“Aoi, Wait!” Akira reached out his hand towards her.
“No! I can’t.” Aoi sobbed as she leapt the last few steps to the door and shoved her feet into the closest shoes, wrenching the knob and nearly falling out in her haste.
The elevator was already at their floor at the end of the hall, so she slapped the button and ran inside, only to jab the door close button once she was across the threshold. “Aoi!” her brother tried one last time as the smooth metal slid shut.
She tried to calm herself as each floor of the highrise dinged past. Each ding stung her in the back of her skull, a recurring pressure that brought new mistakes to the surface with each hit.
I should have grabbed my duel disk.
I should have grabbed a jacket.
I should have taken my phone.
I should have stayed and talked.
I should have called Emma-san and Aqua.
I should have…
The elevator dinged open onto the lobby, and she bolted through to the front doors. The wind pushed back against the door, pushing her back into the building, but with a heave she flung herself into the cold of the night.
She stumbled onto the sidewalk, blind from the wind and numb from the thoughts spiraling down, down, through her body and into the ground at her pounding feet. And so she let the wind carry her along, around corners and across roads and through alleys that she would never have normally ventured into at this time of night, but the wind was tugging her farther.
She didn’t know when the rain started, but as long as it helped flush all of the helplessness in her limbs away, then she’d welcome it gladly.
The wind tossed her onto a bench and left her all in a rush. Left her at the mercy of the rain, which poured its ice in her veins and drowned her thoughts in its roar.
Yusaku sat up straight in his bed, spine stiff with the memory of electricity. He took in his surroundings in one sweep, the darkness of the room, the concerned robots staring at him from the table, the hush of the rain as droplets worked their way down his windows. He breathed in deeply, held the air for a count of three, and let it back out.
He kept up the mantra of old in his head until his muscles relaxed, and he could slump forward to place his head in his hands.
He kept that pose for a while, processing the nightmare and filing it away with all of the others: in the back of his mind for another day. That done, he stood and straightened his sheets, no point in trying to go back to sleep tonight.
He walked past the two still watching him in silence, both of them knowing better by this point than to try and talk to him on a night like this. What needed to be done? He walked up the stairs and turned into his kitchen, glancing around and opening cabinets.
He wasn’t hungry, he never was anymore but he saw that he was running low on a few things. He took stock of what needed to be bought, cataloging it all in his head as he changed and slipped into his raincoat.
Then he was out into the rain that stabbed a new memory into his eyes with every gentle drop that hit the crisp fabric of his coat.
He was glad that he’d grabbed the raincoat. There might not have been a lot of wind, but it was far too cold for just an umbrella.
A yell sounded out to his left and he stepped to the right just in time to avoid a man who was stumbling out of a bar. He didn’t seem to mind the weather, as he attempted to run off down the street with a yell of “Taxi!” at the empty street.
Yusaku shook his head. Why would an ordinary person be out this late on a weeknight?
He turned the corner and squinted against the light reflecting off the wet cement. Blinking through it, he spotted the entrance to the grocery store partway down the block.
The puddles were deeper here, where more people walked and bowed the cement with each step they took. He was stepping between two of them when he turned his head just a bit farther right and caught a glimpse of brown in the staggered darkness of the park.
It processed as just unusual enough to warrant turning his head even further, and he paused in his tracks at the familiar, if drenched, figure seated across the street.
Now, he couldn’t be certain, but from the silhouette it really seemed like Aoi Zaizen was sitting on a park bench at two in the morning, in the rain without a coat or umbrella.
He took one more step down the sidewalk, then another. A few more paces brought him through the electronic doors and into the warmth of the store, where he immediately selected a basket and stepped into the aisles. Each item was placed into the basket and ticked off his mental list, the clockwork of routine moving his limbs. One extra item was plucked up as he approached the counter, and stayed in his hand.
He set the items on the counter and slipped the jacket off, pulling his wallet from his pants pocket as he did so. He paid at the electronic register and shoved his items in a plastic bag - Kusanagi-san could chew him out later about the environment, paper wouldn’t last in this weather - and unwrapped the blue umbrella he’d just grabbed.
Jacket in one hand and groceries and umbrella in the other, he stepped out the door and hit the button on the umbrella to open the canopy. Out of habit he glanced both ways down the traffic-less street and his eyes locked on an intoxicated group by the opposite corner, some young guys tucked under the overhang of a storefront. They were staring rather blatantly at the same person he was approaching, and he picked up his pace to beat any malicious thoughts they might have had.
