As the Fire Burns
A Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS 3-shot
Summary: Chapter 2 – Yusaku's close to finding Ai and Roboppi, but now he's got a whole slew of problems to deal with. Takeru decided to confess his feelings and leave, Yusaku has no clue on how to cope with that, Yusaku discovers he has emotions, and, on top of that, he's got a career survey to fill out for school.
Chapter 2: In My Mind, I'm With You
Den City High School
The melody of the school bell and an abrupt "class dismissed!" was Yusaku's cue to toss his bag over his shoulder and dart out of the classroom. Not that he's in any hurry to get anywhere – there was only so much school he could take before his brain rotted from inactivity, though. He made his way past the building and onto the main courtyard by the front gates, and, as he reached the gate, he heard a voice call after him.
He stopped, turning around. Running towards him was fellow classmate and the only other student who knew of his Playmaker identity, Zaizen Aoi.
"Zaizen . . ."
Zaizen stopped beside him, catching her breath. "You really need to walk slower."
"Well, sorry, I didn't realize you'd be following me. Maybe try growing taller," replied Yusaku, offering somewhat of a smirk to indicate his joking around, a trick he'd picked up in therapy a few days ago. Zaizen, having sensed the light-hearted tone, huffed as a response.
"Wow, you, of all people, cracking jokes. Therapy's really working out for you, huh?" asked Zaizen, flashing a smile of her own. With the turn of his head, Yusaku walked on farther, his fellow classmate strolling alongside him. He would've been slightly annoyed at the persistence on any other day, but he didn't mind the company then. It'd been a while since he walked back from school with somebody. As the two made their way through the outskirts of Downtown Den City, she sighed, and Yusaku looked over at her, noticing she was holding a white piece of paper.
"This survey or whatever's gonna be the death of me. I don't know what to put down," she said, folding the paper into the thirds. "You started on it yet?"
Yusaku sighed. He remembered vividly when they had handed those torturous 'career survey' things out in class days before. The feeling of dread when the teacher laid the paper on his desk that day was fresh in his mind still. It didn't even make sense why they handed those things out, especially since everything else in the school was computerized.
He had immediately shoved it in his bag, not wanting to think about how he's supposed to contribute to society after he's done with high school. Besides, he barely knew what he's doing in the next couple of hours. How's he supposed to figure out what he's going to do for the rest of his life?
"Of course not," he replied. Fumbling in his school bag, he found the survey in question, crumpled up, already torn in several places. Well, there wasn't time to ask for a new one, so he'll just have to go with it.
"I figure you'd say that," laughed his companion. Then, she looked up towards the sky, putting her school bag behind her. "I wonder if Takeru's gotten one at his school. Or what he'd possibly say. He's probably got a head-start on what he wants to do by being back at his hometown, anyhow."
At the mention of Takeru, Yusaku's heart pounded, wanting to break free. He hoped Zaizen couldn't hear it. "I guess," came the reply, weaker than expected.
It'd only been a month since Takeru left Den City for his hometown in the country, north of Den City by the mountains, but, to Yusaku, it felt like and sure as hell might as well been a year. A year too long. It's not like the two didn't communicate on the regular, but it's a hell of a lot different than seeing him in person every day.
Yusaku didn't like it.
After he and Zaizen exchanged goodbyes and parted ways, he studied the survey, scrutinizing every question. Each question glared at him, daring him to half-ass his answers and not take his hard-earned future seriously. He was stumped especially by a gutsy question taunting him, jeering at him, more so than the other ones.
"In five years, what do you think you'll be most happy with?"
The hell should I know. Yusaku, irritated, stuffed the survey back in his bag and cut across the street, barely avoiding a collision with several cars.
Café Nagi – Den City
The familiar onion soup and hot dog aroma greeted Yusaku as he neared the temporary location of Kusanagi-san's Café Nagi van. It'd been some time since he stopped by. After all, he'd spent most of his free time on a search for his former housemates Ai and Roboppi in the network, which that left no time for helping with Kusanagi-san's business. In his stead, Takeru had offered to help, he'd been told, but, since he's gone, the one closest to being family – human species-wise, that is – for Yusaku had to run the business himself.
"Thank you! Come again!" rang out the recognizable relaxed tone. Yusaku smiled. While Kusanagi-san and his brother had their own living space and he had his, he always felt the most at home at the van, and not just because there was always a lot of food around.
Yusaku laughed. Great, he was starting to think like Ai too, though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He casually entered through the back entrance of the van, catching the attention of the owner, who turned around. Kusanagi-san grinned.
Returning with a smile of his own, Yusaku grabbed a Café Nagi apron after setting his book bag down.
