Disclaimer: Digimon Tamers does not belong to me in any way, shape, or form. None of these characters belong to me.
Notes: This is an AU fic. It takes place in an alternative version of Japan, in the fictional city of Shiinatoshi. Mostly it looks like our world, except, well... you'll see.
The dragon raised its horn-encrusted head, its sinewy neck tracing a graceful curve against the sky. Wings outstretched, it flashed its claws at the iron-clad warrior who stared bravely back at it, sword raised in challenge. From between the dragon's dagger like teeth, a bloom of flame issued forth, snaking forward to envelop the helpless challenger...
...and Takato's pencil broke. He made a noise of frustration - the picture had been coming along so well, too. He sighed and began rummaging through his pencil box for his sharpener. It wasn't an easy task. The pencil box was stuffed not only with pencils of the everyday No. 2 type, but dozens of colored pencils in every shade the rainbow had to offer, and then some. There were at least three erasers, not including a handful of the multicolored ones that came in funny shapes that teachers handed out as prizes, and which seemed nearly incapable of actually erasing anything and tended to go to pieces if anyone tried. There was also a mini-ruler, a few stencils, some stickers, a rubber stamp (but no ink for it), two highlighters (one yellow, one pink), a bottle of white-out, three colored rocks that he'd thought were pretty at the time he'd found them, and, for no reason at all, a very battered keychain in the shape of a frog. And a pencil sharpener. Somewhere.
"Matsuda, are you paying attention?"
Takato sat up straight. "Yes, ma'am!"
The teacher gave him a narrow look. She was widely regarded as being one of the best teachers in the school. She wasn't, though - actually, she hated teaching and wasn't very fond of children, either. She was, however, the strictest teacher in the school, and any student under her care learned quickly to teach themselves or suffer the consequences.
"All right, then," she said. "Would you like to tell me what it is we're discussing today?"
"Umm..." Takato dredged his brain. He had been more interested in drawing in his notebook than paying attention to the lecture, which had been deadly boring, from his perspective. Fortunately for him, he'd paid attention long enough to at least learn what he was being bored about. "Cyberspace! We're talking about the history of Cyberspace!"
The teacher looked a little put out. "All right. Just don't let me catch you drawing during a lecture again. Put those silly pictures away and pay attention."
"Yes, ma'am," said Takato.
Feeling as disgruntled as his teacher looked, Takato flipped his notebook to a clean page and prepared to at least look like he was taking notes on the lecture. Deep down, he supposed he could understand why the teacher was frustrated with him. Most of the students in the class were fascinated by the idea of computers and Cyberspace - it was one of the few subjects where the teacher could actually hold their interest by means other than the threat of punishment. Even now, most of the class had their gaze fixed on the blackboard, where the teacher was writing out key points.
"... discovered a means of converting physical matter to data," she was saying. "Experiments were conducted on animals almost immediately, but it wasn't until almost ten years later that the first human was allowed to enter a purely virtual environment."
Takato yawned. He had been to the Cyberspace a few times before, when he was younger, and hadn't been particularly thrilled by it. It was, for the most part, rather like visiting a theme park - lots of spectacular visuals, but once you got used to it, it was no different than going to a regular park, except parks were easier to get to and you didn't need government clearance to go in. If you had a knack for computers, you could alter Cyberspace to suit your preferences, but the software to do so was still new and not particularly user-friendly, and Takato had never gotten the hang of it.
Maybe if I could, things would be different. I'd like to make myself a fantasy world with real dragons...
His mind continued to wander as the teacher lectured on about the recent laws passed to control human traffic in and out of Cyberspace. He was rather more interested in the girl who was sitting two chairs up from him. Her name was Juri Katou, and she was, in his considered opinion, the most likeable girl in school. She had always been nice to him, even when other girls teased him for being a dreamer and for always being called on the carpet by the teacher. She'd never seemed to mind that he wasn't as cool or athletic as some of the other boys in class, and that endeared her to him. It didn't hurt that she was quite pretty, too. At the moment, she seemed even less interested in the lecture than Takato was, and was occupying herself by gazing dreamily out the window. After a moment, she noticed Takato watching her, and she flashed him a smile. Takato blushed and looked back down at his notebook.
The teacher was still talking. "... due to concern over the proliferation of Cyphers. Can anyone tell me what a Cypher is?"
"A Cyber-person," one student piped up.
"Could you be more specific?"
"Umm... they're born in Cyberspace, aren't they?" asked a girl timidly.
"Conceived," said a boy, prompting snickers from other members of the class. The teacher ignored it.
"Sometimes," she said. "Sometimes they happen when a pregnant mother enters the Cyberspace. Either way, the child is born with unusual properties."
"You can program them," someone piped up. "Like a computer, only they're people."
"I heard if you cut a piece of them off, it grows back. Like a starfish," another student said.
The teacher nodded. "These new measures have been put in place while the government studies the causes of these Cyphers and their natures. Does anyone here know any Cyphers?"
A few hands went up, here and there. Takato noticed that Juri's hand was among them. She didn't look too pleased by the fact, and he didn't blame her. Cyphers were a relatively new phenomenon - they'd only started getting attention in the last ten years or so, as people started realizing that there were such things. They still weren't widely trusted, and many people actively feared them. Their habit of being able to pop into Cyberspace at will and reappear wherever they wanted to be came with all kinds of disturbing possibilities.
