"Aki! Haru! Hey, guys!"
Aki turned towards the sound, fighting several instinctive urges - to ignore it, to say something biting about it, to simply disengage from the conversation he'd been having and go elsewhere. Possibly the biggest thing keeping him in place was that he had been, up until that point, enjoying the conversation and didn't want to jeopardize the fragile relationship he was building by just turning and walking away. For the last few days, he and Haru had been straining to live up to their goal of becoming true idols, and that meant learning to be nicer to the Apes. He had actually been having a rather nice discussion on classical music with someone from the chess club. Haru, meanwhile, had collected a significant percentage of the school gardening club and was apparently enjoying a debate about bonsai trees. Who knew so many of their Apes were such pleasant people, once you got them talking?
But the voice shouting over the hum of conversation was not one of the Apes. It was a blond boy who came barreling through the crowd gathered around the front gates of the school with the force of an oncoming comet. A few days ago, Aki would have called that voice the one he hated most in all the world. Today... today he still had to brace himself to bear up and endure, but at least he was trying.
"Hello, Yumoto," he said, as politely as he could. "How was school?"
"It was fun!" Yumoto enthused, which was what he always said. "Hey, hey, let's walk home together, okay?"
Aki glanced at Haru, silently consulting. The one good thing about the relative isolation they'd lived in all their lives was that they were now so in sync with each other that they rarely needed words to communicate. Now they held a brief, wordless consultation and reached a conclusion. Aki turned back to Yumoto.
"All right, let's," he said.
Yumoto bounded down the stairs, looking for all the world as if Aki had just agreed to give him a million yen and a free pony. Slowly, almost against his will, Aki began to smile. At least this was easy for somebody. He wanted to like Yumoto, if only because it was what Gora would want him to do, but on the whole, suddenly having so many friends dumped into his life felt a little like he'd been blundering for hours in a pitch-dark room only for someone to suddenly snap on all the lights. He was sure he'd appreciate it once he'd fully adjusted, but for now it was all a bit dazzling.
At least walking home with Yumoto was relatively easy. Yumoto was happy to chatter a mile a minute about whatever crossed his mind, giving the twins freedom to walk without saying anything. Aki let his mind wander a little. It wasn't all that easy to follow Yumoto's train of thought even when he was paying attention, and lately there were so many thoughts in Aki's head that it was hard for him to understand what he himself was thinking about, much less follow someone like Yumoto.
Then, somewhere between a complaint about the math teacher and a comment on something Ryuu had done at lunch, something came out that jolted Aki to full attention.
"Wait, go back," he said. "What was that you were saying about us?"
Yumoto obligingly stopped walking to look back at them. "I said I'm a little jealous of you. About some things, anyway."
"What do you mean?" asked Haru. He sounded annoyed, and Aki could sympathize. From where they stood, Yumoto had lived a perfect life, with Gora always looking after him and his friends supporting him.
"Well," said Yumoto, "you got to see my big brother on TV, right? But I never got to see him that way at all. He always protected me by never letting me get close to the fighting, so I didn't even know he'd been a hero at all until a little while ago. You two know that side of him better than I do."
"Oh," said Haru. He looked suddenly abashed.
Aki felt rather taken aback himself. He had spent all this time envying Yumoto's closeness with Gora. It had never occurred to him that there might be something he knew about Gora that Yumoto didn't.
"He was amazing," he said softly. "We never got tired of watching him."
A fleeting expression of wistfulness crossed Yumoto's features. Then he pushed it away and raised his head again, smiling.
"Yeah, I'll bet," he said. "My brother is always awesome."
Conversation flagged for a while, as they made the last few steps of their journey. At last, hey reached the front doors of the Kurotama, and Aki's spirits rose a little as Gora stepped outside to greet them.
"Hey, fellas," he said casually. "Have a nice day at school?"
Yumoto nodded eagerly. "Aki and Haru walked me home!"
"I see they did," said Gora, smiling. He turned towards them. "Thanks for keeping him company."
Aki and Haru agreed that it had been no trouble at all, honestly. They went home again in a slightly better mood.
I'll have to keep trying. I can learn to be friends, somehow. There's bound to be a way.
He paused at the front door of the theater, distracted by... what? Something had edged its way into his already cluttered consciousness.
"What's that sound?" said Haru.