Was it still raining? Aoi couldn’t tell. Everything was so cold that it didn’t seem to matter. Scenes were flashing in front of her eyes: Earth as the red laser cut him apart piece by piece, Aqua asking for her help, her brother standing by behind Queen’s serpentine smile, and an imagined scene, Miyu with cards falling from her hands and-
Her eyes flew open and the cold flew into her bones, bringing everything in the world outside of her mind into focus. It had stopped raining, no, it was still raining, just not on her .
She pulled her head up to meet the green eyes staring down at her, blinking back the tears of rain that tried to stick her lashes together. “Fujiki-kun? What are you doing here?”
He narrowed his eyes slightly and cocked his head to the side. “I was getting some groceries. What are you doing here? You look like hell.” Oh, that’s right. How long had she been sitting on this bench?
Later. He was still waiting for her to answer. “I got into a huge fight with my brother, and ended up running out of the house. I-” She glanced back down at her knees “I got lost, and I don’t have any way to contact him, so I’ve just been sitting here and thinking.” She blinked, swallowing down her self-pity for another time.
There was a beat of silence, then, with a rustle she found a mass of damp fabric in front of her eyes. She stared at it, trying to piece together what it was.
“It’s a raincoat. You’ll get hypothermia at this rate.” Fujiki-kun almost sounded bored, but his words were a beat too fast for that.
The fabric slid into her hands and she was quick to put it on, the cold in her bones trying to shake her. “Why do you have a jacket if you already have an umbrella?” she muttered, hoping that the rain would drown her out.
The bench creaked as Fujiki-kun sat down beside her, not too close but enough that the umbrella kept them both dry. “I didn’t have an umbrella, I just grabbed it as I was about to check out.”
Well, that was surprising. Aoi looked up at him, but he was looking past her with a small frown. She turned to see what was so interesting and her eyes landed on a group that was swaying on their feet, looking at the two of them. One waved, and she heard another let out a whistle.
A chill went down her spine for an entirely new reason.
“They showed up while I was in the store, I think. But they don’t seem willing to come over here anymore.” A tension she didn’t know was there drained out of her shoulders, and she turned back to the dark park.
“You don’t have to thank me. Anybody would have done this much.”
Aoi laughed. It barely had any sound, and was more of a loud, sharp exhale than anything else, but it was the most positive thing she’d done in what felt like years.
“Don’t ever change, please.”
There was another pause. “I’ll try.” There was another creak of wet wood and then Fujiki-kun was standing again. “I should go put these groceries away, do you want to come with me or stay here?”
Well, there really was no contest. She stood, turning to keep up with him. The walk to a shabby apartment building with cracks in the walls was surprisingly brief, and she quickly found herself hanging the wet coat on a hook and taking a seat at a small table on a rickety chair. She studied the whorls of wood as cabinets opened and closed, electronics whirred and dinged.
With a click, Fujiki-kun set a steaming mug in front of her, before settling into the chair opposite her. His seat didn’t move as he sat down, although maybe that was just because he was used to the chair.
“I don’t know what sort of drinks you like, but this is the only tea that I have right now. It’ll warm you up.” He took a sip of his own mug, as if to demonstrate that it was safe.
Her fingers curled around the ceramic, and she shivered with the sudden warmth. Raising it to her mouth, she let the steam wash over her face for a heartbeat before taking a sip. And then a gulp. Before she knew it her cup was empty, but she couldn’t have said how it tasted, only that her limbs felt like she had swallowed a sauna.
She lowered her mug to the table with a small frown, only to notice that Fujiki-kun was no longer in his seat, or even in the kitchen when she twisted around to check.
He quickly appeared in the doorway, carrying a blanket. “You’re shivering.” was the only explanation as it was held out.
The fabric wasn’t that soft, but as she wrapped it around her shoulders her limbs slowly stilled, and she supplemented the improvement with a refilled mug of tea that was placed before her.
The tea tasted different than the kinds she was used to. Her brother always bought green tea or some of his european ones, but this tasted like wild herbs and flowers and an earthy spice that settled along her taste buds. It wasn’t something that she would have expected Fujiki-kun to like.
Just then, Aoi’s eyes drifted over to the clock at the stove and she blinked, turning to her classmate. “You said you were out getting groceries, right?”
A beat of silence, and then a clack of a mug hitting the table. “You’re wondering why I was getting groceries at one in the morning, aren’t you?” There was almost a sigh in his words.
She nodded, watching him for a reaction.
There wasn’t much of one, just a small crease between his brows and the slightest pinch of his mouth. “I have… rather severe insomnia.” He was halting, not meeting her gaze, but she believed him all the more. “I only get about three hours of sleep each night, and this was just the chore that I decided to occupy myself with this time.” He turned his mug between his hands.
