Purple blossomed in the network. It bloomed into small, star-like shapes, into tiny twinkles and budding gems...and then they were suddenly flowers, with long dripping petals and stems that fell from a tree that was bent impossibly between both the hybrid shape of a willow and a wisteria.
Except here in the network, Ai can make anything. Do anything. And so the petals wavered, sparking bright as flames, and Ai stepped closer. His fingers brushed a petal, then two, maybe three. And with each touch he fed more data into his design, copying endless video files and pushing them in deeper, into every part of the tree.
Some, the ones that angered him, that embarrassed him, he crushed into bite-sized partitions that would take more than simple human effort to recompile and fix, at least enough for them to watch. Others, the ones where Yusaku smiled with no ulterior motive, where the shadows fell on his face in a way that didn't make his expression look brittle or fake, Ai allowed to play across the open face of each flower in tiny projected holo-screens.
Eventually Ai stepped away. This was stupid. But it would have been stupider still to do this while Yusaku was still...
Ai scowled. Pulled himself back into the network. And unfurled himself back into the darkened spaces where no humans could tread.
In the real world plants took time to grow. i.e. They were slow.
Earth had seemed to enjoy that though, and back in the early days of the Cyberse World when the Ignis had been unsure as to how to start building it, the orange Ignis had watched endless films humans had set up in their gardens, perched over soil that would grandly, over a matter of months, unleash small green sprouts. It had helped that the mind of an Ignis, by virtual of its design, could experience years of life within their own simulations and so Earth had used the mighty power of his own to watch things grow. Just that, and nothing more.
Ai meanwhile, had been bored solid within the first few minutes.
'Boo! Boo!' he had called down to Earth, eyes narrowed, and both black thumbs pointing firmly down as he drifted over to the other Ignis' cross-legged form. 'How can you be so easily entertained! Are you a dog?'
'Look who's talking,' Windy had muttered. And Lightning had watched, arms crossed in a way Ai had thought was calm and un-judgemental at the time. Oh, if only he had known!
'You think it's lame too!' Ai had accused, pointing a finger at Windy, who had simply scowled and waved him off.
Aqua had sighed.
'Leave Earth alone,' she had said quietly, spreading her hands out and frowning in concentration.
And then, as though fairy dust had settled itself upon the ground, a gleaming, silver ring of water raced through the grass, circling round to form a protective moat around Earth. Data struggled within its ripples and eventually, after sneaking a few peaks at Earth's simulations, Aqua brought forth bright green lilypads, ones that curved into a soup-bowl-like shape with pretty pink lotus flowers curling within their depths. There were almost like boats and Ai wasted no time launching himself into one of them with a whoop of excitement.
'So easily distracted,' Flame murmured, drifting over from where he had been experimenting with a heap of molten rock. 'Why don't you go and build something for a change, instead of taking advantage of everyone else's work?'
But Ai didn't answer him, choosing to dip a hand into the water with a lazy swirl of motion and watch Earth jerk into awareness all with a sly look on his face.
Because it seemed that Aqua's work, the mere touch of it across the localised network they were in, was enough to drag the other Ignis out of his simulations. And Ai watched gleefully as Earth's rectangular eyes widened into glowing blue squares, awed ones as the light fell across the water before him, casting gold ridges across the ripples of movement. And that blue gaze softened further as it travelled over the small, detailed sprout of each, feather-like petal that curled and flopped over each lilypad. And then a hue of pink, all too similar to those newly-created flowers, had wavered across his face.
It had been hilarious. And so Ai did for every sensitive, well-meaning friend would have done and instantly crowed, pointing his finger at Earth with a flourish of triumph.
'Hah! Earth's imitating a human teenager! He's going through digital puberty!'
'Which must make you a child in comparison,' Flame muttered as Aqua let out a soft sigh, closed her eyes briefly in disappointment...and promptly deleted the lilypad Ai was sitting on.
'AHHH!' Ai screamed, black limbs flailing through the water like snakes, causing a forth of white foam to appear. 'Help! Murder! Murder! Avenge me, Flame!'
'No,' Flame, the traitor, had stated evenly, while Aqua floated over to Earth.
'Thank you,' she had told Earth, oh so sweetly, as though Ai wasn't busy drowning. 'Your simulations were very informative and were a heavy factor in my own designs for the plant-life I have created.' And then with a simple rise of her arm, some pond weed had scraped its way across Ai's leg and flung him back onto dry land as though he was a piece of litter staining the landscape.
