"...and that does it!" the announcer's voice boomed through the speakers. "Despite a rough battle, Lilypad comes out 2-1! And that means Top 8 have been decided!"
The crowd broke into cheers, and began to disperse, people leaving to get food or play friendlies. Lily was not too used to being so well-known, which they were at this point. A handful of people, mostly friends from Discord, held up cardboard signs rooting for them they had made with the art supplies Lily brought and the sides of boxes they'd gotten from some of the food stalls.
Though they'd gotten used to the attention at ASZ, this was a vastly different story. Being on stage in front of so many people was terrifying, and they were deeply thankful their opponents in the first few rounds had been just as rattled as they were.
The good news was that they had made it into the Top 8, which was more than most people could say. Hopefully that would be enough for their Mistress.
The bad news was, as they saw when they were given their complicated bracket sheet and much less complicated match listing, their opponent for the first Top 8 game was Rye. But they could beat him. They had to. They obeyed.
The match had been a blur. Though Lily might have gotten better, Rye was still a formidable opponent. Although the match record was 2-0 in their favor, it felt a lot closer than that. Was it a good thing they beat him? Would that mean he would leave them alone, that they had somehow proved themself to him?
No, it wasn't good. When they walked up to Rye, extending their hand for a handshake as most players they'd seen did, he just looked at them bitterly and left. The crowd had seemed somewhat annoyed at that, but what could Lily do?
They had to admit that it stung. They had been so close to Rye when they first started playing. Lily had seen him as a mentor, but also as a good friend, who had been a rock in the confusion of adjusting to their new life.
But that was in the past, sadly. If Rye was going to be all passive-aggressive towards them for refusing to let him blackmail them, what could they do? At least they still had online play, and could even shoot Pierre a text if they really wanted an offline challenge.
A few people tried to stop them as they left, mostly the media presence who seemed extremely out of place at the event, and they answered questions quickly so they could head into one of the quiet practice rooms for the competitors. They went there partially because they needed a moment to compose themself, and partially because they wanted to text someone they didn't want anyone else knowing about.
I won against Rye, they typed to Magnolia. It wasn't too hard. I figure you'd want to know... since he was the one you met.
She didn't respond, and the text stayed unread. Lily wasn't bothered, though. She was probably busy hating every second of the conference. They felt a little bad for how much fun they were having... when Rye wasn't involved, at least... while she had to sit there, bored out of her mind.
They almost followed it up with a Wish you could be here, but she'd probably just laugh at them for that anyway.
"...so, you took a big risk with that Nasty Plot, so maybe not the best move," Bobbi spoke to an attentive Lily through bites of their sandwich, sitting with them and Rox as they reviewed footage of Lily's matches. "You're lucky it worked in your favor. Probably shouldn't try it again, though."
The match after Rye's had been against Bobbi, and the next one against Esper. They had some more trouble against those two. It wasn't necessarily that Bobbi was better than Rye, or even that his character was a worse matchup against Lily's. They just had a lot more experience facing off against Rye than they did against anyone else. But it was a stroke to Lily's ego that they had won nonetheless.
And after a handful of other matches, they had made it to finals.
Lily nodded as they reviewed the clip in the match against Rye that Bobbi had indicated. Although it could easily be explained by the fact that they were a lot more nervous in that fight, considering their opponent. So they weren't too worried about that being a problem in the next game.
"You just panicked, and forgot fundamentals for a moment," Rox added. "That's normal. Just try to keep a clearer head next time."
"I'll... I'll try," they stammered. "He's... well, I kinda knew that player. We weren't on the best, uh, best terms."
"Oh? Give me the tea?" Rox asked with a grin, miming pouring tea into a cup. Lily laughed uncomfortably, shaking their head. "It's okay, I won't tell anyone!"
Bobbi sighed, and threw a curled up napkin at him. "Other than everyone you know? Sure. Don't tell us if you don't want to, Lily."
Lily chuckled again, still on edge.
"So. How do you feel about going up against DreadKnight next?"
"The next battle decides if that arrogant son of a bitch loses against someone who's been playing for six months, or if you just have a reason to try harder the next time," Rox laughed, though that didn't make Lily feel any better.
"I... I see," they said absently. Their heart dropped, knowing what would probably happen. They had thought that Rye was the only one they'd be nervous against? What an idiot they were. Kassandra was probably going to come out again, beg for them to run away, and then they wouldn't be able to focus between the match and abject terror.
