It was silent in the apartment, and that silence was what was keeping Eri up. It was impossible to sleep without the sound of breathing at her side. As long as Ren was out, she wouldn't be able to rest.
Then, suddenly, she heard it from the living room—the sound of wings flapping and a screech like something scratching against glass. Her heart raced as she tore off the sheets and dashed out of the room. There, barely hovering before the window, was a masked knight in dark blue and silver, wings outstretched and holding him aloft.
"Ren!" she called out.
That creature, Darkwing, was still attached to him, the only thing keeping him from falling. She hated it. Every time she encountered it, it acted like it would try to attack her. Ren had always been sure to put himself between them, since the Monster wouldn't attack as long as he was there. But this time, there was no choice but to get close. She felt its wings brush against her as she put her arms around Ren, and she shuddered.
The sudden sensation of safe, familiar arms holding him was enough to rouse Ren. "Eri?" he called out weakly. When he was able to see she was holding him, he reached for his deck and slid it out of place. Darkwing detached from him and flew away as the transformation broke, leaving Ren slumping against Eri, unable to stand.
Once upon a time, there was a brave knight and a beautiful maiden. But they were only two characters in a very large story. There was a sorcerer who controlled time and monsters, and one day, he sent one of his monsters after the maiden, putting her in a deep sleep.
I don't know. That's just how stories go.
The knight promised to wake the maiden, but in order to do so, he had to slay a dragon. But the dragon was kind and friendly and just wanted to help save the knight. There was also a princess who might have been a witch, and she wanted to save everybody. They became friends. The knight was no dragon-slayer and came to rebel against his destiny.
That's just like you, you know. You can never just go along with something.
The sorcerer tried to force his hand, so the knight battled his herald. The herald tried to kill him, but the knight managed to win.
The knight killed him.
It was self-defense.
It doesn't matter. The knight learned how to kill, and the sorcerer woke the maiden.
I'm sure the maiden knew the knight was only trying to do the right thing.
She did. And she told him to fight for himself before she fell back into her sleep. The knight decided to help the dragon and the princess, but he and the dragon learned the sorcerer was trying to save the princess, who would disappear on her next birthday. The dragon tried to fight the knight, but their friendship kept them from killing each other. The princess decided to just let herself disappear to stop the war, but the sorcerer couldn't give up trying to save someone he loved. He was like the knight that way.
No, he wasn't.
How do you know that?
The knight knew when to stop.
After the princess disappeared, the knight and the dragon went into battle again against the sorcerer's monsters. But the monsters killed the dragon, who made the knight promise to live. The knight didn't understand why.
I think I do.
The sorcerer appeared in front of the knight and told him to fight his herald again. The knight did, if only because it was the only thing left he could do. The herald almost defeated him, but the sorcerer finally realized his mistake and made the herald disappear. The prize they were fighting for, the power to make a wish, appeared in front of the knight.
What did he wish for?
More than the wish could grant, so he only made the wish to wake the maiden.
...What happened to the knight after?
He died. He only wished to save her.
Because the story never meant for them to be together.
(In fairytales, everything has a happy ending.)
(That's the difference between fairytales and real life.)
(In this story, he was never supposed to be happy.)
If Ren was different, then that was all right. Eri could still see what he couldn't, that he was still the same person she loved. Slowly, he was beginning to see it too, and it made it easier for him to face himself in the mirror each day.
She just wasn't sure what to think about the Kamen Rider.
When he first returned with the deck, first transformed and looked at his own reflection and finally seemed to recognize himself, he tried to throw it away. But it was the closest he'd ever come to an answer, and so Eri urged him to keep it, to transform, to fight if he had to, even as it broke her heart.
She couldn't love him without loving that other part of him. She couldn't find it in herself to hate Knight. He was still Ren. But something in her broke a little more every time she saw Knight instead of Ren, when she heard the sound of flapping wings, when she spent late nights awake praying he would come home to her safe.
She didn't have the strength to get him into bed when he collapsed in her arms. The most she could do was lay him on the couch and spread a blanket over him. She couldn't even find it in her to kiss him—there were tears running down her cheeks, and if she tried, she would wake him again, and worry him more when he saw her crying.
(Once upon a time, he too denied himself happiness and did things that made him hate himself, but that was so she would wake, and he too didn't want her to worry.)
