As the Fire Burns

A Yu-Gi-Oh! VRAINS 3-shot

Summary: Chapter 3: After Yusaku and his AI companions make a big move, all he wants is a nap. But, his mere identity prevents him from getting that nap. And after Takeru lets his heart get the better of him, he wants nothing more than to see a certain someone again, but he thinks his eyes keep playing tricks on him. Both get what they want, but not in the way they'd expect.


Chapter 3: My Home is With You

Between Den City and Shirakawa

Yusaku leaned against the cool window, his eyelids more like lead with each passing second. The sun enveloping him in its light, the warmth carried him further into his sleepy state until he finally ceased his struggle against his body's demands for rest.

No! I can't rest now! I might miss my stop.

But, the sun feels so good . . .

"Yusaku!"

Yusaku's eyes snapped open. He glanced at his partially opened bag in the neighboring seat. Looking around quickly for any witnesses, he leaned in, whispering irritably, "I thought I told you to lay low until we got there."

"Well, if someone wasn't falling asleep and running the risk of missing his stop, I wouldn't have to say anything. A 'you're welcome' would be nice."

Yusaku, taking in deep breaths, leaned back in his seat. As much as he wanted to say a snide remark in return, he just didn't have the energy to do it. He'd deal with that later. After all, there were more pressing matters than his temperamental companion. So, he reached over and zipped his bag shut, his Ignis yelling, "Hey, wait, it's dark in here! Open up, open up!" Yusaku turned away from the noise.

The small wooden houses fitted perfectly inside the mountains, painted by the leaves changing their green colors to reds, browns, and golds as well as the dock by the river caught Yusaku's attention as he stared, freshly awake for the moment, out the window. The scenery was as vibrant as those postcards in the grocery stores in Den City he'd seen walking back from school. Except, this was the real deal. And as much as Yusaku had grown to cherish the monotonous life he'd led back in Den City, there was something about the prospect of being in this new place that greatly excited him—well, as excited as he can get.

A chirping noise brought Yusaku out of his daze. He, furrowing his eyebrows and pouting, grabbed the bright blue helper robot. His companions sure were noisy today. Not that they weren't noisy at any point, but they were especially vocal. And fidgety.

"Are we there yet, Master?" the robot cheerily asked.

"Not you too," sighed Yusaku. "We're almost there, Roboppi. Wait a little longer with Ai, okay?"

Roboppi chirped in the affirmative and turned their head towards the window at the bright, colorful mountains. The helper robot squealed in delight.

"It's beautiful! I'm happy to see this!" squeaked Roboppi, and Yusaku couldn't help but smile, rubbing their head ever so gently before putting them back.

"I'm happy too."

"Attention, riders," announced a recorded voice, "this stop is Shirakawa. Be sure to watch the gap in between the train and the platform when exiting. Thank you for riding."

Yusaku filled his lungs with as much air as he could and swung his belongings over his shoulder, the contents comfortably hanging against his left thigh. He joined the small crowd waiting at the door, heart pounding in his chest. When the doors finally opened, he scurried past, inhaling the sweet-smelling, freshwater air of this brand-new town. The atmosphere was calmer, more peaceful, more welcoming than Den City—no, Den City didn't even compare. It just felt like a town he'd rather experience and enjoy outside rather than holing himself up in his apartment.

But, he'd do sightseeing later. First, he needed to get settled. Oh, and definitely take a nap.


Town Square, Shirakawa

"Everyone have their walking buddy?"

"Yes, Big Brother Takeru!"

Takeru smiled at the eight kids, entrusted to his care for the next hour and a half, who beamed with their grinning faces. "Alright. Everyone, stick together, okay? No getting lost."

"Okay!" rang out their small voices, with Takeru giving a small salute, and the group went on their merry way. He always anxiously awaited the late afternoons because he got to be with these rambunctious, fiery, energetic little ones for an hour and a half then. He delighted in listening to their chatter about their school day, whether it's about what someone had for lunch – which never failed to make him hungry – what they learned in school that day, or the wackiest dreams they had the night before. The conversations were also a good indicator of whether Takeru had to adjust his regimen, based on his students' moods. If the conversations were loud, and they were having a good time, he'd up the regimen difficulty. But, if they were quiet, barely saying anything, Takeru would take the time to have them talk about their problems instead. No sense in doing anything they weren't gonna put their hearts into.

For some reason that day, though, he couldn't focus in on his little ones. His ears, instead, picked up on a conversation belonging to two older women trailing behind him and his group. There had been something . . . weird about the tone.

"Did you hear? Some guy from a southern city just moved here," said one woman, as if revealing a huge secret.

"You don't say," gasped the other.

"I know. I heard from Kamishirakawa-san. A family friend of theirs is taking him in."

"Goodness! That is surprising. Folks usually leave us, not come to us."

"Right? The more, the merrier, but it's all so unusual."

"Yes, yes. I just hope he likes it enough to stay for a while."

What the heck?

Takeru, deeply involved in the conversation, failed to notice one of his students tugging on the bottom of his gray jacket until he heard a small "Big Brother Takeru?" Takeru jolted, immediately shifting his gaze to Hikari, the light blue-haired girl and youngest of the group, staring up at him with her gray eyes, looking as though she was about to cry.

Uh oh.

"Ah, I'm sorry, Hikari. What is it?" said Takeru gently. "Did you get hurt?"

"N-No. I really have to pee," she said. Takeru exhaled through his mouth, grateful that it wasn't anything life-threatening, but disappointed with himself for not asking if they all went beforehand. He's usually good at reminders, but, that day, his brain was all muddled. He just couldn't concentrate.

"There's a bathroom at the dojo. We're almost there. Can you wait a little longer?"

Hikari nodded, trying to hold back her tears. Takeru placed a hand on her head, giving it a slight rub, and her eyes cleared up then. "Okay," she said. Her small hand grabbed the hand of her walking partner, an older by a year giri named Kokoro. Takeru nodded his head as he and his little group turned the corner. But, he still couldn't shake off that conversation he had overheard.

Just who the heck would move here?

As though an answer, Takeru thought he saw someone with blue and pink hair walking, struggling to get through the crowd. He blinked, not believing what he was seeing. When he opened his eyes again, however, the person vanished without a trace, almost like a—

Takeru couldn't finish the thought. But, he knew he wasn't seeing . . . well, you know!

There's no way he's be here. Not without telling me. There's no way he'd move here. I just want him to be here and that's why my mind's playing tricks on me.

"Big Brother Takeru?"

Takeru snapped his attention downward again, this time to see Tatsuya, boy with neck-length brownish gray hair, tugging on his jacket. He had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk a while back, his walking companions stopping and turning around. They wondered why their leader had fallen behind.

"Come on, Big Brother Takeru! Quit spacing out," said Taiga, a feisty boy who reminded Takeru of his own younger self and who had found his way to the front of the pack.

Takeru laughed, furiously shaking his head as he strode his way towards the front of the group. The kids came first. "Sorry, guys. Let's get going. There's no time to waste."


Muto Residence, Shirakawa

Yusaku studied his phone, then the medium-sized house before him. Well, it seemed to be the place. Was anyone home? His shoulders ached from exhaustion, so he really hoped so, if only so he could sit down, even if it was just for a second.

"Uh, excuse me?"

He turned around, discovering a woman about his age with long dark blue hair in a loose braid and bangs standing next to him, her olive eyes reading him carefully. It made Yusaku a little uneasy. Then, he realized. No one stands around in front of other people's houses idly like he was doing. Of course any long-time resident would be suspicious.

