((From => Touching Darkness))
The sound of rain was usually soothing to Eric, but today even that wasn't helping him stay focused on his work. Some instinct had him on edge – more than on edge – ever since last night, and even though he couldn't explain it, it was a sensation that time and experience had taught him to trust. It didn't come over him often, to be sure, but each time this particular discomfort had loomed on him, it had heralded something bad. So, concentrating on endless pages of coding simply wasn't going well.
Instead, he sat back in his chair and ran fingers through his hair, taking a deep breath. There wasn't anything he could really do about the feeling, not until whatever storm was gathering finally broke. Calling around never seemed to help; all he could do was be ready. Which, for Eric right now, meant he needed a drink.
He was just getting the ice out when the doorbell rang and he found himself putting the tray back in the freezer, untouched, with a resigned sense of certainty. It was another moment before he took a long breath and blew it out again, then headed towards the front door.
“Servare, who's at the door?”
“You're almost there yourself, Eric; I shouldn't spoil the surprise.” The house-navi's voice sounded wry, as he often did, but Eric stopped himself from snapping back.
“I just want to know in advance, today, Servare.”
“It's your brother, Rogan, Eric.” All the slow hesitation he had been feeling vanished when he heard the words, a dozen possibilities racing through his mind, each more frightening than the last.
He dashed the last few paces down the hall to pull the door open. Rogan was standing there, his coat growing rapidly sodden in the heavy rain, holding Lyntael's PET tight in one hand. Eric's eyes went to it first, then back up to meet his brother's desperate gaze. In the back of his senses, the storm broke with a crash.
“What have you done?”
Light in the Storm, Interlude: Seeking Solace
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By the time they were both seated in the lounge room, with the PET on the coffee table between them, Eric was trying hard not to lean over and punch his brother soundly. Not just because he knew the other man had faster reflexes and a stronger arm, but also because, as long as he held the anger back, he wouldn't have to deal with heart-wrenching fear than ran just underneath.
“How could you let a thing like that happen!? She's just a young girl, man! Why would anyone put an innocent like her into that sort of a situation?” If he was resisting a futile attempt to hit the other man, Eric wasn't about to lower his voice. It felt right to shout about this. He could see that his brother was feeling defensive about his actions, but at least he wasn't trying to talk his way around it. He still had that much integrity, at least.
“She's a NetNavi, Eric, not a little girl. She isn't made of flesh and blood, there shouldn't have been any danger. I only expected her to be able to fulfil the work of any other navigator.”
“That was never why I left her in your care. You're not stupid, Rogan, you know that! You were supposed to look after her! You need her, damn it, but she needs you too!” He felt the heat in his glare as Rogan drew back, looking for all the world like a cornered dog, sunk into in his coat, despite the hard, calm expression that he was schooling his face to.
“I never asked you to involve yourself in my work life, Eric. Now can you fix this, or not?” He almost wished that Rogan would raise his voice too. His face was a mask of composure and his tone was even, but... The man was worried about Lyntael; that much had been obvious from the beginning... he just wouldn't admit it. He'd come here, after all, and if he had only given Eric a very detail-light account of the events that had led to it, his heart told him that his brother was holding back far more – something terrible and horrific that his mind was filling in the blanks of already.
“Fix her, Rogan? No. Save her? You'd better hope that I can, because I swear to you, if I can't... If— If I lose her...” His anger wavered and his voice broke for a moment. He realised the hot feeling behind his eyes was the threat of tears. Somehow, putting voice to the danger made it all the more real.
“Calm yourself, man. This isn't the end of the world. I'm sure you've got every byte backed up in triplicate around here somewhere. You can put this right, from the ground up if you have to. I know you can.” To anyone else, Rogan's reassurance might have sounded casual, callous even, but Eric knew his brother too well – he could hear the question; the uncertainty. His fists clenched and uncurled as he looked for a way to answer that didn't degenerate into curses.
“That would be nice, brother of mine, wouldn't it? If we could just take any loved one and simply 'start over', and make them again. Rebuild them, and make them better people than they are now. Wouldn't that just be great, Brother?” The other man's eyes didn't flinch as Eric glared at him. “But that's not how the world works, Rogan. It's not that neat or simple; we cherish what we have, however flawed, and if someone special... someone unique and irreplaceable is lost to us, then they are lost, and nothing can bring them back. That's just reality! That's why we care!” His voice had climbed towards shouting again and he realised he had stood, staring down at his brother now. Rogan had flinched badly at something he'd said, but now the other man's jaw hardened and he stood as well, meeting his glare.
