King of Anything
Act 2, Chapter 1
In which Escaflowne screeches.
Early Wednesday morning, Yukari was still struggling to fully wake and finishing her second cup of coffee. Amano, being a much more early riser than her, had left the apartment to grab a cheap lunch from the corner store for both of them to take to work.
Hitomi's side job was a steady source for the best coffee beans in town and Yukari inhaled the scent happily as she downed the last sip. Her blonde friend was already gone, probably quite busy serving the brew to eager patrons.
Not too much later, while Yukari was cleaning up after herself, Amano returned. He held two cartons of microwave ramen aloft, clutching a paper bag between two fingers, and a rolled-up magazine under one arm.
"Not ramen again!" Yukari exclaimed. "I know it's your fave but I've told you I need more variety than that."
Amano approached her with a conciliatory smile. "I know. That's why I brought you a pastry too. And your favorite, weekly dose of drama fresh off the press." He offered her a package of ramen, the paper bag, and the magazine by his elbow."
"You're the best!" Yukari said. Of course, her boyfriend knew exactly what it took to make her happy. "Too bad I have an eval due in the afternoon. I better leave this at home so I have no choice but to cram some more before. " She said with a bit of regret and placed the magazine on the kitchen counter, out of sight to keep her eyes from being drawn to whatever the headline was.
It was too bad she didn't even so much as glance at it before she and Amano left the apartment together. And were this a trashy romance movie or rom-com, the camera would be zooming in on the front page slowly, foreshadowing drama about the picture staring back.
"Man, the paparazzi sure are casting their net far for a scandal these days." Millerna tossed the high-gloss magazine onto the breakfast table between her and Merle, who was giggling at the copy of another magazine, slightly larger in size and less glossy.
The magazine cover on the table showed a picture of Van and a short-haired woman in the Mystic Moon's private seating area, locked in a deep kiss.
Merle tossed the second paper on top, covering it with a different front-page which showed the same picture but with a second version of it depicting a more hi-res version where Millerna was the woman Van was kissing. She was still impressed at what could be done with a computer and the appropriate graphics program these days.
Somehow, a mysterious source had slipped a picture of Van and Hitomi into the hands of Goldilocks and Quicksilver; the two most ruthless paparazzi of Fanelia. Due to safety concerns, they worked under these cover names. While they had a huge following in the people who bought the trash magazine, they weren't at all appreciated in other circles of society.
"Jealousy is a disease. Hope they get well soon." Merle shrugged as she sipped on a freshly brewed latte. Good thing Van doesn't get phased by stuff like that. I doubt he's even seen it.
"Yeah I have to say, they are entertaining to go through though," Millerna admitted with a pearly white grin.
"Right. Sometimes I find out about things I didn't even know I did." Merle laughed.
Both princesses were pretty calm about the headline. They were used to these kind of hiccups and not easy to shock. Millerna was just glad she'd early on become skilled in foreseeing potential drama and used the PR office to her advantage. Especially when it came to spotting such news prematurely. A few informants placed strategically in the city's biggest publishing house had warned her soon enough to respond.
"You can't really expect me to go in there." Hitomi looked a bit horrified as Allen placed a hand on the small of her back and guided her towards the sparkly-clean double doors of a luxury boutique.
There were big flower planters to the right and left of the entrance, already heralding how fancy the inside was going to be.
"I most certainly am serious about that," Allen assured her, nodding his encouragement.
Their date was going exceptionally well. Allen had agreed to keep it low-key at Hitomi's request. He'd still insisted on picking her up from her apartment in the early afternoon and they'd picked a charming but cheap outdoor café and enjoyed some iced coffee.
Despite Allen's appalled expression, Hitomi had picked up the bill for both of them. She liked the thought of being non-traditional. After all, she'd been the one to make the invitation. Well, she'd not actually given him a choice, but it wasn't like he would've said no.
As a way to thank her for the treat, he'd insisted on getting her something in return. Hitomi laughed when he'd walked up to an old crane-game next to a souvenir store and fished out the most ugly-looking stuffed doll she'd ever seen. It was a mix of a human and a bee wearing carpenter pants.
She'd held it up to inspect it while Allen, for the first time not appearing like the smooth gentleman he was, looked mildly embarrassed. He was dissatisfied with the quality of his gift.
"I love it." Hitomi giggled, to his surprise. "It's so ugly."
She doubled over a bit at the waist. It was hilarious to see Allen not be good at something for the first time. It made him more human in her eyes. He'd shown up in another dark blue, but less formal, suit and the combination of it with his pale blonde hair worn in a low ponytail had women gawking wherever they went.
She'd felt out of place at first in a simple, green sundress but soon found she didn't care all that much. If he wanted to be with her, he'd have to get used to her style.
"This won't do." He'd decided and insisted upon strolling towards the fancy shopping area of town where they were now.
"You'd look so good in a designer dress." Allen encouraged her. "I want to show you that wearing things like that isn't as bad as you think. Come into my world for a bit."
Hitomi caved in at the last part. "Fine. Humor me."
