But The World's a different environment, so people can't help acting differently somehow, whether it's a slight change or a total 180."
"No, that's true…" Endrance hesitated. There was more he could add – mentioning what was different about himself offline, assuring Haseo that his love would still be a constant, expressing hope that Haseo's feelings wouldn't wither either. But that last point made the words stick in his throat, in a way they seldom did. They weren't things he needed to say, really, when an offline meeting had never been spoken of…
"Anyway, I'd better go."
"Of course." Endrance smiled, not wanting to seem like anything was bothering him. "Goodnight, Haseo…"
Overall, he felt glad far more than bothered, even as spiralling lights marked Haseo's logout. Because every so often he could ask the right questions, and be gifted with even more information than he'd hoped for about the one he loved. Haseo wasn't a chatty person – he preferred to let actions do the talking – but he could make exceptions. One more subtle, heart-warming token of acceptance.
Endrance just wished he had more to share, in return. One more reason to try harder in the real world.
Good morning. I hope you slept well…
The text arrived while Ryou was preparing breakfast, looking for a clean knife to cut up some tofu while the savoury scent of simmering dashi filled the kitchen (he wasn't a bad cook, just not a tidy one). Kaoru had stepped up the contact between them since the wedding event, which was fine; that level of attention was more welcome now, rather than feeling smothering or obsessive. He replied straight away – well, as soon as he'd dumped the tofu into the soup.
Morning, Kaoru. I've got a test today, so wish me luck.
I'm sure you won't need luck to do well, Ryou…
Brief and pointless as the messages were, their exchange carried on throughout the morning. A text on the train to school, another in between classes; just excuses to keep talking, really. Well, until the one Kaoru sent near the end of the day.
Ah, there's something I wanted to show you… I know it's not much at all, but…
Attached was an image file. Curious, Ryou opened it, and was presented with a slightly off-centre photo of Kaoru standing outside a house. Being outside, that was what he wanted to show off? Well, in a way it really wasn't much, but Kaoru himself thought it important enough to share. That meant there was pride there, right? He'd taken a step forward, and it was going okay for him.
Is that where you live?
Yes… I wanted to prove I'd ventured that far. I'm sorry the picture isn't the best, though…
That's okay, Ryou wrote, then paused before adding the next words that crossed his mind (not that similar things had never crossed it before, so he wasn't acting completely on impulse). There was a slight, stupid sense of delight in making this offer, already knowing how it'd be received. Now I'll recognise it when I'm there myself, right?
He expected the reply to be instant, but it took a few minutes. Maybe Kaoru was too giddy to hit the right buttons on the keypad, or something.
You mean it? Ryou, I… That would make me so happy…
"Hey Misaki, what's the good news?"
Ryou glanced up, yanked back to the present, and snapped the phone closed to hide the messages from his interrupting classmate. He must have been smiling too obviously. "Nothing. Mind your own business."
"No, c'mon, spill! Was that your girlfriend?"
That obviously, really? "…Yeah, fine. New girlfriend," he said, because anything more truthful might just welcome trouble. And he suddenly hated that, and how easily he played along with it. So much for not tiptoeing around people.
I used to feel quite unfortunate, since I only became a fan of Endrance right before he lost his title in Demon Palace. But he's still shown up in some very dramatic battles since then, hasn't he? So when I got the chance to see him in Hy Brasail one last time, I couldn't resist! And because he looked more beautiful than ever, I couldn't resist turning it into a picture, either.
So that really happened? I'd heard rumours, but it sounded a little hard to believe.
But either way, it's a wonderful picture. The warm lighting, and the gentle expressions on their faces…somehow it makes me forget everything else I knew about them.
You've certainly gone to plenty of effort for this joke! Don't you think it's a waste of talent?
How romantic! A rivalry that develops into unexpected love, which can't help revealing itself as they gaze into a radiant sunset together. Doesn't it sound just like a fairytale? =)
Oh, Endrance is actually a girl? I thought that person had lots of female admirers, so I assumed she must be a young man, LOL. She's really tall, though!
[This message was deleted by an administrator]
[Young Soldier 2]
Are you people crazy? There's no way those arena idols would be caught doing something so lame. Screenshots or it didn't happen.
Um, it definitely happened. I have friends in Canard – that's the guild Haseo is master of, you know – and they told me about it. It's funny how accepting most people seem to be, but it just goes to show what a modern community The World is.
Or maybe people are more careful when it's two of the strongest players in the game getting hitched, LOL
[Blue Eye Samurai]
Oh, Endrance is actually a girl?
No, Endrance is male, despite that bizarre outfit he's wearing (no offence to Biwa, who did an amazing job on it). Maybe he's a girl in real life, though? If not, well…
W-what a slanderous image! There's no way Master En would do that with some stupid Haseo, not in a million years! Ugh, I'm so mad I can hardly type!