I don't own Angelic Layer. CLAMP does. I don't own Chobits either. CLAMP owns them too. I do own Hitomi, but who really cares?
The Shining One
Misaki looked down at the Egg. "Hikaru, I...I don't think I want to play Angelic Layer. I mean..." She looked up at her former Angel. "It's...I'd feel like I was replacing you."
"Please, don't look at it that way." Hikaru's voice dropped to her "Neutral" voice. Misaki expected that it was because she didn't have a voice to express whatever it was she was feeling. "I wish to play Angelic Layer with you again, and...this is the only way I can."
"I'm sorry." Misaki looked down again. "I think...Maybe we rushed into...your upgrade. Maybe we made you big...without thinking about it."
"We did," said Hikaru, nodding. "But I don't think we would have made a different decision."
"So...what...what should we do?"
"I told you." Hikaru raised her Egg again. "Let's play Angelic Layer."
"This would...make you feel better?"
"It would," said Hikaru. Her voice shifted to the "Excited" register. "I want to play the game with you, Misaki. I always did. I can't play with you the same way, but I can still play."
"Okay." Misaki smiled weakly. "We'll need some other stuff."
Misaki eyed her creation critically. She'd not gone for a speed-type this time. The as-yet unnamed Angel was larger and more powerful than Hikaru had been, and dangerously low on speed. On the other hand, her skills were higher, and her power and strength were at the top of the limits for an Angel.
She'd not made the mistake of cutting her hair this time. Instead, she'd braided it back at the sides, leaving the bulk of it loose at the back. Purple hair...What was that show that Hikaru liked so much? Wasn't there a purple-haired girl in that?
She tapped a name into the Angel Terminal, and smiled. She'd purchased a set of clothing for the Angel, a Chinese set that would go nicely with the Angel's new identity. The rings descended, and the Angel dropped free. She caught her, quickly dressed her, and turned and walked out of the room.
"Hello, Misaki." Her mother had just come out of her own room. Misaki glanced over at her.
"Hi, Mom." She looked down, then back up. "You're wearing the prosthetics again."
Shuuko smiled. "I decided that, regardless of how I felt about the upgrade project, not wearing the prosthetics was silly. Besides, Hikaru is--" She paused. "Is that a new Angel?"
"Yes." Misaki nodded, then bit her lip. "I wasn't really sure I wanted to go through this again, but Hikaru..."
"She still wants to play Angelic Layer."
"Yes." Misaki nodded again. "She fought Wizard earlier this week, though they both had to wear gloves - they aren't as tough as they used to be."
"Aren't you worried that..."
"A lot worried," said Misaki. "But Hikaru wants this really badly. I don't know why, other than she misses the Layer."
"This was part of what I was worried about with Athena," admitted Shuuko. "That she'd be unhappy off the Layer."
"I'm not unhappy," called out Hikaru. It was her "angry" voice, but Misaki doubted that the Persocom was actually mad; it was simply the loudest voice sample in her repertoire. The door opened, and she stepped out, an Angel of her own in her hand. She continued in her "neutral" voice. "To begin with, I do not actually have any emotions. But also, being off the Layer gives me many more worlds to explore. Yes, I miss it, but not the way you think."
"So why do you want to play Angelic Layer?" asked Shuuko.
Hikaru's voice shifted again, to a timbre that they'd not yet heard from her. "Can't a girl have a bit of fun?"
Misaki glanced around the store. "There's a few Layers free." She pulled her Angel Card from her purse. "I'll go lease one."
"Okay." Hikaru smiled. "I wish I could make some money, so you didn't have to spend so much on me."
"Angel Points can't be redeemed for cash," pointed out Misaki. "They're just gathering dust." She waved, and walked towards the counter.
Hikaru turned towards the Layers. Most of the ones in use were manned by old friends of hers, their Angels taking part in co-operative games. One had two newcomers, trying to keep in step with the raucous music put out by their portable radio. She walked towards them.
One of them, a girl somewhere between thirteen and fifteen, looked up as she approached. "Hey, cool cosplay. I remember that Angel."
Hikaru grinned. "Really?"
"Yeah, she was one of my favourites."
Hikaru indicated the Layer. "How are you doing?"