When they entered, the sales personnel descended upon them like a flock of swans. Two women slightly older than Hitomi with sleek hair, wearing tasteful, white column dresses and high heels welcomed them warmly.
It was immediately clear that their attention was mainly on Amano. Firstly, he was handsome as hell, and secondly, he looked like he knew how to shop in this kind of place.
They were whisked away to the back of the store and offered champagne. Allen was used to all this and Hitomi merely tagged along as the ladies drooled over him.
The two swans were visibly hungry to see him model some of the inventory tailored for guys but quickly corrected their behavior when he announced that they were looking for something for Hitomi. A bit disappointed, they still complied with Allen's directives to find a dress to complement Hitomi's looks.
While the two women scurried away, Hitomi took in the interior of the store. The floor was tiled marble and covered in a thin, expensive-looking carpet. All the display shelves and racks were gilded, each holding only a few samples of the clothing offered. No doubt, the personnel pulled appropriate sizes from the back of the store upon customer request. Anything else would have appeared cheap.
There were mirrors all around them and for the first time since the beginning of the date, Hitomi felt inadequate. Especially while holding the ugly doll from the crane game. It gave her the shivers when she looked at Allen next to her.
No doubt, he could impress any given woman with his manners and looks. Even those who were technically too high up the social ladder to be with him. But here he was, spending time with her and obviously interested and no matter how she turned it, she couldn't see a reason why he wouldn't be serious about her.
This eased her mind a bit while the swans returned with a pile of offerings, distracting her from that pity party.
Hitomi laughed a true laugh when she exited the dressing room for the fifth time, modeling one of the dresses the ladies in white had picked out for her. One could tell how expensive the clothing was and how much work had gone into fabricating each piece.
Alright, maybe the high society wasn't so dumb after all. They liked nice stuff and appreciated quality. Too bad everything here was way out of her price range. Did Allen really shop at places like these too? She couldn't see a price tag anywhere. It was probably considered cheap to even ask about a price.
Allen's eyes lit up when Hitomi turned in front of him. She was barefoot since she'd only worn a comfortable pair of sandals before which would have ruined the look of the backless, yet very tasteful, red cocktail dress she was wearing.
"Stunning," Allen commented, captivated.
"Yes, it looks fantastic on her." One of the swans commented dutifully, aware that she stood no chance.
"You could walk into an A-list cocktail party any day without an invitation in that." Allen reemphasized. "Let me buy it for you."
Hitomi stared at her reflection in the mirror beside him, equally impressed by how this expensive piece of fabric made her look. Mature, respectable, and beautiful.
"Absolutely not." She finally laughed, shaking her head. "I don't want you to do that."
Allen looked disappointed. "But it would be my pleasure."
"I'm serious. This is…just not me." Hitomi looked straight at him, ignoring the annoyed glances of the swans floating nearby.
"Well, that's too bad but if you insist." Allen conceded respectfully.
After they'd left the store without making a purchase, the sun was slowly beginning to set. "I unfortunately need to return to the palace to lead the evening security brief and get updated on the day's happenings," Allen said.
"It's perfectly fine. I had a great time. Thank you for spending your afternoon off with me." Hitomi easily replied.
And it was true. Despite the trip to the richer world, she'd had a great time. Allen was good people and fantastic at keeping her entertained. He always had something to talk about and made sure to ask her questions about herself to show equal interest.
"But…if you don't mind I'd like to do this again soon. Maybe then you'll allow me to take you to a nice restaurant?" He offered. "That shouldn't be too far out of your comfort zone."
"Maaaaybe," Hitomi replied playfully as they strolled down the street with her cradling the ugly doll against her chest fondly.
Allen walked her home and they turned to face each other at the entrance to Hitomi's apartment building. She was unsure of what to expect. Would they kiss? It was only their first date and she wasn't sure that she was ready for that.
Her subconscious did a double-take at that thought, hollering inside her head when a much too familiar face was thrust forcibly into her awareness. Hitomi's chest nearly exploded from the influx of adrenalin. Heart hammering against her chest, her breathing quickened.
Allen carefully took her hand, seemingly unaware of what was going on inside of her. A slight raise of one eyebrow indicated that he could, perhaps, feel the increased pulse at her wrist under his fingers or the sweat slowly forming on Hitomi's palm. He must have sensed her unrest. In typical gentlemanly fashion, he bent down and pressed his lips to the back of her hand.
Whatever he'd planned on doing at first, he ended up not doing and for that, Hitomi was entirely grateful.
"See you soon, Hitomi." Allen winked before turning and striding down the short walkway, only looking back once for one last, charming smile.
Meanwhile, Yukari was busy wiping the countertop in the apartment above because mere minutes before, she'd spluttered an entire mouthful of water across the front of the high gloss magazine in her hand.
The picture of her best friend locked in a sensual kiss with the ruler of all Fanelia had caused this rather rash but justified reaction.
When Hitomi entered the apartment, still walking on a cloud, Yukari immediately descended upon her like an eager, little sparrow. She shoved the magazine under her nose and, very erratically, demanded an explanation.