She was about to head to bed when she heard frantic knocking at the door. She didn't need that moment of weakness that made her hate herself—Ren was too deep in sleep to wake at this noise, and something as gentle as a kiss wouldn't have been enough to wake him.
(Just as it hadn't been enough to wake her from her sleep in the world that never was. But this wasn't that sleep, or that other deep sleep he spent, finally happy, unaware she was warning him uselessly that he could catch a cold.)
When she went to the door, there was a stranger there, looking desperate and worried. And yet at once, she knew who he must be—he was gripping a deck so tightly his knuckles had turned white.
"You're Kido-kun, aren't you?" she asked.
He nodded. "Sorry to bother you. Is Ren all right?"
He said his name with such familiarity. They hardly knew each other, and it was like they'd been close friends all their lives.
"Yes," she answered softly. "He's asleep right now."
"Good," he sighed in relief.
A wild determination struck her all of a sudden, and she wondered if it was the same sense that Ren had. It was passionate and self-destructive—the desperate desire for knowledge.
"Would you come in?" she asked.
Hesitant, Kido nodded and followed her inside. They knelt at the coffee table in the living room, keeping their voices low so they wouldn't disturb Ren, even though they knew he was too tired to wake. Eri took the strange picture and set it on the table.
"Did you draw this picture?"
Kido looked at the drawing of himself and Ren, as Ryuki and Knight. It was cartoonish, as if done by a child, but the moment Ren had seen it, he knew exactly who were in it.
"No," he sighed. "I feel like I should know who did, but I don't. I told Ren the same."
Eri nodded sadly. It was too much to hope he knew something that could help. Anything that he could have done, he already had for Ren.
"Thank you," she said.
"But sometimes..." he said hesitantly. "I have these days. Once every few months. It's weird, but I feel like I've got it. But it's only for a little while, and then it's gone again."
There was something about the way he was speaking that seemed strange, almost forbidding. Eri looked at him curiously. Gradually, his expression became less soft, and the innocence in him faded away. He wasn't hard or jaded, no, but he was oddly serious in a way that was odd only because it made perfect sense. If he had lived through something so powerful it had changed him.
It was a transformation.
"It's only for a little bit," he insisted. "I can't promise when or if it'll come back. So I'll try and help as much as I can now." She nodded, and this strange version of Kido—Ryuki?—asked, "Did he tell you what I told him about the other timeline?"
A whole other life. A world that had been destroyed for the sake of a wish. A story without a happy ending.
"Yes," she answered.
Ryuki nodded. "Good. That was the last time this happened. I actually had to go looking for him that time, and I'm glad he found me."
"What..." she started before realizing she didn't know what she wanted to ask.
"What happened?" he guessed. "Well, as much as I know, he fought Odin at the end and made the wish. But if I know anything about him, the wish he made wasn't enough to reset everything."
"What wish did he make?" she asked on reflex.
The sad look Ryuki gave her confirmed her worst fears, and she felt tears come to her eyes once more.
"He was willing to give up everything for you, Eri-san. We did all we could to get him to see that he was worth something too." Then with a hint of a smile, he admitted, "I think we finally did get through to him, though. But it hurt him when he realized that, because he thought you mattered more."
It was the best and worst thing she'd ever heard in her life. Ren loved her, but he thought his own life had no value in comparison. He began to find his own self-worth, but he was conflicted because he had to choose between himself and her.
She knew what the answer was. She knew what he'd wished for.
"He was happy, though," Ryuki admitted. "Not the way he gets when he's picking on you, though I guess that's part of it, to be honest. But really happy. He liked being around us. We got him to feel safe. He even had a little time to be with you, and it made it easier. I think he was at peace."
That was something she'd never heard before, an idea she'd never had reason to consider. Peace wasn't something she'd ever associated with Ren. He was always fighting, running, or searching at various stages of his life. He was never at peace.
He might not ever have been happy.
"How can I help him?" she asked.
"Just keep doing what you're doing now," Ryuki insisted.
She shook her head. "He's not happy. I don't know how to make him happy, or if he ever will be."
"He'll be happy again," Ryuki argued, and his conviction was so strong that she had to believe it. "It might take time, and it might be hard, but you'll both be happy."
"Thank you," she answered.
"Besides," he added. "She's working hard to try to make sure of it."
It occurred to her that he'd been saying "we" the whole time, but it couldn't have been her because she'd been asleep. Someone else had been trying to help Ren, this "she."
