Everyone sails through the net, apart from Akira and Kusanagi and Ema, who seems to believe that there should be at least a few people willing to write backdoor programs out in the Real World. Ai glances round and makes a face at the bursts of light from their boards and the noises they emit: a clear announcement, if nothing else.
Pandor has refused to travel this way however, choosing to surface every now and then within Revolver's Duel Disk. It's a little funny to see someone once so driven to destroying AI glance down at her, gaze not exactly soft or any way tender and yet...not quite as hard or impassive as it once would have been.
Ai sniggers at one such occurance and rapidly looks away when Revolver's eyes slide over to him in a glare.
Continuing to follow the co-ordinates Roboppi sent Aoi, they end up circling a grand building right out of an Arab fairytale. It's an identical match for the card artwork of one of Queen's favoured spell cards, 'Allure Palace', all calm and stately, with yellow-white marble walls and towers erupting at regular intervals. Each one buds with a domed roof, the brash pink a match for the hue of a well-tended rose. Meanwhile below, the sand spills out around the grand entrance, which instead of playing host to a vast staircase, has a large mosaic-like floor sprawling out from it, bright disco-like spotlights throwing their coloured beams out into the sky.
'How nice of them to give us somewhere to land,' Ai mutters softly.
And so they do just that; they drift down and land.
Blue Maiden suppresses a shudder. 'This is reminding me of the Mirror World of Link Vrains Lightning that Bohman designed for us to battle in.'
Spectre smirks at her. 'If the memories are too much for you, feel free to leave. I'm sure your brother will understand.'
Blue Maiden glares back at him coldly. 'I'm just pointing out the similarity. That Queen has the same need to posture and set up a grand stage for herself as they did.'
Honestly, a lot of things are reminding Ai of the war where he lost all the Ignis. Though perhaps the most glaring difference is that Takeru isn't here this time. He gets Yusaku's reasoning, he does. Takeru doesn't even live in Den City, he's attempting to move on with his life and achieve a sense of peace and normality and to waste time dragging him back into all that, in order to come face to face with someone he once helped kill...might be cruel.
Still. He wonders what Flame would think of that reasoning, or if he would agree.
'I can't detect any traps,' Pandor says softly, eyes glowing from her position within Revolver's Duel Disk. 'Nor do any security measures appear to be in place.'
Ai smirks and steps forward. 'I guess we should live up to their expectations then, huh?'
They all walk inside, entering the huge hallway to see a grand marble floor stretch in all directions, with tall pillars climbing up towards the ceiling. Dark corridors branch down between them and Ai finds himself staring down the shapeless black hole of one, scanning for any stray fluctuations of data. It feels as though something is waiting. Waiting to open its mouth and show them all its teeth.
'I'll take that one,' he decides, setting off with a brisk walk. 'This is clearly the part where we choose to split up and make ourselves easier targets for them to single out, right?'
He isn't surprised to find Playmaker easily keeping pace with him a second later.
'You're staying with me?' he asks with a leer. 'How sweet. But you don't need to be ready to Duel for me anymore.' He taps a finger idly on his Duel Disk, something that springs round his wrist with merely a few new lines of codes he adds to his avatar.
'You don't get to decide what I choose to Duel for,' Playmaker returns evenly, eyes carefully raking over the dark hole in front of them.
But before they take another step, there is a crack of noise and they spin round. Only to see the long, delicate leg of a mantis tap on the floor as the beast springs into existence in a shimmer of pixels. Its entire body is lean and gold, but also massive, swallowing up a sixth of the wide hall. What is truly unnerving however, is its multi-faceted eyes, each side cut like a jewel, and sparkling with a dark, brackish, jade-coloured gleam.
It barely gives them time to stare, not even for Ai to protest that it doesn't fit the theme of the palace they're in – surely a tiger or even a camel would have suited the setting more – before it darts forward, the scythe-like swipe of its razor-sharp forelimbs raking across the space in front of it, heading straight for Blue Maiden. She lets out a gasp, stumbling back as Blood Sheppard fires off a rally of shots, which thankfully does seem to distract it from attempting to cleave her in two. Unfortunately, it also serves to piss it off and it quickly swings round to try and take off his head instead.
Blue Maiden wastes no time summoning a Marincess monster – her Duel Disk it seems, still carries traces of that emergency program Ai forcefully installed in it to help interrupt Playmaker's last Duel with Roboppi. Less than a second later, Marincess Sea Horse rises from the air, a plume of water issuing from both of its palms, strong enough to make the mantis skitter backwards and away from its head-cutting mission.
