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By Thursday morning, Fujiki Yusaku's normal week at school was no longer normal, a loss that he blamed on the accumulation of three things. 

One. 

On Monday, he reached into his bag after the final bell and found a neatly sealed love letter inside of it, the red heart stark against the white envelope, and to say that Ai, confined to the duel disk during school hours, had a simple 'giggle fit' would have been a massive understatement. A human being would have hurt themselves by the second hour of vocalizations, but this was Ai -- his partner, the embodiment of darkness, and the unfortunate owner of a terrible sense of humor.

Yusaku had tried to mute him. Those locks had crumbled in milliseconds, owing to the ultra-adaptive nature of Ai's new programming. Dimly, Yusaku had considered throwing his duel disk in the garbage. Or buying earplugs. Both plans had too many problems. 

Written with looping, pink characters, the love letter had contained a date (today) and a time (8:00 P.M.), and although Ai had teased him about it for the rest of the day, bypassing the new set of locks with that same careless ease, Yusaku had decided to just ignore the letter. It had to be a mistake. 

In isolation, that conclusion was fine, but then the week had progressed.

Two.

On Wednesday morning, he had found the outside of his apartment building plastered with flyers for an 'After-School Duel Tournament, with Ultra Expensive Bonus Prizes!!! REGISTER NOW!! CALL-'. Although, contrary to the promise of ‘Ultra Expensive Bonus Prizes,’ the flyers had been printed on cheap paper, already disintegrating and sticking to the facade. The graphics were a blurry mess. 

After examining them for a beat, Yusaku had turned on his heel and continued to school. 

That incident was also the precursor to Thursday morning, the current moment.

Three.

Number three was staring directly at him with wide, unblinking eyes, and for someone who had created the card 'Linkuriboh,’ Ai shrieked in confusion and then stuttered out, "W-What is that ??" at the sight of a Winged Kuriboh.

Standard, minus the fact that it was transparent and hovering less than thirty centimeters away, blocking Yusaku's path towards the main gates. 

"A holoprojector is malfunctioning somewhere," Yusaku said, the words stilted and disinterested even though he watched every bob and sway of the small Duel Monster, its green claws knitted together in a human-like gesture of worry. Most holoprojectors did not run such sophisticated software, the realism rivaling even that of virtual reality.

The transparent image was like a stray line of code in an otherwise efficient program, its meaning unclear, obscured. 

It pulled at him, and he watched as Ai, a pixelated purple-on-black blob, raised up as an avatar from his duel disk. The curiosity was visible, and -- not for the first time since he had found his partner's small, reforming consciousness and taken in the fragile data with a focus so strong that it had ached -- Yusaku felt a flicker of an emotion that he knew wasn't his own. Like a burst of static electricity branching up the back of his neck. 

Yes, Ai was curious, and Yusaku silently agreed. 

"Ah, the furball looks kinda lost," Ai drawled out, earning a warble from said 'furball'. "Pretty sure we'll get enough bad karma for ten lifetimes if we don't track down this poor puppy's master. Although, as an AI, human morality doesn't necessarily apply to me, so…"

"Don't be lazy," Yusaku chided, even though he knew what Ai's strategy was -- act disarming, act casual. Pay attention to the syntax and symbols of the code itself. Analyze carefully. 

"Woooo!" was what the Winged Kuriboh chirped next, and it flapped its wings, bouncing a little. And of all the strange things that had happened in Yusaku's life, this encounter shouldn't have ranked in the top ten, and yet he was slowly taking a step back, assessing the near-empty streets and pathways that spread out around him. Overhead was an advertising blimp for a competing virtual world, elves in fantasy armor posing while the logo sparkled in purple and green. A new sign for a hotel was being installed with a crane. A food truck lingered by the bus stop, a thin stream of patrons in place, suspended in time. Again, there was the prickle over his skin, a sign of Ai. 

"Uhhhh… I think its vocalizer is broken," Ai commented when the Winged Kuriboh chirped again, with renewed vigor. No heads swiveled in their direction, and Yusaku, understanding more than before, stepped back, moving towards a line of trees that bracketed the familiar path. 

"The Kuriboh is here for us," he said, and, with those same wide, doll-like eyes, it bobbed after him, chirping over and over again. Ai, as usual, reacted with the subtlety of a confetti bomb inside a waiting room.

"H-Huh?! W-Ai-t a second," Ai demanded, spinning in place. "Hey, listen, you're cute and all, but I already have myself a charming, spherical sidekick. The position has been filled!"

"It's calling to someone," Yusaku stated, his voice clipped, and ducking behind a tree, he checked his surroundings again. Nothing stood out. A jogger passed with three panting huskies. More people continued idly down the sidewalk, filling the cityscape with small pockets of movement that, all together, were too much for him to monitor at once. "Ai, you-"

"I already got it, boss," Ai answered, quickly. The avatar flashed him a thumbs up, and the mechanical parts of the outdated duel disk had started to whine, a faint vibration trailing up his wrist. "Let's see… Grabbing a few security cameras here, borrowing a drone or two there, and… Incoming, at two o'clock! There's a guy approaching, and he's wearing a red-"

"Jacket," Yusaku finished, because suddenly it was a lot easier to parse through the possible candidates. Only one of them had two hands held up in the universal gesture of surrender, a wide, slanting grin above the tattered collar of his open jacket. The stranger stopped two meters away, that grin only widening when Yusaku stared back.

It felt like a challenge.

It felt like they were on a precipice, and the only question remaining was who would push first. Yusaku wanted it to be himself, for a reason that was so precious, so delicate. He needed the advantage. 

Ai had only recovered two months ago. 

Before that were the uncertain weeks and days and hours and seconds of trying to monitor that vast universe of his being, like staring at a splayed-out array of Ai's very cells and veins and bones and trying to understand how they all fit together, hoping that the many, many gaps would knit themselves whole again. Talking to his therapist about it had been difficult, since he had to be vague for Ai's protection, and maybe he should have tried harder to get the words out. Watching Ai grow piece by piece had been both exhilarating and terrible, like two waves that lined up perfectly and canceled each other out, leaving only a pervasive, deep numbness inside of him. 

It was sudden, how he caught himself smiling at one of Ai's badly timed jokes on a late Saturday night, the words warbled out through his duel disk's speakers and laced with static. It was sudden how this almost-normalcy had set in, and Yusaku would not forget how easily it could all change, just like he would not forget how deeply he needed to protect Ai.

Therefore, anyone trying to find him -- the Origin, the person behind Playmaker and slowly becoming more and more threaded with iridescent parts of Ai -- had to be treated as a threat, a hunter. A dangerous outlier.

Because Winged Kuriboh had moved back, the edges of one angelic wing fell over the stranger’s face, dulling the intense amber of his eyes. They were slightly narrowed at the corners and beneath the shaggy fall of his long, brown bangs. 

"Why are you trying to find me?"

Immediately, Ai deflated, his avatar a lumpy pile of purple and black. "Okay, there's a difference between being direct and being too direct, which I'm pretty sure we've talked about before. Still," he added with a lower tone, the duel disk whirling again, "that won't be a problem if Mr. Newcomer isn't the l-Ai-ing type…"

Yusaku watched what happened next with his complete focus, as the stranger glanced at Winged Kuriboh, shrugged, and then turned back to him with a lop-sided smile

"Actually, I'm hoping to be the roguish, charming hero in this story, although my entrance could've been better. Kuriboh here says that I startled you, and… Well, sorry about that. I totally get it, but...it also wasn't my intention…” Before Yusaku could respond, he continued. “I like your ‘old school’ style, by the way. The new duel disks don’t really grab me either.”

It was a detail that Yusaku had dimly registered -- a bulky, grey-blue duel disk, retracted and showing only blank displays. “You’re a duelist,” Yusaku heard himself say, an observation that earned him a chuckle from the person across from him and a small ‘hoot’ from Winged Kuriboh. Questions compounded. Outcomes changed.

“Yuki Judai, hero duelist at your service.” The statement was followed by a slight bow and another chuckle, ‘Judai’ running a hand over the crown of his head. “Hmm… Getting an AI-assistant into an old model like that must’ve been tough, although it doesn’t surprise me coming from a guy like you. Playmaker is known for his determination, isn’t he?”

There was no hesitation.

“You didn’t answer my first question,” Yusaku stated, his voice flat, empty and dead even though Ai’s energy had surged inside of his veins, sparking like miniature storms -- coiled clouds, thick pressure. Playmaker was pursued more often than he would like, usually by factions with their own self-serving interests, hoping to find a way to use him as a symbol, as a lighting rod to harness the public’s attention. And yet no one had approached him like Judai had -- out in the open, alone with only a deactivated duel disk and that spirit-like monster. In the distance, the first bell was ringing out, loud enough to travel over the rhythmic beats of the living city.

“...Not sure why I thought mentioning your secret identity would calm things down. In hindsight, that was a misplay,” Judai admitted, and when Winged Kuriboh chirped at him, Judai cringed. “Yeah, a total misplay. Look, I really didn’t want to try explaining all of this out in the open, but time isn’t being very friendly at the moment. ...You’re following me, aren’t you?”

“We’re standing still,” was Yusaku’s dry reply, and while Ai let out a series of tiny giggles, Judai sagged in place, his hands ending up on his knees. 

“...That’s...not quite the answer I was looking for, but...” With renewed vigor, Judai shot up again. “So, usually when I walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, sorry to bother you, but there’s this evil force that’s trying to end the world and I probably need your help to solve it,’ I either get a puzzled look or totally ignored. Both make for pretty bad first impressions.”

“You could always try sending me another love letter,” was Yusaku’s even drier reply, and Judai’s face twitched. Of course, at the mention of the love letter, Ai was halfway through a set of extremely bad jokes, all of which Yusaku ignored. “There haven’t been any new threats to Link VRAINS. The other virtual worlds also appear to be stable.”

It was quick, how Judai’s eyes darkened, the copper-like colour veined with flecks of green-blue that scattered in seconds. “Oh, this is new,” he rasped, the angles of his face sharp, his smirk showing his canines. “Never had someone ask me to confirm which world is in trouble. The easy answer is that all of them are, including the one we’re in right now. ...Aaaand there’s the puzzled look!”

“Hey, Yusaku-chan,” Ai stage-whispered at him, disc-like yellow eyes imploring, “maybe you should call school security. Pretty sure this guy’s in a cult, and not, like, one with cool uniforms or anything.”

Judai had opened his mouth, a finger raised for emphasis, but then there was a deep rumble from overhead, one that Yusaku could feel extending down to the soles of his feet and then burrowing into the concrete. With a crushing slowness -- as if the suspended image was so powerful that it had enthralled time itself, had overwritten the axioms of this reality -- the blimp was now falling out of the sky, its bright advertisement replaced with a single word in bold, black letters across the madly flickering screen.

CALAMITY. 

“Keep your head down. I’ll catch you later,” Judai said, the upbeat words accompanied by an expression that pierced through the chaos of the moment -- that cheerful smile morphing into a snarl as the duel disk at his side sparked to life. The determination in his eyes was undeniable, and Yusaku, shaking himself, recovered at the sound of Ai’s voice, a stunned yell as the blimp continued its downward trajectory, every millimeter accompanied by harsh screams from the people around them. Panic was thick in the air, strong enough to choke him as he opened a line to Kusanagi, as he-

As he whipped around and saw that Judai was gone .

“Yu-”

“Check RRA’s security, now ,” Yusaku snapped out, and he couldn’t look at the display, not with the object above hurtling closer and closer, picking up speed. “Someone could have hacked the onboard systems for their advertising blimp over Den City. I’ll meet you at the plaza if I can.”

“If you- W-What?! Yusaku, run . Get out of there, and- And I got it. I’m working on RRA right now.”

“Right,” Yusaku said, and then he cut the line, his vision blurred at the edges. Ai was next. Rationally, logically, there were things they could accomplish, things he sorted through as he bolted away from the grey shadow and towards the school. Students should have been streaming out of it. And yet they weren’t, those in the courtyard staring mutely at the sight overhead. “Ai! Get the alarms.”

“Roger, roger!”

-and they were effective, Yusaku catching how the others snapped out of their dazes and ran. The roads bordering the school had become walls of jammed cars, and as he, cursing, skirted around a van with its emergency lights on, Ai was the constant voice in his ear, reporting that the blimp used a rudimentary AI (‘CloudSensor’) for weather reports, wind velocity, and scheduling routine maintenance. The controls were all manual, and someone had jammed them into the position for a catastrophe. 

Damn.

“There’s nothing Cloudy can do,” Ai said, the next rustle of static like a deep growl, and Yusaku, unthinking, put his palm over the domed top of the duel disk, as if the steady beat-beat-beat of his pulse would be enough to reach Ai’s self through the circuitry, through the patchwork of screws and wires that Yusaku had installed himself. And Yusaku, riveted in place while his mind worked and worked, felt the world tilt when the blimp was suddenly hit on the underside by something -- the shape was unclear, the details impossible from this distance. The force of it made the blimp lurch backwards, higher.

Ai was a network of static over his skin, his body trembling with an emotion that he shared with someone else. “It’s okay,” he heard himself say, quiet and meaningless under the wail of sirens and continuing shouts. Or, it would have been meaningless to anyone else. Ai heard him. 

“Hey, Yusaku-chan, take some breaths. I’m watching everything for you, so… Just take some for me, please?”

He did, even though focusing on just that was bizarre with that surreal sky over him, the blimp being forced up more and more, a grey void hovering over the city spread below. “The AI, can it register if the onboard systems are functioning normally or not?”

“That doesn’t sound like relaxing to me.”

“It’s difficult to relax with the airship still over me.”

“...True,” Ai admitted, the pout audible, and then he followed the order, his tone bright even as those prickles of electricity remained. “Cloudy says that the manual controls are still set to, err, the bad option, so it must be something outside of the vehicle that’s making it move like that. I’m sorting through high-resolution camera feeds to try and get you a better look, but it’s...not going very well. Most of the cameras here are set to street-level only, and one of those government sweeper programs is grabbing all the good feeds from me, so...”

“You’re doing great, Ai. Thank you.”

He had said it because it was true, and there was a silence between them. He would think about what it meant later. Much later.

Ai had wanted to respond. Yusaku knew that. He understood it, and yet-

“...Maybe let’s go get a hot dog though,” was what Ai muttered to him, and Yusaku, with a final, lasting look at the retreating shape above him, nodded before taking off at a sprint. 

---

As of Thursday, Fujiki Yusaku's normal week at school could not possibly be normal again, not when the public viewing screens across the plaza were replaying the same grainy footage of the blimp dipping sharply, branded on its side by that single word: CALAMITY. The social media tracker across the bottom of the looping video showed that ‘extremist’ and ‘sky terror’ were trending, despite the lack of an official investigation.

There wouldn’t be one for awhile, considering that the blimp was currently being moved further into the grey clouds by a persistent, invisible hand, and when Yusaku, soaked in sweat, slammed open the staff door to Café Nagi, he was greeted by two startled Kusanagi brothers, the younger gaping at him while the elder stalked over and shoved a water bottle at him. 

“Is it on the house?” 

“Yes, on the promise that you only scare me a quarter of the way to death the next time you call me,” Shouichi said, deadpan. Yusaku silently accepted the bottle and nodded. “Drink that, and then I’ll tell you all about RRA’s state-of-the-art cyber security. Seems like they took the new regulations pretty seriously.”

“You don’t have to dote over Yusaku-chan. That’s my job!” Ai protested, and Yusaku, working off the cap, hit the ‘mute’ icon. To no effect. “Also, I’d appreciate some free stuff too, as, like, a symbolic gesture of our cooperation and friendship and all that.”

Ai’s upgrades really were impressive. 

With the surfaces wiped down and stacks of Nagi take-away cups on the counters, the space was deeply familiar, and Yusaku took his usual seat without another word, his fingers flying over the keyboard. The national registry could be helpful, especially when cross-referenced with visitor data and citizen data gathered by Den City’s automated systems, and-

“Uhh… Need a hand there?” Shouichi asked.

“This is just the preliminary search. I’ll need your help to access overseas databases, if these don’t turn up anything useful.”

“Right. ‘Useful’ as is…?”

“I’m looking for a ‘Yuki Judai,’” he said as he tapped the ‘Enter’ key, and he cut down the flurry of results by estimated age range (18-23, most likely). Factors like hair and eye colours were too susceptible to change, and-

A steaming black coffee appeared by his elbow, and, with a shy smile, Jin moved back.

“You don’t seem very interested in the water.”

“...Thank you,” he said, and the cardboard sleeve was warm to the touch. 

“Wow. I wish you looked at me like that,” Ai lamented, the duel disk buzzing slightly. “Guess I’ll have to dust off my SOLtiS body and download a lifetime’s worth of coffee tutorials, otherwise I’ll lose you to a cute barista.”

With a pointed flick of his fingers against the duel disk, Yusaku turned back to the task at hand. “I don’t know enough about the situation. If I involve either one of you too heavily in my search, it could cause problems for you later. I’m already imposing on you, Kusanagi-san, by using your equipment, although I plan on erasing my activity. All traces of it.”

Sitting next to him, Shouichi had his chin balanced on his knuckles, and his smile would have seemed condescending on someone else. “From my perspective, it seems like you should get this search over with as quickly as possible. Got any more info on this guy?”

“...He’s a hero duelist.”

“And, more importantly ,” Ai cut in while Shouichi tapped out a few commands and let the results refresh, displaying only one, “he’s got some style. Not as much as myself, obviously, but the old-model duel disk does have a certain appeal. Plus the red jacket. Red’s an eye-catching colour.”

Red was for Slifer Red, one of three class divisions at the prestigious dueling academies overseen by the one and only Kaiba Corporation.

Yuki Judai, age 20.

Graduated with below-average marks from two public schools before entering Duel Academia through the standard first-day dueling test. Maximum points for ‘dueling’ in every year, with a few reports on his uncanny ability attached to one of the available files. For deck composition, he relied on fusion and warrior-type monsters, and as of the day he graduated, he was difficult to track, enough to make Ghost Girl’s nickname lose its meaning.

No recorded tournament appearances. No employment records. No university applications. No recent medical records, and even those that Yusaku could pull up were empty, suspiciously so to someone who had probably done too many computer crimes in his life. No social media accounts. No online presence. No personality profiles.

Faced with an almost blank slate, Yusaku drained more of his coffee. Over the expanse, he could too easily imagine that expression from before -- bared teeth and flaring eyes, like twin fires. The impression was one of pure, absolute strength, similar to the metal-hard glint of Revolver’s glare from across a battlefield. 

The outlier remained just that, and he was still unpredictable. More so than before.

The information on his dueling history was the strongest. Judai had won a card-design contest hosted by Kaiba Corporation when he was a child, which, in hindsight, seemed like an excuse for the CEO to test out his new navigation AI in outer space. Such contests did not normally involve shooting the completed cards into space. 

“Ai, track him down,” Yusaku ordered, curt enough that the AI grumbled, and then he switched topics, clearing the search. “We should investigate the blimp incident next. Kusanagi-san, can you find the employee records for those who would have been operating it? According to the AI, only manual controls can be used for that model.”

“...That sort of makes sense,” Shouichi mused as he entered command after command, Yusaku sorting through the incoming news on the blimp, currently drifting away from the city center. Police drones orbited it as flickers of red-blue. Jet-black helicopters had been launched from security facilities. “This advertising model is rarely used nowadays, and outfitting a custom AI for it would be more expensive than just training the necessary people. Those navigation AIs have extremely high security requirements, after all.”

“Right.”

“...The word is...alarming, to put it lightly.”

“The word?”

“Calamity,” Shouichi said, and something about his tone made Yusaku look over. Like his own, Shouichi’s sense of peace was only recent. “It puts a lot of ugly images into my mind. Before helium was widely available, hydrogen was sometimes used to inflate airships, and, well, an important difference between those gases is that only one is highly flammable.” A pause, Shouichi letting a flurry of windows ‘ping’ open, displaying logs for the RRA’s employees. From behind him, Yusaku could hear Jin take a deep, shaking breath. “But that’s just a bad thought, the kind of thing that a big brother like myself should know better than to say out loud.”

“You don’t have to...stay quiet around me,” Jin mumbled, and although he continued in a stronger voice, Yusaku was aware of how tightly he had gripped the back of the chair, white knuckles raised. “Those are drone clusters around the blimp, and...that means there has to be a better camera feed than this one.”

“Quick-thinking runs in the family,” Shouichi replied with a wry grin, and the list of employees was quickly cut down to just two, their names and IDs highlighted in red. 

“The risk is too high. The new units synchronize with the others in their cluster, meaning that we would have to hack into all of the drones at once to avoid detection,” Yusaku stated plainly, and he knew the protest was coming before Ai flipped the speakers on again. 

“For a human , yes, but in case you forgot, you’re allied with the stupendous, the marvellous , the most handsome and charming AI to ever-”

“I said it’s too high.”

“...Uh, hello? Stupendous? Marvellous? Charming ? I totally got this, so-”

There would have been an argument if Yusaku had said anything back. Instead, along with Shouichi and the occasional quiet comment from Jin, he monitored every available channel, searching for valuable information within the torrent of data. Like himself, Shouichi knew when to be cautious. Shouichi knew when to weigh risk versus reward. 

The next official statement from Den City Security was a crucial piece of information -- task-force members had boarded the cabin and, with collaboration from the military, were now moving the blimp (technically a ‘dirigible’ because of its reinforced casing, one news commentator reported with the tired air of someone who had repeated the same fact many, many times) to a secure location, military aircraft dotting the cloudy sky like outline marks on a piece of paper. And while Yusaku did not decipher the chatter over the military’s secure communication lines, the fact that such chatter existed in the first place was a sign. A very bad one.

Outside, it had started to rain, hard drops pelting the pavement and forming a fine grain of motion over the food truck’s security cameras. By 2 A.M., Jin had dozed off on the desk, his arms and hoodie used as a makeshift pillow, and -- as the minutes continued to peel away, his fingers working over the keyboard and shuffling through more and more information -- Yusaku began to realize that, yes, he was afraid. 

As of 1:45 A.M., new information had been leaked to the press, and it had spread online like a virus through a weakened body.

The two employees who should have been inside the cockpit had been found trapped inside the company’s lounge, the electronic lock scrambled. With their phones in their lockers, they had been left there for hours, unnoticed because of the skeletal maintenance staff at the blimp’s mooring site. The blimp had launched with only one pilot, inhuman as it was. 

A SOLtiS with a featureless, white face.

The members of the task force had found it at the helm, locked in position with its hands directing the engines to reach maximum power and the balloon to sink rapidly. The detonator within its reach would have triggered the bombs attached to the bottom of the cabin.

---

Chapter Text

---

Thunk.

Even with sleep dulling his eyes and filling the inside of his head, Yusaku could recognize the unique sound of a take-away cup hitting a hard surface, and Jin stepped back with a nervous smile, his dark hair pulled back in a low ponytail. The T-shirt he wore was an old one of Shouichi’s -- the Nagi logo on the front worn. 

“Thank you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Jin said, and then he looked at the duel disk, laughing a bit. “Hey, Ai, do you want one too?”

“It’s physically impossible for me to accept that offer, but ,” Ai quickly added, his avatar suddenly bouncing up and spinning in place, “that offer is still so, so kind, Coffee Boy. Ah, maybe now I’m falling for your boyish, caffeine-flavoured appeal. Perhaps my intense look will even make Yusaku-chan jealous~”

Yusaku ignored that, and as he put the cup down, he took note of where Shouichi had ended up -- flopped over the driver’s seat, Jin’s hoodie spread over his chest like a too-small blanket. The piece of paper sitting on his terminal caught his eye next, the writing Jin’s. 

“I didn’t sleep very well, so Ai and I made a hacker-proof timeline,” Jin explained, and taking it, Yusaku almost smiled at the collision of Jin’s neat, small characters and Ai’s colourful phrasing. 

6:50 A.M. -- RRA employees Nakamura and Amemiya have a serious problem with a door. 

8:03 A.M. (Ai-approved estimation) -- the technically-a-dirigible-and-not-a-blimp reaches Den City to annoy everyone trying to go to work slash school with its advertisements.

8:40 A.M. -- A Winged Kuriboh holoform decides to treat me and Yusaku-chan like a Lost and Found box. 

8:41 A.M. (plus 43 seconds and 587 milliseconds) -- I locate Yuki Judai, hero-duelist and proud owner of a weirdly clean government record. Spooky, right?

8:42 A.M. through 8:48 A.M. (didn’t feel like it took that long, but, hey, there’s a 0.00000001% chance of me being off here) -- We have a conversation that is absolutely normal and totally not strange in hindsight, especially the part where Judai mentions the world possibly ending and figuring out the true identity of a certain Maker of Plays.

8:48 A.M. (plus 23 seconds and 298 milliseconds) -- Cloudy reports several abnormal actions. The thrusters are set to full. Negative buoyancy is achieved. Approximately 4980 minor mechanical actions are taken (see your Ai-Assistant for more information).

8:48 A.M. (plus 27-28 seconds, Ai-approved estimation) -- Yuki Judai vanishes into thin air.