“Then it's a good thing we're not talking about the real world or real people, Eric. Because however much you might want to treat your programs like the kids you don't have, they aren't human. They aren't flesh and blood. They aren't real. They're just programs.” Eric hit him. It happened before he thought about it; his right fist swinging up and around to crash into his brother's cheek with enough power to throw him back into the couch with a creak. It shouldn't have connected, he knew. The only way he could actually land a punch like that was if the other man had let him. No matter what he said, Rogan felt he deserved it. He realised that his brother's words had been as much trying to convince himself as they had been to argue with Eric. He looked down at him, trying to read anything more, anything at all in the man's carefully constructed mask.
“Why did you come here? If that's what you think, then why did you come?” Eric was breathing hard, caught between his distress and anger, and he was sure his voice probably sounded rough, if quieter than it had been. Rogan rubbed at his cheek and jaw, then held it. He looked up to meet Eric's eyes for a moment, but then broke away, looking towards the device on the table instead. When he answered this time, his voice was soft, almost pensive.
“Because I know that if anyone, anywhere, can undo what I have let happen... you can.” He swallowed, letting his eyes drop further, to stare without focus at the floor. “And, I know that if anyone in the world will still try to help me fix the mistakes that I've made, you'll try...” There was another moment of silence as Rogan took a long breath and looked up as far as the PET on the table again. “And... regardless of what I think... I do understand how much she means to you, Eric. If it's even remotely possible, I know you'll do everything you can.”
The silence continued for a minute or more, neither brother able to meet the other's eyes. Eventually, Eric reached down and picked up the PET. It was a sleek black, now. Rogan had re-skinned it from the original colours that suited Lyntael. He didn't take his eyes from the thing as he spoke, voice dark.
“Tell me, Rogan... if Lyntael is just a program to you, and nothing more... if she is nothing beyond the functions defined within her code... Then why have you brought her here? If that is truly all you see, all you have ever seen, then how is it you have come here, telling me that there is a problem? You said it yourself: all of her core statistics, all of her functions, indeed, all of her apparent base data is completely restored and intact. So what is the problem, as you see it? Can you answer me that, Rogan?” The other man looked up at him, but hesitated.
“It's... she's not...” He gaze dropped again and he looked away to the side, silent.
“I thought so. You don't even know how to take off the damn mask any more, do you?” He shook his head and turned towards the stairs. At the top he paused, looking up again. “Yes, Rogan. I will do everything I can... But understand; not for you. Right now I don't feel like you deserve even the slightest shred of goodwill or help from anyone. Right now, in this moment, I hate you, Rogan. I hate you more honestly and more completely than I have ever hated anyone in our whole family. I will do everything I can: for her... for this innocent girl that you have harmed... and if I lose her Rogan...” His voice shook and he paused, taking a breath. “You said you think I'm the only person left in the world who might help you in a time of need? Maybe I am... but if I cannot save her, then I swear, Rogan, after this, you will be dead to me.” He shook his head, blinking back the heat in his eyes. “You are already.” He took two steps down the stairs then paused again. He didn't look up, but he sighed and softened his voice this time, despite the words he'd just said.
“You can stay here for as long as it takes. You know this house is safe. Eat. Sleep. I know you don't get as much of either as you should.”
Rogan held firm where he sat until Eric had disappeared completely and his footsteps on the stair had faded. It was only once he was sure his brother had begun working that he slumped forward, head in his hands.
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It was almost twenty after three in the morning, with the rain hammering down outside still, when Rogan heard footsteps on the stairs again. He was staring blankly at the tabletop in front of him, thoughts long since exhausted in the now dark room. His jaw had bruised up badly, and his side and leg ached, but they were a distant awareness, shut out and far away from his consciousness. Somewhere during the night he had slept for a few hours, but his body was so used to the fitful, snatched moments that it wouldn't allow him any more than that. That was what he told himself, at least. When Eric reached the top of the stairs, Rogan looked up. The lights from below illuminated the other man, and even in that poor half-light it was easy to see how worn he was. His eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, but Rogan could tell it wasn't from tiredness. He stood, facing his brother's words as though it were a firing squad.
