The boat is quiet as it docks by the side of a pier. Now there is nothing but the sound, the splash of water, as the quiet rumble of a motor draws away, while overhead the moon paints everything silver; the rocks, the starfish, the quick slip and flash of tiny fish that dart through water and become dark enough to blot out the grit and gravel of the river bed below.
Ryoken has no time to look, not the way he would have done as a child. Instead he walks over a pier that creaks beneath his feet, the whorls in the board forming a hundred dark eyes, all staring up at him accusingly. It is stupid of him to do this. But still.
Yusaku sent him a message, and so Ryoken is here. And out he walks, through a familiar street, into a garden his father never had time to play with him in all the way up to a house he once decided to never step foot in again.
And yet here he is, years later. Scraping out chunks of dust with his feet. Leaving behind a second trail of footsteps after the first, Ryoken walks down a corridor he dimly remembers, with no pictures on the wall.
There is a laugh. A little nasally, smug and familiar, and Ryoken narrows his eyes as it drifts down the stairs. He ends up taking them two at a time, following the joyful titter of the Dark Ignis, before it draws to a close, morphing into a sickly croon of, 'no, no, Yusaku-chan, like this-'
And then he is there, out, inside the curve of the longue where his father once lay. But this time Yusaku stands by the window, a slight, slight, quirk of the mouth unveiled to the light that pours through the moon-soaked windows, all his attention eaten up by the phone in his hand. Ryoken has time to make out the flutter of curls, a familiar SOLtiS practising a few wonky dance steps across the screen before Yusaku turns, the curl of his mouth smoothing out, hard as a pebble, as he ends the video with an abrupt press of his thumb.
This, more than anything else, makes something in Ryoken hesitate. Yusaku...Yusaku doesn't do this. Doesn't get distracted, doesn't allow anything to that isn't necessary to cross into his vision, not when he's working towards a goal of some sort. In fact this seems more like something Ai would do.
And if Ai were here – but, no, he isn't. Couldn't be. And it is a good thing Yusaku has never had a similar flair for the dramatics the way Ai did, or else Ryoken could have expected to see a body laid out in bed his father took his last breath in, a body that no longer breathed, that had never breathed-
But no. Here is Yusaku. Unrepentant and with a phone in his hand.
'You were careless, Fujiki,' says Ryoken softly. 'That virus you made…it didn't self delete the way it was supposed to. Though it was good enough to lead the police straight to Spectre.'
A lie. Yusaku is a lot of things; deliberately careless has never been one of them.
'That's my line,' Yusaku replies. 'You should have checked our-' he catches himself, lets out a breath. It emerges as a hiss, a venomous one. 'My home,' he corrects. 'Ai had plenty of cameras set up, it turns out. Some even I wasn't aware of. Perhaps you would have found them all had you had time. If you had made time.' His gaze narrows. 'But you didn't waste a moment.'
No, Ryoken didn't. It hurts him a little to remember. Their home, so much warmer than this one had ever been, shelves filled with Blu-Rays for things Ryoken very much doubted Yusaku had the time or taste to watch. The spines shone out like a rainbow to his eye, in parody of a well-stocked library shelf, the sofa below filled with pastel purple hues. It had burned something in his chest to see the bright coffee table on one side, littered with dozens of photos in neat golden frames, a shard of joy captured in each face. Even in Yusaku's unsmiling ones, there was something there, on the way his eyes were soft when they looked at the other at his side, usually holding the selfie-stick and looking far too absorbed in winking or striking a pose, even outside, in a background filled with dreary tones the Vrains network didn't always like to accommodate.
Some of those photos had been smashed by the time Ryoken had left though, the frames thoroughly splintered into cheap sticks of metal after Pandor and Ai had spun into the table and cast it down. The struggle had been brutal, a whirlwind of black and green, much like watching a lion drag down prey, though the sparks of electricity that danced over their bodies told of a more complex fight going on beneath the surface. But in the end Pandor had become more advanced over the years, her base code more stable than the more flighty Ignis one, and the viruses she had created were as swift as a sword as they crashed through the panicked signals in Ai's head.
They had left him there, left him for Yusaku to find, snapshots of their life together smashed beneath his limbs in parody of a bed. It had been cruel, yes, but Ryoken couldn't have ever brought himself to touch Ai, not even to close his eyes, and spare Yusaku the sight of them staring dully out into the wall.
