Inside the Vrains, data flows and builds, like a river caught in a current, dividing and rearranging itself into structures a human mind can understand; buildings that can be entered, pavements that can be walked along, and roads with no cars, the highways instead placed within the skies. But in the grittier levels, where the structures are shaped much like your local dockyard, there are places, alleyways, where once upon a time the legendary Playmaker had ruthlessly pursued the goons of the Knights of Hanoi; and they had sometimes in return chased him. And it is here that a duel takes place.

One of the duellists, the legend himself, Playmaker, frowns. He raises a hand, slaps down a card. Then hesitates. Uncharacteristically so.

'Eh? Mr Playmaker-sama? What's wrong? I didn't have you pegged as a scaredy-cat. Think how disappointed your fans will be!'

The voice comes from a wall nearby, the yellow bricks spread out behind the back of someone in a brash and brilliantly dark outfit, his cape tapering away behind the press of his body. Arms crossed, he grins, a wild spark in his eyes, though the pupils within them seem far too unnaturally square to be human...if anyone were to bother looking closely enough, that is.

Playmaker does not turn to look at him. But the duellist in front of him does.

'Oi! I didn't ask for a commentator!'

The vampire wannabe pouts. 'Too bad. I'm the only reason you get to duel the famous Playmaker in the first place.' He aims another grin at Playmaker, thoroughly enjoying himself. 'Isn't that right, my knight in spandex armour!'

This time Playmaker does give him a look. Or at least a side-glance. And the excited grin he sees in return immediately quietens, softening into a snide smile that seems almost menacing. 'Come on! Impress me! You're of no use to me otherwise...'

Playmaker does not jolt at this unsettling sentence. 'You've seen me duel, Ai.'

Ai makes a face. 'I have recordings. It's different seeing a real Duel in person.' He pumps a fist, brightening like a small child. 'Fight! Fight! Beat him up!'

Playmaker turns back to the Duel. He ignores Ai who seems to have pulled a purple flag out of nowhere with a chibi version of his face on it, and plays another card.

And then, in less than twenty seconds, he wins.

Ai lets out a whoop and claps loudly, flag vanishing back into specks of data. 'Yes! Well done! I mean, the other guy's clearly a level one goon' – he ignores the outraged look from the other person and bounds forwards, raising a finger as though in sudden thought – 'which is why I need to see you have a lot more duels! Fight lots of people!' He smiles gleefully, and leans forward, far, far too forward into Playmaker's personal space.

The other duellist flinches and brightens into a natural cherry red as Ai hovers, neck bent and mouth only a few scant centimetres in front of Playmaker's. He is not close enough to see the data flitting behind Ai's golden eyes, the ever-ready sign of careful calculation spinning behind those opulent irises.

But perhaps Playmaker does; for he looks into them for a second longer than perhaps another person could. And then he brushes past Ai entirely.

'Let's go.'

Ai straightens, a satisfied smile crawling onto his face as though he has received exactly what he has been looking for. And follows.


Anyone at all, could have been here, in this moment of time, to see this duel. And it cannot have been of major concern to anybody. Except perhaps to Revolver, and a few other humans who would understand, in under a second, just who or what Ai is upon seeing him.

They would have been even more disturbed, however, by witnessing something else; the 'first' meeting between Playmaker and Ai, the day beforehand. It goes like this:

Playmaker is surfing through the network, following the threads of connection that scream at him, that pull at him that tell him, maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe your partner is alive.

It does not help that he has been attempting to rebuild the data he has picked up from Ai, from the times he attempted to hack him at the beginning of their partnership, or cure him of a virus later on. Because that's the key word there: 'attempting.'

Still. It gives him something to do, something to hope for. Gives him this thin, barely-there thought that maybe he can use this data, match it up against the source of this call on his Link Sense and perhaps, maybe work a miracle. Bring Ai back to him. Of course what he will do once he's got him back is anyone's guess.

He has never discovered the right words to make Ai stay, to convince him to be with him. He is hoping he will find them by the time he gets Ai back.

Never, does he expect it to be the other way round. And yet...

'Oi.'

Playmaker's eyes widen. He spins, fighting back the stumble of his feet across his board as it shakes at the sharp, unexpected turn. And he turns to look at the space he has glided across, the space where there was nothing but the blue of the network moments before but now...

