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And once again we have broken the word limit. Enjoy. XD


Title: Going off the Record
Part: 10/?
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Pairing: Sol/Ky
Rating: R
Contains: Alternate Timeline beginning around GGX, boom and stabbity. Now with some actual Sol/Ky. Approaching the point where we may cross the streams.

I | II | III | IV | V | Interlude I | VI | Interlude II | VII | Interlude III | VIII (First Half, Second Half) | IX | X (First Half, Second Half)



Going off the Record
Chapter X, Beginning




News of the incident was scarce to come by. Even those who had been at FIRC, who had the cuts and bruises to prove to themselves that what they had seen was real, knew little beyond what was needed to inspire the worst of rumors, snippets of half-truths that spread like wildfire among the unaware populace. The festival had all but shut down in the interim, stalls closing, visitors dwindling, a slow paralysis spreading throughout Paris the longer the confusion went. One story sounded more impossible than the next — there had been attack, there had been an accident, an assassination even, stories of Gears and fire-spewing demons blending with rumors of Zepp; Zepp was here, Zepp had done something, Zepp was the assailant, and in the middle of the chaos, the semi-official channels chimed in.

Half the bellmen in the city had reported Ky dead or dying, despite frantic police efforts to curb the worst assumptions, to tear down the leaflets that had somehow found their way on the town boards, telling seven different versions of the horrible story in pictures. The corner of Ky's mind that sounded suspiciously like Sol at all times had picked the illustration of him in the jaws of a coal-black serpent as his favorite, piercing the monster's skull with his sword. It was the embellishments that did it, he decided, a cloud of ethereally glowing feathers scattering all over from a pair of radiant, if broken-angled swan wings.

The rest of him had taken to ignoring the undue sense of dark humor, more concerned with the fuel some parties kept adding to the fire. The Church had gone ahead and decided to decree a worldwide mourning day, and he was relatively content to know it would take a few weeks for this tidbit to penetrate to all corners of Europe, enough time for his own messengers to beat them to the punch.

Less easily handled than the town criers and the overeager church couriers, though, was the group of terrified beggar children whom the officers had rounded up off the streets, some barely old enough to know who he was from anything other than fairytales, white with terror and in tears at the thought of going to hell for telling lies. It had taken Ky the better part of an hour to convince them that he wasn't descended from heaven to punish anyone, that they could touch him without fear of getting burned to a crisp, and bowls of milk-dipped brioche to get the full story out of them: how each had been paid one real, whole silver saint to tell others how the spirit of the Savior had come to them in a dream, to let them know of his dying wish.

It didn't take much to guess who the 'holy-looking men' from their descriptions were, and even less to imagine the message they had been meant to spread. There had been no room for anger then, as he waited for a sister from the nearby orphanage to arrive, sitting on the floor of his office and going through a rosary with the children, and no room for anger after that, full-well knowing that this was how propaganda worked, that these kids were simply the cheapest and easiest to manipulate.

He'd left it to Jarre to voice what he couldn't, in the space from one meeting to the next, until the harried Miss Eloise demanded he at least stop swearing during dictations, please and thank you. If Ky had thought the atmosphere strained before, when all they'd had to worry about were a bunch of prissy politicians who didn't like each other very much, it was certainly nothing compared to now, annoyance and inconvenience replaced by the same tension that would come before a battle — all working to be prepared, to gain an advantage, and none of them daring to think about what would happen if it weren't enough.

Ky did dare think about it because he had to, the best and the worst and the hundred possibilities in between forever side by side in his mind, because it was all too easy to envision the mourning bands that had begun to pop up along the window sills changing, transforming into the silver-stitched Order coat of arms. The only thing working for him now was all the misinformation, thousands of people wavering between hope and terrifying doubt, unable to believe that he should be alive, unable to believe that he should be dead.

"Sir?"

Ky turned from where he was standing close to the tent flap, listening to the buzz of voices and adjusting the small headset, ready to transmit to over a hundred IPF officers who would pass on his words. From his vantage point, he couldn't see the assembled masses, the tent placed right at the back of the stage, but he didn't really need to, the apprehension in the air like a physical thing, something he could have grabbed and weighed in his hand.

