"So where has all the day gone?

And why are my lungs aching when I breathe?

Is there something wrong with the heat?

Why am I so cold?

And my heart feels sick

And it hurts when I speak

And this is not what I hoped for."

"Happiness By The Kilowatt" - Alexisonfire

It never gets any easier.

It doesn't help that every year, That Day seems to come more quickly, as if all of time pivots on that one simple, solitary collection of twenty-four hours, all the months and weeks sliding inexorably downwards towards the lowest point, like water through a funnel.

But Flynn Scifo, Commandant of the Imperial Knights, has his own special way of dealing with the ghosts of the past…when it comes to dealing with this ghost, at least.

It's tradition, now. That first year after the fact, Flynn had somehow randomly found himself in Mantaic, standing on the shore staring out at the ocean as the moon rose over the sea. Remembering the conversation he'd had there one evening not so long ago with the one person who'd meant the world to him.

And maybe what happened there that night was just a dream; maybe it's still just a dream. But it's happened the same way every year since then, so regardless of the impossibility of it, there's a certain sort of reality to it as well.

Just like always, he's standing in salty water up to his shins, utterly oblivious to the fact that it'll make cleaning his armour something of a nightmare tomorrow, head tipped back to stare at the stars glowing hot and bright in the dark sky. The only things missing, the only things different from that remembered, closely-held night, are the light from the barrier ring and him.

The blonde knight closes his eyes, listening to the hiss of the waves on the beach, feeling the gentle tug of the tide on his legs, tasting salt and sand on his lips; and suddenly both of those missing things aren't missing any more.

A blast of frigid, icy-cold air hits his back, abrupt but not unexpected, not this time. Flynn opens his eyes to find a rush of snowflakes spinning and drifting around him, melting on impact as they hit the warm turquoise water, or leaving their delicate frosty tracery on his armour before the lingering desert heat turns them to mere water droplets, each the same as any other. The barrier ring is still missing from the night sky, but for the moment, that's the only difference remaining between Then and Now. Head down, Flynn slowly turns back towards the shore, and there he stands.

He looks just as he always does, like he is in Flynn's memories rather than how he'd looked the last time Flynn had seen him. There's no torn clothing or tattered boots, no dirt, no blood; he looks healthy, happy, and whole.

The only thing he's missing is the usual sword at his side, and Flynn knows where that is. It's the only thing that reminds him that this isn't really real,at least not in the way he'd like for it to be. But the Second Star in its rack on the wall over his desk, alone in the space where a colourful riot of childish pictures had once held sway, reminds him all too often-every day, every time he enters his room or sits at his desk or catches sight of it out of the corner of his eye-of what's real, and what's happened, and what he's done…and that Yuri will never come reclaim it.

But for tonight, on this one night of the year, Flynn lets himself forget all of that. Tonight, and only tonight, he can talk and act as if all is still right in the world. As if none of it ever happened.

"You're late." There's no accusation in the words, just a flat matter-of-fact statement. "I'd started to think maybe you wouldn't come this year."

"You know me better than that, Yuri." Though he smiles, after that first brief glance, Flynn doesn't dare look at his best friend too hard for fear of seeing through him, through this,this vision or dream or whatever it is, too soon. Their time is limited enough as it is. "And anyway, isn't that my line?"

"Hey, if you're late, I can be late too. Besides, I'd think someone as important as the Great Flynn Scifo, Commandant of the Imperial Knights, would have something better to do than stay out all night talking to himself."

Flynn can't help giving a soft snort and running with the joke. "You'd be surprised. But regardless of how demanding the job is, I don't doubt that he'll always have time to spare for his oldest and closest friend."

There's an odd half-beat of silence before Yuri replies, the characteristic teasing in his tone not quite as convincing as usual. "That's what I was counting on, you know."

Flynn feels his jaw clench, and he gives a tight little nod, wanting to turn his head away but not quite willing to lose sight of his best friend completely. He knows, and though he accepts it only with difficulty, he understands precisely what Yuri means. Because it was something of an unspoken promise, a warning not-quite-threat they'd shared along with the burden of following their own paths. Both knew all too well that it was a careful balance, that it could have gone either way; it just so happened that Flynn had ended up with the harder side of the deal.

It never does get any easier. And most of the time, he doesn't really want it to. Because getting easier is one step closer to forgetting,and that's something he's sworn he'll never do.

