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The last remnants of the storm are still swirling when Yusaku emerges from the cyclone, pieces of data streaming past him. It’s only code, a mess of zeros and ones, but the blocky and clear edges look enough like glass it takes effort to keep from flinching. His board is shaky beneath his feet; the latest storm is one of the strongest he’s passed through, and the effort of surviving in those raging winds took more that Yusaku had to give. It is skill and sheer will that keep him balanced on the board, and as he transitions back to the main river of the Data Storm, he finds his hands are shaking.

As always, exiting the cyclone leaves him breathless, and his opponent notices—laughs, too, that sort of loud cackling laughter that Ignis says belongs to “one of these weird American Disney villains” rather than an actual person.

“Look at you shiver, boy! Finally realizing you’re out of your depth?”

Yusaku kind of wants to sneer at that, but the sad thing is, it's not wrong. His opponent is stronger than expected for sure—Yusaku wouldn’t have risked such a volatile storm otherwise. It’s a shame, too, because he can’t remember the other duelist’s name, and he’s losing to the guy. Talk about embarrassing.

He’s saved from having to respond by a sharp crack of a whip, and holds out a hand gratefully. Blue Angel’s rope of pure blue energy wraps tight around his waist and yanks him through the air. His board slams down onto another stream, the data storm kicking up a multitude of colors in his wake. Her own board skates alongside his, and her face is flushed with exhaustion even as a glowing smile curls her lips.

“Having some trouble, Playmaker?”

“No,” Yusaku says, and casts his gaze behind her. No one is following them, even though when they separated he saw four of the men head after her. “You?”

She laughs. “Took them out in one fell swoop! Well, it’s what they get for underestimating me.”

He can’t help but smile at her glowing pride, even as his heart sinks. At this rate, he’s the only one still fighting--the others will never let him hear the end of it.

He used to live such a quiet, manageable life. Sometimes he still dreams of it.

“You know,” Blue Angel adds, still talking. “He thought I was your sidekick? Which, rude, everyone knows Ignis is your sidekick.”

What? Ignis gasps, reedy voice pitching high. I am not!

Blue Angel gives the AI a look—possibly pity, probably laughter. “I hate to break it to you…”

I’m not his sidekick! If anything, Go’s his sidekick.

Hah. No. “Go would kick your ass for saying that,” Yusaku shoots down flatly, not meeting either of their eyes—or, well. Eye, in Ignis’s case. “Try again. Or not at all. I don’t have a sidekick.”

“Superheroes have sidekicks!”

“I am not superhero, what part of me looks like a superhero?”

Blue Angel tsks. “Well, true… you do look more like a surfer.”

“A—A surfer —”

HAH! Ignis declares, so loud and sudden Yusaku nearly starts off his board. I got it! Revolver’s your sidekick!

“I’m what,” a new voice snaps, and Blue Angel puts her hand up to her mouth in a mock gasp. She’s probably hiding a smile. Yusaku kind of wants to hide. Just for a little while. They’re all terrible people and he hates that he knows them.

“Ignore Ignis, he’s talking nonsense.”

We’re deciding who Playmaker’s sidekick is. It’s you.

Revolver, for one glorious second, looks so absolutely disgusted by the idea he nearly slams into the side of a stray building. It’s hilarious and undignified and Yusaku can feel this… alien sensation trying to crawl up his throat. Laughter. Good god.

“I am no-one’s sidekick,” Revolver says delicately, and his voice is cool enough to freeze water. “Remember that, AI.”

De~ni~al~ is all Ignis sings in response, and through the mask Yusaku can see Revolver’s cheeks flush briefly in rage as his shoulders bristle and eyes narrow. Revolver has always been emotional in anger, but to see him react to something so petty…

Yusaku used to see this guy as the greatest threat to the virtual world. That was a thing, that definitely happened, he got scars from it and everything. And yet. Here they are, baiting each other with superhero references. This is actually his life.

“Regardless of who’s whose sidekick,” Blue Angel says, though the slight quirk of her lips fools no-one. “We have to move on—your friend and Go can’t hold down the fort forever, right?”

“Right,” Yusaku says. “I’ll hurry. His deck is simply… difficult.”

Blue Angel nods, and the lack of scorn on her face is the only reason Yusaku admits that much at all. It used to be that he never admitted any difficulties to anyone, but the past few months of working alongside Ignis and the others have changed him in ways Yusaku still doesn’t understand.

“It’s fine, you’ll get through it. Need any help?”

At this, Yusaku frowns. “No.”

Revolver’s eyes narrow, his mouth thinning. “If this takes too long— “

“It won’t.”

“Do not be prideful, Playmaker. I refuse to acknowledge someone as stupid as that.”

His shoulders are rising, his frown deepening into a scowl. He leans forward, eyes fixed on Revolver’s face, teeth near bared. “I don’t—"

A gloved hand shoves them apart, and Blue Angel’s voice snaps between them, as sudden and as striking as her whip. “We don’t have time for this, either.” She turns to Yusaku, smile gone flat and hard. “Need help or no?”

“I don’t—“ Yusaku starts, but sees the looks on her face and bites back the rest of his words, taking a long breath. Blue Angel is not the only one who is intolerable of his “do-it-myself” attitude, as Ignis calls it, but unlike Go and Kusanagi, and even Revolver, she’s one of the few who acts on it. If she thinks Yusaku is about to do something stupid, she will stay and make sure he doesn’t.

“I can finish this on my own,” Yusaku says, more calmly, and when Ignis gives a dissatisfied grumble from his wrist, amends, “ Ignis and I can finish this on our own. Go on ahead.”

She doesn’t look convinced. Neither does Revolver, but then, he’s always irritated by something. “If this is about pride— “

“It’s not,” Yusaku refutes, and sighs, anger draining. That’s concern on their faces, not scorn, and the sight makes him feel… tired, but also a bit guilty. “I have a plan. I can do this. Go ahead—I’ll catch up, and then we can take that bastard down together.”

It’s the last word that Blue Angel catches on, and her eyes widen before she smiles, small and soft and bright—one of her real smiles, not the showman one she’ll put on for the camera. “Okay,” she says, and though Revolver says nothing, his shoulders have relaxed, and his head tilts into a slight nod—recognition, maybe.

The understanding on her face—on all their faces, though Revolver looks impatient, but not mocking—is a relief he didn’t know he ever needed. They don’t understand, but they respect his choices. That’s enough. It’s more than enough.

Sometimes Yusaku can’t believe he’s standing here. Can’t believe that this is his life now—that these wild, emotional people, former enemies and strangers, have shouldered their way into his world so thoroughly. He can hardly remember what it was like to live without them, and that…

It scares him. But it also makes him smile.

“Leave it to us,” Yusaku says, and Ignis cackles by his side. He watches them leave for the next level, and feels oddly at peace.

Footsteps land behind him. A voice sneers, “Ready to be beaten, boy?” and Yusaku doesn’t bother to acknowledge him. He doesn’t know the man’s name, but that’s fine—this faceless opponent doesn’t matter in the end.

There’s a new storm on the horizon, and Yusaku refuses to let his—his friends, for that is what they are, isn’t it? —face it alone.

Ignis’s laughter is echoing in his ears, high-pitched and familiar, and Yusaku lets a rare smile curl his own lips—a smile not unlike Revolver’s, sharp and fierce and unfaltering.

“Only if you’re ready to lose,” Yusaku says, and Playmaker takes to the stage.