"Who?" she asked.
"Who what?" he asked back, and there was confusion on his face that could only be Kido. The transformation was over. The brief moment when Ryuki knew and remembered was gone. He was looking around in confusion, as if not sure why he was in her living room at all.
He had no memory of the past few minutes.
"Oh!" he realized, looking at her. "You're crying!"
There were still tears on her cheeks, and he scrambled in his pockets for a handkerchief only to come up empty.
"I'm fine," she insisted. "Thank you."
He seemed to realize at least some of what had transpired, if nothing specific. "I hope I was able to help."
"Good," he replied, with a grin. "If anyone can make it through this, it's Ren."
She nodded, smiling. If there was anything she did know, it was that.
One day, he'd gone out to find himself. When he came back, he had the deck.
There had been this sense, lately, that Ren had lost something. A half-remembered life, like a sandcastle on the beach, washed away by the tides. Except that instead of growing smaller with each passing wave, the sensation of that past life grew, higher and higher, but it never gained any definition. It was the same when he looked at his reflection. He saw someone different there, a person he hadn't been the day before. But he never could seem to remember who he was.
It was easy enough to just answer that he was Akiyama Ren, engaged to Ogawa Eri. That he was stubborn, incorrigible, and sarcastic. That he was working two part-time jobs because he got fired from his last full-time job eight months ago for his attitude. That he was trouble.
But it wasn't right. That wasn't who he was all of a sudden anymore.
One day, Eri said something, and he ended up laughing softly. And she told him it had been a long time since she'd seen him smile like that.
It hurt because it was true. Ren had never been one to show his emotions freely, but for a long time now, he'd been serious all the time, chasing ghosts. He'd felt lost.
The face in the mirror had softer features than he'd remembered. Fewer hard edges, lines blurred. Everything blurred.
Eri was helping him through it, and that meant everything to him, but he still didn't know where to start. How could he find an answer when he didn't even know the question to ask?
He knew that it had to have something to do with the picture. It had been a few weeks ago. He'd run into a stranger outside the teahouse, and they almost got into a fight for no reason other than it felt like they should be arguing.
The picture was of them, but it showed a pair of warriors, one in red and one in dark blue.
Ren had the stranger's contact information from a debt the stranger owed him. He took the drawing, intent on getting answers.
He came back with questions and the deck.
Ren opened his eyes to the bright morning sun streaming in through the living room window. Somehow or another, he'd ended up on the couch, with a blanket over him. As he sat up, holding in a groan of pain from the aches all over his body, he heard Eri's voice.
"You fell asleep when you got back. I couldn't get you into bed." She gave him her best attempt at a reassuring smile as she walked to the kitchen.
He found the strength to get to his feet. It wasn't as bad as last night. His arms felt like lead and his movements were slow, but he was at least moving, at least feeling.
The memory returned. The Monster he'd fought could shoot electricity. His sword had attracted it, forcing him to fight unarmed. He hadn't stood a chance, and he'd almost lost consciousness completely as the time limit hit, and he'd needed Darkwing to fly him out of there.
Somehow, he thought he should have been better than that. Should have been smarter than that.
Ignoring the ghost for now, he asked, "What time is it?"
Eri poured a cup of coffee for herself and tea for him. "Don't worry about work. I called to tell them you were sick."
Ren's eyes fell on the ring on her finger, glimmering in the light as she lifted her coffee cup. It bound them together, a promise from him to give all he was to her. A promise from her to give him back what he was.
"You don't have to do that," he said as he took his tea and sat down.
"I know," she answered.
Unspoken was the reminder that she'd promised she would be there for him, just as he had always been there for her.
"You aren't hurt, are you?" she asked.
"Nothing I can't handle," he insisted. When she looked at him with a trace of pain behind her eyes—a trace he knew well, since it was always in his own—he confessed, "The Monster last night was stronger than I expected. I managed to get out before I got too badly hurt."
Hesitantly, she nodded. "Do you think you got any closer?"
Ren thought for a moment, staring into his teacup. He never had the heart to tell her that he didn't like it. But he'd begun drinking tea in search of his ghosts, and when he'd started to track them down, he found it easier to let go of the habit. But she thought he liked it, and it was a simple sacrifice for him to make.
"Maybe," he admitted. "It's a little easier now."
They were too realistic for fairytales.