"I'm back, Kusanagi-san."
The older of the two made his way over and leaned against a side wall, staring at Yusaku a little longer than the teen would've liked. It's not like he'd been gone that long.
"Wh-What?" asked Yusaku, forming his mouth into a pout.
"Nothing. I didn't expect to see you, that's all," was the reply. "I just thought you'd still be busy trying to find Ai and Roboppi."
"And leave you by yourself? I'm helping," the teen replied, changing out of his school uniform into his casual plain dark t-shirt and green jeans. Last, but not least, he tossed on the Café Nagi apron. It felt weird wearing it again after so long. Yusaku almost felt the pressure of being an obnoxious extrovert whack him upside the head. He promptly ignored it.
"Besides, we've found clues to where they might be in the network, and I sent coded signals to their location. Whether they show up in this world is now up to them," continued Yusaku.
Kusanagi let out a "hmmm," crossing his arms. "Letting things come as they may instead of forcing the moment. Wow, look at you letting loose! Therapy doing you that much good, huh?"
"Kusanagi-san!" the teen replied, a little bit more forcefully than he anticipated, prompting laughter from the older man.
"I'm just messing with you," he said, prompting a light blush on Yusaku's cheeks. "So, what are you gonna do if and once they come back?"
Biting his lower lip and making a "tch" sound, Yusaku looked off to the right. He hadn't thought about after. He'd been so concerned about finding the two and making sure they're alright that the future beyond that alluded him, much like his supposed career path that the survey pestered him about.
Why was everyone so concerned about his future, anyway? What's wrong with just focusing on the now?
"You're really starting to sound like a high school career survey," muttered Yusaku, hoping Kusanagi-san didn't hear. But, the man still heard it.
"Wooooooah, they're still handing those out?" Kusanagi-san overreacted, putting a hand to his chin. "I guess some things never change."
"Uh, how old are you again - ?" Yusaku started to ask, but Kusanagi-san cut him off.
"Classified info. But, anyway, I'll let you in on a secret: those things don't matter. You could put down one thing and do something completely else after you graduate. That's what I did. They don't check for that stuff." Kusanagi-san paused to take a casual swig of water from his Café Nagi coffee cup logo-decorated steel water bottle.
Yusaku sighed. "Whatever you say."
The older man shook his water bottle, making a swishing sound. "Thinking about the future is stressful. Been there, still doing that. But, just be sure you'll want what'll make you happy in the long run, okay? No sense in forcing yourself to fit everyone else's expectations of you. And I'm not just talking about the career thing."
"Now you're sounding like my therapist." Yusaku smiled. Kusanagi-san laughed as the two helped to set up the truck for another exciting three-hour shift of handing out hot dogs and onion soup to random strangers. And maybe Zaizen and Ghost Girl if they stopped by, but Yusaku doubted it. As much as he pushed off Kusanagi-san's attempts at being the sage adult, though, the words did make Yusaku think.
What would make him happy?
Den City Apartment Complex T – Room 303F
Yusaku had breezed through his homework and was staring intensely at the career survey. Were the homework answers right? Who cares? He had more important things to worry about: the stupid survey, finding his two wayward AI housemates, and . . .
Shit, what was wrong with him?
Suddenly, he was facedown, hands behind his head, suffering the biggest migraine in the universe, his heart pounding again like it had earlier walking from school. Without fail, without reason, without a doubt, Yusaku could not think of him and not go through some out-of-character bodily reaction.
He's lucky that today, it's just headaches and pounding hearts. Some days, he tripped over gravity. Other days, his ability to speak would be robbed of him, leaving a very confused Shima and Zaizen on many occasions, and a totally embarrassed – embarrassed! Him! Of all people! – Yusaku scurrying off to avoid questioning or further conversation. Whether they're too in shock over how uncharacteristic Yusaku's been or what, he thanked his lucky stars by Stardust Road they hadn't prodded into his personal affairs.
And while he didn't let his mind wander a whole lot during his Café Nagi shift earlier – there'd been way too many customers to deal with, for some reason - he had accidentally over-grilled two wieners and nearly spilled one of the Den Colas on himself. Fortunately, Kusanagi-san also didn't inquire, attributing his clumsiness to "just being out of practice" and leaving it at that.
Yusaku couldn't name the feeling even if he tried, but one thing's for certain: that one mess of a confession at the last possible moment did a number on Yusaku's emotions, emotions that stayed dormant inside him, until it was way too late. He'd been right about one thing: Yusaku had been too focused on Ai and Roboppi to pay attention to what was happening with his own species and in his heart. And he's paying for it.
