Turned On

by Black Waltz 0

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

(A/N: Okay, if you're reading this here and now chances are that you're going to flame me to high hell for this fic. Chances also are that you're either a Phantasy Star fan, or a shonen-ai fan. Just by looking at the title you can probably tell what this fic is going to be about. It might be deeply disturbing for you. On the other spectrum of things, you might enjoy it very much. If you don't like shonen-ai situations involving an android, you might not want to read this. Only one way to find out, huh?

… Please don't hurt me.)

†††

Chapter 1: Lovesickness

Rika was so beautiful, Chaz thought.

She was asleep and curled up in her sleeping bag, beside Rune, Kyra and the empty bag that was reserved for himself. It was incredibly cute in the way that she tried to huddle up into a warm little ball, like a napping cat, trying to tuck her knees up beneath her chin. The sleeping bag prevented her from doing that properly but she was still making a decent effort nonetheless. It was freezing cold in the place that they had decided to camp out at, Chaz hoped that Rika wasn't feeling too chilly. Rune and Kyra seemed to be sleeping like babies, but they were natives to this land and were used to its climate. He and Rika were not.

They had chosen to set up camp in the first room of the Weapons Plant, stationed secretly in the heartland of Dezoris. The doors of the facility had been locked tightly and no biomonsters would be able to force their way in without the entire party knowing about it. It was safe and much warmer in there compared to the outside, and the only real threat came from the off-chance that a hostile machine from deeper inside the Plant would come up to the surface for a breath of fresh air. That chance was a very rare one, but he and his friends had fallen back on a sentry duty all the same.

The group took shifts in waiting out the night, split into four sections of early evening, late evening, early morning and late morning. Each section lasted for about three hours and there was always one lucky person who didn't have to participate. The roster shifted and revolved each night. Tonight Chaz had been placed into the late evening shift, between Wren and Kyra. Rika was the lucky one out for the moment, she didn't have to wake up at all until the sun rose. As for himself, he had three hours lonely hours of absolute boredom to look forward to. He was waiting for Wren to finish his shift so that he could get his over with.

For now, Chaz was kneeling close to Rika's still form, watching the Numan sleep. Her face was relaxed and gentle, framed by her amazingly pink and beautiful hair. He could hear her soft breathing every time her chest rose to take breath, even above the formidable snoring that Kyra seemed to be making from inside her own sleeping bag. He was fortunate, she would be at sentry by the time that Chaz was ready to nod off to sleep. He wouldn't have to put up with her snores. Thank God for small favors.

Hesitantly, almost with fear, Chaz reached his hand down and lightly ran his fingers through Rika's soft hair, the bright strands feeling like something he had never felt before. Silk, maybe. How he had longed to do this to her while she was still awake, aware of the way that he felt and loving him for it. She was so lovely and yet so smart and witty, the best of both worlds. Chaz didn’t think that Rika deserved a confused child such as himself as a partner, but still, he wished that things were different. He wished that he had the courage to admit to her how he felt, but he was also terrified of the way she might respond to it. If she laughed at him Chaz would have just died from embarrassment and shame.

Touching her, kissing her, loving her, - it was all just a pipe dream, but one that he desperately hoped would come true. Chaz pulled his fingertips from Rika's hair that he had been unconsciously stroking in thought. Looking at her Chaz couldn't help but be reminded of a cat, graceful, lithe, wise, and above all, potentially deadly. That was Rika down to the smallest detail. He had been stroking Rika's hair in the same way that one would pet a tamed feline, prompting it to purr. Would she purr for him if he did this to her while awake? Chaz bit his lip and pushed the renegade thoughts away. It was only a hopeless tease.

What Chaz needed most of all was confidence, something that he had in short supply since the death of his mentor. He may have been saving Algo from a great, vile darkness, but deep down Chaz Ashley was just a sixteen year old boy, grappling with normal teenage problems. How could he tell the girl he desired that he liked her? Maybe even loved her? It was all so hard…

He brushed the back of his hand gently against her cheek. She felt warm, warmer than he. That was good, she wouldn't catch a chill. Smiling in a way that only the foolishly smitten could achieve, Chaz looked up, into the dark corridor that stretched out before his eyes, awaiting the sound of footsteps that would come from the darkness. Slowly the smile drained from his face.

He mustn’t have heard Wren approach. The android was standing there in the middle of the corridor, half hidden in the shadows. He had his arms folded across his front and was staring at Chaz in what he thought to be a severely disapproving way. It had always seemed slightly disturbing to Chaz in the way that Wren rarely blinked. Always those cool steely eyes seemed to be watching, calculating, processing. His expression was completely blank.

Had he been watching Chaz as the youth thought of Rika? More than likely. It was no secret that the android had almost a paternal fondness for her, as Wren had been half responsible for her education and upbringing. He and Seed had had been both her parents and her teachers. Chaz stood up from his kneeling position and blushed a little, rubbing the back of his neck. Rika sighed deeply and rolled over as he moved. "Uh, how long have you been standing there?" He asked in a low quaver, remembering to keep his voice down so the others would not wake up.

Fortunately Wren was also mindful of his volume. Without the slightest change passing over his face he replied in a deep soft murmur; "Long enough."

"I’m sorry." Chaz said, not knowing what else to say. He wasn’t really sure how much Wren knew about the Palman nature of infatuation, but he had to at least know about a little bit, in order to be able to effectively interact with people. He guessed that if any man arrived to see his daughter-figure being fawned over by an adolescent teen that would be more than enough reason to fly into an angry rage. Back in Aiedo he had seen horrible domestic disputes waged over practically the same things. But all Wren was doing was looking at him, just staring. The silence in the room became uncomfortable. Chaz decided to try and change the subject. "Well, I’ll take over sentry now…" He whispered anxiously, stepping over Rika carefully and moving towards him.