Life had not been easy for either of them. Eri had lost her parents when she was a teenager. Ren had left home and never looked back. In many ways, they only had one another.
But that didn't mean they didn't try for a happy ending.
In some ways, Eri thought they deserved it, even if it went against everything she knew about science and an irrationally rational world. After all they'd gone through in a timeline they couldn't remember, they deserved to be happy.
In some ways, Ren thought he didn't deserve it and the world was out to punish him for having been a Rider. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to fight for what he wanted.
He'd gotten his wish once upon a time. He saved her.
Her wish back then had been for him to fight for himself, not to lose himself in her. He began to try to be happy.
If they could make a wish right now, what would it be? Would it be worth the fighting and the heartache necessary to obtain it?
Maybe it was for the best that he'd used up the wish that time.
Maybe it was better to find another way to be happy.
Ren was supposed to be playing hooky, but he ended up going to one of his jobs anyway.
Atori Teahouse was part of it, the tangled mess that was his past life, and he knew it bothered Eri when he decided to start working there. But she went along with it, either because she knew it might help him or because she knew he'd do it anyway. Despite the lost nostalgia, he had to admit he liked it there. The atmosphere was calming, and even on busy afternoons, it was quiet enough for him to clear his mind. There wasn't any additional stress beyond the time he'd lost.
It was like coming home, but to an empty house. It could be lonely, but it was also liberating.
Kido stopped by every so often. Once in a while, in wandered one of the other Riders-that-were. But it was rare—they seemed to have adjusted better. Ren was just unlucky enough to be caught in-between. Like the others, he didn't remember. But like Kido, he couldn't escape the knowledge that something had happened.
There was someone waiting outside the gate when he arrived—a man close to his age, shorter than he was, in a worn sweatshirt and torn jeans. It was clear he was homeless, but even so, he seemed to be doing fairly well for himself. He didn't look tired, dirty, or hungry. He didn't look like he had any despair. He looked like he might have been able to turn around his luck any time he wished to, but that wasn't a wish he wanted to make.
And he was looking at Ren like he knew him.
"Hello again," he said with a slight bow. "I know you don't remember me, but we fought once before."
A Rider, then. Ren shook his head, unable to explain that he still had no idea who the man was.
That was when he added, "I taught you how to kill."
The dread hit Ren as painfully as if he had remembered. The knowledge alone was enough. He didn't know what had gone through his mind that time, when the Rider stood over him. Did he realize what he was doing when he grabbed his sword? Was it reflex that caused him to jerk it up into metal and flesh? Did he know then that when he was trying not to die, that he was taking another's life, or was he only trying to protect himself?
Odin held up his hands. "Calm down. I'm not looking for a fight."
Ren hadn't even realized he had begun reaching for his deck. Was this what had happened back then? Was it possible his mind had accepted his fate while his body tried to survive?
As Ren put away his deck and tried to control the shaking of his hands, Odin said, "I thought you might want to talk."
Ren nodded and set down his helmet, ripped off his gloves and stuck them in his pocket. As he entered the café, Odin followed. The owner gave him a suspicious look—almost as suspicious as the one she gave Ren when she pointed out he was supposed to be sick, but Ren handed her some money and ordered a tea and some snacks.
"I owe him one," he explained.
He might have gotten the tea, but he wasn't ready to talk. Not yet. Odin was patient as Ren worked through his shift, going through the motions until it became mindless work, letting him forget everything and lose himself.
When it was finally closing time, Odin walked with him as he threw away the garbage from the day.
"Does it help, doing all this?" Odin asked.
Ren lifted up the dumpster's lid and tossed the bag of garbage inside. "It's the only time when I don't have time to wonder who I am."
"Or what you want," Odin reminded him.
Ren hesitated briefly as he closed the lid. But yes, that question seemed to be more to the point. He nodded.
"None of the others ever put thought into what they'd do after they got their wish," Odin pointed out. "Not even you, though I think you knew what you were setting yourself up for."
"I'd do anything for Eri," Ren insisted, for once not lost between identities.
"Even if she hated you for it?" he pressed.
"Yes," he answered unfailingly.
Odin sighed. "Then you're still a Rider."
"Is that why I have this back?" Ren asked, holding up his deck.
"I don't know," Odin confessed. "None of the others got them back. Just the two of you."
"Why do you even remember?" Ren asked. "Kido's memories come and go. You remember everything."
