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

Balmung recalls his first memory of the hint that something might be very wrong with Albireo and Haseo puzzles over Tsukasa's identity, before learning that the online game 'Reality' might have more to do with reality than he thought.


"And then what happened after you confronted Jun?" Reki wanted to know.

"I discovered why G.U. held Albireo prisoner within Fragment," Balmung replied.

After the shock of seeing the girl who technically didn't exist faded, he had looked down at Albireo, passed out on the floor.

"Of course," he said, complying because he didn't know what else to do. Albireo didn't stir when Balmung awkwardly shifted him into his arms and stood up. Lycoris ran past him and motioned for him to follow her into the next room, where a small bed took up most of the space. Beyond the bed, though, was a large window looking out into the canal and a door leading outside to what had to be a balcony.

"Stay with him?" Lycoris asked as Balmung set Albireo's limp form onto the traditional Mac Anu wave-patterned blanket.

"What? All… all right," Balmung agreed, and sat down on the bed beside Albireo. Lycoris pulled the curtains open to let the twilight drift into the room, and then joined him.

"This place looks—" Balmung began quietly, but his voice faded as he didn't know how to say what he meant.

"Like a home?" Lycoris suggested. "He does live here. Exactly as you live in the real world."

Balmung frowned. "I don't think I understand. What happened to him? Why did he pass out like that?" But even as he said that he didn't understand, he hadn't forgotten what Albireo's sister had made so clear: no one could contact Albireo in the real world.

"Will you stay with him until he wakes up?" Lycoris asked then.

"Of course," Balmung assured her, "but what about you?"

"Please stay with him. I can't be here when he wakes up after passing out like that. Not yet. Although, with you here, then maybe soon—I should go," she said suddenly, and then primly hopped off the bed and vanished into the first room, leaving Balmung all but alone.

Minutes or hours later—he had lost track of time—Albireo stirred.

For a split second, the world fragmented. Balmung's Corbenik stirred, threatened by the shadow suddenly cast. It was an Epitaph, but it was nothing like Balmung's Corbenik had encountered ever before. But before Balmung could trace the source of the quaking fear that his Corbenik trembled with, everything snapped back.

"Lyco—" Albireo called out as he opened his eyes.

Chapter Twenty: Knowledge and Malnourished Sepia

It was dark, except for the ghastly green cast over Haseo's face. He had never gone into the basement of G.U., and he certainly had never done it at one in the morning. But a time when the others, the real guardians, were out fighting AIDA was the only time he could think of to do what he needed.

"Sora," Haseo said. The Serpent of Lore returned no results.

"BT," he said next. All he got was her photo and a boring profile of her life in Dol Dona, and a side note that mentioned she used to work for G.U. Nothing else.

Maybe being direct wasn't the strategy he should use. "Bordeaux," Haseo said. A picture of a younger Bordeaux appeared in front of him, with brown-black hair instead of her harshly-dyed red. The only information he received was that she was born in Lia Fail to her parents. She was, apparently, an only child. The Serpent of Lore recommended that he view 'Bordeaux, PK', but that was all.

"Ovan," Haseo said after that. But as soon as Ovan's photo appeared before him, he heard something behind him.

And then Haseo froze. As the door opened, the light from the hallway fell on his back like a spotlight. Even worse, it wasn't Pi who had discovered him searching the Serpent of Lore. It was Master Yata himself.

Haseo had never held a single conversation with Master Yata. But if Yata was someone that Pi deferred unquestioningly to, then he knew that he was in trouble.

Master Yata walked up behind him and casually glanced over Haseo's shoulder. "Haseo, do you know why Ovan joined the Guardians' Union?" he said, his voice clipped and threateningly quiet.

"I'm sorry," Haseo replied softly. "I shouldn't have—"

"It was because his little sister, Aina, was infected by AIDA and became a Lost One. He sought a way to reverse her state, and a way to eradicate AIDA forever. The more his love for his sister consumed his motives, the less he cared about those who would help him achieve his goals. To this day, Aina sits catatonic in Moon Tree's central hospital, completely unaware of her brother's actions or, indeed, of his death."