“Come with me. You will watch this.” Eric's voice was thick, barely containing his emotion, and Rogan knew with a cold sensation that the news wasn't what either of them hoped for. He nodded without a word and followed his brother back down the stairs.
The basement was exactly as he remembered it being the last time he'd been there; banks of computers and other hardware filling the walls and covering much of the workspace, and barely enough room to walk around it all. In the middle of the central bench, connected to a number of other devices, the PET rested with the small hologram standing on the screen. She still wore the same calm, passive expression as when he'd reactivated her, and though her gaze tilted up to look as the brothers returned, no other expression met them. Seeing her so tugged uncomfortably at something inside Rogan; the same sense of horrible wrongness that had driven him here, and it began to strike home with him exactly what it must be like for Eric. The other man scrubbed a hand through his hair.
“I've done everything I can, tried every method I know... but I can't bring her back. There's nothing to bring back.” He swallowed, trying to steady the tremor in his voice. “She's just not there.” His head dropped as he shook it. “There are traces. A person once inhabited this shell... but traces are just that. There's not enough.” His voice broke again and he didn't raise his head. His shoulders lurched. On the table, Lyntael tilted hers just slightly.
“Eric, you're crying again. Is there nothing I can do?” As expected, her voice was soft and delicate, concerned, but passive. Eric shook his head then pressed both hands to his face for a few moments.
“No Lyntael, this is not your fault. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Eric.” She inclined her head as she confirmed, but did no more. Rogan glanced between the tiny navi and his brother, not quite following.
“What's going to happen?” Why did he feel so uncomfortable asking that? Eric turned away from him, checking various screens and making sure all of the systems in the room were 'ready', he supposed, but mostly, Rogan could tell it was so he didn't have to look at him as he answered.
“The only thing I can do, now. The only thing that's left.” Rogan waited, his discomfort growing to a mounting uneasy feeling, and Eric continued again after a few moments. “Maybe you care, maybe you don't, Rogan, but I need you to understand what this is. So, if you finally want to know what's going to happen now... good. Then listen.” He went on, speaking in short phrases, between difficult breaths.
“Sunseed isn't just a personality generator. It draws on every variable, every possible piece of data it can find within its scope, and it weaves potential.” He worked slowly as he spoke, moving around the room and never meeting Rogan's eyes, leaving the other man out of place and outcast at the bottom of the stairs. “A lot of advanced navigators begin to develop on their own, eventually. Enough time, the right circumstances... the right amounts of love and care, and you can end up with a navi that goes far beyond their code, beyond any explanation we have. But... even the most advanced and well developed, the most uniquely personable navis... they still retain that core 'otherness'; that feeling of being a program; a NetNavi.”
“It affects them in many ways; their views on being hurt and harmed, on danger and violence... a plethora of other things as well... so that even the most personable are... well... the result is they're more like fey. They can't shed it because it has been a part of their nature for all that time that they've been developing. I made Sunseed to surpasses that hurdle. It acts in the moment, and... there's just no way of knowing, truly, how it will affect the navi. You can aid and influence it by controlling some of the external variables; you can guide it, a little bit, but...” There was a pause as he hesitated, holding onto a small switch long after he'd flipped it over, and staring at the panel it was on without really seeing.
“Like any parent, and any child, you have to do your best, the best you can, but a lot of it is guess-work. Even the most certain elements, run the same way twice, will come up differently.” Normally, Rogan would have cut his brother off by now, and told him to reach the point faster, but this time he held his tongue. There was a gnawing sense of wrongness and dread in the pit of his stomach, like he was watching something horrible unfolding.
“When Sunseed blossoms the potentials of its weaving into the intricacies of growth that lead to a person; that... you can't trace that, you can't replicate it, you can't even follow it with any real accuracy. It gets too complex, too interwoven to even think about unpicking. In the end, the navi just... is... who they are, whole and complete... you can't duck in and change an aspect of their personality any more than you can safely do it to a human brain.” Eric had run out of things to check and he stood with his back to Rogan, fingers clenching and flexing. He took several slow breaths, swallowing in between.
