Kouji sat by his window, turning over the pages of a book without paying much attention to what they said. Over the last year or so, he had read and reread it so many times, he could recite his favorite scenes in it from memory. Not everyone would have classified Kouji as a reader, not a first glance, but the truth was that he could often be found with a book in his hands. There were times when he liked his solitude, and reading was something he could do alone, at his own pace, with time for reflection, without anyone telling him what to do and how to do it. It was true, too, that this was a special book. Izumi had given it to him. The idea caused him a mental cringe, and he sighed.
It had been a while since any of them had seen Izumi. With her soul linked to the element of wind, it was only natural that she would enjoy traveling. When she had gone away to college, her contact with her fellow Chosen Children had been limited to e-mails, phone calls, and the occasional weekend or holiday visit. Now she had opted to study abroad for a year, and while she still called all of them regularly, there were just some things that could only be dealt with in person.
Kouji shut his book.
*I should have talked to her before she left,* he told himself.
Of course, that was hardly a new thought - he'd been thinking it since the week she'd left, when she'd gone away and he'd realized he hadn't told her... never mind. It was stupid, and he was stupid for worrying about it, but still, his honorable nature kept reminding her that he was wrong for going all this time without saying something.
Running his thumb over the edges of the pages, he let his mind wander. Who would have imagined that he would have found himself in such an awkward position? He'd wanted nothing to do with Izumi or any of the others when he'd first met them. It had taken time to learn to like them and respect them... and to learn that he really didn't want to be alone. Now he was going to the same college as Takuya and getting up to the usual student hijinks, and of course he kept in regular contact with his twin, and all of them did their best to get together with Junpei and Tomoki whenever they had a free weekend. Only Izumi was missing, and they all felt her absence.
*Would I be worrying so much if it hadn't been for this book?* he wondered. It had been several months into their acquaintance, long after they had returned from the Digital World, that Kouji had discovered, with a great deal of surprise, that he and Izumi both shared a taste for the same kinds of books. It had been an accident - the whole gang had planned to do something or other together, and she had arrived at the meeting place first. He had appeared shortly afterward to find her killing time by reading a novel, and he'd noticed he had the same one at home. They had started talking about which books they read and which ones they wanted to read and who their favorite characters were, and it had been only natural that they'd agreed to loan each other some books. Ever since then, they'd been meeting regularly to swap stories and enjoy a good literary discussion... at least, they had up until the point when she'd left the country.
Kouji was pulled from his morose thoughts by the sound of a telephone jangling somewhere in the house. He ignored it as best he could, but he'd lost his train of thought. He sighed and reached for the receiver.
"Kouji, where are you?" asked an annoyed voice.
"Well, you called my room number, so you ought to know I'm here," Kouji replied, though not with as much annoyance as he might have. Kouichi could get away with being annoying once in a while.
"Well, you're supposed to be at the airport!" Kouichi replied. "We expected you here fifteen minutes ago."
"Airport?" said Kouji. He looked up at his wall calendar to see if he'd miscalculated the days. "But... today's Thursday, isn't it? Izumi's not supposed to come home until tomorrow."
"Her flight got changed. Didn't anybody tell you? You'd think Takuya would have told you, living right up the hall from you and all."
"Takuya's been studying for a final in Statistics. He's been walking around in a fog for the last week."
"Oh... Well, you'd better hotfoot it over here; she'll be here pretty soon."
"I'm on my way. Thanks for tipping me off, even if you took your time about doing it."
Kouji hung up the phone and made a dash for the door. On second thought, he doubled back, grabbed his book, and stuffed it in his backpack. Then he ran out without even bothering to close his door behind him, running as fast as he could to catch the next subway train to the airport.
"Here he comes!" Takuya called.
The others looked up just in time to see a rather winded Kouji come jogging up to join them.
"Right on time," said Tomoki. "I knew you'd make it!"
"I almost didn't," Kouji replied, giving Takuya a pointed glare.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you!" said Takuya to the unspoken accusation. "I was busy... and I figured if I didn't tell you, someone else would."
"I thought Takuya was going to tell you," said Kouichi.
"I thought Junpei was going to tell you," said Tomoki.
"Huh?" said Junpei; his mind had obviously been elsewhere.
Tomoki sighed. "Never mind. Bad guess."
"Well, I made it here anyway," Kouji said with a sigh, dropping into an empty chair. "So, when is she going to be here?"
Kouichi glanced at his watch. "Well, she was supposed to be here by now, but you know how these airports are. We'll just have to wait a bit."
"I'm tired of waiting," said Junpei plaintively.
"She'll get here sooner or later," Takuya assured him. "Hey, you know what? I was so wrapped up with my studying, I missed lunch. I'm going to go see if there's anything good in the snack machine. Anybody else coming?"
"Me!" Tomoki said.
"Now that you mention it, I am kind of thirsty," Kouji admitted.
Junpei's expression brightened a small fraction. "Well, as long as we're waiting..."
"I'm okay," said Kouji. He unzipped his backpack to show he was carrying a water bottle already. "I'll make do with this, thanks."