"I controlled time," Odin reminded him. "I might not have had a personality of my own anymore, but as long as I held Time Vent, I remembered everything that transpired. The same went for my successors."
When Ren gave him a look of helpless confusion, he explained, "There had to be a thirteenth Rider at all times. When I fell, another soon took my place—a businessman who works here in the city. We've kept in contact." Ren nodded here; that made some sense, at least. If the two Odins were looking out for one another, that would explain why the first looked like someone might have been taking care of him. "You don't have to worry about him; he's a little more interested in Kido, who was the one to go looking for him. He hardly worries about you. There was a third after him, but we haven't found him yet. All we know is that he was a bystander during the attack where Kido died. Kanzaki needed one on short notice."
Ren had almost started at the name Kanzaki—these days, he only associated that name with his boss. Once, it had been the name of the person who'd taken everything from him.
"Kanzaki was the one who sent Darkwing after Eri." Odin nodded. "Why? Why go after her? Was it so he could get me as a Rider?"
There was a look of sorrow on Odin's face. "He might have controlled my actions, but he didn't let me understand him. The truth is, I don't know for sure. Darkwing only emerged when you walked through the door. Up until that point, the experiment was running smoothly."
For a moment, Ren could see it—the darkened lab, a sudden wind coming in as the windows were blown out from the energy of the Mirror World. Darkwing hovering before Eri as she collapsed.
The inexplicable look of shock on Kanzaki's face as he stared at Ren.
After all, if he knew Ren would always become a Rider, there was no reason he should be surprised to see him there.
He staggered against the wall, gasping for breath. That was the first thing he'd ever remembered from that time, and it was as clear as if it had just happened. It took him a minute to hear Odin's maddeningly calm voice telling him, "For all we know, she saved you." Tears of pain and horror were in Ren's eyes as he looked at Odin, silently pleading for him to stop.
But all the other man did was say, "She saved you once. Don't make her save you again."
She never could understand ballet.
But it was one of Ren's secret pleasures, as funny as it seemed. He could appreciate the complexity of the dance, the difficulty of the steps, the staging, the costumes, the skill, the story. Even before everything happened, he always seemed to be more himself when they saw a dance, and because he knew she didn't get it, he would whisper to her the story, making it come alive.
"The firebird tried to flee the prince, but he was skilled enough to catch it. Still, she could see that she could trust him, and she promised to help him if he agreed to release her..."
"The prince was fooled by the black swan, all according to plan. They shared a dance of love, where he made an oath to her. But it meant he betrayed the one who loved him, dooming her to death..."
"But because the last fairy hadn't given her gift, she still had the chance to change the curse. The princess would sleep, not die, and that was some hope. One day, someone would wake her, the one who truly loved her..."
It was enough to make those rare dates to the ballet bearable, as he held her close to him and softly shared that part of his soul.
They hadn't gone in a long time, but that was mostly because tickets were expensive and it had to be something special.
But sometimes she wondered if they were part of a dance now. Some strange, twisted piece that told a story even he didn't understand, but he just had to keep going step by step.
The story sounded like a fairytale, but one without an end. The hero hadn't won—he'd only been forced to go through the tale once more, now rewritten. But nothing could undo the steps he'd already taken—the dance was pervasive, and no amount of rewriting the story could unperform it.
It was enough to make her wish for another reset, but even then, she knew it was no use. They would only be hurt again by the events that had occurred before.
The last dance they'd seen was Sleeping Beauty, and now that they knew about the time before, it seemed so eerie. The princess locked in a deep sleep, the prince who could only save her after a hundred years. The way a pure wish couldn't erase a curse, not completely, but it had to suffice somehow.
She wished there was a way she could pull him close and explain the story to him, to make him understand, but she couldn't understand it herself. She couldn't appreciate the complexity, the difficulty, the staging, costuming, skill, or story.
But she had to help him change the dance, one way or another.
He'd left his deck on the table.
Eri was surprised at the action—so unusually careless. Ren always carried that burden with him, knowing that at any moment, he might be needed to battle some Monster. But work had left him so weary he just left it there as he went to take a bath.
It was terrifying and tempting at the same time. She wanted to hate it so badly, the symbol of the curse placed upon them. But she had to know—wanted to know—what it was that he went through. If maybe she could find some way to understand him better and help.
She picked up the deck.