She had to say something, what could she say? “Well, I probably helped you wake your family up this time. Sorry about that.”
There was a small clatter as Fujiki-kun’s mug fell a centimeter to the table. Aoi jumped, startled at the sudden loud noise and the way that Fujiki-kun froze and stared at her for a heartbeat.
“Sorry.” He was already up, placing his mug over in the sink. “I thought that you already knew…” He turned back to her, squaring his shoulders like he was going off to duel. “My family is gone, I’m on my own.”
Closed gates loomed in Aoi’s mind as he turned back to the sink and tried to busy himself with washing out his mug as thoroughly as possible. She stood, tugging the blanket closer around her shoulders. “Why did you think that I knew?” it seemed an incredibly random fact to learn about such a reserved person.
“Shima found out about it and proceeded to tell almost everyone he came across, with you being in the same club it was highly likely that he had told you.” His voice was almost robotic, and his hands were steady as the mug was set down in the drying rack.
He turned back around to face her, and she opened her mouth to talk, to say she knew, she knew what losing them felt like, but he beat her to it.
“That reminds me, you said that you haven’t been able to contact your brother, right? Wait right here.” and he escaped from the room, footsteps going down what sounded like a staircase, and then quickly returning. “You should call him and let him know that you’re alright.” He held out a phone to her.
A house phone.
That was box-shaped.
Had an antenna.
And actual buttons.
She stared at it for a minute before her shoulders started shaking. She brought her hands up, trying to hide her face with the blanket.
“Are you alright? What’s wrong?” Oh, he sounded honestly confused.
She tried to speak, but all that came out was a violent laugh. She doubled over, laughter spilling out as she tried to pull herself together enough to get a proper sentence out.
“You…” She burst into more giggles.
“You have a house phone? I didn’t even know that they made any of those in the last century.” And she was doubled over again, tears leaking from her eyes from the force of her laughter.
“Yes I do, and it works perfectly well.” He sounded annoyed, but when she looked up the corner of his mouth was twitching. “And for your information, the lady running the estate sale said it was only eighty years old.”
And she was off on another fit, shoulders heaving and stomach aching at this point from the unusual exercise. Even Fujiki-kun smiled a bit before placing the relic in her hands.
“I’ll be down the hall if you need anything.” he called as he vanished through the doorway.
She sat back down in her chair to calm herself down, and started to press the buttons, although the reminder of why she was calling doused any residual laughter. She raised the plastic behemoth to her ear as the lines connected, and barely a fraction of the way through the first ring her brother picked up.
They both started speaking at once.
“Who is this-”
“Oh thank God! Aoi, where are you? Are you alright? I’ve been looking all over, and Emma is checking the cameras around town, and I was just about to call the police!” He sounded like he was about to hyperventilate.
“I’m fine! I got a bit lost earlier and ended up in a park, and there were these people who were watching me for a while-”
“But a classmate of mine showed up and helped me get away from them, so it’s fine!-”
“That is not fine! Those people-”
“Are gone. And I’m safe at my classmate’s apartment, and once I warm up I’ll probably just come home or sleep here. And then we are sitting down and I am winning our argument.”
Akira sighed, but she knew he was smiling. “And just who is this classmate? If you give me their address, either I or Emma could just come pick you up, if you like.”
… He was going to love this. “You don’t have to, it’s pretty far away. I’ll just stay here until morning or ask him to take me to the train station.”
He loved it. “Yes, you remember Fujiki Yusaku, right? The one who called the ambulance for me before?”
“Yes, but what was he doing out in the middle of the night? And what did his parents have to say about you suddenly showing up?” The waves of disapproval were apparent even through the antique telephone.
“He was getting groceries because he couldn’t sleep. And” She took a breath, “his parents aren’t- they’re gone, so they couldn’t’ve said anything.”
“... Oh. Well, um- if you’re sure that you’re alright, then I’ll leave getting back to you. Be sure that you get to school on time tomorrow, and don’t do anything dubious until then.”
Aoi’s face flared. “Onii-sama! Nothing is going to happen! Just- thank you for worrying, and tell Emma-san that I’m thankful that she helped look for me. Goodnight.”
“Wait, Aoi-” Akira was cut off with a click.
She basked in the silence for a moment, setting the archaic device onto the table and picking up her mug again. Even cold, the tea was still good.
“You’re done already?” Fujiki-kun asked, walking back into her line of sight.