“So... the only thing I can do now, Rogan, is to give the girl standing here with us a fresh start and a new chance at life... as a new person. The Lyntael you knew, if you knew her at all; the Lyntael I welcomed into the world and loved... she's dead, Rogan. She died, because I trusted you.” He saw Eric's hands clench into tight fists behind his back and hold until his knuckles went white. “Because I trusted that somehow, you still had more of your heart left than you ended up having. So that's why you need to see this, and maybe you'll finally understand what it is you've destroyed. Now Watch.”
A part of Rogan wanted to leap up and defend himself, but it found nothing to say. There were no smooth words or casual come backs; no clinical rationality to counter Eric's accusation. To hear his brother talk to him like this, to hear him say the things he had, was a blow that felt like it was tearing a hole in him. Of their whole family, Eric was the only one he'd ever felt close to. Between them, all the politics and expectations had never applied, and when they'd left that whole mess; run away really, it had been together, and with fewer regrets than either of them had expected.
Between the two of them, Eric had always been the more forgiving. While he resented, loathed, or downright despised most of his other family members, Eric had avoided speaking harshly of them, and had always been able to accept and understand the things they did or said, with forgiveness, even if he didn't agree. Now... now he couldn't stand to be in the same room with him. So, rather than talk back, he clenched his hands behind his back, squared his jaw and accepted it. It was no use trying to hide his pain; Eric knew him too well, but he did his best. There was a faint growl from Eric.
“Eyes up, man! You will watch! You owe it to her.” The harshness of his brother's voice surprised him, but it also made him realise he'd turned his gaze away, unconsciously, from the hologram on the table. He focused on her again. She was looking between them with a soft expression of concern. Eric nodded then closed his eyes and smoothed his features. He crouched down to the level of the table to look at the girl closely. She focused on him and smiled.
“I've told you this before, Lyntael, but now I'll tell you again. It's important, and I never want you to forget it. Know it, all the way through the core of your being, and never doubt it. You are loved, Lyntael. Always. No matter where you go, or what your life brings, you have always been loved, and you will always be loved.” When she nodded, he reached out to gently brush one fingertip through her hair and over her head, then stepped back.
“Lyntael.exe. Please ready Sunseed. My name is Eric O'Conaill. Voice Match.” His voice broke and thickened as he spoke, and he had to take a few breaths and repeat the cue before the lock authorised. When it did, she smiled and nodded as she responded.
“Sunseed is prepared and prioritised. All systems are online and listening.”
“One day we will all go together. One day the night will end. Sunseed: Bloom.”
Rogan flinched as Eric spoke the words of the final command, but the signs of the program starting dashed the bad memory from his mind. The tiny girl's eyes had remained calm for a moment while the room sprang to life and the sheer weight of processing power was spread out, but now she arched up, gasping while her limbs flexed and tightened. A flood of electrical energy began to roll off her in waves, bursting from the spikes of her hair and showering freely from her skin, before getting siphoned away again just as quickly into each of her strikers. Her tremors reached a peak as she dropped to her knees, hands out to the sides and fists clenched tight while she stared upwards at nothing, panting hard. A moment later, the room tapered into silence again and the girl's body relaxed.
Rogan watched her gasping for air, knees spread wide for balance and her arms hanging limp as she recovered. He was struck again, harder this time, by the heavy sense of dread, deep in his gut. It had been the only option. Nobody loved this girl more than Eric; it had to be the right thing to do, didn't it? A part of his brain was still reassuring itself with the simple concept of overwriting a file, but a deeper current was turning that mental image back into murder, in a way he couldn't quiet. The young girl on the worktop opened her eyes and looked up, directly into his as she panted.
As Eric before him had seen the first time, Rogan watched expressions of wonder and amazement play across her face and her eyes widen as new sets of awareness and sensations sparked, grew, blossomed, expanded, faded away and gave rise to more, and he found that he couldn't have looked away if he tried.
He had always compared human or not human, synonymous with his definition of a person, but as he watched he could see how arbitrary that wall really was; no amount of logical denial could counter the truth that what he was seeing here were the experiences of a person, not a thing. A person, just as it had been the first time. The first time, for a person that he had allowed to be destroyed. The thought struck through him in a way that made the heavy, uncomfortable feeling in his chest slice open into physical pain and he had to fight to keep his hands at his side, rather than reaching to his breast. At last she drew one more deep breath and held it, closing her eyes again, then bounced up to her feet, grinning brightly enough to set the distraught mood of the room completely at odds.
