Otoya doesn't understand this Fujimaru. Not anymore.

He understood the way hacking consumed Fujimaru, the way his eyes would go slightly vacant as the speed of his fingers increased on the keyboard, turning into Falcon and floating off into a place that Otoya couldn't follow. He shared conspiratory looks and secret smiles with his friend whenever he tried to hack in class. He recognized the worried expression that meant Fujimaru was thinking about Haruka, and the anger that would light up his eyes when his father abandoned their plans again. He knew that Fujimaru always looked down and fiddled with something when he was nervous, and he could always see through the fake smile that meant something was on his mind.

Otoya had known Fujimaru all his life, but lately he didn't recognize him. He didn't know when it started. Maybe it was Anzai's betrayal, or perhaps it was Hide's death that had caused everything they had to come crumbling down. But Otoya suspected that it had happened far, far earlier than that. He wondered if it was the incident at the mall that changed him, where the weight of the lives of hundreds of people began to settle on his friend's shoulders. All Otoya knew was that there had been something strange about Fujimaru's eyes ever since he had nearly fainted outside of Orihara Maya's place, and it had just gotten worse from there.

When Hide succumbed to the virus right in front of their eyes, something cracked a little inside all of them. But they drew comfort from each other's presence and somehow found strength in what they had left. When Anzai's betrayal was revealed, the Newspaper Committee had almost fallen apart, but again they perservered. Once the dust of the Bloody X incident had settled, they somehow found some semblance of peace.

Aoi had tried her best to put on a smile and continue on. But something between Otoya and Fujimaru had broken. Otoya couldn't exactly put a name to what it was, but he felt the loss like a deep, hollow ache inside his chest. It had stung him badly when Fujimaru had seriously considered him to be a traitor, and discovering that the terrorist, J, was his brother was no easy pill to swallow either. But he had said nothing. He knew that his friend had only done it out of sheer desperation, and after what Fujimaru had been through at the hands of the terrorists and the agents at Third-I, Otoya couldn't find it in himself to hold a grudge.

Through an unspoken agreement, Otoya and Aoi avoided the topic of Fujimaru's father at all costs. The man had bled out in his son's arms, and despite losing his own mother to her suicide, Otoya could barely even imagine the pain his friend must have gone through. The funeral had been small, quiet, and terribly formal. All the agents from Third-I had come and given the siblings their condolences, and Fujimaru had taken them without falter, his true thoughts and feelings unknown even to his best friend. Otoya didn't know how much Haruka had been told, but she, too, accepted them gratefully. Otoya left his own anger at their boldness simmering just beneath the surface and instead stood stoicly by his friends side, not saying anything but silently offering him support. Aoi had been there, too, and they both tentatively agreed to let Fujimaru come to them on his own terms.

Anzai was another topic they never dared to breach. They all dealt with her betrayal and death in their own way, but it Aoi and Otoya both knew it had cut Fujimaru far deeper. They had been informed of what had happened up in that tower, but neither had the courage to ask Fujimaru directly about it. Eventually the debriefings and interrogations ended, the Third-I agents stopped tailing them, and they began to pick up the pieces and put the past behind them. Otoya went to University while Fujimaru took a part-time job in order to pay the bills, apparently abandoning hacking, but their relationship never returned to the way it was. Otoya wasn't exactly sure what they had lost, and to be honest, he wasn't even sure he wanted to get it back.

From then on, Otoya had tried to do things on his own. Fujimaru had already lost so much, and he wasn't confident that Fujimaru would be able to survive fighting another battle. But despite his best efforts, Fujimaru was dragged back into the middle of the storm.

Aoi's death shattered what little they had left. Otoya watched as the guilt slowly ate away at Fujimaru. He watched as his friend's eyes became more haunted and cold as he began to shut himself away from Otoya, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried his best to keep Fujimaru out of Orihara Maya's affairs, and although it hurt to lie to him, it was a neccessary pain. But somehow Fujimaru was always able to read him better than he could read Fujimaru, and the boy saw right through his act. They had fought, and painful truths were brought to light, but eventually they were again working as a team, and Otoya naively believed that things just might work out. Back then, he had been confident that If it was them against the world, they could win.

He should have known better. He should have put on a better act, tried harder to protect Fujimaru. Maybe then things would have never turned out as horrible as they did.

Leaving Orihara Maya behind had been the hardest thing he had ever had to do. Despite everything she had done to them, when Fujimaru's lifeless voice informed him that she had died, something inside him froze. He didn't think it was possible. Orihara Maya was a hired hand, ruthless and cold, but she always radiated strength and confidence. She had always been there, just behind the scenes, pulling off whatever scheme benefitted her most. It seemed impossible to him that someone like Orihara Maya could be gone. It was then that Otoya truly began to lose hope. He was beginning to realize that there was no way out of this neverending cycle.