The sounds assailed her immediately—nothing in her ears, but in her mind. Just by touching it, she'd suddenly become sensitive to the screeching of glass that was the background noise of the Mirror World, the aura of Monsters behind reflections.
It was so terrible that she dropped the deck at first, stopping in fear that Ren might have heard something. But nothing happened—he was too tired physically and emotionally to either hear or check.
With a silent sigh of relief, Eri picked up the deck once more. This time, her brain was able to filter out the sensations. Monsters too distant to be a problem were muted completely into a background static, barely touching the edge of her consciousness. Something familiar, like Darkwing, was easy to ignore.
But then there was a strange presence, and for a moment, she wondered if it might have been Kido fighting. It didn't feel like the Monsters, and she started looking at the reflections in the apartment for a clue. She finally settled at the TV and saw it for herself.
There was a young woman—just younger than she was by a few years—with her back turned to Eri, holding herself with obvious distress.
"Hello?" Eri called.
The woman stiffened suddenly, clearly startled to hear someone talking to her. She turned around, and the alarm was evident on her face.
"Eri-san," she said.
Eri drew closer to the TV. "How do you know my name? Who are you?"
An expression of sorrow appeared on the woman's face as she admitted, "We met once before, but you wouldn't remember. I knew Ren before the reset."
This was it, then. This was the answer. "You're the other person Kido-kun was talking about. The one everyone forgot."
"Yes," she confessed. "My name is Kanzaki Yui."
Again, Eri felt the strain of a million answers she was looking for, but no question to ask. Instead, she looked at the anxiety on Yui's face and asked, "What's wrong?"
Yui looked close to tears as she said, "Someone's gone missing. I'm worried he'll get hurt."
"Who? Is it another Rider?"
Yui shook her head. "It's my brother."
Eri wasn't quite sure how to feel as she asked, "Your brother is the one who started all of this, right?"
Yui nodded. "I know Oniichan's done too much to be forgiven, but this is the younger version of him. He's thirteen and he's scared. He thinks any mistake he makes is going to hurt someone."
That was a pain she could understand and sympathize with. She and Ren lived with that fear every day.
"What kind of mistake did he make?" she asked.
"He drew a picture."
Shocked, Eri ran to the kitchen to grab the drawing she'd hid. But as she pulled it out, she heard a voice behind her.
Apparently, Ren wasn't exhausted enough not to hear her and check. His hair was wet and flat against his scalp, and there were spots on his clothes thoroughly soaked from quickly redressing. He walked over to her and started to take the picture from her, puzzled, but then he saw what else was in her hands.
"Why do you have my deck?"
She didn't know how to explain, but as he tried to take it, he too heard Yui's voice calling out, "Ren?"
The familiar and yet unfamiliar voice caught his attention at once, and he looked over to the kitchen window, where she had followed them. Despite her worry for her brother, she smiled at her old friend. "It's good to see you again."
"Yui," he realized at once. There was nothing clear in his memory about her, but the pieces seemed to fall into place all the same. There had always been someone trying to save him, whether it was Eri, Kido, or Yui. He had never been alone.
That was why he couldn't find himself on his own.
"My brother is missing," Yui explained. "The younger Oniichan. He drew a picture he shouldn't have, and now he's run away."
As the implications hit Ren, Eri angled the picture toward the window. "Is this the picture?"
"Yes!" Yui answered, excited with fear. "He must have tried to throw it away, but I don't know why he would have picked you."
Ren was at a loss for words, so Eri replied, "Maybe he was trying to make amends."
Yui shook her head sadly. "He doesn't have to be doing this. He hasn't done anything."
"No," Ren agreed. The timeline had been reset before the boy could even try. He never would.
"Oniichan and I have been looking, along with the younger me," Yui added. "We can't find him anywhere in the Mirror World. I'm scared he might have crossed through into the real world."
"That might explain the Monster attacks," Ren admitted.
"We've gotten the door between worlds more tightly closed now," Yui promised. "But if he's in the real world too long, he'll disappear. Forever."
This wasn't the same person who had hurt them once upon a time. It was easy enough to accept. These were the mistakes of a child, one who had grown up unloved, had been taught that every mistake he made could end the world.
"I'll find him," Ren promised.
"I'm going with you," Eri insisted.
He looked at her seriously, intending to tell her no. But the conviction on her face stopped him. She was determined to help him find out who he really was.