Jarre had ducked inside, his uniform the only fresh thing about him, looking at him with concern. "Are you all right, sir?"

"I should be the one asking that," Ky replied, motioning to the dark rings underneath his eyes. "You look like death warmed over."

"When this is done, maybe we can fall over together, sir," Jarre said brightly. "I just got word that they actually got Vaillant and the cardinal to come. I don't think they've got any idea who'll be speaking yet."

"This seems like a grave oversight on part of our communications department."

"Indeed, sir," Jarre said, his words offset by a tiny smirk. He leaned forward, glancing through the gap in the fabric. "Sure is a full house out there. I'd feel better if you'd give the go-ahead to fire up the generators."

"A shield means there's something to be afraid of, Major. It would only hurt our cause."

"I know, sir. I just don't like putting my miracles to the test." He cleared his throat. "Anyway, amplifiers should be ready to go, sir, and radio seems stable. Our people are standing by for your cue. The sun will fully hit the stage in about four minutes. I just came to let you know."

"Thank you." Turning away from the entrance, Ky began straightening his cuffs, the usual blue replaced by the gold-stitched white of the dress uniform. Just like everything else, the time of day and the placement in the shadow of the Arc, it was a deliberate choice, the color he preferred because of its plainness rendered symbolic by the occasion. Under different circumstances, the thought would have been unnerving. "To think, one day I'd join the pretend-play, myself."

"Well, sir," Jarre had moved aside, holding the flap open for him to pass, "since they're so eager to pronounce you dead..."

...It's only fair to resurrect me in style.

-------

A great silence descended once he stepped out on the stage.

It wasn't the kind of the silence he was used to from other speeches, born from the respectful restraint of the troops, or the eager expectation during a victory speech, but the silence born of thousands of voices faltering one after the other, until he could have dropped a pin and heard it fall. As far as he could see, not a single free space left — the entire Place de l'Etoile like a chalice filled to the brim, the people flowing out into the twelve avenues and from there into the side streets, standing packed on balconies, leaning out of the windows, even perched on the rooftops of nearby buildings.

Close to the stage were the ambassadors, flanked by a wall of officers, most of them already over the shock of meeting him again in person, several of their aides staring when they finally caught on. If Ky had had the mind to spare, he would have been scanning for the cardinal, but then his feet hit the edge of the stage, and all thoughts of vindictiveness fled with his next breath of air. This was it, the thing he'd hoped would never occur, the test to see if surviving the Crusades had changed anything, had made humanity any wiser. Closing his eyes briefly, he began.

"People of the free world... you have my thanks for assembling here today in such great numbers. I know that this must have been difficult; that the past few days have been a source of great unease to you. Much has happened, and yet, you have offered up your prayers as a source of strength to us, whose sworn duty is to protect you. Your kindness has touched me deeply, and I wish to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

"Undoubtedly, you have heard many things. Frightful things, worrisome things. You might have heard tales of destruction, tales of death and much bloodshed. You might have heard whispers that it was a ploy by Zepp, an attempt to shatter your spirit and your loyalty.

"I tell you it is not so. What has happened was not an act of malice, but an accident. I am here to tell you that I am unharmed, and that there is no need to be afraid, or angry. Yet I know that it is not easy to let go. Your hearts may have been swayed by talk of vengeance, by the voices that speak of Zepp as heretics, and say it is God's will that we put an end to their ways.

"I tell you God's will is in each and every one of us, and He has given us the power to take our lives into our own hands. What we decide to do, here and now, will change the future. I cannot tell you what to decide, but I can ask you to look around. Look at yourselves, and your families. The wife who is smiling at you, content to know that you will not have to leave her side. The husband who is only just beginning to learn how to wield anything other than a sword. The children at your feet, who may finally grow up without knowing pain and loss. I ask you to think of your homes, which you have built with your own hands, and what it is like to wake up, every day, knowing how hard you fought to earn everything you have."

He paused briefly, letting his eyes sweep over the sea of faces, men and women, young and old blurring together until it seemed like each face reflected everything, all ages and all stories.