“Oh... Oh, wow. Ahh...” Her voice was animate again, rather than the passive monotone from before, but there was something different about it as well. It was the same voice, Lyntael's voice, but delivered... just a little bit differently. She was looking up at him, still grinning and bouncing on her toes. Had she ever looked at him and been that happy before? The question was another knife where he didn't need any more. “Wow... I feel... I feel... What am I feeling? It's strange. Like... Like I've been dreaming. Asleep, and muffled, and... and now I'm awake. That's what it's like. Rogan! Eric! Wait... wait...” She turned about, looking over the room, then looked back to the brothers. Her eyes settled this time first on Rogan's worn and haggard features, and bruised jaw, then on Eric's red-eyes and tear-marked face. Her smile fell into a look of uncertainty, then distress.
“Eric... you're really upset. You were crying, and you wouldn't tell me what was wrong, and I remember that I didn't understand! What... What happened? How did I get here? Eric, Rogan... what's wrong?” Lyntael would never have spent so much time thinking out loud, and she would have been far more hesitant and shy to ask her questions. Rogan tried to crush the thought with every ounce of willpower he could muster. “I remember... I remember there was a mission. It was important, too. And then...” She pouted softly and shook her head. “It gets all fuzzy. I can't remember properly. I don't like not remembering. Rogan, what happened? Did it... go badly? Why can't I remember?” She didn't actually sound upset by the lack, more simply curious. She was more concerned about their mutual upset, that much was clear. He wasn't sure what to say to her, but Eric found words.
“It doesn't matter now, Lyntael. What matters is that you are here with us. Welcome back, I'm glad you're home.” For a wonder, he had managed to dry his eyes and clean himself up quickly, and he reached out again to brush the back of one finger against her hair. The girl giggled and nuzzled back at his finger.
“Aww, alright. I am really glad we came to visit though. I've missed you Eric! A lot! I love you Eric, I didn't really say it enough while I was staying here, but I do!” She reached both hands up to hug his fingertip and rub her cheek against it before looking to Rogan. She reached out one hand to point an almost scolding finger up at him. “And I love you, too, Rogan, even if you don't think I can! I should tell you more often. Maybe if I say it enough, you'll start believing me, hehehe!” She was grinning and bouncing on her toes again, swaying slightly. For Rogan, there really was no arguing that, similar as they were, this was a different girl to his Lyntael and the truth of it was slowly, painfully, gutting him. His Lyntael. The thought repeated itself. He could barely breathe through the pain in his chest. He managed to raise an eyebrow at her, feigning unconcern, but he doubted it was very convincing. He didn't know what to say. He didn't trust himself to try.
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Eric still had to run all the tests and diagnostics he needed to. As he did, Lyntael ambled about the work space, playing amongst the equipment as she told him about the friends she'd met, and stories about some of the more interesting or amusing things she'd done. Rogan sat in the corner, in silence, listening. She had all, or most perhaps, of her memories... she knew them, remembered her friends, thought of all of those memories as hers, and yet... He couldn't tell himself that she was the same girl and believe it. Many of her stories surprised him, not least because he wasn't aware of when or how she'd actually slipped away to do them. How much had existed of that girl's life, that he'd never let himself know? Eric was smiling, trying as hard as he could to be happy for the Lyntael in front of him... He was happy for her, in fact; Eric had never hidden his emotions very deeply, or lied about them. It also meant that Rogan could see how hard it was for him to keep his grief hidden. Lyntael knew too, it seemed, but she wasn't pushing.
When the last check was finished, Eric stood and returned to stand in front of him, and Rogan stood as well. Lyntael had wandered across the table top to stand near them as well, but Eric glanced down at her.
“Lyntael, it's been a strenuous... ugh... morning for you...” Sure enough, light was now creeping into the space from the single high window. “Why don't you try to have a nap. I need to talk to Rogan for a while anyway. The young girl put a hand to her mouth for a moment.
“Oh, got it. Secret sibling business. Alright, I'll go have a lie down then.” She ran quickly back to the PET and her hologram faded. When Eric looked back, his expression was hard. A silence stretched for several seconds as they both faced what had to be said next. Eventually Eric spoke.
