Disclaimer: I don't own .hack. But everything not associated with .hack (original plot, etc.) does belong to me.

Rumors sweep the internet of an exclusive role-playing game titled 'Reality', a dark and monochromatic alternate universe connected to the mysteries of the real world. But even though the real world is protected by the Guardian's Union, the Cobalt Knights, and the Civil Control Commons, the ghost of the Outbreak—and current AIDA infestation—make it so that certain citizens of the world wouldn't mind an alternate reality, even if it is more confusing than the real one.

Currently rated T for some violence, sexual themes, and general .hack weirdness. This fic will eventually be focused on two relationships, both between male characters. If that's not your cup of earl grey, then that's fine, but I did warn you.

Now, with all that business out of the way, please enjoy and review!

~greyrondo

Fair Dawn

"How was Lord Orca?"

"No different. Saw Ovan there at the hospital too, visiting his sister. Aina. He didn't look at me."

"Guess Ovan's no different, either. Even though you didn't know him when that happened, Ovan still associates you with him—what's with that face?"

"What face? I don't have a weird face. How can you even see my face in this light?"

The lights of Lumina Cloth inked two silhouettes into the ruins of Carmina Gadelica. One, standing on the rubble that had once been a fountain, listened, waiting for something to stir, something that couldn't quite be seen in this darkness. AIDA. Enough of the glow from Lumina Cloth fell on him to cast light on his face. It glinted, catching his glasses and his hair the color of twilight. The other, in complete shadow, only suggested the outline of angel's wings.

"He said something to me. Something strange. Just before he…"

"Lord Orca?" the one with glasses asked.

"No. You know who I'm talking about."

"Oh. Of course. Balmung, you're the only one who considers him a Lost One."

"Since when have you been so optimistic? You're supposed to be the practical one."

"That's not what I meant—"

"'There's something I have to tell you. About everything. About the time we spent in Fragment, the time we spent in the real world.' Those were the last words he said to me. The next time we saw him, he was…well, look at this place."

"Lios and Silver Knight are dead. Are you starting to notice a pattern here? All the guardians who were involved in that are getting knocked off, one by one. Think she's saving the most guilty one for last?"

"And I was having such a good day, too. Thanks, Reki."

"Just doing my job, sir."

Chapter One: Initiation and Pavonine Masquerade

Ryou was nervous, and shoved his hands into his pockets and stared meaninglessly at the concrete sidewalk. He didn't like the character designs or the areas, but he'd heard, not from anyone that he knew in person, that despite the looks of this monochromatic virtual world, this was the game to play. It was still being tested. But if you were invited to beta 'Reality', then you didn't say no.

The first few times he saw the title on the boards, he thought 'Reality' was a stupid name, and not the least bit pretentious, coming from some company that no one had ever heard of before, likely based in the bad part of Mac Anu out of some run-down office park that PKs wouldn't even bother with.

He stopped thinking it was stupid when he became interested. The game's premise: that the real world is nothing more than an online alternative reality and life is nothing but a game, albeit a game with a dark past and a darker present. He wasn't given the option to tailor his character, not even his name. He was just given the controls and one message in his inbox.

It wasn't a welcome message. It was a set of instructions: go here, and wait. Someone will be sent to you. He will decide if you can be trusted. Don't look suspicious.

He was about to give up and log out. Right now, lunch and a nap in the real world sounded much more interesting than meeting some stranger in this fake one. He needed his strength for tonight or his boss would send him home, and that would be rent gone for the month. Really, he shouldn't be wasting time like this at all if it wasn't going to be worth it.

"Um. Sorry," he heard someone address him in the game world, and he looked up. A young man maybe a year or so older than his game character stood in front of him, holding a plain-looking cell phone. "Did you drop this?"

While Ryou's appearance was that of a perfectly ordinary, perfectly boring student, this one looked even worse than ordinary. He was thin enough to look sickly, and his untamed long hair obscured half of his features. He didn't look happy to be outside, but what Ryou could see of his face, he stood out a little more than the rush of expressionless NPCs that coursed by them.

"No," Ryou answered him. "Maybe you should turn it in to the police."

That made the lanky man chuckle softly, as if he were ashamed to let someone else hear him laugh. "Don't go to the police. They can't help you. CC Corp. has them."