"I'm looking for Muto-san," he replied to the question he knew was coming. "I just came from out of town, and I'm staying at his place."

The woman folded her arms and huffed. Then, she lifted an arm, placing a fist underneath her chin, an expression that, despite Yusaku having never met her before, seemed awfully familiar. Maybe she was one of the people Takeru had described to him? He didn't know. He couldn't think straight. He was too tired. But, he had a hunch he knew who she was. Attributing it to his tiredness, he decided to drop that mind puzzle for the moment.

"New guy looking for Muto-san 'cause he's living at his place. Figure that," replied the woman. "Good thing I got a spare key to give you. He's at work, but I can help you move in, if you want. I'm a family friend, so you can trust me."

A sharp pain seared through Yusaku's shoulder, and he reflexively adjusted the strap. "I'd appreciate it."

The two made their way inside the house. Kiku first announced, "We're coming in!" followed by Yusaku's low "Excuse us." Some of the tension that had built up in Yusaku's body was released when his ankle sock covered feet touched the soft carpet. He could smell the advanced age of the house: it was probably built the old-fashioned way, using the wood and stone from within the mountains, a house passed down through the generations, but well-cared for and maintained. He couldn't recall ever being inside any building like it, much less a house, as most of the living spaces in Den City were built within the last ten years or so.

It was hard to think of anything existing prior to the Lost Incident. Oddly enough, however, his heart was at peace in his new, well-established dwelling, as peaceful as he'd been at Stardust Road. The walls were adorned with small shrines, presumably to family members and ancestors gone before, and the faint smell of incense wafted in the air. It was a welcoming, respectful, and quiet home.

Yusaku could definitely adjust to living here for a while.

He and the woman passed through the kitchen and living areas before making their way to what Yusaku guessed to be his new living space. His companion opened the door, revealing a bedroom with a small window, a robust desk with drawers pushed against one of the lavender walls, a dresser against another wall, and a small closet that Yusaku could barely step into. A bit smaller than his apartment in Den City, but that was exactly what he'd expected. It was a cozy space, and that's all that really mattered, anyway.

"Yeah, this is your room. Used to belong the oldest daughter before she moved out," she said. "But, anyway, make yourself at home until Muto-san gets back. It shouldn't be too much longer."

Yusaku set his luggage down on the floor, his shoulder screaming in relief. "Thank you . . . ah . . ."

The woman laughed melodiously, sparking a memory. Yusaku had recalled in his many phone calls with Takeru the same laugh many times in the background. Each time, Takeru had acknowledged it and talked with its owner. When Yusaku had asked the first time, he'd mentioned, "Oh, yeah, she's a childhood friend."

Ugh, what was the name, what was the name, what was –

"The name's –"

He remembered!

"Wait. It's Kiku, isn't it?"

The woman raised an eyebrow. Well, of course it'd be weird for a seemingly complete stranger to know the name of someone they hadn't met before. Yusaku turned his head the other way.

"Uh . . . yeah?" she replied, drawing out the last part. "No offense, but you knowing my name already is a bit creepy."

"I know," he nodded. "Sorry. You see, a . . ." Yusaku searched for the word that wouldn't out any of his companions, "friend of mine who lives here told me a lot about you. Before I moved. I just happened to remember the name he said. That's all."

"Oh, so you know someone here!" Kiku exclaimed. "That's fantastic. And I also know them? Who is it?"

"Takeru. Homura Takeru."

At the mention of Takeru, the woman gasped, hand over her mouth. Then, she took a step closer, arms crossed, as if figuring out something. He took a step back, unsure as to where this sudden investigation was going to lead.

"Wait, if you're Takeru's friend . . . And you're from out of town . . . And you got pink and blue hair . . ."

What the heck did that third thing have to do with anything?!

"Then you! You must be Fujiki Yusaku," the woman said, bright smile on her face. How does she know?

"Uh, yeah, that's me."

"But, wait. You're only Takeru's friend?"

The emphasis on "friend" made Yusaku's stomach drop. No, no, please don't say it, please please please –

He gulped. "Y-Yeah?"

"I thought –"

No, don't say it!

"I thought you were Takeru's boyfriend?"

Damn it!

Yusaku flinched, waiting for those dreaded five words from his helper robot. Right on cue, Roboppi chimed in, "'Boyfriend' is a forbidden word. `(*﹏*)′'" He could feel something die inside his body, but he wasn't quite sure if it was his will to live or his dignity. Or both.

Kiku, naturally, scoured the room with her eyes. "Where did that come from?"

Yusaku reluctantly made his way over towards the source. He pulled out his bright blue helper robot, who was flailing their arms. Fascinated, Kiku stationed herself next to Yusaku, her eyes sparkling out of affection for Yusaku's companion.

"Oh my goodness, it's so cute!" the woman squealed, just like Yusaku had suspected would happen. Roboppi replied to the statement with a chirp. "Is it a cleaning robot?"

"Yeah," he murmured as he put the robot back, his Duel Disk shuffling out of the way. "More or less."

"Well, Muto-san will be very glad to have the extra company. But, first," Kiku stared directly into Yusaku's eyes, the sparkle still in her own. "Takeru's gonna be so thrilled to see you."

Yusaku hadn't planned on seeing Takeru—not that early in the day, anyway. After that phone call two years ago, the phone call before Yusaku realized what his future entailed, Yusaku had begged Takeru to tell him what he was doing. But, Takeru, wanting to be stubborn, refused to explain to Yusaku about his plans because "well, visit and find out"—an invitation Yusaku would've eagerly taken on, had it not been for other obligations, school and personal, in the last two years. But, Takeru did let slip one time that a certain hour and a half was off-limits when it came to texting. When Yusaku asked him about why, he wouldn't answer, switching topics immediately.

So, he wanted to honor Takeru's time. He's the newcomer, not him. Also, he really needed a nap.

"N-No, it's okay, I can wait until later –" he protested, but Kiku only shook her head.

"Get your stuff. We're going."

"Huh?"

"To Takeru's, of course," was the reply as she grabbed Yusaku's belongings, almost losing her grip, and handed it to Yusaku, who slowly took it from her. "Also, Muto-san's not gonna be back for a while, so leaving the bag here's not a good idea."

"But –"

Kiku grinned. "No buts, Yusaku. Let's go!"

Yusaku groaned, his shoulder screaming once again as he tossed his baggage over it. He wasn't going to get his nap in for a long while, it seemed. He just hoped one, Takeru was in fact home, two, Kiku wouldn't embarrass him, and three . . . well, that Takeru would be happy to see him, even if he was intruding. When the outside air greeted him, he couldn't help but be excited at the prospect of seeing Takeru again, momentarily forgetting the pain in his shoulder.


Outside Homura Residence & Dojo, Shirakawa

Yusaku and Kiku navigated the crowd standing idly by in the marketplace, the groups of high school kids chattering away, and some of the older folks covering their stands for the day. She walked in strides, knowing every step of the square while Yusaku straggled behind, still not familiar with the area despite already passing through it once already (and not to mention his aching shoulder). After many calls for him to hurry up, the two of them found, just a few blocks away from the marketplace, a street sloping downward and upward. Kiku skipped on ahead, Yusaku a few large steps behind her.

As soon as they walked all the way to the end, Yusaku saw a house that seemed a bit larger than Muto-san's on the outside. It had a recently refurbished covering over the entrance, and the house seemed to be a normal size, but he noticed it continued behind. He had been so engrossed in figuring out the architecture that he didn't feel Kiku poking him on the side of his arm until the sound of her throat clearing broke through Yusaku's fog.

