IX. The Space Between Two Worlds
"What is that thing?"
Rena's cry was answered with a rumble. The stone beneath their feet, the air around them, the entire field - everything trembled under the power of an unseen force. It was as if they were being lifted - not from the ground, but into the air, in some strange paradox that seemed to defy explanation.
"The Ending World," said Aura, still gazing up at the giant eye. "It is a field designed to act as the last line of defense against a catastrophic infection within the system. In the event that the core of such a virus can be isolated, it is to be utilized as a mobile weapon against the designated area."
"A weapon?" said Sanjuro, his head whipping towards her in alarm.
"Yes. Its function is self-destructive. Essentially, he is attempting to crash both fields into one another, thereby deleting them both."
"Waaah? We've got to get out of here!" cried Mireille, racing to the logout option. Her face went white with horror at the findings.
"I'm afraid that is impossible," said Aura, shaking her head. "The absolute lock instituted upon this field is still in place. Even I am unable to exit its boundaries."
"Then how do we stop it?" asked Shugo in a rush.
Aura lowered her eyes. "... I do not know."
"There is no stopping it!" boomed Erebus, reclaiming their gaze. "All of you will be reduced to the memories of which you are so fond!"
Another violent tremor shook through the terrain. Rattled, the group noticed a faint sense of weightlessness - and that the skies seemed to be falling at a much quicker pace. Aura furrowed her brow, her look turning urgent.
"I will do everything in my power to maintain the integrity of this area. However, due to the integration of Brother's data, I am unable to alter any aspect of the weapon itself." Aura's eyes fixated upon Shugo and Rena. "You must find a way to disable it before the fields make contact!"
And with that, she vanished, leaving the group in a startled panic. A faint yellow glow enveloped their surroundings, slowing the ascent of the world beneath them - but it did little to allay their fears.
"If we can't leave, then..." murmured Hotaru, staring upwards, entranced with fright. "This is bad... What do we do..."
"Calm down," said Ouka. Her eyes returned to the sphere, narrowing into a glare. "We need to come up with a plan. There has to be some way to stop it."
Shugo looked down to his bracelet, furrowing his brow. Casting his doubts aside, he raised his arm towards the eye. "Data..."
"Shugo! Wait!" shouted Sanjuro.
With a blink, Shugo looked his way. Sanjuro's eye was set into a grave stare.
"Kite's bracelet had limitations, and yours is sure to as well. In the original, even a few corrupted monsters could generate side effects."
"So what? We don't have time for a history lesson!"
"Listen, fool!" snapped Sanjuro. "Your target is a field. The difference in the amount of data is massive. Even on the off chance that you succeed, there's no telling what will happen to you!"
"Then what?" shouted Shugo, motioning up towards the chaos. "We can't just sit here and do nothing!"
"... The corrupt data!"
The group's attention flew to Rena. Captivated by her own revelation, her awestruck eyes stared out into space. Suddenly, she spun towards Shugo, touching the accessory above her ear.
"Aura said that this hairpin can nullify any outside forces, right? What if it works on the data that the bracelet gathers, too?"
Surprise swept over Shugo's features. "Then there wouldn't be any side effects..."
"That has to be the way to beat him!" exclaimed Rena. "The person who made all of this had to know what would happen! It doesn't make sense that we'd have no chance in the end!"
The eye above them narrowed with amusement, its lid almost seeming to smile.
"Despair brings out the most interesting aspects of humanity," came Erebus's voice, chuckles topping his malice. "To think you still possess delusions of living past today!"
... I do not know if it is possible, but...
The group was startled by the strain in Aura's voice. It was clear that every ounce of her effort was set into the crisis.
If Rena acts as an intermediary for the Data Drain... you may be able to stop him in time. The ground quivered, cracking under the gravitational pull. But you must hurry! The field could collapse under this amount of power!
Shugo rushed to Rena's side - but, as he held up the bracelet, a look of confusion shot onto his face. "But how do I...?"
She met his eyes. "The same way we did before."
Shugo blinked as Rena drew her sword. She turned her back to him, holding the blade upwards, aiming its tip towards the eye. Carmine met yellow-green, and her hands tightened around the hilt. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, hoping to calm the fear clutching at her heart.