He'd received the notification, as well as his orders, from his new second in command. The dark-haired knight had appeared at his door early one morning, anxious and worried and not quite able to meet his eyes, which told Flynn that she knew all too well what this was about. (On reading the documents, he was far more grateful than he would ever admit to anyone that Sodia had been transferred to the new garrison in Aurnion permanently two years before; that was one I told you so he could do without.)

—wanted for the intentional and premeditated murder of several members of the nobility thought to be linked to a recently-captured ring of slave-traders—

"Sir? If you'd like, Captain Witcher and I would be more than willing to accompany you to—"

"No."Accomplished fighter, trustworthy second, and brave, honorable knight as she's proven to be, she still can't help recoiling reflexively at the atypical harshness in his tone, her jaw shutting with a clack. Flynn has to stop a moment to remind himself of who she isn't, forcing a smile to soften the rest of his reply. "I do appreciate the offer, but that won't be necessary, Lieutenant."

—found dead along with all the members of their households—

The smile slides from his face as he stares down at the parchment in his hands, everything in him denying the words on those pages, longing to rebel and refuse that command.

—suspect believed to be in flight, last seen heading north from Halure; apprehend or neutralise at all costs—

"His Majesty the Emperor wouldn't issue orders like these without concrete evidence and a pressing need to resolve the situation. And if it turns out that he's been mislead in any way concerning this issue, I have no doubt that he'll listen to what Lady Estellise and I will both have to say."

—approach with extreme caution, as the suspect is highly dangerous, armed and known to use deadly force when pressed—

Closing his eyes, the Commandant calmly folds the pages, tucking them into the hidden breast pocket inside of his uniform, hoping against hope that it hasn't really come to this. He's been so busy of late that only now does he realise that it has been months since last he'd checked in, and now that he thinks back on their most recent too-short visit, there had been some things that concerned him even then, but then again that wasn't anything unusual.

He would know the truth of the matter soon enough.

Just as he had on past occasions, Flynn finds himself telling Yuri about the last five years, what the other members of Brave Vesperia are up to. How Karol's working with Harry of Altosk, doing an excellent job of keeping the peace between members of the Union as well as within Dahngrest itself, with Raven as his trusted second. How Judith's been helping to get the Krityans settled now that Krones, the jellyfish-like Entelexeia that swallowed Myorzo, has become a Spirit as well. How Rita is a professor now, teaching magic at the new Imperial Academy Ioder and Estelle had built in the now-fully-renovated Shaikos Ruins. How that academy is preparing the common people to take more of a hand in ruling themselves, as well as integrating the highborn with the lowborn, giving them a chance to mingle and see each other as equals, fellow human beings, from a young age. How Estelle has really been stepping into her role as royalty lately, taking on so much more responsibility, becoming an invaluable aid to Ioder; and how her stories have touched so many lives and helped bridge the gap between the nobility and the commoners just that much more, since every little bit helps. How the Council is no longer made up entirely of nobles, an even half of its members now chosen based on location and population, with those representatives voted into the position, not simply born to it. How the Knights and the Guilds are working together even more smoothly now, Aurnion still a model of peace and prosperity that all strive to mimic and mirror.

"And what about that Commandant Flynn Scifo?" Yuri says after his laughter over one of Rita's more infamous teaching habits (late students are greeted with Fireballs on her good days, and a Negative Gate or Meteor Storm most every other) fades. "You never say much about him."

"What's there to say? You know he's still doing whatever he can to change things from the top, to make sure the laws are good and fair, and that the empire is just and merciful in enforcing them. There's patrols and inspections and plenty of paperwork to fill all his free time and more."

Yuri stretches, absently folding his arms behind his head. "Yeah, sounds pretty boring all right." If this were truly a normal conversation, they both know that this is where Flynn's latest hopeless attempt at persuading Yuri to rejoin the Knights would go. Now that that's genuinely impossible, Flynn has no ready reply, so Yuri covers for him, shooting a quick sideways grin his way. "Good thing I never let you convince me to join up again, huh?"

"It isn't boring at all," Flynn says simply, disregarding Yuri's rather bleak attempt at a joke, his attention focused on the reflections of the stars far out to sea. As he speaks, his gaze shifts upwards, settling on the brightest star in the sky, watching its steady scintillation, the cold, distant heartbeat of the heavens. "But it does get lonely sometimes. Especially these days."

