Strawberry Fields- Insert Coin To Continue


After storming off from the beach that evening, Karen, Cliff, Ann, Mary, and Gray stopped in Rose Square. Shaking, Karen found herself barely able to talk. Cliff spoke up instead. "Wow," he started, shaking his head. "That guy really is a jerk, huh?"

"Rick was right!" Karen finally exclaimed. "This whole time, he was right!" She sputtered. "I can't believe more people didn't see through this jerk before. Shaking her head, she buried her face in her palm. "I can't believe I didn't believe Rick, either. All this time..."

"Well, Rick goes a bit overboard on this whole Kai thing, too," Gray pointed out.

There was a slight quaver in Karen's voice as she spoke. "Yeah, but I should have listened to him. Now he's completely upset over this." She shook her head, and began walking in the direction of the Inn. "I'm going to go to look for him."

Silence fell over the others for a moment or two as they watched her go. After a moment or two, Ann piped up.

"Well," she said to Cliff. "My dad gave me the rest of the night off. Wanna go for a hike or something?"

"Sure," Cliff replied, grinning a bit. He reached into his pocket briefly, and nodded at Ann. The two took each other's hands and headed off, saying their goodbyes to Mary and Gray. With nothing else to do, Mary and Gray ambled about the square for a little while.

Meanwhile, Rick sat by himself at the bar, a glass of whiskey in hand. Glumly resting his face on his palm, he stared out into space. Everyone else sitting at the Inn that night gave him the occasional glance, and when Basil asked Doug about him, Doug replied: "Yeah, that's his last one."

Duke got out of his seat, strolled over to Rick, and sat down next to him. "Doug!" he said, holding up a finger. "Gimme another glass!"

Doug poured out a glass of red wine, handing it to Duke. "This is a good one," Duke said to Rick, pointing to the glass. "It's from California."

"I'll try it next time," Rick mumbled, lazily pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Duke took a sip, mentioning a little more about the wine. His words seemed like nothing more than muttering to Rick, that was, until he asked about Popuri.

"So, what is Popuri doing over at Kai's house tonight?"

Rick growled, waving his hand. "Ahhh, she went over with Karen and Mary and Gray and everyone else so that cad could cook them dinner and suck up to all of them and put the moves on my sister." Shaking his head, he added: "He's probably trying to get her drunk or something... I heard he had Mike's there, and--"

Holding up his hand, Duke said: "I've told you this so many times, Rick..." He took a sip of his wine, and fixed a serious look upon Rick. "If you let Popuri hang around Kai, she's going to get hurt, and-"

"And I'm the one who let it happen," Rick slurred, burying his head in his arms. "I know... It'd be awful if I let it happen, too."

Duke watched him for a moment, and then said: "Well, yeah, exactly." Without even looking up, Rick shook his head and mumbled something in response, to which Duke replied: "I think you've had too much to drink, Rick."

Rick muttered a "Pot, kettle," response, but Duke didn't hear him. Instead, he finished off the last of his wine, threw down some cash, and with a couple of slurred "G'nights" for everyone, he unsteadily made his way out of the Inn. Rick buried his head in his arms, that was, until he was stirred by someone tapping on his shoulder. Groggily, he glanced up at Karen.

"Come on, Rick," she said. "Let's get out of here."

"You've come back, huh?" Rick asked dryly. He huffed. "How was your dinner party?"

"Awful," Karen told him, getting him to perk up a bit. "Just awful." She offered her hand to Rick, who took it as he clambered to his feet. As the two made their way out of the Inn, she started to explain everything that had happened.


Rick found that he couldn't quite remember what had happened the night before. Early the next morning, he stumbled down the stairs of his house and into the kitchen. Grabbing a glass from the dish rack, he poured himself some water from the sink and gulped the water. With the second glass he poured himself, he took out a pack of aspirins from his pocket. After swallowing them with another swig of water, he set down his half-empty glass and headed out the door.

Even though it was cool that morning, and the sun hadn't yet come up, he still broke out into a sweat. He made his way over to the mailbox and opened it up, only for a bunch of birthday cards to spill out at his feet. Bending down, he picked up the cards and looked at some of them, finding one from Karen her family, one from Ann, another from Mary, Elli and Stu, Cliff, Carter, and even Makoto. He placed all the cards back inside for Popuri to find later, but found another letter from some boarding house in the mailbox. It was from his father.

Dear Rick and Popuri,

First of all, here's wishing Popuri a Happy 17th Birthday. I hope you kids are doing well.

Rick simply skimmed through the letter, folding it up and shoving it in his pocket as soon as he finished. In the few years he was gone, he had only written a handful of letters. Still, he wrote just about the same thing each time. Grabbing his apron from the side of the chicken coop and tying it around his waist, Rick thought about his father visiting all sorts of locations, searching for a cure for Lillia's illness. Of course, those thoughts were followed with images of him living comfortably away from his kids, traveling from place to place and visiting friends from high school and college.