"Not so well," admitted the girl. "I keep--" She broke off with a sigh as the Angel collapsed to the table. "Stupid of me. I was paying attention to you, and not Belladonna. I doubt I'll ever be as good as Suzuhara Misaki, or even Kobayashi Hatoko."
"She learns with you," said Hikaru quietly. "She will get better as you get better. Right now, she needs to learn how to walk without thinking about it. Just like you did."
"How long have you played?" asked the girl.
Hikaru grinned again. "I'm about to have my first practice session as a Deus."
"Then how do you know--"
"Hikaru!" Misaki ran up to her. "We've got Layer Six for two hours."
The girl blinked. "You're Suzuhara Misaki."
"Yep." Misaki glanced over at Hikaru. "Been making friends?"
"I am not certain yet," said Hikaru. She turned back to the girl. "I've never played as a Deus. But for five years, I played as an Angel."
The girl's eyes widened, and she gasped, "You're really her? You're Hikaru?"
"Yes. So you might say I've been in Belladonna's shoes." She grinned, then walked over and sat down at the Layer.
Misaki pulled her new Angel from her purse. The long purple hair matched her Chinese clothing, and was offset by the yellow bells tied into her pigtails. Hikaru chuckled. "I don't need to ask your Angel's name. It's Shampoo, isn't it?"
"You watch too much Ranma," laughed Misaki. Then blinked, as Hikaru set her own Angel on the Layer. "That looks like--"
"Like Athena?" asked Hikaru. "I didn't want to cut her hair - I'm not yet very good with scissors. And the Greek clothing has been popular for a long time. But I didn't want to copy Athena." She indicated the shoulders of the model, which bore small armoured pauldrons. "Less extravagant here, and I went for red trim and a full skirt. And a fully armoured cuirass."
"That Angel must be very strong, to be able to wear all that armour," said the new girl. "What do you call her?"
"Artemis." Hikaru looked up, shifted to her "quiet" voice. "I do apologize, but I didn't get your name?"
"Pleased to meet you." She nodded to Makie, then turned back to the Layer. One hand brushed her headset, and the left-side antenna sprung open. She plugged a thin data cable into the right socket, and then connected it to the Layer.
Hikaru shook her head. "I don't need a headset."
Misaki, however, did need a headset, and was settling the visor over her eyes. "Okay, I'm ready. Hikaru, do you have the music?"
Hikaru nodded, and her eyes glazed over with streaks of light. And the music began.
And two new Angels danced on the Layer, responding to their creators' thoughts.
"I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised at how well you handled your Angel," said Misaki. "But I was kind of surprised that I didn't do much better than you."
"I was using a direct computer interface to the Layer," said Hikaru. "You were having to teach a new Angel how to move. In this case, my advantage was greater than your disadvantage, and it brought our skills to nearly even."
"I still won, though." Misaki grinned.
"You won't next time." Hikaru glanced down at Misaki's parfait. "I do wish that Icchan had given me taste buds. It seems that you are really enjoying that."
"Sorry. I guess it's rude of me--"
"Not at all," said a third voice. Misaki looked up, then scowled.
"Hitomi. Why can't you leave us alone?"
Hitomi ignored Misaki, and gently lifted Artemis off the table. "A good design."
"Thank you." If nothing else, Hikaru was unfailingly polite. Even to Hitomi.
"I am not exactly stunned by your decision to play Angelic Layer." Hitomi's fingers absently stroked Artemis' hair, and she set the Angel back on the table. "You will bring something unique to the Layer."
"Then why do you not play?" asked Hikaru.
"I have found other things to interest me," said Hitomi. "You are exploring the man/machine interface from the machine's perspective. I am approaching it from the human's perspective."
"What on earth are you talking about?" Misaki shook her head.
"At its core, Angelic Layer has always been about how mankind interacts with its creations." Hitomi smiled gently. "And how its creations may someday be its equals. When I used to play--"
"You played Angelic Layer?" Misaki frowned. "I don't recall seeing you at any matches. I thought I knew just about every Deus out there."
"I was not a Deus," said Hitomi.
"Didn't you know?" asked Hikaru.
Hitomi brushed her hair back from the side of her head, exposing her ear. An angular, swept, metallic ear, much like Hikaru's, though smaller. "My body on the Layer was much different. And this body is much different from Hikaru's."
Misaki stared at her. "You're an Angel."
"Yes." She held out her hand. "My Deus wishes to meet with you. You will recognize her."