While Manuel holds no ill will towards Minister Lee, their relationship is admittedly…strenuous, at times. Ever since Lee’s furious letter when Manuel assembled the Red Hawk, they no longer make eye contact in passing.
That makes it all the more surprising when Lee walks into the church, returning from his afternoon stroll, and finds Manuel alone in the pews. “I believe this is the first time I’ve seen you here,” Lee says, noting that Manuel jumps slightly at the sound of his voice. Had Manuel not heard him come in? He hadn’t been particularly quiet about it. “Is something troubling you?”
Manuel is hesitant to share his burden, but he knows he can’t continue to bear it alone. The bruises on his neck have mostly healed, enough that Manuel doesn’t need to hide them beneath a scarf, but his mind feels like it shatters more and more every day. “It’s…complicated, but yes. A lot has been weighing on my mind as of late.”
Lee walks over and takes a seat near Manuel, not close enough to be overbearing but close enough to speak and listen. “You aren’t obligated to share, of course, but I am always willing to lend an ear if it would help.”
It’s quiet between them as Manuel wrings his hands together, trying to decide where to start and how far to go. “I…I’m afraid. All the time, I’m nervous, like something is about to go wrong or disaster is about to strike. It’s to the point that I’m losing sleep, having trouble focusing while working...I almost lost a finger to the industrial cutter yesterday because I was so exhausted and wrapped up in my own thoughts.”
The minister listens patiently, keeping any judgments he may have to himself. “Is there something in particular you’re afraid of happening?” Manuel can’t bring himself to say it out loud—not only because it’s supposed to be kept a secret, but because if he says it, that makes it all the more real. Lee makes his own assumptions. “Manuel, if you’re having second thoughts about the All Source, you can change your mind. You are not obligated to continue on this path.”
“It’s…” Manuel sighs, running a hand through his hair. The oak-brown locks have gotten shaggier than he’d normally prefer, but he hasn’t managed to sit still long enough for Sanwa to cut it. “It’s not about the All Source. It’s about the people who might want the All Source.”
Lee raises his eyebrows at that, though he tries not to look too visibly alarmed. “An entirely valid concern. Technology has led mankind to its destruction before.”
“I don’t think it was technology’s fault.” Manuel looks up at the stained glass windows, the sunlight casting a rainbow of colors in over where they sit. “Technology isn’t inherently good or evil. Mankind sought destruction because it’s rotten at its core.”
“I know you don’t truly believe that.” When Manuel gives him a skeptical look, Lee’s resolve doesn’t waver. “You’ve seen the good in people. Would you really say that Portia’s residents are evil? Malicious? Even Merlin, despite her foolishness, seeks to help humanity with her endeavors. Do any of our fellows seem the type to seek the destruction of others?”
It’s silent for a long moment, Manuel’s gaze flicking from Lee to the ornate ceiling of the church. His voice is soft when he finally speaks. “No. They’re all good people, I know they are.”
Lee puts a hand on Manuel’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “For all the cruelty that exists in the world, there is kindness as well. The worst of us almost destroyed humanity, but the best of us saved it. The point is to maintain balance. To put light back into the world, even when it feels as though there’s only darkness left.” Lee smiles, a soft and genuine thing. “You are a beacon of hope and courage to many of us, Manuel. When you feel the night approach, remember that light comes from within.”
As much as Manuel wants to dismiss the minister as hopelessly optimistic, he can’t deny that the sentiment warms his heart. “What if—what if that’s not enough? What if I’m not enough?”
“It doesn’t matter if you are enough, because you’re not alone. You are not responsible for all of the world’s cruelty. Do what you can to be a good person—that’s all. So long as we each do that, we will take care of each other.”
Manuel lingers in the church for a little while longer, Lee eventually leaving Manuel to his own thoughts and disappearing to take care of his own personal business.
The sun is beginning to set by the time Manuel starts heading home, but the prospect of the night doesn’t scare him quite so much anymore.
Things calm down until the Council Guards arrive.
Then, everything gets worse.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Aadit says from behind his cup of tea, watching Manuel eagerly cram an overstuffed sandwich into his mouth. “Been forgetting to eat again?”
Manuel makes a face as he finishes chewing his latest bite. “I’ve been feeding myself fine, thank you. Today is just a late lunch for me.”