After that was a paragraph, Ai switching between details on the blimp’s mechanical actions, as reported dutifully by its AI, and the military and security force’s response. Even before he read to the end, Yusaku knew that the situation must have had a positive conclusion, with the bombs dismantled and the experts recalled without injuries. Otherwise, Ai wouldn’t have used such a light tone, jokes thrown in next to dizzying relays of information. One detail in particular was stark to him now, as if Jin had written it in thick marker, dominating the surrounding wisps of blue pen.

When the task-force members had boarded the cabin, the wires from the detonator to the explosives had already been cut.

“It's...possible that whoever stopped the blimp from crashing went inside. They disconnected the explosives, despite the risk.”

When Jin took the seat that Shouichi normally did, it startled Yusaku outside of his daze, the flinch visible enough to make Ai warble in worry, a faint vibration passing up the back of his neck. 

“Ah, you really did work too hard, Yusaku-chan. Humans need sleep, more sleep than three hours.”

“I’m fine.”

“I can monitor you well enough to know that’s not true…”

“I’m not going to repeat myself,” he said, and after taking a steadying breath, he leaned back in his chair. “I take it you and Ai already came to that conclusion.”

“...Yes, but it...took us a little longer than that,” Jin admitted sheepishly, picking at his shirt collar. When Ai whirled on him next, berating him for ‘tattling to Yusaku-chan’, Jin laughed a little. It was a nice sound, reassuring. “From what Ai’s found out, there aren’t any new leads to follow. The military are still analyzing the components of the bombs. The investigation into RRA has just started. The current theory is that someone broke in, trapped the two pilots, and then launched the blimp with the modified SOLtiS onboard, modified in that it was operating independently from the network. Or...that the SOLtiS did it alone.”

“...Yeah, that other theory is sure going to do a lot for human-Ai relations,” Ai grumbled, and Yusaku knew that he was very tired, so tired that he was numb to what he felt underneath the thin, brittle relief at being here, in the Nagi food truck with both of the Kusanangi brothers in sight and Ai at his side, sparking on the edge of his senses. The relief was an ice over dark waters.

“There are three leads remaining.” Perking up, Jin stared at him, and Ai made the lights on the duel disk sparkle, curiosity flaring as reds and oranges. “Jin, I’m not going to involve you and your brother in anything more than just surface-level research. If you have the time for it, I would appreciate your help with the first two leads.”

Shouichi was the one who answered, throwing up a hand in a V-sign as he stumbled over to the terminal and, leaning over Jin, opened a new window. “Well, something tells me that this Friday morning will be very, very slow, maybe even so slow that I’ll have a bit of free time. Convenient, right?”

“Nii-san is usually right when it comes to predicting the rush,” Jin added, and Yusaku nodded at him. 

“The first lead is the word on the side of the blimp. Monitoring its search history and use online could reveal something, although it’s a longshot.”

“That would be in Ghost Girl’s wheelhouse,” Shouichi observed, and then he shrugged. “Because she owes me a favour for those free hotdogs last week, I can probably get you the results by this afternoon, maybe tomorrow morning if she feels like being stingy.”

“The second lead,” Yusaku said, frowning to himself, “is the more challenging one. We don’t know who is behind this, and therefore we also don’t know what their motivations are. I...don’t believe this is all the work of a rogue SOLtiS.”

“Plus, it’s very, very convenient for a bunch of humans if a SOLtiS is the only suspect.”

“Yes. But what we do know are the time and location that the SOLtiS directed the blimp downwards. That is another belief I have -- that these two features are not random. Therefore, it should be possible to isolate where the blimp would have fallen.”

“...Makes sense,” was Shouichi’s reply. “I’ll get working on the city map once I’ve had some coffee. Chances are that someone else has already started on this angle. Maybe I can, ah, ‘borrow’ some of their work.”

“Is ‘borrow’ slang for ‘commit computer crimes’?” Jin asked, reaching up to ‘bonk’ his brother on the chin. 

The third lead was one Yusaku had left unsaid, even though it was obvious. The name was inside of his head, twisting his thoughts until none of them made sense at all. His logical arguments had become tangled, and, stepping out of the van in his creased school uniform at 6:53 A.M. on a Friday, Yusaku understood the task in front of him now, difficult as it might be.

Luckily enough, he had a talented partner.

“Ai.”

“Ready when you are.”

He breathed in, and then it was time. 

“Let’s go.”

---

With Ai, he went home. 

For the sake of productivity (Ai’s, since his partner wouldn’t change topics otherwise), Yusaku forced himself to chomp through two slices of bread, although he did so while executing search after search on his laptop. Ai, embedded in the customized hardware, was embodied by the purrs and hums of many, many cooling fans and whirling components. 

Out of necessity, Yusaku’s own equipment had stronger protections on it than Shouichi’s own. Sometimes there were anti-technology radicals to investigate. Sometimes doing so required him to delve into databases that were the equivalents of steel traps, waiting for just the slightest pressure before they would snap shut. 

He hated making those decisions, necessary as they were.

Predictably, his new searches for information on Yuki Judai were just as frustrating at the first ones. Nothing. The impression of a ghost. A taunting series of blank spaces.

“We need to regroup.”

“Ah, and yet what you need,” rasped out a low, gravely voice as gentle fingers traced a path up the back of his neck, “is to spend some time in bed with me as your very, very eager masseur.”

Fujiki Yusaku was not prone to stuttering.

He almost did after spinning in his desk chair and finding himself with an Ai-model SOLtiS in his lap, a pair of his old jogging pants spread tightly across the thighs that were sliding next to his own. Ai had not elected to steal a shirt, and the fact that Yusaku was staring far, far too hard at the dips and ripples of absolutely-one-hundred-percent-Ai-customized muscles under that expanse of smooth, artificial skin could be blamed on his lack of sleep. Probably.

Because of how it fell in loose waves, a significant portion of Ai’s hair ended up sliding over Yusaku’s face, some of it getting in his eyes and most of it tickling him, a lot. It was a convenient distraction from the slight rumble of the machinery inside Ai’s chest, like the beat of a frantic heart over his own, the many vibrations reaching into him and making that faint streak of heat-

No.

In hindsight, climbing out of his desk chair and jump-running across the room made for an inelegant retreat.

The SOLtiS should have been in a storage closet and dressed in the set of purple-black pajamas that Ai had fallen for, apparently because of the heart-shaped buttons. Yusaku had drawn the line at letting the deactivated SOLtiS sleep on the sofa upstairs like an eerily silent and motionless houseguest.

“When did you make...alterations?” Yusaku heard himself ask in a completely flat voice, and he watched the coiled shapes and rigid peaks of Ai’s back shift as he rose, those multi-coloured curls thrown back when he jerked his chin up. The smirk was pleased. 

Yusaku suspected that Ai had systematically chosen the most devastating shade of gold for his irises. Under long, curving eyelashes, their effect was strong.

Maybe he did need to get more sleep, although Yusaku would have preferred if Ai had won the argument in a different way.

“Hmm… I’ll have you know that I’m a master of multitasking,” Ai drawled out with a raised eyebrow. The wink that followed made Yusaku flinch. “Sometimes when you’re in your little ‘Yusaku bubble’ -- ignoring the outside world and, more importantly, me -- I’ll order some parts off those totally-not-sketchy cryptocurrency-only websites or tell the mail-carrying drone to drop off the new packages in the foyer for me. Trust me when I say all of this is completely untraceable, and, unless someone has managed to clone me, no sentient lifeform in this galaxy can piece together what I’m doing with a bunch of half-priced junk.”

The gestures Ai did fit him perfectly, all fluid and natural. Running a hand down his neck, he briefly stroked the teal diamond in the hollow of his throat. It was a brand. The red border Ai had added to it marked him as an exclusive prototype, capable of bypassing many of the recent laws containing the movement and activities of Ai-controlled machines. 

Focusing on it, Yusaku collected himself. 

Sort of.

Enough to continue on without feeling like he could actually cross those familiar, wooden floorboards and change everything, using touch to confess because the words were so difficult. 

“Ai, someone could still be suspicious of what you’re ordering. I…” It was too much. He changed his approach. “I’ll pick that up later. For now, we need to find Yuki Judai. He’s an important variable.”

On bare feet, Ai walked towards him, and then, with a single, unbroken movement, Ai pressed his forehead against Yusaku’s shoulder, as if the power had been cut from the SOLtiS -- forcing it to tip forward, to use him for support. Without thinking, Yusaku had grabbed Ai’s arms to brace himself, and beneath the layer of synthetic skin, there were the curving, entwined fibers of what felt like metal. The contact was warm. When his grip loosened, Ai lolled his head to the side and chuckled against Yusaku’s neck. It did not improve his failing concentration.

“Hmm… I’m working on that in the background.” Another chuckle, followed by a faint mechanical hum. “Like I said, master of multitasking, although my processors might crash if your hands decide to go lower and test out my newest improvements.”

Clicking his tongue, Yusaku answered with, “If...I agree to take a shower and drink something non-caffeinated, will you let me continue working for the rest of the day?”

“The day ends at 5 P.M., so don’t forget that~” Ai chirped back, and then he bounced away, all smiles and perfectly symmetrical dimples. And here, against the plain, crumbling backdrop of the patched-over wall, the modified SOLtiS looked so Ai , every feature suiting his personality -- the impish angle of his expression, the slight way that his eyes would narrow at the corners. Every angle of the SOLtiS must have been mulled over thousands or millions of times, incomprehensible algorithms created just for that purpose, just so Ai could express himself in this dimension. His partner would fixate on the minute details, like the black nail polish on his short nails. Like the iridescent sheen of the ink-dark strands that were pushed behind his ears.

Ai was the architect of his own image, much like how Yusaku had created Playmaker for himself. The representations of themselves revealed many things, and of course Yusaku loved what he saw of Ai.

Of course he did.

---

After a utilitarian shower and a glass of juice that he had barely tasted, Yusaku was faced with a sheepishly grinning Ai perched on the edge of his bed. The addition of one of Yusaku’s too-big hoodies was helpful.

Sort of.

“Okay, so this should’ve been the part where I say, ‘Guess which dashing AI has located our fugitive with his undeniable brilliance?’, buuuuut I sort of…..haven’t….got his location yet, soooo….”

“We can work on a new strategy together.”

“Oooh! I’ll take notes,” Ai blurted out and, with a flurry of arms and legs, produced one of Yusaku’s notebooks and a fuzzy pink-purple pen that Yusaku had never seen in his room before. It light up when Ai scrawled their names across the paper. "Look, I've figured out my own Ai-exclusive writing style."

The characters were large, rounded, and surrounded by small hearts and Ai-shaped doodles, and, after giving a quick nod, Yusaku knew that he was smiling.

Although, that expression couldn't last through the 9 minutes, 45 seconds, and 803 milliseconds (an Ai-approved estimation, of course) that it took them to make a breakthrough in their search. While Ai had pulled footage of their conversation outside the school, none of the camera angles caught what happened after Judai suddenly bolted to the left. Notably, he did not reappear on the opposite side of the street. 

"While the new regulations on facial technology have made it, errr, challenging to poke around the city center," Ai explained, waving his hands as he went, "I can determine with 99% confidence that Hero Man didn't return there after the whole 'averted catastrophe' thing. 'Course, that's the current problem -- I can't find anything on where he turned up next!"

Ai had written 'GHOST BOY??' as their first bullet point. The accompanying sketch was, of course, a floating Ai in Ignis form. 

While Ai had timed the breakthrough at roughly 10 minutes into their conversation -- which had eaten through four pieces of notebook paper and made Yusaku wish for something with caffeine and sugar -- it had actually occurred much earlier than that. Only, Yusaku had found himself stunned by how simple the idea was. It was a search he could easily have carried out with a standard-issue cellphone and exclusively public sources. 

Maybe he had been cynical to expect the worst from Judai -- pulling up criminal databases and wanted lists the moment he was at his own computer, parsing through records indicative of violence, of the creations of his own nightmares.

And, still under that sense of disbelief, he had opened a browser, typed the keywords into the basic search engine, and then narrowed the results by time. Given Judai's reaction to the 'love letter,' he had likely been in Den City since Wednesday, maybe even a few days earlier. 

And maybe some duelist had run into Judai, lost to his set of hero monsters, and then done what, in Yusaku's opinion, rarely reflected well on a duelist of any caliber. Maybe someone had made a forum post complaining about, for example, how a Neo-Spacian fusion had overpowered effects or that hero decks relied on pure luck, making them frustrating to play against.

“Ohoho…. That’s a good angle,” Ai purred, leaning over the back of his chair, and Yusaku clicked on the top result, a forum post to ‘DEN DUELIST PROS’ with the promising subject of ‘The fuck is a neo spacian grand mole????’.

“How didn’t I think of this earlier?” Yusaku muttered to himself, scrolling down the wall of text from HollyAngel05, who used the sort of crass style that Aoi herself would have called ‘boring’. “The Neo-Spacian cards are rare because they’re out of print. Plus, running into a duelist who only uses fusion in Den City would be surprising to many duelists.”

“Seems like Holly-chan isn’t the only one to find themselves KO-ed by our new friend,” Ai observed. From the replies, at least three other duelists using the forum had reported losing to, quote, ‘out-of-date hero monsters’. The incidents all seems to be recent.

And all of the posters frequented the same makeshift dueling arena, located on the outskirts of the industrial district and wreathed by a mixture of crumbling towers and under-construction lofts, currently rising from the dirt ground as rigid sets of grey supports. Unlike the city core, security cameras were seldom used for public roads. 

There were too many blind spots.

“So, if we’re going in for some reconnaissance work, it might be useful to have two sets of hands, and-”

“No,” Yusaku said without turning around, and Ai slumped down with a defeated sigh, his wrists crossed over Yusaku’s chest. “Even with your prototype marker, the chance of someone stopping us is far too high. I’m...not going to let that happen.”

A slight pause, and then Ai’s fingers passed slowly up his arms, Ai’s voice a murmur against his ear. “Ah, there you go, saying things that make all of my systems malfunction. But, to be perfectly honest, I’m not going to complain about my SOLtiS being your personal indoors-only mechanical companion. I promise to serve you well with it. Very, very well.”

Rolling his eyes, Yusaku shoved Ai's arms away, stood up, and grabbed his duel disk. "I could always use help with the dishes."

"... That's...not... quite what I had in mind."

---

His investigations were normally carried in the vibrant universe of the new Link VRAINS -- glittering spires rising over the central hubs with duelists fluttering about their peaks as streaks of colour and energy. Sometimes they were in the warm, familiar back of the Nagi food truck or within the chipped-away corners of his apartment, which had stopped feeling so empty since Ai had returned.

Moving down the winding streets, he kept his hood up and his shoulders slouched, his own glances at the surroundings quick. He knew where the cameras were, and, driven by an ever-present caution, he dodged them as well as he could, Ai chatting away in a low static. Overhead were drooping powerlines, forming a cage over the grey sky. Flyers littered the narrow sidewalks, those plastered to abandoned buildings peeling with age. The few open stalls bordering the duel area acted as hubs for card traders, and because the Duel Academia records had shown frequent changes to Judai’s deck composition, Yusaku approached one shopfront with a careful look at the other patrons. Other highschool students, mostly. Classes would resume on Monday, a response to the incident that had shaken the city, and it made sense that many people would want to lose themselves in the pushes and pulls of competition.

When Yusaku stopped in front of the grinning employee, the shelves behind her glittering from how the sunlight fell on the many sleeved cards and new booster packs, he very quickly realized that he could have decided on a better opening line. Being direct could work.

Although Ai would tease him about it. A lot.

“Has anyone traded for Elemental Heroes or Neo Spacians recently?”

The little vibrations of the duel disk against his wrist were the equivalent of giggles, and the employee rocked back on her heels, drumming her black fingernails on the glass-topped counter.

“Hmmm, let’s see… There’ve been a lot of questions about those archetypes, but it’s mostly from guys like you, which means that I have a question in return.”

“...A question?”

Flickering her green-on-blue bangs away next, she smirked. “How many turns did you last against this hero duelist? The record is set at three.” When he paused, considering his options while Ai only ‘giggled’ harder, she quickly continued. “Oh, that bad, huh? Ah, don’t beat yourself up over it. I’m sure his lucky streak will stop sooner or later.”

“I haven’t dueled him yet. I wanted to ask him about a card he showed me.”

“A hero, right?”

“No,” Yusaku said. Her too-calm demeanor reminded him of Ghost Girl -- a hacker who always knew more than she let on. Perhaps it was a flimsy justification for his approach, but- “He has a Winged Kuriboh card. It’s not popular and…” The next words came to him quickly, so quickly that he stumbled over them while he raised his arm, the employee arching her penciled eyebrows. “I like using older monster cards, and if I could use that card effectively in my own deck, I would. Maybe he knows how I can incorporate it.”

The next pause was from her, and the first sound after it was another click-click-click of her nails against the counter. Foiled rares were below the glass. Someone had stuck a heart-shaped sticker of Playmaker to the far corner, his avatar squinting while raising one gloved hand. 

“Your deck, huh? Mind showing it to me?”

The dummy deck, as usual, was the one in the duel disk, his Cyberse cards in a box attached to his belt and hidden by the fall of his hoodie. He gave over the spare without a second thought.

“Oh, when you said ‘older’ cards, you weren’t kidding,” she said with a note of surprise, shuffling past normal monsters and spell and trap cards with portraits streaked with age, some of the corners creased. “Shame the condition isn’t better. The value won’t go up on many of these.”

“I’m not going to sell them.”

“Yeah, I figured,” was the observation, and when she handed the deck back, Yusaku had expected for her to turn him away. It was the most likely outcome, and yet- “Do you see that building over there? That eyesore is called the ‘Bayview Towers’, and it’s set to finish in, oh, never if the developers don’t stop arguing with each other. A regular said that he saw the hero guy climbing the side of it yesterday, which… It’s a dumb rumor, and yet it suits a bright-eyed kid like you, doesn’t it?”

“‘Kid’ was a bit much ,” Ai blurted out once they were out of earshot, the words ending in a burst of static. “Like, she looked...four years older than you? Maybe? That’s not enough for kid .”

Yusaku ignored it.

Which only made Ai try harder.

“The thing with the Kuriboh card was quite the bluff. Perhaps my Ai-approved techniques are, ah, rubbing off on you. So to speak.”

“Winged Kuriboh isn’t widely played. For someone to have a...likeness of that card around them suggests that they have some kind of connection to it, which means they would probably have a copy of it. Still,” he admitted, shoving his hands in his pockets while the streets continued to move around him -- shopkeepers calling out to regulars while young children kicked a soccer ball in an empty lot -- “I took a chance on the information seeming unique enough for the shopkeeper to trade with us.”

“Hmmm… Seems like she bought it. Guess that gives her some info if she ever goes up against Mr. Tall, Dark, and Mysterious.”

“Right, or perhaps… It doesn’t matter. We should focus,” he concluded, shaking his head. Above, the incomplete tower rose, dividing the skyline despite its many empty spaces. Stark yellow-black construction equipment was frozen around the base, and cranes remained suspended over the highest floors -- only ten currently. “Ai, keep an eye on our surroundings.”

“Oh, are we breaking and entering?” Ai exclaimed. The duel disk vibrated. “Oh, hey, this is a great time for me to mention the handy-dandy high-tech additions I’ve made to the duel disk! Look, under this panel, there’s a pocket-sized taser, just in case any bad guys show up and want a taste of my M-Ai-ght, and I’ve also-”

“A taser?”

Ai blinked up at him. “Uh, yeah? For the bad guys? Like, currently theoretical bad guys.”

“You have...interesting hobbies.”

“I am so taking that as a compliment.”

Yusaku, staring blankly at the neat line of chain link fence circling the construction site, found himself with a question for his AI partner. There must have been problems with trespassers before -- considering the barbed wire at the top and the many, many ‘DO NOT ENTER’ signs.

“Did you also make a bolt cutter for me?”

“....Err. No , not yet . Of course, I am open to requests, even if they are a bit...inelegant.”

“You’re in charge of the design,” Yusaku responded, stepping back as he surveyed the fence again. “It can look as elegant as you want it to.”

“Ohohoh. Well, when you put it that way-”

“Nevermind.”

What ?!” Ai exclaimed, and if Yusaku had looked down, he probably would’ve been greeted with a hands-on-his-hips pose of disapproval. But he didn’t take his eyes off what seemed like an illusion at first, a patch where the pattern of the fence stopped. "Ah, I feel like an artist whose just had his easel taken away… I'll need a new project to channel my energy into!"

"You should be channeling your energy into observation," Yusaku said, dropping to a crouch and pushing aside the piece of loose fence, "because I've found our way in."

---

Everything about the setting suggested motion. Paths had been trampled into the dirt by heavy boots. Tire treads made elongated shapes through the organized chaos of the building site. Small containers for makeshift offices stood at right angles with each other, their formation ending with a rigid line of portable toilets. It was easy to imagine the construction team suddenly returning to work. Too easy, and, moving quickly, Yusaku passed through an open section in the wall.  

In its current state, the ground floor resembled a sketch, the grey pillars done in pencil. Other had contributed to the image. Spray-painted words and symbols marked the far wall. Some flares of colour extended up to the ceiling, patches of it open to the next floor. 

The silence annoyed him. It itched.

Ai, now an eye over the duel disk’s display, blinked up at him. 

“Hey, Yusaku-chan? Why would a bunch of humans break into this dump?”

Taking long strides, he passed by a collection of crushed drink cans and balled-up plastic wrappers. Initials had been carved into planks of temporary scaffolding. “You seemed excited to come here. Can you explain why that was?”

“Yeah, ‘course I can.”

“You sure about that?”

Scoffing, Ai continued. “Hey, hey. Don’t underestimate me. It’s really simple from my perspective, since it’s you and me on an adventure. ...Although the whole, ah, someone-dropping-an-airship-on-a-populated-city-using-a-SOLtiS thing is a bit…”

“A bit what?”

“...Your language has so many restrictions,” Ai grumbled next. Yusaku stopped at where the unfinished staircase jutted up from the concrete floor. 

“The incident bothers me too, but it shouldn’t change our hope for the people around us.”

Ai would have responded, a reaction that he could sense. It was cut off when they found the drops of red at the base of the stairs. Paint was possible, considering the setting, and even if it was blood, it could have belonged to someone else. Maybe it meant nothing. 

Or maybe not.

“There’s more on the higher steps,” he said, the dots bold against the plain white. The next floor appeared as a maze of grey and black shapes, and the silence around them was not broken. And yet it was different , like a static not yet loud enough to register. Like the pulse of something gathering in this place of stillness, of a world frozen.

They were not alone.

Across the smooth grey of the vast space, the drops of blood continued in their staggered pattern, and, dropping his arms to his sides, Yusaku stopped with the staircase at his back. Only a few of the interior walls had been put up, metal columns dividing the wide gaps between them, and when a shadow moved -- dark as it was splayed over the floor, like liquid spilling and then snapping into impossibly stiff angles and spikes -- Yusaku moved Ai behind his back. 

“H-Hey, what are you-?!”

“Complain later,” he muttered, and then that shadow was gone , replaced by the unmistakable thunk-thunk-thunk of someone with heavy boots walking towards them. Even steps. The next shadow was one Yusaku would dare to call ‘human’. 

The wire of tension in his shoulders did not loosen, not even when Judai passed through a shaft of light -- clouded by motes of dusk but strong enough to catch the expression of his face. It was like Yusaku’s own when he stayed awake for two days working on a program, slipping out of time as lines of code trailed endlessly across his too-bright screen. Only, Yusaku had never managed to get a bruise like that from passing out at his desk. It crept over Judai’s jawline, edged with purple and blotted grey.

“Huh. A lot of Playmaker fans are going to be disappointed that you’re not online. Guess this is my fault for saying a bunch of cryptic stuff and then pulling a disappearing act,” was Judai’s greeting, and he stopped less than a meter away, one hand over the back of his neck. Dirt marred his grey shirt, the jacket open, and it was difficult to picture that intense, burning focus from when the blimp had first plummeted on this person, whose smile almost seemed...nervous. On guard.

“It got my attention,” Yusaku said slowly, and he dropped his arm completely, Ai letting out a warble of static. Like the chirp of a startled bird. 

“Well, next time I want to meet up with you, I’ll skip the love letters and go right to the world-ending conspiracies,” Judai stated with a hollow laugh, and, turning on his heel, he walked back towards the center of the room. “The most I can offer is room-temperature iced tea and kind-of stale chips, but, hey, it’s something.”

Ai snorted. “Not like you’re going to judge, right? Oh, what I’ve seen lurking in your cupboards… The horrors of the expired ready-meals…” 

“I will delete you,” he answered, and when the Ai crackled in annoyance, Judai laughed a little.

“I had no idea those dueling assistants could argue. The ones I’ve heard always sound like GPS systems. You know the voice, right? Turn left at 500 meters. Activate the trap card on your left.”

“They’re popular in Den City,” Yusaku stated. Although, in hindsight, the rogue hero duelist would have already known that.

Behind the partition of the incomplete wall was a small campsite. Inside the open bag was the unmistakable shape of a bulky, old-model laptop, and Yusaku made a mental note of that, a likely source of more information on the specter who was now sitting on a folded-up blanket and gesturing at the lawn chair across from it. The tag declared it the property of a construction company. He also made a note of the first aid kit within Judai’s reach, the top unclasped and supplies spread haphazardly over it. 