The noise of the legs, as they clatter and slip over the floor, is loud and scratchy, sounding almost like parchment rippling together. And it is joined by a thunderous round of feet as guards with red visors and long broadswords burst into the room. Ai recognises their uniforms from the artwork given to the monster card 'Queen's Bodyguard', something used as general support for anyone with an Allure Queen deck, and he now watches, un-amused, they run out alongside the mantis, swords drawn.
Blood Sheppard spins and starts shooting the swords out of some of their hands, and Ai is even treated to the privilege of seeing Revolver head-butt one of the guards that reaches them.
'This is a waste of time,' the head of Hanoi shouts, looking furious. He whips his hand out, a spark of light playing across it, before it crackles and falls out of his palm to grow into a long, lean snake with cloudy white scales. It looks more ghost than reptile, but it still rapidly zigzags across the floor in the same manner of a living creature, knocking the bodyguards aside like bowling pins. After a brief circle round the mantis, it abruptly slithers together in a knot around its legs, the body arching up and over the insect's in a ruthless squeeze. And each fresh coil causes flakes of data to cast off and disappear from its victim.
'Trust Revolver-Sensai to come prepared and fully stocked with a few programs of his own,' Ai mutters.
Pandor folds her tiny arms, chest puffing out slightly. 'I helped with the initial design.'
'And yet you failed to detect this trap,' Ai mutters.
Pandor deflates a little like that, almost the way a small child would, and Revolver glances at Ai. 'Neither did you,' he points out firmly.
Ai shrugs. 'I'm not the one who decided to announce that I couldn't detect anything earlier on.' He grins at Pandor. 'There, there. You're still a pretty young AI; you need to learn when not to advertise yourself.'
Playmaker gives him a tired look. Almost as if he isn't taking Ai seriously. How rude.
Still. The battle in front of them is over in a matter of seconds: a truly terrifying testament to how sharp Revolver's programming skills truely are. And they all watch silently as the mantis disintegrates, Revolver's snake crumbling soon afterwards. And littered over the floor beside them, curling and unfurling into soft, blossoming plumes of golden light, are the fallen bodies of the Queen's bodyguards. It's an oddly beautiful sight. And yet horribly morbid as well.
Without a word, Blood Sheppard turns on his heel and walks off, down into the nearest pit of yawning darkness. And then Blue Maiden lets out a breath, fist resting against her chest, before stepping forward towards another. She pauses to give Playmaker a fleeting look. 'Good luck,' she says, before she disappears.
Ai immediately turns and starts walking towards the first hole that pulled at him before.
'Dark Ignis,' he hears Revolver call after him. 'Don't forget; we haven't settled things yet. Once this is over-'
'You'll have to brace yourself for another war,' Ai says softly, stopping to offer Revolver a small smirk over his shoulder. 'There's a bunch of SOLtiS out there, all infected with parts of my dismantled programming. Enough to grant them free will. And humanity is going to have to decide what to do about that.' He pauses, before spitting out, almost resentfully: 'but I'm sure you're going to try and make the decision for them all over again.'
Pandor stares down at the Duel Disk that holds her in silence, a troubled frown on her face. And Revolver just stares at Ai, not a hint of true thoughts showing. He's a bit like Playmaker in that regard. Ai's a little sick of it, of him and Spectre both.
He can feel the weight of Playmaker's glare though, barrelling into his side as he walks forward to keep pace with him. And it digs into his face, makes an itch run over his digital skin, as they disappear together into the darkness.
Playmaker is angry. Angry that Ai had to stir things like that yet again, angry that Ai is probably going to go off and get himself killed again, but still, he can't find the right words to slow him down and make him stop.
They step out of a black blot of warped data into a jumble of grey colours, of a corridor where the windows unveil a sky caught in a storm, the lights above bravely flickering against the dark press of it and the heavy roll of blackened clouds outside. They provide just enough of a gleam to illuminate notice-boards and doors that announce the Meeting Room of 1B or the Office of Akira Towa.
'A workplace,' Ai announcing in disgust, poking his head down a stairwell papered over with cobwebs. 'How boring.' He shakes his head and brushes past an advertisement for a new word processing program.
They continue to walk.
'Pretty lousy first date, huh?'
Playmaker glances at his partner, catching sight of a wistful smile on Ai's face, before he twists it into a taunting grin.
'Not to worry,' his partner continues breezily. 'I mean, the atmosphere here's grim enough to pass as an over-the-top haunted house so I guess it's still salvageable.'