He wasn’t going to be getting away that easily. Chaz leant over briefly to pick up his sheathed sword that was lying against his open bedroll, the laconia hilt glittering in the low light. When Chaz got to Wren he didn’t move aside to allow him to pass, he stood there firmly, like an unmovable obstacle. It didn’t feel right to Chaz to just sneak around him, and it looked like Wren had something significant to say. He expected a scolding. It was what Alys would have done. "I think we need to have a serious discussion, Chaz. It is most important that we do."

Wren stepped aside and held his arm out in the direction of the corridor’s end, where the sentry was meant to stand guard. He wouldn’t lose any sleep by staying awake a little while longer, indeed Wren had no need for sleep, so Chaz had no way to decline the forced invitation. What else could he do? The youth sighed, giving up. At least with Wren around he’d have somebody else to talk to. "Okay." He muttered and belted his scabbard against his hip, beginning to walk away.

He could hear the android walking close behind him, maybe a little too close for comfort. He was kind of afraid of what this discussion would be about, if it would be any worse than the time Alys had educated him on the birds and the bees. He had gone to bed that night goggle-eyed and wondering why the heck people would want to do things like that to each other. Now that he was much older he could figure out why. That was what had landed him in this mess in the first place, and he doubted Wren would be very understanding.

They sat down very close to the entrance of the Weapons Plant, resting their backs against the wall. A few minutes of awkward silence streamed by the both of them, tickling Chaz at the base of his neck until he could take it no more and he shot a sidelong look at Wren. He had his hands laced in his lap and his eyes were closed. It almost looked like he was meditating. He wasn’t going to talk until Chaz started up first and the hunter knew quite well who would last the longest. He opened his mouth. "I-" He began.

"You and Rika have gone through much together, haven’t you?" Wren said quietly, effectively cutting Chaz off at the same time. "I believe that you are both very good friends. That is how I choose to perceive it. But I wonder about your strange activity lately Chaz, my friend. I have noted it on several occasions. Is there something wrong with you? Are you ill? Is Rika ill, and that is why you fret over her? Not knowing worries me very much."

Whatever excuse Chaz was going to make to the android faded from his tongue. Wren wasn't mad, he was worried, afraid that there was something seriously wrong with Rika or Chaz himself. To a machine lovesickness and real physical sickness mustn't seem too different from one another. Chaz was tempted to admit that he really was sick and he'd be able to explain away his odd behavior in that manner, but when it came down to things he would have felt bad about lying to Wren. He had already experienced a weight falling from his conscience knowing that Wren wasn't angry with him. He felt more at ease now.

"You don't have to be so worried. Rika and I aren't sick. There's nothing wrong with her, and as for me, well, I know the problem is all up in my head. It's nothing, really." Chaz reassured his friend, relieved. The three hours of guard duty didn't seem so horrible anymore. He would be blissfully asleep by midnight and tomorrow there'd be a brand new day to look forward to.

"Psychological illnesses can sometimes be the most deadly." Wren informed the hunter calmly, refusing to drop the subject. "Chaz, you have been the backbone of this party since the very beginning, before Kyra, Rune, Rika or myself became a part of it. I could imagine that you have seen some truly terrible events since then. Just remember that as the backbone of this group you have but one responsibility; to stand strong despite all adversity. If you fall from some variety of psychological illness then we shall all fall as well. It would be a… an unfortunate way to fail."

Now he was jumping to the conclusion that Chaz was suffering from shell shock. Did he have a list of battle-related illnesses in his mind and was he going through them one by one? The youth wouldn't have been surprised. He doubted that the correct one would be on Wren's list, though. "No, that's not it." Chaz argued, shaking his head negatively. Of course he feared some battles, particularly the more difficult ones, but that was only natural. Everybody got afraid at times, even if they didn't let on about it. His thoughts traveled to Rune and Alys, wondering what they had feared. Chaz would never know.

"Then I am afraid I am out of guesses. I am not an expert on Palman behavioral patterns, but I am familiar enough to know that something is very wrong with you. Wouldn't it be simpler if you told me what your illness is rather than letting me guess about it? I am aware that it does pass the time quite well, but it is, as you Palmans call it, quite annoying."

What harm would it do to tell Wren the truth? He knew there was nobody else in his party that he would dare talk to. Speaking to Rika was absolutely out of the question, obviously, while Kyra would probably laugh at him and offer him some joking sisterly advice. He had only known Kyra for a few weeks at the most and it irked him how she already seemed to assume everything about him, as if Chaz's nature had been set in stone. Rune would be worse. Chaz didn't want to even think about what the arrogant esper would have to say regarding Chaz's lack of a love life.

In the end it seemed like Wren was really the only one that Chaz could talk to regarding his problems. Wren only appeared to feel the most basic emotions and his personality was defined by a simple lack of one, so Wren would not judge him, would not laugh at him, would not belittle him, either. It would be like talking to a wall, but a wall that just might answer back. If Wren did answer him it would be to offer him help, because he was built that way. Wren had been designed and programmed to assist.

"I have lovesickness, Wren. That's what my problem is. After all the fighting and wandering about and starving when the food is low, and freezing or sweating to death when we're too far away to sleep in an inn bed, it's lovesickness that's really gotten to me. In the beginning I thought it was transference of the good feelings I got off Alys when she was always there for me, but after awhile I realised that I was wrong. I wasn't noticing Rika just because I was trying to replace the strong female role model in my life, it was because I was honest to goodness attracted to her. I think I really like her, but I just don't know where to go from here that'll be safe for my… my feelings. How do I know she won't make fun of me for it?"