"And now I ask you to imagine yourself casting it all away, one by one, for a sad and distant goal, a goal that will demand you bring suffering unto yourselves, and others like yourselves. I ask you to imagine taking up your swords and turning them upon your fellow man — someone you may not understand, someone who may be different from you, but not so different that he does not love, or weep, or bleed. Imagine taking from them their families, and their homes, and now ask yourselves... how such a cause can ever be right, or just, in the eyes of our Lord?"

A murmur ran through the audience, tremulous and uncertain, the first time any of them had been made to consider the talk of purification in such a light.

"I only know the path I must walk," Ky continued, this time more quietly, "and it is not this.

"I wish to walk a path of peace, a path on which we may meet our future and not falter, and be able to grasp happiness with both hands, without fear. What lies behind us is hardship and fighting. But what lies ahead of us is a world as brilliant and new as a young morning, unlike anything we have ever known. A world that extends beyond our small villages, rife with promise and wonder. I wish to take a path of learning, and discovery — the world is open to us, so that we may convene, and share our knowledge, and build a place where everyone may walk freely, a place untouched by strife and anguish.

"This is not something any one man can accomplish by himself. I cannot walk this path alone, for it is a path built on your courage, and your determination. Pray, do not squander this gift we have been given. Let us go forth, with a pure heart and a pure mind, and realize this new world, together!"

He always knew, even without looking, the moment of connection. The moment when uncertainty and indecision fell, like ships capsizing in a wave, a surge so strong he could feel it all over his body, and when he raised his fist towards the sky, it all burst forward, racing through the crowd in a thunderous cheer.

For just a few seconds, Ky allowed himself to slip, to take a small step away from his role and let himself be pulled along by the rousing applause, the sudden release of all that pent-up emotion a welcome cover for his own relief, the iron knot of tension in his chest uncoiling just a little. Slowly, he shifted his attention to the delegates, skimming over the enthusiastic clapping, a few smiles shared between the different entourages, Eisan giving a lopsided Order salute to ambassador Cylek, to pick out the faces of those he knew had every reason now to keep a close eye on the IPF.

Minister Vaillant was clapping along, his face a polite facade that betrayed nothing, but the cardinal was white as a sheet, his reactions as visible as his methods for anyone who bothered to look beyond his status. Neither of them more than a small part of a much more intricate puzzle, and that made it easier to know he couldn't bring them to justice — at the very least, they were two parts who had now shown their true colors, who could be watched and kept under some measure of control. As they would try to do to him.

A new round of cheers rose, and Ky dropped his gaze, turning back to the wider crowd to take in the pure joy on their faces, that simple, hopeful happiness. He could allow himself to experience this, for a little while, untainted by the certainty that he would need to do something, and soon.

-----

Four floors up was the boundary line. Anything above, and the activities on the ground became a blur, small, multicolored dots darting back and forth, converging, separating, and it was hard to think of them as people sometimes, with their faces so far away. Anything below, though, and she would have been a part of it, not a spectator but one with the crowd, would have been with those on the balconies or getting shoved around in the streets. Close enough to make out the individual faces, to read anxiety or joy or amazement in their features and wonder about the stories behind them, former soldiers celebrating the return of their undisputed leader, people who owed their lives and livelihood to him, or pilgrims coming face to face with the object of their worship. Four floors up was where it all started to lose focus, where the people began to blend into each other, raised arms and flags and voices becoming mere extensions of a single entity, rolling back and forth like the sea.

Lara had grown up observing people from on high, gazing out the windows of her tower-home whenever idleness allowed, and they had seemed to her like ants, scrambling and scurrying every which way. Crowds only gathered on open market days, when all the vendors in a street would take their goods outside and start shouting their offers, and then, she'd rarely had enough time to watch, busy in the storeroom and moving goods at her father's behest. Zepp's unity was one of hard work and diligence, the knowledge that the way to unlock the gates to the past was if each of them did their part, but beyond that, it was impersonal voices ringing from the pole-mounted speakers at every corner, metallic echoes proclaiming sacrifice and far-off glories. The pride the people took in their military was the same they took in a well-oiled machine, swapping parts and fixing damage, so that everything might be kept running smoothly.

This was different, an intensity that no single person should have been able to command, and four floors up, she was still close enough to feel the emotions rise to lap at her feet — not meant for her, thankfully not meant for her. She was starting to think that nobody who wasn't religious could understand, and nobody who hadn't grown up in this age, and perhaps not even that was enough. Perhaps the people in the streets understood as little as she did, but had been raised not to question, to simply turn all their love over to something forever beyond logic and comprehension.