“It's time for you to leave, Rogan. I want you out of my house, and if I ever see you again it will be too soon. Do you understand me?” He had known it was coming. A part of him had hoped that, after Lyntael was restored, the time with her would soften his brother's anger... but that time had only made him more sure of the inevitable. As it was, the words made his hands tremble and he felt short of breath. The pain in his chest felt like it was going to make his legs buckle. The weight of everything else pressing in on him in a way he couldn't just put aside any more was making him feel faint and disconnected.
“Eric...” His voice wavered, unsteady, but Eric cut him off.
“I meant what I said!” Firm as he was being, the other man's voice shook with emotion as well. “You're dead to me, Rogan. I have no brother that I recognise, and I cannot stand the sight of you. The man who did this has no place in my life, now, nor ever again.” Rogan struggled to keep his face straight as his forced composure eroded; Eric was doing the same, with far less practice, but through it he took a breath and went on.
“If one day, long from now, a man should come to my door, wearing your face, and bearing your name, and yet being a different person to the man that you are, then perhaps I will be able to welcome him beneath my roof... but never the man who caused this. Never the man who did this. So go. Now.” Rogan had no words to answer with; no answer at all but to nod and accept, in silence. He could feel a tremble in his muscles; a drained weakness all over his body that made climbing the stairs drag at him harder than scaling a mountain. He grit his teeth as one hand held hard to the banister. Halfway down the main hall, he realised that the long, deep breaths he was taking were as laboured as they were because he was instinctively holding himself back from weeping. His hand shook on the door handle, unable to turn it for many moments. Walking out this door was a finality. Every bit as dramatic as when they'd left home, every bit as irreversible. It was no longer his choice to make. Eric wanted him gone, and it was no-one's fault but his own.
The rain had grown harder. Outside, it began to soak his clothes again, the wind blowing drops into his face and down his neck, and for the first time in many years, Rogan truly felt it; icy cold and sharp as hail. He made it halfway down the front path before the last vestiges of his mask shattered and the tears overwhelmed him. His knees gave out and he felt the impact as they hit the paved ground, his body shaking as it was wracked with helpless, distraught cries. Gasps for breath only led to further pained, ragged shouts; hot tears lost amidst the freezing rain; wrath and self-loathing, despair, loss, guilt and shame, and all of it too much, until the outpouring sapped the last of his strength and he collapsed fully on the path. The last thing he heard, amidst the heavy thrum of the falling rain, was the door behind him opening again.
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Lyntael was standing on the edge of the low coffee table, feet planted and arms folded as she looked up at Eric. He had anticipated this conversation, but not exactly under these circumstances, and certainly not with this much force from the girl. He wasn't ready for it, not yet.
“He wouldn't have left me here unless you told him to. I can believe that he'd go without saying goodbye, but not that'd he'd leave me behind. He wouldn't leave me, I know he wouldn't. I can tell you've both had a fight, Eric, but...” She wasn't angry at him, he could be sure of that much, but her voice made it very clear that she was still expecting to go home with Rogan at the end of the day. How he could convince her to stay, without having to reveal to her everything that had happened, and tell her about her own death?
“You're right, Lyntael, and I'm sorry for keeping it from you, but, it's really between us, and I didn't want to bring you down with our bickering. I can't forgive him, but you know I love you very much, and I would feel much more comfortable if you chose to live here, with us.” He was clasping his hands together earnestly in front of himself as he sat forward on the couch, watching her, and she reached out across the short gap to rub one hand across his finger, her features softening again.
“I'd like to stay too, Eric, but you said he needed me, I remember that, and it really looks like he does need me, or someone, more than ever right now. It looks like far more than bickering to me, but whatever it is, you're both here, and you're both well, and I'm here and I'm well, and no-one's been hurt or anything, have they? I'm sure you can sort it out, can't you?” Oblivious to how keenly her off-handed assurance cut at the bone of the problem, Lyntael tilted her head, grinning to him. It was still painful, seeing all the little ways in which the Lyntael here and now, was a different young lady to the Lyntael he first welcomed into the world. He sighed.