At last, mercifully, the bell rang, and the class gathered up their things and began filing out the door. Takato hurriedly stuffed his belongings into his backpack and zipped it as shut as he could get it (the corner of a notebook was poking stubbornly out into the open, and nothing Takato did could make it go back in), and then hurried out of the room into the crowded hallway. He was met at the doorway by his two best friends, Hirokazu and Kenta.
"Hey man, what took ya?" Hirokazu asked.
"This," answered Takato, waving his backpack. The movement jogged the zipper loose a few more inches, threatening to spill papers and books in all directions.
"Careful!" said Kenta, ducking as the pack swung by and nearly knocked his glasses off.
"Sorry," said Takato, chagrined.
"So, you all ready for tonight?" asked Hirokazu.
"Not just yet," said Takato.
"Me neither," added Kenta guiltily. "I still haven't finished packing."
Hirokazu shot his friends a stern glare. "What good are you? I got through all the bother of convincing my mom to let me have a sleepover on my birthday and you can't even bother to pack for it. Do you have any idea how hard it was to convince her to let you come over on a school night? I'm going to have to be on my best behavior for the rest of the year."
"You won't last that long," Takato said. "You'd drop dead before you'd behave that long."
"Very funny," said Hirokazu. "Too bad it's true."
"Don't worry," Takato assured him. "I'm not going to be late. I've just got to throw a few more things in my bag. You know, toothpaste and stuff."
"Same here," said Kenta. "It's a good thing we didn't get much homework today."
"Any time we don't get much homework is good!" said Hirokazu. "Anyway, I'll see you guys tonight, huh? I told Mom I'd clean my room up some before you got there, and, well..."
Takato laughed. "And you're telling us off for not being ready!"
"So I've got some preparing to do! So sue me," said Hirokazu. "Anyway, I've gotta jam. See you tonight!"
He waved and sprinted off.
"Guess I'd better go, too," said Kenta. "Unless you want me to walk with you a ways?"
"Nah," said Takato. He had just noticed Juri was lingering by the water fountain, not doing anything in particular and glancing at him from time to time. "I think I can find my way, thanks. See you tonight, huh?"
"Okay! See you!"
Takato waited a while, just to make sure Kenta was well and truly on his way. He didn't mind if Kenta saw him talking to Juri - not exactly. It was just that Kenta would naturally tell Hirokazu, in all innocence, and Hirokazu would spend the rest of the month, if not the year (provided he survived behaving all that time) teasing the daylights out of him about his new "girlfriend".
"Not like there's anything wrong with talking to a girl," Takato muttered. After all, a long day at school made you thirsty, and if he wanted a drink of water and just happened to bump into a friend at the water fountain...
"Hi, Takato!" said Juri. "Were you having a nice talk? I wanted to come over and say hi, but I hate to interrupt..."
"Nah, we were just killing time," said Takato. "I'm going over to Hirokazu's later tonight for a sleepover party. It's his birthday."
"Oh, that will be fun!" she said.
"Yeah," said Takato. He suddenly found himself running low on conversational topics and scrambled around for something to talk about. "So, ah... pretty boring lesson today, huh?"
"Definitely," she said. "I'm not that big on computers, really. I can never get them to do what I want."
"Yeah, same here. I like them for playing video games and stuff, but that's about it."
"I've noticed you'd rather use pencil and paper," she said. "I really liked those pictures you were drawing."
"Really?" he asked, brightening. "I didn't know you noticed."
"Oh, well," she said, coloring slightly. "I always liked fantasy things. You know, dragons and princesses and magic... I always wanted to be a princess and get rescued from a dragon."
Takato grinned a little. "I always wanted a dragon. Even when I was a little kid, I wanted a dragon for a pet. You know, a little one."
Juri giggled. "I'll bet your parents wouldn't like that very much."
Takato laughed. Then, seized by an idea, he set down his backpack and yanked at the zipper, freeing his notebook from its confines. With a triumphant smile, he brought out the picture he'd been working on.
"Do you want this?" he asked. "I mean, it's not exactly finished, but..."
Juri accepted the picture and eyed it thoughtfully. A spray of half-drawn flames hovered over the roughly outlined knight, whose sword and shield were still only suggestions etched in faint graphite marks.
"I don't mind that it's not finished," she said. "I get to decide for myself who wins. Maybe neither one. Maybe they'll work it out and be friends."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Takato. "They can be friends, and he can keep the dragon as a pet."
Juri laughed, and Takato smiled. He liked being able to make Juri laugh.
"I ought to do something for you," said Juri, as she carefully tucked the drawing into one of her own notebooks. "I know! Would you like to come over for a milkshake? My treat."
"That'd be great," said Takato.
"Then let's go!" she said happily. She trotted a few paces up the hallway, then stopped and doubled back. She grabbed his hand and began pulling him along, and he was only too happy to follow.
The sun was beginning to set, turning the smoky city air the color of fire. It gave the world a dreamy feel, like an old sepia-toned photograph. It suited Takato's mood as he walked slowly home, smiling softly. It was, he thought, a very good evening to be alive. His short visit with Juri at her family's restaurant - he was already beginning to think of the meeting as a date - had gone off without a hitch. They had spent over an hour sipping milkshakes and chatting about school and hobbies, finding common ground. The afternoon had ended with an invitation for Takato to drop in again sometime - soon. He was already making plans for that. Maybe next time he would treat her to dinner or an ice cream or something. It would be really something if he was the first boy in his class to have a real girlfriend! And to top it all off, he was still going to Hirokazu's birthday party tonight, a prospect will all kinds of interesting possibilities. As far as he was concerned, all was right with the world.