"It sure is hard to get your attention," noted Kiku while Yusaku mumbled an apology. "But, yup. The house you see there is Takeru's. Let's go."

As soon as they were at the entrance, Kiku – unexpectedly, for Yusaku – banged loudly on the door. "Takeru, open up! I got a surprise for you!"

She grinned at her companion, who was completely dumbfounded about what had just transpired. "I have to go take care of something right now, but Takeru will take you back, I'm sure. See you around!"

"Kiku, wait –" protested Yusaku, but she was already halfway down the street. In the middle of an exhale, he heard hurried footsteps towards the door. His heart pounded even more when his ears digested Takeru's firm voice from the other side, muffled by the door: "Kiku, I'm kinda busy right now. What in the world is i-?"

Before Takeru could finish his sentence, he opened the door. Not fully processing what – who – was standing before him, he rubbed his eyes. Was he dreaming?

There's no way he's here. Absolutely no way –

But, when he opened his eyes again, the one he'd fallen for—metaphorically and, on occasion, physically—was still there, his green eyes refusing to look anywhere but at him. It wasn't a dream. Yusaku was really in Shirakawa, and he didn't tell him he was coming beforehand, and he was right in front of his house, and Takeru felt like everything inside him would combust if he didn't say anything in the next couple of seconds.

"Yusaku?" his mouth and vocal cords finally worked together, his heartrate having accelerated even more than during the last exercise he demonstrated to his students.

Yusaku hadn't known what to expect, but he sure hadn't expected Takeru's hair being slicked back, the front part resembling a flame, no glasses whatsoever (making him wonder if Takeru could see okay), and in a white martial arts uniform with no shoes. If he hadn't known it was Takeru, he'd be a little intimidated. Only a little, though. Takeru was still Takeru.

The two of them had been talking, laughing with, and texting each other the last two years with no problems – well, not counting the times Yusaku hid how he really felt so he wouldn't worry Takeru. Yet, finally standing in front of Takeru after all that time, all that time yearning for him, Yusaku had no idea what to say. So, his body did the thinking for him. Body moving on its own, he plowed into Takeru, arms squeezing his waist. The force had Takeru take a step back and hold on to Yusaku's shoulders for balance.

It's him. It's really him.

Yusaku held onto Takeru for longer than he probably should've, burying his face between his neck and his shoulder. He knew Takeru was busy, plus he needed that nap, but . . . he didn't care. He didn't want to let him go—not this time, not again, not ever.

Takeru's face turned light pink, still trying to process Yusaku not only being in his hometown, but also Yusaku holding him the way he was. It was overwhelming, all of it, all at once. As Yusaku tightened his hold, however, he regained enough of his senses to return the embrace and close his eyes, taking in the smell of Yusaku's new jacket, listening to his staggered breathing.

He's really here.

The tender moment between them, however, was interrupted by a sound of curiosity coming from Yusaku's belongings, followed by a "So Yusaku-chan's gotten more affectionate with humans too, huh?" Takeru knew that voice anywhere.

"Ai?!"

Yusaku had told Takeru in a tearful phone call Ai and Roboppi had come back from their escapades not long after Takeru returned to Shirakawa. The two had decided to stay with him indefinitely, even after all that's been done, and it'd been the happiest and most emotional Takeru had ever heard Yusaku. But, he'd thought they were occupied with rebuilding the Cyberse. Why was Ai here?

Yusaku, face still buried in the space between Takeru's neck and shoulder, lips barely touching Takeru's neck, didn't move at all and only threw out a mumbled "Be quiet," to acknowledge Ai's outburst. As usual, Ai didn't know how to follow directions. Yusaku had told him at least three times to keep under wraps in case he scared the hell out of anyone. And absolutely no being in human-like form allowed especially.

"Okaaaaaaaaay, Yusaku-chan," teased Ai. His face flushed, Yusaku, against his will, let go of Takeru, who gingerly placed a finger on the side of his neck.

"I don't get it. What are you doing here?" Takeru asked, no effort made in hiding his shock. "I mean, took you long enough to visit, but—"

"Visit? I'm living here now."

Takeru's mouth dropped. "You're what?"

Suddenly, a small voice that Takeru recognized as Taiga's sounded from inside. "Big Brother Takeru, who's at the door? What's taking so long?"

"Big Brother Takeru?" both Yusaku and Ai asked at the same time. Takeru only scratched the back of his head. That's right, Takeru recalled. He had kept telling Yusaku he'd reveal what he's doing only if he visited Shirakawa, so it made sense he nor Ai knew about his martial arts instructor job. Or why he had it in the first place.

"I'll be right there!" Takeru shouted in the younger boy's direction, and he heard footsteps going back to the dojo. He turned back to Yusaku and his Ignis. "Listen, I've gotta take care of something first, so I'll explain later. Unless you want to watch me deal with little kids for 30 minutes."

Yusaku wasn't sure what it was. Maybe it's the pain in his shoulder had grown worse and was exacerbating his irrational thoughts. But, a feeling that was between loving irritation and exasperation welled up in his chest until, without thinking, he blurted out, a little louder than expected, "Of course, you idiot. I came to see you!" Realizing what he'd just said, he winced. "Crap."

Takeru's face turned from a light pink to a light red.

"'Idiot' is a forbidden word. `(*﹏*)′" announced Roboppi, also hiding. At the sound of Roboppi's voice, Takeru's face returned to its normal color.

"Roboppi?!"

"Oh, so you're just gonna ignore the fact that your boyfriend called you an idiot, huh?" commented Ai, having broken free from the Duel Disk and lounging in a pouch. His Origin gave an exasperated "Ai!" before Roboppi again said, "'Boyfriend' is a forbidden word. 'Idiot' is a forbidden word. `(*﹏*)′"

"Aw darn it," Ai snapped his fingers. With his face almost as red as the red in Takeru's hair, Yusaku gripped his belongings tighter, again trying to ignore the pain in his shoulder, and brushed past Takeru with a hasty "Excuse us." Takeru could only laugh as he made his way in front of Yusaku, who was taking off his shoes, and his chatty AI companions as he headed towards the dojo, the three of them not that far behind.


Homura Residence & Dojo, Shirakawa

"Sorry for the wait!" announced Takeru, his voice bouncing off the dojo walls. The kids jerked their heads toward their instructor, but, noticing a new person, they found themselves gawking at the new arrival instead.

Is he why Big Brother Takeru was taking his time up front? they collectively reasoned. Yusaku felt a tinge of embarrassment from the way they kept looking at him suspiciously. He never felt more like an intruder in this town before that moment. One of the kids with short dark blue hair, Daichi, slowly got up and wobbled slightly, his legs having fallen asleep, in his instructor and the guest's direction until he, squinting his eyes so he could see, was directly in front of the newest arrival.

"Whossat, Big Brother Takeru?" he asked, taking another step closer, Yusaku taking a step back.

Yusaku, unused to the attention, tossed out a quick "Just a guest," hoping that would placate the kids' curiosity. His eyes made contact with Takeru's and he hoped, prayed to whatever god was out there, that his hopeless idiot didn't accidentally—or purposefully—escalate things. But, he could see a suspicious glint in Takeru's eyes, a grin plastered on his face.

Takeru, I don't know what you're thinking, but you better not.

But, Takeru had no plans to let Yusaku's meager, humble introduction slide. After all, he hadn't spent the last month telling these kids what he experienced in Link VRAINS, including having the opportunity to fight alongside the one who saved his life, for nothing. And he wasn't about to let Yusaku's sudden arrival at his dojo mean nothing to his students.