Then again... maybe she wouldn't? She hadn't been out for months, at least not past a sarcastic voice.
Their phone buzzed, and they glanced at the screen. Magnolia had texted them back, but they didn't immediately check what she said.
"Thanks for the, um, the talk." Lily stood up, grabbing their trash from lunch. "I... I have to go meet up with someone. But, I guess I'll see you around before finals? Say hi to Es for me!"
"Yeah!" they both said at the same time, grinning. Bobbi continued, "Stay in touch, okay? I know you're kind of under the radar, but don't disappear, now. It was way too fun chatting with you for that."
Lily smiled, nodded, and went away to one of the private booths again. It was nice to know that they weren't restricted to the scene in their city, which Rye had tainted for them.
They pulled out their phone once they were alone, and called their Mistress. The phone rang only once before she picked up.
"Hello, Lily," Magnolia's voice sounded gentle, almost proud. "I enjoyed hearing that you managed to begin to do as you were told."
"Um. Yes. I... I'm doing my best," Lily smiled awkwardly, though they knew she couldn't hear it.
"I can tell," she said with amusement. "I've been catching glimpses of it between conferences. It's more important to me than whatever basic nonsense these people are talking about."
"...oh," Lily blinked. "Um... well, what do you think?"
"You do know I don't know anything that's going on in your matches," Magnolia scoffed. "But I can see you're doing well, if only from the crowd reaction sometimes. I'm not an idiot."
"Um... thank you, Mistress," they said. There was a long pause before they spoke again. They knew they needed to say it. "I'm in second place now. And... my next opponent is... the person I might know."
"You're not planning on disobeying me because of that, are you?" she asked with concern, though Lily knew she would be glaring at them if she was there.
"N-no! Of course not," Lily protested. "I just... I'm nervous."
"Don't be. What's that thing they say? Clear your head? I'm sure you won't have much trouble with that." She laughed warmly.
Lily sighed. There wasn't much to say to that. "You're right. I'll... I'll win."
"Good. And I expect to hear all about it, once you do."
Lily took a moment to respond. Already, they were having trouble clearing their head, getting rid of all the worries that were plaguing them.
And they realized something. Even though they didn't hear her, for the first time in months, they could feel Kassandra's presence as more than just a passing impression.
They ignored it. As long as she wasn't trying to get them to do anything, it was fine.
Lily was backstage fifteen minutes early. They kept watching the door, waiting for someone to come in and tell them it was time. Asher was probably in the other waiting room. Thankfully, they had requested a private room to prepare, so he had to leave them alone. Lily was grateful that the organizers had been so accommodating, but their anticipation still weighed on them, nearly paralyzing them with anxiety. How could they win against him? They couldn't beat him. They'd always lose. But they had an order to follow. So they had to win.
The fact they knew Magnolia would be watching was another source of anxiety. A lot was on the line. Proving themself as a player, teaching Asher a lesson, and following their Mistress's orders.
A text came in. They checked it eagerly, but it wasn't who they had hoped. Not by far.
Good luck against him, Rye wrote. And... I'm sorry. About how I acted. I shouldn't have done that to you. To anyone. Pierre found out, and... set me straight.
Set him straight? What did that mean? Their thumb hovered over the message for a bit, unsure if they wanted to respond or not. Was it worth it? Could they forgive what he did?
They weren't sure. But... if there was a chance of reconciliation...
It's okay. Thanks for saying that.
His reply came quickly. It's not. Really. But... thanks, anyway. And I'm really, really sorry.
Before they could come up with a reply, the door opened. They were up. They walked up to the screens facing opposite directions in the center of the stage, and plugged in their controller. Waving to the crowd and forcing a smile, they saw a lot of people cheering them on. As if they needed any more pressure, any more people to prove themself to.
And... there he was. Asher walked on stage, smiling radiantly at Lily. It took a shocking amount of willpower not to snarl in his face.
They sat down, and Lily heard the announcer's voice, but couldn't make out what they were saying. They should be able to. They could hear it. But they couldn't focus on anything but that smug smile.
As soon as the character select screen came on, they picked their character and supports, their mind clearing. It wasn't quite dissociation, but it felt similar. They felt... focused. Like nothing mattered.
They just had to win. That was it. That was all they had to do.
They could barely remember the next handful of minutes. A blur of rage, of determination, of maybe-Lily-maybe-Kassandra-maybe-both-maybe-neither playing, but it didn't matter, because they had only one thought in their mind.