She'd already found herself.
He sighed and nodded. "Go get your helmet."
Eri smiled, and the last thing she heard from Yui was a "Thank you," before she let go of the deck and got ready to go.
He'd always been a runaway.
As a child, he'd run away from home three times before he graduated high school. Something had always made him come back.
The first thing was because he was ten years old. He got as far as his bus fare got him before realizing that he had no idea how to survive on his own.
The second thing was a police officer dragging him back in his patrol car. He'd been twelve then. His punishment was strict, and his family didn't trust him to walk home from school on his own for about a year.
The third thing was Eri.
He was sixteen and he'd had a crush on her he hadn't been able to admit to. It wasn't enough to make him stay, though. He had a plan this time—he'd saved enough money to get his way to Hokkaido, and he'd get an apartment and a job there.
It wasn't a good plan, but it was a step above his last attempts.
He got as far as the front door before the phone suddenly rang. It was Eri.
"I didn't know who to call. Your number was the first in my address book."
It was raining that night. It was also her parents' anniversary. They'd gone out for dinner. They never made it to the restaurant.
"I'll be right over," he promised then.
He always kept his promises.
He ran all the way through the storm, with rain drenching him and lightning raging above. But the wind was on his side.
He made it to her. She opened the door and flung her arms around him, not caring that he was soaking wet. She just clung to him as she cried, and he made sure he didn't let go.
His family had been worried when they found his abandoned backpack, stuffed full of clothes, at the front door. He managed to call them an hour later, letting them know what had happened and that he was at Eri's until someone made him leave. He'd completely forgotten about running away. She made him stay.
She always made him stay.
"You didn't have to come," he said to her now.
"You didn't have to go," she reminded him. Before he could argue, she added, "You always promised to be there for me. I'm promising you now. I won't leave you."
His talk with Odin echoed in his mind. "You don't have to save me."
"I know," she answered. He chanced a glance toward her in surprise. "You're already trying to save yourself."
She'd never let him go.
The boy was in the real world. Darkwing had managed to track him down. The moment he sensed the Monster, he'd tried to run again, but by then, Ren and Eri had already caught up. Ren had just enough time to stop the bike before leaping off and grabbing the boy before he could run again.
A sketchbook fell to their feet.
"Let me go," the boy pleading, half-crying.
Eri walked over and picked up the sketchbook. Pictures were already falling out of it.
Monsters and Riders.
Ren saw them immediately and tensed up. Knowing that his secret was out, the boy stopped struggling. Eri looked at the first of the fallen pictures (Knight again, with Darkwing this time) and gave the boy a comforting smile.
"Your name is Shiro, right?"
Caught off-guard, he nodded.
Eri stood up and handed him the sketchbook. "You don't have to be scared. We're not going to hurt you."
At a glance from her, Ren let go. Shiro looked at him in surprise, clutching his book.
"I promise," Ren insisted. If Shiro knew anything about him, he'd know how sacred Ren held a promise.
"Your sister is worried about you," Eri added. "We agreed to help."
"Why?" Shiro asked, his voice trembling in fear. "After everything I..."
"You didn't do anything," Ren argued.
"I drew these!" Shiro yelled, gripping his sketchbook so tightly his hands began to shake. Or maybe they were shaking before he took the book back, and holding it only made it more apparent. "Everything's happening again because of me."
He started tearing up his sketchbook, ripping out every page. Eri tried to stop him, but Ren held her hand to stop her. As the drawings fell, faint breezes carried them away.
That explained how the drawing ended up with them. A stray wind had carried it through worlds and to Ren.
When the last page had been torn, Shiro collapsed to his knees, crying. Eri stayed by him as Ren collected the pages.
"I didn't mean to draw them," Shiro sobbed. "I only wanted to draw happy things with my family. I wanted to try to make up for what the older me did, so I tried to draw everyone living a better life, but every time I tried to draw them, they came out as Riders."
Ren picked up the last picture and examined it. It must have been a much earlier drawing of Kido—he was still recognizably human, but his clothing had more than a passing resemblance to his Rider armor. Over time, the accident would have become more detailed until it was too late to fix.
"Then you drew the Monsters," he realized. "Because you were afraid."
Shiro nodded. It was the only form of protection he'd ever known.
"You don't have to run away just because you made a mistake," Eri insisted.