Especially these last few years,he really means, and they both know it.

"I wish you could come back, Yuri," Flynn murmurs after a moment, and it's unmistakable that this time, he's not talking about coming back to the Knights at all. He's smiling, though the expression is a sad one, and more than a little wistful; after all this time, the regret still hasn't faded, even if deep down he knows he made the right decision.

"Yeah…" It was meant to be a totally flippant, offhanded agreement, but Yuri can't seem to take his eyes off that despondently reflective look on his best friend's face, and it comes out far more serious than he'd intended. "Me, too."

It took three days of hard riding, but Flynn had finally caught up with Yuri in the Blade Drifts of Zopheir…and when their eyes met over the jaggedly icy field, he nearly wished he hadn't, Commandant or not.

Crouching in a cleft on one of the biggest of the rocky islands, a largely vain attempt to take shelter from the frigid wind, Yuri looks distinctly dark and dangerous, his hair a wildly unkempt mane, a fierce, feral light in his eyes; it's obvious that he hasn't even bothered trying to clean off any of the blood liberally spattered over his face and clothes, wearing it almost proudly, like some sort of ghastly war paint.

And the blonde knight knows that's precisely what it is, really. Because, before beginning his search for Yuri, Flynn had paid a visit to the crime scenes-he needed to know the truth, had to see for himself what his best friend had been accused of doing before he went to confront him. He wanted to be honest and upfront with Yuri, just like always, with no secrets or uncertainties between them.

And he hadn't needed to spend more than five minutes at either scene (both gaudy, monstrously oversized mansions sprawling across the rich, grassy fields southeast of Capua Nor) before he knew beyond a doubt what had happened there.

He still doesn't want to believe it-part of his mind can't accept it, won't grasp it, won't even consider it-but the look on Yuri's face as they lock eyes makes the surrounding landscape seem almost tropical in comparison, and a chill blossoms in Flynn's chest that has nothing to do with the weather.

"You know why I'm here, Yuri." Flynn's hand moves to rest on his sword's hilt, and he has to half-shout to be heard above the constant moan of the wind over the ice-covered rocks encircling them. "By the order of his Imperial Majesty, Ioder Algios Heurassein, I'm placing you under arrest."

"And you know me too well to believe that I'd ever come quietly, Flynn."

The knight's hand falls away from his sword, joining the other in clenching tightly into a fist at his side instead, his voice going low and carefully controlled. "So…even after something like that, you won't admit that you've gone too far this time? I expected better of you, Yuri."

"Right back at you, Commandant. How many years have you held that position now? And still the common people suffer under the heavy hand of the nobility." The swordsman gives a disturbingly sinister chuckle, making a show of inspecting one of his crimson-encrusted palms. "You already knew how dirty my hands were, and that I had no intention of trying to wash them clean. So as always, I just did what really needed to be done."

Whether it's the cool tone Yuri's using, the heartlessness of his words, or the complete and utter lack of remorse for his actions, for a moment Flynn's control slips, his reply snapping out sharply like the lash of a whip. "I went to those houses—I saw what you'd done with my own eyes! There were children there, Yuri!"

The dark-haired swordsman doesn't even blink. "They weren't any younger than Karol was when I first met him. And I watched them for a few days first, and the way they were treating the shopkeepers and commoners…" His eyes, if possible, grow even darker, more dangerous. "Age is no excuse for something like that."

"Isn't it?" Flynn says quietly. "Children like that rely on their parents for everything, including teaching them how to think and treat others."

"Which means they were destined to grow up and become every bit as slimy and twisted as their parents."

"There's always that possibility, but that still doesn't change the fact that they hadn't done anything truly wrong yet! They weren't in any sort of position of authority, and they probably didn't even know what their parents were doing! They were just kids—"

"We were kids once, too, you know, and when did anyone ever go easy on us because of that?" Yuri cuts in relentlessly. "If anything, they only took advantage of us all the more."

"Which makes you every bit as bad as they were. Doesn't it?" Yuri's eyes narrow, his expression and the set of his jaw growing even harder as his hand tightens on the hilt of his still-drawn and bloodied sword. "Whatever they may have done, whatever crimes they may have committed, it still didn't give you the right to judge those people like that." Grimly Flynn's hand returns to his own sword, the howl of the wind seeming to grow even fiercer as it does so. "Yuri, as Commandant of the Imperial Knights…no. As your friend first and foremost, I cannot allow you to continue down this path any further!"

