Ai took a well-calculated leap from the edge of the cliff onto the yacht deck, taking into consideration both height, distance and the way the ship was no doubt going to move. Not a difficult move for a SOLtiS to perform. It was still a glorious spectacle when his boots hit a small puddle of water and slid out from underneath him. Ai crashed face-first onto the deck, damn near putting a crack in his plastimetal skull. As a cherry on top, his cape came down like a tarp to cover him, forcing him to wriggle out from underneath it like a humiliated child. Which, of course, in the eyes of everyone present, he was.
He could almost hear Ryoken roll his eyes. He could definitely hear Spectre snigger.
"I'll pummel you, tree boy," Ai hissed, just loud enough for the intended object to catch it. "Just you wait."
With not a comment to spare, Ryoken turned and headed for the stairs leading down below, walking past Spectre who followed behind. Ai ignored the warnings that his SOLtiS body flashed before his inner eye, and rubbed his aching chin. There was a clear bump in the framework that hadn't been there before. He wasn't sure he could fix it either. Sulking, he got up, brushed himself off even though his hard light outfit did not require it, and stomped testily after the two Knights of Hanoi.
The yacht was much more spacious below deck than it appeared from the outside. The whole body of the vessel had been emptied of commodities such as sleeping quarters and a kitchen. Ai supposed that activities like sleeping were done in the Kogami mansion, but he could only guess. In place of all that was a crammed but fully functional computer room, equipped with walls of screens, a sizeable compartment of private servers, and VR compatible work stations for each of the five Knights. Ai ducked in through the low door—in this form he stood proud almost five centimetres over both Ryoken and Spectre—and found the room to be unusually empty. He knew where one of the three remaining Knights were located—he was the one who'd asked Kyoko to watch over Yusaku after all—but he had expected at least one more presence on the yacht.
"No Pandor?" Ai scanned the room theatrically, from floor to ceiling. "Bummer, I miss that dry-humoured little thing."
"We assigned Pandor to help protect Sugisaki Miyu," explained Spectre. "With Zaizen Aoi also being a potentially interesting target, we figured it was for the best to give them both some extra support. As for Genome and Faust, they have already departed with Kusanagi Jin and Homura Takeru to their safe houses."
Ai gave a perplexed frown. "I see. Then what about you?"
This drew a weirdly delighted expression onto Spectre's face, a face that had somehow not changed even the slightest in five years. Noted, when they first crossed paths, Ai would've never guessed that the man was only three years older than Yusaku. His stiff sense of style and twisted demeanour had aged him up quite a bit back then. Now, at twenty-five, Spectre had grown into his appearance. Ryoken, on the other hand, had exceeded his. He had a guise of maturity that did not match his youthful exterior, as if he still carried the world on those slender shoulders of his. Experienced, responsible and burdened far beyond his years—just like Yusaku had once been.
Spectre huffed in feigned bemusement. "What about me?"
"Why are you still here?" Ai demanded, crossing his arms over his puffed-out chest. "I thought we agreed that all Origins should go into hiding."
"Well, since someone decided to keep his own Origin in the dark, and demanding more protection for him as a result, we're a little short on staff at the moment." Spectre gave a bee-sting of a smirk, honey-sweet and bitter all at once. "But don't you fret, Dark Ignis, because I'm guarding myself. I'm a master of defence, after all."
"Yeah, in the Network," Ai retorted. "I mean, don't get the wrong idea, I don't really care what happens to you. But the whole point of this operation is that you're being targeted where the rules of duelling can't exactly protect you. So unless you plan to whack someone over the head with an actual tree, then—"
"Enough," Revolver cut in, voice resonating with annoyance, before Ai could finish or, heaven forbid, Spectre had the chance to form an even snarkier reply. "It's still ten hours until the attack is supposed to take place. This boat will move out onto the water until our mission is complete. After that, Spectre will be under my protection," His eyes narrowed, locking onto Ai's with a razor sharp edge to them, "as Fujiki will be under yours."