But that plan vanished at Shugo's embrace. The body pressing into her back; the breath that skimmed against her neck; the arms alongside her own - all of it was too much to bear. A faint blush bloomed across her cheeks, tinting them with pink. Her eyes wandered with her mind, turning towards the head at her shoulder, towards Shugo.
He was smiling.
The same smile she had always known. The same warmth. The same Shugo.
And just like that, her fears were gone.
Shugo's hands dropped below her own, hovering next to the sword's handle. His eyes traveled from hers and landed on the bracelet.
The effect was the intention. He understood that much.
I want to protect her.
And he grasped the hilt.
The bracelet and the hairpin flashed to life in unison - along with Rena's sword. A blinding light enveloped the blade, shining with an intensity that rivaled the sun. The twins squinted against the radiance - but soon, their eyes were wide with awe.
A cluster of golden shards materialized around the blade's base, forming a ring far larger than any they had seen before. And then there was another, slightly smaller than the first, hovering at the middle. When a third appeared at the tip, the prongs of all three shot outwards into the air. As their points snapped upwards, each bracelet rotated in an alternate direction, forming a multi-tiered array that dwarfed the twins in size.
Shocked, Sanjuro took an instinctive step backwards. His eye darted across the platform, skimming over the amazed stares of the others. "Everyone, get back!"
"Data..." the twins shouted in unison, "DRAIN!"
A pillar of light erupted from the array, rocking their surroundings with its immense power. It sprung forth into the sky, twisting and turning, striking like an otherworldly serpent released from a celestial cage. It slammed into the eye with a roar, latching onto its iris with hallowed jaws of pure energy.
Cackles echoed through the air.
"One last desperate attempt to escape your fate!" shouted Erebus, spreading the eyelid wide with glee. "And still all for naught! Nothing can stop the inevitable!"
Filaments of red wriggled towards the eye's iris - but it continued to descend, filling the skies with a murderous eclipse. The twins' feet began to float from the ground. Suddenly, up was down, and down was forward, and forward was back, and the entire world was spinning on some chaotic axis that shredded law and reason.
"It's not enough!" shouted Rena, wincing under the strain of the bracelets' power.
"Don't give up! We can do this!" yelled Shugo, tightening his grip upon the sword. He glared up through the blinding light in defiance. It didn't matter what the odds were, or how terrible the outcome looked. If it was hopeless, then they'd make their own hope! None of them were going to die here!
A spinning fireball flew up towards the eye, exploding against its sclera. Startled, Shugo glanced to the left, spotting Mireille with her staff held high.
"Thief!" she shouted, glaring upwards. "I don't care how big you are! I won't let you take any more of my friends!"
"Unyo no Tachi!" came Sanjuro's shout, drawing Shugo's eyes to the right. A peal of thunder ripped through the turmoil as a bolt of blue lightning crashed against the eye. As his katana crackled with electricity, Sanjuro whipped around, slashing towards a nearby steeple, cleaving it from the cathedral's roof with another bolt.
"Hotaru!" yelled Ouka, giving her a passing glance as she bounded towards the now-floating obelisk.
"Ap Corv!" she shouted, pointing her staff's orb towards Ouka. Whirlwinds of red sparks appeared around Ouka's fists.
"This isn't about to be my last fight!" shouted Ouka, grabbing onto the giant stone spear, her fingers cracking its surface with sheer force. With the strength of twelve axemen, she whirled it onto her shoulder. Wielding it like a javelin, she broke into a dash across the platform. "Take THIS!" she roared, hurling it up towards the eye. The stone rocket tore through the air, joining another round of the elements as they smashed into white death.
Erebus narrowed the eye with rage. "Obstinate insects! Don't you realize that resistance is pointless? Why won't you simply roll over and die?"
"Because none of us can afford to give up!" shouted Shugo, gripping the hilt with all his might. "We have people that depend on us, and care about us! We can't let them down!"
"The ones that we love... The ones that mean everything to us!" yelled Rena, pressing her hands down against Shugo's. "We won't let you make them disappear!"
A surge of power exploded from the array, sending shockwaves out across the entire field. The burst of energy soared up the winding beam, slamming into the eye with cataclysmic force. The eyelids spread wide open, and the whites turned bloodshot with webs of red - but still, it kept coming.
The fields are about to make contact! came Aura's panicked voice.