In his old school ID photos, Yuki Judai had given the camera a toothy grin and thrown up a victory sign. Except for the final year, his features leaner than before and his stare distant. 

And this person was someone else still, now tilting his head back with a sliver of green hanging in one of his bright eyes.

“So, Playmaker, have you ever heard of the Light of Destruction?” 

“The Light of…”

Ai’s audio feed cut out, and Yusaku did not flinch. He did not react while Judai was watching him, that odd cut of green still parting the brown-gold of his left eye. 

“I don’t know what that is,” Yusaku replied, his voice dead, and Ai had left the display, leaving it blank. He would understand why seconds later, as Judai replied in that effortless, rambling way while his eyes remained unchanged. For Ai, the tangled connections between the words ‘light’ and ‘destruction’ would have revealed themselves immediately, and those connections would have lead back into the past, into the fall of Cyberse World and the golden Ignis.

“As the name implies, it’s a force that seeks only the end of all life that opposes it in this universe. When the light reaches earth from outer space, it twists whatever it comes into contact with. People. Animals. Even objects like our cards can become hosts.” Judai leaned back, cross-legged on the blanket. The movement drew new shadows across his face. “In this galactic war, what opposes the light is the darkness. Darkness wants to create life, nurture it, and protect it. ...I know how all of this sounds, by the way,” Judai quickly added, flashing him a knowing smile. “Like a plot out of a sci-fi movie, right?”

No.

No, it sounded a lot like the story of the Ignis, only-

Only Yusaku could deal with those thoughts later . For Ai’s sake.

“What is the source of this light?”

“A ‘white hole’ somewhere very, very, very far away. I really can’t explain it any better than that because, well, it’s not like I understand how outer space works.” Shrugging, Judai continued. “The main takeaway here is that when the light takes on new hosts, a lot of people are put in danger. For example, there was an incident involving a satellite that could have...leveled cities. Burned forests to the ground. ...You get the idea. Super-villain stuff.”

A burst of wind rattled through the unfinished spaces, the suggestions of new rooms. With his palm over the display, Yusaku considered his next question. It suddenly became a statement. “The light is in Den City. That’s why you’re here.”

When Judai chuckled, it was hollow and strange, a cold spreading down Yusaku’s spine. The intensity of it could not be denied, even though he wanted to. 

The noise sounded like it had come from someone else, even though the only shadows here were their own -- thrown over the floor like discarded puzzle pieces, and Yusaku had no idea what image would form when they finally fit together. Judai could really be a hero duelist with a mission of justice. Or-

Or not. 

“You know, a person’s dueling style reveals a lot, even in virtual reality,” Judai drawled out next, angling his head to the side. “You’re quick, determined, and… Well, you clearly love those Cyberse cards. Anyone should be able to see that .” And again that cold returned, like a warning rooted in instinct and inseparable from his sinews and blood and bones. The green was brighter. “You’re also right, of course. A lot of people are interested in monitoring the Light of Destruction, and while the light released from the white hole hasn’t come anywhere close to Den City, apparently there’s a lot of suspicious readings for this area. One theory is that there’s a new host hiding in Den City, and what happened yesterday can’t be a coincidence.”

“If they caused the incident, then they aren’t hiding anymore.”

With another dark chuckle, Judai put his hands on his knees and then stood up. “See, I had a feeling all of us would get along, which means that this is the part where I ask you to join me as an envoy of darkness.”

“No.”

Unphased, Judai’s expression never changed -- a grin that showed his long canines. “Oooh, rejection. That’s going to sting. Still, it’d be nice if you could do one favor for me, since you’re here anyways.”

“What is it?”

Yusaku tried to predict the answer, a wariness making his fingers clench over the surface of the duel disk, and a small spark of sensation -- a small bit of Ai -- reached him like a zap of static electricity. By no means was he foolish enough to trust Yuki Judai, even though the story he had told fit too neatly into the world as Yusaku understood it. Light opposing darkness. Notions of creation and destruction. A conflict between them.

Of all the possibilities, the most likely was that Judai would challenge him to a duel, their partnership part of Judai’s win condition. Even as a student, Judai had defeated members of the professional league, and the persistence of the rumors about him only confirmed that his strength was genuine. 

Strength was visible in his stare now, and after a blink, the curl of emerald green vanished. With a wider grin than before, Judai reached down and lifted up his shirt, revealing the network of bandages layered over his right side, dried blood edging them like scraps of rust. 

“Mind getting me some pain killers?”

---

Chapter Text

---

Outside, the weather was the same dismal grey as before, the clouds thin like ragged pieces of cloth, and Yusaku walked three blocks from the shell of a tower before stopping and holding out his duel disk. The words caught in his throat for a moment. 

“Ai, you’re okay.”

Purple pixels floated across the display. “All of my systems are functioning according to my own extremely high standards, so some would say I’m doing better than ‘okay’. ‘Superb’ would be more accurate.”

“...Ai.”

No avatar formed. The purple continued to trailed across, the pathways of it seemingly random. “Naturally, as an expression of my genius, I’ve already recorded and coded that conversation with our local vigilante. He’s been pretty consistent so far, and-”

“We can go home after I’ve brought him the medication. If you’re thinking about Lightning, I understand why, and...I’m here for you."

At first, Ai did not respond, and Yusaku passed into a small pharmacy, the window covered in advertisements for weekly sales. The front on one package promised ‘high-strength pain relief’. The attendant, smiling as she took his change, explained that the maximum daily dosage was six and that he should take them with water.

“They’re not for me."

“Oh! Well, the same rules apply,” she added with a slight nod. “Sometimes people experience nausea. Taking the pills after a small meal should help with that.”

Ai finally responded while Yusaku, now with a bag of convenience-store instant meals and two bottles of water, acknowledged that his Friday was turning out to be very, very strange. And relatively expensive. 

Ai had set the volume to low, barely loud enough to carry above the steady thrum of passing cars. 

"...Hey, I'm not malfunctioning. I can hold my own, so…" A straggled noise, as if Ai was clearing his throat. "This morning was supposed to be about me watching over you. We should stick to that script, otherwise the audience will get confused. That's bad for ratings."

"Ai…"

"Look, it's…" Another torrent of static, and then Ai was speaking faster than before, out of time with the fall of Yusaku's steps. "For the next couple of minutes, just pretend that I’m your assistant AI, like a sassier and saucier version of those mass-produced models. Like, I can even adjust my speech patterns, as if I actually rely on outdated generating functions to form even the simplest sentences."

Not for the first time, Yusaku glared at the plastic bag. They should be home. 

"It's not necessary to act like someone else.”

"Yeah, but it might be fun. I can even announce the hour like Shima's AI does! Because, yeah, that's definitely not annoying during class or anything like that."

“We'll get through this, and then we'll go home,” Yusaku said, and ducking into the construction site for a second time, he made for the tower's entrance, moving quickly. 

"...You say that when we both know a trip home involves a stop at Café Nagi. Oh, plus an eighty-five percent probability of you passing out on a hotdog-encrusted keyboard for a second night in a row."

"No. We're going home."

"Like I said, eighty-five percent."

By the time they reached the second floor, Ai had adjusted his prediction to a cynical eighty-seven percent, some high-pitched laughter thrown in for effect. In this place of tall ceilings and vast stretches of nothing, his own steps echoed. 

Cross-legged on the blanket with his head tilted back, Judai was waiting for him, and when Yusaku held out the bag, Judai took it with a smirk. “So, did you change your mind about joining forces with me?”

“No,” Yusaku replied, and he had started to turn away. Ai stopped him, the wrist guard for the duel disk tightening slightly. The plastic crinkled as Judai dug into the bag, although Yusaku wasn’t looking at him, not when the display flashed with small, blurred letters. The message was simple -- ‘WAIT!!!!’ .

“No offense, Hero Guy,” was the sharp chirp from Ai, “but my calculations show that there’s zero point in listening to your stories. Although, some proof might lead to a different result. That is, if you have any.”

“I was hoping my charming personality would be enough,” Judai replied, and, after a final, lasting look at the display, Yusaku glanced over at the injured duelist. He watched as Judai methodically popped three pills out of the blister pack. “I’m here because I know a guy who is, ah, involved in the Ultraviolet Project. It’s one of those monitoring agencies I was telling you about. They’ll get back to you if you send them a message.”

“The Ultraviolet Project, comprised of fifty-nine specialists from seven countries and funded exclusively by the Kagemaru Group. Responsible for academic publications on electromagnetic radiation, loop quantum gravity, the Schwarzschild metric, and...a bunch of other stuff that I’m too lazy to list right now,” Ai muttered, making Judai laugh as he raised his hand, the pills rolling with the motion.

“You should take them with water,” Yusaku said.

With raised eyebrows, Judai met his stare. “Oh, is that a hint of concern I’m hearing?” Although, Judai did reach over, untwist the cap off a bottle with one hand, and take a drink, Ai using the gap in the conversation to relay another silent message. This one was longer than before -- ‘ SERIOUSLY WEIRD ORGANIZATION, BTW. BUT…. THEY ARE DOING ACTUAL RESEARCH… THEY COULD BE LEGIT.... I SENT A MESSAGE, SO….???’ .

Yusaku waited until Judai had finished. “Suppose that I believe in the existence of the Light of Destruction. That doesn’t explain why you need my help.”

Again, green scattered over the brown of Judai’s left iris -- the patch of colour small, imperceptible to someone who wasn’t waiting for it to appear. It would have seemed like an odd patch of shadow. But it wasn’t. It couldn’t be.

“Vigilantes like the two of us usually end up working outside the system for a reason. Case in point, the people researching the Light of Destruction usually have a hard time convincing those in charge to take its threat seriously, which is why a couple of heroes are needed. Not to, ah, insult the officials of your home city, but I doubt they’ll start asking for help until a lot of people here have been converted. ...I haven’t gone into detail on that part yet. Chances are, the light will spread unless we can contain it, which is...not good. Kinda horrible, actually.”

Yusaku frowned. “You’re only asking me to join you because of Playmaker’s reputation.”

Not that he understood how Judai had connected him to Playmaker. Yet.

“...That’s, like, a tenth of it,” Judai said, and he began popping out more pills, two more falling into his palm. “When I looked up Den City, your dueling videos were all over the place, and seeing the design of your deck, I almost didn’t believe it. Like, what are the odds that Den City’s number-one duelist is also a master of the darkness? I couldn’t confirm it until we met in person, but, hey, congratulations. Your soul is a lot like mine. Those shadows aren’t going anywhere.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“...Something tells me that you do ,” Judai replied, and when he shook the blister pack, three more fell out.

“The maximum dosage is six.”

“Yeah, for humans, which is why you shouldn’t try this at home,” Judai said before taking a quick swig of water, tipping his palm back, and swallowing five more. And there was too much to think about, that one sentence giving Yusaku an instant headache. He should have bought more medication. 

In an ideal world, nothing strange would have happened next. Yusaku, despite his headache, would have been able to ask more questions and then determine the threat posed by the Light of Destruction and the enigmatic person across from him now, who might not be a ‘person’ at all. It would explain why Judai’s stare gave him the urge to step away, as if a predator was circling closer from behind the perfect black of his pupils. 

Instead, through the incomplete windows of the tower’s second floor, Yusaku heard that unmistakable sound of a person screaming. 

Immediately he was at the gap in the wall. Bordering the construction site on the right side was a narrow walkway between it and a grid of small, sleepy residential buildings: small, overgrown gardens spilling out and climbing up weathered sidings and roof tiles. The change was not to any of the homes. The change was to the LED advertising screen on the back of the telecommunications van parked outside. Against a blinding, white background, there was a single word -- CALAMITY.

The word stretched over an electronic billboard that hung over the next block of houses. It repeated in miniature across a flurry of small televisions in a window display, and, craning his neck further to the side, Yusaku saw that ominous message had copied itself again and again, perched over the streets as rectangles of white slashed with black. Later, Ai would tell him that every digital sign in the city had been affected, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and they had all, in perfect synchronization, turned off after exactly 10 seconds. Advertisements had been joined by movie theater projectors and transit displays and digital clocks and wall-spanning art projects to form a vast, unified chorus of that single, sinister word. 

---

Ai’s prediction was correct.

He did go to Café Nagi.

“I’d say ‘Told you so,’ but, you know, it’s not the right time to start gloating, since we do have important, hero-esque work to do,” was what Ai had drawled out as Yusaku shoved open the door, nodded at Jin, and accepted the cup of coffee that the younger brother wordlessly held out. When Ai’s eye blinked onto the display, Jin gave him a small smile. 

Yusaku got the words out before Shouichi could spin around in his chair. They were crucial, after all.

“Investigating this any further can put both of you in serious danger.”

“True, although I think we’ll be in danger even if we don’t investigate this,” Shouichi began with a chiding smile. “Try not to overthink it, Yusaku. We’ll blend into the crowd of the many, many interested parties in ‘CALAMITY’.”

Taking his seat, Yusaku brought up a new search. The media was flooded with scenes of chaos and confusion, many people instantly making the connection to the blimp incident only yesterday and reacting as human beings understandably would -- by running away, by giving in to a panic that could numb the senses and make calm, coherent thinking impossible. Minor injuries had been reported from drivers -- bombarded by ‘CALAMITY’ from all sides in the city center -- slamming their brakes. And the thread of chaos was already winding through the city, dipping through the concrete of its streets and spreading into its businesses, its schools. Its homes. 

The plaza outside was empty. The viewing screen relayed a story of a waitress who, pushed by a startled customer, had dropped a tray of empty glasses, fallen to the ground, and received deep lacerations over both of her legs. Behind her, the hospital was a blur of activity, and Yusaku took a long drink of his coffee. Next, the footage of the plummeting blimp was repeated.

Without looking away from the screen, Shouichi shrugged and said, “You probably don’t need to hear this from me, but whoever did this is good . They hit thousands of different devices all at the same time. Even with a highly coordinated team, not to mention the tech needed to support implementing… I should probably stop praising the other side, shouldn’t I?”

“No. We have to figure out what they’re capable of,” Yusaku replied, scanning an article on the scale of the attack. It couldn’t have been carried out lightly, and whoever was behind it, with their efficiency and technical knowledge, could have done far, far more direct damage to the city. “They’re...trying to spread fear.”

“It’s working.”

Damn it. 

Grinding his back teeth, Yusaku did not respond, and when Ai’s emotions reached him again, he thought he had imagined it at first -- a deliberate, soft burst of something that made his next breath catch, as if Ai was dragging an impossible, intangible hand over his back and letting its warmth linger, gently moving into him. The touch moved higher, rounded his jawline. 

They absolutely, one-hundred-percent had to talk about that psycho-physical connection once this chaos was driven out of Den City. 

On top of everything else that made up his not-even-close-to-normal Friday morning, Yusaku -- blinking at a screen covered with scraps of code and images of a blimp at a sharp, downward angle -- realized that for several weeks, he and Ai had somehow avoided talking about the fact that, on a pretty regular basis, he could feel Ai stronger than anything else around him. Stronger than the Link Sense had ever been before.

On one night, it had been strong enough to pull him out of a nightmare, making the choking pain split apart and fade.

Ai.

“Thank you,” he said, one hand pressed over the display, and then Ai hummed in return, the tone light, energetic. Normal. 

“No worries, partner. I mean, only one side here has the full genius of the Ignis Ai! Oh, and Yusaku-chan, Jin-chan, and...friends, of course. Ha. Haha.”

“Nice save,” Shouichi grumbled. “Oh, and by the way, Ghost Girl’s report came in about ten minutes ago, although she’s already revising it. I swear, she’s on another level when it comes to… Nevermind. I’ve praised enough hackers who aren’t me today. She hasn’t found anything worth investigating in detail, although it’s probably only a matter of time.”

“...Right,” Yusaku said. Jin placing a neatly cut sandwich next to him was the second obvious sign that, yes, the Kusanagi brothers were trying to reassure him that the city hadn’t fallen over like a cardboard imitation. “What about the blimp’s target?”

The muttered 'dirigible' was from Ai.

“That’s...going to need a bit longer. I’ve modeled the city center using certified structural data, but because the blimp isn’t a standard vehicle, simulating it accurately is a bit of a pain. It might go faster if I could borrow Ai for a bit.”

“Ah, I’m irresistible, as always,” was Ai’s way of agreeing, complete with his avatar’s dramatic swoon when Yusaku placed the duel disk on the table. “Like the main love interest in a drama, I-”

“Some of us are trying to focus,” Yusaku chided, a smile ghosting across his face, and when Ai pouted, he flicked the duel disk with two fingers. “If you’re too charming, Kusanagi-san won’t get anything done.”

“Yeah, I won’t get anything done,” Shouichi mumbled, and Jin, sitting on a small patch of the desk next to Yusaku, shook his head. 

As expected, the combined forces of Ai and Shouichi were both loud and effective, but it wasn’t distracting at all. Rather, it was like having an open window and listening to the steady roll of the ocean, waves colliding and reforming while birds circled and sang out. The rustles were from Jin alternating between organizing the truck’s scattered supplies, walking over to briefly join the duo in either laughing or arguing, and pulling out his own laptop to check for incoming news stories. 

A space like this, with only his friends, formed its own rhythms and lulls, and Yusaku knew that he had been lonely for many years. He cherished what now seemed like an impossible change. 

That belief, that strength, could combat the persistent fear. 

And when Ai hooted at a breakthrough in their model several hours later, Yusaku found himself calm as he moved over, throwing one arm over the back of Shouichi’s chair while Jin crowded in from the other side. With the flair of a TV host, Ai twirled back with outstretched arms, and the monitor obediently flickered to an outline of the city, the buildings rendered as featureless blocks with the airship suspended over them, frozen. 

“So, our new vehicle model is based off the data I scraped from Cloudy and should be considered state-of-the-art,” Ai explained, bouncing on his heels briefly. “Unless someone, oh, I don’t know, decided to rewrite the laws of physics for fun, what myself and my dear human assistant have formed here is a working simulation of what the bad guys wanted to happen.”

The ‘dear human assistant’ let out a deep breath, Jin giving him a pat on the arm. “Yeah, with some disclaimers attached. For the first simulation, we’re assuming that the SOLtiS wasn’t going to input any new commands once the blimp started to sink.”

“Yeah, true…”

“That’s a pretty major limitation, all things considered,” Shouichi stated, and Ai huffed, crossing his arms. “Without data from the SOLtiS itself, we don’t know what it would’ve done if ‘the currently unknown but possibly supernatural force’ hadn’t stopped the blimp. To compensate, I started running further simulations to take into account, say, the SOLtiS adjusting the controls before impact. For my standards, the margin of error for some of these simulations was too high, so your roommate here has...done something with a bunch of weather data that I can’t verify the source of and several thousand mechanical logs from this ‘Cloudy' to 'fix' the 'problem'. Therefore, while the batch of simulations we'll show you after the first one looks impressive, just know that there was some notable manipulation of data involved."

“Yeah, right . The end result is simply my ultra-sophisticated interpolation of all feasible actions that the dirigible  could have taken after its nice, idyllic patrol was altered to become far, far more nefarious.”

“Let’s get started,” Yusaku said as a barrier to the next argument, and with a final wrinkle of his nose at Ai, Shouichi tapped his mouse once. In real time, the blimp dipped lower and lower until its cabin slammed into the smooth, white side of a building. Then, the simulation paused.

“We weren’t sure when the explosives would’ve been triggered,” Shouichi said next. “Everything in red would have been destroyed by the initial impact, with the areas in orange at high risk if the explosion began at either a short time before that impact or after it.” With another click, whorls of red spread out and were then wreathed with barbed shapes in orange, some extending down to the lower floors of the building. Some reached into the neighbouring ones.

“What about if the SOLtiS changed the blimp’s direction?"

Instantly the scene cleared, the blimp back to its position over the city. “‘Kay, my turn! Because I’m about to simulate several million possible variations, I’ve gone ahead and simplified things a bit. Each arc represents somewhere that the blimp could’ve gone based on its controls, mechanical state, and levels of fuel, helium, etc etc. The thickness of an arc corresponds to how many, err, imaginary blimps could’ve reasonably ended up heading in that direction. Arcs in blue represent a relatively high percentage of extremely unlikely outcomes out of all outcomes with the same directional classification. Arcs in purple are so-so. Arcs in red represent a relatively high percentage of extremely likely outcomes. Got it?”

“Yes,” Yusaku said, Shouichi nodding at his side.

“...You’re not looking so confident there, Jin-Jin,” Ai added on with a scrunched expression, and the younger brother laughed a little. “But, hey, no fear! Teacher Ai can simplify even further than this! Basically, no matter what the SOLtiS would’ve done next, it’s very, very likely that the blimp would’ve followed the reddest paths here. The real question is why I’m saying blimp again when it’s actually a dirigible… You humans, you can’t even use your own words correctly! And-”

“The teacher has distracted himself,” Yusaku said plainly.

Fine . Class is in session! Watch for the red,” Ai announced, and then overlapping arcs in blue poured around the blimp, multiplying until -- like many, many strings released in a tangled mess -- they created a network of thin lines that seemed to hover over the city, most missing the buildings entirely or, at their worst, clipping a roof or communication antenna. “Those outcomes would’ve followed some pretty extraordinary inputs from the SOLtiS. Like, I’m talking millisecond-level corrections to the altitude. Here is what tells the real story.”

The purple arcs were first. Three slowly extended from the blimp, curved tightly, and then passed into the buildings bordering the one from the earlier simulation. Each was at least ten times thicker than any of the blue arcs, and dimly, numbly, Yusaku recognized one plunging into the left wing of his own highschool. 

“How many simulations are you showing us?” he asked, and Ai replied with a warble at first, his small shoulders drooping.

“Oh, you know… Not that many…”

“Ai.”

“L-Look, just… Let me get to the next part.”

They stared at each other, Ai’s yellow eyes pleading with him. He listened. He leaned back and watched alongside the others as the scenery shifted again, beginning with a solid arrow in red from the front of the blimp. 

It was wider than any of the buildings below it. 

It dominated the cityscape. 

“Uh… I can adjust the scale, so you can actually see where it would’ve… One sec.”

In tandem, all of the arcs shrunk, those in blue like strands of hair with the purple as thin sticks. The pulse of red remained, so much larger than those around it. 

It ended in the same building as before.

“The biggest variation out of all the outcomes in this classification is the exact point of impact,” Ai quickly explained. “Taking that data and combining it with the structural data for the building might, uh, give us an idea of what the most likely affected rooms in the tower would be.”

“The hotel tower,” Yusaku confirmed, and as soon as he said it, he straightened. “If those rooms were filled, then…”

“It’s… No way. Is this…an assassination attempt…?” Jin’s voice was quiet. “But… Why like this ?”

“Seems our villain is a multitasker. After all, why just take out a target when you can also freak-out an entire city at the same time?” Before Yusaku could interrupt, Ai continued with an acidic laugh. “Oh, and applying that mindset to our little mandatory reading session today means something pretty horrible might’ve already happened. Only, we’ll have to isolate it from all of the other data generated by minor accidents, interruptions to normal systems, etc etc.”

“Wow, that actually…” Running a hand over his face, Shouichi paused. “It...goes without saying that the shop is closed for the rest of the day. Sorry, Jin. It might be another rough night.”

“You should be home by 5.” At Yusaku’s suggestion, both brothers made the same face -- slightly annoyed, almost amused. “We should rest as early as we can after an analysis of our findings. This opponent is active, and we can’t afford to make mistakes.”

“‘We’ includes ‘you’, doesn’t it?” Jin replied, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes, it does.” Yusaku returned to his chair, his latest search with 4873 new results waiting to be sorted. He minimized them, bringing up a basic summary of the hotel’s activity instead. “If I don’t go home, my roommate will stay up late waiting for me.”

“‘Roommate’, huh?”

At Ai’s grumpy huff, Yusaku flicked the duel disk again. “We’re leaving in two hours. No excuses.”

“W-What?! D-Don’t say that like I’m tired! I can go all night! You’re the organic who is running on 50% coffee and 50% pure Yusaku-ness!!”

“When you’ve had a stressful day, you become tired easily. That doesn’t only apply to humans.”

“Yeah, yeah… You’re just trying to drag me home so you can test out my svelte android body.”

“Don’t say that,” Yusaku stated, deadpan, while Jin tried to cover a giggle, badly, and his older brother let out a long-suffering sigh. That same older brother might have also muttered, ‘Please, make the images stop,’ down at his keyboard. “We’ll gather information about the employees, guests, and other people at the hotel who could’ve been in the destroyed rooms, and then everyone will take a break. Including myself. And you , Ai.”

“Yeaaaah, sure. Because I’m -”

Thunk.

It happened again while they all remained frozen. The sound was a knock, made against the exterior of the truck.

“...Okay, maybe I’m a teensy-tiny bit tired,” Ai said, and he yelped when Yusaku stood up and grabbed the duel disk. “W-Wait! I’m just getting to the cameras now , so-”

“I already know who it is,” Yusaku replied, glancing to where the Winged Kuriboh had phased through the wall and was peering down at him. 