"Great," Yuri snorts, his typical sarcasm almost entirely replaced by withering scorn. "So are you waiting for me to freeze to death, or are you really gonna do this?"

In a twinkling, Flynn closes the distance between them, his sword clearing its sheath to slash downwards at the still-seated Yuri with the force of a sledgehammer; as expected, Yuri dodges with inches to spare, coming up on his feet with catlike grace to launch his own attack.

But here, at least at the first, Flynn has more than one type of attack to launch.

"Things are different than they were a few years ago!" the blonde knight all but shouts as he parries the first two slashes of Yuri's Tiger Blade arte, only just managing to deflect the follow-up punch with his shield. "We captured that slaving ring, and from their testimonies I can assure you that those people would have been lawfully punished for their crimes, nobility or not!"

"Actions speak louder than words, Flynn," Yuri grits out as a Holy Lance hits him straight-on. "Those people were still free to hurt others just like they had before—and how many more months would the common people have had to suffer under them before the Knights showed up?"

Flynn falters just slightly under the intensity of a Dragon Swarm, forced a few steps back as he takes that final kick squarely in the chest. "The Knights would have been there to arrest them within three days, at the very latest. I signed off on the order just yesterday, and the whole affair was only brought to our attention last week! We can't help people if no one will tell us something's wrong!"

"So that means I should sit back and let people suffer and die just because there was some kind of kink in the system this time? If someone died today, it wouldn't matter to them if the Knights showed up to put a stop to the evil bastards who did it tomorrow-they were still too slow!"

Flynn has to scramble a bit to get out of the way as Yuri slams down a Destruction Field, and the hasty movement combined with the ice beneath his feet, the buffeting wind, and the weight of his armour leave him temporarily off-balance, if only slightly. Yuri doesn't slow, pressing the advantage, giving Flynn no time to recover or respond before hitting him with a Final Gale, knocking him down and back to slam against an icicle-laden rock wall.

He watches from a distance as Flynn is buried under a mini-avalanche of snow, rocks, and ice, clearly unmoved by anything he's heard from his best friend's mouth thus far, much less the blonde knight's presence. "If something is rotten, you cut it out before it can infect what's around it…but lately I can't help but think that the whole empire is like that." He rests his sword on his shoulder as he slowly, purposefully moves closer to his downed best friend. "Getting rid of all the cold, uncaring nobility is just the first step to making things fair for everyone—and that's something I'll do at any cost."

It takes Flynn a little longer than it should to get up, but to have that particular arte used against him stings in a way that snow in his face or a blade against his skin never could. His armour is working against him now, the cold and snow in the joints of his gauntlets and greaves slowing him, forcing him to abandon the gloves at least; but he can see from the lean cast to Yuri's face and the bruise-like circles under those murky, haunted eyes that the dark-haired swordsman hasn't slept, that this days-long chase has left him every bit as tired as Flynn. As always, they're an even match physically; willpower, personal conviction, sheer stubbornness, and pure dumb luck will be what decides the outcome of this fight.

"…But in the long run, what you're talking about doing will really only make more people suffer." Shaking off the last of the snow, Flynn approaches his best friend once again, sword at his side but still at the ready as they circle one another warily. "You're talking about anarchy, Yuri! No real laws at all, and no one to enforce them either. And that only means that the strong will always win, at the cost of the lives and well-being of the weak!" Stepping forward, he lashes out with a Beast, followed by several simple, normal blows that are hard enough to send shocks of vibration up both his and Yuri's arms. "And as for killing off all the nobility—Lady Estellise may not have been made Empress, but you can't forget that she's still one of them!" He continues his onslaught, throwing in a Sword Rain: Alpha that very nearly catches Yuri off-guard, though an agile leap to the side followed by an Azure Storm forces them apart for a moment. But only a moment: mere seconds later, Flynn is whelming on Yuri's guard again, too focused on his words to use any artes. "As close as you two are, how can you even suggest such a thing? She was born into a position of supposed power, and yet for most of her life, she lived in a castle with the finest clothes and food, doing nothing to help the common folk—but she was little more than a caged bird who couldn't even help herself, much less anyone else! Does she deserve death for that? She was naïve and ignorant of the state of her people, she had trouble making choices, and she even made some that ended up causing others to suffer, but you know just as well as I that she's a good person who thinks of others far more than she thinks about herself! And yes, some of the nobility could care less about anything aside from themselves, but there are more of them than you know who are like Lady Estellise! And even if they are selfish, they're still every bit as human as you and me. You can't treat human lives so lightly!"