After his mini-episode, he put a pen towards the damned survey. Yusaku absentmindedly traced his thumb over his lips as he tried to write. That proved to be a terrible move, though. His mind once again flashed to the one who'd confessed who's now thousands of kilometers away. From Den City. From him.
"Takeru . . ."
He stared at his phone. He's not one for initiating phone calls, but the semblance of a peace of mind was more important.
The connection rang a few times, Yusaku's heart pounding with each ring. It continued for five seconds more before "Heya! I'm away at the moment, but leave a voicemail, and I'll get back to ya!" in a tone that resembled more of Takeru's Soulburner persona than the Takeru in real life he'd come to know, followed by a high-pitched beep. Sighing, Yusaku tapped the red button, not even bothering. What could he possibly say for Takeru to listen to? Leaving an emotionally charged "Takeru, I miss you," over voicemail just didn't seem appropriate. If he's going to tell him, Takeru had to be there on the other side, listening.
Yusaku diverted his attention back to the career survey, the questions mocking him. Kusanagi might have tried to help him out with the whole "it doesn't matter what you put now" thing, but Yusaku wouldn't feel right if he bullshitted this survey, even though he had no qualms doing that with his homework. Reliving the past and making amends for it's easy. Fighting for the future was even easier. Figuring out that future in detail's was a different matter altogether.
He wasn't getting anywhere with this.
Getting up from his chair, he took his phone and his keys and headed out to the one place he knew would help him clear his head.
Stardust Road – Den City
Stardust Road, when the ocean was alight with purple and light blue hues, always relaxed Yusaku. Uncharacteristic calm washed over him, as though everything in his chaotic world finally made sense, each time he visited. But, while the calmness embraced him that time around, it wasn't because he had some sort of revelation that eradicated all his doubts and fears . . . yet. It had more to do with it reminding him of things past, things past that, for once, he didn't want to let go. And he was lured in by that desire every day.
Yusaku had precious memories tied to this place. Yet, all his mind could think about in those days was the first time Takeru – with Flame and Ai – came with him and saw Stardust Road for the first time – the one memory that compelled him to return. Takeru's wide-eyed smile from viewing the vast ocean for the first time or the way the corners of his eyes watered, the tears escaping not long after was ingrained in his mind.
And most importantly, he couldn't forget how, after all the two had been through, he fell head over heels – metaphorically, of course – for Takeru at Stardust Road.
Maybe that's why it stung like a scratched rash when Takeru had confessed first. The reason why Yusaku's heart felt as though it'd been smashed with a boulder when Takeru had waited until right before he left for his hometown to do just that. All because "I didn't know how you'd take it."
Maybe that's why he desperately held on to Takeru in those last minutes.
Because he should've said it first. A long, long, long time ago.
At the thought of Takeru, Yusaku's phone buzzed wildly, and he jumped, nearly out of his sea-sprayed skin. It's so late, he thought. Who in the world would be calling now – ?
The familiar kanji flashed on his phone.
"INCOMING CALL: Homura Takeru."
"Shit," hissed Yusaku. It wasn't as if Takeru calling was a bad thing – far, far, far from it. The issue was that he had what he wanted to say in his head the first time, but, now that Takeru's calling him? Yusaku didn't have a clue.
But, he couldn't ignore him either. That's the last thing he wanted to do. So, he'd take the call. He'd figure out to say during the conversation. After the fourth ring, Yusaku tapped the green answer button and hastily put the phone to his ear. "Takeru?"
"Oh, thank goodness!" exhaled the other side with the Soulburner voice. "I was hoping to catch you before you went to sleep."
"Bold of you to assume I sleep," muttered Yusaku, eliciting a gasp from Takeru.
"Is that another meme you found or are you really not sleeping?"
Yusaku couldn't keep from smiling, feeling a tickle in his throat. He liked messing with him every now and then. "Both?"
"Yusaku! Don't you know how bad that is? You're gonna collapse one day," scolded Takeru. "You need to take better care of yourself."
Yusaku tried to hold in what he remembered as his laughter, but it slipped out before he could swallow it. It felt weird, but it felt . . . good too. When was the last time he laughed so carefree like that, if ever? It must've been before the Lost Incident. He wasn't sure, but he knew it'd been a long, long, long time.
"Yu . . . saku?" questioned the other side, confusion in his voice. Oh yeah, that's right. Yusaku's never laughed around others before, that he could remember. So, it must've sounded weird at least, worrying at the most, especially to Takeru.
"I'm-I'm sorry." Yusaku took a few seconds to catch his breath. "I don't know what came over me."
"No, no, no. Don't apologize. Please," pleaded Takeru. "I'm just . . . a little surprised you. You could laugh like that. That's all."