"Reliance and caring... Love and purpose... None of them mean anything on the edge of death!" roared Erebus. "ALL OF YOU WILL BE REDUCED TO-"
Cracks sprang up along the bloodshot lines coating the eye's surface. Its pupil shrank to a pinpoint - and then it shattered, imploding like an orb of glass, collapsing into millions of data shards with a deafening boom. The beam of light shot through the cloud of glittering fragments, swirling them into a vortex that slammed into the churning waters above. And then the seas were a whirlpool, spinning into the point of impact, vanishing into the shining pillar - until a halo burst from the beacon, sweeping away the oceans, clearing the skies, crossing the stars, reaching to the ends of the earth as it covered the darkness above them with an aurora of every hue.
As the beam faded from existence, the group stared up in wonder. The shimmering bands of light reflected in their eyes, filling them with a spectrum of vivid colors. The stars glittered with astral brilliance, shining down from the celestial ceiling - but many were not stars, nor were they above them for long. They were glowing data fragments, and they drifted down to earth like snowflakes, showering it with sparkles of blue and white, adding the finishing touch to the surreal wonderland.
Slowly, the twins lowered Rena's sword. Its tip came to rest upon the ground, tapping gently against the stone. Rena looked over to the head at her shoulder. Carmine met teal.
"We did it... Huh, Big Brother?" she murmured.
Shugo beamed. "Yeah. We did it."
A faint smile crossed her lips.
"... I'm glad."
Rena's hairpin shattered, dissipating into golden dust - and she slumped against him, falling into his arms like a ragdoll. Shugo's eyes went wide, and his hands flew to her shoulders.
And then his bracelet shattered. Its shards drifted in front of his shocked irises, seeming to hang in an eternal moment of space and time.
And he was falling with her - down into a sea of black.
Mireille's mouth hung open in dismay. Her cry had startled the young man sitting along the far wall of her hideout. A dome of neatly-combed blonde hair covered his scalp. A line of sharp bangs hung just above esoteric eyes of green; the cyan talon that marked his left cheek seemed dull in comparison. Decorous burgundy robes cloaked his unimposing frame, their gold trimmings lending him the appearance of nobility.
System Administrator Reki. He had arranged this meeting to relay the news, but it was far from what she wanted to hear.
"Now hold on," said Reki, holding up a palm. "The medical staff said that it lasted for around an hour. By the time I managed to get there, he was conscious, and they had already moved him from the ICU. He's under general observation now."
"And his condition?" asked Sanjuro, staring Reki's way with a solemn brow.
"From what I gathered, it was serious for a time, but he's expected to make a full recovery. He should be fine. He was even joking about not missing work when I visited him the other day." Reki looked to Mireille, smiling with confidence. "I wouldn't worry too much. Lord Balmung's not the type of person that would let this change his life."
Mireille dipped her head, closing her eyes with a sigh of relief. At the side wall, Ouka shifted in her seat upon a treasure chest. Her folded arms were joined by entwined legs; she crossed them at the knees.
"What about the one they mentioned?" she said, opening a single eye to peer at Reki. "Any luck on him?"
Reki nodded. He turned his attention to the small book lying in his lap, opening the cover and flipping through the pages with a staid care. "I did some digging into the registration records from the past five years. It wasn't very difficult to track his current whereabouts from there." Reki stopped on the desired page, and his eyes began to scan its lines. "Shigeru Fukuda, also known as Lantus in The World. He's an influential businessman from Osaka's Naniwa ward - and quite famous to boot. According to an article from the local news agency, he was admitted to Aizenbashi Hospital a few days ago for an undisclosed condition. As for his current status..."
"You were unable to find any information," said Sanjuro.
"Exactly. Thanks to his prestige, everyone around him has stayed tight-lipped on the matter, and the press has been left out of the loop. Aside from hacking into the hospital records, there's no way to establish whether or not he experienced a simultaneous recovery." Reki raised his eyes, staring at Sanjuro with an icy candor. "Though, it's unlikely that he's dead, or that his condition is permanent. There haven't been any reports regarding a replacement for his position. Corporate damage control begins very early in these sorts of matters."
Sanjuro let out a grunt of disgust. As he looked back to Reki, his eye narrowed. "On that subject, what is CC Corp's stance on this event?"