He was so wrapped up in his daydreaming that he missed the sound. It was not the kind of thing that he would have paid much attention to at the best of time, just a light patter of footsteps, too quiet to be heard over the city noises unless he'd really been listening. It wasn't until he turned down an alley - a narrow passage between two buildings that offered a shortcut back to his home - that he finally realized that not only was someone running up the pavement, but they were gaining on him in a hurry. The street he was traveling was seldom used, which was one of the reasons he favored it, and he couldn't recall having ever met anyone there before. He turned around, mildly curious.
Rushing up the street behind him was a girl. She appeared to be about his age, slender and pale-skinned, with flaming red hair pulled back in an untidy ponytail. She was dressed in ragged sneakers, a nondescript T-shirt, and torn blue jeans, all of which had seen better days. The shoes were caked with dirt, and the knees of her jeans were stained with blood, with rips showing that her knees were in similar shape. She was running as fast as she could - a speed which probably would have been a great deal faster, except that she was carrying something in a bundle, clutched tightly to her chest.
A baby? Takato wondered.
He didn't get much time to wonder about it. The girl continued to run, straight at him, with her head half-turned as if she expected someone to be running up behind her any second now. Apparently she was far more worried about who might be behind her than what was in front of her, because she paid no attention to the fact that Takato was directly in her way. Takato tried to move, but it was too late, and she slammed into him with a force that nearly threw him off his feet. He staggered and regained his balance, but the girl, her arms occupied with the bundle she was carrying, couldn't steady herself, and she fell hard on the pavement. The bundle slipped out of her arms and rolled away behind some trash cans.
"Ow!" she said. "Dammit!"
Takato walked over to her and bent to help her up. "Hey, are you okay?"
The girl ignored him. Instead, she began scrambling around on the ground, desperately searching for whatever it was she'd dropped.
"Don't you be broken, don't you dare be broken..." she muttered.
"It's over there," said Takato, waving toward the trash cans.
He peered curiously at the object. Contrary to his initial thought, it was not a baby - in fact, he doubted now that it was even alive. The shape covered by the ragged cloths was smooth and round, about the size and shape of a small watermelon. The girl looked up, sighted it, and made a grab for it. She felt it carefully, apparently checking to make sure it was not damaged. Assured that it was not, she looked up at Takato with a furious expression. For the first time, he saw her eyes. They were pale violet, like purple flames, and just now, they were blazing.
"Why don't you look where you're going?" she demanded.
"I wasn't going anywhere. I was just standing here. You ran into me," he said.
"Humph," she said. She began trying to get up while holding on to her bundle at the same time. "Don't you know better than to get in people's way? If somebody's coming, you've gotta be pretty stupid to just stand there and let them run you over."
"Sorry," said Takato. "I didn't - I mean, I didn't mean to make you - um, are you okay?"
"Never mind that," she snapped. She glanced in the direction she had come, and then looked back at Takato. "You're wasting my time. Listen, kid - do me a favor."
"Um, sure," Takato said. He had the feeling he was somehow out of his depth, but it was sort of his fault she had fallen, so he figured he owed her something.
Much to his surprise, she shoved the bunch of cloths into his arms.
"Hold on to that," she said. "Keep it safe. Don't let anyone see it."
"Do it! I'll come back for it later. If anything happens to it, I'll take it out of your hide. Got it?"
"Just do what I say!"
"All right, all right!" said Takato. "How are you going to find me again, though? You don't even know me... and I don't know you..."
"That doesn't matter. I'll be able to find it. You don't matter." She glanced back up the street again. "I have to go. Remember, if anyone asks, you never saw me, got it?"
Before Takato could react, the girl shoved him roughly out of the way and started sprinting up the street again. She could move a lot faster, he noted, now that she was no longer burdened with the whatever-it-was. While he was still standing and staring blankly at her retreating figure, a golden blur seemed to flash by. When it passed, she was gone.
"What the heck?" he said aloud.
There were no answers. He stood there a moment, pondering.
She can't have been real. She's not human. She's a Cypher or something, he thought wildly.But why would a Cypher be running away from anyone? Why couldn't she just disappear earlier?
He shook his head. Just thinking about it made his head hurt. Searching for something that made some modicum of sense, he latched onto the one order the girl had given him that he could currently comply with: to keep the mysterious packet safe. He glanced at his backpack, which he'd dropped when the girl had collided with him, and was now lying on its back with its insides spilled out across the pavement. Oh, well, that stuff had never fit properly in there, anyway. He scooped up his books and folders, piled them into a neat stack, and carefully shoved his new burden inside. It fit far more perfectly than the schoolbooks had. He scooped them up and prepared to start walking home again.
He had barely made it a block before he heard the sound of footsteps behind him again. This time he had the sense to stop and try to get out of the way. The last thing he needed was for any more strange girls to collide with him and leave him with any more peculiar objects. For one thing, his backpack was full now, and he couldn't carry anything else.
