III wasn't sure what woke him up. All he knew was that for a long time, he seemed to be dreaming - dark, unsettled dreams that scampered away like black beetles when he tried to remember them - and then energy flooded through him, and he became suddenly aware of his body again. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought that up until that moment, his heart hadn't been beating, and that he hadn't been breathing. He sat up with a gasp and looked around.
His brothers were sitting up next to him. The three of them were lying in identical beds, arranged in a perfectly aligned row in a vast dark room. III stared at both of them, wondering vaguely why they weren't wearing any shirts, before feeling his sheets shifting against his skin and realizing that he, too, was naked.
"What's going on?" he asked. He frowned, trying to remember. He remembered dueling Yuma - that thought gave him an uneasy twinge of guilt - and then of collapsing, and a vague recollection of his father tucking him into bed, and of asking him to hold his hand until he fell asleep, and that was all. He looked at his brothers, who appeared as puzzled as he felt. "What's been going on? And why are you guys here?"
"Why do you think we're here?" IV snapped. "We lost our duels, that's what happened."
"You both lost?" III repeated. He was not sure if that was good news or not. On the one hand, it meant that they hadn't furthered their father's plans for revenge. On the other hand...
V and IV quickly filled him in one what he'd missed while he'd been out. He listened with a sinking feeling. Had he really been unconscious for so long? How could he have been asleep when so much was going on?
"Where's Father?" he asked at last.
"I don't know," V admitted. "I haven't heard from him since the quarter-finals began."
"He's ditched us," said IV. "I'll bet that's it. He's got no more use for us. We failed him." The acid in his words could have eaten through solid steel.
"He wouldn't," said III. "He wouldn't."
His brothers looked at him, IV with scorn, V with pity. III stared back at them.
"I want to get dressed," he said.
They found their clothes piled in neat bundles beneath their beds. They dressed quickly, though not because they were self-conscious around each other. They were brothers, after all. V had taken his turn changing the younger boys' diapers and giving them baths, and IV had reluctantly taken his turn when III was born. IV had gone through a phase when he'd thought it was a marvelous prank to sneak into the bathroom while his brothers were showering and steal all the towels. V would chase after him, dripping and furious; IV would wrap himself in the shower curtain and shout until someone took pity on him. On scorching summer days, they would sometimes escape the unbearable heat by stripping down to swim in the pond that stood at the edge of their father's property. They had nothing to hide from each other, but they were in a dark empty room, and they were hungry and confused and worried, and they didn't want to be naked as well.
By unspoken consensus, they filed into the kitchen. They hadn't eaten anything in hours or days, and all of them felt weak and hollow. They set about preparing whatever foods they gravitated towards when they were feeling stressed. III began making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then poured himself a glass of milk. He began stirring chocolate syrup into it to give himself something to do with his hands. He was still standing at the kitchen counter fussing over his food when V's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Brothers," he said, his voice shaking, "I think you need to see this."
III turned slowly in place. The tone of his brother's voice made him think that whatever he was about to see, he didn't really want to see it. The kitchen's windows, like most of the windows in their temporary home, were hung with thick curtains to prevent prying eyes from spying on them. III had to stand quite close to V before he could see what had so rattled him.
From this window, they had a good view of Heartland Tower. Most of the best rooms in the house did. Tron had wanted it that way; it seemed to give him a charge to be able to look out his nemesis's stronghold as often as he liked. It should have been standing proudly, dominating the skyline. Instead, it was crumpled and broken. Smoke rose in a thin curl above it, and III thought he saw glints of fire and the occasional spark of an electrical system shorting out. His heart sank.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "No, it can't be..."
But it was. The evidence of his eyes could hardly be denied. Dr. Faker's laboratory had been destroyed, and III could only think of one person who would want to do such a thing. The only conclusion he could draw was that Yuma had failed, Tron had given himself over to his lust for vengeance, and this was the result.
"It's all over," said IV. "Damn it!"
"We need to find Father," said V. "We'll search the house first, and then move out into the city."
"Why bother?" IV snapped. "Can't you see it's already too late? Even if we found him, there's nothing left for us to do. We failed him, he abandoned us, and he's not going to care if we come crawling back to him again."
"We have to try anyway," said V. "I'll take the ground floor and you two take the second and third floors."
"I'll take the top floor," said III, and hurried away so that he wouldn't have to listen to anything else. He didn't want to hear any more reasons why his father was not coming back, and searching the house, no matter how futile an action that would be, was better than standing around doing nothing.
So he searched. There were a lot of rooms in the house, a lot more than the four of them really needed, but Tron wouldn't settle for less. He had very definite ideas about what his dignity demanded - he would not tolerate being cooped up in a hotel room when his enemy had an entire massive tower at his disposal, and he needed plenty of private space to experiment with his various powers without being noticed or disturbed.