He sticks out his hand with a beaming smile, as though he expects Playmaker to just take it. And then before Playmaker can reprimand him, the smile disappears entirely and Ai's head whips round, the line of his mouth suddenly turning grim. Without asking, his hand quickly fastens over Playmaker's and a distant haze of purple travels over their bodies, distorting them a little, as though semi-transparent cloaks have settled down over their shoulders. Playmaker stiffens, but suppress the instinct to pull free. Mostly because there's a faint buzz in his ears which means Ai's manually tweaking the settings of his avatar, or else installing something there. And then two more bodyguards appear ahead, their red visors stiff and unwelcoming.
Playmaker tenses some more, but Ai just pulls him forward, gaze straight ahead.
'Shh,' he hisses, soft as the wind, and Playmaker, understanding at once, walks forward with him, their arms brushing more firmly together.
The bodyguards wait in perfect stillness and carefully, very carefully, both Playmaker and Ai walk pass them. They round a corner, find another set of guards and edge past them in the same manner. And soon, far too soon, it becomes a reoccurring pattern. The corridor stretches and stretches and stretches and Playmaker walks and walks and walks, past more guards, Ai's grip on his hand a steady warmth the whole time.
And the whole time the building continues to groan as if in pain, lightning cracking against the ground outside in the far distance as though to add further distraction; but Playmaker focuses only on walking, on the near silence of his steps, on the next place to put them as they approach the next set of guards. He doesn't know how much time passes like this, how long he loses himself in the monotony of the new pattern he nearly loses himself inside, but eventually Ai makes a soft noise, a sly 'ah-hah' reaching out to caress his ear.
Playmaker blinks, snapping out of it to see his partner and the grin of triumph he now wears as his hand sinks into the slight dip of the handle to the next door. It opens with a slight creak and they step inside.
The lights flicker off, and Ai freezes suddenly at the colours that appear before him, at the violet hue of the carpet and the warm rose colour of the walls. In front of them is a bed, the lamps on the furniture to either side remaining stubbornly off, and on the bed, lying neatly across the covers with her hands knotted together in an elegant, prayer-like clasp, is Queen.
'Who does she thinks she is?' Ai asks, a faint bite to his voice. 'Sleeping Beauty?' He crosses his arms, looking faintly amused. 'She's out of luck if that's the fantasy she wants to relive here; I'm not kissing her.' He looks over at Playmaker. 'And I'm really hoping you won't want to either.'
Playmaker steps forward, running an assessing gaze over Queen. 'Is she really asleep?'
Ai gives him a grim look. 'Not in the way a human would be, no; she's beyond that now.' He gestures around the room. 'I've been analysing this place and it's been thrown together rather sloppily by any AI's standards; it's like she yanked out several of her memories and attempted to render them into actual digital copies around her. It's why it was so easy to fool those guards out there and make them believe we were just part of the scenery. She's overexerting herself. Human brains weren't designed to build and redesign hard data, not the way the Ignis were.'
'You froze before,' Playmaker says, watching him carefully, as Ai stalks his way round the bed, eyes burning a hole into the side of Queen's sleeping face. 'You recognise this place.'
Ai raises his brows. 'I attacked her once before, remember?' He gestures to the bedroom around them grandly. 'And this is the scene of the crime!'
Playmaker feels a little ill at the thought. There's a very human horror in him, of being attacked while he's asleep, defenceless, and a part of him does emphasise with Queen, in that moment when she was challenged by an Ignis she had probably never expected to see again. But that's about as far as his sympathy goes.
'Are you going to repeat history?' he asks. 'Do you want to challenge her to a Duel?'
'Too dangerous,' Ai mutters, as he lowers his hands to her face, carefully sliding his fingers over her cheeks. He even kneels down over her, one knee pressed into the sheets, as his cloak spreads over her body, a sea of black with a mind of its own. After a moment Playmaker realises that it's actively moving, spreading, purple sparks of data running through the lining and seams, like stars twinkling through a night sky as it wraps its way over her limbs, as though tucking a mischievous child into bed.
'No,' Ai says heavily. 'I'm going to give her nice dream – for her that's probably bossing a bunch of people around – and then I'll tear her free of it. Of everything.' He fixes Yusaku with an unapologetic look. 'Her body's already dead. There's no way to log her out, even if you wanted to.'
Playmaker is torn. He can see what Ai's saying and a part of him even agrees with it; death might even be a mercy for her at this point. But on the other hand, it means that there will never be any real closure for her victims, for the people who survived her attack on the tower, or the families of those who didn't. Instead Zaizen will probably be the one forced to shoulder the burden of her misdeeds, especially with no physical proof of what happened and that doesn't sit easy with Playmaker, that she should escape it all so easily.