"Hey! You there! Wait a minute!"
The voice was adult, male, and authoritative. Takato couldn't have disobeyed it even if he'd wanted to. Very slowly, he turned around to see who was approaching him.
There were three men running up the sidewalk. All of them were wearing dark glasses and uniforms, making Takato think of policemen, or perhaps security guards. Their chests and shoulders were marked with assorted patches and bars that gave them an official look of the kind that made Takato feel like he must have done something wrong just to have them talk to him.
"You there," said the man in the lead. He was wearing a cap as well as the uniform, and his nose had the misshapen look that came from being broken multiple times. When he talked, Takato noted the glint of at least one gold tooth. Probably more. "You, boy - did you see a girl go by?"
"Uhh...." said Takato. "About my age? With red hair? Carrying something?"
"Yes, that's her," said another of the... guards? Was that what they were? "Which way did she go?"
"That way," said Takato. He had no idea which way she was going now, but he took the precaution of pointing in a direction completely different from the way she'd actually been going before she vanished.
"Right. Thanks, kid," said the guard. "All right, let's move!"
The men rushed off again. Takato watched them, wondering if he'd done the right thing.
She's a criminal, he told himself. She's - she's a thief or something, and I'm carrying stolen goods!
It crossed his mind that maybe he could catch up to the guards and tell them what happened after all - but no, they were already gone out of sight. Besides, they might be suspicious enough of him to lock him up, too. Anyway, something in him said he had to trust the girl. It was a lot easier, somehow, to trust a girl his age with ragged jeans and muddy sneakers than a troop of strange men in dark uniforms.
Above his head, he heard a strange sound. At the moment, he was so keyed up, he probably would have heard a pin being dropped. This sound was like a bird's call, but not like one he'd ever heard. Half-dreading what he might see this time, Takato looked up at the sky. He saw only the purple-tinted clouds floating by, and the distant silver spark that marked a plane in the distance. Then, as his eyes fell back to earth, he caught a glimpse of a human-shaped shadow perched on a roof. It had an untidy ponytail in back. As Takato stared up at her, she flashed him the "OK" sign at him. Then she turned and ducked out of sight. Takato stood there a moment, waiting to see if she was going to come back down and possibly take her bundle back. When she showed no signs of doing so, he sighed and began walking slowly up the street again.
"What a weird day," he muttered.
Upon arriving home, the first thing Takato did was run upstairs to his room. Of course, that was what he usually did every day after coming home from school. The lower floor of his home was occupied by his parents' bakery, and hanging around down there too much normally resulted in his being put to work minding the cash register. He didn't mind that too much, not really - he was friends with most of the local customers, and sometimes he could sneak a cookie while his parents weren't looking. Today, though, his mind was occupied completely with the mysterious object stowed away in his backpack. He vaulted up the stairs three at a time, kicked open his door, and threw all his notebooks onto his desk. A few of them slid off, hit the floor, and burst open, spewing papers across his floor, but he was too preoccupied to care. With a great deal more caution, he set his backpack down in the middle of the rug and undid the zippers completely, until the pack fell open on the floor like the two halves of a clam. In the center, like a pearl, was a grubby ball of white rags. Takato poked it with a cautious fingertip.
"I don't think I'll break it," he said. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to have a look. I mean, she told me to take care of it, and I can't really take care of it if I don't even know what it is... and she never told me I couldn't look at it."
Almost of their own accord, his hands went out to start unraveling the cloths. They were wrapped around in so many layers and in so many different directions that it was like untying a knot. At last, Takato was able to loosen them, and they began to fall away. With his pulse pounding in his throat, he undid the final folds and was able to view the treasure within.
It was an egg. It had to be an egg, because there was nothing else that looked and felt so much like an egg except an egg... but... but it couldn't be. It was larger than a football - larger even than a soccer ball. The shell was mottled in brilliant sunset colors ranging from crimson to goldenrod to pure white. The colors were so vivid they almost glowed, and Takato, artist that he was, could do nothing for a few moments but stare at it. Reverently, he ran a hand over its smooth surface. It was warm, as if it had been sitting by a fire... or as if it were alive. He set both his hands on it - and then jerked them quickly away again. For a moment, he thought he'd felt something moving in there.
"But that's crazy," he said aloud. "There's nothing in the world that hatches out of an egg like this..."
Maybe it's a dragon, he thought, and laughed nervously.
"This is getting unreal," he said aloud. He laid his hand on the egg again, cautiously. It wasn't moving, but it was still warm, independently of the temperature in his room, which was still air- conditioned against the warmth of early September. "Whatever it is, there's something alive in there, and I guess it's up to me to take care of it. Maybe I can make it a nest or something."
He picked up the cloth wrappings, intending to see if he could work them into a comfortable resting place for his new egg. As he did so, something clattered to the floor. It bounced on the carpet a few times before settling down next to his left foot. He picked it up for a closer look. It looked a bit like a digital stopwatch, or one of those virtual pets that had been all the rage a few years back. Its exact nature, though, was impossible to determine, as its screen was frustratingly blank. Prodding at its buttons elicited no response, nor did a bit of careful shaking and banging. Turning it over revealed that not only was there no place to put in any batteries, there didn't even seem to be any screws holding it together. A closer inspection didn't even turn up any seams where it had been joined. The whole thing looked less as if it had been made and more as if it had simply come into being of its own accord.