The bite of a bullet in his shoulder was nothing compared to what Fujimaru was suffering, and it was the same wound that kept him from standing by his friend's side in the final showdown.

Otoya didn't know who Spider was, or what she meant to Fujimaru, and truthfully he didn't really care. He just wanted Fujimaru to come home safely. More than anything, he wished he could be there with his friend right now, to stand by his side. Instead, he was stuck at Third-I, listening to the sound of Fujimaru's voice raggedly whispering his name, and feeling the knife dig deeper into his chest as his friend made his last request. He ignored the Third-I agents' looks of pity as he begged Fujimaru not to go, not to play into Spider's hands, to just come home, and please, please don't leave him. It was the silence on the other end of the line that broke him.

Hadn't they taken enough from them? Hadn't Fujimaru suffered enough? If anything happened to Fujimaru, Otoya would be all alone again.

When the news of Fujimaru's safety finally reached Third-I, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Otoya felt the weight leave his shoulders, and he could breathe again, but the pain remained. His shoulder was no longer a problem, numbed by the painkillers, and he was told he could return home, but the agony he felt was not something that could be taken away by pills. As he was leaving, he met Fujimaru in the lobby. He was walking using the support of an agent, and it hurt Otoya to see the blatant pain and exhaustion on his friend's face. The agent left them alone for a moment, but Otoya didn't know what to say.

"I'm back, just like I promised." Fujimaru said tiredly.

Otoya stood in silent shock for a few seconds.

His mind told him this was his childhood friend and legendary hacker Fujimaru Takagi. But something was screaming inside him that this was some stranger inside his friend's body. Who was this person? The hair was too long and shaggy, the skin too pale and the cheekbones too prominent. The eyes were too dark, haunted, filled with shadows of broken things, where Fujimaru's had always been bright and full of life. The shy smile that could always lighten up a room had been replaced by a tired, hollow expression. The tall, proud Takagi boy had been replaced by a slumped man who was barely steady on his feet.

Otoya didn't even recognize this person anymore. The Fujimaru he knew would never have been so reckless. He would never have gone up against Spider at the risk of leaving his little sister alone. He would never have broken Otoya so thoroughly. He would have listened to Otoya's cries and come home safely. Instead, this shadow of a man had returned.

And then, slowly, the stranger in front of him smiled. It was a small, weary smile, but some of his old friend's spirit shone through it.

But it wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough, and it confirmed Otoya's choice. This wasn't his Fujimaru. Somewhere along the way, the Fujimaru he knew had been lost underneath the shattered pieces of their lives. Otoya had failed in protecting him, and so he had lost his friend. Something between them had been broken beyond repair for far too long, and neither of them had the strength to fix it. There were so many things he wanted to say. So many things he wanted to ask. He wanted to scream and cry and grab Fujimaru and shake him until he got his old friend back. But he was afraid. He was afraid of baring his own soul to his friend, afraid of what he would find underneath, afraid that he, too, had lost himself along the way.

He didn't understand this Fujimaru anymore, but he had still recognized that smile. It was a smile that held no happiness, and Otoya knew that if he pushed him, that smile would fall and Fujimaru's facade would shatter into a thousand pieces on the floor. Otoya was terrified that if he said one wrong word, he would push him over that edge and then Fujimaru would be no more and Otoya wouldn't have the strength to put him back together, not this time.

So Otoya stepped forward and laid a hand on the stranger's shoulder. "Go home and see Haruka. Get some rest."

Otoya knows he can't do anything to help Fujimaru tonight. They just don't have the time and he can't find the words. Tonight, Otoya needs to go home and sit in the silence and gather together the pieces of his own broken soul before he can help anyone else. Tonight, he knew, the only comfort Fujimaru would find would be the cold chill of a Third-I interrogation room. But eventually they would release him, and he would go home to his sister and sleep and he wouldn't wake up for a long time. But when he did wake up, Otoya would be there.

Maybe they have lost something that they just can't get back. Maybe things were destined to fall apart, and maybe there's no salvation for the two of them. Otoya doesn't recognize the Fujimaru he met tonight, in fact Otoya barely recognizes himself in the mirror anymore, but he has hope that they can survive this and somehow find themselves again. Tonight they're going to break and mourn what they've lost.

Tomorrow they're going to rise from the ashes and Otoya's going to try to reforge what was broken.