Both of them looked up at the sky. Something was buzzing its way slowly over the neighborhood. It looked rather like a helicopter that had been picked before it was ripe.
"Huh," said Aki. "Haven't seen one of those in a while."
It was a delivery drone, of the sort that was common back on Andromeda. They could even see the name of the intergalactic delivery service that had sent it printed on the side in cheery yellow letters that no one in Japan ought to have been able to read. It continued whirring its way up the street until it stopped dead in front of their theater. It began slowly to descend.
"Should we be worried?" Haru asked, as he watched it get closer and closer.
"I guess we'll find out," Aki replied.
The drone paused about five meters above their heads. A hatch opened up in its underside, and a box began lowering itself to the ground on the end of a long cable. When the box was resting firmly on the ground, the cable released its burden and wound itself back into the drone, and the hatch snapped shut again. With a sudden zzzzzt!, the drone took off into the sky and vanished. The twins were left standing and staring at a cardboard box resting on the street in front of them. It was a rather battered cardboard box, bearing the logo of a brand of prepackaged noodles that were the Andromedan equivalent of instant ramen, and it looked as though it had been opened and re-taped at least once. There was a green envelope affixed to the top.
Haru, more impulsive than his brother, stepped forward to seize the envelope and tear it open. Aki leaned on his shoulder to read the letter.
It read, Aki, Haru, hello! Hope you are both doing well. Big Brother's friend Hireashi found this in one of the storerooms at the studio, and we thought you two should have them. We checked and they're all here, including the two that the network rejected and the four that were filmed but never aired because the show was cancelled. I hope you'll enjoy them. Big Bro and I are doing well. I hope there's no hard feelings, and I wish you all the best. Drop a line when you have time. Cuddles! - Dadacha.
By the time Aki finished reading the note, his heart was racing. There was only one thing that could be in this box. He and Haru exchanged wide-eyed looks.
"Do you think...?" Haru asked.
"Has to be," Aki agreed. His mouth was suddenly dry.
There had never been commercially available DVDs of CIDE. From the producer's vantage point, the show had been a disaster, and the network had tried to bury it as quickly as possible. There had been a few bootleg versions floating around, but those had been weeded out as much as possible. On top of that, Aki and Haru had been trying to break into the idol business, and Dadacha had made it clear that they couldn't do anything that was even the slightest bit disreputable, especially if it something that a network as powerful as TV Universe would object to. If they wanted their chance at meeting the real Maximum Gorar someday, they would just have to do without recorded versions of him.
The two of them stared at the box.
Within seconds, the tape holding the lid shut and much of the lid itself was lying in shreds on the ground, and the two boys were kneeling on either side of the box, gazing into it as if they had discovered the greatest treasure of the ages. As far as they were concerned, they had. The box was packed as full as it could be of DVD cases, all of them labeled things like "CIDE S3 Ep 9". Aki turned them over and over in his hands, hardly able to believe his good fortune. Dadacha had been right - every episode was here, from beginning to end, including the promised six that had never aired. Reading the descriptions on the back of the boxes, he could guess why the two Dadacha had mentioned had been turned down by the network - it sounded as though whatever Gora had done, it had been so noble and brave that no amount of editing could make him look villainous. On top of that and the last four that had been filmed before the cancellation, there were ten more that had aired before the twins had moved to Andromeda and learned there was a CIDE at all. In total, that was sixteen episodes of CIDE that they'd never seen - an undreamed-of treasure.
"We need to watch these," said Haru. "Right now."
"We should at least get the box inside," Aki agreed. His mind was going off in several directions again. Every instinct he possessed told him that Haru was right - he needed to forget about school, the stage, and his tentative new friendships and lock himself in his room for the next few days while he binge-watched every one of these discs multiple times. At the same time, behind that lifetime of habit was another voice pointing out that the genuine Hakone Gora was right there across the street, and that it would take less than a minute to walk over there to look at him. Gora was their friend now. They could go say hello him, and he would smile and answer back. They could soak in the baths and listen to him chop wood as long as they liked. If they asked him nicely, he'd even let them sit out back and watch him chop wood, and if they hung around long enough, he'd usually invite them to dinner and give them all the onigiri they could eat. A Gora who would smile at him and offer kind words and friendly embraces was infinitely preferable to one that only existed on a screen and would never interact with them. Yes, even if the recording never came with any risks that it might get offended and leave them, or ask them to do something difficult like making friends with Yumoto...