Hitomi heaved a deep sigh to cope with the visual and because there was no way to get out of this. This was a nightmare. Somebody had taken a snapshot from the video- a still- and slipped it to some eager paparazzi. The only one she knew who had a copy of it was the Zaibachian dude from the palace.
She should have known then that something was shifty about him. Her gut feeling had told her so at first but she'd brushed it off.
"Should I wait until Amano is home so I only have to explain once?" Hitomi finally groaned.
"You sure you're not just stalling?" Yukari asked, eyes wide and trembling a bit from excitement.
"I mean…yeah. That too." Hitomi admitted.
"Don't even. I'm all ears." Yukari tossed the magazine between them on the table and folded her hands against the top, blatantly staring and completely alright with it.
Not wanting to lie to her best friend anymore, she started at the beginning. It was so strange to talk about everything that'd happened out loud. Like doing so made it real for the first time. Not like it hadn't been real before but now it was out in the open. Well, out in the open of their small apartment kitchen anyway.
Hitomi told Yukari about the first meeting with King Van, what'd happened at the club, and the clinic. When Hitomi got to that part, she could visibly see the gears in her friend's head turning. She was just now realizing that she'd not recognized the ruler of all Fanelia and he'd been right under her nose.
Eyes as big as saucers, Yukari clung to Hitomi's every word and gasped at the appropriate moments.
Then the part with the little hike in the woods- beyond the freaking wall- had Yukari exclaim 'what' multiple times. With a little hesitation, Hitomi also told her about Millerna's birthday festivities. Of course, Yukari knew she'd been there but then the kiss in the library'd happened. It was what Hitomi couldn't stop thinking about and as soon as she started talking about it, she couldn't make herself stop. It almost felt good to get everything off her chest.
Everything but the part about Millerna walking in on them and sharing with her the massive secret that could mess up relations between Fanelia and Asturia if it came out.
If it'd been physically possible, Yukari's chin would've hit the tabletop already. "But…how…nevermind. You told me how you met in the first place. Hitomi. This is insane! How is this all possible?"
Her friend moved around the table and gripped Hitomi's shoulders, shaking her back and forth slowly and making her sway on her feet.
"Uh…yeah." Hitomi sighed and shook off her friend's hands. "I know I…it's so weird even talking about it. I'm sorry I didn't tell you before it's just…he's…you know…so I didn't know how to even tell you about it because this is all crazy!"
Yukari's eyes widened a tad and she made a dramatic hand gesture to emphasize Hitomi's point.
With a click, the door opened and closed behind Amano when he arrived. And just as soon as Yukari eagerly shoved the paper under his nose, of course Hitomi had to repeat herself. Verbatim.
True to his more composed personality, Amano's reaction was overall amused rather than plain shocked like his girlfriend.
At the end of hearing her story the second time, Yukari brought up something inconvenient. "But you're dating Allen now, aren't you?"
Yes, they'd been on an official date today but Hitomi hadn't been dead set on this being the start to a relationship of any sort just yet. The way she hesitated to answer the question made realization sink in- on Yukari's side.
"Hooooly smokes. You like him. Actually like him! King Van!" Yukari gripped Hitomi's shoulders again, this time a bit harder from excitement.
Amano merely chuckled when the redhead eagerly nodded. Hitomi was about to refute her friend's statement. Just at that moment, another, uncomfortable fact came crashing down on Yukari like a sack of potatoes.
"But…he's engaged." Yukari blurted out. "Engaged to someone really, really cool," she trailed off regretfully. "Oh no. He's not leading you on, is he? That's…messed up!" Yukari began to get riled up.
Hitomi's expression was that of helplessness. She didn't know which one of Yukari's worries to ease first.
Thankfully, Amano stepped in and freed Hitomi, taking Yukari's hands in his. "Chill out, Yukari. Take a deep breath and notice that Hitomi is plenty calm right now."
Well, at least on the outside she was.
"Yeah because she is upset! She's upset and doesn't know how to react to it all. She's probably super disappointed. But you know what? Disappointment is anger for wimps and Hitomi is not a wimp!" Yukari insisted.
There wasn't a single thing Hitomi could say right now that wouldn't involve sharing the secret Millerna had let her in on. She knew that when her bestie got an idea into her head, it was difficult to convince her otherwise.
"Man, Allen is going to be so salty when he finds out you picked the king over him," Amano stated with a hint of amusement.
Hitomi massaged one of her temples and heaved a big sigh again. She seemed to be doing that a lot lately. "No…please don't say that. I am not trying to date the king. It's not like that. It's already difficult enough to feel normal after all this."
Right that moment, the doorbell rang in two short bursts and Amano went to answer it.
It gave Hitomi time to take a breather until…
"Hitomi. Are you sure about what you just said?" Amano's voice sounded from the front entrance area.
She frowned and sighed- again. "Positive. Why?"
Why was he asking that? To escape Yukari's still probing stare, she left the kitchen and followed Amano's voice, then abruptly froze on the spot when she saw who was standing in the doorframe.