"You're not treating them any differently by telling people to wait for justice!" Yuri grits out, his hands buzzing and nearly numb from the fury of his best friend's attack. "In situations like this, certain sacrifices have to be made!"

"So you'd sacrifice innocent lives so that your idea of a perfect world can exist?" This time Flynn swings his sword so hard the whistle it makes is easily audible over the windstorm that's enveloped them, and sparks fly as it strikes Yuri's blade, leaving a notch in the gleaming steel. "Just who does that sound like, I wonder?"

"Don't compare me to him! I'm only doing what has to be done—"

"And that's what he thought, too, isn't it?"

With a shriek of tortured metal, their blades cross again—and catch, both straining to force the other back, neither willing to give even an inch.

"I'm not—I'm not doing this because I enjoy it—!"

Locked swords holding them both immobile, Flynn takes the opportunity to look at his best friend-really look at him. Taking in the blood smeared across his face, the eager and uncontrollable trembling in his hands, the heated waver of scarcely-stifled excitement in his voice, those too-large pupils leaving only a fingernail's width of violet around the shadowy twin voids of Yuri's eyes. Coupled with the hideously gruesome slaughter he'd found in those mansions, complete with Yuri's bloody boot prints, the witness of the sole surviving servant, and damage that only a very specific set of artes could accomplish, the evidence is overwhelming, and all of it damning.

"I wish I could believe that, Yuri…" His voice is quiet now, scarce to be heard over the howl of the wind, his head dipping enough that his hair hides his face, though the pressure of his sword against Yuri's doesn't lessen even slightly. "Truly, I do." When his head comes up, Flynn's eyes are cold and hard as chips of ice, and it is clear that there will be no quarter given here. "But not this time. Not anymore. I won't stand by and allow something that I know is wrong to happen, no matter how much I respect the person responsible!"

He's so far gone now, so angry at himself and Yuri and this whole impossible mess of a situation, that he does something he's never really done before: he unleashes his mystic arte before Yuri's resorted to his.

"Now we end this! Haaaargh! Light Dragon...Destruction!"

Flynn has to stop a moment to catch his breath afterward, which gives Yuri sufficient time to flip back up onto his feet, though almost immediately he takes a knee, looking decidedly worse for the wear. The blonde knight is the first to find breath enough to speak, and though his words are soft, there's more than a hint of steel beneath them.

"…Since before I can remember, we've always looked out for each other, Yuri. We've kept each other in line, making sure neither of us goes too far. I haven't ever shied away from knocking some sense into you when you needed it, and you've done the same for me. I've never forgotten what you said to me in Nordopolica when the empire blockaded the city. In fact, I've always thought of it as a promise, just like when we swore on our swords as kids." Flynn doesn't even attempt to disguise the pain in his expression, the raw emotion grown too strong to hide. "You're my best friend,Yuri, and I can't stand seeing you like this! And since half of the things I've been praised for were your doing, it's only fair that half of the blame for this should rest on my shoulders now. The good and the bad, we share them both equally. That's what family does-we take responsibility for each other!" He brandishes his sword anew before throwing himself forward in another flurry of stabs and thrusts that Yuri meets without faltering. "So if I didn't step up and keep that promise now, and stop you regardless of the consequences and how much I might hate myself for it in the end, then I've failed you completely, and no longer have any right call myself your friend." A sudden smile touches his face, fleeting and warm and unreservedly affectionate, a startling contrast to the cold, implacable mask Yuri's face has become. "And honestly, I care about you too much to let you go that easily."

It happens so quickly, Flynn almost misses it, and even now he can half-believe he imagined it. But in that instant, something flickers through Yuri's eyes-an inkling of recognition, a trace of dread, a brief flash of horror followed by grim understanding and acceptance.

He blocks the first half-dozen blows just like before, but this time after forcing Flynn's blade down and away, he doesn't move back quite fast enough; Flynn's next upward slash slices across his chest, though it only leaves a shallow cut instead of opening him from hip to shoulder. And though he brings his sword up to parry the follow-up lunge, at the last moment, Yuri's blade jukes to the side almost imperceptibly-be it by mistake due to weariness or by design-and Flynn's eyes go wide at the feel of hot blood splattering over his bare hands.