He came to his father's bedroom and rapped on the door, but there was no answer. All the same, he opened it and peered inside. It was the house's master bedroom, with a massive four- poster bed that could have comfortably slept six people. It was far too large for the childlike person who slept in it. An old cathode ray tube television and a DVD player rested on the bedside table, looking out of place in the otherwise elegantly furnished room. It usually blared all night, cranking out endless repetitions of old cartoons while Tron slept. Put him in a silent, dark room, and he'd spend his nights thrashing and crying out from nightmares that he couldn't or wouldn't describe. His sons had spent many late nights sitting beside his bed, holding his hands and wiping his sweating brow with a cool damp cloth, soothing him back into sleep, before they had noticed that he slept quietly if he dozed off in his chair while watching television. Once they'd installed an entertainment system next to his bed, he'd slept dreamlessly, smiling, as though the chorus of splats and bonks and explosions comprised some demented lullaby. His sons had told each other that they were glad he was finally getting a good night's rest, and that it would do him good, and had privately resented the noisy box that had taken their place as his comforter.
The lights were out now, the curtains drawn closed, and the TV was dark and silent. Tron wasn't here. III hadn't expected him to be, but it would have been a little easier if he had been, resting from whatever exertions he'd put himself through that day. III closed the door and moved on.
He continued searching, restlessly, hopelessly, opening closed doors and peering into the darkness beyond before closing them and moving on. The whole house was dark and silent, and with every empty room he searched, he felt his spirits sink further. He wasn't going to find his father. He might not ever see him again. He'd had his chance to do the right thing, and he'd gotten it all wrong - they all had - and this was the result. Their family was broken beyond repair, now, and nothing he could do or say was going to change that fact. He might as well give up.
The only place left to look was the balcony. III had saved it for last, partly because he didn't think there was much chance of Tron being there, and partly because he was avoiding looking at the ruined Heartland Tower. If he didn't look at it, he could almost pretend there was nothing wrong. V was not going to be sympathetic, though, if he found out that III had not searched everywhere he was supposed to search, so at last, grimly, III opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony.
Tron was leaning on the railing, looking out over the city. His arms were folded over the balustrade, one hand dangling loosely, one leg crossed casually behind the other. He looked like any vacationer lazily admiring the view. He didn't react when the door opened, his mind apparently far away. For a fleeting instant, III wondered if, now that the revenge that had been driving him for so long had been delivered, there was nothing left of his father at all.
"Sir?" he said.
Tron stirred, seeming to rouse himself from a dream.
"You're awake," he said, as though he thought III had only put his head down a little while for a nap. "That's good."
III faltered, not sure what to say to that. Then he gathered his wits again and shouted through the door, "V, IV, I found him! He's up here!" His voice sounded thin and thready, but it echoed down the house's bare corridors, and he heard the distant response of his brothers' exclamations and the echoes of their footfalls. Soon they were both standing behind III, almost cowering, as though relieved he had gotten there first and they didn't have to start the conversation.
"You're all here," said Tron, still facing the skyline. His voice was serene, almost dreamy. III didn't think he'd ever heard Tron sounding serene before. He was a brittle creature, all sharp mood swings and wild laughter. "It's fitting that you should be here, now that it's all over."
"So, you've had your revenge," said V. His voice was flat. "Are you happy now?"
Tron shook his head slowly. "No."
"No?" IV repeated, squawking with indignation. "After all we went through you're still not content? What else do you want?"
"That isn't what I meant," said Tron. "I meant, I haven't gotten my revenge."
"Then what's all that?" asked IV, gesturing towards the ruined tower.
"That wasn't my doing," said Tron. "Dr. Faker's machines went out of control. I found him dangling from a precipice, clinging to his son's hand, and Tsukumo Yuma clinging to both of them, trying to keep them from falling. I could have sent Dr. Faker plummeting into the other world, just as he did to me. It would have been the perfect revenge." He shook his head, his tone faintly mystified, as if even he couldn't believe what he was saying. "I saved their lives."
"What?" It was hard to be sure who got the word out first; all three of the boys were shouting at once.
Tron turned to face them. His gaze was clear and steady, with no trace of the barely- restrained insanity that had haunted him for so long.
"I saved them," he said again. "Dr. Faker asked my forgiveness, and I gave it. We parted as friends. There will be no revenge. It's over."
No one said anything. III couldn't think of anything to say. It was as if some natural law had been broken, one that had been in play ever since their father had gone away and left them in the care of a giggling spoiled child: the sun rose in the east, water flowed downhill, and Tron wanted revenge on Dr. Faker. III thought, It can't be real. It isn't real. I'm still asleep, and this is a dream. I wish it wasn't.
"It's over, huh?" said IV. "So after all the hell you put us through, now you're saying you got to the end of it all and changed your mind."