"Were we expecting somebody? Who shows up unannou…." Yukari's voice closed in on them. She skidded to a halt next to Hitomi and slapped a hand over her mouth to cover the rest of her sentence.
The king had already removed his sunglasses, holding them loosely in one hand and awkwardly rubbed the back of his head. Looking like any ordinary guy, in some jeans, sneakers and a black brand-name track jacket, he was undoubtedly real.
Celena shook her head as she looked from one magazine cover to the other as she idled by a newsstand in Old Town Fanelia.
The reaction to a full-blown scandal would have been brutal. Asturia would have broken off the engagement immediately and Princess Millerna would have been married off to somebody else, effectively canceling the plans for an alliance.
All royal houses were used to exposure of the dramatic kind. Not only was there a picture of the short-haired woman from the club and Van kissing, but there was another magazine who'd brought to print the same image, instead with Millerna in Hitomi's place. There was little doubt as to which one the original picture was.
Celena shook her head again, somehow still uncertain. Then again, the other picture was of way better quality and she had no idea who'd been in the private area for how long when they were at the club. She'd been dancing with Princess Merle almost the whole time.
It was quite obvious, so the paper stated, that the picture in the other magazine had been altered digitally to make it look like the king was kissing a woman with shorter hair. It was not difficult to fake such an image and make the woman look like somebody other than the Asturian princess.
And if this trashy paper was on to something there, then surely Princess Millerna would have been outraged earlier this morning already, having them all pack their things to return to Asturia within the day. Considering all this, Celena decided that this was after all just an attempt to cast a bad light onto the King of Fanelia.
What an intricately entwined emotional dilemma, but only for the people who knew the truth.
Dilandau grinned smugly when he saw her from afar. It was a fabulous day. He relished in shocked faces of passers-by as he saw them walk down the street, holding the magazine. His day'd only gotten better when he'd spotted the annoying blonde doing the same.
He enjoyed her look of confusion so much it made him approach her. Willingly this time. "Tragic, huh? To find out what a ladies' man the king is. Good thing somebody captured that moment."
To his annoyance, she wasn't surprised at all to see him. Had she spotted him coming through the back of her head or something?
"Well, it looks like the thing is fake. This much more reputable paper has a picture of who it really is: Princess Millerna. Somebody photoshopped the real picture to make her look like somebody else."
Dilandau frowned unhappily. "How can you be so sure that's the real one?"
He didn't want to admit to being the source of the picture. He regretted now having only sent a screenshot to Goldilocks and Quicksilver. Perhaps he needed to rectify that? Perhaps he also didn't care to make that effort. He wasn't sure yet.
"Why do you hate the king so much?" Celena asked while frowning softly, trying to understand why it was that Dilandau relished the drama so.
Dilandau pursed his lips before answering. "I don't hate him specifically. He just happened to be a good option for entertainment."
"You enjoy this?" Celena shot him a searingly skeptical look.
"Verily!" The Zaibachian answered, looking inordinately pleased with himself.
Celena furrowed her brow in disapproval. "You're smiling like someone who doesn't know what smiles are for. You are weird."
Dilandau crossed his arms on his chest. "I'm not weird. You are just basic and have no chill."
Celena shook her head, looking disappointed with an expression conveying her pity for him. "Who hurt you?"
Irritated at the way she was twisting this conversation again, trying to burrow through his layers, he turned and walked away without sparing her another word.
"You can't hide like that forever, you know?" Celena spoke loud enough for him to hear but didn't follow. "It's all going to overwhelm you one day."
A fridge can tell a lot about the people living in a place and the fridge in the trio's apartment was full of magnets, pictures, and notes which told about achievements, friendship, and groceries. The fridge in the palace had nothing on it. It was industrial-sized, brushed, stainless steel and on a regular day, Van never even had to go near it.
One of the pictures in the middle of the fridge, right at eye level, depicted the three inhabitants of this place. Albeit younger, they were recognizable. It'd been taken at a sporting event. A track meet, to be precise. Since Van already knew that Hitomi liked to run, it was only a short leap of logic to assume that it had been a competition.
A very successful one for both her and Amano, judging by the medals hanging around their necks. They all stood next to each other, arms linked and beaming. Van's gaze fell a bit. He didn't have any pictures like that. The only pictures he had were ones with Merle from when they were little, and of him shaking hands with diplomats or other important members of society.
The ones with the whole family were older and mostly kept locked away. It'd been too painful to see the five of them together after his parents and Folken had died and after the pain slowly numbed, the pictures remained stored in the box of the royal archives for historical documentation.
Of course, every now and again a newspaper dug up a copy or two again but Van never looked at the grainy print long enough to call forth some sort of strong emotion about it.
"So…you need help? How can we possibly help you?" Hitomi's question snapped him back to reality.
Van raked a hand through his hair, and then brushed it forward again, bringing the style back into casual disarray while thinking about how to best explain why he was here.
Yukari's arms were crossed and her lips were pursed. Completely contrary to how she would normally react, she looked almost upset. Normally, she'd be all over the chance to talk to the king but now she had some new info to consider.