They're quiet now, and have been for a while, both presumably lost in their own thoughts, though they're doubtless both thinking along the same lines, of the day that had changed everything. Flynn is the one who finally breaks the silence, regret heavy in his words.

"…You always knew it would come to this, didn't you."

It's not really a question; it's a statement they had always both known the answer to, though neither had wanted or been able to admit it back then.

Yuri's answer is light, glib as ever even in the face of present circumstances. "Heh. Guilty as charged."

Flynn can hear that lopsided smirk in Yuri's voice, and the sound is so familiar, so Yuri,it feels like someone suddenly punched him in the gut. His eyes start to slide sideways, his head begins to turn…but he stops himself with Yuri hovering just on the edge of his vision. He aches to see that crooked grin one more time, just once more, and yet he knows if he does, there's no way he won't break down then and there.

Five years isn't nearly enough time to get over what they'd been through, especially at the end.

Flynn isn't sure a lifetime will be long enough.

For a handful of heartbeats, time seems to slow. Yuri stumbles backwards from the force of the blow, Flynn's sword slipping from the already-gushing wound. Flynn lets it go, lets it drop with a ringing clang; in the near-silence, it echoes like the dour funerary toll of a church bell, falling to the frost-rimmed rock amidst fresh-blooming scarlet speckles, the only colour those bleak fields have known for ages past. Surprisingly, the knight is the first to fall, hitting his knees as shock coupled with exhaustion finally overtakes him, staring aghast at the bloodstain blossoming across the lower half of his best friend's tunic.

Trial or not, he knows that Yuri would have been executed, or else imprisoned for life, and Flynn can't imagine anything more profoundly wrong than the idea of a permanently-caged Yuri. So this had been what he'd decided to do, what he'd known he had to do, if only for Yuri's sake...and yet actually doing it is so much harder, so much worse than he'd ever imagined.

Yuri's back finds a rocky wall just as his legs give out as well, and he leaves a dark smear behind him as he slides down the wall. He doesn't let go of his sword until his hand hits the ground, and with a bleary sort of blink, he lets it fall from his hand with a quiet clatter.

That's all it takes to jar Flynn out of his stupor: in an instant he's scrambled his way to Yuri's side. It's reflex, moving to help his best friend since childhood, and before he knows it, he's using up what little energy he can muster on a series of First Aid artes…and despite his decision, his can't hide his lasting dismay when the bleeding hardly slows. Mechanically his hands move, ripping a chunk out of his cape and pressing it over the wound; almost instantly the thick material is soaked through, though that doesn't stop him from going for another, and another after that.

"Yuri…!" he finally manages, guilt and grief already weighing heavily in his tone. "Yuri, you know I...I wish there had been some other way, but— Yuri, I'm so sorry—"

"Don't be." Yuri's sword hand finds its way atop Flynn's, though his grasp is weak and the pressure he places there is nominal. "You and I…we've always been about making our own choices, right…well this was mine."

Flynn's eyes are burning, but he's still too shaken for tears, too deep in shock and disbelief to wholly accept what's just happened, what he's just done. "I never thought…I honestly never thought you would…I always thought it would be me…"

Yuri smiles, that same rakish, crooked grin Flynn remembers from years past, full of sarcasm, wit, and warmth. "It took this much to wake me up…to remind me of our promise. Sorry…that you had to do the dirty work this time…but thanks. Wouldn't have trusted anyone else to do it, ya know."

After all the battles he's been through, all the countless deaths he's seen, Flynn knows full well what hopeless looks like. Even so, he can't help but deny it this time, if only in words, if only because he wants so badly for it to be true. "Don't—don't be stupid, Yuri. You're going to come back to Zaphias with me, and you'll have to stand trial for what you've done, but…this isn't the end."

"Of course not. Not as long…as you keep living. Keep fighting to make sure that someday…everyone in this empire will have a reason to smile…"

"I can't do that without you, Yuri," Flynn murmurs, his hand turning to clasp Yuri's, ignoring the fact that both are slick and sticky with half-frozen blood; and this he really means, and truly believes, and it shows. "We're supposed to carry that burden together. I'm…I'm not strong enough to carry it alone."