There was meaning behind those words, far more than Ai liked there to be. He wasn't fond of the fact that Ryoken seemed to believe that he cared more for Yusaku's safety than Ai did. In fact, it boiled his digital blood. There was nothing—nothing on this Earth or beyond it—that Ai wouldn't do to keep Yusaku safe. He was aware though that, from Ryoken's point of view, he hadn't exactly earned himself any relevant dependability points over the past few years. He was immature and overdramatic, impulsive and selfish. Not to mention that he was an Ignis. Not to mention his history—attacking humans, taking over SOL Technologies, betraying and hurting Yusaku... On top of that, he'd kept his return a secret for two whole years, all the while jeopardising the safety of the very same person he'd once destroyed himself to protect.
Ai had good reason to stay hidden back then. And it had still ended in disaster...
Three years ago. Ai shuddered inwardly. As an Ignis, he wasn't technically capable of nausea, and a SOLtiS could not throw up. Regardless, Ai felt his supposed stomach turn as the memories of that day threatened to surface. It was the day that had changed everything, that had uprooted the peaceful existence Ai had finally allowed himself to have. That had forced him to break almost every promise he'd made to Yusaku, to go behind his back like this and, sometimes, even lie straight to his face.
The day Ai's dreaded old simulations had almost come true.
Perhaps Ryoken noticed the torment that crept onto the Ignis' face, because his own expression softened some. He crossed his arms over his chest in a stance that mirrored the SOLtiS, and said gently, "Ai."
"I know." He raised his lowered gaze some, staring now with reborn determination at an empty point in space. "Let's do this."
Ryoken gave Spectre a nod, and the white-clad lieutenant got to work. He placed himself in front of the mother computer and logged into the Knights of Hanoi's mainframe. Programs started up, systems were activated, and passwords were typed in at rocket speed. Once everything was in place, what appeared on the screen in front of them was a visualisation of a gateway into Hanoi's private Network—their own little VRAINS, if you will. Ai was well accustomed to this procedure. As Ryoken went to sit down in his own VR seat, Ai slid down onto the floor next to Spectre's chair, back against the wall. Then he parted his thick locks of hair, leaned forward so that his neck was exposed and allowed Spectre access to his most vulnerable area. Spectre looked far too amused as he picked the little lid off and clicked a chorded plug into place.
"You better not think of doing anything dirty to me while I'm in there," Ai couldn't help but jeer as he felt his program connect to the mainframe.
An all too innocent air invaded Spectre's voice. "That joke's getting to be a bit old, don't you think, Ai-sama?"
With the press of a button, the digital gateway opened before Ai's inner eye. In the real world, he met Ryoken's ice-blue gaze across the room one last time, and then they both leapt into the Network together.
Fifty-seven miles away, on the porch of a modest bungalow, Homura Takeru sighed his discontent into the warm summer breeze. It blew through his silvery hair, sending strands of deep red into his eyes. The sun was still rising above the fields below the hill, wakening the flowers and bugs and birds. A short distance down the hill, the tall, backlit silhouette of Faust stood like a guardian devil among the wildflowers. He hadn't moved more than his head in ten minutes now. Streaks of grey broke through the indigo hair, a sign of age that demanded some respect. Takeru watched him with a pit in his stomach.
He knew that Faust was here to protect him, and he was happy for it. He just wished that it wasn't necessary.
A yawn split Takeru's face, squeezing tears into his eyes. He'd tried to go to bed several times during the night, but sleep would not come to him. His emotions were too scrambled. So many things had happened in only two weeks that it was hard to wrap his head around. He'd gone from living a normal day to day life, with a girlfriend and a day job and no worries outside the expected, to being right back in the middle of a battle he thought was over nearly six years ago.