"…what?"

"My name is Kaoru. Nothing else. Do you want answers?"

At that moment, Ryou wondered if he was speaking to an NPC or not. Kaoru… just a first name, nothing else? He hardly knew this person. But there was something about this Kaoru that kept Ryou's attention.

"I'm Ryou. I guess I do. Are you a player?"

"Of course. We all are. Why would you be here if you didn't play The World?"

That wasn't what Ryou meant, but he decided to let it go. This had to be a part of the tutorial sequence. But what happened next certainly wasn't.

"Ryou," Kaoru whispered. "I know that we're meeting because of CC Corp. But I want you to know that what I said online, I meant in real life too. This can be about more than just finding the truth behind CC Corp's lies. If you want it, that is…"

"What?"

Suddenly Kaoru leaned in and kissed him.

Ryou pulled back in shock, but Kaoru had already drawn back. "Just to throw them off," he whispered with a sly smile. "They're watching, you know."

Then he leaned in and whispered in Ryou's ear, "Lord Balmung of Azure Sky spent too much time with someone known as the Twilight Dragon. If we can find the player behind the Twilight Dragon…"

The double shock of that faked but way too real kiss, and hearing Balmung's name, left Ryou speechless. Balmung? As in Lord Balmung of Azure Sky? Had he given permission for this crack MMO to use his name like that?

Well, it wasn't his name exactly, not anymore. But that was—

That's when he heard a soft but insistent knock. Not inside the game, but in the real world.

He bolted up from his computer, turning around just as his hand reached backwards towards the keyboard, punching in the command that would black out his screen.

"Hey, Atoli," he laughed nervously. "How are you doing this evening? Something wrong?"

Just when it was getting weird. Since 'weird' was why he was playing the game, he didn't even mind that fake kiss that much, but if Atoli had seen it, then she might make the wrong assumption about how he spent his time on the internet.

Then again, maybe he could use that to his advantage.

He tried not to make it a point to talk too much to her anymore, not when it seemed that every time they spoke—especially alone—it seemed as if she wanted the conversation to be far more intimate than he would ever, ever let it become.

He also didn't like it when people came into his apartment without permission. Not that there were locks, not in this part of Breg Epona, but there were boundaries.

Atoli only laughed. "Come on. The sun's already setting, aren't you going to come with me? You spend all your free time shut up in your room playing some stupid online game or another. Why don't you spend more time in the real world? Is that online virtual reality really that much more fun?"

"It's not really something I do for enjoyment," he found himself muttering, to Atoli's confusion.

"Then why do you play?"

But he only shook his head. You just couldn't explain Reality to someone who didn't play the game. Never mind that he had just started, so he was a little ahead of himself with considering himself a regular player.

"Well, you're not playing now. So come out and enjoy some Breg Epona nightlife! Come on, this is the biggest city outside of Mac Anu, let's go take advantage of it."

"All right, all right. Who else is coming?"

Atoli paused, and nervously cleared her throat. "Um, well, I was thinking maybe it could be just the two of us. Kuhn and Pi aren't off work just yet," she said quickly, "or I'm sure they'd come with us."

He internally sighed. He had already agreed, and Atoli had come through for him on a few occasions. She was a good healer, and he couldn't go to a hospital with injuries from his line of work. He just didn't want to lead her on.

"Ah, I'm sure Kuhn would rather chase after girls anyways," Haseo joked. Hopefully if he managed to keep the conversation from becoming too personal, he might enjoy himself.

"Of course!" Atoli chirped. "Are you sure Breg Epona's okay? I mean, we could go to Lumina Cloth. Or maybe Mac Anu. We can pick up Pi and Kuhn after seeing the city a bit!"

He smiled wearily. It almost made him feel bad that he didn't have any feelings for Atoli. But he couldn't help something that just wasn't there.

"Sure. Mac Anu sounds great," he conceded, and followed her out into the setting sun air of Breg Epona. It was a five minute walk to the chaos gate, and another twenty to the part of town where Kuhn and Pi worked, depending on how much they dawdled.

Offline his name was Haseo. He had a job, if one could call it that. He didn't use his name when he worked, partially because if he did, he wouldn't be able to ever stop working. It helped that he looked younger than he actually was.