When he opened the door, he was greeted with the same scene from before -- an empty plaza with news stories running above it, all fixated on ‘CALAMITY’. The surrounding stillness was unnatural, as if the people who should have been lingering in the plaza, meeting up with classmates or coworkers, had been deleted from the space like unnecessary assets in a videogame. 

“So, this is ‘mission control’,” Judai drawled out from behind him, and Yusaku turned around slowly, aware of how both Jin and Shouichi were being drawn in, the brothers stepping out of the truck and circling over to his position. 

When the screens had all changed to ‘CALAMITY’, Yusaku had bolted from the tower, an incoming call from Shouichi already ringing as he had taken the stairs two at a time. Ai, being Ai, had shouted out something like, ‘ Well, see you around, Hero Man. Don’t be a stranger!’ and then tacked on, ‘Also, maybe try a hospital?? Human or not, it might be useful, so....?’

That topic was a good place to start, and, taking a deep breath, Yusaku locked eyes with the duelist across from him. Attentive with its wide, doll-like eyes, the Winged Kuriboh had settled onto Judai’s right shoulder, partially covering the strap from his ragged backpack. 

“The painkillers must have worked for you.”

A small wrinkle between Judai’s eyebrows, and then he perked up. “Oh, that . No worries. I’m a quick healer.” With a knowing smile, he stepped forward, his gaze drifting to Yusaku’s left. “I guess some introductions are needed. I’ll keep mine short, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re Yuki Judai,” Shouichi answered, and before the smirking hero duelist could interrupt, he continued. “Given that you’re a tourist here, I, on behalf of other local business owners, should probably make a point of being polite. Well, that is, unless you give me a reason not to.”

“Hmm… I’m not planning on it.”

“That’s a good start.”

When Judai’s stare was on him again, Yusaku straightened and asked, “Why did you come here?”

“Oh, and part two of that is ‘How do you keep finding us’? Seriously,” Ai blurted out, loud enough to make some curious pigeons take off, “it’s getting a bit awkward trading meetings like this, don’t you think ?”

“Let him answer the first question,” Yusaku said, and the duel disk audibly whirled, a grumble from Ai. When Judai’s smirk angled higher than before, Yusaku did not like it, as if Judai was about to flip an unexpected card and carve through his front line with perfect ease.

“Showing up at an unexpected time is basically my signature move. Makes life interesting, doesn’t it? Plus, well,” Judai said, laughing to himself, “just like I’m not done with you, you’re definitely not done with me. I had that figured out long before you slipped this into my bag.” The slim black chip Judai held up next could have been anything. However, the decorative purple border along one side gave Yusaku one important piece of information -- there was an extremely high likelihood that the object was a ‘one-hundred percent’ Ai original.

“Ai.”

“...Yes?”

“What did you do?”

“...Uh. ...Nothing?” When Yusaku shook the duel disk, that answer quickly changed. “O-Okay, nothing major . When you were running out of the room, I, uh, may or may not have shot one of my brand new GPS tracking chips out of the duel disk and into this guy’s backpack, which he shouldn’t have been able to see given the angle and the limitations of the human eye, but, hey, I guess that’s a minor point, so… Wait, what were we talking about again?”

“The tracking chip.”

“Oh. Right. I was going to mention it later, and yet, uhh, ....”

“You forgot about it. That's how he snuck up on us.”

No . I was distracted by all of that dirigible stuff. It’s different! Totally different!”

“He forgot about it,” Shouichi said with a solemn nod, and Jin, with the blank look of an overwhelmed student in calculus class, walked back to the truck, sat down in the doorway, and opened a bag of chips. 

“Like, even if I did , it would’ve only been temporary. I have all kinds of reminders set up, accurate ones, although… Maybe.”

“Ai,” Yusaku began, lifting up the duel disk until the sulking avatar was at eye level. 

Before another second had passed, he knew that Ai wanted to complain, and yet Ai didn’t complain. The Ignis avatar, with small, crossed arms and a pair of narrowed eyes, rocked backwards, a silence extending between them until Ai looked up again. “Everything since the dirigible went down has been one big stress test, and maybe I...haven’t passed with flying colours. Being forgetful is only charming up to a point. Past that, it’s...not good. It’s dangerous in all the wrong ways, not the flashy, cool ones.”

“I’m also tired,” Yusaku said plainly, and the lights in Ai’s eyes changed. They brightened. “None of this is going to be easy. We have to balance what we’re capable of against the stress that it causes.”

“...That means we can go home soon, right?”

Yusaku nodded, his smile tired but honest, and at the sound of Shouichi’s surprised laughter, trailed by Jin’s in softer tones, he glanced away. Leaning against the truck with one of Jin’s chips sticking out of his mouth, Judai was waving his hands in a ‘that’s not what I meant’ gesture. The Winged Kuriboh floating over him hooted and flapped its wings, although neither Kusanagi brother seemed to notice.

“Oi, Yusaku,” Shouichi started when he stepped closer, “you didn’t mention this guy was a Playmaker fanboy.”

“Two videos. I’ve watched two videos,” Judai said quickly, which only made Jin roll his eyes. “Hey, it’s not like that!”

“Lots of people follow Playmaker. You don’t have to act cool about it.”

“I…” With a pained sigh, Judai reached over, ignored Jin’s yelp, and shoved more chips into his mouth. “Alright. Keep messing with me, and I’ll keep eating your...vinegar, black pepper, and cheese chips. ...Not my first choice, I’ll admit.”

“You should buy your own if it’s a problem…”

“Anyways,” Shouichi said, clearing his throat and stepping over his brother with an exaggerated wobble, both of his arms out for balance, “I have some light reading to finish before calling it for the night. Jin, kick this fanboy out if he’s bothering you, although I gotta agree with him about that flavour.”

That ‘light reading’ would be the tedious and energy-draining task of sorting through the hotel’s personnel and customer files, provided that the files were easily accessible in the first place. Yusaku’s own investigation into that day’s ‘CALAMITY’ incident had resulted in no clear leads, the sheer scale and complexity of the cyber attack making it difficult to locate patterns and refine his search, and that left the hotel as their best option to determine a target, a motive.

A villain.

He caught the interested gleam in Judai’s eyes when he raised up the duel disk again to talk with Ai. He ignored the attention.

“Two hours is too long to keep working at this. I’ll help Kusanagi-san with his project, and then we’ll go home. Is that okay with you?”

“Uh, yeah. Absolutely,” Ai beeped back, and he shot a quick look at Judai, almost hesitant. “Also, if you’re waiting for a heartfelt apology, that might take awhile. I can offer a slightly sarcastic one instead as an Ai-approved special offer.”

Judai shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. What’s a little spying between friends?” 

“We can talk after I’m done,” Yusaku said to Judai, and he had intended to, like Shouichi, step through the small gap between Jin and the wall. Instead, he found himself staring at Jin, who was still munching on his chips. 

The staring did not go unnoticed.

“Normally, my brother is the one giving me that look,” Jin observed, peering up at him. “Believe it or not, I’m capable of sitting here and letting a Playmaker fanboy embarrass himself until you and Ai are ready to leave.” Without blinking, Jin moved his bag out of Judai’s reach, and the hero duelist slumped against the food truck. “I’ve already figured him out, one-hundred-percent.”

“Oh, that’s a bold statement,” Judai said, his eyebrows raised, and Jin snorted.

“You’re the type of customer who orders without counting their change first, finds themselves at the window missing at least 100 Yen, and then makes me wait with their finished order until another customer decides to just chip in so the line can move again.”

A moment passed, and then Judai dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, groaning while Jin, with a victorious smirk, crunched on a chip. 

---

Eventually, the duo had settled around one of the tables in the plaza -- Jin blinking down at the cards Judai was holding out and wildly gesturing at -- and with the door shut again, Yusaku decided to say something extremely obvious, so obvious that it made Shouichi snort.

“Jin might be right about Judai.”

“Yeah. He’s good at spotting the difficult customers from across the plaza. Poor kid. A power like that is a blessing and a curse.” Cracking his knuckles, Shouichi leaned back in his chair, the information splayed over the screen dense. In less time than Yusaku had anticipated, they had narrowed the list down to fifty-seven possible targets, including politicians, journalists, and other media figures who had booked rooms at the hotel. 

“We should anonymize our findings and give them to the police.”

“...Yeah, that is the right thing to do,” Shouichi commented. “Even if we worked through the night, it wouldn’t be enough to investigate everyone here. ...Although, I imagine they’re overwhelmed with tips right now.”

“Pass them to Ghost Girl as well. She might recognize one of the names. Or maybe Blood Shepard will.”

“Okay. That’s... almost all of the scarily talented hackers that we know. Next you’ll say that we should message the Knights of Hanoi.” A beat passed. Shouichi let out a tired sigh. “You’re about to suggest that we do exactly that, aren’t you?”

“Revolver, he…” And the words slipped away for a moment, Yusaku left blinking at his monitor. It was hard to describe Kougami Ryouken, Revolver. Months had stretched since their last contact. “Although our information on the Knights of Hanoi is outdated, I think we should still try it.”

“Even if it’s anonymous, they’ll figure out it’s us anyways. ...Some people are too good at what they do,” Shouichi grumbled, and Yusaku, one elbow on the desk, smiled at him. “Alright. It’s done. No going back now, and let’s hope that we don’t wake up to a couple hundred messages complaining about how Team Playmaker is too lazy to do their own research.”

“If we do, I’ll set Ai on them,” Yusaku said as he turned off the monitor and shoved his hoodie back on. Ai, alert at the mention of his name, made the duel disk whirl with delight.

“Oh, please use me as a threat more often. It does wonders for my ego.”

Rolling his eyes, Yusaku grabbed the duel disk. “What should we do with Yuki Judai?”

“Uhh… He’s our best source of info, and letting him go would be a mistake, so…”

“So?”

“Ha. Well , I predict with 99.9999% accuracy that you’re not going to like this.”

---

Yusaku did not like this.

“Oh, it’s...cozy.”

“That means you think it’s small,” Yusaku said curtly, throwing his hoodie at his couch while Judai, closing the door behind him, shucked his dirt-matted combat boots off. Onto Yusaku’s floor.

Because they were at Yusaku’s home .

---

Chapter Text

---

Violating every ‘How to be a good host’ guide that the internet could provide, Yusaku added, “By the way, I don’t have any food. I ate all of my bread earlier.”

“No problem,” Judai laughed out, and he placed his deteriorating backpack on the slim counter in the kitchen nook, the seams in such bad condition that Yusaku almost expected to find himself with Judai’s spare clothing suddenly everywhere. “While I made a valiant effort, I couldn’t eat through all of the stuff from this morning.”

“You mean the stuff I bought you.”

“...Technically, yes ,” Judai admitted, and when he held out a slightly dented plastic bento box with an apologetic grin, Yusaku took it. And it was sometime between watching his dismal microwave buzz through what would, any day now, be its last action and witnessing Yuki Judai sprawl over his couch with half of an onigiri shoved in his mouth that Yusaku made three observations in quick succession.

One.

Judai did not move like an injured person. He never winced or held himself in a stiff position. 

Two.

The odd green-blue colour in his eye had not appeared yet. Regardless, the reoccurring phenomenon was nothing that could be explained by Yusaku's high-school biology classes, and he doubted that the solution would be so rational.

Three.

The bruise that had been on Judai's jawline was gone. Fast healer, indeed.

“You really aren’t human.”

Judai did react -- smirking as he took another bite. His torn-up jacket had joined Yusaku’s hoodie, both slung over the back of the cheap couch, and their sleeves acted as a partition, cutting through the center cushion. On a normal day that was part of a normal week, Yusaku would have eaten downstairs in his bedroom. Usually at his desk. Sometimes at the table in the corner if Ai complained too much about his ‘bad habits’. 

Never at the couch in front of his dusty television, and never with someone as unpredictable as Judai staring at him.

“Technically, I’m three-quarters human,” Judai said, with the teasing air of a duelist making a quick counter, and Ai, shoved between Yusaku and the arm of the couch, beeped in surprise. “Although… I’m only one-half the-person-who-everyone-calls-Judai. I mean, I’m still Judai , although… It’s kinda complicated.”

Yusaku’s next statement was one he had considered in far less detail. He said it anyways.

“You stopped the blimp yesterday.”

“...Dirigible,” Ai corrected, and Yusaku turned the duel disk over. 

Judai snorted, amused. “I didn’t stop whoever is behind this from scaring a lot of people.”

“The explosives never reached their target. You stopped others from being hurt,” Yusaku declared, because it was true , and Judai continued to pick at a bowl of reheated chicken dumplings. He changed the subject.

“...I probably shouldn’t admit how excited I am to freeload off you for the night. That construction site gets cold , and other places cost money, which is a serious negative. Very, very serious.”

With a final look at his half-eaten, lukewarm meal, Yusaku forced himself to stand up and throw it in the fridge. Ai squawked when Yusaku then picked him up. “H-Hey, don’t put me in there next!”

“No, we’re going to bed,” he said, although that had been too direct -- the display suddenly covered with hot-pink hearts. “You’re giving our guest the wrong impression.”

“No worries. I’m not one to judge,” Judai commented with a completely unnecessary wink, and although Yusaku had wanted to have the final word, he found himself caught off guard by Judai jumping up and taking his shirt off. 

A Friday night did not normally involve inviting a stranger to his apartment and then having that same stranger undress in his living-room-slash-kitchen, and Yusaku could feel his brain stall, all processors overwhelmed. 

Okay.

“By ‘we’, I meant Ai and myself.”

Judai laughed, and Yusaku had not planned on learning what colour his guest's boxers were, and yet the universe worked in mysterious ways. They were green. With Kuribohs on them. 

Great.

"Mind if I borrow your hot water?"

"Sort of," Yusaku said, deadpan, and Judai walked past him into the hallway, picking the right door on his first try. And although Yusaku had no interest in being host of the year or scoring anything above a '1' in hospitality, he still heard himself mutter, "Wait. I'll get you a towel. And...clothes. I guess."

"Hey, treat me like that and I'll never leave," Judai chirped back, and Yusaku felt all seventeen years of his age as he moodily continued down the squeaky hallway, threw open the door to the lower level, and stomped down the stairs to his bedroom. In which Ai's SOLtiS was already waiting with a neat stack of fabric: a blue towel, a pair of pajama pants that Yusaku avoided after tripping over the too-long hems repeatedly, and a t-shirt that Ai had ordered online as one of the many examples of his horrible sense of humor. Yusaku had no intention of ever wearing a shirt that declared him to be a 'PLAYMAKER FAN' in bold red letters on white cloth. 

"I thought I burned that shirt."

Pouting, Ai leaned forward to transfer the items, his earrings clacking with the motion. "Ah, would you really do that to a precious gift from your precious Ai? ...Wait. Actually, don't answer that."

Shaking his head, Yusaku repeated his slightly awkward, definitely annoying journey in reverse, and as he propped his shoulder against the frame to the bathroom door, he immediately noticed more than just three things. Like how, for example, Judai was close to the dingy mirror above the sink and poking at his messy bangs. Or how he must have taken off the bandages before reaching Café Nagi, a river-like shape of dull pink flitting over his ribcage, the wound sealed but raw. Or how a network of scars banded his back, some old and raised with knitted scar tissue.

Or how that prickling, watched feeling never vanished when he was around Judai, no matter the setting. Even in his own, too-small bathroom with its chipped tile and ancient, useless fan, he wanted to step back, maybe even raise an arm to protect himself from that unseen thing shifting through the air.

And yet Fujiki Yusaku was absolutely, one-hundred-percent too stubborn to show that unease.

"What is the other quarter?"

"Hmm? Oh, thanks," Judai mumbled, distracted as he ruffled his own bangs again. "How's my look? Maybe I'll go short, just to mix it up. ...Or not."

"If my question is over the line, you can tell me that," Yusaku said, and when Judai glanced over, the mood dropped. Briefly, until it reset, as if nothing had happened. As if his eyes hadn't been guarded, shadowed. 

"It's not, but… Sorry, Playmaker. It must be hard for you to process all of this stuff at once, and I've definitely been careless. Let's leave the big questions until tomorrow, okay?"

"Right. ...I was supposed to be doing that anyways," he replied, blinking at the plain wall, and Judai burst out laughing. Boyish and loud. 

"Ah, I know that feeling. Breaking habits is rough, isn't it?" Yusaku had moved to leave, and then Judai suddenly continued. Their eyes met. "Hey, we should duel sometime."

"Why?"

"...You're joking." A beat passed. Judai's eyebrows shot up. "Wait, you’re not ?! Nothing’s better than a duel when it comes to getting to know someone, since our decks show who we are and- Hey!”

“I just remembered that I’m too tired for this,” Yusaku stated, halfway down the hallway and waving over his shoulder, and as he closed the door to the lower level, he could plainly hear Judai whine. 

Of course he still paused midway down the stairs to flick a switch on the wall -- chrome and glass-like its in sheen against the old plaster. Behind him, an array of motion sensors went live, followed by the faint whirl of electronic locks clicking into place. 

Installing the secure door had been a long, heavy, and masochistic adventure in reading contradictory instructions and hoping that the building’s owner wouldn’t stop by for an ill-timed inspection, and it had come to a somewhat-satisfying conclusion after he had decided to give in and pay the Kusnanagi brothers in unlimited pizza for one night of their assistance. Unless he could physically dispose of the hardware containing it, there was more than enough data stored in the confines of his bedroom to link Fujiki Yusaku to Playmaker. And to many unsolved mysteries that SOL Technologies were still picking away at.

And to several computer crimes.

Well, more than just ‘several’.

Sighing, Yusaku kicked his socks towards the laundry basket and made a point of turning his computer off, as if the sight of the blank screen would be enough to wipe his mind clean of all the competing thoughts clinging to it, moving in patterns too chaotic for him to understand. Given the evidence, a few panels of metal and some alarms wouldn’t be enough to stop that intangible thing lurking around Judai from attacking (he assumed it was connected to the blimp incident, for lack of a better theory), and yet, an action like that would serve no immediate purpose. Earlier that day, he had trespassed onto a building site and provided an enemy with the perfect location to strike him. The worst Judai had done was give him a headache. 

Because Ai gave him a headache on a daily basis, that alone was no reason to judge someone harshly.

Plus-

“You’re taking awhile to get changed,” Ai drawled out, spinning lazily in Yusaku’s desk chair and throwing him an even lazier smile without opening his eyes -- dark lashes, sparked with iridescent blue. 

“I’m not taking my own advice. That’s the problem.”

“...Okay, you’re sounding a bit serious there, Yusaku-chan. ...I can open my eyes, right?”

“Why did you close them?”

“...Because? Suspense can be fun?” Ai replied, the space between his eyebrows crinkling, and in typical Ai fashion, he opened one eye first -- peeking. “So, what’s up?”

“I’m always repeating how we need to believe in people and what we can accomplish by understanding each other,” Yusaku said, surprised at how quickly the words came out when he was calm. Absolutely calm, with Ai’s gold eyes fixated on him. “And yet… It’s as if all of me is just waiting for Judai to do something suspicious, something negative. It’s...as if I don’t believe that something positive can come from any of this. I’m not looking for it.”

“Ah, Yusaku…”

Running a hand up the nape of his neck, he stepped back. “Today was too long.”

“Yeah, agreed . Been awhile since either one of us was involved in...heavy stuff. I mean, heavy stuff that’s not completely focused on...the reality of my existence and how it's still a...delicate situation, to put it lightly,” Ai stated, breaking off with a small laugh, and then his simulated breathing hitched, stopping with an absolute silence as Yusaku directed him up from the chair by his wrists. 

Yusaku’s grip was loose, just a suggestion of touch -- the lightest, barest pressure of his fingers against the sleeves that covered Ai’s wrists, that did nothing to stop the small branches of electricity curling between them. And Yusaku knew that like this -- close, with the spaces between them temporary and fragile -- Ai could analyze him in millions of different ways. By the steady beat of his pulse. By the exact set of his expression, compared against innumerable data points that Ai could shift through with an ease that seemed supernatural, cosmic. Compelling. 

“Uh. Y-Yusaku…?” Ai stuttered out when Yusaku took another step back, unblinking. The gem marking Ai’s throat bobbed, the components inside of it working. “You...f-feeling alright?”

“Earlier I said that we were going to bed. Is that okay with you?”

“...Hold on. I might be crashing.” A pause, and Yusaku waited for the answer, Ai’s eyes wide after a rapid series of blinks. Slowly, incrementally, Ai let the SOLtiS move closer, long, elegant fingers brushing unseen circles over Yusaku’s bare arms. “I’m...about 92% sure that I’m no longer crashing, but even if I am, well, hey, what a way to go.”

“Does that mean ‘yes’?”

Yes . Yes! Yes? Yes,” Ai said all at once, and Yusaku rolled his eyes.

“You can wear those pajamas, if you want.”

“Oh. Oh. Oh, I can . Hold on one sec! D-Don’t, uh, stop this touch-y, feel-y mood. Unless you want to of course. Ha. Hahaha.”

“If you take too long, I’ll fall asleep by myself,” Yusaku muttered back, and three events happened in quick succession: Ai sprinted past him, clipped the hip of his body against the desk, and then dramatically pinwheeled his arms for balance at superhuman speed. The curses were next, complicated and zig-zagging between human languages and quick bursts of static, and Yusaku, rolling his eyes, began working off his jeans without another word. Swapping out the shirt would be too much effort.

“Don’t you dare get changed before I can see if you’re wearing those ‘completely unlicensed but still charming’ Playmaker boxers I ordered for you!”

“Spoiler alert. I’m not.”

After a ‘thunk’ and more cursing, Ai blurted out, “Since I’ve fixed up the SOLtiS, do you realize we can now wear couple’s pajamas? And-”

“No.”

“...Harsh. So harsh.”

In comparison, Yusaku’s standards for his own pajamas were much, much lower, and while yanking on the nearest pair of sweatpants, he climbed onto the bed and then, boneless, flopped down, numb to everything but the play of Ai’s electric-like energy inside of his wrists, coiling down to his fingers and then retracing its erratic paths. Ai gave a running commentary from the other side of the room, going over in extreme detail why he thought those heart-shaped buttons were, quote, ‘the pinnacle of all human design’. 

Ai had slept next to him before, but never when using the SOLtiS. 

It was impossible to remember the first time. The moments had all blurred together, because they had all seemed so natural, so inevitable. Someone must have made the first move. Maybe he -- stretched thin and fraying -- had one night grabbed the duel disk off the desk and shoved it next to his pillow. Or maybe Ai had circled closer as a drone until, eventually, he had settled over the creased sheets and stayed still, stayed because of the impossible circuitry that traveled through both of them. 

Yet-another unspoken thing between them was that, yes, it kept happening. He kept waking up with the casing of the duel disk under his fingertips and the hums and pulses of Ai inside his head. Sometimes -- with shafts of morning sun flitting through the curtains and throwing their abstract, soft-edged shapes over his tangled blankets -- Yusaku just stayed in bed for longer than he should, completely enraptured. Trapped in the best possible way. 

A creak of the floorboards, and, blinking to clear the fog in his head, Yusaku looked up. Ai had braided his hair. For some reason.

“Nice pajamas.”

“Yes, they are ,” Ai declared, beaming with pride, and when Yusaku shifted closer to the wall, Ai blissfully said a collection of words that would have given Yusaku a headache if he wasn’t so tired that he was, as a small consolation, temporarily immune to any Ai-induced headaches. “Maybe I should watch a tutorial about this.”

“...What?”

“This ‘cuddling’ stuff,” Ai said with an elaborate hand gesture, and then the rambling started. “Although, my composite body is heavier in places than an organic one, not to mention my precise control over my mock-nerve-endings, which means that the whole ‘Oh, you’re on my arm. Please move.’ kind of situation doesn’t affect me for very long since I can just turn the nodes off. ...Not that I’m giving you a free pass to crush me. Oh, and-”

“Ai.”

“...Yes?”

“Come here,” Yusaku mumbled, and so he reached forward, grabbed one of Ai’s wrists, and pulled. Minor chaos ensued. Human beings, after all, could not shut off all sensations from the right foot after it was accidentally kicked by a stuttering android. 

But it was fine.

His forehead was against Ai’s chest, one of his arms under the pillow (numb, not that he cared at all) and the other over Ai, keeping him close until the unsteady, flitting spikes of their connection began to flow together, to find an even rhythm. And up close, with the night fitting in around them, Yusaku knew that he should admit one thing. Just one.

“...They really are nice.”

A surprised click. “The...pajamas? Ha… Earlier I...thought you were being your usual sarcastic self, Yusaku-chan.”

“I was, but…” To make his point, he slid his palm higher up Ai’s back, mechanical contours passing underneath. “They’re soft, and that suits you.”

No answer. Not at first, and lulled by the slight rises and falls of Ai's chest, Yusaku almost drifted away without hearing it. Eventually, Ai tilted his chin down, the start of how he gradually, carefully brought Yusaku in even further. A fog was rising. A curtain was being drawn over everything but this contact. 

"Goodnight, Yusaku-chan. Let's...have good dreams, shall we?"

And, smiling at the traces of those words, Yusaku did sleep. 