'It had to be done,' Ryoken says grimly. He doesn't much like himself for doing it, and after everything, after the years of quiet when Ai had failed to turn into the next Lightning, there is still a set of nerves jangling inside him, little jumps of thought that tell him, 'he was a person like Pandor, you know he was, and what if he had never turned after Yusaku left this world, what if, what if, what if.' But he crushes those thoughts down as always. Humanity and its continued survival deserves better than his doubts.
'Ai may have been content to behave while you were here to keep him in check,' Ryoken says, knowing, just from the careful blankness on Yusaku's face, that his words may as well be falling on stone. 'But what about after your life runs its natural course? What then?'
'Maybe nothing,' Yusaku says dully. 'Or maybe everything. Maybe a life with me would have been enough; you never gave him the chance to find out.'
I'm not sorry, Ryoken thinks. But there's no need to say it. Yusaku already knows.
There's a stir of wind in the garden below, a rustle in a bush outside. A tread of feet on the path outside as a human hand shoves the door aside ruthlessly. And then Ryoken hears them, marching into the house, the rough sounds of their shoes on the stairs. Shoes they haven't even bothered to slip off.
He sends Yusaku a wry look. 'Who did you call? The police? You want me to go against Homura Takeru's wishes now?'
And yet something freezes in him when Yusaku doesn't meet his gaze; for it's something that Yusaku had never failed to do before.
'No,' his old rival says. 'I just remembered that there were some other people out there who you hurt and decided to get in contact with them. Not every victim made a full recovery after being swallowed by the Tower of Hanoi or falling victim to the ANOTHER virus; initially yes, they did. But some developed ongoing brain trauma or psychological issues later on; a few are even dead now, because if it.' He eyes Ryoken. 'And I know what's it's like to want answers.'
And of course, revenge too.
Minutes later, Yusaku sits on the side of the road. There is starlight out in the sky; it pours down onto the ocean, creating shining spaces, pushing necklaces of lights out onto the ripple of the waves.
Ai would have loved it.
'Pretty,' he would have sighed. Or squealed. Or maybe he would have just hugged Yusaku's arm, nuzzled his way down onto his shoulder, while staring out onto the sea, a flicker in his irises as he watched the waves and thought...well. Something stupid.
And then he would have leant forwards, enough for his head to drop like a stone into Yusaku's lap. 'Oh,' he would have said. 'Oh dear. I miscalculated and now gravity has me in its clutches! Yusaku, save me! I've forgotten how to escape it!' and then he would have promptly, and quite unrepentantly, seized Yusaku's hand and slid it over his cheek.
Yusaku smiles before he realises his hand, now lost in the memory of another time, is already reaching out, down, into the shadow of his lap to stroke...someone who isn't there.
His hand clenches. Would Ai still love him the same, stars twinkling in his eyes, if he saw what Yusaku has done? If he'd known Yusaku, the Yusaku of today, is capable of watching as a bruise blossoms along Ryoken's cheek? What would he think if he could see Yusaku leave as Ryoken falls to the carpet, crushed by shouts, by tears, by demands from people who are angry, as angry as Yusaku had once been as Playmaker. And now is once again.
But Ryoken's still breathing, Yusaku tells himself. And he has his words, his promises, his brain – Yusaku has given him a chance to appease those people, to work out a compromise, maybe even end up in a jail cell for a while. It's more than what the other man in turn has offered to Ai.
But it doesn't matter. Nothing has mattered, not since Yusaku had come home a week ago and found that he would never again receive a 'welcome home' or a hug or, or, or...
And all that had been was a body, something mechanical to hold and cradle in his arms, a body he couldn't even have a proper funeral for. And Yusaku had held that body for hours, while his brain was filled with white noise, empty space, and a cold, growing horror.
He had once thought he could forgive Ryoken anything. And maybe tomorrow, or weeks from now, a year, something in him will un-harden, uncurl, and he'd finally find himself horrified at what he'd done in the heat of the moment.
But not now. Not today. Today Ai is dead. Again. Maybe another miracle can happen and Yusaku will find a way to bring him back home once more...but Pandor has been thorough this time, crushing out each sizzling spark of Ai's program and so the possibility of true revival is lower than ever...which just makes his anger burn even harder.
But either way he's sent his message to Ryoken and his Knights: and next time, if there was a next time, they'd remember not to crush any part of his home again.
Notes: A sad one, this time. Whoops.