A/N - Wow, hello again. Definitely been a while. Finally got the urge to work on this again, not to mention getting my hands on the Alter Code OST and a release date rekindled my intense love for the series. This chapter definitely flowed on its own - I wasn't planning on so much interaction with Jack when I started, but I'm pleased with how it turned out. I'm also amazed on how my style has changed to reflect my own life... and I like it much better this way. Enjoy!
The small stone tablet was still warm in her trembling hands. By now the sensation was almost familiar. She held in her hands the only physical manifestation of a Guardian... and she was one of the few in the world who could do more than simply hold it. Of course, Vassim could tap into that power, but it wasn't like hers. Most likely, it was limited to resuscitating one who had been personally granted the ability to call upon a Guardian...
She thrust the rune into the arms of the only other person with that power. "Jack, take it." Her trembling didn't stop. "I can't... I mean, this rune would be better for you than for myself. You should hold onto it until we bring them both to Vassim."
"Sure thing. Don't worry, I'll keep it on-hand just in case." He took the tablet with his left hand and squeezed her right hand with his. "It's going to be OK. You know, this means we're halfway there to getting him healed. More than, if you factor in everything else. We're so close, I can almost shake hands with that Guardian of Illusion and invite him to dinner!"
She couldn't help but chuckle a bit, which Jack took as a small victory. "A little bit of humor is good to have in the middle of all this seriousness." He put the rune in his trenchcoat pocket. "C'mon, I know you can smile again. Think of it as practice for when he wakes up."
He couldn't have said anything better to trigger such a positive reaction. Her face lit up in a way he had never seen before. She looked up at him and gripped his hand tighter. "Jack, this isn't how I usually am... I'm sorry for make you put up with me when I'm all..." she turned away at this point in a vain attempt to hide the rosy blush forming on her cheeks.
"Emotional? It happens to the best of us, rogue or royalty. In fact, I dare say that this is almost a good thing..." Puzzled, she turned her head to meet his gaze once again. "I'm no philosopher, far from it, but how can you know for certain you even have such strong emotions if you only experience the positive? Far as I'm concerned kid, you just proved you've got something special beyond the scope of most other people locked up deep in there, and you're just beginning to see what... no, who that key is."
He called me "kid" just then, not "princess" this time...
"Jack, I... I just..." She threw her arms around his waist and tightened around him with every bit of strength she had left. "Thank you... thank you for being one of the greatest friends I could ever imagine." She pressed against him, her head resting in the center of his chest and dampening his shirt slightly.
They stood there for what she perceived as half an eternity. They stood among the bushes and flowers and trees, trees so full of life and radiance she half expected them to reach out to touch and comfort her. She stood there in silence taking in everything around her, because she would never be able to reproduce this scene. This was a world that was unknown to her. Not only was everything in the forest colored in vibrant shades of green impossible on her Filgaia, she was for the first time ever physically and emotionally close to a friend she could trust with her life. She could show Jack all the facets of her personality without fear of rejection, and he completely accepted her, not her bloodline, into his world as well. But it wasn't only Jack, of course.
It took Hanpan to bring them back to the task at hand. She didn't know what he was up to before, nor did she really care all that much. "Hey you two, we got the rune, we might as well stop back at Vassim's place to regroup and figure out where the heck we're going next. I don't know about the rest of you but oh man am I itching to keep on moving!"
"Oh, of course. Sorry about that, Hanpan." She gave Jack one last tight squeeze before pulling away. "It was so confusing getting all the way in here so getting out probably won't be too easy either. Might as well put all those years in the Abbey to good use and teleport out of here instead." She closed her eyes and concentrated, oblivious to the soft golden light and cool breeze around the group and to Jack's efforts to keep her from toppling over during the spell.
"Did we make it back?" She opened her eyes and quickly regretted it. "Oh, Jack... everything's spinning. Where's Vassim? And Mariel?" She started swaying backwards once again and Jack snapped to action to support her.