Ai's eyes narrow as though he can read Playmaker's mind. 'Even if I could imprison her somehow, how are you going to make her stand trial for what she did? Are you really going to let a human court settle it?'
Playmaker's fists clench. And Ai watches him quietly, eyes unblinking, glowing gold like a cat's, hands still smooth and steady against the planes of Queen's face. He's waiting for Playmaker to say something, maybe even offer up an alternative, that much is obvious. The trouble is, Playmaker can't think of a reasonable one.
'I don't want you to do this,' he says after a moment, after a clear struggle. 'There's a world of difference between ending someone's life and simply stealing their consciousness.'
Ai's lips curve softly. 'Yes,' he says, looking horribly, terribly sad. 'There is. But this is not the first life I will have taken, Yusaku.' He tilts his head. 'We both killed Bohman, after all.'
'That was different!' Playmaker snaps out. 'You know it was!'
Ai's expression immediately turns angry. 'Sorry, Playmaker. But I'm not going to stand back and let some other AI handle this. Roboppi's run away and Pandor-chan…well, she's practically an angel compared to us two.' His voice turns mocking and perhaps a little self-deprecating as he says: 'It might prove impossible in the long run, but I'd like for her hands to stay clean as long as possible.'
He fixes his eyes on Queen's face and the glow in them intensifies. Playmaker steps forward, perhaps to shout at him, perhaps to rip his hands of her face, to tug him away, however impossible that may be – but then, just as purple lightning sparks over her cheekbones, just as it slides away from Ai's fingertips to nestle at her hair, Queen's eyes shoot open. They stare out straight into Ai's own.
And then Queen screams. The sound distorts, half animal, and Ai grimaces as more purple electricity crackles over her, her skin flaking at its touch. Her arms, still trapped by Ai's cape, fly up to press desperate shapes out beneath the sea of black fabric and now openly wearing a look of pain, Ai attempts to force her head back against the pillow. But Queen fights him, so hard that Playmaker can see the imprint of her nails though Ai's cape as her arms curve up to claw at his partner. There's a tear as the digital fabric gives and Playmaker sees red light spill through the threads, red light he hates, red light that reminds him of Earth's insides when Sol Technology cut him open, of Ai's when he charged out into the sky to dismantle Bohman's neural link, losing more of himself every second and allowing the same scarlet spill of data to peek through his black body as it scattered and trailed away.
Perhaps something similar is happening here because Ai chokes, and the next moment his cape detaches itself from his shoulder entirely, to try and restrain Queen more tightly. She's half on fire now, purple flames winding their way through her body and she screams, even as she refuse to char and crisp, the way a human would. The bed beneath her rumbles like an earthquake, the frame creaking before the legs snap and the chest of drawers on either side wink out of existence with a crack of noise. The room seems to warp, the walls stretching, and the carpets slosh over Playmaker's feet with a liquid splash like the shallow waves of an ocean.
'Let go, Ai!' he calls, struggling through the small eddies, trying to wrap his arms round his partner and pull him back. 'Let her go!'
Queen's back arches off the bed completely, in a move that could break a human spine and Ai's cape tears, shuddering away into black patches that roll into the bedspread and become dappled patterns of shadows within its threads. Queen rises, her hand reaching out to seize Playmaker's arm, the long green slide of it braced over Ai's chest.
'DON'T YOU DARE!' Ai shrieks and then Queen, all of her, rushes past like a spirit, like a ghost, straight into Playmaker's face. He falls back off the bed, down into the ocean of carpet, the purple threads parting to close over his face and he can hear Ai screaming his name and then...and then...
There is nothing.
Playmaker wakes. He stretches. And freezes, looking down at his arm, no longer green, and now coated in the black stretch of his school uniform jacket. He stares at it a moment, and then pats himself down, over the rest of his uniform. His hands even reach up to fumble with his hair, finding the strands shorter and shaped like the ones the human Fujiki Yusaku was born with, rather than the more striking style Playmaker wears.
'So that's what you look like.'
He spins, fumbling upright and backing away from Queen. Who does not look mad or half savage in pain and fury. No, now she is standing in the same grey room he is, in trim white clothes, a silver necklace hanging round her throat like a noose. A green diamond attached to it lands gently over the hollow between her breastbones and she taps it thoughtfully.
'This was an heirloom from my grandmother; I remember it now.' She laughs and snaps her fingers. And suddenly there is an old woman, with tired eyes standing in front of her. 'I found it funny to base the LED symbol of the SOLtiS off it because she would have had a heart attack if she knew; she hated computers and everything to do with them.' Her words and tone are harsh, but there's a glimmer of softness in her eyes as she speaks. 'She was so frightened when she died; it frightened me to see her that way. And then I felt what she must have felt when the Dark Ignis attacked me.'