"He's not just any guest, though," Takeru added on, his vibrant, energetic tone capturing the kids' attention. "Today's your lucky day. Fujiki Yusaku AKA The Playmaker, savior of Link VRAINS, has decided to visit us!"

"Takeru . . ." hissed Yusaku, his cheeks warming to almost fever levels. But, his verbal reaction proved to be no deterrent for the kids who collectively gasped excitedly. In an instant, they gathered around him, leaving him very little options for escape. It wasn't that Yusaku didn't like kids. But, he had no clue what to do when a bunch of them swarmed at him like insects. He glanced over at Takeru, who was cackling over the whole ordeal.

He's lucky I'm exhausted right now.

"Wow, he's taller than you, Big Brother Takeru," Tatsuya commented, straining his neck. Takeru chuckled, trying to keep in as much of his laughter as he could, but miserably failing.

"Hey," said Hikari, tugging on Yusaku's dark gray jacket, "why'd you pick the name Playmater?"

The question made Yusaku break whatever façade he was trying to put on for these kids, his cheeks warming to hot coals status. Didn't Takeru just say Playmaker? Dropping a "huh?!", he abruptly turned towards Takeru, who had completely, utterly lost it. Takeru had sunken to the floor, his arms wrapped around his stomach, in pain from laughing so hard. Had it not been because Yusaku lost whatever shred of dignity he had left, he would've found his boyfriend's laughter adorable.

Ugh, who was he kidding? It was adorable either way.

But, that still didn't change the fact that Yusaku needed to know why the little girl had asked him such a weird, borderline suggestive question.

"Takeru . . ." he said slowly, not too much unlike the tone he'd use whenever Ai did something out of line, "you're going to explain. Now." The object of Yusaku's loving frustration climbed back to his feet, straightened his uwagi, or jacket, and faced him.

"Well, you know I have hearing problems, so when Flame first told me about you, I thought he said Playmater instead of Playmaker. So, of course, I told the kids about that."

At the mention of Flame, Yusaku's bag slightly shook, but Yusaku held on to it to keep it steady. He took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. Most people wouldn't dare admit something like that out loud to anyone, much less little kids. Takeru's lack of a filter in that regard was certainly admirable . . . lovable, even.

"Forget that, Hikari," Ginga, a boisterous child who gave Takeru the most trouble, interjected. Well, the trouble of always throwing a tantrum when it was time to leave because he didn't want to go, that is. Takeru had found that reassuring, only since that meant his lessons were worth these kids' times. "The real question is . . ." he pointed at Yusaku, "where's your Ignis? We know you have 'im."

Yusaku was about to lie with "He's not here," to avoid any sort of interaction between Ai and these kids. After all, who knows what Ai would say? It'd be a thousand leagues worse than the Playmater comment at least. But, unfortunately, Ai, being the rebellious AI that he was, had no desire to stay under wraps and follow Yusaku's wishes. The Ignis peeked from the left pocket, stretching out in a white martial arts uniform of his own and delighting the small assembly of kids taking closer looks.

"It is Ai . . . -sama!" announced the older of Yusaku's AI companions, emerging fully from the pocket and sitting on top, much to Yusaku's annoyance and to Takeru's amusement. The kids all ooh'ed and ahh'ed over the Ignis, and his Origin could be visibly seen losing his patience. Great, his head's gonna be even bigger after this. Yusaku thought miserably, uncomfortably shifting the strap so that it didn't dig further into his skin.

Takeru, noticing Yusaku's change of mood and his fumbling, clapped his hands together, alerting the kids to pay attention to him. "Okay, okay, break time's over. Back to the exercises."

"Is Playmaker gonna do the exercises with us?" Kokoro, the only redhead of the group, piped up.

"Absolutely not," hastily replied Yusaku. Not only did he lack the stamina for such exercises, but he had recognized the martial arts type they were doing by their attire, and he was barely restraining his imagination from running wild at the thought of his extremely good looking hopeless idiot pinning him against the ground.

"He had to get up very very early and go on a very long train ride, so he won't," Takeru said, much to Yusaku's good fortune. He winked at Yusaku, then stepped onto the main floor, signaling the resumption of the exercises. Yusaku, cheeks on fire, pouted as he sat down on the elevated part. This isn't the time to be flirting, Takeru!

After twenty minutes of exercises, Takeru sent his students off with their caregivers who'd arrived at the dojo to pick them up. Ginga, as expected, flailed his arms and wailed, but Takeru reassured him it's going to be okay and that he'd see him and the others real soon. He calmed down to just sniffling and waved goodbye to his instructor, and, after the last of the kids had gone home, Takeru grabbed the supplies and began to clean the dojo. Yusaku watched intently, as he'd done with Takeru's exercises with the kids, noticing how calm, how methodical he was, sweeping and mopping the floor as if it were a spiritual ritual.

"So, this is the future you decided on, huh?" Yusaku asked after a period of silence, his bag slightly moving without his touching it. Takeru's eyes softened, and he continued to mop, this time slower.

"After news of the Lost Incident came out, it spread through Shirakawa like wildfire," explained Takeru. "Everyone was so scared their kids would be next, even though the ones responsible aren't around anymore. Plus, nearby villages had seen an uptick in crime involving children. So, after talking with Jii-chan and Baa-chan, I decided to open up the dojo to elementary school kids. To teach them self-defense skills and stuff like that. But, I'm not taking in just any kids."

Yusaku noticed Takeru's expression had darkened.

"Those kids you saw . . . They've gone through—well, they're still going through a lot," he said, his voice low. "Most of them are with foster parents, since their actual parents can't take care of them. And," Takeru stared directly at Yusaku's eyes, "you can probably guess how other kids act when they find out some of their own don't live with their parents as well as being . . . well, different. Whether on the outside or in the head."

Yusaku bit his lip, knowing exactly what Takeru was talking about. Going through therapy at six years old after the Lost Incident and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression had been rough on him, but add that to the teasing, the taunting, the name-calling he'd barely endured for the months? Years? It was a lonely way to live, as much as Yusaku had pretended it didn't bother him. What did he need friends for? Family? When his own parents didn't care about him? It didn't matter, he had tried to convince himself. They all thought he was weird anyway, for living by himself, for refusing to speak after the Lost Incident, limiting his vocabulary and sentences to the bare minimum. But, after he and Kusanagi met in Link VRAINS and again in the real world, his world gradually opened, his locked heart slowly undoing the shackles that he wouldn't wish on anyone, not even his worst enemy.

And Takeru had confided in Yusaku all those years ago that, even with his childhood friend Kiku and his grandparents by his side, he had felt the same, struggling to make friends, taking his anger and frustration out in fights after school—if he went to school at all. Takeru understood his pain better than anyone.

"So, you take in these kids, build a community for them, and let them vent their frustrations, their struggles with the world that's seemingly against them, through martial arts," Yusaku concluded. "So that's what you meant by 'I figured my future out.'"

"You got it." Takeru replied, his voice uncharacteristically soft. "I don't want anyone – anyone – to go through what we did, Yusaku. Especially not these kids, who've already gone through so much. If I can do anything to make them more confident in themselves, to make them feel like their lives are worth something so that they don't try and throw it away later, I'll do it."

Yusaku felt a shift slightly against his thigh, and he put a hand over the area where his Duel Disk was. "Takeru . . ."

"But," Takeru shifted back to his usual upbeat self, "that's enough about me. You really moved here? From Den City? What for?"