---

And when he woke up (early enough that it was still dark, the grey of the night diluted by the warm orange of the streetlights outside), Ai was there, lying on his side and so still that it stunned Yusaku for a moment. As if this were the first time that he was seeing Ai in this form. Under the wayward curls of his hair, the high planes of his face seemed impossibly smooth, like Ai had found a way to defy the laws of materiality. The fragments of Yusaku's dreams were just that -- fragments, insignificant. Jumbles of meaningless images and conversations. 

He had expected nightmares. 

There were none. 

Shaking his head, Yusaku crawled out of bed -- awkward and unsteady from the barriers made by Ai's thrown-around limbs. Getting up the stairs and into the kitchen didn't usually take so long. 

The fact that he couldn't stop himself from staring at Ai contributed to the delay. A lot.

Unfortunately, Playmaker had data to analyze and moves to predict, both of which depended on him drinking something caffeinated first, and so Yusaku forced himself up the stairs and hit the security switch. An alarm would have sounded had any barriers been breached. 

Although, the motion detectors probably wouldn't have tracked the transparent Kuriboh hologram. Projection. ...Ghost? 

After standing at the top of the landing, staring at Ai, and thinking harder about ghosts than he ever had before, Yusaku realized that he needed that coffee. Badly.

It was very kind of Judai not to destroy his apartment overnight. Minus the snoring person tangled in a thread-worn blanket and hanging off the couch, the kitchen-slash-living-room-slash-temporary-guest-room looked as it should have, down to the packages of instant coffee shoved next to his usual mug. And-

And yet the feeling was off, goosebumps rising on his bare arms even though it wasn't cold.

If Judai was faking sleep, then he deserved several awards for doing such a convincing job. Whatever it was curling in the empty spaces of the room, it continued to watch while Yusaku checked his messages and glared at the kettle as if that would force the laws of thermodynamics to rewrite themselves and make his water heat quicker. After a cursory search, it seemed that no major incidents had occurred overnight, although some actions could always be cloaked by the network. Or the chaos of a vast, breathing city, containing so many individuals. Further work was required. 

Perfectly timed with the ‘click’ of the kettle, Judai stirred and then, throwing up one lanky arm, said, “Hey, how do you feel about making some for me too?”

Because the words had been muffled by the blanket, Yusaku could have easily pretended not to hear them. But luckily for his ‘guest’, Yusaku did have a second clean mug. And a sense of honor that had yet to be tarnished beyond repair. Caffeine headaches could be painful, after all.

“Some people answer questions with words,” what was Judai drawled out next, and when he stood up, he cracked his shoulders at a volume Yusaku would describe as ‘alarming’. 

“I can't believe you're wearing that.”

‘That’ being the Playmaker shirt, in all of its misguided glory. 

“Hey, free is free,” Judai declared, sauntering over to the kitchen-side of the room. “...You're not arguing. Which means I can keep it, riiight?”

“You’d be doing me a favor,” Yusaku muttered back, and although he had turned to leave, he had stopped after one step. The action remained incomplete. From behind him, there was the unique noise of someone blowing on a hot drink and then tsk-ing in annoyance. 

And from behind both of them was that other presence. 

“It’s likely that Calamity will make another move this morning,” Yusaku stated, glancing back. “I don't have the tools here to monitor the city, and that's…important.” His brain stalled. He frowned, and Judai waited, one hip propped against Yusaku’s counter. “Later, we need to talk. Really talk.”

“Sounds like I’ve made you curious, which, hey, I’m not going to lie. That works out great for me. Means I have a decent shot of convincing you to leave my stuff here for awhile.”

Yusaku did ignore that, and when he returned upstairs with Ai secured in his duel disk and babbling about the new security measures implemented by the city, Judai had already left, leaving only a neat pile of belonging by the bookshelf that Yusaku never used. 

And, even without the new houseguest, the room remained different, as if the shadows had all fractured and then settled into new shapes. As if the second mug resting neatly on Yusaku’s chipped, scratched-up countertop meant something abstract, something unknown.

---

That morning, the city was under a deep, pervading silence, and it extended, persistent even as the scraps of grey clouds dissipated. In the city core, the sight of a blue sky was given to an audience of near-empty streets, to long stretches of bare pavement. 

The city was waiting for its next reason to be fearful.

Every hour that passed carried its own weight, and sitting next to Shouichi in the cocoon of the truck, Yusaku worked, accompanied by the flicker of pressed keys and faint, oscillating rhythm of Ai inside his veins. None of their messages had been responded to. No leads had opened. The hotel guests all had too many connections, and none tied together in such a way that they revealed a useful truth, a piece of this that he needed. 

“The blimp never reached its possible target,” he mumbled towards the keyboard, Ai a blob of pixelated purple-black at his elbow. “We’ve warned the authorities, and many of the guests have already left Den City, although that doesn’t mean any of them are safe...”

“On a positive note, none of them have reported any injuries or, err, ‘strange’ activities, aside from the whole, uhh, falling dirigible thing,” Ai commented quickly, earning him a hum of agreement from Shouichi. “Plus, we’re past noon now! That breaks the pattern of Calamity appearing!”

“A sample size of ‘2’ is not very reliable. We cannot accurately predict their actions.” Sighing, he added, "In addition, our theory of an assassination attempt also lacks evidence. The building could still have been targeted for another reason."

“...Yeaaaah. Suuuure, but… Uh…” Snapping his digital fingers, Ai jumped up to his avatar’s full height. “Oh! Let’s go check Link VRAINS!”

SOL Technologies hadn’t reported any security breaches. No data had been corrupted. Ghost Girl would have her ‘helpers’ monitoring all chat logs, public or otherwise. From those basic observations, he could have turned down the suggestion. But he didn’t. 

Instead he stood up and turned to Jin. “You can take my station.”

Jin, who had been grimacing at his laptop while huddled in one corner of the truck, flinched a little, but then he straightened. “Okay. I’ll call you if anything suspicious happens, although that...sounds vague, doesn’t it?”

“Not really. Actually, it sounds like something I'd say,” Shouichi commented, his fingers flying over the keyboard while a model of Den City pivoted on his monitor. Coordinates were represented by red nodes. “Have fun, Yusaku. Try not to get involved in any other conspiracies, okay? You’re giving me wrinkles.”

“I’m not trying to.”

And with Jin swinging into Yusaku’s vacated seat, Shouichi flashing his younger brother a toothy grin and then batting him on the shoulder, the switch began.

This reality to another.

Yusaku to Playmaker.

The smooth interior of the log-in capsule was replaced with the edge of a grey cliff, overlooking the metropolis below that rose in its gilded tiers under a cascade of vibrant colours, like light refracting off a diamond.

With a dizzying corkscrew, he dove towards the city waiting below,

---

Chapter Text

---

To another player, Yusaku’s log-in would have appeared as a glitch, the texture of the ground below his avatar switching to the default black and then back again to the weather-streaked stone. The new update had given players more customization options for their avatars, and by exploiting certain weaknesses in the new code, Playmaker could turn himself into a wraith upon log-in, his avatar an intangible, invisible entity moving through the virtual world. From his point of view, the avatar was still there, just beneath a long, pale blue cloak with ragged edges. The visual analogue had been unnecessary. Ai had insisted on it for ‘the sake of your style, Yusaku-chan’.

Hurling towards the main hub of Link VRAINS, Playmaker was like the wind itself, and the cloak whirled around him soundlessly. But there were still noises accompanying his flight, of course.

Ai yelped in his ear and then broke into shaking, high-pitched cackles as Yusaku skimmed over the silver pathways and curved through the vibrant crowd. "A-Attendance is waaay up. Like, a fifty-percent increase in- Gah! Sculpture! Sculpture!"

Dodging it, Yusaku let the board glide to a stop, delicate fairies and fierce dragons passing overhead. More and more users now opted to have Duel Monsters follow their avatars as 'companions' and scales, feathers, and furs in fantastic textures and colours were blotted over the crowd. And although the companions' behaviours were rudimentary at this stage, the users clearly gravitated towards them all the same. Fuzzy beast-type monsters trotted after knights in armor and idols in elaborate suits and gowns. The plaza was sparked with life, with activity. 

But the conversations within it were strange.

"-end of the world? Like, yeah , I don't want to go to class on Tuesday because group presentations should be classified as a form of torture, but all of this is, like, so excessive."

"Whoever these hackers are, they're the worst type of people. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if they're doing all of this to manipulate the stock market or some bullshit like that. Or...maybe they're trying to drive businesses out of Den City. ...As if the job market here isn't a nightmare already."

"...Haven't you guys considered that maybe we should welcome this chaos? Den City is a corporate hub, and all of us here are just pieces of grain to feed its corporate elite. Maybe this scare is the wake-up call we all need to take real action against the true calamity."

"Uh… Isn't this voice channel supposed to be for Entertainment Idol Discussion?" was what Ai chirped up with, and cycling through the different public channels, Yusaku was greeted with similar fragments of dialogue over and over again. Some people yelled with frustration. Others treated the situation as a joke. Or goaded the individuals around them into arguments. 

Such arguments littered the plaza like strewn glass, and as Yusaku sorted through them, the gentle, swaying monsters that rose like festival lanterns above the crowd seemed entirely misplaced. 

"...Nice of a certain Phantom Lady to mention that all of Link VRAINS has transformed into a powder keg. ...Powder bomb? ...Okay, I'll drop the analogy and just say, yeah, this is not right. No one's even talking about card games!"

"You're going to summon her if you insult her work like that," Yusaku said, his own voice, like Ai's, muted by the cloaking mod. And as he stepped away from the sculpture, a small prickle went up the base of his neck and rounded the crown of his head. Like an extension of the Link Sense, indicating a shift in the network.

Since Calamity had ruptured the almost-normalcy of his life as a highschool student, many things were suddenly different for Yusuke, sliding out of place like mud beneath his feet. And yet, many valuable constants also remained.

Like the exact way Ghost Girl's eyes pinched at the corners when she found something particularly amusing. In this case, Ai yelping and toppling over in surprise when she stepped out of nothing and twirled her ragged cloak. Like his own, it was translucent, and it fell neatly over her mercenary-style avatar. 

"I'll have you know that every virtual world based in Den City is in the same or even worse shape. It's also not very polite to complain about free info, especially when it's from a high-quality source like yours truly."

"Complaining is part of my act. I can't just cut it out," Ai grumbled, and Yusaku, frowning at a tight-knit group with yellow faeries dotting the space above them, turned to face Ghost Girl. Bessho Ema. Around them, the virtual space continued to ebb and flow, peripheral voices rising and falling.

"Sifting through all of this new data on Calamity is like trying to pan for gold in a river. Only," she added, placing a gloved hand on her hip, "I can't tell if the river has any gold in it at all. For all I know, it might just be a polluted mess. And a total waste of my time."

"And people get sassy about my comparisons," Ai grumbled. 

"Hmm… Well, I'll always be a digital treasure hunter at heart, even if I keep acting more and more like one of the good guys lately." A wink, and then her tone changed. "As of right now, sixteen different hacking collectives and four political groups have claimed responsibility for Calamity's actions, probably because they all want to be associated with that kind of power. Of course, all of that's in addition to thousands of individuals -- most of whom think they're completely anonymous -- claiming to have insider information on the group. ...So, to summarize, there's a lot to go through. Plus, rumor has it that a new emergency task force has been put together just to investigate the chatter online."

Shaking her head, she stepped back -- strands of lilac cascading over the artificially torn fabric of her cloak. A vibrant wing in red and orange phased through her, the monster's controller shouting, "Yeah, of course the SOLtiS want to get us! All of us! Anyone who says otherwise is lying to you."

"... It's never a good sign when 'AI' is trending in the network," Ai mumbled, his humor thick and changing the cadence of his words. But Yusaku could feel what was vibrating under them. "Yeah, it's official. This new group is...seriously getting on my artificial nerves, as if dropping a dirigible next to a highschool wasn't bad enough."

"We'll solve this," Yusaku said, because it was true. The answer was a whisper of static, like a small huff. "Ghost Girl, I have information that can help you narrow your search, but I want the results to be exclusive."

"Mhmmmm… A request like that is going to cost your friend a lot of merchandise," she replied, and Yusaku silently acknowledged that he would have to pick up some hours at Cafe Nagi. Since he did owe Shouichi a lot. 

Lately Ema had taken to making very complicated custom orders. Yusaku had tried not to get involved after charring one of her hot dogs and then receiving over two-thousand spam emails the next day. 

"Look for the Light of Destruction. It's an entity monitored by the Ultraviolet Project. That's all I can give you."

She arched one narrow eyebrow. 

"...All of that certainly sounds like the beginning of a conspiracy theory, but… A lead is a lead,” she admitted. Nodding, he brought up the user menu, but her voice stopped him from logging out. “You haven’t heard back from the Knights, have you?”

What ?! Did you bug us?!” Ai exclaimed before Yusaku could, uselessly, tap the ‘mute’ button on his duel disk. Although she still wore a half-mask, he knew that Ghost Girl was now smirking.

“Ah, I don’t always have to resort to tactics like that. ...Especially not when you’re so quick to tell me the answers to all of my questions, dear Ai-chan.”

“...Oh. Oh, maybe...I do talk too much...on rare occasions,” Ai mumbled, and Yusaku rolled his eyes. 

Her avatar lightly shrugged. “Mostly out of curiosity, I tried sending a friendly wave to the Knights last night, and all I got was the cold shoulder. Go figure. And your, ah, ‘snappish’ tone tells me it was the same for you.”

“Yeah, ‘curiosity’,” Ai parroted back, pausing to give another little huff of static. “To be nice, I gave you a small ‘win’ earlier, but make no mistake, Ghostie. This AI isn’t the type to be tricked twice.”

What followed was another verbal sparring match between her and Ai. Yusaku watched the sky instead, the layers of pristine blue crossed by delicate, web-like strands. They were the trails left behind modified D-boards, iridescent and slowly, inevitably brushed away by the digital wind. 

“That information I gave you, it might lead you to new enemies.”

At his statement, Ai peered up at him from the duel disk, disc-like yellow eyes wide. Ghost Girl’s answer was as expected. No deviation.

“Oh, that’s cute. I promise to watch my back, sweet Playmaker~” she chirped out with a quick, heart-like gesture that had Ai sputtering and Yusaku staring at her blankly. The background of moving players changed again, many taking to the sky and scattering like lanterns cut loose. So easily could all of this be erased, the pain of that action distorting the memories that would remain.  

He opened his mouth, and then he shut it again, aware of Ai’s gentle warmth sinking into his wrist. 

And with a causal twirl of her long hair, Ema turned away. Her words were weighted. “Believe me, the last thing I want is to be defeated and erased again. And yet, at the same time, what’s the point in having talent if I don’t use it? That’s a question real heroes probably find themselves facing all the time… It’s a hard one to answer.”

With that, she left. Her image dissolved.

The question she left behind was difficult.

And each passing second under that deepening fear only made it more and more difficult to answer.

“We need more information,” he muttered, and only two others could hear him like this -- Ai, who perked up with a small squeak and Jin, who monitored him now. “I miscalculated. This morning, I shouldn’t have let him leave.”

The person he needed to speak to next wouldn’t be in Link VRAINS.

---

In the blink of an eye, the streaks of hyper-bright colours were replaced with the dull inside of the VR room, and Yusaku wasted no time in palming the door open, 

“Nii-san’s out for a walk,” Jin reported, glancing over his shoulder. The monitors in front of him displayed the same overlapping newsfeeds as before. A security camera on the outside of the truck caught Shouichi pacing back and forth across the empty plaza and glaring at a takeaway cup like an interrogator from a movie would at a stubborn prisoner. “If Calamity is making a move today, then they’re taking their time.”

“They do seem to like big displays,” Ai commented airily, and Yusaku nodded in silent agreement. 

“The stuff on the counter is yours, by the way.”

It took Yusaku a weirdly long time to connect that statement to the paper bag with a Nagi logo on the front. And the takeaway cup resting next to it.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jin replied, waving a hand carelessly. “Oh, but watch out for that new guy. He will absolutely steal half of that if you let him.”

That conclusion took far less time. The association was almost instantaneous. 

“He’s already sleeping on my couch. It can’t get any worse than that,” Yusaku said, deadpan, and Jin snorted, tilting his chair back. 

“I can call my brother inside, if you want his help in locating your, ah, ‘target’.”

"There's no need for that!" The announcement was followed by the whirr of Yusaku's duel disk disconnecting and rising up in drone form, Ai on the very top in a pose that could only be described as 'dramatic'. "My Ai-approved tracker chip is already on the target! I can pinpoint his location with an accuracy that cannot be rivaled by-"

"Didn't Judai discover the chip yesterday? You know, because you threw it at him?"

At Jin's interruption, the drone careened to the side, almost clipping a monitor. "Uh, that was...not a big deal. Nope. Definitely not."

Yusaku spoke next. "Ai, why is the chip with Judai?"

The drone resumed its level hover, putting Ai at face height. "Honestly? No idea. Last night I was completely out of it, which, hey, I guess that's one side effect of… Uh. The events. Of last night. You know, the events between the two of us. Ha. Haha. Hahaha."

"I picked the wrong time to come back inside," Shouichi grumbled from the doorway, and he pushed past Yusaku with a heavy sigh. “Whatever you two are up to now, just keep the usual communication lines open. If a traffic light goes out in this city, I’ll notice it.”

It was as Yusaku zipped up his hoodie that the remaining pieces connected. The reason was absurdly simple, and crossing the plaza, the bag tucked in the crook of one arm, he shook his head. Ai’s electronic beep was the equivalent of a question mark. Yusaku replied.

“Judai took the chip with him. He knew we’d want to find him.”

---

With a wink of the eye-display, Ai had transformed the top of the duel disk into a navigator, the blue-on-black map of the city tracking the pink dot of their ‘target’, and, getting off the bus and making for the sidewalk, Yusaku had effectively narrowed the gap to just three blocks. Because Ai’s chatter was interlaced with reports from Jin and Shouichi (most ending with frustrated sighs, or jokes. Some were bad enough to make him blink in surprise, usually while Ai cackled away), he had put his earbuds in, the usual rumble of the city dulled. Smoothed out.

Like yesterday, Judai had picked somewhere outside of the dense city center to explore, the current district a mixture of old and new. Rentable offices for start-ups were juxtaposed with small corner stores, the kind with peeling paint, clouded windows, and vibrant, laughing groups by the narrow entrances. The textures of the city could be hard, like that of the pavement below, but they weren’t necessarily that way. It was a misconception to think of the city as just unforgiving, as just cold.

It had taken him a long time to understand that. The coffee had been poured hot enough to, after two transfers, still press its warmth through the sleeve. He had eaten on the first bus, his friends babbling to each other in his ears, and despite the headlines in red across the interior displays, the two girls in matching sweaters in the opposite seat had laughed and whispered to each other with shy smiles.

The calm peeled away when Yusaku was only two blocks away from Judai, who had been perfectly still for at least five minutes. The calm had been a frost resting in the shade of a leaning tree, and now, it was exposed to the light. Crystal after crystal vanished.

At least, that was the clear image he saw when, without warning, Judai started to move. Quickly.

W-What?! D-Does that idiot think this is a race ?!” Ai blurted out, loud enough to pitch into rustling static. Yusaku was already off, the ‘clang’ from his right following the impact of his half-finished coffee cup against the rim of a trash can. The lines of the display bobbed up and down as he pumped his arms, and when he dipped around a corner at Ai’s command ( “Left! Left! Let’s go, Yusaku-chan!” ), one of his earbuds slipped out, swung back, and smacked him across the face. 

In Link VRAINS, this kind of pursuit normally involved letting his body glide into its next actions, the D-board an extension of himself and quickly responding to even the slightest adjustments. In reality, Yusaku, awkwardly spinning to avoid a parked stroller before bolting across a street, was forced to acknowledge that, okay, maybe he did need to join a sports club. Or to stay awake for gym class instead of finding a convenient place to sit on a bench, lean against the wall, and close his eyes until someone noticed he had slipped away. 

Reality involved a lot more sweat. 

Which was bad.

“Why is he-? Oh, okay! I, err, one sec…” THUNK. THUNK. THUNK. With their worn-down treads and flat soles, his sneakers absorbed none of the impact, every push forward echoed by an ache up his legs. More of the city’s tangle passed in a blur, a streak of grey-blue. “Okay, I ‘borrowed’ a security feed, aaaaand… Our target is chasing after two unknowns on foot. They’re…going into an alley, and… It cut off. I’ll try to- Ah, look out!”

Three things.

One, himself skidding to a stop across the bare concrete of the small plaza, both of his arms thrown out for balance while he tried to focus on the person grasping for his sleeve.

Two, the girl. Wearing jean shorts and a Red-Eyes Dragon T-shirt. Younger than he was with the emblem for a local middle school on her baseball cap, her auburn hair in a messy braid that fell over her shoulder. The display of her standard-model duel disk had glitched, leaving a maze of pixels that relayed a distorted error message, and some impact had cracked it, the spider-web of uneven fractures making the characters even harder to read.

Third, her injuries. Her knees were deeply scratched, badly enough to drip crimson blood down her legs and onto the white of her sneakers. Her expression was twisted, pained, and the volume of her shout caught him off guard, as did the strength of her grip.

“You’re the person he was talking about! Blue hair with pink streaks and an old-school duel disk. Look, we’re going after him! I-I’m not going to just stand here and wait, okay?!”

“‘He’ has to be Judai,” Ai quickly commented. Again, by some unknown means, Judai had tracked them in return.

This was not the time to theorize on Judai.

“Wait here.” Bandages. And something to clean the wound. “I can-”

“Weren’t you listening?!” She shook him, hard enough for Ai to yelp as the duel disk swung up and down. “If you wanna help me, then help me go after those fuc-”

“Woah! Language warning!” Ai, now on speakers, shouted out, and before the girl, gnashing her teeth at the interruption, could continue, Ai did. “Hey, Yusaku-chan, as your totally-legal AI-assistant, I’d like to report that Judai’s still on the move, and if something goes bad here, which it totally looks like it might, then he’s outnumbered. Two against one.”

Yusaku had already come to the same conclusion. 

“Use your drone form. Find him, and report back to me on my cell.”

It took effort to disconnect his earplugs and shove them into his rarely-used cellphone, a light weight in his back pocket, and it took effort to hold his arm still while the duel disk smoothly detached itself from him and then shot up, perfectly vertical. Ai’s presence was a faint current that ran through him, that ran inside of him, and with every meter of altitude gained by the spinning rotors, the feeling weakened, subtle at first. The absence left him cold, and-

Focus.

"What happened?"

Although she hadn't let him go, her grip had slackened, just strong enough to offset the weight she was keeping off of her right leg. Its knee was the worst, an uneven block of red. "Who cares ! We're losing time! Look, let me-"

"If the situation is dangerous, then you need to tell me," he said, louder than he wanted to. Inside, under his skin, the rhythm of Ai was weak, a consequence of the distant compounding between them, and he- Focus. Don't break. 

And, incrementally, the fury crossing her face lessened, like a fire shrinking as it curled around wet fuel. "It's simple. I was dueling one of those two bastards -- the one with the blond hair -- and I won, thanks to my dragon deck. Of course, the moment it ended, the second bastard came out of nowhere and shoved me to the ground while the first bastard hacked my duel disk! He had this… This thing that looked like a USB drive, and although it scrambled my display, I could see that all of my cards, all of them, had been wiped from my account!"

An illegal override tool.

Although recent updates to system security had made it more difficult for players to have their digitized cards stolen by a direct connection, incidents like this were still recorded in Den City. Shouichi, picking up such side jobs by accident, had corrected three similar thefts by tracking down the stolen cards and reversing the transfers. And causing some digital chaos for the unfortunate thieves.

Although, those measures required being able to retrieve the activity logs from the affected duel disk and piece together information about the program used to scramble the cards' unique IDs, which was likely impossible if the hardware itself had been badly damaged. 

Therefore, the most viable solution was to locate the thieves themselves.

"How did you meet Judai?"

With an exasperated sigh, she ground out, "Well, I'm assuming that this 'Judai' is the guy in the red coat. Sure, there were some people around the plaza when all of this happened, but none of them, like, bothered to come help me! Someone yelled that the police had been called, which… Okay. Sure. The whole city is in crisis mode because of Calamity. Like, of course the cops aren't going to rush over here because of a card theft!!" She broke off with a glare over Yusaku's shoulder, and it was true that several onlookers were lingering around the borders of the plaza, most clutching cellphones in tight grips. "URGH, so, anyways , I'm trying to stand up again when a guy in a red coat suddenly runs over and helps me to my feet. Then, he tells me that his sidekick is right behind him -- that's you , by the way -- and he took off after them. ...There! That's it ! Now can we go?!"

"Yusaku-chan?"

Ai.

Immediately he held up a hand, stopping her. "What is it?"

A slight crackle in his right earbud, and then- "Well, Judai and the Bad Guys are now on a roof. They went up a fire escape, Judai followed, they kicked out the supports on part of the fire escape, Judai somehow still followed, and now we...either have a fight or a duel about to break out. I can land and-"

"No. Stay out of range."

"But-"

" Ai .”

"...Okay. I. I will." A slight pause, and Yusaku waited through it, his chest tight. "I-It looks like Judai's magically talked Thug A into a master duel, even though, w-well, with Thug B there as backup, it could still get ugly!"

