A Conflict of Interest

((From => Lonely Wanderings))

Winding black cobblestone streets, hedged by tall sandstone building fronts made for a city that still, to this day, looked like something out of a history book, if not for the ground level shops bearing modern holographic signs and product displays. The streets were mostly empty – far off, a horse-drawn carriage trundled over the cobbles and around a bend, and coming from behind, a red, two-storied bus with an open top made its way slowly along the same street. The main roads were used for tourism, more than anything else – all the actual daily transit options were underground.

It was evening, and further off, the castle, the parliament building, and the palace were each visible and lit by ground lights designed to bring them to prominence at all times of the day and night. Here and there, groups of tourists were marshalling at various points around the city, to begin speciality ghost tours; another staple of the experience.

Rogan moved down the footpath quickly, a nondescript man in a dark coat, barely noticeable in the growing night. It felt altogether too much like home, in too many ways. None of the ways that mattered, of course, but he was still less than comfortable. Not that that mattered; Fitzpatrick had made this personal, now, and focusing on that was one of the only ways he knew to reliably keep himself together until... until he didn't need to any more, however long that might be.

He turned down one side street into a narrow alley, barely wide enough for a single vehicle and with scarce pedestrian room to speak of, then turned again and descended a set of stairs that started abruptly in between wrought iron railings. It led to an equally bland door, with a visually out-of-place modern lock. Inside, a small two-room apartment that was, in reality, owned by the single 'hotel' that maintained all of the houses on this side of the street as its rooms. A bed, a night stand, a wardrobe; an in-built desk, with a cheap TV and a mirror behind it that was functionally impossible to use with the room set up as it was. There were no windows, and the artificial light flickered a few times before it stabilised. The small kitchenette had a pass-over counter out to the main room, while an even smaller bathroom branched off on the other side. The sounds of someone in another of the flat rooms cooking filtered through the walls. Rogan sighed and set his shoulder bag down before sitting on the bed and taking a moment to just breath.

That was enough for today; he'd found out what he had hoped to, traded a small, long-standing favour-owed for something more, and for now he needed to keep quiet a little longer before taking the next step. There was other work he could do, tonight, but... he was out of focus for now. Lyntael would be after him to have something to eat, probably. She hadn't spoken to him during the entire outing and he reached into his coat pocket to fish her PET out and look at it. The slowly blinking orange light made his breath catch. She'd slipped out without telling him again. With a few quick motions he check the details that were available since last connection. She'd been gone a little over three hours, by the look of it, but she hadn't left any message to say where. Another mission for her net faction, probably. He'd checked some details after she'd first told him about the group; at least if it was a mission for them it probably meant she'd have a team-mate and, as well as that, they knew... Rogan found his eyes drifting to one side of the screen as he pushed away a pang of guilt... they had Lyntael recorded as unoperated, and that affected what missions they gave her, too.

He forced himself to relax, until he noticed an extra detail on the screen's read-out; he could see that the original emulation was tied to the Kotobuki network, but it was direct to the rogue layers. That was far too dangerous. He felt a familiar tense knot between his shoulder blades; mission or not, he had to check. She shouldn't be going to dangerous networks without him. His fingers began to work as the mental fatigue of minutes before was replaced with a new sense of fresh focus.

Lyntael – he tried every day not to think of her as the new Lyntael, but the thoughts continued to creep in every time he noticed the small ways she was different now... and he noticed them, everywhere, every day. Each time was still accompanied by another sharp stab; the days hadn't dulled the guilty blades, but he was beginning to get used to them, slowly. His thoughts pulled back to their original track; she'd insisted on coming with him, despite everything, and if anything, she'd been brighter and more positive than ever since that day. He had done his best to treat her like an actual person, since then, too... and yet, somehow it hadn't lasted.

She'd been... more vocal, about her feelings, for him in particular, but try as he might, it had been impossible for him to feel truly comforted by the fact that she cared about him and his well-being, when no-one else did any more. He didn't deserve it, couldn't tell her why, and every time she told him so, all he could hear; all he could see in his mind, was how strongly she had always felt that way and how much she had struggled to tell him so before... and how hard he had made it for her to even try, with his own behaviour. Trying afresh now couldn't make that right, and the thoughts underscored his feelings no matter how he tried to respond.