As Chaz spoke it felt like he was steadily emptying a deep heavy pocket inside himself, pouring away all the cumbersome burden. He was looking hopefully at Wren for answers, yet the android was only staring at the wall on the other side of the corridor, giving Chaz the impression that he wasn't listening, yet he was, all too deeply. The hunter knew that he needed to stop in order to get an answer but he couldn't right now, not until he had gotten everything off his chest.

"I'd love it if Rika liked me back, but there's also an equal - no, a greater chance that she'll think I'm just being a stupid kid, or that I'm pulling a practical joke on her, or worse. I guess you don't know how it would feel to admit your deepest feelings and not be taken seriously, but I think I know how it would feel. I don't want to have to experience it, I'd avoid it in any way that I could."

Wren waited patiently until Chaz had stopped talking, then gave him one extra minute just in case something else came to mind. There was no point in talking if he was going to be constantly interrupted. Satisfied at the silence he very soothingly gave Chaz the reply that he sought. He didn't break his gaze away from the wall. "This lovesickness that you experience is a voluntary ailment. You can remove it at any time that you please, you simply choose not to. It is not the emotions that you feel for Rika that are hurting you, rather it is the indecision and the vague notion that you may be missing out on a great happiness. Am I correct?"

The directness in Wren's words was shocking. In all honesty Chaz had expected him not to be able to answer. That was the only reason he had admitted the truth in the first place. "It's…" he spluttered, "it's a lot more than that! I can't live like this, not knowing what I should do, but I know that I can't talk to her! I just can't! The risk of ruining everything would be too great. I might create a rift that'd tear this party apart. The most important thing that we have is each other. That's why I keep on putting up with Rune. We need him, and we need Rika too. Everybody here is invaluable."

"Perhaps I do not understand Palmans as well as others do, but I do not think I would be speaking false if I were to say that I am the individual here best inclined to unbiased reason." Wren did not smile at this, but Chaz got the feeling that if Wren gave his smiles away more freely he would have been treated to one right then. "You can either continue to torture yourself and become overrun by this lovesickness that you talk of, or you can speak to Rika just as you have spoken to me. How do you feel at the moment, now that we have had this discussion?"

He was a good debater, Chaz had to give him that. The youth sighed, deflating and looking at the patch of floor between his crossed legs. "I feel better." He admitted in a breathy tone, deciding to let Wren run the conversation from now on. "Much, much better than I felt before."

"Yet I am only a placebo to your illness. Speaking with Rika is the cure, she will either cure you or kill you. I believe that you judge her too harshly. I have known her all her life. She is a good girl." Wren paused there, thinking, perhaps wondering if there was any more that he should say. The android raised one metal hand slowly, looking at it to reaffirm the fact that he was so fundamentally different to his friend. "…I do not really know what love is. It is my belief that I am meant to never know. I think this allows me to analyze your problem the most effectively. I hope I was able to help you."

A seemingly eternal life-span without any hope for love or closeness. Chaz couldn't even begin to imagine what that would feel like, that kind of empathy was as closed off to him as the notion of lovesickness was closed off to Wren. It must be incredibly lonely. "Yeah, you helped a lot. I still don't really know what I should do about Rika and I, but having everything that I'm going through repeated back to me kind of, I dunno, puts everything back into perspective. At the very least I feel better that I've talked to somebody, so I don't have to go crazy worrying about this while nobody else knows. You're not going to tell anybody, right? Especially Rika?"

"The thought had never crossed my mind."

Chaz relaxed. "Thanks. You know, I thought you had followed me here because you were going to give me a lecture or yell at me or something. I thought you’d be mad at me because Rika was your student and you helped Seed to raise her. I thought you'd be like an angry father." Now that Chaz considered it this way he realised that his earlier assumption had been a silly one. He couldn't imagine Wren being physically angry with anyone, even in the most heated and complicated of battles he was perfectly collected.

"Rika's life belongs to herself now, not to the memory of Seed or I. She can live it in any way that she chooses and I have no say in the matter. If you really do love her, all I can be is pleased for you. When all our journeys have come to an end it would not be fitting for her to wind up all alone. Besides, Chaz…" Wren had been looking towards the sleeping bundle that contained the pink-haired Numan, but then he turned back to the young hunter and actually smiled. It wasn't a big smile, but it was something. "I do not get mad. I get even."

In the few short seconds before Chaz got the subtle joke he half expected Wren to add; 'And if you ever hurt her just the slightest bit, I will rip the flesh from your bones.' He blinked once, feeling a sick shiver run through his body, but then he finally made the mental connection and suddenly grinned. Of course. "Raja's been teaching you proverbs again, hasn't he? God, don't tell me we're going to end up with two jokers in the party! He hasn't been teaching you any bad words too, has he?"

The android considered. "No, he has merely been informing me of local colloquialisms. I find them most interesting. I hope we can expel the source of the Black Energy Wave soon, because it would be a shame for him to die. I still have much to learn and Raja has told me to be more open about new things. Maybe that's why I want to help you now, despite this all being relatively foreign to me."

"Alright then. So, if you were in my position what would you do in my place?" The hunter asked, genuinely curious.

This was a thoroughly difficult question for Wren to answer. He wasn't equipped with that kind of insight to imagine himself in the place of a Palman. It was beyond him, but he tried anyway. The android did have a program that substituted for imagination, but it would only be a pale reflection of a living being's mind. Wren answered carefully and with deliberation, as if his mind was lagged down with the effort.