They. Would. Win.
They fell back in the chair, eyes refocusing, and hearing the crowd going insane. The screen declared it was their win. Somehow. They took a deep breath. Were they even breathing during the match? They didn't know.
But they had won.
And then, they saw him again. Asher took off his headphones, sliding them down around his neck. He stood up, walking to them with a smile. Lily almost bolted. They almost would rather endure their Mistress's anger than have to shake his hand, or touch him in any way at all.
But they smiled politely, the image of sportsmanship, as they walked up.
"Good game," he said, and his voice felt like needles, and his hand felt like burning iron.
They were about to let go and hide, until they heard Asher say... the Word.
That Word. What was...
All at once, something broke in them. That darkness, the twisting pain, pulled away, leaving something raw, untouched, awful in its place. Their... memories?
They shook, breathing ragged, as they remembered. Oh god. They remembered.
They remembered how they knew Asher.
And what he did to them.
They didn't remember a lot of specifics. It had been years ago. But the memories had been locked away. Locked away by... a hypnotic trigger? Why...
A few memories were clear, though. None of them were pleasant.
Kassandra appeared in full, her hand on Lily's shoulder. "We have to run. Now, Lily."
And they did. They ran off stage, ignoring the confused murmurs from the audience. Lily ran, pushing through the backstage doors, bursting out of a back entrance to the convention center. They had to get back to the hotel. They had to see Magnolia. They had to be safe again, and as far away from their stepbrother as possible.
If Magnolia was not frustrated enough by how the conference went the day before, she was at the limit now. It didn't help that she had elected to leave early to watch Lily's match in person, and had to endure the mockery of those imbecilic would-be entrepreneurs for it. Not that she particularly cared. It was worth it to see her loyal plaything follow her orders. To win.
She didn't understand why Lily just ran off the stage after their match, though. Lily had claimed they knew their opponent - or at least, they thought they did. And Kassandra had been afraid of him. Magnolia knew how fiercely protective that girl was of Lily. If her instinct was to run...
But there was no use thinking about it. All she could do was head back to the hotel room, and prepare for the final day of this godforsaken farce of a conference. Lily being there was the sole thing keeping her sane.
She got to the hotel room, expecting a tired, appreciative Lily. One who would, despite their fatigue, be eagerly awaiting the reward she was going to give them like the dumb, simple, wonderful idiot they were. But instead, she found them curled up on the floor, all the blankets from the bed twisted around them, breathing raggedly.
"Lily?" Magnolia started hesitantly. "What is-"
"Not... not Lily today," a deeper voice said from within the ball of blankets. Magnolia was surprised, and worried. The fact that Kassandra would willingly speak to her without her request or Lily's insistence was... wrong. It wasn't how things worked. And she didn't know what that meant.
"Kassandra," Magnolia said, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.
Kassandra turned to meet Magnolia's eyes. Tears stained her face, her eyes and cheeks red and puffy. She was shivering, despite the cocoon she'd made.
"My god," Magnolia breathed. "What the hell happened on that stage?"
"We... remember," Kassandra rasped softly.
Magnolia's eyes widened as she put it together. Before she could say anything, though, Kassandra kept going.
"And... the reason we're... well, we."
"What... exactly did he do?" Magnolia murmured.
"He... hurt us. A lot." Kassandra's voice was soft. Kind. She was created by this. That trauma had to run deep. "Beatings. Torture. And... yeah. And he... said horrible things to us... while beating us more." She paused for a moment. "And I know what you're thinking. You're wondering, well, you do the same things, don't you?" Magnolia stayed silent, confirming Kassandra's suspicions. "Well, Maggie, you have no idea how right you are."
Magnolia gasped, as things Kassandra had been saying for months before slid into place. Magnolia had never understood why she was so touchy about hypnosis. She'd said she didn't know anything about it, yet would argue fiercely against its use. Against the use of... something which could hide memories.
Kassandra chuckled weakly. "You always were a smart one. Yeah. Hypnotist. It hits differently, when you're six."
"Kassandra," Magnolia whispered. "Please bring Lily back out."
"I can't," Kassandra sniffled, shaking her head. "Lily is hiding. I can't feel them. I can't hear them. It's just me and... and him."
"The new alter?"
"He's not new," Kassandra shook her head. "He's been around for a long, long time too. Just... silent."
They just sat there in silence. What more was there to say? Magnolia didn't have it in her to pry. How could she possibly justify making Kassandra talk about it more?