"We're right outside Vassim's house. But dammit, you have to be more careful next time! After all that trekking through the forest you weren't working at 100 percent physically, and after we got Odoryuk... it's no surprised you were drained mentally and emotionally as well. You could have really injured yourself or worse, casting such a potent spell when you're not feeling too great in any aspect. It's bad enough he's out of commission for the time being... if something happened to you as well I don't know what I'd do!" As he finished, she shut her eyes again and simply nodded. "Oh man... that might have been a bit too harsh, let's get you inside and lying down fast. Here, wrap your arm around me for some extra support. Hanpan, go scurry through the window or something and let 'em know we're here. It's a few stairs to the door, can you make it?"
She nodded, and smiled. "Yeah, just don't let me go. One... two... step!" Getting her up to the door turned into a coordinated effort. She brought her head down again. "I don't feel so good..."
Fortunately for her, Jack was not about to give up that easily. "Just two more to go, you can do it. One... two... step!" This step came with slightly less difficulty, but was thankful there was only one left. "Last one, one... two-"
"Step!" She sighed in relief, but Jack didn't miss a beat. "Vassim, we got the Life Rune, but do you a place for her to lie down? She pushed herself too much getting us back and-"
Vassim offered her his hand. "I understand. There's an extra mat we can set up in the bedroom, though at this rate you'll be better off just carrying her up, Jack." He turned his head and attention back into the house. "Mariel, can you put a pot of soup on? And some tea? She overexerted herself with spell-casting." He looked back outside, "I'm going to help Mariel out with dinner, I'm sure you're both famished, but we'll get some soup and tea up as soon as we can before we all eat. Come on in and let's get settled for the rest of the night."
She yawned and tilted upward toward the sky. "You're right, looks like the sun will begin to set shortly. But, uh... do you mind if we spend the night?"
Vassim chuckled. "Not at all, my dear. I never thought I'd say it, but I almost enjoy hearing other voices for once after all these years. Now if you'll excuse me, dinner isn't going to prepare and cook itself. Come in, the mat is in the closet in the upstairs bedroom." He opened the door fully before making his way back to the kitchen.
"The upstairs bedroom, Jack? But isn't that where...?" The color that had faded out of her face from the exhaustion had returned and then some.
"Yeah, that's right. Funny how things turn out, you know? C'mon, let's get you inside and rested up a bit."
She leaned against the wall inches from the door, and with a sleeping Wind Mouse curled up in her lap. From this position she could look straight ahead and watch the sunset in this ancient world. "Not even a thousand years can change the sun... but even the New Moon is old enough to be here. Isn't that odd, Jack?"
"Not really. You've heard the rumors, right?" She shook her head. "Heh, I didn't think life in the Abbey was THAT secluded. Anyway, I've heard things ranging from the New Moon being made out of the same metal as the demons and it being alive to it being their castle. Take it with a grain of salt if you please, but do remember sometimes we treasure-hunting Dream Chasers are in the know first thanks to these rumors."
"So if it IS related to the demons..."
"It'd be here because the Elw high-tailed it out of Filgaia AFTER the Demon War. Again, just more speculation from your local well-traveled Dream Chaser but who knows. I sure don't."
She sighed once more. "Then I wonder why this dimension is so green then. It's probably one part Elw magic and one part the Life Guardian being located here..."
"...or retreating here," a soft voice squeaked from the doorway. "We Elw don't know for certain how he found us, but Vassim told me Odoryuk came to our world for sanctuary once all the Guardians began to lose their power."
"It makes sense, Mariel. Our Filgaia was spiraling downward into total decay. Of course the Guardian of Life would have been the one most directly affected, and would not... no, could not merely lie dormant like the others. And the others didn't come here because their lives were not directly threatened as Odoryuk's was."
Mariel stepped into the room, placing a tray with two bowls of soup that she brought up on the dresser to her right. "It's as good a guess as any, I'm afraid. Even the Elders don't know the truth of the details. They were content leaving things just as they had been for all these years. But if the demon activity has increased greatly to attempt to revive their queen..."