"I would tell Rika how I felt. Even if she took the information badly there would always be the chance for a reconciliation. Any sort of progress is better than no progress at all. Even if it hurt, organic creatures always have the opportunity to heal. If she took the information positively I would be happy and my lovesickness would be gone. I would give her a kiss and all would be well. That is what I would do if I were Chaz Ashley."

He was imagining the events but not the emotions behind it. Wren would have been incapable of that and Chaz still saw the entire idea as far too daunting. The hunter clasped his hands about his ankles and shook his head again. "I can't do it. I really can't." He knew that he sounded like a broken record but he couldn't help himself. "I've never had to do stuff like that before, I just know I'll get tongue-tied and mess it all up. I've never even kissed anybody before. I don't know how it's done. I should know by now but I don't." The life of a hunter didn't leave much chance for romantic opportunity. Although Chaz was sixteen he still felt like a little kid.

Wren was silent beside him. Chaz could feel his cheeks burning hotly beneath his skin and his hands were squeezing his ankles firmly, venting his embarrassment through the pressure. Was that all that was keeping him back? What a dumb explanation. What bugged him the most was that it was the truth. "Stupid, huh?" Chaz sighed, ashamed of himself.

The other person spoke. "No. It is not stupid."

Something extremely cold lightly touched the side of Chaz’s neck. The boy jumped a little at the unexpected sensation and turned towards it on reflex, yet he was unaware that he was being guided by that same coldness. It was Wren’s cool metal hand, gently cupping the side of his neck and the curve of his jaw. It was like being splashed by ice water, he tilted Chaz’s head towards his own and touched him with his other hand, holding the boy perfectly captive. Chaz was greatly confused, the android had never done anything like this before. He was staring at him again, like he was a complex problem that he urgently needed to solve. "Wren?" The words tried to stick in his throat. "What are you-"

Chaz couldn’t talk anymore as the dark-haired machine leant over, sealing the distance between themselves, and pressed his lips against his. Wren had closed his eyes in the middle of the motion but Chaz’s eyes were as wide as saucers, unable to pull or even look away. Wren was too strong for him. His body was as tense as a drawn bow string, his arms came up to grapple with Wren’s much larger ones but they were unmoving and devilishly cold, unpleasant to touch. The feel of the cold against his fingertips forced Chaz to become aware of something else as well, something even more amazing and terrifying.

Although his hands and arms were astoundingly cold, Wren’s lips were warm and soft, just like a living being. Faint breath from his nose gently tickled Chaz's face. How about that, Wren could respire when he wanted to. There was a definite warmth there, one that Chaz could feel seeping into him from the kiss. There was no other explanation. He actually felt alive.

Slowly the android pulled away and lowered his arms from Chaz’s body, as soon as he did that Chaz felt like running away, wanted to run away, but his stupid unresponsive body remained glued to the floor, as frozen as a wax figure. Wren placed his hands back into his lap and resumed his previous position, except that this time he had the tiniest trace of a smile just at the corner of his mouth. What had just happened? Wren had kissed him. Wren. The android.

He blinked frantically for a few moments, in the chances that this was all some kind of crazy dream. He had probably just fallen asleep at his post, that was all. He didn’t want to think that his very first kiss had been stolen by an android, by an unfeeling machine. It made him feel violated and his lips were tingling after such a contact. He wanted to shout but was afraid that he would wake everybody up. "You… kissed me…" Chaz breathed, pressing a hand to his mouth, his eyes still wide.

"Isn’t that what you wanted?" Wren said coolly, speaking as if the task was so common that Chaz requested it to be done every day. He didn’t really know what Chaz was so surprised about. In Palman culture kissing was common, that was what his database said. "You wanted to know how it was done, and I have shown you. Aren’t you satisfied with that?"

"Well, yeah, I wanted to know that… but not in that way! What the heck, Wren? Guys aren’t supposed to kiss other guys, you should know that!" Chaz reasoned deliriously, his head spinning while he heard himself raise his voice a little too loudly. He couldn’t help it, just as he couldn’t help his deepening blush and the way that he was shaking. He couldn’t wrap his mind around what had just happened.

"If you wish to get technical I have no discernable gender to speak of. My structural design was modeled after a Palman male and my thought processes adjusted accordingly, but in the end I am just a simple android. The correct reference to my presence is ‘it’, though I have grown accustomed to being called a ‘he’. I am sorry, Chaz. I did not mean to alarm you." He had sounded like a real automaton as he had recited away those useless facts, but when it came to his apology Wren sounded sincere. When he glanced at Chaz the youth could see the honesty briefly in his usually blank eyes.

Now Chaz felt sort of guilty for yelling at him. Wren was right, he was only an android and probably didn’t know any better. Besides, it had been a good kiss, even if it had been a little frightening. He didn’t have anything else to compare it to but it had still felt good. "It’s alright. But if you wanted me to know how it was done, why didn‘t you just explain it to me in words, rather than… uh, showing me?" He muttered into his chest, refusing to look up at his companion. Now things would be awkward between them for a very long time.

Wren considered Chaz’s question in a torturously slow amount of time. It felt like Wren was trying to tease him, trying to put ants in his pants or perhaps to further draw out this long uncomfortable moment. Forget the birds and the bees, this was the pits. The hunter had a small inkling that the android didn’t quite know the answer himself. When Wren spoke, it was in a thoughtful and introspective tone. "I believe," he whispered, "that you were not the only one interested in the subject. I was curious, too. In the nine hundred and ninety eight years of my life span I have never kissed another before. I thought that it was high time that I did."