He knew, when he stood back and examined himself, that he wasn't doing well. He could put on a face and fall back on everything he'd trained himself to for years – he could put that mask on and function like the charming and ruthlessly collected individual that Night-Wisp was, but it took so much effort when underneath it his emotions were in such disarray. He hadn't even processed the fall-out with Eric; he didn't even know where to start with that, or how to approach it without feeling like he was going to break down again, but Lyntael was the more immediate, front and centre concern in his life right now. She had chosen to come with him, after everything, and he needed to give that choice the care it deserved, even if he didn't deserve the chance... yet, somehow, he only seemed to be making matters worse.

Days had passed, and he had seen her frustration at him mounting even through her determined sunniness. He was doing his best now, to treat her as he felt he ought to treat a... young lady – she hated whenever he admitted to seeing her as a child still – a young lady in his care, but something was wrong even so. She had mentioned, once or twice, that he needed to stop thinking about that mission, and that she was here, just like always, and telling her that things were different was not a conversation he knew how to have, not when she was so insistent that she was the same as she'd ever been.

His search of the surrounding network revealed no traced of the girl, save for a small data shard that seemed like it had, at some point, come from the PET's internal data space. He couldn't exactly tell what it was, except that it was a sign, at least, that she intended to return for it. Any further tracing would take time, but it was that or do nothing and worry, so he got to work.
The trail, as near as he could follow it, returned to the normal network level swiftly after Lyntael had left her original entry point, but there was something strange about it too. Rogan felt his brow furrow in concentration as he worked; there was no clean trace of where the little program had moved, at several points. She hadn't used any established links to move from one network address to another, and it was almost by luck that he managed to follow the first couple of transitions – electown, then to scilab, of all places; she'd normally have been very unsure about going there, especially alone... after that though... unconsciously, the motions of his fingers grew tighter, tapping harder at the keys while he worked. He had where she'd left the last location from, but from there her trail just dissipated into the tractless static between networks, with no clean direction or end point.

He felt the background sense of panic rising again and set it aside so he could focus. In terms he understood, it was the very definition of data loss; like what happened if a signal was lost during a transmission, only this seemed like she'd never even had a destination address in the first place; it just left the Scilab location and disappeared.

Rogan put the device down and flexed his fingers, taking a long breath. Come on, man, focus. This was part of his job, wasn't it? Think. Unless she had thrown herself into the static deliberately with the intent of destroying herself... he felt a cold shiver at the thought... then she still would have had a location in mind. In mind; that was the key. The lesson he'd taken far too long to learn, that Lyntael was not just senseless data, had to mean that she would have had a goal. If she was running from someone, or trying to hide her trail, she'd still need a location to anchor to. So far it had been places she'd visited before, apart from the first entry point. Where else might she have gone?

He was still working, searching places he knew his navi had visited in the past, when the orange light on the PET blinked out and the probe deactivated; emulation shut off, one navigator program registered. In a swift motion Rogan swept aside his other tools and flipped over to the PET's internal view. He saw wet footprints tracked across the carpet, and caught a brief glimpse of pale skin and a yellow skirt disappearing into one of the space's rooms which presented his view point with an opaque privacy screen – a bathroom, he believed, since the other area that did so was her bedroom. He felt himself exhale and the tension in his body unwind.

Setting the device down on the side table, Rogan sat back and closed his eyes for a few long moments; he wanted to question the navi immediately but necessity told him to wait a few minutes. It was a surprise, then, when Lyntael appeared, slipping out of the device to stand on the side table and look towards him only a handful of moments later. She seemed surprised to find him simply sitting, watching her, but without even consciously thinking about it, Rogan's eyes scanned the girl swiftly, looking for signs of trouble.

She had dried herself off from being wet, it seemed; her hair was still damp, and while her clothes looked dry they still bore tiny motes of fluff from where she'd scrubbed a towel over herself quickly. She'd been in a hurry to come see him, apparently, but his focus latched onto another detail that made his teeth clench; the bright green of her eyes was emphasised by red – Lyntael had been crying, even though the rest of her body language was giving no signs of it.

“Rogan, it's late. Have you eaten?” She kept her voice light and unconcerned, or tried to, but Rogan could see the subtle shifting and fidgeting from the girl that told him she knew as well as he did that there was no point pretending she'd been there the whole time. Even so, he nodded. It was technically true – though he doubted she'd count complimentary bar nibbles, eaten while he was meeting someone to be proper food.

“I'm fine, Lyntael. I'm glad you're back and safe, but I would prefer it if you would tell me when you were leaving like that, and where you were going.” He didn't want to risk anything happening to her again, but for that he needed to be there and to know where she was. He bit back the urge to give voice to the latter thought, but she seemed to bristle at his request anyway. She frowned and folded her arms, and her stance widened into something more challenging. He'd said the wrong thing already, apparently.