"I wonder what this gizmo is?" he said, prodding it a few more times. It didn't even beep at him. "Oh, well. It's probably important, whatever it is."
There was a small strap on the end of the device, suitable for affixing to a keychain, so he attached it to belt loop of his jeans, thinking it would be less likely to get lost in the chaos of his room that way. Leaving it lying around anywhere was just asking to have it buried in stray sheets of drawing paper and old comic books. Once it was safe and secure, he went back to admiring his egg, piling up the cloths in a corner, along with a couple of pillows and some dirty laundry for good measure, to make a nest. Even after it was comfortably settled in, he continued to kneel next to it, prodding the folds of cloth and adjusting the pillows ever-so-slightly, just to have something to do. He gently stroked the egg's smooth shell.
"Hello in there," he said softly. "Can you hear me? My name's Takato. I'm going to take really good care of you, so don't you worry. I'll be right here for you, and when you hatch..."
He trailed off. Someone was calling his name.
"Takato!" his mother shouted. "It's almost seven! Are you finished packing yet?"
"Packing?" he repeated blankly. Then it came back to him in a flash: Hirokazu's party! He was expected to be on his friend's doorstep within the next half-hour, and he hadn't so much as packed a pair of clean socks.
"I'm almost done!" he called back.
Hastily, he grabbed his duffel bag and started haphazardly shoving in an assortment of clothes, his hairbrush, toothbrush, his pajamas, and whatever else it occurred to him that he might want. As he was digging his sleeping bag out of the closet, he took a long look at his egg. He didn't want to leave it behind. It wasn't just a matter of emotional attachment, though he had already started thinking possessively of it as his egg (the red-headed girl was already starting to seem more like a dream than anything). He was simply worried about the practical concerns of leaving it alone for any length of time. What if his mother decided to clean his room while he was gone, and she found it and threw it out? What if it got cold in the night and froze? What if hatched and rampaged around his room? Even worse, what if it sneaked out of the house and got lost? Or... what if it died while he was away?
"Well, egg," he said. "It looks like you're going to your first party, and it's not even your birthday, yet."
Very carefully, he tucked the egg into his sleeping bag and wrapped it up. It worked quite well; the straps that held the bag in its roll fit around the ends, and the egg in its layers of padding showed as nothing more than a slight bulge, unnoticeable to anyone who didn't know it was there. Even if he dropped it, it was unlikely to suffer any damage. It was probably safer now than it had been in its covering of rags. Even so, he carried it his destination with great care, and resisted the temptation to stop every few blocks to unroll it and make sure it was all right.
"Hey, man, what took you?" asked Hirokazu. He was on the front step, leaning out the door of his house as he kept watch for his friend.
"Oh, you know, just stuff," said Takato.
"Well, we started the party without you. Haul your stuff inside and grab some pizza before it's all gone."
At the mention of pizza, Takato's stomach growled. He'd had a milkshake only a few hours before, but taking care of his egg had burned up a certain amount of energy, and now he was ravenous.
"You'd better not eat it all!" he said.
Hirokazu glanced inside. "Oops, too late. Kenta just got the last slice!"
"Hey, no fair!"
"Psyche!" Hirokazu grinned wickedly. "There's still two boxes left. Just hurry it up already, would ya?"
Takato hurried. He followed Hirokazu through the front door, and then up the steps that led to his friend's room. The door was shut, but he could hear noise inside, as a stereo blared out Hirokazu's conception of music - loud, bouncy, and relatively meaningless. Hirokazu flung open the door, apparently not caring that it rebounded with a bang and nearly smacked his follower across the face. Takato dodged it and sized up the situation. The room was already in a state of advanced chaos, but then, that was normal for Hirokazu. There was a heap of movies piled up on the bed, along with a soccer ball and a pile of laundry that might eventually find its way to a hamper. A television set displayed a background for a video game with the word "PAUSED" in the middle of the screen. There was indeed pizza inside, and a few bags of potato chips, and a platter of chocolate cupcakes. Takato grinned a little as he recognized them - they'd come from his bakery. As he piled his belongings in a corner, he bent down and snatched one.
"Hey! No fair eating dessert now!" Kenta protested.
"Ih ish shoph air," said Takato through a mouthful of cake. He swallowed and tried again. "It is so fair. I made 'em, I get to eat 'em."
"Don't complain," said Hirokazu, grabbing a fresh piece of pizza. "We're gonna eat it all, anyway. What difference does it make what order we do it in?"
"Good point," said Kenta. He grabbed a cupcake from the platter and popped it into his mouth whole. "I like cupcakes. You can eat them and still have your hands free for video games."
"I'm still going to beat you!" Hirokazu said.
He snatched up the controller and pressed the START button. The game unpaused, and his video game proxy proceeded to pound the daylights out of Kenta's avatar.
"Hey, no fair!" Kenta wailed, scrambling in vain for the controller.
Takato laughed. "That's cheating!"
"Oh, yeah? Think you could do better?"
"All right, Chumly! Do your worst!"
"You mean my best, right?"
"Nah, I mean worst. I'm no good at this game, and I need all the help I can get!"
The next few hours passed uneventfully. The boys took turns at the video game until it lost its appeal, at which point they opted to watch a few movies and finish off the last of the now-cold pizza (the cupcakes had long since vanished). Hirokazu attempted to frighten his cohorts with ghost stories, without very much success.