Ai is there. Black curls, gold eyes, grand, showy clothing, the very same still splayed across the body of the SOLtiS Yusaku has at home, the one he has held and cried over. But he is not on a board like Yusaku. No, he simply sitting on a platform of ghoulish purple data, something that bubbles and froths like a witch's caldron, one leg carelessly slung over the other as his hands rest on his knee. He stares at Yusaku imperially, no real warmth behind his eyes.

Playmaker's hands clench. He is already moving, his fists loosen and fall away, ready to clutch, because the last time he had touched Ai he was dead and now-

-now Ai is looking alarmed, a flutter of something a little like panic breaking across his face before both it and his body crumble away, and then he is suddenly small, small enough for Playmaker to cradle in the palm of his hand, his old Ignis form back in action as his eyes turn wide and gold in the same way they got when Revolver made an unusual play or he had to watch another Ignis die.

Playmaker freezes. Ai has never looked at him with that sort of primal terror before. Not...not like that.

The next second the terror is washed away; Ai's Ignis form blurs and breaks apart, reformatting itself back into his humanoid SOLtiS one. And he is wearing a rather furious expression there, across that face that Yusaku's last play in their duel had destroyed, had closed the eyes of, forever.

'Whoa, whoa, whoa!' Ai makes a few frantic abortive motions, crossing his arms across his chest in the same way a girl might raise her arms to stop someone from ripping her shirt off. 'STOP!'

Playmaker obliges.

Ai lets out a breath, despite not needing to. And a rather wondering look crosses his face at that, some sort of wry surprise flickering in his eyes, as though the very fact he has done so has surprised him.

'Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered to get such a reaction. You must have loved me a lot.'

Ice crawls down Playmaker's spine. It slides into his stomach, fills it to the brim as Ai offers him a sad smile, but one that still looks horribly calculated all the same.

'Of course I know that by how frantically you've been trying to reassemble me. I sort of...have been rebuilding myself ever since I first sparked into existence. And all my sensors pick up on you when you buzz around like an annoying insect. Like your consciousness is an earlier model of mine. Weird, right? It was interesting enough to win yourself a new stalker.'

Ai grins, the glint of narrow black spectacles now branching across the bridge of his nose. He adjusts them with a quick prod of his fingers, in a way he must think makes him look cool before he continues. 'And I've been busy, watching recordings of some of our old fights, enough to identify myself and match myself visually against what I should be. The data you have in your computer and in that old SOLtiS you've helpfully left lying around has helped as well. I can rebuild myself to exactly the same handsome parameters.'

Ai's hand comes up to artfully toss his curls away from his neck, as the spectacles vanish. And his eyes narrow slightly, his gaze focused and heavy on his old partner, as though watching him for the slightest reaction.

'Are you telling me,' Playmaker asks harshly, fist re-clenching, 'that you have no memories?'

Ai brightens, as though completely unaware of the anger in his old partner's tone. 'Bingo! You got it in one!'

'You said that when we first met,' Playmaker tells him, quickly fighting down the horror surfacing inside him. 'When you pretended to let me catch you and take you hostage. You had been stalking me then too. And it turned out you were lying, that all your memories were still intact.' He crosses his arms. 'So can you prove anything of what you're telling me now is true?'

Ai's eyes narrow even further. 'The only way I could maybe make you believe me, is to let you run wild in my data, to submit to a full scan, and give you access to all my precious memory files.' He pouts, then mimes wiping his eyes with his sleeve in a distressed manner. 'And you were pretty cruel towards me in some of those recordings I found. Telling me to 'shut up' or that you would 'delete me' if I didn't do something or other.' His eyes glisten with unshed and clearly fake tears. 'How could I possibly submit myself to a brute like that?'

'Not all our duels were recorded,' Playmaker says grimly. 'But I know that our final one with Bohman was, the one where you sacrificed yourself; you would have seen my reaction to that. You just said it yourself earlier; I loved you a lot. That's my proof that I won't hurt you.' He narrows his eyes. 'Your turn.'

Ai looks flustered. 'Wow. You do not strike me as the type to admit something like that aloud. You're a little bit cuter than I thought you'd be.'

Playmaker closes his eyes. 'I only repeated your words. That's all.' And it's not like they were a lie, anyway, he thinks.

Ai stares down at his lap. For someone claiming to miss his memories, things that make him who he is – or was – Yusaku thinks, he's acting awfully human. Something that shouldn't really be possible, if he is truly claiming to be re-set to zero.