Yusaku glanced at Ai, who had resumed his position in the front pocket. "Den City was getting a little too much, so I needed a change of pace. There's also a nearby university I'm going to be studying virtual and alternate reality structures at for a bit."

Takeru scrunched his face, deep in thought, trying to process the words Yusaku was saying. But the more he tried to comprehend, the more his head hurt. What the heck does that even mean?!

"Yusaku . . ." Takeru said slowly, "you know I'm not that smart. You're gonna have to explain that again. Except in words I can understand."

"Ah, so your intelligence hasn't improved any," Ai teased in a sing-song voice.

"Be quiet!" exclaimed Takeru, much to Yusaku and Ai's surprise.

"Yikes. Even Takeru-chan's starting to sound like Yusaku." Ai retreated into his stationed pocket. Yusaku coughed to keep from laughing.

"I'm going to school just to help Ai rebuild the Cyberse. That's all there is to it," he explained, holding his hurt shoulder, not without Takeru noticing.

"Then why didn't you say that earlier?!

"Payback for when you refused to tell me what you were doing for two years?"

Takeru pouted, looking towards the ground, his face a dusty red. "Okay, I guess that's fair."

Yusaku closed his eyes and nodded, but, not too long after that, the throbbing pain in his shoulder returned. He clutched it, involuntarily releasing a grunt, if only to release some of the hurt. Takeru let go his mop and rushed towards him.

"Are you okay?" asked Takeru, kneeling on one knee to be at eye level. "Your shoulder looks like it's in a lot of pain –"

Damn, this is embarrassing. "It's fine," Yusaku insisted, but the more he tried to rub it so that the pain would subside, the more intense the inflammation became. Coming to Takeru's place unplanned and unannounced at a time that was technically off-limits, falling apart physically in the epitome of physical stamina. Hadn't his dignity taken enough hits today? He hadn't wanted to worry Takeru and add to his already full plate of daily duties. Yet, here he was. So, the least he could do was brush off the pain like it was nothing.

But, unfortunately for him, Takeru wasn't having it.

"I'm not falling for that trick, Yusaku. I've seen you grab for it several times in the last hour," his apparent self-appointed caregiver observed. "You're in pain, and I'm not just gonna let you pretend it's not bothering you." Before Yusaku could object, Takeru, rolling up his sleeves, sat right behind him.

"Takeru, wait - !" Yusaku protested, his voice high-pitched and face flushed, inviting a snicker from Ai. But, Takeru only wordlessly reached for the injured shoulder. He gently but firmly massaged it as methodically as he had mopped and swept the dojo floor, and, as much as Yusaku hated to admit . . . it was exactly what he needed. Especially after carrying around Roboppi, his Duel Disk, and the rest of his stuff for the past nine hours.

He never expected Takeru to be that good with his hands.

"Takeru, I –" Yusaku began, only to be interrupted by a gruff, older voice booming, "Takeru! Is the dojo clean?"

Takeru pouted. Jii-chan asked that every time he and Baa-chan came back. Would it hurt to have just a little more faith in him? Not to mention – or especially mention? – he wanted to spend more alone time with Yusaku. Well, as alone as one could get with Ai and Roboppi around. He massaged the kinks out of the middle of Yusaku's back, then shouted back, "Yes, Ojii-chan!" in a "what do you take me for?" tone.

So, of course, instead of taking Takeru's word for it, his grandparents came to the dojo anyway, Takeru releasing his hold on Yusaku's shoulders. For a split second, Yusaku contemplated reaching for his hands and holding them as he – and his shoulders – wasn't ready for Takeru to let go but, coming to his senses, decided vehemently against it. What was with him? He's never demanded this much affection before. Yet with Takeru . . .

Takeru's grandmother made eye contact with Yusaku, eyebrows furrowed, as if piecing information together, making both Yusaku and Takeru nervous. After a few seconds, she gasped.

"Oh! You must be the new resident the whole town's talking about."

"Eh?" Yusaku knew the town was smaller than Den City by far, but his coming to Shirakawa was that newsworthy? So much for trying to blend in.

"Welcome to small towns, where everyone knows everyone's business, especially folks from out of town's business," murmured Takeru, closing his eyes, leaning against the wall.

"Now, now, Takeru. We only know because Kiku told us the new arrival would be here," Jii-chan interjected. At the mention of Kiku, Yusaku's face matched Takeru's. Both groaned. Of course she did. Suddenly remembering that he hadn't formally introduced himself, Yusaku hastily stood up, slightly wobbly from the—okay, really good—massage earlier, bowing ever so slightly. "Fujiki Yusaku."

"Oh, so you're that Fujiki Yusaku," Takeru's grandfather replied.

"Takeru's told us all about you," Takeru's grandmother commented, prompting Yusaku to turn around to glare at Takeru as he refused to look the other in the eye. Well, Takeru couldn't have possibly told them anything more damaging than telling little kids he thought Yusaku's Link VRAINS alias was Playmater.

But, whatever Ai and Roboppi were planning just might. Yusaku heard a small "Well, if that's the case!" coming from his pocket. He watched, eyes widening, as his Ignis unzipped the bag, knocked on Roboppi's frame, assuming to tell them that it was okay to roam about (which it was not!), and the two of them stationed themselves adjacent to his belongings. That Ai! As part of a knee-jerk reaction, Yusaku motioned towards them to shove them both back in, but Takeru's grandmother only laughed at the commotion, calling the AI companions "adorable" and "certainly lively."

"It's alright, Yusaku. We know about the Ignis and your AI helper. Takeru's told us all about that too," Takeru's grandfather reassured him. "No need to hide them from us."

"O-okay," mumbled Yusaku, standing straight back up, Takeru snickering off to the side as well as Ai.

"But, if your Ignis – Ai, was it? – is here, then what about Flame? Where is he?" Baa-chan asked, innocently. The question made Takeru stop snickering in an instant, his heart stopped, not believing what she'd just asked. He whined, a little louder than intended, attracting his grandparents' attention, but, oddly enough, Yusaku wasn't looking at him, but back at his belongings, which had moved slightly left. But, Takeru hadn't noticed.

"Obaa-chan . . ." Takeru choked, trying to swallow. "I. I told you and Ojii-chan about Flame. He's. He's not coming back. Ever."

Her face dropped. "Oh, Takeru, I'm sorry, I forgot," she replied, pained at the thought of making her grandson upset unnecessarily. "My memory's been quite off today. In any case, I'll be tending to the garden out back, alright?"

Takeru only got out a small "Okay," as his grandmother made her way out the back, but not before she turned back to Yusaku and said, "It was lovely meeting you, Yusaku-chan, and welcome to our small town. I'm sure we'll be seeing you often."

"Nice meeting you," returned Yusaku, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets, looking at Takeru. "See you soon."

Jii-chan turned to follow Baa-chan towards the garden, but not before he addressed the new arrival. "By the way, Yusaku, you moved in on just the right day." When Yusaku raised his eyebrows, he continued, "Tonight's one of the biggest festivals of the year which celebrates our small town and honors the god of our village. It'd be a good idea if you went. Get a taste of what this town truly is all about." Turning to face his grandson, Jii-chan smiled, a glint in his eye, befuddling Takeru. "Takeru can take you."

Takeru jerked away from the wall, mouth hanging open at his grandfather's suggestion. "Huh?! Ojii-chan, I'm taking the dojo kids to the festival. You know that!"