"...as she slowly climbed the stairs, a ghastly sound filled the air..."
"Did it sound anything like your singing?" asked Takato.
Hirokazu glared. "No. Now, pay attention. Where was I?"
"Stairs. Ghastly sound," Kenta prompted.
"Oh, yeah. So. A ghastly sound filled the air. She looked up, and in front of her, she saw..."
"I hammer!" Kenta piped up.
Hirokazu glared at him. "You what?"
"She saw, I hammer. It was a joke."
"Oh, geez," said Hirokazu. "If you've gotta make fun of the story, at least do a good job of it. Now, as I was saying, she looked up and saw a ghostly glowing shape in front of her. Very slowly, it glided down the stairs, coming closer and closer to her. She stared. She couldn't move. As it drew nearer, it reached out a spectral hand..."
"Let me guess," said Takato. "It was the ghost of her dead husband, and he strangled her just like she did to him five years ago."
Hirokazu stared at him. "How did you know?"
"I saw that movie last week," answered Takato with a shrug. "Didn't think it was that scary, really."
Kenta laughed. "He sure showed you!"
"Shut up! He did not!" said Hirokazu.
"I'd say he did."
"Well, he didn't."
Takato stifled the urge to laugh. Watching his two best friends argue was a never ending source of amusement. He ducked as Hirokazu pitched a stray pillow at Kenta, who almost managed to dodge it. He threw it back, but his aim was bad, and instead of hitting its intended target, it pinwheeled wildly and smacked Takato instead. Takato was surprised enough by this unexpected attack that he lost his balance and fell over, landing on his rolled-up sleeping bag. His elbow came down on something that crunched. Takato's face went white as he forced himself to look down to see what he'd landed on.
"Hey, what's your problem?" asked Hirokazu.
Takato finally managed to get his gaze to the floor. He appeared to have landed on a small bag of potato chips that had somehow migrated over to his things. He forced a laugh.
"Heh, I heard something crunch and thought for a minute I'd broken something. You know, like my arm."
Hirokazu laughed. "Even you aren't that weak, Takato."
"I know. Ha ha ha!" Takato did his best to shrug off his momentary unease. His eyes strayed to the sleeping bag. If he'd broken the egg....
"Would you all keep it quiet up there?" That was the sound of Hirokazu's mother shouting. "Some of us are trying to get some sleep - and you boys have school tomorrow!"
"No problem," Hirokazu muttered. "We'll just sleep at school... like we usually do." More loudly, he said, "Okay, Mom! We're going to sleep now!"
"Do we have to?" asked Kenta woefully.
"Nah, 'course not," his friend replied. "We've just got to be quiet now, so Mom doesn't hear us."
"What are we going to do that's quiet?" asked Takato.
"Watch TV, duh!" Hirokazu replied. "We've just gotta do it with the volume turned low. Hey, maybe there'll be a monster movie!"
He walked over to the TV (there had once been a remote, but it had been destroyed in a minor accident over the summer, involving a very boring rainy Sunday and a book called 101 Science Projects to do With Electricity) and turned it on. It immediately flashed an image from a romance movie, with a doe-eyed young woman gazing up at a craggy-featured shirtless man while violins wailed plaintive melodies. The boys threw popcorn at the screen.
"There's gotta be something better on than that!" Hirokazu muttered.
He began pushing buttons, flipping past an assortment of game shows, dramas, old movies, and other late-night programming.
"Ooh, look, a police movie," said Kenta. "That could be fun."
"That's not a police movie, dummy, that's the news," Hirokazu replied. "Nuts. News is almost as boring as school... hey, what the?"
Now all three boys were staring, riveted, at the screen. It was displaying an image of Takato's home, illuminated by the flashing lights of police cars. The camera panned to an image of his father, who showed signs of a black eye, and blood still trickled from a split lip.
"Turn the volume up!" Takato commanded.
This was no time for worrying about what his parents would say. Hirokazu did as he was told.
"...broke into their home at approximately eight-forty-five tonight," the reporter was saying. "No items have yet been reported missing, but the upstairs rooms of the residence have been ransacked."
The screen shifted to show an image of Takato's room. It had been untidy when he'd left it, but that was nothing compared to the way it looked now. The covers had been ripped from his bed, the drawers yanked from his dresser, the books thrown from their shelves, and the clothing and boxes in his closet were strewn around the room.
"The intruders were intercepted by Mr. Matsuda, who sustained minor injuries attempting to drive them off. The fact that nothing was stolen leads authorities to believe that they were looking for something specific, and were either unable to find it, or were deterred by their encounter with Mr. Matsuda. Sir, were you able to get a good look at the robbers?"
"Yes, I was," said Takato's father. "The one who hit me - I saw him. I'll never forget his face - he had a crooked nose, like it had been broken. Oh, and he had gold teeth. Very tough customer."
Takato stared, recognizing his father's description of the "policeman" who had questioned him earlier.
He knows! He knows I've got the egg, and he went looking for me. If I hadn't been here, he would have found me...
The reporter was talking again. "The authorities believe that this attempted robbery is tied to the Cyberspace terrorist group known as DREAD. If anyone in the audience knows anything about this crime or has information about the DREAD organization, please contact the police."