“Yeah, I wish I could have seen Onii-sama’s reaction when I told him where I was, but with any luck Emma would have recorded it.” She couldn’t help the small smirk that wormed onto her face at the thought.
He sat down across from her. “Should I be worried about any interrogations in the near future?”
“I don’t think so, since he’s met you before, but keep your guard up just in case.” She yawned, the stress of the night heavy at her temples. “I should get going before I fall asleep. Would you mind showing me to the train station?”
“The train station? Zaizen-san, the last train was three hours ago, and the first one won’t come for another three either.”
Her head snapped up. “What? I thought that the trains ran all the time!”
Fujiki-kun tilted his head, “You don’t take the trains very often, do you?”
Ouch. Although it was true that she usually was driven around the city, she thought that she knew at least the basics about public transportation. She drew her shoulders up, tongue ready to lash back- as soon as she could think of a comeback, that is.
He didn’t give her the chance to. “I could still take you to the station if you want, but it’s still raining out, so you’ll probably get sick.” He stood up. “If you want, I have a spare room where you can sleep.” He took a step towards the door and stopped, looking at her in the quiet.
She took a moment as her mind raced. “That would be nice, thank you.” She stood and followed him out of the kitchen and down the hallway.
He led her past one door on the left, rapping his knuckles on the wood as he went. “This is the bathroom, feel free to use it.” and then he took a few more steps down and across the hallway to open up a second door. “This is the guest bedroom, I’ll bring the sheets in a minute.”
She stepped inside and flicked on the light to reveal a decently sized space with a stripped bed on one wall and a bookcase on the opposite, and a beat-up school desk with a chair attached shoved by the window. The walls were a blue-gray paint with white trim, although it was hard to tell at first with the weak light of the overhead bulb.
She didn’t realize there were still physical light switches in houses. She bit her lip.
Was this the kind of place that she would have ended up in if she didn’t have Akira to help her back then?
The old telephone didn’t seem so funny anymore.
She sat at the old desk and wrapped the blanket tighter around herself, sitting there quietly for a minute.
Fujiki-kun quickly came back and they put the sheets and her blanket onto the mattress and bid each other goodnight, and when she went into the bathroom there was a toothbrush still in the package on the counter. She smiled as she went back to the other room and pulled up the covers, finally letting her eyes slip closed.
“Time to get up, Miss!” What was with that voice? It sounded a bit like her cleaning bot, but did something happen to its voice box? It sounded too high pitched. “Breakfast is ready! Please get up now, Miss!”
She groaned, forcing her eyes open. It was way too early for getting up! It felt like she’d only closed her eyes for ten minutes, not the ten days she needed.
Wait. This wasn’t her room. She sat up straight and glanced around, gaze being drawn to the brightly-colored robot on the floor by her bed. As soon as her eyes focused on it the neutral expression changed to a happy emoji on its face screen. “Good morning, Miss! Please head to the kitchen soon, your breakfast will get cold!” The little robot raised one tiny arm to point at the door, and the other waved at her.
Aoi stood up and followed it out of the door, turning left and then right into the kitchen, where the smell of eggs was so thick she could taste it. Fujiki-kun glanced over at her from the stove, spatula moving a yellow mass onto a plate. He looked like he had been up for a while, already set to leave and start his day. Meanwhile she had to look like a wreck, still in her casual clothes and no doubt horrid from the rain.
“I hope you like omelette rice, I don’t have the ingredients for a more traditional dish.” He set the dish in front of the spot where she had sat the night before, and she saw that there was already a piece of toast on it as well. “What would you like to drink?” And he was already over at the fridge, opening it and taking stock of what was there.
She took a seat and picked up the fork sitting beside the plate. “Just water is fine.” Although if she was eating something less savory, she would have probably asked for that tea from before.
“Are you sure Miss? Something sweet might be good as well!” The little robot beamed up at her, waving its arms up and down for emphasis.
“Roboppy, she can drink what she likes.” The glass was set in front of her, then Fujiki-kun took a seat with his own meal.
“Oh?” She looked down at it. “So your name is Roboppy then? That’s unusual,” Fujiki-kun was tensing in the corner of her eye, “most helper robots don’t have individual names.”
A confused emoji appeared on the small face screen, “But Roboppy is Roboppy. Master has always called Roboppy Roboppy.” The emoji was nervous now. “Is Roboppy strange?” And now the little robot wasn’t looking at her at all but at the floor and shifting around on its wheels.
“Oh no, not at all! You’re very cute Roboppy!” For some reason, even though it was just a helper bot like the one at home, she wanted to make it feel better. She tried for a smile.