At last Chaz found feeling in his legs once more. They felt like they were made of limp noodles but he stood up anyway. Wren didn't follow him, he just looked up at the youth pleasantly. It was one of the rare occasions in which he actually felt tall. He wanted to get mad and yell at him until the strange feeling inside of him was gone, but whenever his anger tried to step forward and charge it continued to get tangled up in his fear, dumbstruck and not quite knowing why it was there. Chaz was not in danger but he still felt afraid.

He muttered a pathetic excuse to Wren and fled from his sentry duty, saying something about narcolepsy and that his sword needed polishing. He didn't care how fake the excuse sounded or how obvious it would be to Wren that his apology had meant nothing to Chaz, all he wanted to do was to get away. He moved as quickly and as quietly as he could back to the campsite and dove into his sleeping bag without first removing his armor or his sword, something that he deeply regretted later. Wren didn't pursue him. He quietly and patiently took over Chaz's sentry duty without so much as a word.

Dropping off to sleep was hard with Kyra snoring nearby. Chaz lay there with one hand over his mouth as if it had been infected, unable to get to sleep and just listening to the unbroken silence. Why had Wren kissed him? Because he wanted to. If it had been any other reason Chaz could have accepted that, but want was not a necessity. Wren had done it because he felt like it, and Wren rarely did things that weren't dire or essential. Perhaps, for maybe just a moment Chaz had seen something behind Wren's blank exterior and it had scared him.

He knew it had gone past midnight when he heard Wren's footsteps enter the campsite. There was a pause, then some quiet murmuring made in his deep soft voice. Chaz heard the snores abruptly stop and then listened to Kyra groan, the esper pulling the sleeping bag back over her head, like a turtle retreating into her shell. More words, then Kyra muttered something lowly under her breath and stood up, stretching and yawning.

The hunter's consciousness faded away some moments after that, sleep tenderly taking away his mind and submerging it into a deep thick blackness, a night of no dreams.

Chaz slept, all his problems temporarily silenced.



Chapter 2: Air Castle

For a long time after that night Chaz avoided Wren for as long and as often as he could, silently assisting in combat whenever he was needed and offering only a minimal amount of communication, consisting of one word answers and noncommittal grunts. He was not avoiding Wren because he was angry or overly afraid of him, although there was a small part of Chaz that definitely did feel those emotions. It was simply because he wasn't certain how he could deal with the situation, just as he couldn't deal with his situation involving Rika.

After all, Wren had kissed him. He had kissed him like he was an unclaimed girl at a county fair, a kiss that had been sweet and innocent, but not hesitant. It was almost like he had been waiting for an opportunity to do that to him, but of course that was absolutely preposterous, wasn't it? Chaz thought it was, but he still couldn't rid the strange hot/cold sensation that he had felt that night completely out of his head. The only thoughts that pushed that memory away were thoughts of Rika and what she meant to him, but that was an entirely different snake's nest altogether. The confusion about Wren would always subside, but then the ache of lovesickness would sink into his mind all over again. It was like he had to choose between two different pains before the both of them drove him mad.

Worried confusion to him always seemed better than the aches of unrequited love. At least it took his mind off the numan girl and allowed him to function again at a semi-normal state, except for his coldness towards Wren that the others easily noticed and a new nervous habit that he now bore, surfacing whenever he was brooding or in deep thought.

Rika observed it at times when he was on sentry duty or passing time in the ice digger, that he would sometimes reached his hand up to his mouth and brush his fingertips over his lips briefly, a motion that seemed to be entirely unconscious to him. He was obsessing over something, a thought that was bothering him deep inside. Rika was all ready to go over there and coax it out of him, with her claws if need be, but there was something about him that seemed to suggest that he wasn't thinking about her, not at all.

As for Wren, if he took any notice to Chaz's strange behavior and the cold shoulder that he was giving him, he chose not to show it. He fought in their party just as he always did, accepted Rune and Kyra's navigation as he drove them across Dezoris as he always did, and let Chaz have whatever space that he wanted. He had a large responsibility on his shoulders by being the team's pilot and vanguard, he couldn't let Chaz take any more of his attention than he currently held. Wren had tried to help the youth previously, personally, but all he seemed to have done was make matters worse. Even an individual as selectively emotional as Wren could see that as plain as day.

It had been the first selfish thought he had had in his head for countless years and the first thing he had done with it was to further mess up the psyche of an innocent boy, their unofficial leader. Should he not feel shame for that? He did, cold shame, invisible shame. Unlike Chaz, he was the master of deception and nobody at all noticed his feeling of regret. He was almost good enough to fool himself. So while Rika and the others worried about Chaz, Wren worried about himself and the wedge that he might or might not have driven straight into the heart of his party, of his leader. Garuberk stood in the heartland of Dezoris like a gnarled throbbing finger, slightly curled and pointing cruelly towards the sky. It was surrounded by a forest of flesh-and-blood trees that fed on meat and bone, thrashing and howling across the snowfields for sustenance. They had pulled Kyra, the esper girl from its branches before she could be consumed and later on learnt from the fifth incarnation of Lutz that a holy torch was needed to burn away at the blighted forest so that they could reach the tower. The revelation of the Lutz had been a shock to all, especially Chaz and Kyra, but since then the hunter had found other things to occupy his time.

Recently the holy torch that they required had been stolen out from under their noses, by creatures that had recognised Rune personally for the magician that he had been two thousand years ago. Their destination now lay in deep space where their base was, a castle that had been salvaged from an ancient time and place. The Air Castle. That was where they were to have their next great battle. Even Rune, who knew the place well seemed to be a little unsure. Nervousness was infectious and they were all afraid up to a certain degree.