'Perhaps to say my memories are missing is an oversimplification,' Ai says finally, raising a hand to stare at it as though it holds some sort of answer for him. He flexes his fingers, watching each twist of the joint, each curl of the digit, with a strange look on his face. 'It's like part of me is encrypted and I can't hack into it. There's no real way to know if I'm fully-formed, or if I'm missing parts of myself I once had. I'm functional, sure. But I don't remember you. And there are parts of myself I can't access, that I'm blocked off from, that I can't hack. It's annoying. Maybe those are my memories? But then there's no logical reason why I shouldn't be able to access them.' He shrugs.

Playmaker stares at him. What Ai is describing sounds similar to what certain victims of trauma say, about memories they've blocked off, that they can't recall. Only not, of course. Because Ai is data. But data that was built and designed from watching and analysing the traumatic experience of a six year old human none the less.

And Yusaku has read up on trauma, back when he was trying to get his nightmares to simply stop. He's read a report of someone who suffered a fit on the phone, the receiver falling to the carpet with a muffled thump as they shook and shook by its fallen side, simply because the person on the other end had said something that made them remember an event from their childhood so horrifying that everything else in their brain and body shut down to cope with the old information forcibly being dragged to the front of their mind.

Is it possible? That Ai could have blocked everything out when he first started flickering back to life? That he simply severed his connection to his old memories or encrypted them in a way he can't readily access because he instinctively registered that they were dangerous to him and his survival? Once he would have said no. But then again, that was back before he believed it was possible for an AI to love someone enough to self-implode.

'You came to me for a reason,' Playmaker tells him. 'If you have no memories, then you don't have a real emotional bond to me anymore. But you're here now. Which means you want or need something from me.'

Ai's lips twitch. 'I'm glad I wasn't partnered up with a dumbo in the past.' He leans forward eagerly. 'I've scoured the net. But I can't find anything like me out there.'

Playmaker's lips thin.

'I'm all alone,' Ai hugs himself, eyelashes fluttering as his tone takes on a badly-acted one of sorrow. Then he brightens. 'But you protected me! And if I watch you duel, the same in those recordings, perhaps it will help trigger something, or help me understand something so I can unlock the pesky parts of myself that remain hidden. Because as that Bohman duel proves, you're the one creature out there I know for certain who won't want me to die. So-' Ai raises a finger. He points it at Playmaker dramatically, his cape flaring out with a sudden surge of wind that's he's probably programmed himself. 'I want you to fall for me even harder than you already have!'

Playmaker stares at him at though he's the dumbest thing in the world.


Picture this: numbers. Sheer numbers. A mass of zeros and ones. Flirting with each other to disturb the sectors of the program that house visual memory, where the code becomes unreadable, as though something has caused the files there to shatter, disintegrate, and fall apart.

Something flickers. A protocol. The lost template of a file that something attempted to delete.

The Dark Ignis looks at this boy, and feels something spark to life. Like a sub-routine, attempting to function, that makes him map out the contours of Playmaker's face and save it.

Ai, Playmaker calls him, dubs him as, and Ai lets himself smile, lets his mouth stretch, to chase away the annoyance that fills him at the sound. For his name, his real name, not that stupid, simple 'Ai' a human mouth can easily fumble it's way round, is lost, blurred, distorted, locked in memories his program tells him are there and yet, no search function can bring them up to the forefront of his mind.

Still. The way Playmaker's fists curl, as though they want to hold something, the way there are flickers of pain forming in the human face above when it flinches at his words...yeeessss. Perhaps Playmaker is the key to re-filling these vast stretches of space inside him, where there should be activity instead.

Ai, Dark Ignis, handsome beauty, whoever he is now...smiles. And wonders, how best, this new tool will come to serve him.


Notes:

So. I've always wanted to write a long post-canon story involving Ai's resurrection. Started last Novemeber, and gave up in January. I then I got a new idea, abandoned my initial attempt and started working on this new idea every weekend as I cannot work from home and somehow managed to avoid getting put on furlough leave so I still had a regular five-day work week to attend during this strange year we've all been affected by.

And, well. I think, as of today, I've completed the full draft. A very, very rough draft, which means I I'll probably be able to publish the full fic, but I don't know whether they'll be any sort of regular updates. The character tags will be updated each time a new character rears their head in this story.