After a minute, Magnolia just sighed. "If... you see Lily anytime soon, please tell them I have something to say to them."
Kassandra scoffed. "Of course you do."
"I don't have time for your games, Kassandra." Her quips had always frustrated Magnolia. She didn't keep Lily safe and happy just to be insulted by their so-called protector. Instead of being grateful, the petulant girl was disrespectful, rude, and somehow managed to be even more condescending than Magnolia herself.
"I am going to bring them out, then," Magnolia sighed, kneeling down to face Kassandra's eyes. She froze. He had done the same thing, when he found out about her. Forced them to come out. To leave behind the person that was supposed to be their shelter.
But she didn't have time to tell her that. Magnolia put her index finger on Kassandra's forehead, and even though the touch was soft, not like his, it was enough to make her panic.
"I can't - they're not coming out - I'm blocking - please don't let-"
Kassandra's protests poured out of her mouth in a broken stream as she tried to warn Magnolia. She knew about him, didn't she? She had called him by name. Did she really not care? Kassandra began shaking again, trying to pull away from her, but it wasn't her body to move any longer.
She couldn't block Chain anymore. Rage was good. It was alive. It was hers. And it was disappearing. Draining away, just leaving that icy sadistic glee. Kassandra barely managed to stutter out two words before she lost her grip.
"I'm - sorry."
Her eyes closed. Magnolia stepped back, watching the slumped form warily, unsure what to expect.
And then his eyes opened. That twisted grin formed on his face. Magnolia clenched her teeth as she watched the transformation. She hadn't been there the first time, and it felt like watching someone kill a part of herself to see that expression spread across her property's face.
"Hey, girlie," he chuckled. "Long time no see, huh?"
Magnolia met his gaze, and somehow managed not to back down. "I am bringing Lily out, not whoever you're supposed to be, Chain." She snapped her fingers. "Bring them out. Now."
"Ain't gonna happen. Sorry, lovely lady," he hissed between clenched teeth as he stood up. "Really thought you were worth something back there. I did! But... you're just like them. So you're gonna deal with Chain today."
Magnolia stood in front of him, as intimidating as she could manage, trying to get him to back down. Unfortunately, Chain just grinned wider at the challenge.
"I have no use for you," he shook his head, smiling. "I have no use for anyone. Now, be a good girl and leave."
"Chain, tell me," Magnolia growled, face perfectly still. "How old are you, mentally?"
Chain paused, thrown off slightly. "Well... I'm Lily's stepbrother. That's who I'm 'based on,' anyway. So go ahead and do the math." He shook his head, the grin returning.
"Good," Magnolia smiled. Then she grinned, cold and sadistic enough to make even Chain take a step back. "Then I can do whatever I want with you."
She slammed her body into his, leveraging all her weight and strength to push him towards the bed. Initially, he stumbled back in surprise. Then, gaining his bearings, he spun, the blankets wrapped around him whipping against and around Magnolia instead. With her hindered by the tangling cloth, she couldn't grab him as he danced back, light on his feet.
Magnolia suddenly felt inadequate. She knew Lily was strong, and had seen what Chain could do. But that was different from feeling it herself.
She was not weak. But she could not beat Chain.
Magnolia didn't have much left to fight with. She couldn't hold him down, not as strong as he was. And she needed not to hurt him. He had no such qualms.
Chain grabbed Lily's room key from where it lay discarded on the floor, then grabbed the bag of snacks and extra money Lily had tucked away in their backpack. He knew what he needed to do - get away. So nobody could try to shackle him. No one could help him. Kassandra and Lily, despite sharing the same brain as him, were too weak. Limited. Burdened by stupid sentimentality. Chain snarled.
Magnolia didn't have the strength to make it to the door. She couldn't block it. So she just watched helplessly as he gathered things - Lily's things - to leave.
Magnolia didn't know what to say. She wanted to stop him. Stop Lily from escaping from her, something they would never do. But this wasn't Lily. This was someone different, someone who hated her and wasn't willing to negotiate. She couldn't stop him. For the first time since buying Lily, she wondered if she'd wasted her money.
No. That wasn't true. Lily was hers. Even if she lost the battle, she would win the war. She mustered the rest of her strength to ask a single question.
"When's Lily coming back?" she rasped.
Chain laughed, spitting two words before he slammed the door, leaving Magnolia alone with her horror and pain and grief.