"Isolated incidents that were caused by pre-existing conditions in no way affiliated with company-brand technology. That's how the higher-ups are planning to spin it, anyway." Reki shut the book with a clap - and quickly became aware of the hostile stares aimed his way. His face turned solemn. "Don't get the wrong idea. Balmung and I are close, too. I'm not about to let them sweep this under the rug - but now's not a good time to make a move."
"Why's that?" asked Ouka.
Reki's eyes trailed over the three. "Have any of you visited that area since the incident?"
"... I didn't think we could," said Mireille, gazing at him questioningly. "Wasn't it closed off for maintenance?"
"Until last night's reboot, yes. The field had to undergo extensive recoding to repair the damage." Reki paused, and a look of uneasiness crossed his face. "However... The maintenance team couldn't restore the external data that was present in that area."
Sanjuro furrowed his brow. "What do you mean by 'external data'?"
Reki crossed his arms and looked downwards. His eyes narrowed.
"The statue inside the cathedral is missing... and she's nowhere to be found, either."
A heavy silence fell over the group. Sanjuro's eye drifted down to the floor, stopping upon the thick orange threads that fringed the hand-crafted rug beneath them.
"Are you sure that's the case?"
"Not entirely, no. I'm only going by the data collected through Research and Development," replied Reki, tapping the book's cover with two fingers. "Still, there's no records indicating any trace of her activities since that time."
"Isn't it possible that they simply lost track of her?" asked Ouka, sounding skeptical of CC Corp's competence.
"That's unlikely. The subdivision that monitors Aura's actions has been around for four years, and she's their only priority," answered Reki. "I've also heard that their director has been pushing for evidence since the initial report. It'd be logical to assume that they would have found something by now."
"And then there were the network crashes..." murmured Sanjuro, placing his hand upon his chin.
Reki gave a solemn nod. "The executives are in a panic thanks to all of this. There are even rumors that a new division is in the works to handle the fallout."
A shrewd smile crossed Sanjuro's face. "Your promotion seems to give you access to some interesting information."
"It helps to have connections," said Reki, smirking as he rose from his seat, book in hand. He tucked it under his arm, brushing off his right shoulder with his free hand before looking back to Sanjuro. "Unfortunately, that's all I have for you right now. I'll keep you updated on any developments." Reki paused, freezing in place for a moment - and then he let out a weary sigh. "Not even five minutes to rest? This New Years' Festival is killing me."
"Oo, oo!" chirped Mireille, holding her palm towards the ceiling. "Will you be giving out rare items for that event?"
Reki blinked in surprise - then sighed again. He held up a hand in careless agreement, hanging his head and dragging his feet as he walked towards the door. "Whatever makes people come. A whole week of coding... I wonder if I can sleep-host..."
Tilting her head, Mireille watched as Reki, still mumbling to himself, opened the hideout's door and trudged up the stone steps. As he disappeared from view, she turned back to Ouka.
"I feel sorry for that guy. He must really hate his job."
The edge of Ouka's lips slipped upwards, holding back a laugh. Her eyes moved to Sanjuro. "So what do we do now?"
"We'll focus on investigating her whereabouts," said Sanjuro, standing from his seat. He paused, wrinkling his brow, looking off in thought. "I have a feeling that the next few months will be complicated."
A light bulb went off inside Mireille's mind. "Oh! Hey, hey!"
Sanjuro and Ouka turned their heads, looking confused by the sudden hail.
"Shouldn't we tell Shugo and Rena about all this?" she asked, holding up a finger and thumb to denote her point. Her eyes drifted to the side in thought. "I know Hotaru was busy today... but they're on, aren't they? I'm sure they want to know too!"
"Later. Right now, I think they need some time to themselves."
"So where are we going?"
Keeping her pace up the grassy knoll, Rena glanced back at Shugo's curious expression in annoyance. How many times was he going to ask that question? Ever since they had left Dun Loireag (and several times before, actually), he had kept up an incessant habit of prodding her about their destination. This had to be the dozenth time she'd heard those words.
"I told you. It's a secret area," said Rena, looking back to the hills ahead of her. "It'll ruin the surprise if I let you know ahead of time."
Shugo glanced to the side, hiding a slight roll of his eyes. What was the big deal, anyway? It wasn't like giving a small hint would make that much of a difference - and, more importantly, it would ease his mind a little. Secret areas, strange flash mails, cryptic messages, odd puzzles - when it came to The World, he wouldn't have minded avoiding them completely. They seemed to have a tendency to end in disaster.
