Yusaku has spent nights, rolling in sweat, clawing his way free of duvets and for years he has done it alone.
These words emblazoned themselves across the eyes he wears in his dreams, that feel more like memories than the new world that springs up in his brain, every time it falls into a new nightmare. He despairs that this will never change.
And yet: it does. And it is when Ai bursts into his life after ten years of these nightmares, his chatter filling the small room, crowding out Yusaku's pants and gasps for adrenalin-fuelled breathes and sometimes accompanied by a thoughtful small black hand, patting him on the brow, uncaring of the sweat it finds there...and gradually, despite how Yusaku may snarl at him, over time, those large 'YOU LOSE' words seem to fade from his mind.
But not completely.
It is after the Tower of Hanoi has fallen. Ai is gone, has drifted back to his own world, leaving Yusaku to deal with his. But to his relief the dreams of the Lost Incident have began to fade. Shift. The white walls that trap him each night begin to crumble, cracking away to reveal the dreary grey of a tomb beneath.
Still, the grey rock of this new prison is gentler than the harsh white walls of before. Here, Yusaku can drag his fingers against the grit of the rock, can follow the winding trails that dig their way out beneath the surface of the Earth, and stumble over all the shifts in the scenery as a result.
And he finds wonders. Horrors. Perhaps both. A three headed dog that tugs at his sleeves, that stares at him with eyes of pity, their lavender hue too much like Zaizen Akira's to bear. And a boatman nursing a paddle, that refuses to hide their gaze. 'You cannot cross,' they tell him. 'Only follow the flow.'
Their words travel across a river that shines like diamonds, that nurses horrors within, pale wisps and shadows of what were once full bodied people rolling through the waves, each splash against the shore causing their ghosts to let out a small bubbling cry. And the fists they keep curled against their chest, unroll, to reveal a keepsake of their dreams, like a letter, a bronze broach, or the clasp of a toga. Yusaku collects them diligently and attempts to push them back into the river. But their owners are long gone, stolen by the endless river and each relic, every single one, drifts back into his hands.
So he keeps them rather like a small child collecting seashells on a rise of a sandy beach.
'You lose, you lose, you lose.'
The words are locked into a voice now. Male and soft and far too much like Spectre's, it mocks him as he reads letters not meant for him, inspects rings that will not fit his fingers, and watches the people in the lake fail to find the ones they knew in life.
Having Ai back in his life is a comfort that he knows he will miss. One he suspects he sometimes takes for granted. Still, when he leaves without warning, after Bohman is dead and drags the other Ignis down with him, it hurts more than Yusaku wants it to. In fact, it downright stings whenever he stares at the glass bulb of his Duel Disk and taps it, only to find no welcoming eye ready to blink back up at him.
And this is reflected in his dreams. He feels frustration at these grey cave walls, longs for more colours, more sounds other than the wails of people he cannot help.
He could not help the other Ignis. He could not help Ai. It makes him grit his teeth. Thumps his fists against the wall.
'You lose,' carves itself out beneath his fingers. 'You lose.'
'See you,' Ai tells the world, tells Akira, tells him, as the message ends. And now Yusaku, no, sorry, Playmaker has three days to prepare for Ai to throw his life away and perhaps ruin everyone else's in the process.
Ai is –was- smiling on the screen as he threatened Zaizen, sat in a chair and preened like a villain. And Yusaku hates it, hates that he couldn't stop it happening, he hates it so much that in the privacy of his dreams that night his fists land harder and faster. And the walls crumble away, lets green spill through. Out, Yusaku stumbles out into sunlight, wades through grass that wavers up to his knees and pushes away flowers that shiver and fall to land in hands so much paler than his own.
Yusaku stares up into eyes more golden than the rings he has stolen from ghosts down below in his kingdom, into a face so beautiful that a modelling agency would start drawing up contracts for it as soon as it wavered before their eyes.
But no part of Ai here wavers. Not really. He smiles instead. And breezily, he pushes a flower behind Yusaku's ear.
'I win, Yusaku-chan,' he tells him.
Yusaku fails to reason with Ai's copy, just as Blue Maiden fails to reason with the original Ai. And Yusaku watches his partner tear her away from her brother, punish her for daring to speak her mind, just as he knows Revolver and the Knights of Hanoi tried to punish the Ignis for merely existing.
