Roy spent the entirety of the ride back in a daze, watching the abandoned city as if aching to remember anything that didn't revolve around Aesthetica. His navi didn't call out to him, nor did he to it. The sentiment was shared by the other passengers, as Hai, Matsuda, and Akos were still being tended to. Emery took over driving, and her occasional glancing scowl in the mirror was the most communication Roy registered until the glass monolith known as Aesthetica's walls came into view.
The bright checkered glass glowing as bright as ever, Roy settled for the dingy street lamps that stayed on even though it was daytime. They arrived at the compound, and Emery let them off with a two sentence debriefing: "We'll get in touch if anything comes up. You're free to go inside the gate unless you're told otherwise."
While Hai was taken to the hospital along with Akos, Roy and Ken ate a paltry meal at the compound before sitting in wait on the bus stop's rickety bench. The trolley made its rounds six times, Roy counted, before the dingy lamps were actually needed, and before he finally said a word to Ken. "Do you feel bad for Mika?"
"Everything feels like a dream," Ken said, arms crossed and hood covering most of his sneering face. "So much happened that it doesn't feel real. Yet that's the first thing you want to ask?"
"He's your best friend, right?"
"For somebody who wants to grow up, you sure sound like a teenager."
"Coming from the guy who skipped growing up and let the aesthetics do it for him."
Roy squinted at the back of his hands which recoiled into soft fists on his lap. "My maturity isn't up for debate here. You're the one with a baptism coming up. You have to decide whether you want to join society for real, or continue your childish rebellion against it."
"Didn't I turn him down? What more do you want me to do?"
"Does that mean you've decided that Aesthetica is your "better way"?"
"I don't know," Ken muttered. "You understand now why I don't see eye to eye with the founders and their navi system. How am I supposed to decide what my better way is, when that's the system I'd be chaining myself to? How can you still believe in it, now that you know?"
"The navi system may not serve the interests of everyone in the world… But it does serve citizens of Aesthetica. As long as I can continue believing the system works for the citizens' sake, then I'm going to be a proponent of it."
"You're such a good dog, so well-trained you can walk even without your leash…"
"The fact that I'm saying this without aesthetics should tell you how strongly I believe it."
"And yet you're still so blinded by your self-righteousness that you can't see how backwards your justification is."
"You're fine with sacrificing the rest of the world so that the citizens of Aesthetica can thrive as ignorant sheep. If growing up means deciding to live on your knees despite knowing what the price of this society is, can you blame me for being hesitant?"
"So are you on Mika's side, or ours?"
"What, are you gonna report me?" he asked, his hood shading his scornful glance. "I've already answered that. Did I not earn your trust today?"
"You would have if you hadn't been hiding the fact that you were plotting against Aesthetica…"
"Sometimes you have to keep secrets. You've been realizing that lately, haven't you? Besides, I was never set on what I was going to do, and I'm still not."
"I know you didn't want Mika to die because he's your friend," Roy said with a sigh. "But if you convinced Emery not to kill him so that you could still save him from cyberspace…"
"Then there'd be no hope for Aesthetica, with the towers down. The only obstacle would be the firewall around the city. But I obviously don't want to bring the destruction that Mika does."
"But the higher ups don't know that, yet I'm sure they know about your connection to Mika. That's why Rocks couldn't get in legally. So why… Why are they letting you do what you want?"
"Probably because they need me to be on their side that badly. Why not go talk to them and have me confined, or killed? If you're that worried I'll bring harm to Aesthetica."
"Because I do trust you… I know you meant it when you said you want to find a better way. But if you do hurt the people I serve…"
"Then you have my permission to kill me," he said, not a trace of emotion in his pale face.
"What…" Roy muttered, wide-eyed.
"And if Aesthetica's founders show they aren't using the system to truly serve the people, what will you do?"
"I… can't possibly know the answer to that."
Hai finally arrived, cutting their conversation short to show off his new prosthetics and stitched up face. They took the next trolley, and Roy sent his navi off to deliver messages to two people.
Okay, Roy, I'll tell them, but I can't promise they'll come.
"Hey Ken, can you make sure Ellie will be at the hideout? I want to focus on screening her until she's truly ready for tomorrow. Yours will have to wait."