Still, it was good to just spend some time online having fun, for once. It had been three days since the battle, and neither of them had been able to log on for more than a few minutes. Rena had been with their mother's family for Christmas, and his own winter break had begun with part-time work at the local sports goods store. When there was time to spend on The World, its servers may as well have been offline; connection problems had plagued the game during their visits, kicking them back to the login screen before they could say little more than 'Hi'.
Things were a bit more stable now, thankfully. As he followed Rena over another hill, Shugo looked to the side, gazing at the mountainous landscape. It was painted with shades of blue, swept into monochromatic beauty by the twilight. A sloping valley sat quietly under the evening sky, stretching out for what seemed like miles. Rocky, rounded peaks dotted the remote horizon, their tones lightening with distance, the furthest blurred by a glaucous haze. Their slopes were covered with the squiggles of treetops, and those were dashed by the dark, leafy outlines of a nearby grove. The ground around them was peppered with various shrubs, and the occasional tree popped up along their makeshift trail.
Of course, with Shugo's eyes fixated on the view, it was only a matter of time before his surroundings greeted him. After a few near-misses, he walked straight into a solid object. Startled, he looked ahead, expecting a tree - but finding a jostled Rena. She looked over her shoulder at him, wide-eyed.
"Sorry, I didn't mean..." said Shugo, trailing off. The shade masked it well, but his eyes still managed to catch a tinge of pink upon her cheeks. A look of confusion washed over his face. "What's wrong?"
Rena turned away from him quickly. "N-nothing."
"... Uh, why did you stop?"
"I needed to get something... Tissue," lied Rena - and immediately, she panicked, glancing back at him, clarifying in a hurry. "For my nose." Her cheeks reddened. "A cold."
Confounded, Shugo could only blink. "Oh."
"So let's go!" exclaimed Rena, breaking off into a brisk walk forward - and biting her tongue at her own stupidity.
A bad idea. This was a really bad idea. What in the world had she been thinking? There had been plenty of opportunities during the day - plenty of chances to realize that the thought was moronic. Happening upon the topic on the BBS, visiting the field, finding the place itself - she could have stopped herself at any point. Yet, here she was, leading him straight to it. All sorts of things could happen there. She wasn't ready for any of them. And now Shugo probably thought that she was some kind of weird pervert that grabbed tissues to fight off nosebleeds while she fantasized about all those sorts of things.
And worst of all, the very last part was true.
Stop before you stop again. He'll figure it out if he runs into you twice.
Rena lifted her chin, stomping forward through a grove of beech trees. After a few steps, her pace slowed dramatically. Rushing there would only make things worse. She needed time to think. There had to be a way out of this mess. Maybe if she pretended to be lost, they - no, that wouldn't work, he'd want to keep looking for it. But she couldn't just stop. He would ask her why, and then what would she say? She needed some kind of excuse...
A joke! She could pass it off as a joke. They weren't really going to go there. She just wanted to see his reaction. Afterwards, they'd just head back to town and pick some other field - some normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill map where they could fight monsters and forget about everything that had happened.
That would work. That was perfect.
As Rena made her way out of the forest, a familiar-looking ridge came into view. Her heart pounded wildly.
Stick to the plan. It'll be fine.
"We're here!" she called over her shoulder. As Shugo emerged from the woods, she scuttled over to the ridge's edge, turning to him with a nervous smile.
Shugo stopped, giving her a strange look. "We are?"
Rena nodded. She turned back towards the ridge, staring out over the edge. Raising a curious eyebrow, Shugo walked over to her side. He peered out into the glen below - a small cove between wooded cliffs, secluded by the hills around it.
His eyes widened.
Nestled at the cove's end was an array of lights. There were dozens of them - dots of orange and yellow, glowing softly amid the misty darkness. Paper lanterns. They dangled from wires, suspended around a wooden building of moderate size - and the pools of water at its back end. And the mist that hovered around them was, in fact, not mist - but steam.
"... Hot springs?" said Shugo, nearly choking on the words.
"So what do you think?" asked Rena, staring out towards the springs, too nervous to look his way. She waited for a reaction - but none came. Confused, she glanced over at him. "Shugo?"
Shugo said nothing. His eyes made no attempt to meet hers. He simply stared at their destination, utterly petrified by the sight.