At the center of the plaza, the flash of brightness moved, Ky Kiske climbing off the podium and straight into the cheering crowd, white cloak turned radiant by the midday sun. This far away, Lara could have been left to wonder whether it was even him and not just an elaborate ruse, an actor or double tasked with keeping the world together. Instead, she found herself clutching the hope that it wasn't, that the impossible had truly happened — and wasn't that how tales of saints and ghosts began, seeing something, and then seeing it again, all the while knowing that it shouldn't have been there at all?

"I didn't know you found rousing speeches this interesting."

The mocking lilt pulled her back into the here and now, away from where she had been leaning over the balustrade of the hotel balcony, seeking to catch a glimpse, to ascertain, waiting with bated breath for the call to arms that never came.

Or trying to see if you can ease your conscience somewhat. After all, these things are so interchangeable.

In the door frame, Meirth raised a porcelain cup in salutation, looking for all the world like a tourist who had wandered in by accident, entirely unconcerned with the events unfolding in the plaza below. If it was all for show, she had yet to see him trip up, to show some sign of his true intentions, but at the same time, the thought that he didn't care, that stirring the milk into his tea was truly the most important thing, wasn't something Lara was particularly keen on contemplating. She had spent most of her time avoiding him as much as she could, unwilling to have the inevitable confrontation while she was still reeling, unable to put on any airs and unable to pick out all the questions that had been pricking at the back of her mind like a swarm of furious insects. Now was no better, but he'd never been inclined to leave people any space to breathe.

"Was there something you wanted?"

She wasn't really working to keep the hostility out of her tone, but it did little to deter him.

"Just concerned for your health. I hear you haven't been eating well." Meirth motioned to the coffee table where her lunch sat, still mostly untouched, and she shoved away the hot rush of embarrassment at her own lack of foresight. Of course he would notice, and go out of his way to mention it. "Though I suppose I can't blame you for foregoing lunch when there is this much excitement going on."

Her eyes narrowed. "Excitement?"

"He certainly is a most fascinating man, wouldn't you say?" Meirth said, stepping outside to join her at the railing. "Holding the adoration of ten thousands in the palm of his hand, yet he steadfastly refuses to seize what could be his. You could build an empire on that kind of devotion, but here he stands, begging for support."

"What are you talking about."

"I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand it, but I must confess, the answer keeps eluding me. Every time I think I might predict... but no." He raised his cup for a sip, brow furrowing. "It's really a shame our instruments were destroyed. A most clever move, that. There is so much we would have been able to learn from the data."

"You... you really don't care, do you," Lara said softly, something in her tightening at the look she received in return, just a sideways glance as if she had made an off-hand comment on the weather that he hadn't quite caught. "We almost killed... and you... all you can think of is your precious data?"

"And what sense would there be in bemoaning something that isn't lost?"

"Something that isn't— are you blind?! They hate us! They've always hated us, and even if they didn't, they would, now!" In a corner of her mind, Lara realized that she was yelling, advancing on him with her fists clenched and failing, still failing to impress in any way. Losing her temper wouldn't accomplish anything, but such rationale was lost in the face of the vision that had come to haunt her dreams at night: Zepp, in flames and heeling, whole sections of the city caving in like they were made of cardboard, and then, that last moment before the floatation ring shattered, sending everything plummeting towards Earth. All thoughts of superiority gone, all the teachings of the might of Zepp — one little island against the world, a world suffused by a love so powerful that it would give everything, down to its last man, if the one it loved said fire.

"What I want to know, more than anything, is why! Why did any of this have to happen? What if— by the sky, what if they'd gotten free?"

Incredible, how every time she thought she'd imagined the most horrifying thing, another idea would readily leap up to dethrone it. The world's savior dead, the world's leaders dead, a city of innocent civilians dead... and what was to say this wasn't how it had been meant to go?

Lara inhaled sharply, hunching forward against the force of the thought.