And it wasn't only because he had planned to take the kids either. He knew Yusaku's stamina, when he's in crowds, dropped rapidly. So, close-quartered festivals like the one happening that night would probably prove fatal to him. Besides, he definitely didn't want Yusaku to see him in a –

"Takeru, don't be silly," reprimanded his grandfather. "Obaa-chan and I can take care of the kids, so you two can enjoy yourselves."

"Ojii-chan!" Takeru's face was as red as the tomatoes in the garden. Was. Was his grandfather trying to set him and Yusaku up. On a date?! He couldn't believe it. If he's gonna go on a date with Yusaku, he's going to set it up himself, thank you very much. While Takeru was having his internal meltdown, however, Yusaku had no clue why the one he sacrificed his nap for was acting so strangely.

Takeru cracked his knuckles and went inside the dojo closet to change into his casual white shirt and jeans combo, swiping his Converse and glasses off the rack. "I'm gonna go help Yusaku get settled at his new place," he said quickly, furiously putting on his shoes.

"Wait, you will?" Yusaku hurriedly placed Ai in his Duel Disk and Roboppi back in the bag and swung it over his shoulder, which didn't feel as badly as before. Takeru's grandfather could only look on the situation with amusement before adding, "It was nice meeting you, Yusaku."

"Ah, same here!" he called back over his shoulder as he put his shoes on. Takeru waited until he was done before he shouted, "I'll be back," and grabbed Yusaku by the wrist with one hand and opened the door with the other. Yusaku's face warmed substantially.

"Ta-Takeru?!"


Muto Residence, Shirakawa

Takeru hastily closed the door to Yusaku's bedroom, tossed his glasses on the dresser, and slid down against the door, sighing in relief. Yusaku, not quite sure what had just happened, carefully unloaded his belongings from his shoulders and removed the Duel Disk and Roboppi for the time being to finally unpack his other stuff. Once he'd done that, he shifted his attention to Takeru, staring blankly at the ceiling.

"What in the world was that all about? Back at the dojo?" No sooner had Yusaku verbalized his question, Ai chuckled, entertained by the cluelessness of his Origin, but Yusaku shot daggers with his eyes at him, a shiver running down his metaphorical spine, so he stopped. Yusaku's eyes softened as Takeru wordlessly rose from the floor and sat down on the bed, and he took his place next to him, a handful of centimeters apart. Takeru's heartrate steadily increased.

"You. You don't have to go, if you don't want," mumbled Takeru, looking down at his folded hands.

"Huh? 'Go' where?" asked Yusaku, still not comprehending his boyfriend's problem. Takeru rubbed his forehead, not believing how utterly and completely clueless he was but, at the same time, wishing that were him.

"The festival tonight. I know how you are with crowds, and things can get a little hectic at festival time. If you wanna stay in, get settled, take a nap, you can. It's not that big of a deal."

Yusaku sat up a bit straighter. Oh, was that it? He's surprised Takeru remembered that "fun fact" about him, two years later. But, he's getting slightly better with crowds, and he had something to give to Takeru that day anyway. Besides, if he stuck with him, it definitely wouldn't be all bad. It could even be fun, for all he knew.

"I really don't mind," was the reply. "Actually, I have something to give you then, so I was planning on going anyway."

Takeru's eyes met Yusaku's. "Why can't you give it to me now?"

Yusaku's face was one of confusion, but only to mess with Takeru. "Still payback?"

"Yusaku!"

Ai popped up from the Duel Disk. "Actually, it's because Yusaku-chan wants to go on a date with his boyfriend first~"

At the apparent conclusion that neither of them could understand how it was even considered, Yusaku, still sitting, and Takeru, who had sprung up from the bed, both stared at Ai, eyes widened, words escaping them both temporarily. The awkward pause allowed the chirpy robot helper Roboppi to parrot, "Boyfriend is a forbidden word. `(*﹏*)′"

Ai, crossing his arms in triumph, closed his eyes and nodded. "Worth it."

When both Yusaku and Takeru found words again, their faces reddened, Takeru's about the reddest of the two.

"Be quiet!" shouted the two of them together.

"Extremely worth it," Ai continued to nod. While he was still nodding, Yusaku grabbed the Duel Disk and carried it back with him. Not sure how much more embarrassment he could take during that hour, Takeru grabbed his glasses from the top of the dresser and reached for the door, but not before he glanced at Yusaku one last time.

"Well, uh, I guess I'll see you tonight, then."

"Yeah, he will!" Ai boisterously cheered. Yusaku, having had enough of his antics, promptly smacked him back in his Duel Disk, putting it back in the bag.

"I won't be there at the start," he said, thinking of the nap he still needed to take, "but yeah. See you then."

He's definitely gonna see me in a yukata then. Crap, thought Takeru, but he mustered a weak smile, reaching for the door. "Until then." With that, Takeru quietly made his exit.

Yusaku looked at the rest of his belongings, which had shifted wildly at the sound of Takeru's voice within the last several seconds. He took out his Duel Disk staring at it before Ai popped up again.

"Yusaku, are you sure about this? He said he didn't remember," said Ai, shoulders dropped.

Yusaku stared out the window, watching his fiery boyfriend energetically almost run into a wall and then turn the corner. Smiling, he closed the curtains.

"As sure as I've ever been, Ai."


Shirakawa Festival

"Big Brother Takeru, can I try out this game?"

"What about this booth?"

"I'm hungry!"

The festival had only been going for about a half-hour, but, with the amount of people already gathered, it was difficult for Takeru to watch where he's going, even with his glasses on, and pay attention to his tiny companions high-pitched whines at the same time. He's done this before. He's done this before, for two years. So, why couldn't he focus? Actually, he knew exactly why—he just didn't want to admit it.

Coughing into a fist, Takeru abruptly turned around, almost tripping over his dark green yukata, facing his students, who also stopped in their tracks, eyes expecting. He studied each of them individually before he rubbed his forehead.

"One thing at a time, okay? You guys know how bad my hearing is."

Takeru took a deep breath to say something else, only to be interrupted by a "hmmmm" right behind him, followed by "I see you're having trouble with the kids, Takeru." He turned around towards the source of the noise to find Kiku in a pale blue kimono with a pale pink flower pattern, hair sculpted in a butterfly shape ("How the heck did she manage that?" thought Takeru). She always dressed extravagantly for festivals, ever since the two of them were very little. It helped that her father and their family friend co-owned a clothing store for as long as he could remember, so she always had the nicest clothes, in Takeru's opinion.

And . . . okay, maybe she did look pretty every time and found himself staring for a bit too.

"Kiku?" finally uttered Takeru while the kids gathered next to him, staring at the new arrival. With a small wave to the kids, Kiku only grinned as she stepped to the side, revealing Yusaku, who . . . wore exactly what he did a few hours ago. Not that Takeru was surprised—he probably wouldn't have known how to react had Kiku or her family friend forced Yusaku into a yukata – gah, his heart was racing just thinking about it! – but, oddly enough, Takeru couldn't help but be slightly disappointed. Nonetheless, even though Yusaku had said he was coming, it still surprised Takeru to see him.

"Yusaku?!"

. . . and he saw him in his yukata. Great.

At least Takeru had managed to find one that fitted over his chest this year.

A mischievous smile formed on Kiku's face as she walked to Takeru, resting her elbow on his shoulder and tilting her head. "You can let me take over. Your boyfriend's here, after all," she said, loud enough for Takeru to hear, but soft enough to avoid Roboppi's forbidden word detection.

Takeru jumped, eyes widening, face warming so that the crisp air was a relief on his face. "Kiku!" he sharply whispered, then adding, "Baa-chan and Jii-chan put you up to this, didn't they? I just know it."