"Give me directions. I’m moving out now," Yusaku stated, and that's when he turned back to the person waiting for him with a twisted scowl. "Can you walk?"

"Sort of. Probably not for very far before I fall," she hurriedly admitted, and that was the prelude to Yusaku jogging down a network of thin alleyways with the girl, named Chidori, on his back, her fingers digging two jagged rows into his shoulders and her legs wrapped around his waist. As if she were a human backpack. 

Yusaku would not describe the situation as 'ideal'.

It was awkward. Her weight seemed to increase with each new turn, a sudden dizziness like a veil over his eyes. But Ai was the navigator in his ear (" Take the next right! You're getting closer!" ), and, gradually, tangibly, the feeling of him was returning. Pulses of starlight were inside his head, and it didn't matter if the next section of brick wall swayed unexpectedly, because his strength was being joined with that of someone else. Eventually, the added weight meant nothing. 

The whisper of Ai's rotors signaled for him to raise his head, and, panting, he located the small dot of the drone over the apartment building in front of them. It was in an industrial, refurbished style, the red brick accompanied by thin metal details in stiff fortifications. A section of the fire escape lay uselessly in the alley, and, perfectly timed, Ai informed him that there was no other way to scale the building. Unless he wanted to try a drainage pipe. 

Which he did not. 

Wordlessly, he leaned back and waited for Chidori to drop down. She winced, but that was all. Like him, she was fixated by the problem facing them. "Why would they go on the roof ? They're totally trapped!"

"There's another apartment complex on the north side. They're roughly the same height, and it's possible to scale the fence and jump from one to the other," Yusaku said, relaying a theory from Ai, and he walked further up the alley until he found an empty cardboard box propped up next to some recycling containers. "Do you have a pen?"

"A pen? Uh… I should." She had one in the small pouch clipped to her belt, the ink blue, and Yusaku had a scrap of paper in his front pocket. It was a remnant from his last coding class -- the instructor insisting that some problems in simple programs became clearer if they wrote their code traditionally. After folding the paper into quarters, he, as neatly as possible, drew two interlocking Ds on a clean side and quickly shaded them in. 

"I need your hat."

"What? Why?!"

"Because someone might think a person who looks like a middle-schooler shouldn't have a part-time job," he said, and with a scrunched-up frown, she cautiously twisted it off and handed it to him.

"Okay, I get it, but anyone can see that you're just faking a Den City Delivery uniform." At first, he said nothing, focused on pressing the paper against the slight indentations of her school's logo so that it would hold. As a direct result, her volume increased. A lot. "We need a better plan than this! This won't work !"

"Do you see the camera above the entrance?"

"Uh… Yeah," she replied, and Yusaku, crinkling one of the corners, had managed to make the logo stick. If the image was heavily pixelated, it would pass for an authentic one. 

The front door for residents was under a metal arch, like a square bracket tilted onto its side, and the segmented, white shape of the security camera stood out even from their distance of approximately ten meters. With the hat completed and shoved over his hair, roughly enough to let his bangs cover his eyes, Yusaku quickly brought up a rudimentary search on his phone. The occupant list outside the building would likely only contain the residents' family names. For authenticity, he needed a first name, preferably that of the person in the third-floor apartment that occupied the building's rightmost corner. Their television was on, suggesting that they were both home and distracted. It was the combination he needed for this to work with minimal dialogue (and therefore minimal chances to make an obvious error), and-

Another increase, loud enough to make him flinch. 

"... Hello? Are you ignoring me?"

Oh.

Right.

"The camera is an old fixed-position model, capable of only a low-quality video feed."

"Okay, but, still, it's pretty rare to get an actual delivery person. It's mostly robots, not at all like when I was a little kid."

That was another feature he had considered. He knew about the camera from researching models to install outside his apartment, a necessary precaution to protect Ai and Playmaker from discovery. He knew about the delivery company for a similar reason, one rooted in the precarious state of the public's opinion on AIs. 

"Within the last six months, Den City Delivery has transitioned to using only human couriers. Anyone can confirm that with a cursory search."

"Ah, okay. Because there's less chance of a bad AI hurting someone that way, right?"

"No."

"...Oh? Uh, then why would they do that?"

"Because they don't understand what AIs really are." With a curl of emotion hooking inside his chest, Yusaku adjusted the hat, hefted the box in front of him, and stopped at the edge of the camera's radius. "Once I'm inside, wait for me at that restaurant, " he said, and she, jerkily, turned in place to take in the blue-on-red exterior of a fast food chain. 

Against the backdrop of a plain intersection and with flecks of dried blood over both of her bare knees, Chidori looked very young and very lost, her wide, grey eyes mirror-like. The display of her duel disk continued to flicker, the text oscillating between the scrambled letters for 'E R R O R' and 'NO COLLECTION FOUND'. For the first time since they had met, it seemed like she wanted to cry. 

Instead, she nodded stiffly and took a step back, hugging herself. Until now, he hadn't noticed the fresh scratches over her thin hands. Another sign of her being knocked down to the plaza, brutally. 

"I will come back, and I will have your cards," Yusaku stated, and she nodded again. Shallower this time. "If you want to call the police or your parents, now would be...a good time for that."

"Yeah, I… I know. And...thanks."

Immediately Yusaku upped the volume on his earbuds, letting fragmented words and shouts slip through. Ai was transmitting a live feed from the rooftop. "Status report."

"Ahhhh… Yusaku-chan, hurry if you can. Our hero in red just took 3000 points of damage right to the face! And- Why's he smiling about it?! I- Just hurry!"

"Got it."

And, stepping into the camera's line of sight, Yusaku buzzed for apartment 3A. 

"Hello?"

"Delivery for Naoki Iguchi," he said, angling his head down. There was a pause.

Followed by an electronic ping, indicating that the door was unlocked, and, careful to keep his face away from the camera, Yusaku nudged it open with his shoulder and-

He was tackled the rest of the way through by Chidori, who then did an excellent job of almost pulling his right arm out of its socket. "Hurry! The elevator is over there!"

"I can see that," was Yusaku's curt reply as he weighed the positives and negatives of the current situation, although so far he had only identified negatives. 

The first positive he found, identified as the elevator doors neatly closed, was that the elevator did actually work. That wasn't a given with old buildings.

"You're mad at me, aren't you?"

The elevator, probably owing to the building's age, rattled as it traveled upward, faint vibrations buzzing up his tired limbs. No, mad wasn't the right word for it, not at all. Chidori rushed to continue, one of her hands slashing at the air. 

"B-But that's not fair, okay?! I… I need to get those cards back! I… I…" Sniffling, she wiped at her face. "T-There was...a fire last year, and… I don't have my originals anymore, and… I know how it sounds! A-A lot of people say that the digital versions aren't the same. Although… When I play with them, it's like...I can remember everything. All of the duels when I was a kid. All of...the games I played with someone who isn't here anymore, s-so…"

With a mechanical grind, the elevator passed the third floor. In one ear, Ai was relaying the moves of the continuing duel, the rise and fall of his voice quick. Reassuring. Little by little, it made the world seem clearer. Its details fit together. 

"I'll make a deal with you."

With a ragged, laboured breath, she looked up at him. "I'm… I-I'm sorry. I can't leave without my deck!"

"That's why I'm going to lend you mine." The fourth floor, passing with a faint whine. And, as Yusaku unclipped his deck box from his belt and held it out to the shaking girl across from him, he said, "At the restaurant, I'll exchange your deck for mine. I want it back."

Fifth and final floor. The doors opened, and he met her wide-eyed stare. 

Another second passed. Ai had started another rambling, branching play-by-play of the duel, and the syllables then started to blend together, indicative of the rapid fall of those words. Like raindrops in a spring storm, the kind that left everything warm afterwards. And under a halo of diffused light. 

"You'll...r-really get my deck back?"

"Yes."

Another second, and then she -- carefully, as if moving too suddenly would be enough to break the deal itself -- took his deck and stepped back. "Be careful," she murmured before the doors closed, and when they did, Yusaku took off. He dropped the cardboard box. The door he wanted was unlocked, and it was followed by stairs that he took two at a time and then-

From underneath the twisting grey clouds of pixelated debris that unfurled over the roof like a massive pair of wings, he could see the stark red of Judai's jacket. 

More than that, he could see how, even though Judai staggered to his feet next, the duelist wore a wide, wide grin. It alone was enough to cut through the grey of battle damage, and then -- as the two active duel disks ticked along to Judai's falling life points, stopping at 200 -- Judai looked at him with clear, amber eyes. His grin shot up.

Yesterday, Jin had characterized Judai as a simple person, one who would habitually forget his spare change and annoy other people. Perhaps that was true in some way, or for some situations, but-

With Judai staring back at him over a stretch of field banded only by the jagged shadows of his opponent's monsters, it didn't seem true at all.

The flat roof ran between them and extended out to the low metal barriers. Faint pulses of wind tugged at Yusaku’s clothes, carrying with them a piercing cold. The earlier sunlight remained choked by clouds. The thief Judai faced -- registered duel ID ‘Stinger’, with only standard duels recorded on his account and a suspiciously high percentage of those duels interrupted -- was behind a wall of Link monsters, the supported Gaia Saber boosting over 3000 attack points. The mounted knight’s horse was restlessly trotting back to its position, its sides veined with fluorescent blue and its tapered spikes catching the thin light. Early in his hunts for the Knight of Hanoi, Yusaku had used that card himself, the non-specific Link materials coupled with the relatively high attack making it useful for those rough duels that he had needed to end quickly. Efficiently.

With only a glance at the field, he had the sense that Stinger’s deck was much like his own dummy deck -- just a collection of convenient parts.

Like ‘Stinger’, the other thief was tall, blond, muscular, and had the same closed, tensed posture. He had the registered duel ID ‘Slugger’, the corrupted data of his public profile a sign that its dueling history had been clusmily wiped clean, possibly to hide results even more suspicious than Stinger’s own. Both thieves wore plain, long-sleeved shirts with dark jeans, ideal for slipping away into a crowd. And yet a precaution like that would be meaningless now. Because Yusaku would not let the thieves escape.

Because they would not allow it.

“Ai!”

With a whizzing sound, the drone dropped vertically and attached itself to Yusaku’s raised arm -- the precision perfect, the motion seamless. Immediately he felt those missing parts of Ai return, the subtle ebbs and flows of energy, and relief crashed into him, Ai’s relief. And, taking a deep breath, his shoulders dropping, Yusaku let his stare pass over the two thieves, their glares meaningless. The closest of the two, Slugger, visibly tensed, and an attack was possible. Yusaku understood that.

Although, while Ai had hidden a taser in a slot on the bottom of the duel disk, Yusaku did want to avoid using a definitely-not-legal-for-him-to-have weapon for as long as possible. Hopefully the bad guys would cooperate.

“You lost, Delivery Boy?” called out Slugger, and their other target chuckled, shook his head, and pivoted on his heel.

“Yeah. Is he supposed to be your backup?”

Judai perked up. “Oh, he’s my sidekick.”

False.

Wrong.

“I was hoping you’d duel better than you lie. How disappointing,” Yusaku said, deadpan, and Ai, being Ai, altered between head-splitting laughter and failed attempts at saying Yusaku’s name, none of them getting past the second syllable. Because Judai was, clearly, a very strange individual, he had also burst out laughing. 

“Ah, ah… So harsh. But, hey, no worries,” Judai declared with a thumb-up gesture. Yusaku felt the sudden need to squint, like the sun had decided to come out just to torture his eyes. “Nothing suits a hero better than a pinch, and if you keep watching, you’ll get to see my grand reversal.”

“Your opponent has 8000 life points due to a combo triggered by your last attack. His strongest monster has 3400 attack points. You have 200 life points and no cards on your side of the field.”

Judai’s smile widened. “Exciting, right?”

Snorting, Stinger interrupted. “You should listen to the Delivery Boy, although it’s not like that advice will save you now. I end my turn, so hurry up with your own and stop stalling.”

“Stalling?”

“You talk so fucking much,” Slugger grumbled, crossing his arms and taking up a position next to Stinger. Because moving from the door could allow for them to escape, Yusaku remained where he was -- Judai in profile, the remaining debris vanishing as the Solid Vision cleared the field. The rainbow lights of Judai’s old-style duel disk cycled once, and the smile on his face changed, still friendly and yet also different. Very different.

“Well, my dear sidekick,” Judai began with one hand on the edge of the duel disk, “you did summarize things pretty well, but I gotta ask. Do you think I can win this?”

“It’s a duel, and you still have cards,” Yusaku said plainly, and he didn’t need to explain any further than that, not when Judai’s gaze flickered over to him again. He saw the green.

“Draw!”

It was Judai’s third turn, and with the draw, he had three cards in his hand.

Apparently he didn’t move quickly enough for Stinger, who chuckled and rasped out, “Maybe you need one of those Ai assistants. Take it as a free tip. They’re good for beginners.”

“No worries. I already have an assistant,” Judai commented with a tap of one finger to the side of his head. “Although, I probably shouldn’t call them that.” Given that Stinger and Slugger both looked at each other and squinted, they were likely confused. Yusaku was also confused, and-

Suddenly Judai had a card on the blade of his duel disk, and it sent up a wall of light.

“I activate Pot of Greed! And… I draw two cards. Straightforward, isn’t it?”

The object rose to hover above the plain arena, the contours of its green face split by a yellow-toothed grin, and Yusaku was deeply aware of Ai’s presence. He could not have blocked out Ai’s presence now even if he wanted to, and yet Ai still shouted as if it was 4 AM and Yusaku was half-asleep at his keyboard after logging six hours straight for a coding project.

“New rule! New rule! If we end up dueling The Hero in Red, that card is ultra banned! Blacklisted! I’ll get the SOLtiS and rip it up if I have to!”

Yusaku, uselessly, tapped down the volume to 20%.

“A cheap move. Although, it’s not like it’ll do you much good,” Stinger declared, and Judai, now with four cards, focused on him next. 

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘cheap’.”

“Most duelists in Den City rely on, you know, archetypes, link summoning, clever card interactions… Things that are a bit more complicated than just thinning out your deck.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong here, but weren’t you the one who set up the main parameters for the duel? Life points, duel mode… I’m pretty sure there’s even an option on the menu that lets you review the ban list. I know that I checked it, so…”

Stinger bared his teeth and raised his duel disk higher. “Oh, so I’m the idiot here?”

“Hey, hey. I didn’t go that far!” Judai rolled his eyes, amused. “I guess a card hunter like yourself is usually more concerned with getting players to show off their good cards than with anything else. I get it, and I’d be happy to show you some more of mine.”

“Yeah, just hurry up,” Stinger barked back, and Slugger took over next.

“A bunch of fusion cards aren’t worth stealing anyways. A deck like yours is destined for nothing but the trash.”

It was subtle -- how Judai’s stare darkened. “Sure, you can say that, but at least my cards are my own. I don’t think I can say the same thing about either one of your decks.” In another corona of light, a card hit the duel disk. “I activate A Hero Lives. Since I have no face-up monsters on my side of the field, I can pay half of my life points to special summon a level 4 or lower Elemental Hero from my deck. Come out, Elemental Hero Prisma!”

“O-One hundred life points?!” Ai squeaked in surprise, accompanied by a flurry of beeps from Judai’s duel disk. 

“He didn’t draw that spell card this turn,” Yusaku observed, as he had tracked the positions of Judai’s held cards. “He expected to survive his opponent’s attack.” And maybe Judai had even planned to lose all defenses, golden shafts of light banding his empty monster zones until, like a stray icicle cut loose, a shimmering figure in silver dropped onto one. In facets of green, grey, and blue, the hero fell into a tensed pose, one arm stretched high over its featureless face.

And Judai continued, his clear voice ringing out.

“I activate Prisma’s effect! Once per turn, I can reveal a fusion monster in my extra deck. By sending one of its listed materials from my deck to the graveyard, I can give Prisma that monster’s name until my End Phase. I reveal Elemental Hero Air Neos to send Elemental Hero Neos from my deck to the graveyard.”

“.... Huh ?” was Ai’s insightful commentary, and Yusaku, tapping at his display, magnified the portraits of the cards that Judai had listed. He would have read the effects, if Judai hadn’t kept going. His words carried with them a strong pull, and Yusaku-

He needed to observe this. All of this.

Judai played another spell card, another that he had kept in his hand. 

“I activate Wrath of Neos! By returning the ‘Neos’ on my field to my deck, I can destroy all cards on the field!”

A piercing, white-blue burst, overlain by the image of a muscular warrior lashing out with a punch directed at the ground.

Following the shockwave, the field itself began to shake and crumble in simulated destruction. Stinger had effects to activate, his backrow sparking with chains that began and needed to resolve, but none of them could counter the wave of non-targeting removal. Monsters crumbled into indistinguishable cubes of grey and then vanished as the duelist funneled cards from the graveyard back into his deck. Only one monster survived, saved by one of the triggered effects. It was weakened.

Gaia Saber, a Link 3 with 2600 attack, remained positioned in front of its controller, its sleek-edged weapon poised high. The wisps of smoke trailed down the blade. 

“How’s that?” Judai called out with a wink. “I call that my ‘Neos Delta Hurricane’. Kinda cool, don’t you think?”

“Damn, you really don’t get it. You’ve just let me set up my hand for my next turn, which your lucky ass won’t survive,” Stinger ground out, regarding his near-empty field with a twisted scowl. “But, sure , go ahead. I got my knight and 8000 life points, and you have two cards. I’ll get a good laugh out of it when you fail, ‘hero’.”

“Hey, hey. I already told you that I’m playing to impress my sidekick. Not to brag, but I think I’ve already got you cornered.”

Yeah . Riiight.”

“Oh, don’t believe me?” With a bark of a laugh, Judai let another card fall, and again everything shimmered under the rainbow colours of a new spell card. “Well, maybe I need some backup to convince you, which means I’ll activate...Neos Fusion!” 

Stars fell in a dizzying array of colours. Around them, the city faded, the darkness of night surging in as constellations swirled, and Yusaku -- running a hand over his duel disk, over Ai -- waited for them to brighten even further than this. Because the effect hadn’t resolved. 

Not yet.

“Neos Fusion allows me to special summon one Neos fusion monster from my extra deck that has exactly two materials by using monster from my hand, deck, or field and ignoring that fusion monster’s summoning conditions. Naturally, I’ll use my deck, selecting Air Hummingbird and my second copy of Elemental Hero Neos.” And, perfectly timed, the cards were filtered out of the deck, Judai holding them up for a beat before feeding them back into the disk. The cosmetic scenery cycled faster, new pinpricks of colour sparking against the spreading, ink-dark void, and Judai stood perfectly still as a nebula formed. He spoke to his opponent directly. “You’re wrong about my cards, just like you’re wrong about the meaning of a duel. Duels shouldn’t be used to hurt others.”

In response, Stinger shook his head, that scowl only deepening. “Yah, because a loser has any right to judge me and my brother. The strong take from the weak. That’s just how it is, and-”

“You’re wrong,” Judai said, and then, in a seamless motion, he flipped the top card off his extra deck and threw it onto the extended blade, the response immediate. Wind swept across the field, cutting through the nightscape and, simultaneously, gathering at the very center. “Values like yours have nothing to do with strength, and I’ll show you why right now. I special summon Elemental Hero Air Neos!”

The wind surged outwards, and, in streaks of red, the hero appeared, its feathered wings extended like the crown of a mountain range. With gleaming, golden claws, the powerful monster in vibrant, stark red lowered itself into a fighting stance, muscles rippling under the dissipating starlight. And Ai gasped in Yusaku’s ear, the attack/defense of the new monster displayed in bold yellow numbers. 

2000 defense points.

10400 attack points. 

“With only one card, he made that ?!” Ai blurted out, and Yusaku remained fixated on the duelist behind the monster that now seemed to tower over them all.

Judai had one card in his hand, the last one he had drawn, but it wasn’t played next. Instead, he let his fingers trail over it for a beat, that same beat ending as he called for a different effect. “Then, I’ll activate the second effect of the Neos Support in my graveyard. By banishing this card, I can increase the attack of one fusion monster with ‘Elemental Hero Neos’ as a listed material for 500 until the end of my turn. So, that leaves my Elemental Hero Air Neos with-”

“10900 attack?!” Ai finished, and the wrist guard shook, imitating a shudder. “H-Hey, Yusaku-chan, his cards are strong, really strong.”

“Yes, but…”

“But what ?!”

Pausing, Yusaku looked back at the hero duelist, awash with the remnants of those alien colours that scattered as they faded, leaving behind the storm-like sky of their reality. “It’s just a feeling I have. There’s no proof,” he muttered, aware that Ai was waiting and, as a consequence, rattling the duel disk slightly. “He’s not going to play that last card, and… I want to know what it is.”

“Ah, so his mysterious act is working on you…”

There wasn’t time to answer, not when Judai was throwing one arm out in front of himself, his fingers spread, and the monster waiting for his call took to the sky, rising in one bold leap before unfurling its wings again and casting a dark shadow over those below. “Air Neos, attack with all of your might!” Judai shouted, and the simulated wind grew in intensity, enough to whip at Yusaku’s clothes and make Ai sputter in confusion. Below, under the shadow of its opponent, the knight stirred, readying its mount as it stamped its hooves down, sparking like flint. 

Stinger was cowering and pale, tremors visible in his hands, and the shadow only widened over him, the hero in red plummeting down, down, down.

There was no counter.

The attack went through, those 8000 life points dropping to 0 while the knight was vaporized from the force of the blow leveled against it. A pillar of strength, the hero flared its wings, and that was the final image of the duel that stayed with Yusaku. Rustling feathers. The sheen of its blue gems. The unyielding stance.

Judai dropped his arms to his sides. Artificial smoke trailed after him -- like long wings, or like a cape -- until it too faded into nothingness. 

"When I was a kid, I always liked it when a villain would stop the evil act and become a hero. ...Of course, I get that it's not always so easy, but it's still worth trying, isn't it?" Judai said while Stinger, his head bent, rose from where he had fallen to his knees, as if that attack had really extended into him. And-

"Look out!!" Ai called out over the speakers, because Slugger, lunging forward, had drawn a knife.

For a painful second, everything fell away. Ai was beating alongside his heart. 

Yusaku knew that he had started to bolt towards Judai, someone frozen in place while the rooftop was consumed by activity. Stinger was screaming for his brother to stop. This decision was wrong. It should not have been made. 

Judai moved when Slugger swung the knife out in a wild arc, and Yusaku could not process how it happened, how the larger man was suddenly flat on the ground and breathing hard while the knife clattered away, skidding towards the edge of the roof and catching on the slight ledge. The outcome made no sense, not when Judai’s arms had been raised but not enough to block the incoming attack. It was as if a part of his shadow had struck out, the uneven, knife-like shape ending in a thin line of burnished gold. Like the claws of something unknown.

“W-What were you thinking ?!” Stinger was yelling, crouched over his brother and grabbing at his shirt collar. His weight kept the other pinned down, and Yusaku, taking a breath that did nothing to calm the buzzing uncertainty inside him, took the chance to look back at Judai.

Long, unkempt bangs fell over Judai’s face, and as he tilted his head back, the glow of his lurid eyes was revealed. One was a flame in orange, the other in blue-green. They locked on Yusaku, and -- flinching, feeling himself brace against something -- he stepped back. The action was watched with that inhuman focus, those blazing discs of colour eclipsing all else. 

---

If Yusaku was asked to, he could have created a very accurate timeline for the next two hours. He had memorized the names and ID numbers of the officers who arrived on the roof to detain the suspects. And to gather witness statements.

That night, there would likely be an ‘unofficial’ change to the data regarding the arrest of Stinger and Slugger. More specifically, the contact details and biometric identifiers of two witnesses would be corrupted. The loss would not impede the investigation, considering that four different recordings of the two suspects unceremoniously throwing Chidori to the ground had been turned in as evidence. Not to mention the illegal override device found on Slugger’s person. The data for Den City Delivery would be so easy to falsify that Yusaku could, if pressed, do it on a school computer and still leave behind no traces.

The brothers were suspects in four related incidents, all resulting in the theft of high-value cards.

Yusaku understood that he had not been physically harmed. At worst, he had given himself a toothache by clenching his jaw too hard. And yet it was as if he had been stunned by some impact, his thoughts sluggish and confused beyond the details that he mechanically committed to memory. Ai was letting those circles of static electricity trail over his back, the pressure of Ai’s touch slight but still there.

In contrast, Judai seemed nothing but calm, as if he already knew the outcome would be them walking down the sidewalk later and safe with their knowledge that, yes, the officers really wouldn’t be suspicious of them at all. Judai even made a pun bad enough that the younger officer cracked a smile and tried to stop himself from laughing. Emphasis on ‘tried’.

From the moment the officers had arrived, Judai’s irises had remained brown, flecked with lighter sections in yellow-gold. He smiled so naturally, and he answered the questions first, letting Yusaku keep much of his silence. While Yusaku had shoved the balled-up hat and scrap of paper into his hoodie pocket, there were other flaws that the police could have caught, like the security footage somewhere (which would be erased, later) that clearly showed him sneaking into the building. And yet none of that seemed to matter. At the present, the flaws seemed to exist only inside his head.