What was to say that this wasn't how it had been meant to go, a fatal strike against a despised enemy? Who was she to keep accusing the ground dwellers in the face of their plea for peace, when it had been her who had built this doomsday machine, and people from her country who must have financed it, and decided to— she didn't even know who had decided to send them here. All this time she had thought it unnecessary to ask questions, a distraction at best, an endangerment of her opportunities at worst, ignoring one of the most fundamental rules of the trade.

Always know who you're working for, so they can't screw you over.

When had she become such a fool?

Or perhaps you always were, and just never stopped.

"If you are quite finished, Lara..." Meirth was still watching the proceedings at the plaza, where the crowd was beginning to part, the words murmured against the rim of his cup, "...I would appreciate it if you could go and pick up what rightfully belongs to us. I doubt we will be staying here for much longer, now that that's cleared up."

"Don't worry," she said, a little surprised at the steel in her own voice. "I was planning on going, regardless."

"Excellent. For your own safety, I suggest GC-578 accompany you."

To supervise me, you mean, Lara thought, but only said, "Fine."

She couldn't have refused even if she'd wanted to, but it didn't matter. The slave soldier might have been Meirth's personal bodyguard, but he couldn't report what he didn't know about. The robots had been designed to work as a group, to fall back on and support each other under heavy fire, but they shouldn't have been able to authorize protocols on their own. Even if one of them had managed to, the others shouldn't have been able to follow suit, and the more she thought about it, the less she liked how her fail-safe system might as well not have existed. All she needed was for one of the black boxes to have survived the explosion, and then she could start puzzling out what had gone wrong, what could have been made to go wrong.

Something small and hard was forming deep down inside her, a snarl of doubt and questions she had never considered before, or never dared to contemplate, questions about good and evil and who it was that benefited the most from any step taken. Another thing she had forgotten while pursuing her own dreams — Zepp might imagine, but Zepp never imagined without profit, and money was only its most obvious form. As long as she held onto that snarl, Lara felt she could be angry, forge that fury into a new armor instead of getting cut up by the splinters of the old one, the part of herself that was scared and ashamed and forever six years old.

In the door, she turned to look back.

"Do tell him to plan in for a detour. You might not feel like expressing your condolences, but I do."

---------

The IPF blacktech labs were a far cry from the kind the Order possessed, an entire complex built for evaluation and disposal of suspicious mechanisms. Ky had only been there a handful of times, had seen the shelves full of reports and catalogues, the long rows of tables with detection equipment spread out, the groups of mages and technicians probing at anything from trinkets the size of a thumbnail to a block of pipes and wires the size of several men, determined to discover whether they had been created with the knowledge of the heretics.

Even then, Ky had known it wasn't that simple, aware that he was standing on top of several floors' worth of vaults, and that for every artifact destroyed, there were a handful that vanished, quietly and unceremoniously, into that maze of storage that harbored the Order's greatest treasures. What he hadn't known was how close he had come on those visits to the very thing that would eventually be stolen under the cover of a firestorm, the sleeping counterpart to the sword that never once left his side.

Outwardly, the IPF branch looked almost identical, a smaller version tucked into the west wing of the Palais — the same rows of tables, the same filing system, and, for the most part, the same people, the Order's migrating staff snatching up whatever they could and bringing it along to their new job as a last 'up yours' to their old employer. Being interested in blacktech beyond the Holy Mission was a vice, and one that wasn't taken particularly lightly, though if faced with the choice of renouncing their wicked ways or accepting punishment, most of the enthusiasts would rather pack up and leave for Zepp than sit around and wait for the inquisition to come knocking. And if there was one thing Ky had never been keen on, it was wasting skills and useful resources for the sake of a questionable morality.

Once inside, the air of respectability vanished almost completely, swept up by the kind of atmosphere that only existed in a place of discovery. It was the beehive fervor of building and rebuilding, and sometimes, Ky went out of his way to listen to the status reports, delivered with breathless rapture by a gaggle of blacktech researchers, some former engineers, others scientists, each with a wide-eyed little protégé dogging after them wherever they went.

The other reason to visit, of course, were the accidents.

No other branch had its own team of water mages on permanent standby, and no other branch was quite as proud about requiring their services in the first place. By the time the lights in the tract stopped flickering, the windows to the blacktech labs had already been thrown open, the smell of melting wire left to roll out into the corridor and the surrounding gardens. In the door frame, Ky stopped, squinting against the smoke, and decided that the laconic cursing meant it was just a Tuesday kind of setback.