"They'd aim for here next after Filgaia fell?"
"No, Jack... this world would have died by then as well. It may not be on Filgaia, but it's connected. In fact, I think it's dying already..."
The two Dream Chasers exchanged a look of extreme shock and surprise. "How the hell can that be!? The forest was so alive, there's no way it's dying!"
Mariel shook her head. "That's not how it's dying. The Elw dimension is shrinking. As Filgaia decays, this world weakens. This world will continue to shrink as Filgaia dies until this world is nothing. It's been happening slowly yet steadily over the past thousand years, but there's no denying it. You would have never made it through the Forest Prison if it too hadn't lost strength and size over the years."
The reason hit her in a flash of inspiration. "It's a safeguard, isn't it? If things were not bad enough to require it, no one would be able to reach Odoryuk. Which means the Guardian Blade would not be able to be reactivated..."
"Exactly. My brother knew all of this, which must be the reason he was willing to use the Guardian Blade at all. If Filgaia wasn't in such a perilous state.."
"We couldn't get through the forest to the Guardian of Life, which is what we need to get the Guardian Blade up and running again, which is what we need to fix him up so we can go and save Filgaia and therefore this world." Jack took over the explanation without a fault. "Sneaky little bastard, but I give him credit for figuring out a way to test the severity of the problem in the comfort of his own home."
Everything was silent in the room, now that the true impact of their quest was common knowledge. "Oh! The soup! That's why I came up in the first place. I have our full supper still cooking downstairs, but I brought up soup just to get something into her system, you too Jack... I can't believe I forgot all about it." Mariel frantically grabbed a bowl for each and handed them over. "And oh no, I hope it didn't burn. I'm sorry, I have to get back to the kitchen right now!"
As she darted back down the stairs, Jack chuckled as he promptly place his bowl down, for eating was the last time on his mind. "Silly girl..."
"Girl? She's been alive hundreds of years longer than you, Jack!"
"Doesn't matter. If it looks like a Wind Mouse and squeaks like a Wind Mouse, it's a Wind Mouse. Hey, speaking of that... is Hanpan still asleep?"
She nodded immediately after taking a sip of the stew Mariel brought them. "He's out like a light. He had a busy day as well..."
"So how are you doing now? All this talk of Filgaia dying and saving the world is secondary right now to your well-being."
"I still feel a bit dizzy, I'm glad we're not actually out there saving the world right now, and once we eat I'm sure I'll be back to normal in no time."
"And emotionally?" That was the key, and they both knew it.
She turned her head away on reflex. How much of it did Jack see? She never told him outright, of course, and she probably would have mentioned it eventually... once she figured out exactly what "it" was.
What is wrong with me? I'm acting like some dumb angsty teenage girl who's in lo-
That all-too-familiar choke returned and she watched as the room became blurry again.
"Dammit... there I go again with my big mouth."
"No, it's not your fault. Let's face it Jack, I'm a complete wreck on the inside right now, and you know and I know and everyone knows exactly why!" She paused only to take a breath. "Fitting behavior for the Queen of Adlehyde, don't you think?" she spat out in a tone as blunt and sarcastic as it was painful and upsetting.
"You know you shouldn't concern yourself with that just yet. For right now, and for as long as any of us can realistically plan for, you're NOT any sort of royalty or untouchable symbol to the public or anything grand like that. You're one of us Dream Chasers, nothing more, nothing less."
"'But if it wasn't for me being of the Adlehyde bloodline we never would have gained power from the Guardians to even stand a chance in something so grand as saving the world!' or some nonsense like that, right?" She couldn't respond to his correct interjection. "And yes, you're probably right about that. But that's not important right now, is it? How we got into this mess isn't important. It's how we get out of it and that we actually do that counts now. Besides, remember way back when in Adlehyde when I didn't want any princesses on this quest, that this is something to leave up to Dream Chasers? That's still the case to this day."
"Jack..." she managed to say without showing any other wayward emotion in her voice, "that was beautiful."