When Judai had launched into a play-by-play of the duel, the older officer had quickly taken Yusaku aside and asked if he was “holding up okay”. He had nodded quickly, to end the encounter.

Of the two brothers, Slugger protested the most by far, swearing as auto-locking restraints were wound around his wrists and ankles. With his neck bent low, Stinger had barely said a negative word about his own treatment. More than that, he had admitted his crimes directly to the officers, the flat monotone not matching the strained, tensed way he held himself.

When backup arrived, the brothers were escorted off of the roof, and it was as Stinger was lead in front of them that, stiffening, he stopped. The officer holding his arm tugged him along, and Stinger’s words, like his glassy stare, were for Judai.

“Of course it’s hard for most people to change. But for some, it’s impossible , and...there’s no point working towards something that’s just going to fail.”

Shrugging, Judai replied with, “The future isn’t set in stone, so why not take a chance? Plus, maybe being one of the good guys will suit you better.”

And, after that, there was more of Judai talking. According to his story, he and Yusaku were ‘friends’ who had planned to meet in the plaza for a duel. It made sense. It fit the events well, right down to why Yusaku would have a deck ready to lend Chidori and why he had arrived so shortly after Judai. Only one detail caught the officers’ attention, and it happened to involve Yusaku.

And Ai.

The surging fear had made him feel hollow. 

“In the video, your duel disk seemed to turn into a...drone? Is that correct?”

“It’s custom-made. I have a drone license, and…” Good. No lies yet, but he needed to keep going . “I want to major in electrical engineering. My duel disk is a project I’ve been working on.”

“How were you controlling it?”

“I have an app on my phone.” It did work, not that he had ever used it beyond rudimentary tests. Taking out of his phone, Yusaku swiped to the plain icon. “The drone responds to voice commands, along with movements I make on the screen.”

The officers exchanged a quick look, and this time, the other officer continued. “Alright, but I would advise against using a prototype like that in the middle of the city. Because of this crackdown on AI-operated machines, a bystander could mistake your drone for something pretty dangerous. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.”

The next delay was because of Chidori, and Yusaku, sitting on the edge of a bike rack outside the apartment building and watching the traffic drift by in indistinguishable shapes, repeated an exercise that his therapist had taught him. It involved taking deep breaths and then counting the seconds until he wanted to take his next one. Judai lingered in the background.

Eventually, a patrol car slowed to a stop, and a familiar girl with fly-away hair escaping its braid clumsily stepped out of the back. She was quickly followed by a woman with the same expressive face and grey eyes, likely a relative.

Neat, white bandages interlocked over Chidori's knees. She carried the deck box tightly in her right hand, the other used for support. 

"The trade's a bit messed up because the chip with my cards on it was confiscated, but I… I know it's going to be okay! Everyone is telling me that!" she blurted out, and Yusaku nodded. "I'm going home in a sec, and… If we don't see each other again, then… Thank you for helping me. I mean it!"

Wordlessly, Judai had slipped away, and that left her attention fixed on only him. He nodded again, and when Chidori held out the deck box with a toothy grin, he took it back. 

"It's still a trade," he hears himself say, quiet and distant. Taking the ball cap out of his pocket, he completed the exchange. Chidori wore it with the brim sticking up. He hoped that she would keep dueling. 

He hoped that the incident wouldn't cast a shadow over her.

He hoped that the words would form neatly inside of his head, because he did want to say something to her, and yet the syllables tangled. With Ai tracing new shapes over his back, he remained leaning against the bike rack as the patrol car pulled away from the curb and joined with the pattern of the city. 

---

Although, Judai hadn't gone far at all. 

Fifteen minutes later, Yusaku found himself sitting across from the hero duelist in a dingy, wide booth on the second floor of the fast food restaurant. With both of his burgers finished and now represented by their matching crumpled-up wraps, Judai seemed content to pick at his fries and stare out the window, one of his arms carelessly thrown across the divider behind him. 

Yusaku kept one earbud in. Shouichi could need him. 

The situation could escalate. 

And it was as he tracked the various stains and scratches marking the table that Yusaku understood just how illogical his actions had been. Yuki Judai -- whose contact information he had been too distracted to get, in addition to other failures -- was their primary source of information on the Light of Destruction. Or, if nothing else, he claimed to know something about the force gripping the city. In addition, Judai was not human. Not entirely. Yusaku wasn't sure how to process that. It meant something , possibly in relation to those notions of Light and Darkness, but-

Taking a deep breath, he made a list of three things. 

One. 

Yuki Judai did not seem like a malicious person.

Ignoring the complications of referring to Judai as a 'person', it was unlikely that Judai had helped Chidori for any reason other than kindness. Staging the event would have required extremely sophisticated coordination. More than that, if all of this really was a trap to gain Playmaker's trust and then turn on him (or, as a darker thought, Ai ), the strategy itself seemed clumsy at best. It lacked precision. 

Two.

Yuki Judai was a strong duelist.

Based on his dueling record and his growing reputation among the standard duelists in Den City, Yusaku had already formed that conclusion. However, watching Judai take on an opponent had only strengthened it. In addition, it raised further questions about what powerful cards remained in his deck, each unseen card a different variable. 

Wielding Mirror Force, Revolver had revealed the power latent in older cards. Yusaku had read articles about how duelists in Den City tended to ignore ‘classic’ cards more than those in other regions, usually for the purpose of optimizing their signature Link Summoning style. His own preliminary research indicated that the Neo Spacian archetype revolved around Contact Fusion, a unique feature of its versatile fusion monsters, but there remained a crucial difference between understanding a playstyle in theory and experiencing it firsthand.

Three.

Yuki Judai had abilities beyond those of a human.

Whatever those abilities were was, as of that exact moment, extremely unclear. Those burning, heterochromatic eyes in orange-green were difficult to imagine on Judai now, the hero duelist wiggling one french fry in a ketchup packet and then frowning at it. 

“Man, I swear these things just get smaller and smaller…” When Yusaku said nothing, Judai glanced up at him. “Also, don’t tell anyone, but I’ll share my fries if you want some. Trust me when I say that this is pretty rare, like a lunar event. The planets align, and I offer my fries to my dear ally.”

“I’m fine.”

“...You sure?” Judai asked, tilting his head to the side. His shaggy hair fell out of place. “While I’m no expert, I got a feeling that just a soda isn’t a proper lunch.”

At that, Ai stirred. “Uh, yeaaaah. Not to switch sides or anything, buuuuut he does have a point.”

The negatives outweighed the positives, because Ai would definitely poke at him until he ate something and Yusaku didn’t have the energy to resist. The french fry was bland.

“You know, I’m noticing a trend here in Den City,” Judai said next, gesturing with one crooked french fry and coming extremely close to knocking his own soda off the table. Yusaku watched the container bob back and forth with morbid interest. “By the second turn, whoever I’m up against will start going on about how ‘outdated’ or ‘uncool’ my cards are, which…” Judai’s face twitched, his smile a little forced. “Maybe it’s starting to get to me. My fusions are absolutely cool. You agree, right?”

“I’ve only seen you use Air Neos.”

"Who...is very cool……?"

Yusaku stared at him, unblinking. "Is that actually important to you?"

"Well, yeah ! My cards are my cards, so I gotta stand up for them!" Judai declared, and then he changed the subject. "Also, of course it's important. For one thing, you stopped frowning at the table, and I'm going to count that as a victory." 

Scoffing, Yusaku leaned back and crossed his arms, and while he addressed Ai next, he never looked away from Judai. "Check for bugs. Run a full sweep of both stories."

"Got it, got it!" Ai cheeped, and the duel disk rumbled slightly. Perhaps owing to Calamity, they were the only customers who had bothered to take plastic trays and eat inside. Regardless, Yusaku would not drop his guard. 

"You don't need to do that," Judai said, leaning his chin on one palm. "I'm keeping an eye on this place. ...Okay, not just I , but...you get the idea."

Just ‘keeping an eye on this place' is different than searching for recording devices and other high-tech threats, which is what we're doing now," Yusaku countered, and although Ai was definitely distracted by the mechanical task of analyzing the various machines littering the restaurant, there was still a pleased hum in Yusaku's ear after he said 'we'. In hindsight, it had been a mistake to talk that way in front of Judai. It revealed too much. 

It must have. That was the only explanation for the pleased grin that spread across Judai's face.

"Your soul really is like my own. Or… Our own, I should say. It's more accurate like that."

"You're not making any sense."

"Ha… Well, then maybe your other half understands me."

The emotion must have showed through, Yusaku aware that his back teeth ached when he clenched his jaw, and Judai waved his hands quickly. It did nothing to change the tension. 

"Okay, my bad. It might be hard to believe, but I'm not actually trying to light your fuse. I-"

"I don't know you," Yusaku stated. It was direct. And it was the truth, and also the crux of the problem. 

"Perhaps, although...that's nothing a duel can't fix."

"A duel won't give me the information I need."

"Hmmm… Are you sure about that?" Judai asked with a winning smirk. "A duel is a connection, and you might just find that, underneath it all, we're actually pretty similar. For example, I saw which deck you lent to Chidori earlier, and if our positions were reversed, I would have done exactly the same thing."

Yusaku had given her the dummy deck.

The exchange had been convenient, a method of keeping her away from danger while also keeping his own identity safe. It had also been deeply unfair. It had been a lie. 

When Judai tapped his fingers against the tabletop, they made only a dull, drumming sound. His nails were short and uneven, as if he made a habit of biting them down. Faint scars banded his knuckles. 

"There's a saying I learned in school. 'A duelist's deck is a duelist's soul.' Once you hear it, oh, a couple hundred times in lectures, it gets stuck in your head." Shrugging, Judai continued. "Still, the more I travel around and the more people I meet, the more I think it's true. So, if you want to ask me questions, then, sure, go ahead, although I kinda doubt you'll get the answers you really want."

At first, Yusaku said nothing back, Ai making a series of 'thinking' noises in his ear -- hums mostly, interspersed with bursts of, " Ah, no… That won't work… " or, " ... Right, right. So, what if we ask him first about… Uhh… ". Always, Ai carried with him those vague, delicate noises, all underlain with the various whirls and beeps of the devices he moved through. Without Ai -- for those dark months without Ai -- there had been a devastating silence. The quiet had compounded inside his head.

“The city is in danger, and it will stay in danger until those behind Calamity are caught.” And, letting his fingers trace the display of his duel disk, Yusaku took a deep breath, his resolve an unbreakable wire running through him. “But if we’re going to work together, you have to understand that there’s someone I must protect, and I’m not going to risk losing them again.”

A whisper of static, and then- 

“I… W-Wow, Yusaku-chan, I… Um.” Ai trailed off, prickles of his absent touch over Yusaku’s skin, running over his hands. Of course Yusaku wanted to be with him in that familiar apartment, or in the back of the food truck and listening to his friends start meaningless arguments while the hours drifted into one another. Everything he wanted was so deceptively simple on the surface, as if he were a kid again and wishing, earnestly, to go home. 

When Judai finally glanced away, a smirk began to wind across his handsome face. 

“Sure. Just promise me that you’ll give me a duel before all of this is over,” Judai said, and Yusaku felt himself scowl. Just a little. “While I could say some cool line right now about how I get where you’re coming from, that’s less, ah, effective than me just showing you why I understand. A duel’s the best way for that, no contest.”

“Why?”

“Why?!” Judai sputtered, almost knocking over his soda again. Yusaku watched it wildly wobble back and forth. “Ah, man… You’re definitely messing with me. Not fair.”

“I’m not,” Yusaku stated, and before Judai could interrupt, he got to the point. “The Ultraviolet Project hasn’t responded to Ai’s messages yet, which means that the only information we have on the Light of Destruction is from the overview you gave us yesterday. To form a plan of attack, we need more than just that.”

Scrunching up his nose, Judai commented, “Huh. ‘Guess Saiou and the old man are pretty busy. ...Which means more work for me.” He sighed. “Alright. Ask away.”

“How did you stop the airship?”

With a snort, Judai picked up a fry and shoved it at the mangled ketchup packet. “I’ll admit, that wasn’t the question I was expecting.”

“You told us that the darkness opposes the light. You have also referred to yourself as an ‘envoy of darkness’. Therefore,” Yusaku concluded, arching an eyebrow, “if you have powers associated with this ‘darkness’, I should know about them so that I can accurately compare our strength against that of our enemy.”

“...Okay, maybe that whole ‘envoy of darkness’ thing was a bit too dramatic. But… Sure. Why not? It’s not even that long of a story. Maybe I can even get through it without going on a tangent about how a certain duelist should answer my challenge…”

“I’ll buy you a dessert if you hurry up.”

“...Woah, is Ultra-Stingy Yusaku-chan suddenly a thing of the past?” Ai wondered aloud. Yusaku did not privilege the question with an answer.

And-

And as the clouds visible through the grime-matted window cycled with the wind, Judai cracked his knuckles and began the story, a shard of green in his left eye hanging like an emerald pendant. The orange was harder to see, melding with the flecks of hazel and dark brown.

---

Chapter Text

---

<previously>

'Oh, this really isn't going well.'

'Yeah, yeah… Next time, you recruit the local hero to our save-the-world quest while I stay invisible and provide the commentary.'

'My dear, we both know that's not how it works.'

At that, Judai couldn't help but smirk a little more, Yubel's own amusement flickering through him. Although, all things considered, he was trying not to grin too much because Playmaker was already giving him a scowly/frowny sort of look. The small figure balanced precariously on the duel disk's display -- Ai, as Winged Kuriboh had overheard and cheerfully hooted to Judai earlier -- also seemed less than thrilled with the whole situation. 

So… Yeah. As usual, Yubel was right. 

This really wasn't going well. 

'Hmm… So you've acknowledged that…'

'Hey, don't worry. I can still save this. I haven't used the full extent of my charms on Playmaker yet.'

'My dear, challenging him to a duel now is unlikely to work out to our advantage.'

''Unlikely' doesn't mean the same thing as 'impossible', so-'

'If Playmaker wasn't glaring at you before, he definitely is now. Perhaps you should pay more attention to the new recruit and less to your loyal advisor."

'That'll be a challenge.'

'True, but you like challenges.'

'Ha… I also like it when you distract me.'

Again, there was Yubel's amusement, rippling down through his chest and sinking into him, and Judai absently rocked back on his heels and let his gaze drag over Fujiki Yusaku -- better known as Playmaker, who was both the unofficial hero of Den City and someone covered by a living darkness.

With Yubel's eyes, those shadows could be revealed, and they were threaded through the person in front of Judai now. They were coiled around Playmaker's left wrist and slipping, phasing, through the material of his duel disk. And while Judai wasn't sure if the red string of fate existed, he knew that its less-vivid counterpart did.

A sight like that couldn't be an accident. 

Although, as a slight negative, he wasn't one-hundred-percent sure what it meant, besides the obvious. Playmaker could only be a duelist of darkness. And, somehow, the gesturing avatar with those flashlight-like eyes was also involved, the strands of darkness all beginning at him and ending at Playmaker. 

Similar wisps of shadow with streaks of blue and grey ran between the holder of the Gentle Darkness and his eternal knight, and while they were normally a bit tricky to see, they became as vivid as chains when Yubel turned corporeal and Judai let his own darkness rise, his own vision overlain with a burning gold. The problem, as Yubel had explained earlier with a slight chuckle, was figuring out just how exactly Playmaker's soulmate could be a bunch of pixels. Or a computer program. App. Whatever.

Still, it wasn't that pressing of an issue. Not like the whole 'Light of Destruction being set loose inside a major city' thing. Which was bad. Super bad. 

Also bad was how guarded Playmaker's eyes were, meeting his own like plates of iron. 

'Although, I do deserve it. I'm about to cause a lot of trouble for him.'

'We've discussed this.'

'Yeah, but…'

'Judai, focus.'

“There haven’t been any new threats to Link VRAINS. The other virtual worlds also appear to be stable," Playmaker stated. In his rumpled school uniform, even the tie creased and a little crooked, he managed to appear both like an overtired highschool student (the kind who wouldn't bother studying, or maybe Judai was just projecting) and like the determined lead of an action series (the kind would who only wear an outfit like that for an undercover operation). Maybe both were true in their own way. 

And-

Oh. He seriously must've zoned out that time, because with a small tsk of annoyance, Yubel moved their selves closer. They peered through his eyes.

"Oh, this is new. Never had someone ask me to confirm which world is in trouble. The easy answer is that all of them are, including the one we’re in right now." When Playmaker's eyebrows scrunched up, shifting him more towards 'confused and possibly sleep-deprived student' and away from 'internationally renowned vigilante with a sick light-up jumpsuit'. Judai almost laughed, shaking his head as he exclaimed, "...Aaaand there’s the puzzled look!”

“Hey, Yusaku-chan,” Ai stage-whispered at Playmaker, with a quick (and sort of cute) glare at Judai, "maybe you should call school security."

Judai had opened his mouth, a finger raised for emphasis because, yep, the cult thing was almost on the right track (although his side wasn't the one with a history of brainwashing people and making them wear matching outfits like an overzealous pop group), but then there was a deep rumble from overhead, like a vast leviathan had uncurled from some ancient slumber. The sound made him throw his head back, Yubel's scales dancing over his arms and and brushing closer to their reality. 

Over the city, an airship was falling. 

A single word banded the screen on its side: black letters against a white slashed with grey-black noise. 

CALAMITY. 

'Judai,' Yubel breathed, and when he clenched his hands, their claws -- intangible, for now -- ghosted over the raised tendons. Yubel was moving closer and closer, as if their blood was winding through his own veins, as if the split heart of a dragon and a warrior was beating inside his chest. 

He needed to go.

He activated his duel disk.

“Keep your head down. I’ll catch you later,” Judai said, Playmaker staring back at him, staring right through him. Screams were ringing out. Cars were screeching to frantic stops, and Judai wanted to give him a smile, because that's what the strong, reassuring heroes from his childhood comics always did, but the expression came out wrong. Too slanted. Too high. 

Too honest, revealing Yubel's too-long canines. 

Whoops.

And he took off, bolting across the street at a full sprint while the bones of his back changed their shapes, elongating and widening to support that explosion of sinews and spikes and muscles and membranes. He could imagine it like a countdown, rigid red numbers on a black background with the milliseconds displayed and rapidly flickering. It was close, Yubel everywhere and galvanizing his own strength, everything that he could call his

Still, using Yubel's wings always hurt a bit. Well, a bit . He had passed out the first time, but, hey, practice made perfect, or however that saying went. 

Judai threw his weight down and jumped.

Zero.

Boom

Not a real one, of course. It was an explosion of unfurling matter in purple-black and glittering gold-red, tearing through his skin and bursting through the gaps in his jacket -- two parallel cuts over his shoulder blades. And the wings tensed in the air, taking the wind and using it. Arches of bone and muscle responded to their joined mind, and they gained meters quickly, the floors of the surrounding glass-and-steel towers passing in blurs like full-speed trains while he stood perfectly still on a platform. Only, the perspective was all wrong. 

Plus, it wasn't like he had time to take in the view, not when the airship was dropping far, far too quickly. He called on the Gentle Darkness, and it answered with the pressure of a coming storm. From his cards, one hero emerged. 

Pitched forward, the airship was being driven down, and Judai, flying straight for it with blood roaring in his ears, threw his right arm out as a conduit for the darkness. Between his fingers, electricity sparked.

Storm Neos became real.

'Go.'

The hero was gone, taking off at an impossible speed and then -- without a moment of hesitation, without anything but an unbreakable determination that resonated with the Gentle Darkness and made it sing inside Judai's head -- Storm Neos slammed into the airship. A shudder of stressed metal, the supports around the nose and cabin groaning. Storm Neos pulsed its mighty wings once, Judai letting the sharp burst of wind carry him back in a loose spiral, and-

And the airship had actually stopped, suspended in midair while the hero gathered its power again. 

'Let's go,' he whispered to Yubel, and he pushed forward with a flap of their wings, angling towards the cabin. Opening it might require their claws, and-

'JUDAI!'

He whirled away, a dragon's deep growl rumbling beneath the screaming wind, and Yubel's pupils cut through his. They made him see the mess of cables and bulky shapes on the underside of the simple, rectangular cabin. 

If he applied the sort of logic used in big-budget action movies, then those could only be explosives, attached in somewhat-neat rows on the underside of the cabin. The wires trailed inside. 

'We still have to go in there.'

The rumble shook inside his chest, Yubel's voice rasping like a weapon being slowly drawn from a sheath. 'Judai…'

'Someone's in the cabin. You can see their shape just as well as I can. ...Unless that's a really unfortunate smudge on the window.'

'If you go in there, they might fight back. Desperately. Like a trapped animal.'

'Yeah, but I have you on my side.'

Even as Storm Neos surged forward again, drawing out more of the darkness and using it, Judai could feel the slight break in Yubel's concentration, like a hitch in their breathing. A warmth sparked, delicate and small. It wouldn't be taken in by the wind whipping around them. If anything, the harsh conditions just made it grow, the start of an inferno flaring beneath his skin, sections over his ribs now interlocked with Yubel's raised scales.

'Love you too ,' he thought, their satisfaction another ripple of summer-warmth, and that's when he dove for the cabin, grappled onto its side, and forced the door open, the hinges screaming out. This was the scene where the hero from a big-budget action movie would've thrown out a one liner, the kind that would break the tension a bit and make the audience laugh (as if nothing could seriously go wrong). 

Although, even if Judai had come up with a heroic line, he might've forgotten it when faced with the sleek, white-grey android propped up in the pilot's seat. Wearing a blue boiler suit, it could've functioned as a mannequin at a rather un-inventive clothing store. Thick cables in red and blue ran across the floor of the cabin -- at a sharp incline, enough to make Judai grip the doorframe. They ended at a rectangular box within the android's reach, the exterior a maze of metal, plastic, and glints of copper. 

The chance of him solving this with a duel was pretty low. Unless the robot happened to also be a dueling prototype. Robot. Android. Cyborg. ...Thing.

SOLtiS was probably the right word for it. It was a word whispered in the crowds that he had walked through while surveying the new city. It had been hissed at the mechanical baristas inside popular chain cafes.

Not that Judai understood the hate. His robo-barista had even given him a free refill with his coffee. And a complimentary biscuit.

"Hey there. Not to bother you or anything, but you wouldn't mind tilting this airship up a bit, would you? I'm sure the people below us would appreciate it."

No answer.

Maybe this wasn't a talkative model. Shaking his head, the wind throwing his bangs back, Judai tried again.

"Ahh, you're going to make me say the magic word… Okay, okay. Would you please tilt the airship back up again? Just for me?" As an extra bonus, Judai put on his best 'oh, sorry, I didn't know you needed a different bus ticket for the return trip' smile. It didn't work at all. The SOLtiS didn't even glance over, not that it had eyes in the first place. 

Okay. Plan B.

'Alright, Yubel. We gotta come up with a question that'll lead the robot to a logic-defying paradox, and then its systems will be overwhelmed. Bam, victory. Sounds good, doesn't it?'

'Or,' they began, their voice deep and rough, 'we could just rip its head off.'

'...Okay. But we don't know how the robot works. Maybe it'll self-destruct instead. Or send a signal to its controller that the mission's been compromised.'

'Your plan suffers from the same flaws. However, only mine has the advantage of being very, very direct.'

Being direct was important. Yubel didn't have to emphasize why, because the darkness was continuing to be drawn out of his body, every wisp of it necessary for Storm Neos to push the airship upward and away from the innocent people below. If Judai could compare the feeling to anything, then it would be to having his blood taken for a test. Only, he now was losing too much, more than enough to leave his head fogged. 

Of course, he hadn't taken a test like that since he was a little kid, one who had spent far too long going in and out of hospitals, experimental clinics, and, eventually, too-bright rooms with loud machines that had drilled holes in his memories. If he -- a fusion, inseparable -- took a blood test now, it would probably come back very strange. Or maybe Yubel's reflexes would block the needle, snapping it off on a purple-dark scale that would push over his skin in an instant. 

Yeah, the drain was getting worse, and, bracing himself with one hand, Judai stared out across the near-empty cabin. Too much about the attack remained unknown. A trained mercenary like O'Brien would've been able to assess the SOLtiS, determine what it was really doing, and probably even pilot the airship. And diffuse all of the bombs. With zero errors, naturally.

'Ready, Yubel?'

'Yes.'

Still, there were things only they could do, and Judai let Yubel's draconic claws bleed over his right hand, consuming his own fingers and knuckles and sheathing them under their hard scales. Dropping to his knees, he cut the wires. All of them. 

There were many possible outcomes. 

Consumed by a sudden inferno, the cabin could have burned under a reactionary denotation of the bombs, and Yubel would have been there as his armor, covering him with their jagged shadow and clutching him closer and closer. And even though they -- a coil of warm darkness, the embodiment of a summer's night and the day's moments of shade -- would have stopped all of the flames from reaching him, he still would have hurt from it, scorched by a deep guilt because, yeah, he always did this. He always found new ways to make Yubel become a shield. 

'I don't mind. If I did, you would've heard about it by now, my darling Judai.'

'Ah, let me worry about you a little . If I'm lucky, you'll start finding it charming.'

'Unlikely.'