The snow only recently finished melting, finally ushering in the beginning of spring. Manuel can’t remember the last time he sat down and spent time with someone just for the sake of spending time together, or even just for himself to relax. Aadit had waited outside of his workshop this morning though, and he had a sneaking suspicion Aadit wasn’t going to let Manuel blow him off.
Not that Manuel was going to complain about being dragged to Central Plaza for a meal with a good friend.
“Mhmm.” There’s no way Aadit believes Manuel for even a moment, but Aadit doesn’t call him on it. “Albert said you’ve been busy lately, though he wouldn’t say on what.” Which makes sense, given that Albert doesn’t know. “At least tell me you’re not working yourself to the bone.”
On the tip of Manuel’s tongue is a crack about already having worked himself into a skeleton, but he suspects that would not soothe Aadit’s worry. Manuel simply nods instead, trying to look as earnest as he can. “I haven’t. There’s a couple of…stressful projects I’m doing for Captain Ursula, but otherwise, things have been pretty steady. I’m making sure I don’t get stretched too thin.”
“You can always say no if the projects are too much,” Aadit says, eyes boring into Manuel with an almost jarring level of intensity. “You aren’t the only builder in town, and I’m sure Higgins wouldn’t mind the work.”
Manuel knows Higgins wouldn’t mind, but Higgins, unfortunately, isn’t qualified to go into dangerous ruins. That, and Ursula got fed up with Higgins’ presence rather quickly, to no one’s surprise.
“It’s alright, really. If anything, I’ve been getting to test my skills as a builder.” He digs around in his pocket for a moment before pulling out some blueprints he’d gotten from Petra that very morning. “Structural integrity is one thing, but the complexity of machinery is another challenge entirely! Look how many gears and springs I’m going to need for this!”
Whether Aadit is amused at the intricacy of the blueprint or simply at Manuel’s enthusiasm, it’s hard to say, but his eyes do flick to Manuel with interest as a realization hits. “Back to ruin diving?”
“Yeah.” Manuel looks down to the remainder of his sandwich, unable to meet the hard look in Aadit’s eyes. His appetite seems to flee him as well. “Can’t keep putting it off forever just because I took a bad tumble last time.”
That had been the official story; Manuel kept his neck covered with high collars and scarves, and the continual visits to Doctor Xu to closely monitor for head trauma were explained away by saying he’d fallen in the ruins and suffered a concussion. Aadit, despite his gentle and kind demeanor, has a serious knack for seeing through people, and had never really believed the story from the beginning—but given that the handful of folks who were involved in the incident were all clearly conspiring together, Aadit chose not to shake the hornet’s nest and kept his skepticism to himself.
Even now, Manuel can tell that Aadit is carefully studying him, and it makes the blood rush to his cheeks. He resumes eating his sandwich, hoping that Aadit won’t question him further.
“If you think you’re ready,” Aadit finally says, after a long sip from his tea. “Just promise you’ll be careful? I worry about you. Er—we worry about you. All of us, you know?” It didn’t seem like much of a slip-up to Manuel, but Aadit blushed at the admission, as though it’d been an embarrassing reveal.
Manuel returns the kindness of privacy by ignoring it, moving on to talk about more pleasant things, like the tree farm, or Django’s newest menu.
Anything but the matter of the ruins.
Bassanio Heights is, by far, Manuel’s favorite place around Portia.
The gorgeous view of the surrounding area is an obvious bonus, but the real highlight is the seclusion. Hardly anyone comes out this way, save for an occasional Civil Corps patrol, and as of late even they’ve been absent, too busy with more pressing matters to bother looking after a remote spot.
Which is another bonus if you’re looking to sweep through WOW Industries without the Civil Corps noticing.
(There was once a time when Manuel heeded the word of authority in general. Ever since things started going sideways with the All Source, however, he’s found it harder and harder to care about arbitrary rules. Besides—everything there would go to waste otherwise, and that’d be a bigger shame.)
After a successful dive, Manuel emerges from the ruins as the sun is setting, the reds and oranges bleeding across the sky providing a warm glow and stretching the shadows of everything beneath. There’s still plenty of time to make it home, and Manuel isn’t worried about traveling back at night on this path, so he gives himself the moment to sit down amongst the trees, enjoy the sunset, and get his things in order.