Haru was talking: "...can't believe this! Which one should we start with? Do we begin with the ones we haven't seen before? Start at episode one? Or do we start with the first one we watched and save the ones we haven't seen for last?"
"Wait," said Aki. "I'm getting an idea."
Haru scowled at him. "You want me to wait? Are you out of your mind? After all we've been through..."
"That's it exactly - all we've been through," said Aki. "We went through all this to meet Gora, and we have. We have what we wanted, and it's good, isn't it? Even if there's still work to do, it's good."
Haru's gaze strayed across the street, where the sound of chopping wood had resumed. Aki could almost hear his twin working through the same mental calculations he himself had just gone through.
"Well, yes," said Haru, "but still..."
"I'm not saying we aren't going to watch them," said Aki hastily. "I'm just saying there's something else we should do first."
Haru raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Which is?"
Aki turned his attention back to the Kurotama. "Well, I was thinking..."
"This is a stupid idea," said Haru matter-of-factly. "It's stupid, and you're going to regret it."
"Won't," said Aki, who wasn't so sure. In light of this, he had relinquished the box of DVDs to his brother, and was instead doing penance by carrying an armload of equipment. Wires spilled out over his arms. "Go on, knock."
Very carefully, Haru tried to shift the box enough to free a hand. When that didn't work, he gave up and rapped the door with his toe.
"The door's open!" said a muffled voice from somewhere deeper in the building.
"Our hands are full!" Haru shouted back.
A moment later, Aki heard footsteps approach, and then the door opened.
"Well, hey, there," said Gora, his normally impassive face warming at the sight of them. Aki felt himself warming, too. Who needed stupid DVDs anyway? "What's all that stuff you've got?"
"We have some new things," said Aki, "and we wondered if maybe Yumoto would like to play with us for a while."
"He'd love it," said Gora. He turned and called, "Yumoto, your friends are here to visit!"
A surprised noise came from upstairs. Then Yumoto came racing down and burst into the lobby. His expression lit up when he saw who it was.
"You came back!" he said, as if he'd parted company with them years ago instead of only a few minutes. It occurred to Aki to wonder if Yumoto might be a little lonely. It shouldn't be possible for him to be lonely, surrounded by people as he was, but maybe there were ways. No one seemed to particularly dislike him (at least, not now that the twins were trying to kick the habit), and many people seemed quite fond of him, but he didn't seem to have anyone who was his particular friend, the way En was Atsushi's friend or Io was Ryuu's friend. What a sad universe it was, that there were so many ways to be lonely...
"Someone sent us a present," said Aki, "and it was too good not to share. Is there somewhere we can set this up? A place with a TV?"
There was a place with a TV. It took a few minutes for Aki and Haru to figure out how to wire their extraterrestrial DVD player to an earthly TV, but after trying out various combinations of adaptors they finally got it working. While they were employing their various gadgets and Andromedan swearwords, Yumoto began poking through the DVD box.
"Hey," he said, "is this...?"
"It is," said Aki. "Dadacha mailed them to us just now."
"Be careful with them," Haru warned. "These are the only copies. Maybe the only ones in the whole universe."
"I'll be really careful!" Yumoto promised. He tucked his hands behind his back to show how careful he was being. "After all, these are precious memories of Big Brother."
Aki shared a glance with his brother, one that meant roughly, See, I told you it would be all right.
"That's just what they are," he agreed.
And I still don't want to share them with you, he added silently. Even when he knew it was the right thing to do, and had a powerful incentive to do it, he still couldn't change the habits of a lifetime. This was the one thing he had of Gora that Yumoto didn't. Yumoto had always had everything else for himself. Why should Aki want to share?
"So which one is the best?" asked Yumoto. He had bent himself into an improbable position to get a better look at the labels, and his Wombat friend was standing up on his hind legs to peer over the edge of the box.
"All of them," said Haru.
"I liked the one where he fought the giant tape dispenser," said Aki, after a moment of consideration, "and tricked it into taping itself to the wall."
Yumoto's eyes widened. "He did that? Cool!"
"I liked the one where he fought the fire hydrant," said Haru, not to be outdone, "and he finished it off under water while holding his breath the whole time."