For Hitomi's sake, she was putting her friendship over her natural inclination for sensationalism. Undoubtedly, Yukari was loyal to Hitomi and her friendship ranked above that curiosity.
"You are the only chance I have. I don't trust anybody at the palace." Van opened and, to everyone's surprise, looked directly at Amano.
Amano poked a thumb into his own chest. "Me?"
Van nodded. "At the club, Hitomi told Millerna and me that you're some sort of computer whiz. I need help unlocking certain files in Escaflowne's memory storage. They are inaccessible to me although I'm supposed to be the only one with Admin rights. I have a feeling something weird is going on with that and I'm not sure who I can trust with it."
Hitomi interjected at this point, not exactly irritated but mad curious as to why he'd chosen to come to them out of all people. "Why would you come to us of all people?"
"Because I'd rather choose to trust somebody who likely has no interest in this and, well, I don't know anybody outside the palace who knows much about computers," Van explained.
Wow. He did, indeed, feel like a bit of a loser now. He didn't have friends outside the palace. That's what that sounded like. Of course, he had friends. He went out sometimes and…ok…fine... He didn't honestly make an effort to build friendships when he did. He didn't really have friends. Hopefully, that wouldn't be so obvious to them based on what he'd said.
"So you don't have any friends you could ask?" Yukari asked flat out.
Damn. She was nearly on the same level as Merle when stating embarrassing truths in a blunt way.
"I don't trust anybody else right now." Van decided to answer vaguely. No need to admit anything here.
Amano nodded. "Alright, I can give it a shot. Where is Escaflowne?"
"You'll need to come with me. He would have attracted too much attention so he's in a storage room on the ground level of the palace defense walls." Van explained.
Yukari's eyes widened. "Woah, we're going into the palace walls?"
"We?" Van raised an eyebrow, a big question mark on his face.
"Of course! This is a package deal. Three for the price of one." Yukari confidently announced.
"Uhm…three?" Hitomi piped up. She'd remained quiet up until now, determined not to get involved in any of these shenanigans again. The king was here for Amano. There was no reason she needed to tag along this time.
Everyone stared at her, including Van. Their eyes locked and the ruby color of his irises immediately reflected itself on her cheeks. A hot poker shot through her sternum and she quickly cast her look at the tabletop between them instead. "Fine."
She acquiesced quickly to avoid a possibly much weirder situation. After all, the king had no idea that she'd just let her best friend in on their whole story. Well, not the whole story but most of it- including some steamy details.
While she'd said some things out loud earlier, she wasn't even close to permit herself to think about him the way she had in the library. Not when she was so exposed under everybody's gaze.
While they waited for Amano to pack his computer stuff into a messenger bag, the girls and Van stood in the living room. Yukari was eyeing the king with a mix of suspicion, curiosity, and wonder. Hitomi felt plain awkward and hugged her arms close. Van tried to appear as if he was scanning the room, interested in the furniture and decoration but was eyeballing Hitomi in his peripheral.
He surely wouldn't have come here if it wasn't necessary. He had sworn to himself to not run into Hitomi again, let alone seek her out purposely but here he was. A small voice inside his head was cheering, elated to see her again. Of course, he secretly hadn't wanted their encounters to end but rational thoughts had won over these feelings just recently. Or so he thought.
The relief was real when Amano joined them, slinging his messenger bag across his shoulder in the process. "I got everything I might need."
"Great let's go." Van didn't waste a minute, gad to have his thoughts back on task.
When the three of them left the apartment, the back of Van's hand brushed against Hitomi's while they stood waiting for Amano to lock the door. Shades back in place to disguise himself, Van was thankful she couldn't make out the pained expression in his eyes.
She was in a rather simple green sundress and the smell of fresh air and evening sunshine clung to her. She must have been outside this afternoon, not having been home for long or taken the time to change before he came. He found himself to be weirdly pleased about it.
However, the lingering tension between them was more bitter than sweet. Heck, at least she knew that he wasn't a cheating bastard. Or did she? He was still a liar, though. A liar who was deceiving a whole kingdom save for two people. One of them being her and the other his official betrothed and partner in crime.
It sounded absolutely shitty, no matter how he looked at it. He couldn't blame Hitomi for acting weary around him in the least. Admitting that to himself only aggravated him. And the fact that he seemed to be so taken by her vexed him even more. Why was it that she managed to befuddle his brain so badly with such little effort on her part?
Probably because he knew precisely what she tasted like, and how it felt to hold her. How her sighs and little sounds of pleasure made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. To drag himself out of the quicksand that were his thoughts, he took the lead as soon as they got outside. At least, this way he wasn't tempted to look at her.
They appeared like a completely ordinary group of people, walking through the narrow streets of Fanelia. Except one of them was the king incognito and they were on a mission to crack some secret code in his armored bodyguard.
Yukari had loosened up a bit, curiosity having won over however she felt after Hitomi and her had talked. "How did you know where we live?"