Kiku only continued to smile. "Hmmm? I have absolutely no clue what you're going on about. I came here with Yusaku out of my own free will." Then, she lowered her voice, a smirk on her face this time. "Interesting how you conveniently got a yukata that fits over your chest this year, though. It's almost as if you knew Yusaku was coming, huh?" Takeru's face turned another, darker shade of red as Kiku walked past him, whispering "You two enjoy yourselves now~" Yusaku, looking on, tilted his head, not understanding what Takeru's problem was (was he getting a fever?), but he wasn't about to ask.

"Big Brother Takeru's got something to do, so Big Sister Kiku's gonna take over, okay?" announced Kiku cheerily, standing eye-level with the kids behind Takeru. To Takeru's surprise—more to his horror, really—the kids nodded, said their farewells to Takeru and Yusaku, and walked off, Kiku throwing one last grin at Takeru. He's surprised his face hadn't completely combusted into flames yet.

Yusaku made his way next to Takeru, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. His yukata was surprisingly soft. And he did look nice in it. "Takeru?"

Takeru, clearing his throat, regained some of his composure. "It's your first festival, right? I'll show you around." Then, he made perky smile that made Yusaku's heart beat just a bit faster. "Let's get going!"

The two of them navigated the narrow, crowded streets, decorated with a myriad of stalls and booths, enticing the customers to try their newest strong-smelling food creations (which, of course, made Takeru realize he was super hungry), test their luck on target hitting, or attempt to grab a stuffed animal using a claw machine. Surprisingly, to Takeru, Yusaku spent the most time at two claw machines, unusually determined to win at least one stuffed animal from each machine, particularly the most adorable ones he saw, to the point of spending a good chunk of his money. Takeru found it absolutely . . . well, adorable. He had never known Yusaku liked cute things, but maybe that explained why he had Roboppi. But, it also tugged at his heart, he being grateful that he got to see Yusaku, his boyfriend, having so much fun, being so happy and enjoying himself.

He was glad Yusaku decided to come to the festival after all.

After the two of them had a gourmet dinner of unusually citrus fruit-flavored takoyaki and onigiri, Yusaku's walking pace had slowed down, his eyelids refusing to stay open for very long. He hadn't had a chance to take that nap that eluded him all day, even with all that time before the festival, and he's paying for it. Not long after Takeru left, Muto-san had come back from his work and helped Yusaku officially move into his new place. And by the time they were done, it had been time for Yusaku to go to the festival—long past time.

Yusaku furiously rubbed his eyes to stay awake, but the intense heat of the crowds, the high-pitched instrument noises, the chattering, the lights. It was making him all so exhausted and his head throb, like someone was continually pounding a hammer on his skull.

Takeru had noticed Yusaku's slower pace and eye rubbing, his classic "I can't deal with crowds anymore" symptoms and decided to act.

"Follow me," he said. Yusaku, barely comprehending, only nodded. The two snaked through the crowds, which had increased in density since the main event of the festival was starting, going in the opposite direction. Judgement clouded, senses dulled, Yusaku lightly grabbed Takeru's hand. Takeru's heart pounded wildly in his chest at the innocent contact, but, not wanting to lose him, he tightened his grip, and the two continued on their way, away from the crowds, away from the lights and noises, away from the oppressive heat, into the comforting and pleasant woodlands at the base of one of the large mountains.

Yusaku could feel the stark difference in temperature, and goosebumps formed on his arms, even though they were still covered, but exhaustion still held its grip on his consciousness. The obnoxious, painful noise of the festival diminished to no more than a buzz as they walked further and further away, replaced by the sounds of the wind gently blowing through the trees and the diurnal animals settling in for the night as the nocturnal animals scurried in preparation.

Takeru and Yusaku finally reached the end of their journey at the dock by the river, a place where Takeru himself always went to when he needed to sort his feelings out, which had been closed off for the festival. Takeru sat down first, letting his feet dangle over the sparkling, slow-moving current, followed by Yusaku, who took the strap off, letting his one shoulder rest. The two of them sat in the quiet for a few moments, Takeru to absorb everything that's happened that day, Yusaku to recover from his unfortunate episode. The fog in Yusaku's head gradually cleared just enough for him recall his earlier promise to Takeru.

It was time to give him back.

"Takeru," he said quietly, opening his bag.

"Hmm?"

"I said I had . . ." Yusaku hesitated a bit, thinking carefully about his words so that he wouldn't give the surprise away, ". . . something to give you. I'm giving it to you now."

Takeru also had forgotten Yusaku's promise from earlier that day, so, at his boyfriend's declaration, he sat up a little straighter, leaning towards him and watching eagerly as Yusaku delicately reached inside and pulled out his Duel Disk, Ai already halfway out. He raised an eyebrow.

"But, I already saw Ai today," muttered Takeru.

Ai put his hands on his hips. "Um, one, I can hear you, Takeru. Two, seeing me is not a bad thing. And three, uh, rude?"

"Wow, listen to who's sounding like Yusaku now," teased Takeru.

"I'm his Ignis. That goes without saying."

Yusaku chuckled quietly as he also removed Roboppi and his prized stuffed cats and porcupines. Then, after looking over at Ai, who nodded, and back to Takeru, he leaned back. Takeru tilted his head.

"Takeru, I know how much he meant to you. How he much he still means to you. And the reason I didn't visit before now is because you. You needed to see him, no matter what it took. I wasn't coming here without him. It just," Yusaku let a laugh escape, "it just wouldn't have felt right."

"Yusaku?" inquired Takeru, but Yusaku's expression softened, glancing at Ai.

"Ai."

Ai gave a dramatic salute before shouting "Ai'll be back!" and retreating back into Yusaku's Duel Disk, but only for a second before he popped back up and told Takeru, "Just a fair warning, Takeru. His memory's a bit out of whack, so he might not remember you. Okay, now Ai'll be back."

"He?" Takeru still hadn't connected the dots. He didn't understand. What were Yusaku and Ai even talking about? There's only one being he knew who could apply to any of what they said, and there was no way he's ever coming back. That's impossible, and he had come to terms with that, accepting his sadness, his pain, his dark thoughts over losing someone who was, literally and figuratively, a part of him.

At least, he'd like to think he's come to terms with it.

But, when Ai returned, it turned out that holding on to that small sliver of hope, even after he'd accepted that loss, the nagging voice in his mind asking "what if?". Even when Baa-chan had forgotten what had happened to Flame. They'd been right. They'd been right all along. And Takeru felt his emotional walls crumble at the sight of that familiar Ignis frame, with his bright golden eyes, the candle in his chest, and, of course, the flame on the top of his head. It didn't matter how Yusaku and Ai did it (he probably wouldn't have understood, anyway). It didn't matter that this moment – no, this entire day, - could possibly have been one huge dream giving him a false sense of hope. It didn't matter that he didn't remember him.

All that mattered was that he was here. He was alive.

"Fl. Fla-!"

Flame! Flame! Flame!

Takeru's eyes couldn't stop shedding tears, his body refusing to stop shaking. But, he just had to call out to him.

"Flame!" he finally got out. The Fire Ignis took that as his cue to leave Yusaku's Duel Disk and carefully climb on top of Takeru's shoulder, wrapping his arms around his neck. Takeru acknowledged the embrace by rubbing the top of his head, letting his tears fall down his face and neck.

"Takeru, I know you think this is a dream, that none of this is real," Flame said, his body temperature slightly increasing, "but it's really me."

Takeru hiccupped-laughed, furiously wiping his eyes with his sleeves. "Reading my mind says otherwise."