“Maybe we will, one day. Maybe he'll change; I can hope, but I can't have him around me at the moment.” His eyes dropped as he reflected on the man that he'd had to bring back inside and put to bed. It had been very hard for him to speak the words he did, even with his anger bolstering them, but he hadn't expected Rogan to fall apart as thoroughly as he had. He'd almost believed that the man didn't have that much raw emotion left in him to show, but then, it had just all come out.
“Eric...?” When he looked up again, Lyntael was in the process of jumping across to his hands, so she could climb over to look at his eyes, even when they were downcast. He shook his head and apologised in a quiet murmur before she went on. “You're both really upset about all of this, whatever this is, and I don't want to see either of you upset or angry, especially not at each other... But you've said there's nothing I can do, and that it's not my fault. If that's all there is to it, then I still feel like my place needs to be with him. It's where I need to be; you said so, and I think you're right.”
“I... Lyntael, it's too dangerous. I thought so, when I first sent you to him, I knew he needed a ray of sunshine in his life, but his life is so dangerous, and you are so dear to me. It doesn't need to be your place.” He found himself searching for other arguments, things he could say to convince her. Rogan had neglected to mention that he'd been shot, in his description of what had happened; a fact Eric had only discovered as he had put the man to bed... but he wasn't about to bring that up now. He sought for other reasons.
“You've told me a lot about how he treated you, and just hearing it hurts me, Lyntael. You weren't happy there, and I don't trust that man enough to think he'll suddenly change now. I want you to be happy, and I know that if you choose to stay here with us, you will be. I just don't know if I can bear to send you away with him again. I couldn't bear to lose you,” he swallowed the second 'again' before it had a chance to escape, and Lyntael dropped down, sitting on his hands now, with her legs crossed and her chin in one hand.
“I know. I'm not blind, Eric. Whatever happened, it involved me, and our last mission, and it's why I can't remember any of it. I'm guessing that I'm lucky to still be here at all, right?” Eric managed to turn his flinch into a rough nod, though it was difficult. “Well, I am. That's what matters, right? I'm here, I'm myself, just like I've always been. I'm fine.” She looked pensive for a moment, biting her lip. “If something happening to me is what did that to Rogan, I'd be very surprised.” She sounded more than a little down about that, and the small, wistful sigh was almost identical to the old Lyntael's reaction to such things. Eric sighed with her, dropping his eyes again.
“He was far more worried about you than he wanted to admit, Lyntael... than I think he probably ever will... but... No... no that was probably me.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Something very hard, very final, and... and very hurtful. I'm not going to take it back, either. It was very difficult for me to say, but fully deserved; I meant it.” He still hadn't had that drink. He really needed it about now. And some more sleep, but Rogan was using his bed. Lyntael switched hands, looking every bit as put out about the mess as Eric felt, though from a different direction, he suspected.
“If I stay here, I'll have failed Rogan again, and I'll have failed you. I've messed up enough already. I know you're worried for me, Eric, but, if you give me another chance, I promise I'll be more careful.”
“You've never failed anyone, Lyntael, at least not as far as I'm concerned. It's Rogan that I don't feel comfortable giving another chance to, not you.”
“But if you're cutting him off, then he's going to need someone to be there for him, now more than ever before, right?” Eric winced, but nodded.
“Yes, he will. I really hope that he finds someone to be that person for him, someone who can get inside his mask and share the dangers he goes through with him; truly, I do Lyntael... but it doesn't need to be you, not if you'd be happier staying here.” The girl covered her face with both hands, clearly torn. She stood, pacing, and jumped back to the coffee table so that she could do so on more stable terrain.
“I would, Eric, you know I would... he doesn't treat me like a person at all, and always asks me to do things I'm not comfortable with doing, and you know that most of what he does is really illegal, and I have to end up helping him with it, and I really don't like that, but... but I'd miss him, too, and I'd worry about him, and....” She made a helpless gesture with both hands, then vocalised her frustration for a moment as well. “And... Arghh... why do you two have to fight like this? If the whole mess was because of me can't you both just see that I'm here and I'm me, and I'm fine, and I can tell you both that it's all forgiven, and let that be that?” She looked up to Eric, pleading, but another voice from the far door made her spin about.
“No, Lyntael. It isn't that simple, and Eric is well within his rights to speak to me as he has.” Rogan was standing in the doorway, one hand on the frame. He had been out for a couple of hours, no more, and Eric had been expecting him to sleep through most of the morning, but he looked more rested than he had, at least. The girl on the tabletop brightened and ran across to the nearest edge to wave to him.