Van spoke over his shoulder from where he was leading the way in front of her. "Pretty easy. I asked one of the guards in the security office to look you up in the registry. We can find out where anybody lives."
"Now that's a bit creepy." Yukari decided and frowned.
"If you think that's creepy wait until we enter the base of the defense wall," Van promised, although it hadn't been his plan to become some sort of tourist guide today.
And he was right about his previous statement. Yukari felt a shiver of goosebumps make its way down her spine when they walked through the dimly-lit hallway behind the security doors they'd just passed.
It wasn't a horror-movie kind of creepy but something she'd never experienced before. The base structure inside the metal-clad defense walls was still the original stone from way back when. Only there'd been improvements and enforcements made with various metals throughout the centuries. Mold was covering some old, exposed surfaces and trailed along the sealing joints where stone and steel met. It smelled like decomposing, organic matter and rust.
Generators were humming all around them and here and there, she felt like she saw weird shadows. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be fans turning in ventilation shafts above them. It became even eerier when they entered a room behind another security door. A door the king had to punch a rather long code into the control panel to open.
The room was equally rather dark. He explained that the security system was only showing blimps of activity when somebody entered and exited doors like during a patrol but if the light was turned on, more attention was drawn to the area so he preferred to keep it on emergency lighting only.
The room was fairly empty with the exception of a few shelves packed with crates and of course, the large, effing robot positioned in the middle- holy moly!
The thing of legends. The famed Escaflowne.
Yukari gawked. Even Amano was momentarily taken aback by the sight of it so close up. While Hitomi was in the back of the group, she noticed the machine's LED eyes behind the helmet narrow in on her for a split second.
"Escaflowne." Van addressed the machine unceremoniously. "I found someone who may be able to help. This is Amano. I am granting him temporary admin rights."
Amano nodded towards the robot in a polite greeting. "Evening."
The king didn't even bother to introduce anybody else but Hitomi couldn't find it in herself to even be miffed about it. After all, she hadn't even asked to be here in the first place.
The sentry grumbled. "Letting just anyone take a shot at it, are we?"
"We can't exactly be picky right now," Van said while motioning for the machine to turn and opened the control panel on the bottom half of his back armor.
"Amano, go ahead." Van offered for the other man to help himself at the various ports and controls on the oversized robot.
The king then walked towards the darkened corner near the door they'd just entered and assessed a long desk. It was probably used to keep track of inventory of whatever was stored here. He gathered up the paperwork on it and, quite unceremoniously, dropped it on the floor, clearing the desk.
Everyone watched as he grabbed the heavy piece of metal furniture and dragged it across the floor under the small emergency lamp which was the only source of light. The shrill, screeching sounds of metal legs on stone floor caused everyone to wince. When he was done, the three friends still stared at him.
"What's the matter? Did you think I'm too good to get my hands dirty?" Van asked a bit unnerved. Had everyone conveniently forgotten how he came to be the king of this country?
The three friends shook their heads in unison while he went back to fetch the chair, bringing that too. Hitomi watched absentmindedly, remembering the dragon encounter and how little he indeed minded. And not that she minded seeing him put some of that muscle to use.
Really? That's where her thoughts were headed?
How shallow. She wasn't any better than his massive fan club.
But he was good at picking up things. Especially her. Good thing it was so dark in here. And good thing Amano was beginning to get to work unpacking his stuff and plugging his laptop into on of Escaflowne's ports. It drew focus to what was going on there instead.
Amano stared in awe at the black screen, white numbers whizzing past from bottom to top all on their own as he scrolled. Numbers, letters, spaces, brackets, and everything else that made up code.
"That's impressive," Amano concluded.
"Thank you," Escaflowne said.
"Err…wasn't meant as a compliment. Your code is really quite primitive which figures, considering how old you are. I meant the virus working in your program. A worm, to be precise."
"Do excuse me. Primitive? And what do you mean by worm?" Escaflowne screeched, appalled at the insult. "I am not a carbon-based life form. It's impossible for me to harbor a worm. And who are you calling old?"
"Relax. It's only a tech term. The worm is in the code around your memory. Restricted to the files in question, to be precise."
"How did it get there?" Van asked, undeterred by the banter between them.
"Can't say really how or since when. Or who put it there, for that matter." Amano shrugged, leaning back in the chair, rubbing his chin with two fingers. "Probably whoever didn't want this to be found and accessed. This was the best way to secure the data short of deleting it."
"How does a worm work?" Hitomi asked, now curious. She had basic computer knowledge but since her interests revolved around sports and the outdoors, she'd never bothered to advance that knowledge.
"I've only read about it a few times. It's a Morph worm. A Morph worm blocks potential hacking attacks by encrypting and randomly reshuffling key bits of its code and data 20 times per second. It's infinitely faster than a human hacker can work and thousands of times faster than even the fastest electronic hacking techniques." Amano explained, mesmerized by what was on the screen of his laptop.
"So, you can't access them either…" Van sighed defeatedly. His gut twisted in disappointment. Now he had no choice but to consult the tech office in the palace.