"Oh, yes, that one was very good," Aki sighed. Seeing that white uniform soaking wet and clinging... Aki had been too young to fully appreciate it at the time, but it still figured into his adolescent dreams. He definitely couldn't wait to see that one again.
"Awesome!" Yumoto enthused.
"And there was the one where he fought the light bulb monster that stole his shadow..." said Haru.
"And the one where the evil copy machine made a fake Gorar to fight him..."
By this point, Yumoto was positively vibrating with excitement. Aki felt himself smiling in spite of himself.
"So which one do you want to see first?" he asked. That was probably a safe question. After all, he and Haru could happily watch any episode of CIDE at any time.
"Umm..." Yumoto looked thoughtfully down at the box. "Which one is the one where you meet Big Brother? Is that in here somewhere?"
"I guess," said Haru. "I mean, it's supposed to be a complete set..."
"Then let's watch that one," said Yumoto, "because you're my friends, so seeing you and Big Brother both at the same time would be the absolute best!"
Aki and Haru looked at each other. Haru was the first to shrug and say, "All right. I'd like to see that one too."
An hour or so later, Gora peeked in through the door to see what everyone was doing. The three boys were clustered close to the screen, eyes fixed on the battle in front of him.
"Whoa, did you see that?" Yumoto was saying. "That was so cool! That monster was like 'pow, zam!' and Big Brother was like 'Whoosh!" and "Bap!'"
"See? See? I told you!" said Haru animatedly. "No one's a better fighter than Maximum Gorar!"
"This is the best show ever!" Yumoto crowed. Even Wombat's eyes were shining with approval.
"Hey, what are you all doing in here?" asked Gora, stepping into the room. He paused to look at the TV, where a younger version of himself was busy fending off what appeared to be an angry pudding cup. "Oh, geez, where did you find that?"
"Dadacha sent us a present," said Aki. "You don't mind, do you?"
"It's fine. As long as you're having fun. It's just so embarrassing, seeing myself as a kid..." Gora trailed off and studied the screen critically. "I always did like that outfit, though. Looks good on me, don't you think?"
Everyone agreed that the outfit suited him very well, and Gora preened a little. He was normally a humble man, but a roomful of adoring fans was enough to go to anyone's head.
"Will you stay and watch with us?" Yumoto asked.
"Please?" Aki added.
"Pretty please?" Haru chimed in.
"Well... all right," said Gora, caving under the weight of their combined pleading stares. "But only after Yumoto's finished his homework."
"We'll help," said Aki. He knew he could just as easily go home and watch videos all night without interruption if he cared to, but he found he didn't really want to anymore. He was experiencing something new. He had loved watching CIDE, but he'd watched it knowing that he and Haru were alone in their admiration for the show's "villain", and that when they went to school the next day they would suffer a fresh bout of mockery from students who were disappointed that Earth had yet again failed to be destroyed. There had never been anyone in his life besides his brother who loved the show as much as he did was new. Having someone to share it all with, watching Yumoto's eyes go wide with excitement, hearing him cheer Earth's hero on to victory... it was all new and strangely pleasant.
"All right, then," said Gora. He glanced at the twins. "Do you two want to stay for dinner? I'm afraid it's just onigiri again."
"Don't apologize," said Aki. "We love your onigiri."
"We could eat it every night," Haru agreed fervently.
Yumoto gave a whoop. "Yeah, Anchan's onigiri is the best in the whole world!"
"Whole universe," Haru agreed.
"Trust us, we know," said Aki.
"Bunch of flatterers," Gora mock-grumped, and walked off smiling.
"Yay, dinner!" said Yumoto, and moved to scamper off after his brother. He changed his mind after a few paces and doubled back again. He flung his arms around the twins and hugged them tightly. "Thanks so much for doing this! I'm really having fun!"
"Hey, don't squash me," said Aki, but he wasn't really trying to get away. He and Haru had always taken a lot of comfort in physical contact, but they'd never trusted anyone but each other to share it. It was sort of nice, being cuddled by someone new.
"Knock it off," said Haru. Aki noticed he didn't seem to be trying to escape either.
Yumoto must have had an inkling of this, because he withdrew with a grin.
"See you at dinner," he said, and scurried off. Aki watched him go, and this time he didn't even try to fight the smile that was trying to steal across his face.
Maybe I'm going to like him after all.