“Rogan! You're up! Are you feeling better now?” He began to nod, but then something happened that Eric hadn't been expecting at all. His features relaxed and he shook his head instead.
“No. No I'm not, Lyntael. Truthfully, I'm not doing very well at all, but at least I'm not about to fall down again, and for now that will have to be enough.” He crossed the room to stand in front of Eric, then bowed his head, touching his forehead briefly with one hand.
“Thank you, Eric. I'm sorry to be a burden, on top of everything. It was a kindness you didn't need to extend, and I'm grateful.” His words were quiet and sombre, and Eric could feel Lyntael's eyes flicking back and forth between them, probably hoping for some sort of reconciliation. He couldn't find words of his own immediately, but Rogan seemed to take his silence as an answer. He glanced down towards Lyntael, then dropped to one knee to be closer to her level.
“This is goodbye, Lyntael. I'm sorry, for everything. I know Eric will be far better to you than I ever was.” The little girl was shaking her head at him, but the moment seemed to have robbed her of articulation as surely as it had Eric. Rogan stood again and took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders.
“I'm sorry I wasn't the brother you deserved to have. You won't ever have to see me again, if you don't want to, but if you ever need me, Eric, the light will always be on. You've always known how to find me.” He paused, looking down. “I don't know if I could ever forgive what I've done, but you were always the better of us. Maybe, when the night ends, you could pull some thyme for me as well?” Eric could feel tears pricking at his eyes again, but he was more surprised to see open tracks making their way down Rogan's cheeks. He was still maintaining his composure, true, but he wasn't fighting them back either.
“You're a bastard, Rogan, you know that? A right bastard.” His voice was rough, a mirror of the tearful sensation behind his eyes. No mater how deserved and necessary it was, he was still severing all ties with the closest family member he had, and it wasn't easy. The extended goodbye was only making it worse now, for both of them. “I wish... I just wish I could tell whether that's you being sincere, or whether you're just talking through another facade, saying the things you think will make the best impression. I don't know any more, Rogan, and I can't tell. I wish I could.” The man across from him broke eyes and looked away.
“So do I. Goodbye Eric.”
He turned to walk for the door, and Lyntael's rapid glances back and forth between them grew more desperate. When he reached for the handle, she dashed to the corner nearest him and shouted.
“Rogan... Rogan, wait! Please!” Eric winced to hear the strain in her voice. Rogan slowed, but he still turned the handle and opened the door. The little girl looked back up at him, clearly desperate now.
“Eric, please! You said... you said I don't need to be that person, that it doesn't need to be my place. You're right! It doesn't need to be me, and I don't want to leave you, Eric, but I love him too, and I want to be that person for him. I want it, Eric! It's my choice!” The rise in her heart rate had left her breathing hard after her hurried words, and she was panting as she looked up at him, eyes pleading. Eric let out the breath he'd unconsciously held, and felt his form slump. Choice was what it came down to, in the end, and if it was her choice alone, he couldn't stop her. Rogan had hesitated, standing in the open doorway while the mid-morning rain poured outside. A crack of lightning lit the door frame and thunder rolled.
“If that is what you truly want, Lyntael. But listen; you come first, alright. You stay safe, and come home every now and then, let me know you're well. You come first.” She nodded and he glanced up to where the other man waited by the door. “Rogan... you forgot your PET.” For a moment he thought that he might still refuse to take it, but then he returned to the table. As Rogan reached down for the device, slipping it into his coat pocket, Eric put one hand out towards Lyntael, and she ran over to wrap her arms about part of his hand and hug him tightly, as best she was able.
“Thank you, Eric! Thank you! I love you! I'll visit soon, I promise!” He stood with her, the girl swinging herself up onto the back of his hand and turning back to wave once more as he held her small hologram out towards Rogan. To his credit, the other accepted her with one hand and let her run to his shoulder, rather than simply recalling her. The storm pealed again, fiercer, as Rogan turned and stepped through the door. Eric watched him go; a cold man in a dark coat, disappearing into the heavy rain, with one tiny speck of light and joy clinging tight to his collar.
((To => Another cheap hotel))