"Wow, Takato," said Hirokazu. "Your house got raided by Cyber-terrorists! That's so cool!"
"What's cool about it?" asked Takato.
"Well, it's not cool your dad got hurt, I guess," Hirokazu replied, "but I mean, nothing really bad happened, and you got your name on television! I never get to be on TV, and I'm so much better looking than you, too."
"Gee, Takato, I always knew you were messy," said Kenta, "but I had no idea your room was that bad!"
"Aw, shut up."
"Sorry, man," said Hirokazu. "Didn't mean to make you mad. Come to think of it, I guess it would have been kinda scary, if you were there. Good thing you were safe here with us, huh?"
"Yeah," answered Takato softly. "Really good."
The party atmosphere had been considerably dampened by the sobering news, and nobody really knew how to make it come back. Going to sleep seemed like the best idea available. Hirokazu crawled into his bed, and his friends unrolled their sleeping bags. Takato was careful not to do anything that would let his egg show. Fortunately, Hirokazu tended to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, and Kenta was blind as a bat without his glasses. Neither of them saw a thing. Takato crawled into his sleeping bag and curled up around his egg.
"You're a lot of trouble, you know that?" he whispered to it. "I hope that girl comes back for you soon..."
He rolled that idea around in his mind. The girl had said that she would be able to find it wherever it was. There had to be some way of tracking the egg, at least well enough to know that it had been in his home. Otherwise, the strange men wouldn't have raided his house. The girl wouldn't have given him something that was obviously so important to her if she wasn't sure she could get it back again somehow. Even now, maybe, people in shadowy places were looking for their missing egg... and for Takato.
Feeling chilled, the boy pulled the egg closer to him. It was warm, and there was something about the feeling of it tucked under his arm that comforted him slightly. He ran his hand over the smooth shell, the way he would stroke a sleeping cat. Then he stopped. He felt something under his fingers, a not-quite-movement. A pulse. A heartbeat.
"You're awake now," he murmured sleepily. "Okay, but I'm sleeping. Good night, egg."
Takato closed his eyes, and knew nothing more until morning.
Takato awoke to the smell of something cooking. He stirred a little, not sure he wanted to wake up. He had a vague notion somewhere in the back of his mind that something bad had recently happened, and he didn't really want to wake up and remember what it was.
"Hey, Takato, wake up!"
"Don' wanna," said Takato, rolling over and pulling the edge of the sleeping bag over his head.
"Come on, wake up," said Kenta, shaking his shoulder. "We cooked your egg for you."
"What?" said Takato, sitting up and staring. The events of yesterday were starting to trickle back into his brain. He suddenly realized he was no longer holding his egg.
"Yeah," said Kenta. "We heard you talking in your sleep. You kept saying something about people trying to take your eggs away or something like that, so we figured that's what you wanted for breakfast. I didn't know you liked eggs that much, Takato."
Takato realized that the egg he was most concerned with was down by his feet - apparently he'd shoved it down there while he tossed and turned in his sleep. He managed a laugh.
"Aw, it was just a weird dream," he said. "The eggs smell good, though. Hang on while I get dressed, and I'll be right down."
"Okay. See you there," said Kenta. He left the room, and Takato heard him shouting, "Hey, Mrs. Shiota, he's on his way!"
Takato heaved a sigh of relief. While his friends were away, he carefully pulled the egg out of his sleeping bag. It might have been his ever-active imagination, but it seemed warmer now than it had before, almost hot to the touch. The heartbeat was stronger than ever - that much, at least, he could no longer believe might be a flight of fancy.
"I hope you're not getting a fever," he muttered.
He took the egg and slipped it back inside his backpack, hoping it would be a little cooler in there. Anyway, he couldn't take his sleeping bag to school, so it had been agreed that he would leave most of his things here for the day, and pick them up again on his way home. He wouldn't have been able to stand leaving his egg alone at Hirokazu's house all day. That would be even worse than leaving it alone at his own house. If something was going to go wrong, Takato wanted to be there when it happened.
He dressed without paying attention - he probably wouldn't have been able to manage the feat at all if his clothing hadn't already been picked out beforehand and packed away in his bag - and ambled downstairs for breakfast. Kenta, an incorrigible morning person, was happily eating his scrambled eggs and chatting with Hirokazu's parents. Hirokazu himself was acting as if he hadn't gotten a wink of sleep all night, belying the snoring he'd been doing the night before. He looked in need of a cup of strong coffee, if anyone would have dared to give him such a thing. In another hour or so, he'd be wide awake and bouncing off the wall; the possible effects of any added caffeine were almost too daunting to contemplate.
When they had all eaten, the boys were herded upstairs by Hirokazu's formidable mother and ordered to get ready for school. When Hirokazu's mother said to do things, people did them. Outwardly, she appeared to be a frail, pretty blonde woman, but when she started shouting, everyone around her suddenly felt compelled to do whatever it was she wanted. The boys were groomed, packed, and out the door in what seemed like only a few seconds, and they walked to school rather more quickly than they might have normally.
"Is your mom always like that?" asked Takato.
"Nah. Today was one of her good days," Hirokazu replied. "She's being nice 'cause you guys are around."
"How did you ever convince her to let us come over in the first place?" asked Kenta.
Hirokazu grinned. "'Cause I take after her side of the family."