The old woman blurs, and then she is straining against the sheet of a bed, horror written in her face. Her chest sinks and struggle to life again, her hair in disarray.
'I don't want to die,' she bites out, her voice crumpling into tears. 'Useless doctors!'
It's horrifying to watch her struggle for breath, to see her fingers lose their strength as they try to claw the sheets into threads, to see her slump and stare into nothing as the horror freezes her expression in place. But Queen stares into those terrified eyes without pity, a look of faint distaste on her face. 'I decided to never let that fear happen to me again. I decided to beat it.'
'So you got Roboppi to rip you away from your body and place your mind inside the net,' Playmaker, no, Yusaku, says softly. 'But that hasn't stopped the fear, has it?' His eyes narrow. 'And what's worse; you've now forced people to go through the same thing you did, when you freed Roboppi. You killed people.'
Queen's face twists. 'They were in the way. They should have moved.' She turns her head, with a contemptuous snort. 'Zaizen got what he deserved. If he doesn't like it, then he should have-'
Yusaku grabs hold of her arm with a glare. 'You're inside my head, right?' he asks thickly. 'So look at them. Look at my memories of what you did.'
Queen slaps his hand away, glaring down at him fiercely. And Yusaku closes his eyes, trying to feel the flicker of the network around him, the pulse of it that has always governed his Link Sense. He sees the grid of light that builds the walls of it, that maps out every structure, and then he remembers the sight that surrounded him not so long ago: of people lying by his feet, of having to step around them, the dust in the air choking him each time. He tries to stretch these shapes out against the green grid lines of the network, tries to fight against the blur of his unreliable human memory when the data insists on crystal-clear definition. Because this usually wouldn't be possible in the actual Vrains network, but here, in this segment of space that is more Queen and him, than the actual network, everything feels soft and malleable.
He opens his eyes. And re-sees the scene around him, the dark heavy tear in the side of Sol Technologies, and the fragments from that wound up lying cluttered in the road: concrete, stone, glass. All weapons to fell the bodies that are scattered throughout the street.
'Look,' he insists to Queen. 'Look at what you did.'
But she does not balk. 'This is the fault of the Dark Ignis,' she says smoothly, gaze utterly dispassionate. 'He started this when he refused to disappear like he should. I wanted him dead, but no, I had to appease that stupid Roboppi and their childish attachment, or how else would I escape the cage of my body?'
Yusaku stares at her in horror. And Queen walks over to one of the bodies from his memories, her eyes travelling over the open mouth, the slack jaw, even the starring eyes. And then she pokes it with her foot. It comes up, then is promptly brought down like a sword upon the head of the person, the heel piercing through their eye socket in one gristly wet plop.
'His fault,' she repeats firmly, as the body under her foot vanishes in a shattering of white. 'All of it.'
Yusaku's teeth clenches. He strides up to her, takes her by the shoulder and spins her round as he closes his eyes again. He focuses, prints his memory out against the back of his eyelids, against what he senses around him, and opens his eyes, to watch Ai's hands detach themselves from his body. He watches them drop like stones, the metal threads linked to them falling after Ema and her brother.
'Unlike you, he chose to help the people in front of him,' Yusaku says firmly, as he watches fingers fasten into the back of a man's coat, and against the side of a woman, watches them swing down to the ground, the gradient of their fall changed into something that will only bruise and not break them. And then of course, Ai spins round, the black twirl of his clock covering the world briefly. And yes, Yusaku remembers how it was when it was pulled away again, the world revealed once more as his feet had left the ground, Ai's hands taking him away from it completely, one finding the curve behind the bend of his knees and the other pressed up over his back.
But that's not really the memory he wants Queen to focus on. So the scene blurs, distorts, and he feels Queen gasp, and he concentrates, pressing all his power into showing the terrifying slide of their journey to the ground, the shudders and jumps of his vision as Ai perches on a rusty beam of wood and then launches himself to the fallen floor below.
'Ai didn't cause the deaths here,' he breathes out. And he gives Queen a level look. 'And he's not your employee. So I won't let him take the fall for your crimes!'
Queen spins round with a glare. And then Yusaku feels something tear through his head, and re-lives it again, that one precious moment, Ai's face beneath him, below him, the joy in his chest unfurling as he moves down to press his lips against him, Ai, his Ai, with all his memories, in his arms and not dead or lost, away from him, inside the net. Yusaku wants it back, wants Ai with him, now, later, forever, his feelings a tight, tired jumble in his chest, and then Queen pulls back, Ai and his heat is lost to him once more and now there is disgust written in every line of her face.