Escaflowne let out his equivalent of a chuckle. "Not so primitive after all, am I?"
"Nah." Amano cracked his knuckles leisurely. "It's just going to take me a bit longer." He smiled confidently.
He rummaged in his bag, looking for something. "I'm gonna have to put my dongle into your port receptor.
"Your what?" Escaflowne screeched, his audio output briefly overloaded.
Several of the humans had to stifle a chuckle of amusement.
Amano sighed. "Get your mind out of the gutter, folks. A dongle is a piece of hardware with a cryptographic protection mechanism. I made it so that even if somebody gets ahold of the programs I write, they won't be able to use them without this hard key."
"Why would you not just say that in the first place?" Escaflowne asked, clearly miffed despite his lack of ability to emote. It made the situation all the funnier.
"Well, I don't make these names up. I just use the stuff. Besides, this was much more entertaining and educational." Amano grinned to himself while scanning Escaflowne's ports next to where his laptop was already plugged in. "Alright, I'm plugging…the dongle into your main receptor."
Escaflowne's voice was low and quiet this time. "Did you know it takes only around 4,000 newtons of force to break the typical human femur?"
Yukari stifled a giggle too late. She shot Amano an apologetic grin as he looked over his shoulder accusingly.
"Escaflowne." Was all Van had to say to bring more seriousness back into the task at hand.
"Yes, your majesty." The robot understood immediately. His sassy nature wasn't something that was widely known about and Van preferred to keep it that way.
Everybody was watching throughout the next ten minutes while Amano hacked away at his keyboard, deeply engrossed in the code whizzing past as he typed.
"I'm in." Amano finally announced although the screen looked exactly the same way it had before to the untrained eye.
In less than a second, everyone gathered even closer by his side. They stared in awe as the visuals of the memory files were displayed on Amano's laptop. He was using another program to translate them into a graphic representation instead of the interface on Escaflowne's back panel.
"Does any of this make sense to you?" Amano asked Van as he opened a few files, scrolled through and showed them to him.
Van looked confused and upset at the same time. "No. Damnit." He skimmed across the symbols in the text file, growing increasingly more frustrated. "That's ancient Atlantean."
Yukari leaned further towards the screen, supporting her balance on Amano's shoulder and squinted, like it would help any. "Man what a bummer. All this work and now nobody will be able to read it."
Hitomi shifted her weight from one foot onto the other, peering at the paragraph on the screen in front of them.
Her voice was low but melodic and confident when she spoke. "It says: In the darkness, the dragon wakes or awakens. To a heart that is numbed with cold, the dragon takes. With you at my side, the dragon sleeps. On dragon wings, your wishes will leap. Something…something about wishes can bring forth a destructive future or you can bring salvation."
The rest of the group shared a bewildered look while Hitomi was reading. Yukari was about to interrupt her, incredulous that she hadn't known about her friend's unknown talent but Van reached over and covered her mouth with his hand.
So that's what she meant when she said she was reading when he'd confronted her in the library. She'd not even been kidding. But it was impossible. Nobody could read this. Ancient Atlantean was a dead language and people had long since stopped studying it.
"Hitomi. What on Gaea was that? I mean why can you read this?" Yukari finally asked the burning question after her friend had finished.
Hitomi clasped both hands together, a bit unsure now. "Well, it's not even that good a translation. It's ancient Atlantean, like Van said. Remember my grandma Yuri?"
In this instance, her use of the king's given name passed unnoticed by her and anyone else but him.
Yukari nodded. Amano shook his head slowly. Only Yukari had met her grandmother before she'd passed and even then, a young Yukari hadn't ever spoken to her too much.
"She was a linguist- an expert in dead languages and sometimes showed me documents she was working on back when she was still employed by the historical society. I always thought Atlantean symbols were cool so she started teaching me for a while but I never used it much so my skills are a bit rusty." Hitomi explained.
Well, wasn't this a convenient surprise?
Van was pacing back and forth in front of Millena, who was calmly sitting on the chaise lounge in her royal guest apartment.
"I mean it's worth a try. I'm certain he can help. Dryden's an expert on all kinds of old tech and culture nobody else cares about anymore." Millerna assured him. "And he would never use the information against you. He likes knowing things for the sake of knowledge, not to gain an advantage or blackmail someone over it. Sometimes you just need to trust and rely on others. He's a good guy!"
Van glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes when she said that last part, having heard an entirely different tone of voice form her there.
Quickly focused on his main concern again, he said. "I don't even know the guy."
"Oh don't worry. I'll come with you. We've known each other since we were kids." Millerna waved a hand through the air to dismiss any worries. "But you won't like what I'm going to tell you now. And you already know what I'm going to say, right?"
The paragraph Hitomi had been able to read was only one part of the small collection of information Amano had been able to unearth. There were technical schematics and in combination with the foreign language, Hitomi had quickly hit a dead-end in her interpretive abilities. She wasn't a tech freak and definitely didn't know the language well enough to make precise translations for such a specific topic.
Van stopped and crammed his hands into his pants pockets, facing her. "What?" Already dreading the answer.