Jack chuckled as he scratched his head. "Now that I've filled my melodramatic speech per day quota, there must have been a point to all that... oh yeah! You're human, just like the rest of us. And that comes with all those pesky human emotions good and bad. No fancy shmancy royal title can take that away from ya."
She held back any immediate reactions, carefully gauging how much emotion she should be exposing now. But there was one factor she didn't anticipate that she had to account for. "I hope you're not taking it the wrong way..."
"Eh? Hate to break it to ya, but there really isn't much of a chance even I could be taking this the wrong way."
"No, not right now..." She wasn't completely sure even if she should bring it up, but without confronting it now it may hang over her once their current quest is completed. "Back in the forest, when we got the Life Rune. I was... well, you remember, don't you?" She couldn't have made it all up back there, could she? Everything felt so intense, then and when she looked back.
But that's right around when I used the teleport crest and look how it messed with me... it's not impossible for me to be recalling a false memory...
He nodded. "Sometimes, even when you do have something nice to say,
it's best to not say anything at all."
She took one last sip of her soup before placing it beside her. "And you didn't think it was... strange? Or completely contrary to everything else, to all my crazy irrational reactions?" That familiar heat rose on her cheeks again, since there was no easy and fail-proof way to get her point across. "I mean... uh... I don't want you to get the wrong idea or anything but..."
Jack tilted his head in confusion, his face showing his puzzlement clear as day until he was able to decipher her ever increasingly vague speech patterns. "Is that what you're worried about? That you were really getting all emotional because of...? And not...?"
"I know it sounds stupid, but I don't want you thinking that-"
"I think I get exactly what you mean. And no, I'm not 'getting the wrong idea' though now I kinda see how you'd think that. But no, no, I don't think that's the case. You can't fool me that easily, you should know that much by NOW."
The embarrassment faded away to relief. "Jack, this is what makes you so great... I mean, see, there I go again. I can't even be an emotional wreck without changing course!"
"Look, calm down and just listen to me a second, will you?" He knelt down in from of her so he can look her in the eye. "You two are the younger brother and sister I wish I had. That's one of the main reasons I wanted you around. I wasn't so certain we needed the whole Innocent One or the last remaining direct link to the Guardians stuff then, but I did know I wanted to keep you around with us back after the attack on Adlehyde. He had nothing left but to be a Dream Chaser like myself, so that was no question. But you... it's not every day that princesses abandon their kingdoms and people to go out into the wilderness to save the world. Or maybe it is, I couldn't say. But it takes something special to do it our way, and it didn't take me too long to see it."
"So you never thought that I... had feelings for you?"
He chuckled before continuing. "Nah, never crossed my mind. Keep in mind that you've been pretty good about hiding your 'silly emotions' until we got to the Gate Generator, but I had a hunch for a bit. And after that... well, given whom they were directed toward it's no surprise that things exploded all at once. Just because I think of you two as my kid siblings doesn't mean I think it's a bad idea for you two to wind up together in the end."
Her heart instantly accelerated into double time. "You... you really think that?"
And there you go acting like a silly schoolgirl again! The slightest positive nudge toward your fantasy being realized and you're reduced to THIS!
"He's still the same kid, doesn't matter that he's not exactly human. He needs some kind of stability in his life, especially once he realizes the truth after waking up. He's going to need someone there for him in ways I can't even begin to predict, and there's only so much a brother can do."
"Yeah, I've thought about it before, but I have no idea how he'll react once he wakes up. Is he going to remember the battle? Or even worse, is he going to remember being asleep like this for so long? We don't know if he's unconscious or just asleep or fully aware mentally or anything concerning what really IS going on. I can't even imagine what he must be going through right now..." She gently moved the sleeping Hanpan from her lap to the mat beneath her, brought her chin to her knees and sighed.
What wouldn't I give to know what's been going through his head since the Gate Generator accident? It makes my "troubles" so insignificant. If nothing else, I have a heritage and place in society. Everything he has was stripped away from him little by little until now, where he has little left but the two of us...