"Yeah, she'll be there." Ken avoided Roy's gaze for the rest of the ride, and vice versa, while Hai played the bridge between them. When they disembarked and arrived at the hideout, everyone was already there. Gabi gasped when she saw Hai's wounds, and again when she noticed his new prosthetics. She then inspected Roy closely, and blushed and jumped back with a twitch in her cheek upon realizing there was nothing wrong with him. Dmitri and Rocks greeted them with genuine smiles, and Ellie wept as she hugged Ken.
"I'm sorry I encouraged this," she said in between sobs. "It was dangerous. I'm glad you're all okay. But Hai must have suffered…" She buried her head in his chest, grimacing as she sobbed.
"It's not your fault, Ellie," Ken replied, caressing her head before shooting Roy a sour look . "It's Roy's. Are you feeling okay?"
"Huh? I'm okay," she said, looking up but not opening her eyes. Rocks shook his head, and Ken's expression sank.
"You don't have to be so brave. If it's hurting just tell me. Have you taken your dose for the night?"
She nodded her head, sniffling as her sobs gradually subsided, before unleashing in wails.
"Tonight is the worst it's been," Rocks said, letting his gaze drop when Roy looked at him.
Navi, did they respond?
Yes, they should be there shortly.
"Ellie, I'm having someone bring the highest dosage available. Just bare with it a little longer, and we'll see if it helps."
"What are you talking about?" Ken asked with a frown.
"Look, there they are," Roy said, rushing over to greet the man and woman who cautiously entered the blue haze. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"It's no problem, but… What is this, Roy?" Bian asked, pulling the hood of her raincoat down and smoothing her silky straight hair while eyeing everybody.
"She's so pretty!" Gabi gasped.
"I'll explain in a minute, but I need your help," Roy replied.
"Hey, did you notice I'm here, too? I feel like that thanks was only aimed at one of us," Felix said, blinking his green eyes emphatically.
"Your eyes… You did it, Felix!"
"Yeah, I gotta hand it to you, your place is more soothing than mine. Anyway, I didn't want to face Ellie without getting them back to green. If this is going to work, we need to be strong."
"If what's going to work?" Ken asked, stepping in front of the teetering Ellie while Gabi rushed to hold her.
"I'm going to have them both assist me in Ellie's screening," Roy replied. "We aren't resting until I see blue in those eyes for at least a moment."
Ken's eyes shot open, and he turned back to her. "Ellie, are you okay with that? I think this could actually help you pass the baptism."
All eyes fell on the meek girl, who calmed her sobs and looked around with the widest squint she could muster.
"Yes.. Thank you, Roy. And Felix. And you, miss. For thinking of me. You're doing more than your jobs allow, aren't you- ow!" She grasped her head, and Gabi helped her to her and Ken's usual sofa.
"Bian, I need the aesthetics I asked you to bring," Roy said as Ken knelt down to hold Ellie's hand.
"What? Roy, that's for citizens, and only emergencies," she replied in a frantic whisper.
"If you can look at her and tell me she isn't a citizen of Aesthetica with an emergency, please, go ahead."
Her mouth opened and locked as she watched everyone tend to the crying girl, and with a sidelong glance at him she rushed to the girl's side and gave her several drops in both eyes. Gabi continued stroking her hair while her breathing calmed, and Ken looked at Bian like she'd saved his own life. Felix smirked at Roy, and the two patted each other's shoulders.
"We can do this… together."
When she calmed down, Roy and Felix sat on the patio, and everyone else but Ellie and Bian left. Roy's tablet illuminated the haze, but Ellie managed to keep her eyes pried open, and after an hour of tears, smiles, and laughs, Roy called the others back.
Ken tip-toed into the haze, his face frozen as he found Ellie being consoled by Bian. When she saw him, she stood up, and flashed her bright blue eyes at him.
"You did it!" he cried, leaping over the rotted railing and scooping her up with a tackle of a hug.
"Ah!" she cried, before giggling. "It's all because of you. They made me realize I can be stronger for you."
"You're already so strong," he replied, hugging her harder to hide the tears falling from his eyes. "But now you're ready to change your life." He looked up at Roy, who smiled a modest smile as he nudged the sobbing Felix.
With a smile, he set Ellie down and looked her in the eyes. "This will be a better way for you, I promise."