The emoji was a happy one now. “Yay!” Roboppy quickly began to spin around in place. “Roboppy is cute!”
Its head swivelled around to face them. “Master! Roboppy is cute!” The arms were a blur of excitement.
“Good for you, Roboppy.” A quick glance showed that he had relaxed, and that somehow he’d already polished off half his plate. How..?
A chime rang out farther down the hall. “Ah!” Roboppy froze. “Time to start on chores!” Roboppy zipped towards the door, paused, and turned back to give a slight bow. “It was nice to meet you, Miss!” And then the only trace of them was the sound of wheels rolling along the floor.
Aoi shook her head, “Really, where do you find a helper bot like that? It’s like talking to an excited kid.” She couldn’t seem to stop smiling at the thought of the little robot.
“She wasn’t like that before, but ever since I started tinkering with her programming she’s become a lot more sociable.” Fujiki-kun stood and carried his plate over to the sink to wash it.
“Well, then that makes her even more impressive.” She finally started to cut into her omelette. “Most independent programmers could only dream of creating a personality program as detailed as hers.”
Fujiki-kun stopped in his washing to look back at her. “Thank you, but I can’t take all the credit. An acquaintance of mine also helped out.”
She swallowed a mouthful, “Then they must have a pretty bright future.”
He hummed but didn’t say anything more, turning back and finishing up with his dishes, setting them into the drying rack that their mugs from the night before had already vanished from.
She took the chance to finish off her breakfast, and he waved her off when she offered to wash it herself, stating that she should get ready to head out and go back to her place to get ready for school.
It only took her a few minutes to freshen up and brush her teeth, and then they slipped on their shoes and headed out, bidding goodbye to Roboppy as they went.
The walk to the train was mostly uneventful, with the exception of a neighbor on a lower floor of Fujiki-kun’s apartment blinking and then blatantly staring at the two of them as they walked down the stairs.
The train ride was more uncomfortable, with curious strangers whispering amongst themselves and sneaking glances at them when they thought that the pair wouldn’t notice. The train emptied considerably though after they skirted past downtown, although that just left the few other early students from their school to nudge each other and give them knowing smiles.
Her apartment was just off of the stop before the school, so she moved over to the doors to get out of that train car as soon as she could. The doors slid open in front of her, and she stepped out, turning her head over her shoulder. “See you at school later, Fujiki-kun.”
He nodded, looking at her and far away before his eyes snapped back into focus. The P.A. began to blare out announcements for the next stop. “I’ll see you then, Blue Maiden.” And her mind froze.
She stared at him, running the three people who knew her battle mode through her head over and over, she stared straight into his steady green eyes. She tried to move her mouth to ask but her tongue was lead and the doors cut off her sight of him before she could bend it enough to form the words.
She stood at that spot for a few minutes, just staring into the empty space left by the train-car and trying to wrap her mind around what just happened, only for it to shut down each time.
She only shook herself out of it when the breeze of the next incoming train blew her hair in front of her face, and she stepped back and away from the edge of the platform. The whole walk to her building was a blur, and she could barely read the card he had left on top of her house slippers saying that he had called her in sick from school so that she could rest up from the long night that she’d had.
It was enough to have her walk into her own room and flop down onto the comfy chair she used to go into the Vrains and just rest her mind from all the work it was trying to do.
Once she had calmed down enough, she hauled herself back up and grabbed her phone from her bedside table, dialing a now-familiar number. It rang for a few seconds before the person on the other end picked up, a smiling face appeared on the screen.
“Good morning, Emma-san.”
“Aoi-chan! Good to see you safe and sound. I hear that you had quite the night, eh~?”
She hoped that her room was dim enough for the camera to not pick up her blush. “Emma-san!”
Laughter was her answer. “Alright, alright. I won’t tease you anymore, I promise. But you have to tell me all about your prince charming!”
Despite herself, Aoi found she wanted to talk. “He’s not my anything, but moving on. Where should I start?”
“Oh no, not here.” Emma-san was waving her hands in front of the screen. “Girl talk has to be done in person! I already told Akira to call you in sick, so come on over and spill.”
Aoi rolled her eyes. “I’ll get ready now and meet you at your apartment in about an hour. Later.”
“I can’t wait.” Emma-san crowed out as Aoi ended the call.
She took her time with getting ready, greeting her own lifeless cleaning robot before leaving. She thought of Roboppy, who was bursting with joy and curiosity, thought of Aqua who was earnest and caring, thought of Playmaker who strove for justice, and thought of Fujiki-kun, who sat and talked with her in the rain.
Really, she had so much to tell them.