"That makes both of us," said Yusaku, his voice still slightly unsteady. He coughed to calm his nerves. "Never mind that, though. You didn't call me just to chew me out, did you?"
A "what am I going to do with you?" sigh sounded on the other side, and Yusaku made no attempt to hide his smile. He should do phone calls with him more often. He had no idea they could be this entertaining. Usually, they'd communicate via text . . . well, Takeru would do most of the communicating, complete with emojis. Yusaku chimed in occasionally with a one-emoji or three-emoji response depending on his mood. A meme, if he was feeling adventurous. But, communication, nonetheless.
Plus . . . okay, maybe he did miss hearing Takeru's voice every day.
"No. You called me first. You never call, so I thought something was wrong," replied Takeru. Then, laughing a little of his own, causing Yusaku's face to heat up, he said, "But, I guess I had nothing to worry about, as usual. If you can laugh like that, everything must be okay."
Yusaku's heart skipped a beat, and he gripped the phone even tighter and closer to his ear. He wished that'd been true, if only for Takeru's apparent peace of mind. Maybe to an outsider, everything was going swimmingly for Yusaku: he's finally going to therapy after so many years, he hadn't thought going to school's that much of a chore, except for that stupid career survey, he's got a job – albeit illegally, but he's getting paid nonetheless - and he knew where Ai and Roboppi were, something that had been plaguing his mind for months. Everything's okay.
Except . . . not everything was.
No, Takeru. Not everything's okay. You told me you liked me at the worst possible time, as if that wouldn't have any downsides whatsoever, and it really broke my heart that you waited until then, even though that's my fault, even after all we've gone through, so I've been agonizing over that ever since, which is why I started going to therapy again after putting it off for years and tried functioning as a human being in this terrible society to distract myself from whatever this stupid emotion is – and maybe it's kinda working – but I keep thinking about you, and the stupid emotion comes back, and I can't do shit when that happens, and I don't know how much longer I can take this. I miss you, I miss you, I -
Yusaku wanted to say all that. He really did. His heart wasn't going to rest until he admitted it to someone who wasn't his therapist, and it might as well should be Takeru. "Go the source of the problem, take care of it from there," his therapist had said in the last session. But, the thought of bringing that up to the other teen thousands of kilometers away paralyzed him. That'd be the same as blaming Takeru for his emotional problems. And the last thing he wanted to do was put that kind of pressure on him, the one who just didn't have a clue.
So, instead, what he decided to say was "Yeah, I'm okay. I have to fill out a stupid career survey for school, though, and I don't know what to put down."
"You got one of those too?!" exclaimed Takeru, apparently a little too loudly. Yusaku could hear a small "Takeru, is everything all right?" on the other side, to which Takeru responded, "Yeah, sorry, obaa-chan. Just on the phone." A sigh, then the very faint sound of the shutting of a door followed. Yusaku smiled, doing his best to stifle another bout of laughter.
"Sorry 'bout that," Takeru sighed.
"It's fine." And, in that case, it really was. "You told me you moved back in with your grandparents, so if that didn't happen, I would've thought something had been wrong."
"Thanks for your support," was the reply dripping in sarcasm. "Anyway, my school gave us that career survey this week too, so I get it. But, right before I found out you called, I finished mine," continued Takeru triumphantly.
"You?" Yusaku couldn't believe it for three reasons. One, that Takeru finished something before the day it was due. Two, that Zaizen was right about Takeru having a head start on the both of them. Three, he said nothing about the survey to him before.
"What's that supposed to mean?" came the sigh. Yusaku could imagine the other pouting and tried not to let his imagination run too wild to avoid another physical reaction.
"What's that supposed to mean? Who's the one who started and finished his homework the morning it was due and practically begged me to help him?"
Silence. "Okay, yeah, you're right."
A laugh sounded on the other side. "You do realize you're sounding a lot like Ai now, right?"
Yusaku closed his eyes and smiled. "I'm aware." He stared out into Stardust Road, the body of water looking even more spectacular than a few minutes ago, with its bright blues even bluer and its purples more purple, as if preparing for a natural phenomenon to occur. A slight breeze made Yusaku shudder in his hoodie. Pulling the sleeves down, he brought his arms closer to his body to keep warm. He needed to get back before his future involved him getting sick. But, he couldn't help but wonder what Takeru had written for his answers.
"So, what did you put down, anyway?"
A pause. A giggle that made Yusaku's heart pound. "That's a secret."
Yusaku frowned. Well, that was anti-climatic. "Come on."