Then a thought struck her, a flash so quick all that was left was the resonance. "Jack... have you ever been in love?" And as soon as the words came out, she knew she hit something.
"Perhaps a long time ago I was. But things change. People change. People di- leave. There is no use dwelling on the past if it won't drive you in the present."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up any bad memories."
Why did you have to go and ask THAT one? Messing things up yet again to validate yourself!
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, opening them with the slow exhale. "You didn't bring up anything. That IS what's driving me. Nothing short of the Absolute Power can save Filgaia, and with that the past will never repeat itself. She doesn't exist anymore, at least not in any form that can ever be with me again. And I hope that you two will never meet the same fate."
She was speechless. Truth be told, she was expecting a "no" and that would be that. But now, now it all began to make sense to her. Losing someone that precious would be worth all the risks.
And I don't even have any risks to take. Where does that leave me?
"I don't plan on leaving him, Jack, or you for that matter. I'm in this for the long run, however long it takes. Without you guys... I can't even picture how things would have been had we not met up by chance on that day. You are both so important to me right now, and I'm honored to be like family to you, Jack. But, I don't want to be his sister... my role is different, isn't it? And that's what you detected all along." The pieces were starting to fit together in rapid succession.
"Every relationship requires you to take on a different role. And for some, it takes quite a while for it to become clear. But it's always there from the beginning, you just don't know what to look for then. And besides, I enjoy letting the opto-"
His words were cut short by a loud crash coming from downstairs, followed by Mariel's shouting. "Jack! Help! It's almost ready, but I kind of bumped into something and... can you come and help us get everything back in place before the food gets cold? You're so much taller than we are and OH! I dropped it..."
"Sounds like they've got a real mess down there. Come on, I'll help you down the stairs again."
She shook her head. "No, I can make it down on my own. Just, I need a few more minutes to slowly get up and all."
Like he won't be able to see right through that.
"Well, you know your own body better than I do. Most likely we'll be ready in a few minutes. I think you will be too." He flashed her a knowing, but understanding smile as he headed down the stairs. "See you in a bit."
"Thank you, Jack. Thanks for everything." She didn't get a response, but she knew he heard her. She took her time to stand up on her own, and to her delight most of the dizziness was gone. Now she could for the first time see what made this the bedroom. It didn't take long for her eyes to focus on what- no, who was in the bed. "What are you feeling right now?" she asked an audience that may not even have the ability to hear her. Seeing him sent her heart into overdrive.
Maybe this isn't such a bad thing I'm feeling after all.
She took another uneasy step toward the bed. "Sorry I've all but ignored you just now, but I think you'd forgive me if you knew what chaos has been running through my mind as of late. Wait, who am I kidding, you have it worse right now." Another step forward, this one more certain. "But I promise you, you'll be better very soon. Just one more Guardian, one more rune and then..."
And then what? Things will go back to just the way they were before this all happened? After bringing all this to the foreground, I don't know if I can go back to how I was before, even if it is for the sake of our journey together.
Maybe it's best that way, then. Just because I don't see him as a brother doesn't mean he doesn't see me as a sister. Who's to say Jack wasn't just trying to keep morale up and avoiding losing BOTH of his teammates?
"No, don't think like that." A final step forward and she is now at the edge of the bed. "I can't be thinking of the worse case scenario when the best is right in front of me." She reached for his right hand with her left.
Not like you have much of a choice there.
Now leaning over him, she brushed away his bangs with her free hand as she squeezed his. "You look so peaceful right now, do you know that?"
I can't believe this! It's something out of a sappy romance story. You have to be kidding me here... this isn't like me at all!
"But I hope you won't mind me at all for seizing the moment." She leaned in closer, close enough to feel him breathing ever so faintly, and kissed his forehead just lower than his bandana. "And I hope you don't mind me leaving you to be all alone again, but I will return soon and you'll be whole again." She squeezed his hand once more and wiped the prelude to a tear from her right eye before turning around and leaving him for the last time.