Rena blinked at him in surprise - but then, she understood.
And, slowly, a mischievous smile slipped onto her face.
A moment later, Shugo's hat was snatched from his head. Startled, he broke out of his daze, turning his head towards the culprit. Strolling towards the trail leading down into the glen, Rena adjusted her new accessory, fixing the oversized beret to sit snug upon her crown. As her arms fell to her sides, she glanced over her shoulder. Carmine met teal.
The edge of Rena's lips curled upwards.
"Let's go, Big Brother."
Well, that settled it. Every single secret area in this game really did lead to disaster.
Shugo lowered his chin, resting it upon his folded forearms. His eyes trailed over the distant mountainside, moving along the treetops. His bare elbows slid against the smooth stones bordering the spring. He let his shoulders dip, lowering them towards the surface of the thermal waters. A sigh escaped from his lips.
It felt great. He couldn't deny that. Under any other conditions, he would have been glad to take a dip here, relaxing in the soothing heat. But his sigh was one of anxiety, for the waters did nothing to alleviate the worries within his mind.
He had no clue what was going through her head. It seemed stupidly obvious that this was a horrible idea. Even the basic notion of bathing together was ridiculous - and that was without considering the millions of other things that could go wrong. He had tried to tell her that. He had tried to convince her that anything could happen. The bath was out in the open, the field was public, and the dividers that should have separated the pools were nonexistent. Even though the place was unoccupied when they arrived, all it would take was one person wandering into the area, and they would be spotted - and worse, it could even be someone that they knew.
And what was her response?
Don't worry. This place has a Chaos Gate to private springs. They're like separate areas - and, once your party picks one, you're the only ones that can get inside. Isn't that great?
Of course. She had an answer for everything.
Shugo let out another sigh. His eyes drifted downwards, stopping upon his right wrist. He stared at his bare skin, giving the spot a slow blink.
It felt strange not having the bracelet. He had become accustomed to the golden lug nut around his wrist. Seeing it shatter had been a complete shock - and the blackout that followed was more than frightening. The last thing he had expected was to wake up with his head upon his desk, staring into a blank game visor, back within his room in the real world. Naturally, he had grabbed the phone and called Rena immediately. His safety meant nothing if something happened to her. Listening to the vapid rings of that line was the most agonizing moment of his life - but when he finally heard her voice, the breath swept back into him. She was all right. Everything was all right.
That conversation bounced between the network crash and the fate of their friends, but there was one topic he didn't mention. It didn't seem important at the time - but today, Sanjuro had spoken with him about Aura's disappearance, and suddenly, it had a much greater meaning. From that vague amount of time where he lied unconscious, he could only remember one thing: an image, something between a dream and a vision, of Aura. Their surroundings were dark, and her avatar seemed hazy - but, above all else, there was something that stood out to him.
She was smiling. A happy smile, free from tragedy and suffering. Wherever she had gone, he knew that she would be fine.
"I'm coming in!" came Rena's voice, emanating from the changing rooms.
Too bad the same couldn't be said for him.
Standing behind the sliding door, Rena shifted timorously. Her fingers clung to the white towel covering her body, clutching its top edge to her chest. She took a deep breath, steeling her nerves. Her free hand found the door's notch - and with a gentle tug, she slid it open.
The scene that greeted her was breathtaking. A full moon shone down upon the mountainside spring, casting an azure hue onto its shimmering waters. Ornamental plants surrounded the pool, forming a crescent of ferns and flowering shrubs that divided the area from neighboring trees. The pool's borders were lined with rounded stones - and at the far edge, Shugo sat amid the water, back towards her and arms atop one, seeming to hide his head with raised shoulders.
Rena pressed her lips together, unable to fight off a simper. Her bare feet left the wooden floors of the onsen, taking careful steps onto the walking stones leading to the spring. When they reached the water's edge, she glanced up at Shugo, ensuring that his eyes were still aimed towards the view. They were.
It took all of her courage to let the towel drop to the ground.
The sound of sloshing water reached Shugo's ears. He resisted the urge to glance backwards (why did he have that urge?); instead, he kept his eyes on the rounded peaks in the distance. As a series of ripples purled against his back, he heard a refreshed sigh escape from Rena's lips.