Flame shook his head. "Troublesome, as always." But then he looked up at his Origin. Takeru could detect a smile in his eyes. "But, you've grown a lot too. I'm proud of you, Takeru."

"Flame . . ."

"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait a second!" Ai interjected, with Yusaku looking and putting up a hand as though he was about to smack him back in his Duel Disk any second now for interrupting the two of them. "Flame, you said you had no memories of Takeru! That the whole thing with Bowman messed with your memory bank! What's going on?"

Flame made his way back down to Takeru's right, standing on the elevated docking point. "And you believed me?"

Ai's eyes widened. "Huh?!"

Flame returned his gaze towards Takeru, who was confused at Ai's statement. "I'd never forget my partner. Not even for a nanosecond. I just said that because I wanted to know what it felt like to be as dramatic as you are. And pull your leg, as the humans would say"

"That's - !" Ai stared incredulously at Yusaku. "Did you know about this?"

Yusaku smiled. "Of course."

"Aaaaaaa. Are you kidding meeeeeeee?" Ai wailed.

"Big Bro is dumb ( ̄y▽, ̄)╭ " chirped Roboppi as the others laughed, Ai increasingly frustrated.

"Isn't 'dumb' a forbidden word?" accused Ai, pointing his finger at the robot helper.

"Only when you're not involved, Ai," Yusaku clarified, Takeru clutching his stomach from laughing so hard.

"Mean!" Yusaku's Ignis shouted.

Takeru wiped the corners of his eyes, taking a good look at Flame again, and then at Yusaku. He and Ai. They really did bring Flame back. For Yusaku to hold off visiting just because he wanted to reunite Flame and him . . .

Yusaku might not have thought of himself as the kindest, most caring person who had a lot of love to give, but Takeru knew – two years ago and at that moment – that's who he was.

And he loved him for that. So, so much.

"Yusaku . . ." Takeru whispered, his eyes tearing up again, Yusaku turning to look at him. "Thank you, thank you, thank you . . ."

Yusaku's mouth opened slightly, letting out a quiet gasp. That expression. That expression was the same one Takeru had at Stardust Road all those years ago, the one that made him realize his heart was finally ready to love another human.

To see it again . . . he really couldn't have been any happier. Coming to the festival was definitely worth it.

Popping sounds in the sky snapped Yusaku and Takeru's attention forward, the two's hands inadvertently moving closer to each other. "They've finally started, huh?" said Takeru as Flame and Ai took their places in their Origins' laps, Roboppi wheeling closer to Yusaku. Yusaku only laid his head on Takeru's shoulder, which, shockingly, didn't make Takeru's face heat up or any other dramatic bodily reaction. Takeru's hand found its way on top of Yusaku's, his fingers fitting perfectly with the other's, and Yusaku lightly squeezed Takeru's hand in response.

The light blue, orange, and midnight sky was illuminated with colorful, elaborate fireworks, its many shapes impressing especially the two Ignis and Roboppi. But, they were no more than twinkling blurs for Yusaku, lack of sleep having taken a stronger hold of his senses, the popping of the fireworks no louder than an incessant knock on the door. In fact, even though the night had turned into a chilly one, Yusaku felt warm sitting by Takeru, the more he pushed his body against his. The warmth temporarily brought his mind back to when Takeru had to leave, when Yusaku couldn't bear to let him go and held on to him just so he could remember how warm he felt, at the very least. A gentle warmth, much like the sun on his train ride here.

It was then Yusaku knew for certain he'd made the right decision, as reckless as it had seemed to everyone he told back in Den City. Well, almost everyone. Kusanagi had been surprisingly supportive, even though it meant even less help with his hot dog business. Ema-san and Zaizen had been skeptical at first, only because it also meant one less pair of hands to help them with their coding projects, but they eventually relented. Even Zaizen Aoi was also genuinely happy for him and only said, "Say hi to Takeru for me!"

Yusaku would pass on the message later. He was too exhausted then to do it.

He tiredly stared at the fireworks, so he hadn't noticed Takeru shifted his gaze from the fireworks to him. Eyes soft, a gentle smile. It took everything Takeru had in him to not just combust out of affection for the travel-weary companion next to him. He restrained himself to just softly leaning against his boyfriend's head, but he couldn't help but whisper, "I missed you, Yusaku."

Yusaku would've laughed had he not been so tired, so he settled for a hum. The three words he'd been unable to admit to Takeru every time they called each other, coming back to him like this. He hadn't wanted him to worry, especially since he had a lot on his plate, a lot more than he'd realized back then. But, he regretted not saying them, if only for Takeru to understand how much his heart ached for him, to physically be with him and his warm, welcoming, loving self.

That was then, though. He's different now, thanks to his friends back in Den City . . . and a whole lot of, sometimes soul crushing, therapy.

"I missed you too, Takeru." He took a deep breath. "So, so much."

"He sure did," Ai interrupted, a mischievous expression plastered on his face, Flame nodding. "Flame can definitely attest to this. He'd say your name over and over and over in his sleep and everythi—"

Yusaku's face brightened to a light red. "Be quiet!"

"You didn't deny it, though~"

Takeru only laughed, squeezing Yusaku's hand tighter, using his thumb to rub small circles into the other's palm. Yusaku leaned in, relaxing even more against Takeru's side, involuntarily squeaking, much like the cats back in Den City when he fed them. He knew logically at some point before the night ended he had to get back to his place, but . . . he was so tired, he could just sleep right there.

Which was exactly what he did, even with the fireworks still going off. Takeru made a better bed, anyway.

Takeru, caught completely off guard, hastily adjusted his weight to support the sleeping Yusaku. Ai, having jumped off, Flame, and Roboppi only laughed as he did his best to not let Yusaku fall forward and get a surprise bath in the chilly mountain river.

"Yeah, he was up all night last night." Ai explained as he sat cross-legged on top of Yusaku's Duel Disk.

"No matter how many times I insisted he should sleep. I knew this would happen," Flame said, closing his eyes.

"Oh, right. Like he's gonna listen to you," Ai teased. Flame only huffed.

"He listened to me with just about everything else, unlike you, Ai," countered Flame. Ai jerked back, offended but slightly. "Of course, when Takeru's involved, though . . ."

Ai breathed a heavy sigh, not wanting to admit what he was about to say out loud. "I guess you're right, Flame. Man, now I know how those parents in those soap operas felt when their kids got married."

Takeru had absolutely no desire to ask him what in the world he meant by that.

"Master was very much looking forward to seeing Takeru-san. \( ^0^ )/" chirped Roboppi, their own attempts at keeping the peace.

Takeru sighed as he leaned in, his smile only growing, his heart fuller. "And he didn't tell me he was coming—or staying here for a bit. For goodness' sake, Yusaku." But, Yusaku couldn't hear him, since he was already fast asleep, basking in Takeru's warmth. That was fine—it was more than fine, actually. It was a dream come true. Takeru's eyes softened, still not believing he was here, body against his, sleeping, trusting him, wanting to be with him that much. He knew he'd have to carry him back, but, for the time being, he'd just let him rest, matching his breathing with his. It's the least he could do, after Yusaku went through all that trouble not only to get Flame back but for him to be here.

Yusaku had been there for him, he and Kusanagi-san giving him a home as Takeru was still trying to resolve his past and create a future. And now, now that Yusaku decided to be here for a while—maybe, hopefully, forever—it was Takeru's turn to do that for him. They had fought for this future together. Now, they would live in it—together.

"Welcome home, Yusaku."