"But every time I make a mistake, it hurts somebody else!" Shiro cried. "It hurt Yui, it hurt the Riders, it hurt you!" He tore away from her as particles began to dissolve off his body—his time limit in the real world had been reached. "Why don't you hate me?"
"Stop being stupid," Ren ordered roughly.
Shiro went silent in shock as Ren came over and thrust the papers at him.
"You can't change what happened," he answered flatly. "You might not even be able to fix your mistake. But you're not going to solve anything by running away."
"What do I do?" he asked.
"Live," Eri replied softly, walking over to Ren's side. "It's more than surviving. It's making sure you're happy and enjoying your life."
"We'll get by, Riders or not," Ren insisted. "But if I got a second chance at anything, I don't plan on wasting it." Slowly, Shiro nodded, understanding. "Now, get back to the Mirror World. Yui's waiting."
Shiro walked over to a window, holding the torn drawings close to him. He reached out his hand, and the glass rippled, allowing him to pass through. But before he left, he looked behind him.
And then he was gone, leaving two people behind to live their lives. And they knew he would live his. And they had a feeling they knew what he would draw next.
The first few dates they'd gone on had been just before she started college. There were rules.
No fancy restaurants.
Nothing in the rain.
Always be together.
The first two rules he understood from the night he ran to her in the storm. (In retrospect, she wished he hadn't put himself at risk like that. She wouldn't have been able to bear it if something happened to him.) The third rule he understood when they first went to an amusement park and she explained her childhood phobia.
The fourth, though he'd always understood it somewhat, he didn't fully grasp until now.
The first time they went to the beach, it was in the middle of winter. As snow began to fall on them, she'd teased him, joking that they couldn't go swimming if it was this cold.
But he liked to just watch the waves or the sunset. It was soothing, and it was a chance for them to be together.
They tried never to go alone.
(Once or twice, Ren had failed to, needing the chance to put his thoughts in order. Eri always found him.)
It was where he'd given her the ring—a proposal without asking, just him opening the box and her letting him put it on her finger as they sat together.
They never needed to say anything.
Wherever else they went, they always needed words or rules to explain everything. Whatever else they did, they had to cope with the question of who they were.
There was always a world, Mirror or real.
But here, with sea, sky, and shore, that was the only world they needed.
It was already dawn, and color was splashed through the skies as faint hints of golden light appeared on the edge of the horizon. The bike was parked nearby as they sat on the sands, watching the sunrise.
For a moment, the only sound was the ocean greeting the shore of their secluded beach. But as light began to fill the sky, words began to fill their quiet world.
"Do you think he'll be okay?"
Ren glanced at Eri. There was a distant, concerned expression that had been on her face too often lately.
"Yeah," he answered in a breath.
"And you?" she asked.
He didn't say anything for a moment. He knew that Shiro would be fine—he had a family who would take care of him. As for himself, he had Eri. But he didn't want her to have to save him.
"You're already trying to save yourself," she'd said.
Maybe it wasn't so bad, then.
"I've been thinking," he answered instead. "When we get married..."
It was her turn to look at him, surprised. There was always the assumption they would get married, but they'd never talked about it. Something had always gotten in the way.
"It should probably be soon, right?" he asked.
She smiled. "Yeah. Before my birthday, maybe?"
"In summer?" he asked.
"Or the end of spring," she said. "Sometime when it's warm and bright."
We won't have time to prepare, went unsaid.
You said it should be soon.
Yeah. It'll be small, though.
That's all right. Just as long as we're together.
(That's the thing about happy endings. They're endings.)
(Real life is a series of beginnings.)
(If you want a happy story, you have to write it yourself.)
(But nobody said you had to write it alone.)
Kamen Rider Ryuki is the property of Ishimori Productions and Toei. The title comes from the Straylight Run song "The Perfect Ending." The ballets mentioned are The Firebird, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. I won't lie—there's headcanon galore in this, particularly with Ren's history, with one particular one coming from a mostly crack headcanon I came up with with Ajora. Some of the details here are references to my fic "Leave Out All The Rest." I had wanted to write a sequel to it for a long time, or at least another Ren/Eri fic, but I couldn't come up with a solid story. Instead, I took the various unfinished ideas I had and weaved them together into a fluid narrative. Odin's identity as a homeless man was taken from supplemental info, but I purposely left his name unknown because I knew I'd never be happy with whatever I named him.