The Landale docked skillfully on the lone asteroid, the largest one on Algo's belt of Palma. There was a cleared section of empty space that was almost like a runway, as if the malevolent creatures lurking upon the asteroid were trying to make their coming as comfortable as possible. This was further illustrated when they disembarked from their spaceship, sending Wren out first as a lone scout. The android would not be killed by a lack of atmosphere and was heavy enough to withstand low gravity and not float away. It was actually the ideal job for him. Wren stepped out of the airlock and walked down the extended ramp towards the ground. He looked about cautiously, his gun raised in the chances of a sudden ambush, then jumped slightly to test the asteroid's gravity field.

Satisfied, he climbed the ramp back to the hull of the ship and activated an intercom system that would broadcast his voice to his friends waiting anxiously inside the ship. He leant his gun carefully against the hull after placing the safety back on again, certain that the exterior of the asteroid was clear. It was the inside that they had to be worried about. "Gravity is normal and there is a breathable atmosphere." Wren said calmly into the speaker, then added; "this is clearly an artificial condition." But of course. There was no way that an asteroid could develop a perfectly oxygenated environment by itself.

The airlock opened a second time and their resident pink-haired numan was the first one to brave the atmosphere of the new world, leaping out of the ship and over the ramp like she expected invisible hands to catch her in midair and gently set her down on the ground. Even though those hands didn't come for her she still landed with an incredible amount of grace, unmatched by any gymnast. Kyra came second, a hand over her mouth and nose, this being her first time in space and she expected the exploded remains of Palma to smell like sulfur and brimstone. She chanced a quick breath, closing her eyes, then sighed in relief when everything turned out to be normal.

Rune came third with a set look and a bitter gleam in his eyes, hardly believing that he was back here again, and after so long. Everything looked so different now, so haunted. What kind of ghosts would they encounter in there? He had a feeling that he already knew. Rune clicked the end of his silver stave against the surface of the metal ramp and followed the path that Rika and Kyra had taken, down to the true atmosphere of the planet.

Chaz was their leader and so he dutifully exited the Landale last, his sword at his hip and his clouded spirit temporarily clear. Whatever problems he had he needed to set aside for just a little while, or else he would risk putting his friends and comrades in danger. Still, he stole a quick sideways glance at Wren who was standing beside the open airlock, waiting to close it once everybody else had exited the ship. He looked completely unconcerned, untroubled, as if the thought that he and his friends might die today had never once entered his mind. It must be bliss, Chaz thought, never having to care about anything at all.

"I guess they must be expecting us, huh." He said lowly as he passed Wren by, joining up with the others. There was no telling how long they would be trapped on this asteroid, it could be any length of time between mere hours and days. They had provisions on the ship to last them for about a week, but that was considering that they had the ability to come back to the ship at all. Chaz could see three uncertain faces waiting for him at the end of the ramp. No matter what, they had to get that torch back as soon as possible. The airlock of the ship closed and the small party of adventurers left their vehicle, moving towards the large fortification ahead.

The Air Castle. It was constructed of aging yellow stone hung badly bleached against the inky backdrop of space, its large arched doors held slightly ajar, just enough for Chaz and his company to squeeze on through. It was fortunate that the doors were already open, because it would have taken a team of giants to budge them by any normal means. Inside the castle the room was highlighted with stones that were a light to dark purple in colour, bearing the hue, if not the texture of amethyst, or a violet rose quartz. Deep holes in the floor were square-cut and inside bubbled the hot earthy smell of molten lava, remnants of when Palma had been destroyed.

To slip and fall into one of those deep red pools would be instant death. The entrance chamber was as huge as a cathedral and Kyra stared at the pits warily, keeping closely to the strip of floor that ran solidly between the lack of pews. Chaz was walking beside Rune with his hand on the hilt of his sword, and although he was walking with the male esper his eyes were on Rika, who was bold enough to take the point position of their party. The girl seemed to be in good spirits despite the dangerous environment they were in. "I was hoping that this place was going to have low gravity." She admitted cheerily to everyone. "I always wanted to know what it would be like to be utterly weightless."

Wren sped up from his spot at the rear and walked at Rika's side. He smiled at her fondly, and Chaz realised with an odd feeling in his gut that the only person that Wren would ever truly smile for was Rika. Nobody else. "The Landale has a gravity control meter for the ship's inner field. When we vacate from this place I would be more than happy to activate it for you. That is, if extenuating circumstances do not force me to focus entirely on piloting." Chaz envied the way that the android could talk so easily to her. If only he could do the same.

She was about to gratefully nod to him her appreciation when something important caught the corner of her eye and she turned, whirling back towards the path with her body tense. Wren read her movements within a second and raised his gun as fast as he could, the safety coming off with a quiet little click. Chaz, Rune and Kyra didn't know or couldn't yet see what had startled her but they had functioned as a team long enough to trust her. A sword was unsheathed, a staff raised high and a pair of laconia slashers glinted in the light of Algo, streaming through the shadowy windows of the Air Castle.

"What is it?" Chaz breathed, holding his long sword carefully out in front of his body in the same way that Alys had taught him, years ago. "What can you see? Ri-" Before he even had a chance to finish her name the numan suddenly wasn't there anymore, she had run off like a shot, sprinting down the path all the way to the other side of the hallway. Smoke from the pits of lava slightly screened her retreating figure from them and the rising heat created ripples in the air, causing the world to shimmer.