Which means Ai has learnt all the wrong things from humans. But then again, perhaps Yusaku has too, for that night he wraps his hands round Ai's wrist in his dreams and drags him down with him, into the dark.
Ai's face wavers. It falls.
'Yusaku,' he says, an ugly tone biting into his voice. 'Stop.'
Yusaku doesn't. He pulls Ai through tunnel after tunnel. He shows him the three headed dog which Ai pets with cold, detached look on his face.
'Poor old pooch,' he sneers. 'Just another tool in someone else's game, as usual.'
Yusaku drags him to the river, shows him his treasures. Tries to shoves letters of love into his hands, tries to push rings onto his fingers. He's trembling; he's never been so desperate. But all Ai does is stare at the river, at the ghosts that are caught by his current and are tossed under, rolled beneath its waves.
'My friends,' he says softly. 'My friends...we can be one again.'
He steps out into the water.
'I loved you Play-Yusaku.'
The words resurface in his dream, Ai mouths them to him beneath the water that sweeps over his face as he drowns. Yusaku grabs hold of him, tries to pull him into his chest, the way he failed to when Ai turned into a glitter of gold that escaped his arms and disappeared into the net.
The boatman rows forward, pushes his puddle against Yusaku's chest. Shoves him back.
'You can't cross,' he says with eyes of steel, grey as the waters beneath, just like Ryoken's. 'Ai made his choice.' There's no pity in his eyes as he tells Yusaku, 'you lose.'
Yusaku spends his days as Playmaker, searching, seeking for the one he should never have let go, that he should never have let run away.
In his dreams he knocks the boatman overboard, he dives into the lake, he drags Ai out with him. And Ai wails and claws at him like a monster of myth, his shape flickering from human into black monstrosity that tries to wriggle free, tentacles thumping against Yusaku's arms, big enough to break bones, to snap them in their tantrum. But Yusaku isn't fooled; if Ai could hurt him their story would have already turned out very differently. So he ignores the glare in that single gold eye and holds on, staring back fiercely.
'I've made my decision,' Ai spits at him, turning back into his humanoid form and bruising Yusaku's lips with a greedy pout; one that shatters, breaks open into a gasp as Yusaku lets his mouth fall open, the pomegranate seeds inside scattering out into Ai's throat.
Ai chokes, bucks, frightened and feeling far too human beneath the press of Yusaku's arms, against the cruel curl of his partner's fingers.
'I always duel to win,' Yusaku tells him.
And it's...such a nonsensical sentence, so out of place in the way many things uttered in dreams are. And yet...those dreaded words, that refrain of 'you lose' that has always, always, attempted to crush him down into nothing...for once it does not follow him out of the dream.
And later, out of it, in the afternoon, Playmaker's fingers close over a fragmented, crumbling Ai.
Ai does not sleep and so he does not dream. Yusaku envies that. Though he takes care never to mention it.
'You do have some strange dreams, sometimes,' Ai tells him fondly none the less, fingers tracing the curve of his cheek, and Yusaku shots him a look of suspicion. But Ai just smiles back, gaudily.
'Relax, Yusaku-chan,' he murmurs, 'I don't mind being your Persephone or Eurydice; though I would have liked a better role. Something cooler than simply being another hostage; you have some really weird kinks, you know? Uh-uh-uh,' he sings, holding up a finger at Yusaku's furious glare. 'You're so secretive that I have to get nosy to make sure you're not plagued by those nasty nightmares anymore; and you can't lie in your dreams! Your subconscious is more truthful than you are, you kuudere!'
Just for that, Yusaku rolls him onto his back and makes Ai squeal by pressing his mouth against his neck; seconds later he even drops a kiss against Ai's delighted mouth, though thankfully, he has no pomegranate seeds to spit out there; Ai's not designed for actually swallowing after all.
Ai squeaks as Yusaku's hands begin to sweep over his chest, careful and methodical as always.
Ai doesn't want to be Persephone? Or another Eurydice? Fine. He can be anything he wants out here, within Yusaku's grasp.
Just so long as he remembers how much Yusaku hates to lose.