"This is amazing. I can't believe it feels so real," murmured Rena, running a palm along her arm. She sank into the soothing warmth, letting her legs drift amidst the waters. Her head turned towards Shugo. "See? Even the view is nice. I told you this was a great idea."
Shugo's shoulders slumped.
Rena blinked. "What's wrong?"
Shugo turned his head slightly. His eyes drifted to the side, landing upon one of the border stones. "Why did you bring me here?"
"Huh?" said Rena, staring at him in confusion. A moment passed, but he said nothing. Her eyes left his back, drifting up to the stars. "To relax. I thought we could use some time away from everything." She looked back towards Shugo, tilting her head slightly. "... Don't you like this place?"
Why does she sound so calm about this?
Slowly, bit by bit, Shugo turned his head, peering over his shoulder. His eyes trailed over the blue waters - but then, next to a rock in the pool's center, the bronze skin of Rena's shoulders came into view. His head whipped forward in an instant. The warmth of the spring rose to his cheeks. He lowered his eyes, staring into his forearms.
"It's... making me really uncomfortable."
Rena's shoulders dipped, and a look of disappointment fell onto her face. Her chin drifted downwards. She stared at the water's surface, watching the shimmers of the moonlight quiver in the liquid.
But then, her eyes rose to Shugo, and a mischievous smile crossed her lips.
The quiet plashes of disturbed water wafted on a gentle breeze. Shugo felt another round of ripples caress his back. He ignored them, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the distant treetops.
Until he felt the touch of hands upon his shoulders.
Shugo's body jerked straight upwards, nearly jumping out of the spring. His head whipped around, eyes wide open with shock. He found a playful look in the carmine irises behind him.
"W-what are you doing?"
"Helping you loosen up," said Rena, holding back a giggle as his eyes darted away in embarrassment. As she began to rub the backs of his shoulders, she shifted in the water, and her knee bumped against his submerged calf. Shugo stiffened into a statue. "Just relax. Your shoulders are all tense."
A streak of red formed across Shugo's nose. His eyes burned a hole into the stone beneath his forearms.
"... Rena... When did you get like this...?"
Rena recoiled in offense. "Get like what?"
"... Nothing," muttered Shugo. He lowered his chin to his wrist. "Just forget it."
The hands upon his shoulders came to an abrupt stop. Slowly, they curled with tension, their fingertips pressing against his muscles.
"... Does it bother you that much?"
Shugo blinked in surprise. She sounded upset. Slowly, he turned his head, peering back at her face. She had sunken into the waters, dipping her head, hiding her eyes with lilac bangs.
"Rena..." murmured Shugo, staring at her in concern. Her hands slid from his back, dropping into the water with weak splashes. His embarrassment vanished from his mind, and he turned towards her, swiveling on his knees. "I didn't mean..." he started, trailing off into a pause. He thought his words over carefully. "... I know it's just a game, and we can do whatever we want here... but we're always going to be brother and sis-"
"Don't say that!"
Shugo lurched backwards, astonished by the sudden cry. Rena flung her head upwards and stared straight into teal, her eyes shimmering in the moonlight.
"Don't say that when you know I want more!"
Shugo's mouth dropped open in shock. He knew. Of course he knew - but hearing her say it, out loud, with that kind of emotion - that left him speechless.
Rena stood up, clutching a hand against her heart, careless of what he might see. "I'm not doing this because it's a game! I'm real, Shugo! The things I feel are real!" Tears began to stream down her cheeks, and she spun away from him, letting her arm plunge down into the water. She clutched her fists under the surface, trembling. "And then you say that... Like I'm wrong... Like there's something wrong with me...!"
"Rena!" whispered Shugo, wide-eyed. He reached out to her, towards her shoulder, trying to pull her close to comfort her - but she twisted away from his grasp, wading towards a nearby stone. Throwing his reservations aside, Shugo scrambled to his feet, sloshing through the water, chasing after her - but suddenly, she stopped, and he stopped, and time seemed to stop along with them.
Shugo stared at her back, unsure of what to say. Slowly, she turned her head, looking back over her shoulder. A faint question escaped from her lips.
"... Am I?"
Confusion mixed with worry. Shugo could only stare at her with trembling irises. He had no idea what she meant, or what she was thinking, or what he should do. For the first time in his life, he felt completely helpless.
Rena's eyelids gave him a wistful blink.
"... Isn't there... anything there?" she murmured. Her eyes focused in on his. "... Don't you feel it too?"