"Hey!" Rune cried, thoughtlessly extending a hand out to her. He of all people knew how dangerous this place really was. If Rika got too far away from them they might not be able to protect her. The magician turned at the heel to the others and blazed at them, his fine voice loud and commanding. "Follow her! Now!" The others really couldn't do anything else but obey, running after Rune who was leading the charge, his pale blue cloak surging out behind him.

Chaz felt Kyra roughly grab his wrist and yank him forwards as she began to run, dragging him along as if he was unable to do so by himself. That annoyed him slightly, but that annoyance was offset by the fact that if she hadn't grabbed him Chaz would have still been standing there, staring like a blithering idiot. Wren was already long gone to them, only two paces behind and to the side of Rune. If they were running into danger Rika was probably going to get them all killed.

It was not a battle, although when the four of them finally noticed what the numan had seen they were more than prepared for combat. They found Rika standing before the three strange creatures that had stolen the eclipse torch, leaning forward a little inquisitively, a battle the last thing on her mind. She heard the others come to a stop behind her and didn't turn around, unable to take her eyes off what she was seeing. "These things, I ran straight up and took a slash at them but they didn't even flinch. My claws went straight through them as if they were made of air. Is this an illusion?"

Rika must have had the eyes of a hawk to be able to spot those monsters from so far away. Chaz pulled his sword arm out of Kyra's grip and moved closer for a better look, his own eyes catching the way that the monsters were flickering and resonating at a barely noticeable level. Tentatively Chaz reached his hand out in preparation to touch the illusion, half expecting somebody to speak up and stop him, to grab and pull his hand away just like a parent guides their child's hands away from a hot stove. Nobody stopped him, did not even bother to try and Chaz felt a fragment of aggravation for them, like they didn't care enough for him to stop him from possibly hurting himself.

His hand went straight through the projected image of the creatures with no resistance at all for about three or four inches, then Chaz was stopped immediately by what felt like an invisible glass wall. It was as thick as it was tall, encompassing the entire illusion, blocking their way to the big arched door that stood behind them. Chaz withdrew his hand and looked at it, noting that he had felt a strange tingling sensation when it was in the middle of the projection. It had felt like magic. "It's a barrier." He informed his team. "We can't get through this way, not until we find the real versions of these guys," he gestured to the apparitions, "and beat them."

"No, wait." Rika piped up, turning to face Chaz and then Rune who was now holding his staff in both hands. It looked like he already knew what she was going to ask him. "We've gotten through magic barriers before. Rune? Do you think that the Psycho Wand would work here and now?"

Rune stepped up to the barrier and Rika and Chaz obligingly moved away from him, giving the male esper plenty of room to consider and think. Wren and Kyra were as silent as statues in the background. They all watched as Rune raised his silver staff skyward and made an odd motion with his right hand, a practiced technique that he had learnt hundreds of years ago.

The physical outline of his stave fogged out and shifted before their eyes, before anybody else knew it Rune was holding the Psycho Wand in his hands, mysteriously conjured from the equipment room back on the Landale. There was no doubt that his silver staff had taken the Psycho Wand's place in its storage. Kyra made a small sigh of begrudging admiration, she had only seen a few espers do that in her life and it still looked so cool to her.

He thrust the wand into the illusion and twisted it slightly, like he was turning a key in a very large lock. Perhaps he expected to hear the click of an invisible mechanism opening itself up, but all he heard was nothing, the dull hum of the illusion that was only audible to espers and the magically inclined. It was a failed attempt. Rune pulled the wand away and shook his head in negativity. "It's no use. Whoever it was that put up this barrier has a stronger magical force than this wand. We'll have to find another way around it." And it wasn't the creatures that had placed this barrier, he knew that well. It would probably fall when they were dead, just as Chaz had said, but the illusion field was none other than Lassic's power.

Kyra was understandably nervous. Something that could stop the Lutz in his tracks was a force to be reckoned with. They would all be going up against that force very soon. She looked towards the side of the hallway and upwards a little bit, noticing that there were two levels of balconies hanging just above their heads. But below that and not too far away to the right was another door, and this one wasn't being guarded by anything at all.

It was the only path left for them to take. It was fairly straightforward too, a long winding corridor with a few branches leading off to empty or long vacated chambers. Rune was leading them now, as he had a very rudimentary memory of the Air Castle and the way that it was built. But a memory was only a memory, not as good as a map, and a two thousand year old memory was at best blurred and distorted. Rune had some very clear pictures of his past and the people and events that had taken place back then, but minute technical details like the layout of the of the Air Castle escaped him. If the corridor thickened out into a maze he would be just as clueless as the rest of them.

"This place has changed a lot since I was last here." He admitted as they walked, making conversation. He anticipated Chaz opening his mouth behind him and continued before he could get a sarcastic comment in edgeways. "This castle wasn't destroyed during the Great Collapse because it wasn't attached to Palma or its gravity. It floated in the air atop a great hill."

This interested Rika, who always loved hearing about new things. "So if it was in the air how did you manage to get inside it?" She asked. "You couldn't have used a spaceship because it was already in Palma's atmosphere, right? What did you use? Was it some kind of light aircraft?"

The distant memory caused Rune to smile wistfully. As they went around a bend in the corridor he sighed, not out of any sad or ill-feeling, but because remembering that far back reminded him of just how old he really was, in his head, if not in his heart. "You wouldn't believe me even if I told you. All of you, not in a thousand years." Rika frowned cutely at not being given a proper answer, Chaz noticed this with a moderate degree of ache in his chest, but Rune just laughed softly and urged them on. Maybe he'd tell them the full story someday, but now was not the time, not when a monster could attack at any given moment.