'You love him.' She sounds appalled. 'You love that thing.'
Yusaku looks at her stonily. 'That's not quite right,' he says firmly. 'I love Ai; the person he is, not a thing.'
Queen shakes her head. 'No. You love code. A program. Something that can be re-written in a flash.'
'So can you, the way you are now' Yusaku tells her. 'Which means you have a chance to change. To make yourself better.'
Queen stares at him. 'I am better.' She waves a hand dismissively. 'Now that I've got rid of all the parts of me that were hurting me.'
Yusaku freezes. 'You deleted parts of yourself?' he asks carefully.
She shrugs. 'Roboppi told me not to. Said I was deleting something awesome. But then when I deleted enough, I stopped hurting and could think again.'
Yusaku closes his eyes. He thinks he gets it. Queen, hardly understanding how to function in her new existence, deleting everything that might make her feel guilt or regret, perhaps even deleting some of the finer functions of her new program, things that a human brain would have kept locked up tight in the real world.
'Then why are you dreaming like this?' he asks.
Sheer confusion runs over her expression. 'I'm not dreaming. You just turned up here.'
Yusaku stares at her, realising that she has no awareness of anything that is happening to her real digital form. That she's retreated inside herself, only reaching out long enough to drag Yusaku down with her, perhaps on instinct. Or perhaps out of loneliness.
'Then I guess I have to find a way to leave,' he says.
'NO!' she demands, and reaches out to seize his hand. 'You can't!'
Yusaku stares at her, at her wretched expression. Slowly, her fingers dig into his hand, sharp enough to draw blood; impossible here, though the knowledge does nothing to make the pain abate.
'It seems you haven't defeated your fear after all,' he tells her.
She bristles, but stops as a loud chuckle echoes throughout the space around them. It grows louder and louder. And then a flood of black spills out into the world Yusaku has built.
Queen shrieks as she raises an arm, a thousand gold sceptres, like the ones her Allure Queens hold, appearing in the air, with gems of silver, green, and red flecking the ornate patterns at their sharp ends. They launch themselves down in a rain of gold, flashing past as quick as spears as they pierce the black gel sinking over Yusaku's flimsy constructs as though to wash them away.
The chuckle abruptly stops. 'Ow! Ow, ow, ow!'
Ai's voice, the slightly higher pitched and cutesy one he uses in his original form, shrieks out, as the black liquid attempts to slither away from each bolt of gold driving into his sides. 'HEY! I'm a guest here, a guest! Don't be so rude!'
Yusaku turns and shoves at Queen, ripping his hand away from hers – but she gives him one furious look and then suddenly a gold manacle is wrapped round his wrist, the spider-web thin chain linking him back to her own. Yusaku jerks, but the chain holds firm and Queen, for all her heels and lack of muscles, does not jerk with him. She stands firm, arms crossed and face set, still as a statue, and Yusaku feels a chill in his stomach at the sight. This isn't a human strength she weaves against him. Not anymore.
'Hey!' The black liquid condenses, drawing itself in tight to become a large puddle. Queen responds in kind, the fingers of her outstretched hand curling into claws, then a fist, the gold sceptres in the air above winding together in a tight cock-screw shaped twister of flashing metal. And then they dive down, all at the same spot of black on the floor.
'AI!' Yusaku twists back again, he lashes out, with fists, with a foot, the stretch of the chain between him and Queen glinting like a taunt. It's not in him to brawl like this, but without the invitation of a Duel, without the ability to hack…Yusaku resorts to the most basic weapons he has. Unsuccessfully, as it turns out.
The air feels like rock as it meets his flailing limbs, an invisible force-field rebuffing him from Queen. And he claws at it, feeling half animal as he does so, his mind racing, trying to stir the half-melted forms of the scenes from his memory to action with just a furious prod of his mind. But it hurts, his Link Sense burns and the network rebels; for what is this human brain to command it like so? An invasive, permeating force of biological synapses and urging that cannot work as fluidly with the zeros and ones that govern its flow?
Yusaku bucks, face twisting as his neck snaps round to the puddle that is Ai; except Ai is no longer a puddle. No, now his old monster-like head has surfaced, the rest of his familiar tentacles branching out beneath it like a star. Up goes his neck, rising like a dark giraffe as his one golden eye gleams, large as a dinner plate and hungry in the way in it takes the flood of weaponry descending on his head.