Thanks to the tender administrations of Hirokazu's mother, all three boys (and one egg) made it to school early. Takato settled into his desk in the near-empty classroom and carefully placed his backpack under his desk. It would probably surprise his teacher, if she'd bothered to look at it - never since the first day of school had Takato made it to class without his sack filled to bursting with stray pieces of paper, notebooks, pencil boxes, and all the other odds and ends he used to get through his day at school. Most of those had been left behind today, the better to accommodate his egg... and also because he hadn't felt like packing them all up again after he'd dumped them on the floor. Now he sat and waited for the first bell to ring so class could start.
At last, the bell rang, and the teacher appeared and began her lesson. Takato stared at the board, occasionally scribbling something in his notebook whenever she said something that sounded important. However, as the day wore on, he found his attention wandering more and more often. As the teacher's voice seemed to fade into a distant drone, more immediate issues loomed up in his mind. What was in this egg he was carrying? Where did it come from? Where did the red-haired girl get it? Who were the men who pursued her, and how had she escaped them? Why hadn't she come back yet? Was she okay?
Then there were the more personal, and disturbing questions. Questions like: Was anyone looking for him now? What would they do when they found him? Were his friends in danger? His family? Was he in danger?
I wish I'd never met that girl, he thought in frustration. Then I wouldn't have anything to worry about, and I wouldn't be stuck with this stupid egg!
When the class went outside for gym, he looked speculatively at the dumpsters that were arrayed along the side of a building, their lids standing open for easy access. For a moment, it was tempting to just grab the egg and toss it in there with the trash. Then it would be out of his hair for good, and he wouldn't have to worry anymore. He and everyone around him would be safe - nobody would have to worry but the uniformed men and the violet-eyed girl.
"Takato! Heads up!"
Takato looked up, and a soccer ball fell out of the sky and bonked him on the head. It rolled away to another boy, who kicked it away again.
"Pay attention, Takato!" he shouted. "You almost cost us a goal!"
"It's not my fault I'm no good at soccer!" he protested.
His classmate snorted and took off after the ball.
Takato shook his head and trotted halfheartedly after him. What was he thinking? He couldn't get rid of the egg. He had felt its heartbeat. Whatever was in there, it was alive, and throwing it out and leaving it to the elements would be as good as killing it. It wasn't its fault that so much trouble was centering around it.
Unless maybe it's something dangerous, Takato mused, but I can't believe anything so beautiful could be bad... Anyway, I promised I'd take care of it, and that's what I'll do! Somebody will come back for it soon.
At last, the school day ended. Takato barely restrained himself from shouting out of pure relief - surely there had never been a school day so long! He nearly bowled over several other students on his way out the door. Hirokazu and Kenta caught up to him outside the classroom, giving him a pair of curious looks.
"Hey, man, what's your hurry?" Hirokazu asked.
"Uh... nothing," said Takato vaguely.
Kenta gave him a thoughtful look. "You aren't sick or something, are you? You've been out of it all day. More than usual."
"I guess maybe I just didn't get enough sleep last night or something," said Takato. Inwardly he felt guilty - he'd never had to keep a secret like this from Kenta and Hirokazu before.
"Oh, I get it," said Hirokazu, nodding wisely. "You're still worked up 'cause of your place getting robbed, right?"
"Yeah," Takato agreed, seizing on the excuse with relief. After all, it was true - he just knew better than they did why his house being robbed was something to worry about. "I haven't seen my mom and dad since it happened, and, well, I know it's kind of silly, but... I just want to go home and make sure they're all right."
"We understand," said Kenta sympathetically.
"Yeah, it's gotta be kinda scary, your dad getting beat up and stuff," said Hirokazu. "You go on home. I'll lug your junk back home for you later, okay?"
"That would be great," said Takato, full of relief and gratitude. "Thanks, guys. I knew you'd understand."
"No problem. What are pals for?" Hirokazu replied.
"You're the best," said Takato. "See you later, okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Bye!"
"See you, Takato!"
Takato waved goodbye to his friends and scampered down the sidewalk as fast as he could without making it look like he was in a panic. As he cast a backwards glance, he noticed Juri standing around the school doors. She seemed to be looking in his direction, and Takato felt a stab of regret. It was hard having to leave his friends hanging like this, especially when he couldn't even tell them why he was doing it, but....
As soon as he got home, he made a dash through the bakery, moving so quickly that the bell above the door hadn't stopped ringing when his feet hit the back stairs. His mother looked up to see the closing door, heard her son's footsteps, and sighed.
"I wish he'd take his responsibilities a bit more seriously," she said to herself.
Up the stairs Takato went, bursting into his room and then quickly shutting the door behind him. Panting slightly from his run, he carefully set his backpack down on his floor and unzipped it. The egg fell out of its wrappings and rolled across the carpet until it bumped against Takato's toes. He smiled a little, reminded faintly of a loyal pet greeting its owner. He sat down on the floor next to it and began stroking the smooth shell, enjoying its warmth against his fingers.
"I guess you're my friend, too, aren't you?" he said. "Whatever you are in there... But don't worry. Whoever or whatever you are, I'm gonna take care of you. I won't let anything happen to you..."
He let his hand rest on the top of the egg, feeling the gentle pulse of life inside. Then, suddenly, a shiver seemed to run through it. Beneath Takato's fingers, he felt the egg begin to crack.