AFTERMATH: HACK
Part 2 – The Never-Ending Tale

Chapter 27 – Five Feet Apart
Shoichi

.

Jin looks at him curiously when he gets home, but how can Shoichi speak his mind? It's stuffed full with thoughts regarding the Ignis, and about one Ignis in particular.

He hasn't even mentioned duelling in front of Jin. How can he possibly bring an Ignis into their safe haven?

"Brother?" Jin asks. "Is something bothering you?"

He looks so young, so earnest – a flashback to the old Jin who used to brighten him whenever he was down in the dumps. Whether it was his parents scolding him for wanting to be a sports professional instead of something academic (and weren't they thrilled when he eventually wound up running his self-employed hot dog truck?) or something that happened in school, Jin was always the bright spot he'd taken for granted.

He forces a smile on his face. Of course, Jin isn't fooled. "Something was," he admits, "but I've decided. It won't bother us again."

He frowns. He can't possibly know, with that scrap of information, but still he volunteers: "Aren't you being too hasty?"

And Shoichi blinks, because yes he may be, but Jin of all people can't be saying that.

But Jin is in one of his moods, it seems – one of those pre-Lost Incident ones where he'd dig out whatever was bothering Shoichi and brainstorm how to fix it – and wasn't about to let things go.

And Shoichi decides they do need to talk about this sometimes, so let's just see how far they'll make it.

"In a bit," he says. "But first, have you eaten?" He always cooks to order, but running a hot dog truck means he wants to be eating hot dogs all the time… or drinking coffee. Yuusaku probably ate more hot dogs than he did, all in all. Shoichi wasn't sure Yuusaku even knew how to cook, and Takeru had admitted he didn't.

So had Aoi, but at least she had her robot maid. And so had Yuusaku, before the mess with Ai.

Jin shakes his head, which Shoichi should be unhappy about given the time, but it gives him the excuse to cook something a bit more fulfilling than instant meals. "How about some roast?" he offers, opening the fridge.

And wonders if electronics includes things like said fridge and microwaves and the electric stoves and lights… and, given that this was Lightning, it probably did.

It's not a foolproof plan at all, and how did Revolver even come up with the idea? Or was it Zaizen? Either way…

"Brother?"

Right, he's standing with the fridge door still open. "Cut the vegetables?" he offers.

Jin gives him a searching look, before moving past him to fish carrots, broccoli and bean out of the fridge, and a vegetable knife out of the knife block.

Shoichi moves to speed-defrost and prepare the meat, and until everything's in the oven, they work in silence.

And then they nurse two mismatched cups of tea over the little crickety table and there's no avoiding it any longer. Not unless he wants to wrap Jin in cotton wool and isn't that the whole reason he brought him here, because wasn't that long stay place comfortable and caring but ultimately padded with fairy floss and hospital gauze?

One cup has soccer balls on the handle. The other has a mix of different coloured kuribohs. Jin, to his surprise, has taken a hold of the kuriboh cup… but then again, duelling was something familiar, if still riddled with scars.

As though responding to his thoughts, Jin gently caresses the kuribohs on the cup. "They still have these."

They'd had one for Jin way back when, as well. Out of a habit Shoichi hadn't even realised he'd embraced, he'd brought similarly patterned mugs when he'd moved out of his parents' place.

"Some things don't grow old," he reflected.

"That's nice." And Jin smiles softly. "Too many things change too quickly."

Like how the Lost Incident had caused so many irreversible changes. Killed one child. Killed another's parents. Damaged the relationship between child and family, and between child and self and world.

"Jin…" he begins, and then he doesn't know what to say.

No, that's not right. Hasn't he been keeping Jin up to date, for all these years? Isn't there a gaping hole in the middle?

"Remember when Playmaker defeated the Knights of Hanoi?"

Jin nods. "That's when…" He bites his lip. His fingers wrap tightly around the mug. "That's when you first offered to live with me, but then that yellow… thing –" The tea isn't warm and comforting enough anymore.

"That was another Ignis," Shoichi explains, and really, it's as good a starting point as he's going to get. "An Ignis like Ai. And we learnt a lot more about the Ignis through the battles that ensured. Met a lot more allies – friends – as well."

"Friends?" Jin repeats. His eyes are still wide, but he wraps his fingers around the cup again.

"Friends," Shoichi agrees. "We got to know Blue Angel and her brother. And met another boy: Homura Takeru, who'd been inspired by the heroes of Link VRAINS to become Soulburner. He's…" Somewhere in between Yuusaku and Jin, he thinks. It took someone else fighting to for him to be able to fight himself. But one day, even Jin…

Though he'd hoped there'd be no more enemies long before that occurred.

"Soulburner… fought."

And like that, with stuttering interruptions, they made it through the tale.

"Soulburner… fought," Jin repeats. "Windy's human… died. And Playmaker… saved us all." He let's go of the cup again: makes his hands into fists. "I… was just a puppet." Tears fell. "I don't want to be a puppet anymore, but I can't – "

Shoichi doesn't interrupt. Can't interrupt.

"I haven't left," Jin admits. "I draw. I sit and stare. Sometimes… I'm back there."

And that breaks Shoichi's heart more than anything else. He's abandoned his chare before his mind catches up and has swept his brother into a hug.

Jin lets him. Into his chest, he keeps talking. Shoichi can almost feel his lips vibrating… or perhaps that's the tremor of their hearts, beating in an unsteady tandem.

And he makes sure to listen hard, to not miss a single word, because despite the stuttering and the short sentences, this is the most Jin has talked in a long while.