"Okay. You can keep watch for us, then. Be back in a bit," said Takuya.
The group wandered off in search of snacks. Kouji, finding himself with nothing to do and nobody left to talk to, took out his book again. He was dismayed that contact with the water bottle had dampened its cover, and he wiped it off quickly and inspected it for damage. Then he flipped it back open to the part he was reading. He flipped back and forth a few times before he realized he couldn't remember where he'd stopped. He gave up trying, and instead flipped to the final chapter, which was his favorite part.
This particular book was typical of Kouji's taste in that it was primarily an adventure story full of brave people who suffered stolidly and faced overwhelming odds in the face of what they believed in. He could relate to that. Specifically, it had to do with a young man who had been engaged to marry a woman he loved, but was drafted into an army and forced to travel far from home and fight his master's enemies. His master had been defeated, but the young man had been able to avoid being captured by the enemy, and, with a handful of his comrades, made the long and treacherous journey home. At the very end, he arrived in his village and sought out his fiancee, only to learn that he'd long ago been presumed dead, and that she had married someone else. The young man had taken the news with understandable sadness, but in the end, decided that he was closer now to the friends who had helped him survive his trek than to the woman he had been planning to marry, and so he'd told the townspeople to not tell her he was still alive, and had left with his friends for... who knew? Something about the story resonated with him. It looked sad, and yet, there was something hopeful about it, too. He liked it.
Just as he was getting to the part where the hero was hearing from a farmer about his presumed death and the woman's marriage, a voice echoed above his head. It said: "Attention - Flight 352 from Rome has landed at Gate Six."
Instantly, the rest of the group appeared, Takuya with a bag of chips in his hand, Kouichi with a soda, and Junpei empty-handed: he had put in his money and then run off and left it as soon as he'd heard of Izumi's arrival. The entire group made their way through the crowds to the gate to meet her. They watched as a stream of strangers hurried off to collect their bags. Kouji was unaware that he was holding his breath in anticipation. Person after person walked by. Then, finally...
"That's her, that's her!" Tomoki exclaimed, pointing.
At the same moment, she caught sight of them. She let out an excited squeal and ran toward them, where she began hugging everyone within hugging distance.
"Easy, easy!" Kouichi protested.
"Sorry!" she said. "I just missed you all so much!"
"We missed you, too," said Takuya. "Some more than others." He indicated Junpei, who was looking inordinately pleased at having been hugged.
"Did you have a good time in Rome?" asked Tomoki eagerly.
"The best! I took about a million pictures. I'll show them to you as soon as I get all my things straightened out. Can someone help me carry my luggage? I don't know why, but it's impossible to go anywhere without coming back with more stuff than you left with."
"I'll help!" said Junpei immediately.
She laughed. "I should have guessed. All right, come on."
She led him off to the luggage claims area, while the others found out of the way places to wait. Kouji felt faintly disgruntled. He should have offered to help her; it would have been a good way to talk to her without the others listening. He supposed he could go ahead and say what he had to say while the others were listening, but he thought he'd be a bit embarrassed if he did. If at all possible, he wanted to talk to her when it was just them alone.
Within minutes, Izumi returned carrying a carry-on and Junpei lugging a suitcase.
"All done!" she announced. "No problems - no luggage shipped to Canada or anything. Now what? I don't know about you guys, but I could use some ice cream or something. That airline food is awful. I had no idea I'd miss Japanese food so much."
"Ice cream sounds great," said Junpei, remembering belatedly that he'd never gotten his candy from the vending machine.
"I could go for that," Takuya agreed.
Kouichi fixed him with a look. "You just ate."
"Who cares? I told you, I didn't get lunch today. A bag of potato chips isn't going to cut it. Besides," he added with a grin, "it's a favor to a friend."
They agreed to adjourn their meeting to a nearby ice cream parlor. They made the trek on foot, strung out in a ragged line as they dodged the pedestrian traffic and tried to stay close enough to Izumi to listen as she rattled on about her latest stay in Italy. A lot of it was the same as what she'd told them in letters and phone calls, but there were some things that came across only in face-to-face conversation. At last, they reached their destination. As they were passing through the front door, Kouji caught Izumi's sleeve and pulled her back.
"Can I have a word with you?" he asked.
"Sure! What's on your mind?" she asked.
"Well... there's something that's been bothering me since you left," he began. "I know it sounds kind of silly, but after you went away, I was thinking about how much I missed talking to you and swapping books and all, and I realized... well..."
"Yes?" she prompted.
"I realized I forgot to give you your book back before you left," he said. "It's really been bothering me, and you were traveling around so much, I could never figure out where to mail it to you. So here."
He handed her the book.
"Oh!" she said. "Thanks! I'd wondered what happened to this. I thought I'd lost it."
"I tried to take good care of it," he said.
"It looks fine to me. Thanks very much, Kouji. That was nice of you," she said. "And if you'll excuse me, I want my ice cream. Come on!"
She hurried into the store. Kouji, feeling much relieved now that his mission was completed, followed her.
"Hey, guys, save some for me!" he said, and went to get some ice cream.