"Why would you tell me something like that?" Haseo wanted to know.

Master Yata reached around his arm and returned the Serpent of Lore to its dormant state. "It's not against the rules to ask me about something you don't know. I might not answer, but you won't get a response by not trying."

"Okay," Haseo said then, "then who is Tsukasa?"

That made Master Yata smile. "Why don't you ask the Serpent of Lore?"

"Are you telling me to go ahead and ask the Serpent of Lore, or are you reprimanding me?" Haseo asked him.

Master Yata cleared his throat. "Tsukasa," he said. Not to Haseo, but to the Serpent of Lore. In the time it took for his voice to echo, a picture of a pale boy formed on the screen, replacing Ovan. With white hair and violet eyes, he looked a little like a very young, very frightened Lord Balmung of Azure Sky.

"Tsukasa," Haseo read aloud. "A deceased member of Guardians' Union. Unique Epitaph-related abilities caught G.U.'s attention when he was young, and was looked after by Lord Balmung of Azure Sky. Died at the onset of the Outbreak from complications following AIDA infection, likely resulting from the peculiar condition of his Epitaph in which he possessed all eight forms. Research as to how this phenomenon occurred was initiated by Jun, but following Jun's departure from G.U. and subsequent venture into the Lumina Cloth underground—"

"Thank you," Master Yata interrupted.

"How does the Serpent of Lore work?" Haseo was curious to know after it returned back to its dormant state. "Is it really able to observe everything? Is it like a chaos gate?"

"Somewhat like a chaos gate," Master Yata replied. "It can't observe everything, even when it operates at full capacity. And it isn't invulnerable to tampering, provided that someone knows what they're doing. The only person I can think of who could do such a thing was Helba, but only because she created it."

But if Tsukasa was dead, then Haseo could hardly ask him about Sora. And it wasn't that Tsukasa had died recently; Tsukasa had died before BT and the rest of the guardians left G.U. and settled in Dol Dona.

BT might have lied to him, but that made no sense. If she was going to lie to him, then there was no point in going out of her way to call him out and begin a conversation with him in the first place. He would have walked by her without so much as a backwards glance.

Even if Tsukasa were alive, Haseo doubted it would matter. The Serpent of Lore had just described Bordeaux's brother Albireo, who wasn't Tsukasa at all.

"Is your curiosity satisfied?" Master Yata wanted to know. What made everything seem just short of real for Haseo was that Master Yata didn't ask Haseo the reason behind his curiosity, even when asking about someone as apparently random as Tsukasa should alert Master Yata to something suspicious, at least. Taking into account that the Tsukasa presented to him by the Serpent of Lore wasn't real, Haseo wondered why Master Yata didn't demand an explanation.

"Yeah, I'm good, thanks," Haseo said quietly.

Maybe someone had tampered with the Serpent of Lore. Perhaps it was Helba, more likely it was Master Yata. Haseo now knew he couldn't really talk to Master Yata about anything, but there was no chance that he would get to speak with Helba. Getting into Dol Dona was one thing; all he needed to do was flash a guardian's pass to enter. Dol Dona, while at odds with the CCC, still recognized its connection to the rest of the world. Not only did Tartarga bluntly express its disapproval of the CCC, it isolated itself from the rest of the world. No one entered, no one left. It was as if the outside world didn't even exist.

He had to either try, or find another solution. It would be easiest to simply ask BT for clarification, but he didn't have that option. And with the Guardian Palace tournament beginning soon, there was no way he could leave G.U.

"Haseo, go home and get some rest. You don't think you need it now, but you'll thank yourself later," Master Yata advised him. "Oh, and by the way. It would be safer if you stopped playing that game. You know which one I'm talking about."

"You mean Reality?"

"The very same."

"Are you telling me to stop?"

"I'm telling you it would be safer if you did. I'm not advising or ordering, I'm just voicing an observation of mine."

"What do you know about it?" Haseo wanted to know.