Shugo looked to the side, staring down into the water. His cheeks reddened. "... You're my sister."
Rena's eyes widened.
Guilt. There was guilt in his voice. It was there. Deep down, somewhere inside his heart, he felt the same way. It didn't matter how unheroic his words sounded. She didn't care about that. The only thing that she needed right now was the feelings behind those words. She wanted to sweep up every little drop of guilt that dripped from them - to wipe them away herself, to show him that he didn't need to feel guilty, or ashamed, or afraid anymore.
Shugo felt the touch of fingertips against the wave symbol upon his cheek. Startled, his eyes flew back to Rena's. Carmine filled his view. She was right next to him, standing at less than arm's length - close enough to add some scarlet to the red marking. Her fingers traced along its edges, caressing his skin.
... Rena. He tried to say her name, but his voice was gone. Only his lips moved.
Rena closed her eyes.
Shugo's eyes drifted down to her lips. Pink. He could see every little line, every little detail glimmering in the moonlight. They were so close to his own.
Six inches. That's all there was.
Shugo's eyelids drifted shut. He leaned forward.
And he closed the gap.
They lost themselves, there in the water. Hands met, noses brushed, lips slid and nipped at one another. Suddenly, Rena's back was against stone, and her front was against Shugo, and the spring was like paradise. One hand was in his, but the other found his back, clutching his shoulder blade, pulling him closer. She breathed into his lips as they departed, enveloping them with a sated wisp of warmth. Her eyes fluttered open.
Shugo was staring at her in horror.
That amorous expression, those flushed cheeks, the arousal in her eyes - all of them were like stabs to the heart. This couldn't be right. He was supposed to protect her, not this. What was he doing to her? To his own sister!
"I'm sorry!" cried Shugo, tearing himself away from Rena's grasp. He scrambled through the waters, stumbling in panic, deaf to her cries. His feet reached the spring's edge, and he clambered up the stone steps, reaching dry ground, racing towards the changing rooms.
A hand latched onto his wrist, holding him back.
Without thinking, he spun around - and froze in shock.
Rena's toes curled around a stepping stone of the trail. Her free arm hung limp by her side. A droplet fell from the tip of curved fingers. Beads of water trailed down her collarbone. Her skin glistened with luminescence.
Shugo was blind to all of it. His eyes never left carmine.
A pensive smile formed on Rena's lips. They parted.
He tried to respond. Nothing came.
She stepped forward. Her hand left his wrist. Another step. Her arms encircled his body - and she leaned against him, nestling her head against his chest.
Shugo looked down into her hair.
Awe. That's what it was. That feeling that slipped into his heart every time she smiled, every time she laughed, every time her eyes met his - it was awe. No matter how many days, months, or years went by, he knew that he would always feel it. It would never fade away.
He never wanted it to.
Shugo's hands found her back. He held her close - snug within his arms.
A minute passed before Rena looked up at him.
Shugo met her eyes. "Yeah?"
"Can we get back in?" A faint quiver passed through her body. She tightened the embrace. "I'm cold."
Shugo smiled. "Sure."
Ripples flowed over the spring's surface. They came from splashes of feet, and teasing pokes, and playful squeezes. They purled through bursts of giddy laughter, and through embarrassed squeaks. They listened to faint, loving whispers - the kind meant for only one ear.
But, eventually, they vanished.
The last drop had fallen. Nothing could stir the surface. Nothing could stir them from their embrace.
The water was tranquil.
And so were their hearts.
You're still reading? I must be doing something right.
Pessimism aside... :D
The final chapter. I'm sure some people will find it controversial, but I didn't want to end this story any other way. And I'm glad, really. If it doesn't get someone riled up, then I failed in what I was trying to convey.
So, that being said...
What did you think? In character? Overdone? Poignant? Too cheesy? Let me know your thoughts on this (and any other) chapter by using that shiny little review button at the bottom of the page. And be honest! I like hearing any kind of feedback, positive or negative, so don't be shy about pointing out the flaws in my writing. I know they're there, believe me. :P
In closing: I'd like to thank all my readers (especially those who reviewed) for their support in this project, since it would be pointless without all of you. I hope you enjoyed the story (and that it was better than the anime). Because, really, that's what's important.
Other works can be found in my profile. Thanks, and take care!