“I'm fine. You can stop looking at me like I'm made of glass... It's not really any of your business, but I had a date; I'm a grown woman, I can go on dates if I want to.” The girl's assertion, probably contrary to her intention, did nothing to reassure Rogan. It was clear she'd been crying; that she'd apparently been out on something like a date only made that more worrisome. Instinct told him to back off, but the sudden spike of worry that her claim caused overruled it. He shook his head, now looking her over again for any other sign of injury or harm; even though the PET had reported her condition as optimal, he'd long since learned that what the machine counted as 100% and healthy didn't account for a myriad of other things that might be affecting the girl. She didn't look physically hurt at all.

“Lyntael... It's dangerous to go out disconnected like that, especially to the lower networks. Why would you let someone take you to such a dangerous place, if it was just a date. Meeting someone in a place like that, alone, is... irresponsible. It's not safe, especially for a young girl like-” His teeth clicked shut and he bit back the words, wishing he could pull the phrase back out of the air, but it was too late. Across from him, he saw Lyntael's fists clench and her body tense up.

“Like what?! Why do you keep saying that, and looking at me like that! I'm not fragile! I'm not made of paper, Rogan, I'm not going to break the first time something scary happens!” He could hear the anger in her voice again, but behind it was more hurt and more frustration – how had he managed to do this again, every time of late it seemed. Now that he was trying, he suddenly couldn't seem to say the right thing.

“How are you being like this!?” She was shouting as she gestured towards him with frustrated motions now. “Before, you'd insist that there was nothing to hurt and nothing to be afraid, and you'd put me through so much... so much... just... so many horrible situations, and act like you just expected me to take it! And to not care! And now suddenly, what? I get hurt once, and suddenly you're afraid of every little scratch!? Why? Why are you looking at me like that!? Again! Stop looking at me like that!” Her voice shook, but it was tears behind the anger doing it while Rogan struggled to face the echo of the girl he failed spelling out the things he'd done at him right in front of him, in her own voice. He looked away and grit his teeth.

“I was wrong, Lyntael! I was wrong, and I didn't understand, and I acted.... poorly! It wasn't okay.” He took a long breath and lowered his voice again, though there was still a hard edge to it as he forced his voice to steadiness. “And now I am... Trying... to be more responsible. I am trying to keep you safe, and look after you, like... I... like I didn't before.” This track didn't seem to work either as the small figure radiated angry hurt at him.

“Does this look like you're doing a good job!?” At her accusation, Rogan suppressed a wince, but something in him bridled against the unfair criticism as his gaze traced over her.

“No! You disappear, and I don't know where you've gone. I look, and it looks for all the world like you've just thrown yourself off a cliff. You come home, and tell me you've been on a date – I don't know who with – but anyone can see you've been upset, and crying... If someone hurt you, Lyntael, tell me what happened.” He didn't want to think too closely about the possibilities he was asking about, not until Lyntael herself gave him something solid, but the girl just gripped at her hair until her skin danced with light and crackles of electricity rolled off her body.

“Nothing happened! They're both wonderful! Don't say that about them! Nothing happened at all! Rraaaghh... It's none of your business!” Despite her shouting, a moment of confusion at her speaking of two people quickly filled in the blanks for Rogan; she'd probably been out with the Ezarith navis – Eternalis and Aurora. She'd clearly bonded with them, and they'd attempted to train together in the past. That might be why they'd gone to the rogue nets as well. Things fit together and Rogan tried to calm himself down. She still shouldn't be fighting disconnected without an operator ready to get her out in an emergency.

“Lyntael, I'm not going to curate who you make friends with, but I still need you to be safe. You're not to go out without being properly jacked in, and your emergency system online, unless I'm watching you. Do you understand?” It was the wrong way to say it again, and he knew it, but a part of him suspected that there might be no good way to insist on the matter that she would be happy about. Across from him, Lyntael's fists balled up again and she thrust them down as she glared out at him, still crackling; she'd moved to an almost combative stance now, and his efforts to diffuse the situation were only going from bad to worse.

“You can't keep me in a box! I can go out whenever I want, and you can't stop me!” Her words became a short scream before the girl spun about and stepped back onto the PET's screen with a heavy stomp. Rogan reached for the device as her image faded, but he only had enough time to catch a glimpse of her storming to her room and slamming the door behind her. That... had not gone well.

He set the device down again with a heavy sigh, then lay back on the room's single bed, pressing his hands to his face as he tried to work out how to deal with the young girl that, he realised, he had to get to know all over again, from the beginning.

((To => Lyntael's Home))