Even the SOLtiS had remained in that rigid position, its arms like two brackets over the control panel. Artificial fingers were molded around the controls. And although a high-ranking fusion like Storm Neos could have summoned enough wind to gently lower any debris to the ground or, the brute force option, hurl said debris into the bay, it was a net positive that the airship hadn't turned into a very large firework. 

'Okay, so anyone else who boards the cabin should be...safer. Not safe because we don't know how the bombs actually work, but-'

'Judai.'

'There's gotta be something else we can do, although provoking the robot is… There are way too many trap cards. I need a field clear.'

'Others are coming this way. We have to go.'

Featureless, the SOLtiS faced the front window, the sharp breeze that wound through the cabin making its collar sway back and forth. It remained a blank slate. A void. Even with Yubel's eyes, he found nothing but the white of its coating and the faint streaks of teal light from its marker.

Damn. 

'Don't make me repeat myself,' Yubel chided.

Just for occasions like this, he kept a balled-up scarf in his pocket, and he paused only to wrap it around the lower half of his face, securing the knot as he let Yubel's wings unfurl, catch the wind, and yank him backwards and out of the cabin. For a moment, he entered freefall. 

The world was only blue and grey. 

And then he struck out, the wings shooting down and making him rocket upwards, past the airship and far above the fleet of buzzing drones drawing over the city like ravens. The rotors of a military-grade helicopter beat heavily, the shape of the vehicle a smudge that widened with the passing seconds. Drawn to it, Judai whipped around to stare back at the airship again, now almost level and rising slowly. Unless the universe had changed its rules, the first people who boarded the cabin wouldn't have anything to save them -- absolutely, undeniably save them -- if the bombs went off. 

And so he waited. 

With his focus steeled, he waited -- flitting high above the gleaming towers and settling, rarely, on the top of one for a beat, clinging to its metal rivets and watching with unblinking eyes. An ignition would mean heat, maybe enough for Storm Neos to sense it and react in time. Or maybe not. 

The chill of the air made his throat tight.

Faster than the helicopters, a VTOL airplane darted close to the airship, and it was soon joined by a second one that breezed through the cloud of orbiting drones. Wires shot out and grappled onto the metal cage of the airship, and the steady drip of the darkness from Judai's hand weakened, Storm Neos drawing less energy as the planes took on some of the burden.

And yet, he felt a different kind of cold, separated from the ice of that exhaustion because, no, no way had he taken out this threat. Small drones zipped in and out of the cabin, likely surveying it for the personnel in those planes. Gaps could exist. They remained on a precipice without wings. 

'I shouldn't have left.'

'You had to, and you have to recall Storm Neos.'

Yes, the airship was rising. Yes, Storm Neos could finally start to let go, although-

Pushing off a spire, he circled closer in a wide arc. The exhaustion became an icicle between his ribs. And then it sharpened. 

And then his wings crumpled.

'JUDAI!'

As the fire in his chest, Yubel cut through everything else -- the tumbling maze of the spinning city, the whistle that rang in his ears as he plummeted story after story and closer to the pavement. They forced the wings down, strained muscles working beyond their limits and pushing him up . Yes, it hurt, enough to make black spots crowd his vision, like hundreds of phantom drones clustered together. It didn't matter that it hurt. 

The connection with Storm Neos had become only a drip, like blood from a shallow cut. 

'Judai, you can't protect everyone.'

'Yeah. Call it a bad habit.'

'They're specialists. They know how to deal with threats,' Yubel stated firmly, their everything curled around him. And he wanted them to be right. 

With the world around him in streaks of blue, he wished for that.

Judai let the storm fade, the presence of that hero drifting away and out of this reality. Far below him, the gleaming towers had started to thin out, Den City's outer districts in a patchwork of residential blocks, building sites, and open plazas below. With some luck, no one would notice his landing on an unfinished apartment building. 

...on that note, maybe it was finally time to stop accepting those jackets that the chancellor kept sending him each year. Yeah, being a good alumnus was important, especially for his favorite dorm, but the red did make sneaking around kinda difficult. 

Then again, that was also his colour. 

Decisions, decisions… Weighing the pros and cons acted as a nice distraction, for a while at least. Below him now, the unfinished building resembled a vertical jumble of chicken wire, and although he had been here for, oh, two-and-a-half days rent free and seemingly undetected by the Light's forces, Judai had, in all honesty, never really wondered what the architect's Ultimate Vision would be. Considering the 'abandoned' vibe of the construction site, the remaining vehicles thrown around like toys by an annoyed toddler, it seemed pretty likely that, well, maybe that Vision would remain just an Idea. 

And yet, when his wings gave out again and became like sheets of loose paper so thin that they shredded in the wind, Judai found himself with a very, very intense close-up of the building, whether he wanted it or not. 

He didn't know the specific name for the interlocking metal beams that made up the majority of the building's exterior. Whatever they were, they hurt. A lot. 

One had done a pretty good job of trying to ram its way through his right side, stopped by a net of scales made from what darkness had remained. He had drained so much of it. And still Yubel -- a hiss in his ear, inside his head -- was knitting his tissues back together, was making his body work even though it shouldn't have. Not when he had gone over all limits. He could taste blood. He could see it pooling over a line of metal, giving it a copper sheen. 

Yeah, okay. So red was his colour.

Just not in such a morbid way. He liked sunset red. Cherry-popsicle red. Campfire red, cascading out with flickers of orange and yellow. Stuff like that. 

For a long time, he remained where he had fallen -- clinging to a frame of unyielding metal with bared claws while slowly lifting himself away from the part that really, really hurt. Each breath was a part of this sadistic game. Each roll forward of his chest made the pain twist.

To someone on the ground, he must've looked like a daredevil who, after climbing at least seven stories, had somehow managed to impale himself on a pointy bit of Building, with a capital 'B' because the structure now felt very, very significant. It would have a special place in his memories, as most other buildings (lowercase 'b') did not take an active part in trying to rearrange his internal organs. 

The force of Yubel's concentration made him shiver. Their thoughts thickened into a haze. 

'I have you. You're with me.'

Judai felt himself smile, his eyelids heavy. The metal was forced back, and -- with Yubel whispering a reassurance, an 'I love you' that used different words -- he could eventually haul himself up and onto a horizontal metal beam, the wind dragging lines of cold across his nose and ears. He leaned back against a support column, the streets below splayed out like the cross-section of some impossibly complex machine. Cars traversed it like electrical signals relaying an alien message.

People could have been hurt. In the time that he was out because an injury he should have been able to avoid, the airship could have-

'Dear.'

"You think I would've gotten the hang of this vigilante stuff by now," he said, letting his hands go slack. One hung over the edge. "Maybe we should start keeping a running tally of how many times you've saved me. It'll be like one of those yogurt cards. After ten saves, I'll throw in a prize."

'I see your sense of humor wasn't damaged in the fall.'

"Try not to sound too disappointed," he replied, and next was the first brush of Yubel's knuckles over his forehead -- tangible as their form flickered in streaks of purple and gold. The breeze carried their scent. "You know, I've fallen asleep in a lot of weird places, but those places are usually on the ground. ...Today is...a chance for new experiences, if nothing else."

'If you want to sleep, then sleep. I'll wait for you.'

Again, the ridges of their knuckles passed over his skin, warm like stones placed next to a fire, and Judai leaned into them, following their path. And then the world slipped away, leaving only the faint pulses of Yubel and their firelight, beating in the center of the growing dark. 

---

The stars were out. 

Their patterns sharpened as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, and it was a good sign that when he coughed, the responding ache from his rib cage wasn't quite enough to make him pass out again. 

Note to self: summoning a triple Neos fusion (a tall order by itself) and using said fusion to stop an airship was already hard enough without the addition of blunt force trauma. And not-so-blunt trauma. 

His jaw was also stiff. 

'You have a bruise. It's very heroic.'

'Ha. Good to know that you're into the roughed-up look.'

Yubel snorted, and their breath washed over his cheek. Their armored plates clinked together as they leaned back. 'The wound has healed enough for me to move you. Come here.'

Blinking, he stared up at Yubel, crouched over him with the night draped over them like a cloak, obscuring the exact colours of their scales. Unfurling, one hand moved over his shoulders, and another dipped down to the small of his back, carrying with it a brittle heat. One weakened by the layers of armor between them.

Yubel had once described themselves as the perfect fortress, a blade-like smirk turning their full lips as they had gestured at the spikes flowing from their dark scales. 'Of course, I'm not purely defensive,' they had drawled, and the flash of humor had been enough to make the angles of their face soften, the contours of it glow. 

Corporeal, the sections of armor varied -- some fluid and bending with the gentle curves of Yubel's body and others set in hard, metal-like fortifications over thick muscle. It didn't matter if it was a thousand times. Or a million. Or more, because every facet of them was, to him, completely and absolutely loved, a truth that bound the both of them together. Embodied by the trailing shadows, by those eternal threads. 

And, yeah, Yubel's gaze could be useful for seeing through illusions, following too-quick actions, and magnifying small details, but above all else, it was this sight that was his favorite thing. Them looking back at him. Their lashes -- half dark as charcoal and swooping low and half just thin wisps of fragile smoke-grey -- framing the burning colours contained. 

'You're going to make me blush,' they stated, all sarcasm, and Judai snorted. He let Yubel start to lift him, his arms heavy and limp. Not-thinking about his side was, so far, the best strategy, although the persistent, knock-like aches complicated things a bit. 

'Ha… I think this is called a 'bridal carry.''

'It doesn't matter how politely you ask. I'm not going to put on a suit.'

'...Stop reading my mind,' Judai ordered, somewhat pathetically, and their laughter was around him -- the sound low, matched by the slight rumble of their chest as they pressed his head against their breast. It wasn't a position that he would complain about. Ever. 'You're spoiling me, carrying me around like this. I could get used to it too easily.'

A quick laugh, their eyes bright. 'To compensate, I'll make a point of dropping you rather carelessly.'

'Ahhh…. So mean….'

Yubel flew with far more grace than he did, the first pulse of their wings something he could see rather than feel, and with their faultless ease, they navigated down through the unfinished layers of the building. And Judai, leaning more against them, closed his eyes again. He listened to the rasp of their breathing. 

Exactly as he had left it, his 'camp' was spread behind a section of wall on the second floor, and, blinking to stay awake, he felt Yubel lay him on the blanket. They were more than gentle. When their wings tightened, the membranes creased with a slight noise, like newspaper being neatly folded.

'Can you get me my phone?'

A grumble, more 'annoyed cat' than 'fierce lion'. 'Just rest, darling.'

'Hey, you could search up today's news for me. That'd be easy, right?'

'...Yes, because my relationship with technology is anything but adversarial,' Yubel stiffly replied. While their claws had never scratched Judai, Yubel did have certain, err, hang-ups with modern touchscreens. Expensive hang-ups that confused repair techs ("Did...you let a bear use this?"). And even though Judai could hear the annoyed little clicks of their tongue, they did pluck the phone, thick anti-drop case and all, out of the jacket pocket on his 'hurt-y' side. 

Getting the voice recognition system (program… app… thing…) to read out the headlines for Den City took a couple tries, Yubel's grumpy snarls almost making him chuckle (which increasingly hurt, his adrenaline just ashes rather than a blaze). But-

The bombs had been deactivated, according to a spokesperson for the new task group.

No casualties reported. 

Without a word, Yubel dropped the phone into his bag. Even though his eyelids were heavy, Judai looked at the blank expanse of the ceiling -- in darkness, showing nothing.

'There's...such a thin line between the hero who rescues people and the idiot who charges in and messes everything up. When I first realized that, I had already crossed the line. I was alone in a pit on the other side.'

'If you try to rationalize everything about this chaotic world, you'll find yourself disappointed,' Yubel remarked, brushing his bangs away with the barest contact, a breeze of claws and dragon scales. He smiled. 

'I think I've never actually been on the 'good' side of that line. Maybe I've had a foot over it sometimes, or even just a big toe, but that doesn't count.'

'This self-pity doesn't suit you.'

'Ah, sorry sorry.' With grey spotting his vision, he let his head loll to the side, and Yubel drifted closer again. He wished for their touch, and they responded with a kiss to his jawline, above the bruise. Heat unfolded over his skin. 'Still, I'll need all of my luck to get out of Den City with, ah, 'good results.''

'Oh?' Yubel murmured, loose strands of hair drifting over his face. Another kiss. 'What secret plans have you been keeping from me?'

‘Nothing major. But with any luck, we’ll find the Light of Destruction and take it out before it can start to spread. Maybe if we’re fast enough, I won’t have to recruit Playmaker at all. I can just forever be that weird guy who bothered him on his way to school once. That’s not so bad, is it?’

‘It’s unlikely for the situation to be that simple. Saiou was right -- the organization is overwhelmed. We need allies, and Playmaker is on the side of justice. He’s wrapped in his own form of darkness.’

‘Yeah… I can’t argue with you at all. And yet…’

‘What is it?’

Plated knuckles rounded his cheekbones. ‘It’s this feeling I’ve had ever since we came here -- someone around me is going to be hurt,’

‘You’re worried that person will be Playmaker. Fujiki Yusaku.’

‘He was scared today. Very scared.’

‘Considering what happened, most people would be,’ Yubel responded, and then they leaned closer, their cheek against his. “Go to sleep, Judai.”

And it would’ve been impossible not to, the steady rhythm of their breathing pulling him further and further away. Although, the last image he had was of Playmaker standing in front of him with an absolute, undeniable focus behind his narrowed green eyes. This was before the airship had plummeted down, while Winged Kuriboh -- worried, and more puffed up than usual -- had quietly warbled in his ear about how quickly Yusaku had tried to hide earlier.

Fujiki Yusaku had been afraid, and not only of obvious things like a vehicle falling from the sky above a populated city. Judai could recognize the pain even though it had been hidden away; sometimes Playmaker’s hard stare had flickered into something strained, almost desperate.

Yes, Judai had recognized the pain. Of course he had. 

In another dimension, the weight of loss had almost crushed his heart.

---

After two-ish years of traveling around, Yuki Judai had gotten pretty used to sleeping on the concrete floors of abandoned factories, uneven ground littered with stray pine needles and tiny, pointy rocks, and various spare futons that were always offered apologetically. While he wasn’t immune to it, he also didn’t usually wake up with a sore back or a stiff neck unless something went incredibly wrong. Or unless the futon he had used belonged to a certain Marufuji Sho (that same futon, he had theorized, was probably cursed by a God of Discomfort).

That morning, as the hum of a city’s morning began to filter into the near-empty space, Judai did hurt. A lot.

Although, for a nice distraction, the first thing he saw when he cracked his eyes open was a stone-faced Yubel glaring down at a pretty brave cat, which had plopped down in a gap between the unfinished walls. When it yawned, swishing its orange-white striped tail through the air, Judai couldn’t stop himself from making a comment. 

“It’s cute that you’ve made a new friend.”

A ruffle of their wings. ‘’New friend’ is quite the exaggeration.’

He sat up, wincing as he did. “Since Pharaoh’s been at Saiou’s place, we’ve been missing the cute animal mascot for our group. Maybe this is a chance for a new recruit."

'Or not,’ they answered inside his head, a shadow of a smile turning their lips -- a soft teal, the colour thin over the grey wall beside them. Because animals had heightened senses for all things spirit-related, the fluffy basketball of a cat could track Yubel’s now-translucent form far better than most people. Pharaoh, usually with a warning ‘yowl’, had made the occasional game of swatting at Yubel’s wingtips. 

Because Pharaoh and Daitokuji-sensei were sort of a ‘package deal’, Saiou’s request for the alchemist’s expertise meant that Judai’s clothes were less fur-ladened than usual, not that he had ever minded that. Still, it was good knowing that Pharaoh was, at that very moment, hanging around a laboratory with his master and probably shedding all over some ridiculously expensive equipment. Well, either that or leaving hairballs in people’s shoes.

On the subject of shoes, his own boots had been taken off by a mysterious entity (likely one about two-meters in height, with split purple-white hair, and sporting a charming little scowl). Dragging the boots on caught Yubel’s attention, their image shimmering as they turned and arched a judgmental black eyebrow ridge at him.

“Just running to the store. You want anything?”

‘I’ll let you know if I think of something,’ was the deadpan reply, Yubel’s lip curling a bit. 'Must I state the obvious?'

"Last time I checked, I'm almost out of painkillers, and," he added, brushing his palms over his jeans, "I'm already losing the motivation to find a pharmacy. Time is of the essence. ...At least, I think that's the saying."

Yubel snorted and said nothing.

The next task was rather...complicated. While going out in public with toothpaste on his collar, Pharaoh's hair ringing his pant legs, and a couple of twigs in his hair was totally fine, the current state of his shirt was a different matter. Holes too big even for his lax standards. And too much dried blood.

He changed it as quickly as possible, Yubel's tangible hands intercepting his own. His decision seemed more and more like the wrong one after he stood up and took an experimental step forward. Everything swayed a bit too much.

When he collapsed on the stairs down to the first floor, clutching his side, Yubel caught him. Changing the shirt had been a total waste after all, fresh drops slipping under the hem and hitting the stairs. Hopefully no one would notice the marks. Well, no one besides the still-curious cat who had watched the entire exchange and then, echoing Yubel's own grimace, grumbled in disapproval. 

Yeah. Judai had experienced better Saturday mornings than this.

'What are the chances of a delivery person just showing up with painkillers and breakfast for me?'

'Hm. I think you need to stop at least two more airships for that service,' Yubel murmured back, already at work with the contents of the first aid kit strewn over its lid. With the darkness running so thin, the wound needed some help, that help involving Yubel delicately cutting strips of bandages and applying them swiftly, knowingly. 

'None of the headlines yesterday even mentioned Storm Neos or a 'mysterious figure' stopping the airship. I sure hope Storm Neos wasn't waiting to get the spotlight. Disappointment like that can be hard to take.'

'It seems as though the emergence of a new enemy can overwhelm that of a new hero,' Yubel observed.

'Yeah… I understand. ...I'm also now out of clean shirts.'

'Maybe that same delivery person will take pity on you.'

'Ha. Maybe.' With a final tug at his shirt, Yubel leaned back, leaving him flat on the blanket. He caught their wrist before they phased away. 

'Hey, thanks for dealing with my stubborn side for the millionth time. I'll make this up to you.'

The gauntlet was smooth there -- the copper-brown segments flecked with a deep gold that flashed when they moved. It was beautiful, and, careful not to upset the neatness of Yubel's work, Judai angled his head forward and pressed a kiss to the ridge of their knuckles. The strands of lingering darkness looped over Yubel's claws like rings, like wisps of grass that would scatter if Judai pressed his lips slightly lower, kissing his way down one of Yubel's fingers. 

He did continue, letting his eyes slide shut, and they shivered slightly. It made him grin, probably like an idiot. 

Definitely like an idiot, considering how Yubel then sighed and muttered, "Oh, darling, whatever am I to do with you?"

"Right now, you can protect me from the deadly threat of this neighborhood cat."

Said cat had advanced to rubbing one furry cheek against Judai's leg, and Yubel, after watching it for a beat while a threatening aura gathered over them, let out a deep, rumbling sigh that only a creature of legend being ignored by a three-kilogram fluffball could make. 

</previously>

---

Although, Judai did leave a few details out of the story. Like the moments of self-doubt. And the somewhat-graphic descriptions of what it felt like being skewered by Building. 

And anything that gave away too many details about the duel spirits (he couldn't hand over his foolproof how-to-track-Playmaker technique, not yet anyways).

And the cuddling with Yubel (hey, private stuff was private!). 

The dented soda container in front of him added to Playmaker's general 'overtired teenager' look, as did the too-big hoodie, the disheveled fall of his bangs, and his slight frown. Sure, Playmaker had asked a few questions, all focused on how certain abilities worked, but Judai would still classify him as 'surprisingly quiet' for someone who had just been informed that, yes, the guy sitting across from him could fly. And summon Duel Monsters into this world. 

Usually, that was only for emergencies. 

...Okay, maybe Sparkman had charged his phone a few times before. But not that many. 

No more than five times. 

In contrast to Den City's famous hero, the little avatar of Ai had been, well, alive during the story. Always moving and reacting with big 'WHOOPS' of surprise, Ai’s responses had been impossible to ignore -- not that Judai was the type to brush off the chances to make some quick jokes. In a strange way, Ai reminded him of an over-the-top arcade game, the kind ringed with flashing lights, decked out with all sorts of tiny, moving things, and, above all else, constantly bursting with those loud exclamations of sound. 

“Huh? Is that it?” Ai blurted out next, peering up at him from the duel disk, where the avatar was cross-legged and rocking back-and-forth like an over-excitable preschooler during storytime. "Well, that only gave me...even more questions than before. What about you, Yusaku-chan? Should we- Woah!"

Getting up from the booth, Playmaker seemed to make a point of glancing back at Judai, who was trying (seriously, actually trying) to appear…'Good'. Ideally, he would come across as 'Trustworthy', but -- a consequence of being a duelist and therefore a strategist -- he did acknowledge that, yeah, a bond like that wouldn't come easily. 

They really should have dueled by now. No matter what, the fall of their cards would change them both.

Although, even a master-level duelist could be caught off guard, which was Judai's excuse for just blinking in response when Playmaker stiffly asked, "What do you want?"

A beat passed, and then Yubel took pity on him, crooning in his ear. 'For your complimentary dessert, my dear.'

Oh.

Right.

"Uh… Surprise me," Judai said, the judgmental tilt of Playmaker's eyebrows not improving, and Ai dramatically 'whooped' and flailed his arms around when, duel disk and all, the teenager pivoted on his heel and walked away. 

'...Hmm. I have a new premonition, and it tells me that I'm about to get the cheapest thing on the menu,' Judai sent to Yubel, who, sympathetic as always, made his chest rattle with their rich laughter. 'Plain ice cream. One scoop.'

'So, would you say that you're being treated coldly?'

'No, but… Wait. Was that a pun?!'

'Was it?' they asked with a giggle. It was a giggle, no other word coming close to describing it. 

'...Yeah, I'll keep this in mind for the next time you complain about my sense of humor. So, watch out. It's a perfect counter,' Judai warned, earning him another set of tingly, fast-moving giggles, and he munched on a sorta-cold fry with a sense of victory. A small one, yeah, but he'd take what he could get. 

After all, Playmaker (or probably even Ai, for that matter) could've ordered with one of the screens attached to their booth. Or with the official app for this chain. A strategy meeting was likely being conducted, with himself as its main subject. 

'Playmaker will come around. Persistence is the key.'

'Is 'persistence' a fancy word for 'dueling'?'

'If that's how you choose to interpret it.'

One fry had become three fries, then four. And then he had finished the whole pile. Drumming his fingers on the dingy table, Judai craned his head back, peering through the weather-streaked window and into the city outside. Cowering, the few duel spirits that bobbed and swayed after the few pedestrians seemed to have their colours faded, desaturated. Intertwined with the ebbs and flows of this world, they mirrored their duelists' own fears and anxieties. With proud wings, a fantastic hawk shielded one business man as he stepped off the sidewalk and hurried across an empty stretch of the street. A cat spirit circled her duelist -- an older woman slowly hauling a bulging shopping trolley behind her -- with an arched back, her feline ears flattened. 

Admittedly, Judai hadn’t figured out how digitized cards interacted with duel spirits, and yet there was no denying that the connection remained. Even without a physical card, a pint-sized dragon whelp had flown after the would-be thieves from earlier that day, thin curls of smoke escaping its tight jaws and its tail lashing violently at the air. So, yeah, Chidori must’ve been good to her cards to earn the dragon’s respect, a respect that could last for lifetimes. Extending on and on.

‘Ah, there’s your poetic side…’

‘Romantic, isn’t it?’

‘’Charming’ is the word I would use,’ Yubel observed, cadence smooth. Balancing his chin on his knuckles, Judai felt an easy smirk turn his own face. Den City was very interesting, still interesting even if he removed the enigmatic figure of Playmaker from the picture.

Playmaker, someone spoken of by the local duelists with the hushed whispers of awe and deep, honest respect.

Before Judai had connected the dots (so to speak) between the virtual and the actual, he had assumed Playmaker’s real self would be… Well. A super nerd. Like, a ‘Misawa Daichi’ level of nerd, which wasn’t negative at all but it did involve a lot more advanced math than Judai ever, ever wanted to do himself (the moment equations started using letters instead of numbers, Judai was out). 

As his real self, Playmaker was more subdued than anything Judai had (foolishly, rashly) assumed he would be. Sometimes, Playmaker seemed like a warped and distorted mirror, the smudged pieces of a very different and very alone Yuki Judai segmenting his unique features. And now-

The solemn, restrained boy with the vibrant green eyes was now cutting a straight path across the faded linoleum tiles of the chain restaurant, the duel disk at his side sparkling with rainbow lights as the pixelated figure on it continued to twirl and gesture widely -- a dark tornado in miniature. And in this place that was simultaneously dull and colourful (so many blinking screens reminding Judai to download the app! And register for an account to get a free coupon!), Playmaker was an image from somewhere else that had been cut out and pasted onto the ill-fitting scene. His angles were too different. His colours clashed with those around him, and a darkness ran in thick streaks over his left arm. It was coiled and so very alive. 

'An enigma wrapped inside another enigma,’ Judai thought, meeting Playmaker’s stare.

---