That memory, caught forever in video-file format, now had a copy stuck in the tree. And Ai had another one of Yusaku watching it on his computer and smiling. Not outright laughing; no, Yusaku would never. But smiling. Both happy and sad, a mindful hand on Ai's hair. He hadn't said 'sorry' or 'I know you miss them' because he knew such words never helped.
'That was when it started,' Ai had told Yusaku, head snugly buried into the crook of Yusaku's patient arm. 'Their epic love story! When Earth first started falling for her!'
And though the sight of them, the sound of their voices, still hurt – he brushed the faint bud of familiar pain aside, long enough to tilt his head back and expose the arch of his long neck and the glistening gem of the LED diamond that nestled along his throat. He knew what he looked like, slovenly but mischievous, his eyes dancing as he watched Yusaku's expression intently above, enjoying the way wariness crept into those green eyes that stared back at him firmly.
'What about you, Yusaku-chan?' Ai sang out the name, pulled a finger through a loose curl of hair that draped over Yusaku's lap. 'When did you start falling for me?'
'Probably one of the rare times when you were being quiet and not annoying,' Yusaku shot back, without missing a beat. 'So back when you pretended that you couldn't overwrite the mute function on the Duel Disk and played along like an idiot.'
Ai scowled. 'You were such such a lot of work back then! And come to think of it, you still are now! You're so unromantic...'
'I take you on dates,' Yusaku pointed out calmly, in a way that wasn't quite an admonishment...but the tone of his voice was still firm enough for Ai to raise his guard none the less. 'You're the one who becomes a 'lot of work' when I don't.'
'The very fact you can say something like that and mean it is the reason I say you're unromantic,' Ai said flatly, deftly twisting his head off Yusaku's arm and sitting up – and feeling a faint trace of satisfaction at the slight two-second crease in Yusaku's brow that meant he was disappointed Ai had moved away. 'Lucky for you, I'm romantic enough for both of us!'
He leant forwards, arms snaking round Yusaku's neck, leaning into him so their lips were inches above. Ai had no hormones, no libido, but he could still feel something in the air, a jump of excitement at the way Yusaku's expression darkened and human fingertips found themselves lodged into the small of his back, tiny twigs of warmth against the hardware of this convenient body.
'And I know when I started falling for you,' Ai murmured. 'I can pinpoint all the moments you made my heart race.'
Yusaku smirked, probably at the fact that Ai had no heart lodged in his chest, ready to run a marathon the way Yusaku's own could do. But he said nothing as Ai opened his mouth again.
'I fell for you when you solved my brilliant puzzle that none of those other humans could do and found the deck I made just for you – cleverness is a real turn-on for an AI, you know! Especially because we're aware of human limitations!' Ai pressed a kiss to Yusaku's soft cheek.
'And I fell for you when you went surfing straight into Zaizen's trap to help lost little sleeping princess Aoi – it was stupid and reckless, but it was brave too. And I've always enjoyed watching kindness rather than cruelty in humans. And then you kept doing it again and again' – Ai pressed two sharp kisses in succession against the hard arch of Yusaku's jawbone – 'for people you didn't know, for people that annoyed you, for almost anyone that needed you. It annoyed me so much! But I though it was very cool too!'
Ai smiled warmly, hands coming up to pocket Yusaku's face between them, fingers slipping into his hair, carefully crushing the short blue tuffs and feeling the soft itch of them against his sensors.
'I fell for you when you let me go – when you unlocked the Duel Disk even though you had probably already worked out I could have left anytime I wanted. But you did it anyway because it was the right thing to do and you wanted to give me the choice to leave.' He grinned, closed his eyes, and let his face slip down, knocking his forehead gently against Yusaku's.
'I fell for you even harder when you screamed at Go Onizuka to let Earth go.' He let the words escape his mouth in a rushed whisper. 'And when you didn't try to talk me out of invading Bohman's systems to try and save the others, even though I think you wanted to. And when you never stopped wanting to save me, even when I started hurting people and-'
Yusaku's mouth methodically swallowed his own in a kiss, in a rush of warmth, in an explosion of soaring heat that bruised Ai's sensors. Ai stiffened, maybe squeaked – no matter how many times it happened, it was still a novelty to feel the way his code responded and tried to quickly assemble some sort of response to this sensation that still at times felt alien to him, simply because of the way he had been constructed. He felt, oh yes, how he felt, but his code still reacted as though he was being attacked by a pesky virus.