Manuel actually manages to feel at peace as he sifts through the materials in his pack. Bundling the wood into more manageable parcels isn’t the most fun thing in the world, necessarily, but it gives him something to do, something for his brain to hone in on and stop worrying about the things that are out of his control. He finds a lone apple he’d forgotten he picked up earlier, and after wiping it off to the best of his ability, he pops it into his mouth, holding it in his teeth and savoring the juice of it while he finishes reorganizing.
Once he sets his bag aside, he takes one big bite out of the apple, and that’s as far as Manuel gets before something collides hard with his side and sends him sprawling across the grass.
Manuel stumbles to his feet, struggling desperately to get his bearings, and he doesn’t quite register what’s happening until the figure is coming at him again and winding up for a punch. Manuel’s instincts kick in enough for him to duck out of the way and use the opening to throw a right hook. When his opponent effortlessly catches his fist, time seems to stop for the two to finally make eye contact.
The Rogue Knight.
His silhouette is dark, outlined by the setting sun behind him finally starting to sink below the horizon. But his figure has haunted Manuel’s dreams for weeks, and Manuel would recognize it anywhere from a mile away.
Before Manuel can respond, the knight reaches forward to grab Manuel’s entire arm, using the leverage to toss Manuel aside in an absurd show of strength, as if the builder weighed little more than a sack of flour. Manuel’s back hits a tree, and the wind is knocked out of him. He collapses to the ground and slumps forward, trying to catch his breath and clear his head and not panic.
Unfortunately, he fails spectacularly at staying calm as the knight grabs Manuel by the shirt collar, hoisting him up and roughly shoving him against the tree. “You never learn, do you?”
Not being strangled is a plus, but Manuel isn’t exactly comfortable being held by his clothing, either. Fear threatens to seize his heart as he barely manages to scrounge up enough courage to speak. There’s an uptick of his lips, the whispered suggestion of a smile. “I wouldn’t say that.”
The Rogue Knight doesn’t have time to ask before Manuel finishes fishing out the carving knife from his sleeve, and in one deft movement, Manuel drives it into the Rogue Knight’s arm, taking the moment to scramble away as the knight drops him and roars in pain.
It doesn’t give him much time—only just long enough to spot his bag that’d been knocked aside and to dive for it, snatching it up and reaching blindly for his weapon. He can hear the knight hissing threats at him, but when Manuel turns back around and stands with the Red Hawk in hand, the knight pauses.
“You’re more resourceful than I thought,” he says after a moment, something close to amusement in his voice. “Do you even know how to use that?”
Manuel sets his jaw and aims—stock braced against his shoulder, elbows in, eyes properly aligned with the iron sights—before disengaging the safety, each movement methodical and practiced. “Want to risk finding out?”
Neither of them move, carefully watching each other to see who will act first. Despite the situation, the knight looks almost relaxed, which only continues to irritate Manuel to no end. As if picking up on Manuel’s annoyance, the knight chuckles. “Well then? Pull the trigger.”
Manuel takes a slow, deep breath, without lowering the rifle. “You can still walk away. I don’t want to have to do this.”
“You won’t.” The Rogue Knight takes a bold step forward, and Manuel’s finger curls on the trigger, one twitch away from firing. “You aren’t willing to take a life. Especially not with something like that—what would the dear Minister think?”
“Lee’s not here to judge.” Manuel can only feign so much bravado when sweat is starting to bead on his temples. “Are you trying to guilt me into not defending myself? You’ve attacked me multiple times, attacked my friends! I’m not going to feel bad for putting down a monster!”
The knight holds out his arms, leaving himself wide open. “Then put me down, hero.”
Dead silence fills the air between them as they both stand perfectly still, waiting for the other to fold. A breeze blows through, rustling the young spring leaves growing in on the trees around them, the wind cold enough to send a chill down Manuel’s spine. It isn’t cold enough to make him shiver.
His hands shake for other reasons.
Emboldened, the knight takes another step forward, and Manuel’s finger squeezes a fraction more. “Don’t come any closer!”