Yes, he knew that Ai was alive, that Yusaku had found and collected his scattered data, rebuilding him with the help of remnants from his own backup program left inside Roboppi. He knew that Ai had spent the past five years living in secret in Yusaku's apartment. And even though terrible circumstances had revealed his existence to Takeru and Kusanagi some three years ago, no one was supposed to know that he had returned. Which was why it had come as such a shock two weeks ago when Ai had suddenly called everyone they knew to a meeting—at the Kogami mansion, no less—and revealed that he was working with the Knights of Hanoi. Not only that, but he'd been doing it for almost three years.
And, of course, most disturbing of all; he hadn't told Yusaku.
The meeting had put Takeru's whole life on pause. He found out that, very recently, Zaizen Aoi and Sugisaki Miyu had been subjected to an attack in their home. The police called it an attempted robbery, but the girls weren't so sure—the attacker had seemed very interested in Miyu, trying to drag her along during the fight that ensued. Thankfully, Miyu's father had been on a visit, and was able to scare the attacker away. Not two days later, a similar attempt had been made against Kusanagi Jin while on his way home from school. To his brother's great relief, a witness had stepped in to ward off the attack, and Jin had walked away with but a scraped knee and some re-opened, psychological wounds.
Aoi and Miyu had been unable to get a good visual of their attacker, but Jin was too traumatised at the moment to tell. The witness who had saved him, however, described the attacker like this; young and strong, with green hair and piercing, dark blue eyes.
For a while, that information meant nothing to anyone. However, Ai and Ryoken had somehow managed to connect the dots to whatever work they'd been doing in the Network over the years, and this what they'd uncovered was this: the Ignis Origins were being hunted. By who? Unclear. Takeru wasn't certain if they didn't know or didn't tell. Either way, they had enough information to confirm that there was a significant threat to the Origins and they needed to be protected.
Present at this meeting were Takeru himself, Kusanagi Shoichi and Jin, Zaizen Aoi, Sugisaki Miyu, all three Knights of Hanoi plus Spectre, Go Onizuka, Bessho Ema and the two organisers of it all, Kogami Ryoken and Ai. No Yusaku. No one was allowed to tell Yusaku about the meeting. No one could tell him anything. Ai made that abundantly clear.
Then, two days ago, came the Code Red—Ai and Ryoken had reason to believe that a strike was planned for tonight, but they had no way of knowing who the target was. And so, every single one of them had to go into immediate hiding. There was no argument against it. This wasn't the Network, and so duelling skills like Aoi's and Takeru's made close to zero difference. All they could do was stay safe and hope that they were not next.
Takeru had argued against one thing though, to no avail—he was still not allowed to tell Yusaku. How and why Ai could think that to be a good idea, Takeru would never understand.
Caught in this whirlwind of thoughts, his ears did not catch the sound of footsteps approaching until they were right behind him. When they stopped, they were followed by a deep, warm voice and a strong presence right above his shoulder.
"You should be asleep."
"I'm not surprised that you're not, though, Onizuka-senpai." Takeru shifted sideways on the small staircase, allowing for Go to sit down. Both young men were well-built enough to brush shoulders, even as they tried to make space. "You weren't in your room when I woke up."
"I took a quick lap around the grounds, just in case," Go said rather placidly. He gazed into the sunrise, its ever-strengthening beams burning in his eyes. Then his gaze fell on Faust's distant back, and his words grew quieter. "I'm not really into holding grudges anymore, but I have a hard time trusting that guy."
Takeru couldn't help but chuckle at that. "I get it. Knight of Hanoi, nearly destroyed the Network, all that stuff. But Ai said that we can count on him, so I'm pretty sure we can."
"I'm not sure I trust Ai either," Go muttered. Takeru didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing. His companion's eyebrows furrowed deeply. "It's not even because of what he did back then. I know a thing or two about past mistakes. But the way he put up this plan, and then there's all this secrecy. It's just..."
"Weird? Tell me about it." Takeru let out a long, sombre sigh, then broke into a yawn right after. "I've wanted to call Yusaku ten times already. I don't like lying to him. He's my best friend."