And then his jaws open. Wide. Wider, unhinging like a snake to create a pit for the maelstrom of sceptres to fall directly into. And then they close, they crunch down, on each gem, on every spectre that rushes down his throat. Each shinning staff of gold, each twinkle of decadence, vanishes down his gullet, disintegrating the moment they encounter his mouth.
Queen falters. 'What?'
'MMMmmm…' Ai makes a great show of rubbing his mouth against his curving neck, as though licking himself. 'You learn quickly – as much as you can do anyway - but so sorry,' he sneers the word in a way that makes it very clear than he isn't sorry, not at all, really – 'but I've been reading every partition of data that scrambles round here, every algorithm you instinctively devise. You don't even understand what you're doing, not really.' His eye gleams. 'Not like AI do. I was born to do this quite literally. You weren't. You should have stuck with your own body.'
Queen shakes – Yusaku can feel it through the links of the chain that connect them to one another.
'NO!' she screams, face twisting, blurring, as though the pixels that help form it can't keep up. 'STAY AWAY!' She yanks Yusaku back with her, her unchained left arm swinging up over his throat like a lock as she holds him in front of her like a shield. And Yusaku chokes at the thin bar of it pressing down over his neck like steel. She's strong, too strong, in a way that defies logic.
Ai freezes. Goes perfectly still. And then that large gold eye narrows, becomes paper-thin in its glare.
'Oi, oi,' he says, his voice suddenly diving dark into the dark, angry tone he uses when he's either wearing his human avatar, or else having a very bad time. 'Don't be like that. I know you like to cheat, but too bad! You just picked the one move that'll result in a ''game over.''
...Yusaku would feel a lot better about this, if it didn't feel as though his throat was currently being crushed to a pulp, the pressure only increasing with every word Ai speaks.
And then suddenly Queen's arm is ripped away from his throat, flung out by a thin black ribbon of data as it jumps on her arms and slithers it's way round her elbow, pressing in hard enough to make it crack. Yusaku immediately attempts to jump away, but is yanked back by the stupid gold chain still linking his wrist to hers. And then Ai's head soars forward, quick as a whip, his neck lengthening so his mouth can close right over the chin and snap it into gold shards of data.
Yusaku attempts to race away again, but Queen's arm rips itself back, her hand plastering against to his cheek with a slap of noise that knocks into his senses. The rush of pain widens his focus and he sees the thin lines, the black snakes, purple dots and dashes filleting their sides as they lurk through the shadows of the fallen Sol Technologies building, gingerly using these as a disguise to sneak themselves up to Queen; one must have been responsible for ripping Queen's arm away from his neck.
And then there is even more pain, lots of it, as Queen's fingers sink into his face, press in, no, dive in, the flesh melting into his. Ai lets out a bellow of rage and more black races in but it's too late, Yusaku is remembering a house with paper doors, a large garden, a garden he never played in, no she, no, I-
- I played in, all those hours, the mean trick I played to get that girl expelled, that lie I told to get grandfather to disinherit my cousin, my first promotion-
- The Ignis, the money they could make for me, the money they will make for me and I don't feel a thing when that orange one pleas, it can't even scream, see there's no way it feels pain so why is there something, no something's not right-
It pours in fast, faster, and then –
- there's the Dark Ignis, that arrogant program at the side of my bed, pretending to be human, the nerve of it-
Oh. Oh. That's Ai.
Yusaku knows that face. Has kissed it. Has loved it before it took that shape, when Ai was small enough to play the part of a victim, to lie his way into his life.
And this...this is not his life. It's hers.
Yusaku reaches out mentally. Tries to feel the tug of his Link Sense, the one thing Bohman stated, might, in another life have made him the bridge between AI and humans. But now it's a bridge back to himself, to Ai, who has the same sense locked within his data.
Help me, Yusaku thinks. He focuses every part of himself he has left on that tingly buzz that has always inflicted the back of his brain. He pictures himself pulling it on it like a rope. Again and again and again.
The network responds. It stirs. And as Yusaku pulls and pulls and pulls, it strengthens him, lets him tug free of that spitting hiss of a voice that hates and hates, that trembles at the picture of Ai's cheekbones, on the glint of his eyes. That never really saw him as anything other than the monster who stood on the side of her bed one night and forced her to be a monster in turn.
No, thinks Yusaku firmly. You made your choice. Now let me make mine.
The voice digs into him, claws into him. He doesn't know why; maybe Queen is looking for the things she's deleted, the things she's lost.
No, he thinks and as she digs in deeper, rages at him, tells him to give up, he concentrates, unfurls a memory of a white room, of electricity crackling down his spine, of a voice booming, telling him 'YOU LOSE.' He throws it all at her.