"I'm sorry," said Tron softly.
"You're sorry?" IV snapped. "We put our lives on the line for you, and now you're telling us everything we did was pointless, and all you can think of to say is that you're sorry?"
"I am sorry."
"Well, maybe sorry's not good enough," IV groused. "You think you can just do whatever you want with us and I'm tired of it."
"Brother, don't be like that," III pleaded. "If this is... if what he's saying is true, then this is our chance to finally put all this behind us. We did all this because we wanted to be a family again, didn't we? You can't just walk away now."
"Why not?" said IV. "If he can change his mind, so can I."
"You don't really mean that," said III. He wanted to cry, or to scream at his brother to stop being such a fool. IV had so much pride - he couldn't let a slight go without a challenge. He had always been that way, even as a child, but Tron's encouragement had only exacerbated that quality. He couldn't bring himself to back down now, even though he must have wanted to.
"Maybe if I thought he was telling the truth, I wouldn't," said IV. "All he's done since he showed up is lie to us and play games with us. Why should I think he's telling us the truth now, and this isn't just another stunt to get our hopes up again?"
"It does seem rather sudden," said V cautiously.
"That doesn't matter," said III.
"No, they're right," said Tron. "I've given you three every reason to distrust me."
He looked so much more fragile without his mask, III thought, and so downcast that no amount of suspicion and confusion could stop III from feeling pity for him.
"Father?" he said hesitantly.
"I was, once," said Tron. "I forgot, for a long time, but it's beginning to come back to me..."
He's being literal, III thought, amazed. Moved by pity and longing, he took a few steps closer, and he went down on his knees and put his arms around him.
Byron Arclight had never been a man for showing a great deal of physical affection. He'd always been quick with a smile and an encouraging word, but physical demonstrations were generally limited to a hand rested briefly on his sons' shoulders or run playfully through their hair. Now a memory surfaced from the depths of III's mind, something he hadn't though about in years. He'd been very small at the time, maybe only three or four years old. His brothers had been busy with their schoolwork, and he'd been bored and perhaps a little lonely, and he'd sought out his father for company. His father was doing some incomprehensible grown-up thing on his computer, but when III came in, he stopped what he was doing, and instead reached for a sheet of clean white paper and turned it into a paper airplane. He showed his son how to throw it and told him to take it outside and practice for a while, promising to come down in a little while and see how good at it he'd gotten. III had never had a paper airplane before, and he'd been delighted with his new toy. He ran around the garden, throwing it and chasing it, until the moment when, looking at the airplane instead of his feet, he tripped over the edge of a paved walkway and fell flat on his face. He went tottering towards the house with blood trickling from his knees and hands and chin, howling with the inconsolable misery of a child who had no concept of the future, knowing only that he hurt now and so would hurt forever.
Then his father came and picked him up and cradled him in his arms, apparently unconcerned by the fact that his son was getting blood and tears and probably a certain amount of mucus and drool on what must have been a very expensive coat. III remembered his father saying, "There, there, it's all right, little man. We'll get you fixed up in no time," and he'd carried him inside and cleaned his scrapes and given him his choice of colorful band-aids to wear. It was one of the only times in his life III could remember his father embracing him, and it came to him strongly at this moment that as different as he looked now, he still smelled the same. III felt his eyes prickle with tears. No matter how different his father might look, he was still there - weak and trembling, but there.
They pulled away again, III feeling a little embarrassed by his show of emotion. What his father was feeling, he could only guess. He turned his head a little and saw IV and V giving each other odd looks, vaguely worried, but also vaguely hopeful.
"Okay, maybe I was wrong," said IV, "but if you expect me to get all touchy-feely about it, you can forget it."
V made a noise as though he was trying not to laugh. III grinned, and their father offered them a tentative smile.
"I know I've asked a lot of you," he said. "More than any father should ask of his sons, and you still gave everything you had for my sake. I thought you'd failed me, but that couldn't be further from the truth. You never gave up on me, and for that, I couldn't be more proud of all of you."
V's expression brightened. "Do you mean that, Father?"
He nodded. "No one could be prouder."
They all looked to IV, who turned his face away with a small shrug.
"Oh, well," he said. "That's all I really wanted you to say."
III beamed in triumph. "What are we going to do now?"
"We're going to go home," his father said. "But first... I understand that Tsukumo Yuma will be having one more duel tonight. I think perhaps we should go and watch, out of respect. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Of course, Father," said III. At that moment, he would have agreed if his father had said they should walk across the Sahara or fly to the moon. Watching Yuma duel sounded fine by him. The others nodded agreement.
"Splendid," their father said. With a gesture, he opened a sparkling portal in the air. Then Byron Arclight left the darkened building, and Chris, Thomas, and Michael went with him.