"Don't make this harder on yourself than it has to be, kid," Go Onizuka, only four years Takeru's senior, stated firmly. "You're not lying to him, and even if you were, it's not your fault. No, I think there's something that the Dark Ignis is not telling us. Something he thinks makes it better to keep Fujiki-kun in the dark."
"Maybe," Takeru agreed, not too convinced.
After a moment of silence, Go wiped the worry from his face and beamed brightly down at his ward. "Now, go back to bed. If anything does go down here tonight, you'll want to be well rested and ready. Nothing will get to you so long as I'm here, so you can sleep soundly."
A heavy hand came down on Takeru's shoulder, full of assurance and comfort. Takeru's face lit up like the rising sun. Go was still an idol in his eyes—someone he believed in and looked up to—in spite of the time they'd spent on opposing sides. He nodded resolutely, then stood from the porch stairs and headed back inside.
He chugged a glass of water in the kitchen before he disappeared into his tiny little bedroom. Closed the door behind himself, pulled the curtains and the bamboo blinds and let himself fall into the narrow cot. It creaked when his weight came down on it. It smelled strange and itched a little, but he supposed that he had no right to complain. He wasn't even sure who this bungalow belonged to, but he supposed that it was Ryoken's. Forcing himself to be thankful, he buried his face in the pillow, and closed his eyes.
But no matter how hard he tried, he still could not fall asleep.
Ai could only imagine what exchanging ones physical form for a digital awareness felt like to a human. For him, it was like stepping into a different but still completely familiar room. Nothing felt weird because everything was still data, be it the signals from his SOLtiS external sensors or his program communicating with the Network world. Ryoken sure as hell never said anything, the absolute bore, and Yusaku hadn't gone into the VRAINS even once since Ai's return. Ai wasn't sure why he was so fascinated, but he supposed that it had to do with Yusaku.
Everything always did.
They came up at the same time—Revolver in a flurry of blue lights, Ai like a rain of purple glitter—side by side in a world of light. Everything was bright greens, vivid blues and neon yellows, a chaotic ant's war of flickering and fragmenting data. The Void welcomed them with sword-sharp gusts of wind that screamed as it tore past them, but neither Ai nor Revolver were affected by it. They moved through the storm as if it wasn't even there, unscathed even though the winds carried splinters of data around with it. Visually it was a lot to take in, what with all that was going on, but the mayhem served a purpose. The whole Void was one big and incredibly effective firewall, a top-security prison, built on the concept that if anything tried to escape, the storms would disintegrate it completely.
Ai trusted Ryoken's argument for using a place like this. Fear of destruction was the perfect incentive for keeping their prisoner put. After all, he'd gone to a lot of trouble to stay alive thus far.
The heart of the Void was nearly impossible to identify, save for the slight shine of a solid but see-through surface to walk on. At the centre of that was a box the size of a phone booth made from the same material. Ai and Revolver approached the glass-like prison cell with little caution. They had no reason to fear so long as those barriers were in place. And as their digitally recreated echoey footsteps approached the cell, the prisoner inside stood up to face them with a venomous leer.
"Ai! Revolver! Is it interrogation time again?" The being in the shape of a young man snickered darkly. "I wasn't expecting to be entertained quite so often in this isolated prison of yours."
The upturned, juniper green swirl of hair, the dark blue eyes—all sourced from a single student ID on a decade old obituary. The accuracy was frightening. Though, Ai doubted strongly that the boy whose appearance had inspired this one shared the same blood-curdling viciousness of voice or gaze. In fact, Ai imagined that if he only looked close enough, he might even spy the original ruby red glow of the eyes that had originally contained all that malice.
"Entertaining for us, maybe," Ai countered. "For you? Not so much."
The green-haired manboy pretended to shiver. "Ooh, I'm so frightened~! Will you cut me up? Erase me byte by byte? I suggest something painful, or you won't get much of a result."
Ai leaned forward as if to take a step closer, but Revolver's gloved hand shot out in front of him before he could.
The man's voice grew forceful, yet remained deceptively calm.
"We don't have time for your games, Wind Ignis. Tell us who the next target is. Now."