"I tried. At first, I tried. I ate. I slept. I duelled. I won. I lost. Then, when I won…" He shakes more. Shoichi tightens his arms around him. "I thought I was saved. I wasn't. Monsters wore rescuer masks. Then I kept losing. Finally, I stopped."

He'd been catatonic when they'd found him: catatonic, emaciated, almost starved to death. He must have still been drinking, though. Somehow, he'd kept on drinking.

Hadn't Yuusaku said that, even on days he lost every duel, a little juice-box appeared?

"I'm stopped. I stopped. But I moved again. Little bits." The small milestones they'd celebrated, they'd waited for, until there were enough of them that the doctors whispered he may have a normal life ahead of him after all.

But then Lightning had swooped in and Shoichi wondered if all of that hard work, all of that time healing, was down the drain.

Except it wasn't, thankfully. Yuusaku said he'd seemed terrified when he'd appeared in that battle against Revolver, thrown carelessly as a hostage and then pulled away just as quick –

But instead it has spurred something in him. Perhaps it was that feeling of lacking control, lacking power, being the only one who couldn't influence things at all and not just because he'd frozen up.

And here he is, babbling about the same.

"Scared. No power. Didn't know. Couldn't duel. Forgot. And then… safe again. Not trick this time."

"Safe," Shoichi repeats. "Yes, Yuusaku defeated Bohman. He saved us both."

"Us?" Jin lifts his head. "You too?"

"Yeah." And Shoichi needs to admit his own shortcomings here. "Lightning got me good, and we guessed he would. He had you as a hostage, after all. Wasn't afraid of using you. So I knew he'd try to take away Playmaker's supports, try to take away me – and to keep you safe, I had to let him. I drove Playmaker to fight me and it broke his heart."

"Broke… heart?" Jin repeats, and he repeats it another time, as though searching for something else in it. "Yuusaku… fought. Always fought."

"Even he had years he didn't fight," Shoichi reminds.

"Where is… he now?"

"Visiting family," Shoichi replies. He's not entirely sure, but that's what Takeru suggested was the case. He was still walking that fine balance of looking too hard and not looking at all. Yuusaku hadn't reappeared in Den City, anyway.

But now he has to update Yuusaku too, about the Ignis reviving, about Revolver's plan, or else he's going to get a nasty shock when Ai shows up in his duel disk again.

And the timing's all wrong, he thinks. No way Yuusaku's moved on, but hopefully he's moved past that numbing shock, at least.

Yuusaku who's lost the most… isn't he even allowed to grieve?

"They're coming… back?" Jin's voice shakes. He sounds horrified… and also hopeful?

Shoichi pulls back a little and looks at his brother's face. Yes, there is a spark of something in there.

"Where?" he asks.

"Not here," Shoichi says.

Jin's brow furrows. "You thought, earlier. Too quickly."

"Yeah," he admits, "but it's too much, too fast, isn't it?"

"You?" Jin asks.

That's what Revolver asked, as well.

"Of course. No-one dreamed of slamming you with that nutcase straight away." Or hopefully ever, but that's not really his place to deny, either. Then, just to hammer the nail into the coffin of his decision, he says: "Revolver and Zaizen asked me to take Lightning. So it'll be close to you but not with you, and you can have as much contact with it as you want. But I don't think it's that neat: I mean, I live with you, we have electronics, and most things we can't compromise on. Not to mention the hot dog cart won't survive a malicious Ignis."

And, to be honest, he's not even sure he can keep Lightning under control. Playmaker and Ai were the best team by far but Ai still did a bunch of stuff without Playmaker's knowledge.

Then again, did Flame or Aqua do anything without their humans' knowledge? Even if Aqua was a bit of a special case, given that Sugisaki was comatose at the time.

"Lightning… came from me."

"…yeah." And that's one of the things he's had the hardest time coming to grips with. He can only guess Lightning's flaws – because hadn't Revolver said something about the programme being damaged, or incomplete – that led to that drastic difference.

"Broken… like me."

"You're not broken." But maybe that's minimising the suffering. "You're strong. Look at how far you've come from that time."

"Maybe… he's better too."

And why? Shoichi thinks. Jin is almost defending Lightning.

"Need to fight." But Jin is white and shaking and his pupils are too large. "Need to face him."

"Not today you don't!" Because they still have a bit of time before that decision needs to be made, and hurdles they need to clear in the interim if they do wind up taking custody of Lightning –

And even though he's terrified himself, he can't help but be proud of that gigantic step Jin is taking.

He can only hope it's not off the edge of a cliff.


Post A/N: Five Feet Apart is the name of one of my favourite movies. It's about kids with Cystic Fibrosis who keep six feet apart to prevent a mixing of colonised bacteria, because most kids are colonised with nasty bugs which can be lethal to them or others. Some decide to fight their condition/fate and shorten the distance to five, hence the title. And this is Jin's very shaky attempt to try and shorten it.

Speaking of Jin, I don't recall him actually saying anything, but this isn't the fic I want to play selective mutism in for him so we'll leave that out. And the kidnap by Lightning could have worked out two ways – back peddle or the trigger to fast-forward and, again, I'm going for the latter. Admittedly it's largely because I want to use him in the story in a more active role, and Lightning needs a chance of redemption as well and he's not going to get that with a comatose partner. It's bad enough trying to figure out what to do about the Windy situation this arc. That being said, I don't intend to minimise his suffering, but Shoichi is also a safe environment for him (which can also be screwed up due to Shoichi having been there when Jin got kidnapped, but again, not the fic I'm going to play that up in).