They continued on their path for another half hour, then Rune's greatest fear haphazardly decided to come true. The party of five, two espers, one android, a numan and a palman walked out of the purple-shaded hallways of the castle and into a large courtyard, blinking at the great increase in light from Algo's sun. When Chaz's eyes came back into focus and the glare was gone he began to see what Rune was already looking at in dismay.

There were many doorways leading out of the open courtyard including the one that they had just emerged from. All the hope that this would be a quick and easy mission fell from his chest straight into his boots. They were clustered on one side of the courtyard, but Rune left the group and took about ten steps forward, glanced about in silent discouragement, then said a particularly foul curse word under his breath. He collected himself then walked back to the others, about to utilize his contingency plan.

"This place has been built to confuse us, to confuse me most of all, I think. I know there's a small room with an arcane symbol drawn on the floor somewhere around here, that would be the best thing to use as a reference point. There are so many different paths to choose from that it'd take forever to search through them one at a time. We ought to pair off and look for that room in teams of two, then at least we can get through this place three times faster than normal. What do you say?"

Rune had asked for their opinions but wasn't prepared to listen to them right now, he was too dead set in his ideas and his ways. The esper reached into a pocket of his green tunic and sorted out a handful of something with his back turned to his party, then whirled around with something very familiar bunched up in his gloved right hand. Chaz recognised them instantly. It was the long coloured matchsticks that they used to draw up their nightly sentry duties when the roster needed reorganizing. Chaz knew where this was going to go and he didn't like the sound of it at all. "Let's draw lots." Rune said, confirming his intent. "I'll go by myself because I think I know where the room already is, but you four each take a partner and a door for yourselves."

"This is most unusual." Wren replied softly, sounding to Chaz that he didn't like the idea any more than the young hunter did. His reasoning would be more logical though, not for some stupid reason like infatuation. Wren was above that. Still, despite that Chaz at least was hoping to be paired with Kyra so that he could avoid both Rika and Wren. The chances were against him but he could still hope.

Rika smiled and reached forward first, intent on drawing the first lot. She wasn't really afraid anymore. They had come this far and there had been no trouble at all. No matter who she was paired with Rika was sure that she'd be able to protect them. "If you get into a situation and need any help, just scream and I'll come running." Slowly she drew from Rune's fist a long matchstick, painted dark red at the tip. Whoever drew a stick of a similar colour would unquestionably be paired up with her.

Chaz knew that he definitely didn't want to be the last one left to pick. He mustered up his courage, looked Rika straight in the eye and grinned. His mouth had suddenly gone as dry as sandpaper but he persevered anyway. "I'm not going to scream, even if something with a hundred fangs and two dozen tentacles is crawling up my leg. I still have my pride." He drew his lot in a quick, fluid movement, the same way as if he were drawing his sword. He wanted to get this part over with before he lost his nerve. Chaz looked at the stick pinched between two of his fingers and let the held-in breath balled up in his lungs escape between his teeth. The match he had drawn had a blue tip. Thank the gods for that.

Kyra put her hands on her hips and bent over to get a good look at the matches in Rune's hand. The esper girl always liked to be lucky last, but her luck always seemed to come through for her in the most dangerous of moments. She had a good feeling about this time. Squinting as though she had x-ray vision, she drew a match and peeped at it in private before showing the others. When she did she had a big smile on her face. The match was red-tipped. "Looks like the ladies go one way and the men go the other way. I hope you boys have some fun."

Rune picked the last blue-tipped match from his hand and crammed it back into his pocket, saving Wren from having to draw the obvious for himself. The android didn't even seem to be very interested, he was staring at a cluster of stars quite visible in the spacious sky. Rune held out his hand again and the other three gave their matches back to him, Chaz included. The hunter hadn't asked for this, but company with Wren was a little better company than with Rika. He didn't have a possible relationship that he could muck up there. As long as the android kept his mouth shut and Chaz did the same, everything would be okay.

The two girls smiled at one another in an incredibly mischievous way, like they were children in the midst of a slumber party. Rika bowed to Kyra and then held a looped arm out for the esper to take, of which Kyra did happily. There was a door to the left of them that didn't seem like much trouble. They would go through there and just hope for the best. "Shall we go, my lady?" Rika asked in an overly deep voice until it broke into a series of short giggles.

Curtseying as well as she could with only one free arm and doing quite a good job of it with her long white cape, Kyra started to giggle herself. "Aye, lets go madam." They wandered away, arm in arm, as happy as could be. Rune rolled his eyes and said something quietly that Chaz could barely hear, something about living to a million and still never being able to understand women. Before both girls were out of sight Kyra looked back and called out to the others; "Take good care of my little brother, okay Wren? I'm counting on you!"

Wren didn't seem to be listening to her but Kyra was satisfied anyway, she and Rika re-entering the Air Castle and disappearing from sight. Upon overhearing the order that Wren 'take care of him', Chaz couldn't help but blush slightly and be forced to remember that night several days ago, when the android had gently helped him with his problems and then had kissed him. Unconsciously Chaz brushed his lips with his fingertips and looked away, towards his new and yet old travelling companion. The compassionate side of Wren wasn't there anymore, if it had ever been there in the first place. The way that he had freaked out over that kiss had definitely frightened it away into the dark.

The reverent Fifth caught and noticed Chaz's strange gesture but chose not to say anything about it, though he already had a pretty good idea on what it meant. He was very close in his assumption, and yet so very, very far off. Rune patted Chaz on the head casually to remind the boy of how pitifully short he was, then he turned away to start walking on his own path. He had a small inkling that the room he was seeking was north, up ahead. He smiled, flashing his teeth. "Remember to scream." He said, then left the two all alone.