"Enough for me to make some frightening guesses," was all that Master Yata told him. "I need to work with the Serpent of Lore, now. If you don't mind…"

"Oh, right. Sorry, Master Yata," Haseo said, and excused himself.

Now that Master Yata had mentioned it, Haseo knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to ask Satoshi Fujio why the Civil Control Commons and the CC Corporation shared the same initials. It was a small thing and it could be a coincidence, but Haseo just wanted to get him talking, if nothing else.

That photo of 'Tsukasa' really did look like Lord Balmung of Azure Sky. Maybe he should ask Zamiel about Tsukasa. Zamiel was certainly around at the same time as BT and the others.

He climbed the stairs to the first level just as Alkaid and Kuhn walked into G.U. headquarters. Kuhn gave a casual but exhausted greeting and went off in search of Pi, but Alkaid remained.

"You told Pi that you couldn't find Endrance," Alkaid accused. "Were you lying?"

"I—" Haseo began. "I didn't tell Pi that I couldn't find him; all I told her was that he wasn't in Dol Dona. I didn't lie."

"A lie by omission is still a lie," Alkaid insisted. "So you did run into him! What happened? Is he safe?"

"I don't know where he is now, if that's what you want to know. But he's safe, I guess," Haseo told her. He knew that his answer wasn't exactly the most reassuring one, but there wasn't anything else he could say to her that wasn't a lie.

"You 'guess'," Alkaid repeated darkly. "You guess he's safe? That's not the answer I'm looking for! You know he's quarantined, right?"

"Quarantined?" Haseo repeated. "What's 'quarantined'?"

She rolled her eyes. "It's something that they've figured out how to do with guardians' Epitaphs, since they're strong. If a guardian gets infected with AIDA but can't risk a data drain, then they can quarantine the virus and continue to work. Endrance is infected with AIDA, and you're telling me that you 'guess' he's safe when you don't even know where he is or what he's doing?"

"I didn't even sense AIDA when I was near him," Haseo told her. "Are you sure?"

"That's why it's a quarantine, you idiot. You can't call something a 'quarantine' if it doesn't protect others, can you?"

"Fine," Haseo said, withdrawing. "You're right. I'm an idiot. Whatever. How long has Endrance been like that?"

Alkaid shrugged. "I don't know. As long as I've known him, he's been quarantined like that. It makes him weird, sometimes, because his Epitaph's a Macha. When he isn't being antisocial, he can be an okay guy to hang around. That's the Endrance I prefer, actually. I haven't seen that Endrance around for a while, though."

That made Haseo think. "What do you mean by 'an okay guy'? Like, more confident, anything like that?"

She nodded. "So that's why even if you think he's safe out there… he's not really safe. Something bad could happen, and he could become a Lost One. I guess it's not entirely your fault, though."

"Thanks, I guess."

"Anyways, this way, he's gone for the Guardian Palace. He never really liked the tournament, you know. Kuhn told me that Master Yata wanted you to compete, by the way, whether you've gained control over your Epitaph by the opening ceremonies or not. He said it would be good motivation."

She had to be joking. But something said she wasn't. She looked like she was about to say something more, something that might have been a rare word of encouragement, but then Pi and Kuhn entered the room.

"I was hoping they would join us for the Guardian Palace," Kuhn commented. "But their absence from the Guardian Palace isn't really something to be worried about, I guess. Hey Alkaid, you lucked out. Bear, Mimiru, and BT won't be competing."

That made Alkaid laugh. "Really? That's awesome! BT's Innis almost kicked my butt last year! But why'd they withdraw?"

Pi cleared her throat. "Well, they didn't exactly 'withdraw.' The Crimson Knights found all three of them unconscious in their homes a few hours ago. The Crimson Knights have relaxed their stance against the CCC, since they had to be moved to Moon Tree's central hospital and put on life support. They're in comas."

"What…?" Alkaid asked.

"Why?" Haseo wanted to know. "What happened to them? Were they attacked?"

But Pi shook her head. "No, nothing like that. That's why it's so strange. All they were doing was sitting in front of their computers, playing some online game."