Yuri gives a little laugh that turns to a cough halfway through, though by the end of it, it's pure laughter once again. "Who says you'll be alone? You won't get rid of me that easily…because honestly…I care about you too much to let you go, either." He gives Flynn's hand a comforting squeeze, but his smile isn't quite as strong this time. " 'Cause family…is always together, even when they're apart. I know that…because ever since I met you, Flynn…I've never been alone. Not once."

Fighting to keep his smile in place, Flynn nods, then impulsively pulls Yuri in for a tight embrace, bloody and wounded or not. It's slowly dawning on him, the reality of a world without Yuri Lowell, of losing his best friend,and the very idea nearly chokes him with grief, a heart-rending pain like nothing he's ever felt before. "Hey now," Yuri chuckles in his ear. "Take it easy. Just…don't forget to keep our promise, okay?"

"I won't forget," Flynn says solemnly, easing back and showing Yuri the hand he's pressed over his heart, a bloody handprint left in its wake. "I won't ever forget. I swear it on my sword, my honour, and my life itself, Yuri Lowell."

Yuri nods, then gives a little shiver, prompting Flynn to pull him a closer, as if holding onto his best friend just a bit tighter might stave off the inevitable that much longer.

Cold as it is, it's easy to tell when Yuri stops breathing. Flynn finds himself watching and waiting and wishing for that next puff of warm, frost-whitened air, despite the fact that he knows all too well that it will never come.

And yet he's never wished for anything harder.

It's starting to grow lighter on the horizon, deep indigo shifting towards cerulean though the sun hasn't crested the arching horizon just yet, and Flynn knows they're running short of time.

"Yuri—" His voice catches on the question he's asked himself ten, twenty, fifty times a day everyday for the last five years; but now he has to speak the words aloud, because as always, part of him knows that this time, this year, might be the last time.

Yuri doesn't press him, remaining silent, waiting.

"Did I make the right choice?" the blonde knight manages at last, a telling waver in his words.

In contrast, Yuri's are firm and steady as ever, albeit perhaps a bit softer than normal. "I didn't really leave you with any choice, Flynn."

"Then…" And now Flynn's left with the other question he's asked himself, even more often than the first, if that's possible. The question he doesn't really know the answer to deep down. "…At the very end, you didn't hate me? Didn't…blame me for what you'd had to become?" His head drops, shoulders bunching, his body convulsing with the effort of holding back the tidal wave of emotions crashing through him. When he speaks, the question comes out as little more than a broken whisper. "At the very last…did you forgive me?"

Yuri answers immediately, without the slightest hesitation, his tone carrying the faintest hint of a skeptical, mildly reproving laugh. "Forgive you for what?"

Flynn's head comes up at that, his breath leaving him in a rush, and this time he can't stop himself from looking at his best friend straight-on, consequences be damned. He can't hide his shock and hope and slight disbelief as his half-blurred vision finds Yuri looking at him straight-on as well…and smiling, an unreservedly warm, open expression without any hint of blame or bitterness. The blonde's mouth works as he swallows a sob, and though he blinks quickly to clear his vision, it can't stop already free-falling tears. But there's relief there as well, so much it makes his heart swell even as it aches worse than ever; and through his tears, Flynn smiles and gives a shaky little laugh.

"You never change, Yuri."

Yuri doesn't cry-he's never been the type, and probably can't any more even if he wanted to-but his voice has that telltale thickness to it, and his eyes have gone a little misty as he gives the standard reply.

"Yeah, well, neither do you, Flynn."

They share the secret smile of co-conspirators, brothers and best friends to the end and beyond, any further words unnecessary between them. Then the sun breaks over the horizon, thick beams of bright heat lancing through the dim light of morning and clearing away the remaining darkness, stretching itself across that little strip of beach; and there is only the Commandant standing there in the rising tide, alone with his gradually subsiding tears.

But he knows he's not really alone. He never has been, and he knows for certain now that he never will be. And just in case he ever starts to doubt that knowledge again, Flynn reminds himself that soon enough it'll be That Day again, and he'll find himself standing amidst the breaking surf once more, watching and waiting and holding his regular yearly vigil.

Yes,he thinks with a smile, breathing in the still-cool morning air and watching a pair of gulls wheeling lazily overhead as together the sun and wind dry the tracks of tears on his face. He'll be back next year.

They both will.

Flynn, Yuri. Ever since I met you, I've never been alone. Not once.

"True friends are always together in spirit."

~ L.M. Montgomery