Takeru broke into a fit of laughter on the other side, and, for a moment, Yusaku forgot it was cold.
"Maybe if you came by, I'd tell you," was the reply. "I'm staying right where I am, though. That's the only hint you'll get."
Yusaku sighed. What had he expected? If Takeru had waited that long to say anything about his feelings, he sure as hell probably wouldn't divulge in his plans right away. Still, it was infuriating: the one he missed terribly, the one who had always seemed to lack any plan for anything whatsoever, had his future planned out while he had no clue.
It really wasn't fair.
"Fine. I'll find out eventually, I guess," said Yusaku. "Listen, I've got to go and tackle this career survey. We'll talk later."
"Good luck, Yusaku! I'm rooting for you," said the other side cheerily, and Yusaku's face gradually got hotter.
"Tha-Thanks," muttered Yusaku, still not believing the only one who made him melt – internally, metaphorically, of course – fell – definitely figuratively, probably literally – for him, of all people. Then, he opened his mouth and involuntarily made a noise, signaling that he wanted to say something else, but the words were caught in his throat – shit, what was with him? – and he just couldn't force them to come out.
"Yusaku?" Takeru asked, his concerned voice returning.
I miss you. I want to be with you.
"Sorry, it's nothing," lied Yusaku. "We'll talk soon."
"Okay! Take care of yourself, will ya?"
"No guarantees." He had to get in one last jab, as payback for Takeru not telling him what he put for the career survey.
"Yusaku!" came the expected, high-pitched reply, and Yusaku put a hand to his mouth to keep from laughing again.
"I'm kidding. I will."
"Alright then. Bye now!"
Yusaku watched as the call screen disappeared, a screen showing his most recent calls taking its place. Well, that wasn't so bad. Okay, maybe he didn't say what he meant for a good chunk of the time, but for the most part. He looked out towards Stardust Road one last time. Blues, the purples, and the moon's reflection glittered on the ocean surface, and Yusaku couldn't help but be mesmerized. Two waves that had formed collapsed into one before disappearing under the bridge. Then two smaller waves formed, running parallel, as if chasing the two waves that had become one. Then finally, a small one trailed behind, almost as if it was unsure of the path it's taking but followed the previous waves regardless.
It was at that moment, filled with curiosity, filled with longing, that Yusaku felt what Takeru must've felt when the future finally became clear to him. He knew what he had to do.
Pulling his hood over his head and walking in strides, he made his way back to the apartment.
Den City Apartment Complex T – Room 303F
After Yusaku made his way back, he immediately pulled out his chair and sat, staring at his ripped survey. The questions that once taunted him, teased him, mocked him no longer had that power over him. Answering each question easily, as if were nothing more than a simple line of code, he finished what had agonized him the entire week. All he had to do, then, was put it on a different, clean copy of the survey and he'd be free of this damned survey. Until the next year, anyway. But, he'd know what he'd say then too.
Folding up the survey, Yusaku had the intent of finally getting ready for bed at not two hours before he needed to get up for school, just like Takeru had wanted, when he heard a knock on the door. Looking at his phone, he raised an eyebrow. Who could it possibly be this late at night? Without thinking, he glanced over in the direction of his powered-down helper robot who had been Roboppi as well as his duel disk, which once housed his Ignis, his partner, and his other half, Ai, leaning against it. He had set up that corner as a reminder of how important it was for him to find them.
Except . . . the duel disk, lying oddly flat on the ground, was there. But, the Roboppi shell wasn't.
That was a whole other issue he needed to deal with, – what would anyone need a defunct helper robot shell for? - but first, he had that bothersome knocking, which sounded like something repeatedly bumping into it, to acknowledge. Yusaku hastened down the steps toward the door and swung it open.
At first, he didn't see anything at eye level. Ah, great. I'm losing it, Yusaku thought to himself, vowing to get more sleep like Takeru had excitedly suggested. But, as he attempted to close the door, it stopped, as though there was something in the way.
Yusaku looked down. Registering in his brain what he was seeing, his eyes watered. His legs gave out, and he wrapped his arms around the small robot who made a happy chirping noise. As he held them close to his chest, badly trembling, a grip on both his arms pulled him backwards so his head was leaning against someone's chest, resting underneath their chin, while he was still clutching the robot. His trembling stopped, pulse quickening then slowing down to normal. Yusaku recognized who it was.
He had so much he had wanted to say to them. But, instead, he cried and couldn't stop. He'd chew them out and speak his mind soon enough about how worried to death he was for them or how much he missed them. There was so much he wanted to tell them too, about everything that's happened over the last month. For the moment, though, his happy tears and mutterings would suffice.
"Welcome home, you two."