He looked around Mac Anu. Being a PKK certainly made one want an alternate world to escape into, even if that world was more puzzling than reality.

"Haseo? Haseo!"

The salt-scented air had lulled Haseo into quiet thought. He hadn't realized he'd been staring.

"Do you know him or something?" Atoli whispered as Haseo grimaced, rubbing the spot on his ribs where Atoli had elbowed him.

"Wha—" Haseo stumbled as he looked up. He'd accidentally faded off into abstraction and seemed to be staring at a man holding a grudging conversation with a pair of identical children. "Oh, uh, no, never seen him before in my life."

Atoli rolled her eyes. "Wait, I think I know him. That's one of Kuhn and Pi's co-workers. He's come to the apartment block a few times, for business. What's his name, again," she sighed distractedly as she realized she didn't know. "I can't remember. He never really says anything. Kind of tough to remember someone like that, know what I mean?"

"One of Kuhn and Pi's co-workers, huh?" Haseo said as they walked onwards. "So what's his Epitaph?"

"I think he's a Macha?" Atoli wondered out loud as she shrugged.

"He's a guy and he's a Macha?" Haseo chuckled under his breath.

"Well, not everyone's a Skeith like you. Nor would they want to be," Atoli sniffed. Haseo smiled, knowing she was still sensitive about the fact that she'd Awoken to be an Innis. She somehow took the whole 'Mirage of Deceit' thing personally.

Which was completely ridiculous. Anyone who took a moment to consider the descriptions of the Epitaphs soon realized that none of them were entirely flattering. But Epitaphs were necessary. Some Epitaphs manifested with more influence than others; those with the strongest were quickly put to work as guardians against AIDA, like Kuhn and Pi.

"I think he's got the shift after Kuhn and Pi, along with those twins," Atoli said thoughtfully. "Why don't we walk over there with them?"

Haseo quickly shook his head. "I think that guy saw me staring at him. I don't want him get the wrong idea."

"The wrong idea?" Atoli giggled. "Haseo, you've been so weird today. That game's messing with your head. You're becoming paranoid."

"That's impossible. It's just a game."

"Well, if it's just a game, then how come—"

Haseo, moving into the central market square, didn't notice at first when Atoli stopped, her breath caught in her throat. But he did notice when her arm, suddenly hooked around his elbow, yanked him backwards a good two feet.

"Atoli, what's the deal—" Haseo began, and then followed her wide-eyed gaze.

"I never should have thought of coming to Mac Anu," she whispered as Haseo looked on at the proselytizing Moon Tree representative.

Haseo grabbed her elbow, shaking his head. "It's all right. We'll take another way. The dock's a nicer walk, anyways. We can see what seafood they're selling. Pi would like that."

After a good few minutes of silence, Haseo spoke up.

"You know what's weird, though? That was Matsu," Haseo commented. "I mean, he's the last person I'd pin for joining Moon Tree."

"You know him? He must have joined after I… left," Atoli said, stepping around the details.

But Haseo shook his head. "Eh. Knew him through work," he told her, his voice hushed.

Atoli nodded. "Then you're right. It doesn't make sense for a PK to suddenly turn around and spread Moon Tree's beliefs…"

"Why'd you leave, Atoli?" Haseo then asked. "I mean, you can see why I wouldn't agree with them, because then I'd be out of a job, but there are stranger organizations out there. I'd see you here in Mac Anu before you moved to Breg Epona, working with what's-his-face, Sakaki."

"Um, I… I just… it was taking up too much of my time. I needed more time for work."

Haseo wanted to know, then, why she felt she had to pick up and move to Breg Epona after she left Moon Tree. That was how she'd ended up being his suitemate, after all. Kuhn and Pi had the floor—like most Breg Epona apartment blocks, there were a series of rooms connected to a central living area—thanks to G.U., but needed more people to fill in the extra rooms. Haseo had been living there for a week—PKKing wasn't the best job when it came to a steady paycheck, and Kuhn was feeling generous—when Atoli moved in, without much of an explanation except that she preferred to commute to her job at the Civil Control Commons in Mac Anu.

And she'd been a strange mix of little sister and rejected romance ever since. When she wasn't whining or trying to deepen their relationship, she wasn't that bad, so Haseo knew her well enough to tell when she was lying.