"You melted the head!"

"I swear that thing's possessed."

"You melted the head."

"Someone get an ice mage who's been to confession, we need holy water."

Around one of the long lab tables, a team of junior researchers was chattering away, elbowing each other and pointing at the remains of whatever it was that the object had once been. Ky only recognized one or two of them from seeing their goggled faces peek out behind their instructors' backs; most of the others had to be just a few weeks off the streets, in the phase where cheeky irreverence was starting to win out over their awed staring in the face of forbidden technology. Most of them were like that, orphans and simple farmer's kids, each with too bright a mind and too curious fingers to make it for long in the outside world.

"What the devil is going on here?!"

At the bark, the giggles abated, the boys wincing as their leader came bearing down on them in a wild-bearded, chainsmoking fury. Like so many others, Raich was someone Ky had come to know during the war, an ex-airship engineer who had the same respect for his machines and the elements they braved as the ship builders of old had for the enormousness of the ocean. He turned on the group, his voice booming loud enough so that the rest of the lab could hear every word.

"So glad you think this is hilarious. Perhaps you'd like to visit the lieutenant and tell him you think it's bloody funny that this thing turned him into shashlik, hm?" He looked around. "Well, do you?"

"N-no, sir," one of the juniors squeaked, a boy hardly tall enough to properly fit into his coveralls.

"Then I want to see some damn professionalism in here, we don't have much time left. Go cool off those hot heads of yours, and when you get back, I want to hear some sensible suggestions. And be grateful if I don't put that in your file."

They fled. With a huff, Raich turned to put the array of half-destroyed electronics spread across the table into some semblance of order, muttering choice words under his breath all the while.

"Don't be too hard on them, Chief," Ky said, moving closer to inspect the damage. Whatever remained of the robots had been carted off to the blacktech labs for study, in hopes of finding out how they had been built, and how they might be stopped in the case of future incidents. The leftovers weren't much, blackened pieces of metal all that remained of the eight at the FIRC testing ground, but if there was anything the people in the blacktech labs were good at, it was deciphering the pieces of the puzzle whose entirety had been lost nearly two-hundred years ago.

"Sir! When did you—?" The chief turned, his surprise quickly buried underneath a frown. "I'm sorry you had to see that, sir."

"Please, don't worry about it. I admit, after all that's happened, I'm kind of glad to see someone deriving a bit of laughter from the situation."

"With all due respect, sir," Raich lifted what remained of one of the heads, a convex plate with a few blocks of electronics still attached to it, glaring when he pulled the plug of the magic converter it had been attached to, "but I'll put the fear of God in them before they start thinking of this as a game. Last thing I want is any of these kids be the next one to build a death machine because they don't know any damn responsibility." He looked up, and flushed. "Not that I mean to, uh, lecture you or anything, sir."

Ky shook his head, smiling. "Your perspective is appreciated. I will keep your words in mind, Chief."

With a low hum, Raich returned his attention to the piles of cables and scrap metal. "Well, then, sir... if it's officially an accident now, I'm guessing that'll be the end of the line for us?"

"I'm afraid so. With everyone so trigger-happy, sending the people of Zepp home is simply the least dangerous course of action. I suppose they will send someone to pick up the evidence soon, and when they do, I want you to hand over everything, just to avoid further accusations."

"Of course, sir." Raich nodded. "I had my people prepare records of everything we got, just in case. Won't be as good as the real thing, of course, but we still might learn something in time."

"Good thinking. Is there anything you can tell me now, before we lose them?"

"Actually, sir?" The chief sighed, thumbing through his tool belt for a watchmaker's eye loupe and handing it to Ky. "I wish I could. I've never seen anything like it in my life. We don't know how it works, or what powers it, or even how it's put together. If we didn't have a couple hundred people swearing on their lives that these things were tearing through Gears like nothing, I'd chalk it up to someone having too much of a good time in the beer tent."

He picked up one of the square units, blocks as large as a human palm with blunt needle tips protruding from the surface, and passed it to Ky for inspection.