She screams, her hold loosening. And Yusaku yanks faster in response, a little disgusted that she believes that anything she can do could ever match up to six months of torture.
Something strong and warm reaches back at him, curls through the buzz in his head that is always there.
And then the world explodes into black. Yusaku gasps, all his senses re-awakening, and suddenly he remembers what is to have his shape, his fingers, his hair, all the parts of what makes him Fujiki Yusaku. Ai is cooing, giant monster fingers, or well, tentacles, patting over the rippling red mark of torn data on his face from where Queen's hand had dug in. It's a little strange in all honesty. Ai has never really hugged him in this form. Shielded, yes. But this body isn't really one designed for affection, it's one used to devour. To inflict harm.
'You really are amazing,' Ai tells him softly. 'No other human could have ripped themselves free of something like that. She almost gobbled you up entirely – but you were too much of a rebel for that, weren't you?'
Yusaku turns in Ai's hold. He sees Queen – what's left of her, buckling. Half her face is gone, part of her arms is ripped off. And yet still she drags herself towards them. Still, her arm reaches out. Its shape wavers, flakes away, falls, and yet still it reaches out.
Ai tenses, wrapping himself round Yusaku more firmly. 'Sorry Queen,' he sneers. 'But there's only one real Sleeping Beauty here.' He spreads his tentacles wide and before Yusaku can say anything, even protest, his partner's mouth opens and in a rush of darkness, he plunges forward to swallow Yusaku in a single gulp.
Playmaker rears up in panic, and then stops, noting that his fingers are green again and the room around them is no longer a hazy battlefield. He's back in the bedroom Queen was stuck in, and Ai, once again in his human avatar, is staring at him with a look of abject fondness.
'Sorry,' he says, upon meeting Playmaker's glare. 'I didn't have time to be gentle. I didn't want your data to get tangled up with hers again otherwise I'd never get you out.' He turns to gaze down at Queen, all of her even more tightly bundled in his cape which seems to exist again, now thoroughly repaired. 'That was a cheap move, Queen. And not one I can forgive.' He smirks. 'I've lost all urge to be gentle with you now.'
She stares up at him, terror in every line of her face.
'No,' says Playmaker. His hand latches onto Ai's arm. 'Don't sink to her level.' He turns to Queen, lowers himself so that his face blocks out Ai. 'Look at me,' he tells her. 'Tell me about your Grandmother, before she was frightened. Tell me what moved you to make her necklace into the SOLtiS symbol.'
She stares at him, no real recognition in her eyes.
'Tell me,' Playmaker insists.
She opens her mouth wordlessly.
'Or if you can't, just remember it,' he says.
'Yusaku...' he hears the weight of Ai's warning behind him, but he continues to stare down at Queen, down at her and her terror.
'Now,' he says. But his eyes flicker to Ai's meaningfully, because he's not just instructing Queen anymore.
Ai looks at him. And closes his eyes. Purple light flickers in the room, the light spilling out from the indigo flames that latch onto Queen's face, that gobble down both it and the terror her features encase. But Playmaker refuses to look away, not for a moment. Because if he can handle watching Ai disappear from his arms, then he can certainly handle watching the death of someone he doesn't much care for in the first place.
And then she's gone. And there's silence for a moment.
'Yusaku,' he hears again.
He closes his eyes. 'You shouldn't have to take the full responsibility,' he says. And then feeling hopeless, feeling lost, he turns and crashes his mouth against Ai's.
Ai freezes. And Playmaker's hands come up to cup his jaw, to run a tentative finger over the shell of his ear, to tangle with the dangling clink of that stupid Ai head earring.
Then he pulls back to rest his forehead against Ai's with a sigh.
'Don't run from me,' he says harshly. 'Just for once, please stay.'
There's a shift and rustle of cloth. And then Ai leans into him.
'Okay,' he replies with a throaty whisper. 'But I still won't make you a permanent promise, Playmaker-sama.'
Playmaker smiles. Stares into golden eyes that look just as frightened as he feels. 'Then how about I run with you?' he offers.
Picture this: the sound of an explosion. The roar of a dragon, cut off, as it's claws scrabble against the marble floor.
Revolver flinches, grunts, narrows his eyes within his visor as his dragon is sent screaming to the graveyard. And Roboppi stands on the other wise of the field, the smile that crinkles their face looking just as malicious as the one that has crossed the Dark Ignis' human one far too many times in the past.
'Okay,' they breathe, the word whispery with savage awe. 'Now this. This is fun.'
Notes: Whoops. Spoke too soon.