Manuel tries—he really, truly tries, but he can’t make his body cooperate. His desire to live is screaming for him to move, to pull the trigger, to get up and run, to do something , but Manuel is completely paralyzed, hands trembling so badly he can hardly hold the weapon steady anymore. “I’m warning you, I’ll do it, I’ll… I’ll…”
The Rogue Knight stands before Manuel, close enough that the barrel could touch his chest if he leaned forward. “Take your shot.”
After another moment of inaction, the knight slowly reaches out, putting his hand on the barrel of the gun and pushing it aside until it’s no longer pointed at him. Manuel doesn’t fight when the knight takes the gun out of his hands, tears welling in his eyes as the knight puts the safety on and tosses it out of reach. His hands clench into fists at his sides and he lowers his head, refusing to look up as the knight takes one final step, closing the distance between them. A choked and ugly sob leaves Manuel’s throat as he’s forced to admit that the knight called his bluff—he thought he could surprise the knight, but the knight knew him better than he knew himself.
Manuel’s startled when the Rogue Knight’s hand caresses his cheek, wiping away some of the tears. The knight tuts softly, almost mockingly sweet as he coos to Manuel. “You poor thing. The world is so cruel, isn’t it?”
Before Manuel can respond, the knight shoves him to the ground, pinning him and wrapping a hand around his throat. Manuel grabs the knight’s wrist with one hand, more out of obligation than anything else, as he hardly attempts to free himself—which is just as well, because the knight’s grip isn’t constricting, like he’s hardly trying to harm Manuel at the moment. Manuel stares up at the knight, brows creasing in confusion. “What do you want from me…?”
“I thought I made it clear last time to stay away from the All Source.” The knight experimentally flexes his grip, clearly reveling in how Manuel tenses beneath him. “Apparently you need a reminder.”
“Fuck you,” Manuel breathes out. There’s no heat to the words—only bitter defeat. “Do you really think I want to keep helping? I wanted to get out. Arlo wanted me to get out.” The knight’s hand twitches at the mention of Arlo, but Manuel continues. “The only reason I’m still involved is because I keep getting dragged into it against my will.”
To Manuel’s surprise, the knight’s hold loosens and he eases off a bit, apparently mulling over this information. He hums in thought, the sound a deep, low rumble that makes Manuel’s cheeks warm in this close proximity. It feels almost like the knight wants to ask him something, but is holding off. When the knight notices Manuel’s questioning stare, he leans down, resting their foreheads together. “If you’re lying to me, you’re going to regret it.”
Manuel tries not to show how flustered he is with the knight so close, instead sighing with reluctant acceptance as if this were the most casual thing that could be occurring between them right now. “What, you think I like our little chats? You don’t have to discourage me, I hate being involved in this enough as it is.”
The knight laughs and the sound is surprisingly warm, perhaps with genuine amusement. “You could have fooled me.” Manuel blinks and furrows his brows, unsure what he means, and in response, the knight shifts back so that he’s straddling Manuel’s waist. He rolls his hips and Manuel immediately takes a sharp breath through his teeth, as if he’d been burned, and when the knight laughs again, it’s dark and mean. “You’re certainly enjoying this chat more than the last one.”
“Yeah, you’re not strangling me this time,” Manuel manages to grit out, closing his eyes and willing his body to relax, begging it not to respond. “Big improvement. Maybe next time you could skip tossing me around altogether.”
“I think you like it.” The knight ignores how Manuel balks at the accusation. “You like it when you’re not being asked to do something or being saddled with responsibilities.” In slow, firm movements, the knight takes Manuel’s wrists, pinning them down on each side of Manuel’s head. Manuel makes no effort to stop the knight. “You like it when someone else is in charge and takes what they want.”
He shouldn’t. Manuel knows he shouldn’t, knows how bad of an idea this is, that the veiled promise of respite—if even for just a fleeting moment—could be the undoing of everyone and everything. But weeks of tension and stress and fear have had Manuel teetering on the brink of collapse, and the knight offers a relief that only he can provide. Maybe the only relief that can finally put Manuel’s spiraling thoughts to rest.
Manuel tries to free his wrists, but the knight doesn’t budge, an immovable object and unstoppable force all in one bearing down and threatening to consume him. With a long, deep breath, Manuel forces himself to meet the knight’s gaze. “And what is it that you want?”
The Rogue Knight chuckles, leaning down to speak softly into Manuel’s ear.
“I thought you’d never ask.”