"These little things—" he tapped the needles "—just plain don't seem to do anything. They sure as hell aren't used to keep the parts together. And if you'll look closely, you'll see a bunch of patterns, sir, but... no clue if that means anything, either. For all I know, painting them is in fashion this season."

The patterns were large enough to be visible to the naked eye, but once he peered through the magnifier, Ky could see them in detail, long, straight lines of a light golden sheen, divided into even smaller lines, crisscrossing, running together and separating again in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. Every once in a while, they veered off to the nubs on the surface, only to emerge again on the other side, other times ignoring the bumps and obstacles altogether.

This is...

A cave, and darkness, a small flame as the only light to work by.

Wings, and claws, red eyes gleaming with suspicion, and in his hands, a casket of secrets, burning as hotly as all the questions he wanted to ask.

I know this.

The units he'd held within the grasp of those twig-like instruments had been much smaller, barely the size of a finger, and much more intricate, covered in those tiny lines like a well-trodden landscape, and he had felt with every fiber of his being the flow of immense energy — back to front and front to back, and it had seemed impossible, hadn't it, that something so fragile should be capable of such an impossible feat... a flick of a switch turning Gear into human, and human into Gear.

"...power lines."

"—could probably say more if we had a... sir?"

"They're power lines."

Ky leaned back, removing the loupe to stare at the unit in its entirety, ignoring Raich's dumbstruck gaze.

"Sir, how do you—"

"I've seen something like this before, I think... a long time ago." He bit his lip. "I don't know how it works, precisely, but these lines are inlays, meant to funnel energy. If enough of these pieces are connected..."

Gear to human, and human into Gear.

"...there is no telling what they might be made to accomplish."

Pulling back the plate, Raich peered at it skeptically, trying to understand, and imagine. "Sir, that's... by God, even if that's true... that's impossible. Just plain impossible."

"Chief?"

"I've spent my life poking through stuff we seized from Zepp. Airship parts, power cells, you name it. I know there's no telling what the little buggers might cook up next, but I can say one thing for sure, sir." He looked up, meeting Ky's eyes. "This thing's unlike anything I've ever seen. Unless they have a goddamn da Vinci up there, it shouldn't be able to exist at all."

"Yes," Ky agreed solemnly. "There is that."

------

The sketch was drawn on a sheet of graph paper, the smudged pencil lines waiting to be cleaned and inked. Up to size, it was a perfect two-dimensional replica of the plate from the lab, detailing the small nubs and coils on its surface, the tangle of ley lines.

For the past half hour, it had kept drawing Ky's gaze, quietly and inescapably, until he had given in, set aside the correspondence on his desk and had taken to staring at it, as if the object could be persuaded to give up its secrets through willpower alone. Next to it lay the latest tally of bounties, already two weeks old, and in the flood of anonymous claims, none bore the tell-tale signature: a large, mean Gear and copious amounts of collateral damage. The last lead was from three months ago, down near the coast of Dalmatia, but even if it had been fresh, submitted just the other day, he knew that by the time he got there, he'd be lucky to even get close enough to catch a middle finger to his face.

Not for lack of trying.

Little to show for it, except a couple of bruised ribs and a bit of damaged pride, the dead certainty that he was being blocked from something at all costs, some kind of secret he wasn't supposed to know. Was this part of it, then? This piece of forbidden technology, so sophisticated, so similar that he was sure he could have matched the design from his memory to the one right in front of him with barely a difference — with anyone else, Ky would have assumed they had been careless, that parts of the device had been stolen or sold, but not Sol. Not Sol, who refused to loosen the straps even an inch to let him take care of a head wound.

A relic, then, a leftover from the old world, the key to making powerful devices that fit into a hand, or that could move and think on their own. But if that was it, if someone had simply dug it up and brought it back...

...How many years did Kahren say went into that project? This thing should have revolutionized their warfare.

What reason would there have been to keep it a secret? What reason was there ever to keep something like this a secret?

/A holy relic, blessed by the hand of the Lord, we shall grant it thee to carry out His will.../

The Furaiken, which they hadn't handed over until there had been no other choice, until it landed right in his lap, until its magic yielded and changed so completely as to be an extension of his own. There was little doubt the Order would have kept it hidden forever, for a purpose only they knew, if they'd thought they could. If anyone in Zepp had specifically kept back an invention that could have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, only to give it away for such a cause, then far more was resting on this almost-crisis than its pawns were aware of.