"Hitomi needs to come. She's obviously not too shoddy with the language and two brains translate and decipher more than one." Millerna reasoned.
Van sighed and his eyes darkened. She wasn't wrong and how he hated it.
Hitomi was already in her pajama shorts and a tank top when someone was at the door, knocking carefully instead of ringing this time. It was well past a reasonable hour for visitors and that after she still hadn't fully processed their previous adventure. Yukari and Amano had already retired for the night, even.
With a weird feeling in her stomach, she walked up to the spyglass in the door and stumbled back when she saw that familiar mop of dark hair on the other side. This time, he wasn't even in his sunglasses. Risky.
She pinched herself to make sure she wasn't in some sort of weird movie or alternate universe where strange things were scripted to happen to her by an overeager narrator in god-mode.
Nope, definitely not.
Wearily, she opened the door and wasn't even embarrassed about her attire. "Miss me already?" She asked dryly.
"I need you..." Van told her urgently as he entered the apartment, then trailed off.
Thrown off guard by the blatant way he'd stated his business, Hitomi nearly tripped when she stepped further back into the living room. "Wha…what?"
Hitomi's heart sped up drastically. Her body directed increased blood flow to her cheeks, neck, and chest. The time of night and place they were in only helped to make this moment more personal. Here they were again. Semi-alone and rather close.
Van's face, in turn, lost all its color in mere seconds. Oh shit.
"I mean…I need your abilities. With the Atlantean language." Van corrected himself hastily, and a bit too loud.
Hitomi gulped uncomfortably, mouth still hanging open in an O of surprise. Her face remained expressionless otherwise until her eyes slowly closed and she exhaled quietly. Of course, that's why he was here. What was she thinking? He needed her help.
The floorboards creaked accusingly when somebody entered the living room from one of the bedrooms on the side.
"What's going on here?" Yukari looked like she was only seconds away from exploding. Just as soon as she knew what specifically she was supposed to be exploding over.
"I need to borrow Hitomi for a few days to figure out these files," Van explained matter-of-factly and without having waited for Hitomi to agree. "Please." He then added wisely, although it was only a small gesture of goodwill.
Yukari was careful in the words she chose so as not to risk betraying too much of Hitomi's confidence. She was aware of what had happened between them but didn't want the king to know that she knew while still sticking up for her friend.
"Why is she the only one who can do this? You know, she still has evals to pass so she can graduate. She's got responsibilities too." Yukari stated bluntly.
Van nodded and glanced at Hitomi. "It will only be for a few days and I can make sure she won't get in any trouble for not showing up at work or the clinic."
Hitomi listened to them argue. If she wasn't so annoyed, she'd find it comical that the king was bargaining with Yukari as if she was a stern mother, making sure the guy's intentions about her daughter were good.
"Please, Hitomi." Van addressed her. He looked worn out and desperate. It made her realize that he wasn't just doing this for shits and giggles. This was important. Maybe just as important as finding out what had happened to his brother.
Hitomi combed both hands through her hair. She was beginning to see why the king was drawn to this stress-relieving habit. Her hands paused at the back of her head where she rubbed it for some relief until she remembered something. Namely the back of his head.
It made her feel bad for him again. There was a good chance nobody but she and Yukari knew he'd had a concussion. As far as she was aware, he'd never before displayed any kind of weakness in public. The guy was lost and confused about something and it made him desperate enough to show up here late at night, begging for her help. Damnit…
"Fine." Was all Hitomi said. "When?"
"What?" The girls sweatdropped.
"Geeze. It's the middle of the night. Surely this can wait until tomorrow morning?" Amano interjected from the bedroom doorframe, having been alerted to the scene too.
"It can't." Van insisted.
"Fine. Let me get changed." Hitomi didn't wait for an answer and disappeared into her bedroom.
Fine. That word was starting to give her an odd sense of déjà vu.
Sticking her head out the door a second later, she asked Van one more thing. "Do I need to look…important?" She settled for that word instead of 'nice'. Why was she even asking? Perhaps because shopping with Amano had reminded her of the glaring, societal differences between her and them.
"What? No." Van shrugged, confused about her inquiry. "Wear whatever you want."
Hitomi furrowed her brow, then pulled her head back and closed the door.
Back in the living room, Yukari crossed her arms and turned to Van, preparing to give him a stern talking-to.
"Imma keep it real with you. You are the king but that does not give you the right to treat Hitomi this way. She's a good person who'd help anyone and she may be useful to you but that doesn't mean you can treat her like some employee of yours at the palace. Is that clear?"
Van could only gulp and nod. "Crystal."
A/N: As you can see, the plot thickens. Hence why we now find ourselves in the second act. Can you guess who Quicksilver and Goldilocks are? I am not sure yet, if they will actually appear in the story. Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this installment. Whoever has a better explanation for what the doll is that Allen gets Hitomi in the Anime dream date, gets...bragging rights.
A big thank you to Meghanna Starsong for shooting me some ideas when I was stuck and to whomever is still reviewing.