Ai shoved it down so that the rest of their time together was filled with all sorts of pleasant things, of Yusaku's hands, his eyes, half-lidded and soft and gorgeous. Of his mouth being used to address things like 'I love you' and 'I fell for you too, here, now, in this moment' but never with actual spoken words. Just touch and heat and wetness.
Ai was fine with that. Mostly.
'You talk too much,' Yusaku murmured against his skin, the sensors flaring to life as each vowel, each breath, fluttered along their surface.
'My memory doesn't work the way yours does,' Yusaku continued. 'It's not as accurate. But I know that falling for anyone is a process. The little moments matter – but what matters more is that the results of that process last.'
Ai curled his hands round Yusaku's let his fingers feed into all the gaps Yusaku's left behind, his grip tightening.
And what, he thought, suddenly afraid, happens when part of the formula for that result is gone?
Ai was now forced to find the answer, years later. Yusaku had given him one again, and again, throughout those same years: move on. Make new bonds. Don't forget or let go, but don't ever stop moving forwards either. They were wise words for a human life, measured by a single, stray animal lifespan, a thin thread of time against the rest of the universe.
But Ai's life was a thick pile of rope in comparison, stretching with no visible end unless he made certain to create one. True, he had softened slightly, allowed himself to be talked into living, even when he knew better, but the thought that he had to continue to find new ways for coping, or surviving emotional pain was still jarring. Ruthless. And he envied humans, that they could do it at all.
Well. Not all of them. Some were a suicidal as he had been once upon a time. And Ai was certainly a lot more sympathetic towards them than he would have been at an earlier point in his life.
The trouble was, he wasn't patient. Not enough to watch things grow from soil and bloom into the real world. So he gardened in the net.
Sometimes he even felt Pandor watching. And one time, she came with a feeble old man attached to her arm. His mind was still a blaze of fire in the network, even if there were more unspoken faltering lines of code in its input – the result of a decaying, aging body at the other end of the line, so to speak.
'You've grown careless,' Revolver told him, his avatar tamer than it once was, the helmet long since lost.
Ai shrugged. 'Yusaku's dead – I would never have been stupid enough to build anything that showed his real face on the net. Not when it could be used to hurt him.'
'You're careless with yourself,' Revolver continued. 'You should be running at my approach, or else hidden yourself better. You would have done that when Yusaku was alive.'
Ai scowled. 'What does it matter to you? Yusaku's not here to avenge me if you do wind up deleting me – or to bring me back. This sudden growth of your heart is a little sickening for my tastes, Revolver-kun.'
'Yes,' said Revolver quietly. 'He always found a way to bring you back. You should honour that will of his, Dark Ignis. Not throw it away.'
Ai's face bunched into a snarl. He wanted to turn, to become a monster of many arms, a wavering ink splotch on the net that could tear through data with his teeth. But he held himself back. It was easier to talk to humans when he looked like them, when his expressions could influence their subconsciousness, make them show him an ounce more respect, even if only slightly.
But only a cocky smirk crossed Revolver's face in response as though the bastard knew what was going through his head. 'Oh?' he said softly. 'So there's still a bit of fight left in you yet. Good. Show me, and any other humans that might discover you one day - that Fujiki Yusaku wasn't wrong to keep saving you.'
Ai hated humans sometimes. He really did. But the love he felt for several of them, even though they were now gone, was enough to stay his hand – and who knew? In time, he might one day invade another human life the way he had shoved himself into Yusaku's and form a new bond. Find an additional reason to stifle his present pain and allow a new hurt to come blistering into his life.
He watched Yusaku's smile dance its way across a new flower that bloomed on the tree.
'Go,' it seemed to say. 'Live.'
Even though in reality, that smile was gone, lost to dust and ash, and eventually gobbled down by a crematorium, the last stray particles of it locked under the grandest grave Ai could have built, with purple incenses sticks burnt and wisteria flowers laid lovingly over its base every Sunday like clockwork.
Yusaku would have hated it. And also, in his own introverted way, been touched by it as well.
Just as Ai was touched that Yusaku had never stopped trying to give him life.
Ai cast his eye over the tree one more time. It would stay here, never decaying, never dying, providing Pandor left it alone. And she probably would. She wasn't as spiteful as he was.
Ai took a step back. And unfurled back into the network. But this time, instead of racing into the dark pathways no human neural interface could brave, he turned and swerved into the lighter trails, the ones a human mind could stumble across.
He would find someone. Not like Yusaku, no. And probably not like Kusanagi or Takeru or Aoi either. But someone.
And then? Well. He'd see what grew. And either uproot it...or let it bloom.