"Sir?"

Ky looked up from his study of the sketch to notice Bernard's peering through the crack in the door. Judging by his reluctance, he had probably been knocking for quite some time before deciding that whatever errand had brought him here was important enough to do what Ky had been asking him in vain to do for the past five years, and just come in. Shaking his head fondly, Ky rose from his desk and gestured for him to come in, glad for the distraction.

"Bernard. Is something the matter?"

"I'm sorry to bother you, sir." The elderly soldier slipped inside, holding out a tray with a pot of tea and pastry as if to excuse his presence. "I'd have come by another time, but... Doctor Perrine bade me see to it that you make a full recovery."

He placed the tray down on the sideboard, handing Ky a glass with the same unappetizing medicine from the hospital.

"She was quite... uh, concerned that you might miss your treatments, sir." Bernard coughed, his meaningful pause enough to indicate that the doctor hadn't phrased it quite so gallantly.

While Ky was busy with the bitter brew, he set about preparing the tea with the air of a professional butler, wiping the cup and dabbing at the spout when it looked like it might spill. The attempt normally would have garnered no small amount of protest, the idea of other people waiting on him a notion that had always rubbed Ky the wrong way, but if there was anything he'd learned over the course of the past two days, it was that being allowed to fuss was a kind of catharsis, some small way for people to reaffirm that their world hadn't strayed too far from its intended course.

It was the reason he left Bernard to his self-appointed task, instead moving to inspect the congregation of cupcakes, their top half nearly disappearing under a tip of whipped cream. Unable to help himself, he picked off one of the strawberry slices, and popped it in his mouth. "And I suppose Doctor Perrine also sends these."

"Um, that would be Miss Eloise and a half dozen officers fretting about you skipping meals, sir." He didn't add 'and myself', but it came across anyway.

"Please give them my thanks, then." Another slice, its sweetness chasing away the taste of the medicine. "I didn't mean to cause any undue worry."

"Think nothing of it, sir." Bernard pushed the cup towards him, trying hard not to look like he was trying to study Ky's face, searching for signs of fatigue or fever. "I... sir? May I speak freely?"

"Of course, always."

"I, well. I know it's not my place to pry, but... if there is anything on your mind... I know I'm not Sir Undersen or... " he hesitated, lips pulling into a frown, "but... I'll gladly give whatever counsel I can, sir."

Ky blinked, taken aback. "If this is about just now, I was only lost in thought."

"No, sir, not just now. I've been thinking for a long time," Bernard shrugged, searching for the right words. "It just seems like there's so much resting on you, and... you do know, don't you... it doesn't have to be."

"I do." Ky reached out, clasping the Bernard's hand, as much in reassurance as in gratitude. There was no other way to react to this much devotion than to accept and embrace it, treasure it, and seek to calm it as much as he could. He smiled, squeezing that old, calloused hand that had never known anything other than service. "I do know that, Bernard. And I thank you. Since you asked, I won't tell you that it's nothing. For now, though, I'll have to ask that I may try your patience a little while longer."

Bernard shook his head. "There's nothing to try here, sir, I—"

"Commander?"

The new voice was accompanied by a rapid knock on the door, a rather breathless guard sticking her head in. "I'm very sorry, sir, but they're here. That... woman has been asking for you, sir."

"Doctor Kahren?"

"Yes, sir. We thought it best to keep her waiting at the gate. She's got a man with her, very tall, looks like he could cause trouble. Should I notify back-up, sir?"

"No, thank you, Sergeant Major. That won't be necessary. I'll attend to them, myself."

"Sir!"

Once she had withdrawn, Bernard shifted uneasily. "Are you sure that's wise, sir?"

"In front of a police station? I think I'll be safe," Ky said, flashing him a lopsided smile. "This shouldn't take too long."

"So you keep saying, sir," Bernard sighed, casting a mournful glance at the scarcely touched breakfast, lunch, and probably dinner.

Reaching for his coat, Ky turned to go. "Don't worry. I wouldn't miss out on those cupcakes for the world."




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A/N: Wait, there's more! Please skip over here to continue. Management apologizes for the inconvenience.