Even as Rick went about his work that morning, he found he couldn't get his father out of his head. That was until he headed back into his house to get cleaned up. As he passed Popuri's bedroom, he heard sniffling. Stopping, he put his ear to the door, only to hear Popuri's sobs.

"Popuri!" Rick exclaimed, throwing open the door. Popuri laid faced down on her pink bedspread, her face buried in her pillow. He headed up to her bed, getting on his knees and placing a hand on her back. "What happened, Sis?? What's wrong??"At first, she couldn't choke out her reply. "What's wrong??"

"You were right," Popuri finally mumbled into her pillow. She sniffled. "Kai's a jerk!"

Recalling what Karen had told him the night before, his face fell. "Oh..." he said, furrowing his brow. He clambered to his feet and shook his head. "I've been telling you that for years, Popuri. Now you're realizing it?"

Popuri jumped up; her face had gone red. "You don't understand, Rick!" she cried, her voice coarse. She jerked her thumb at the door. "Get out!!"


She smacked him with a pillow. "OUT!!"

Groaning, Rick shuffled out of her pink bedroom and back into the hallway, finding his mother out there. "Mom," he started, closing the door behind himself. "Popuri's really, really freaking out. Go talk to her about Kai, and tell her what a worthless jerk he is."

"We talked last night, honey," his mother replied quietly. She sighed tiredly. "And you know she's in love with him." Rick growled.

"Yeah, well, he's a cad!" he snapped. "I don't see why she would even like that jerk in the first place!"

"Whatever your opinion is of him, Rick, you should be more sympathetic towards your sister," Lillia told him.

Rick sputtered. "Ugh! Seriously?"

Lillia shook her head. "Please try to be more understanding of Popuri, Rick."

For a moment, Rick didn't reply. "Yeah," he muttered. "Fine..."

Giving him a dejected look, Lillia said: "Rick, could you start breakfast? I'll be down in a minute."

"Sure thing, Mom." Rick watched his mother as she headed into the bathroom, opened up the medicine cabinet, and took out her morning medications. After a moment, he headed down the stairs. Just as he made it into the living room, the doorbell rang. "Coming!" Rick called out. He headed for the door and pulled it open, only to find Zack standing on the stoop.

"Hey, Rick," Zack said, extending his large hand.

Rick gave him a shake. "Hey, Zack."

Handing him a package about the size of a large encyclopedia, Zack said: "This is for your mother." Taking it and holding it under his arm, Rick nodded. "So..." Zack started again, a little awkwardly. "Your sister invited me for dinner tonight... I'm, err... I'm looking forward to that."

"Dinner?" Rick asked. Looking a bit baffled, Zack nodded. "Oh, right..." Rick continued. "Popuri's birthday." He nodded. "Yeah... umm... it should be fun."

"Yeah," Zack agreed, still a little puzzled. "Umm... what time should I come over?"

"About six," Rick replied with a shrug.

"Sounds good." Zack said, turning as he headed down the front steps. With that, he gave a salute. "See you tonight, Rick."

Rick watched him go for a moment before shutting the door. He headed back into the kitchen with his mother's package, placing it on the counter. As he headed for the fridge to get some eggs, he called up to Popuri. She showed up ten minutes after Lillia sat at the table, her face and eyes still red.


Kai usually rolled out of bed around nine each morning, always a couple hours after Gray got up. After getting dressed, he tied his bandana around his short, buzzed hair and grinned at his reflection in the mirror. He then headed out the door, only to find Ann lugging cleaning supplies down the hallway.

"Hey, babe," he said, flashing a smile as he approached her. "D'you need a little help with that stuff?" She ignored him. But when he tried taking her bucket from her, she snapped at him.

"Leave me alone, Kai. And don't call me 'babe' anymore!"

Baffled, Kai asked: "What's wrong, Ann?"

"Nothing," Ann replied. "Just your attitude towards Popuri..."

"Aww, come on!" Kai exclaimed, holding out his arms. "Are you seriously mad about that?"

"Piss off, Kai." With that, Ann pushed past him, somehow managing to smack him on the head with the mop. Shaking his head, Kai nursed the sore spot as he headed for the stairs.

Having Doug speak to him curtly was nothing new, but it agitated him as he shoveled down his breakfast. Finishing his orange juice, he fished out some cash from his pockets and left it on the table, sure to leave a bigger tip than usual before he hurried out the door. He had nowhere to go, however. No one would come to his snack stand until about noon, and since he seemed to have pissed off the entire town overnight, it meant no one was coming for a while.

Kai ambled about the town, passing Saibara's shop. The door opened up and Gray stepped outside, wiping sweat off his brow with a ragged bandana. He then took notice of Kai and strolled up to him.

"Hey, man," he said, shoving the bandana into his back pocket. Kai nodded in acknowledgment. "What's up?"

"Friggin' miserable," Kai muttered. "Not to mention, Ann whacked me with a mop."

Gray ignored him. "Are you gonna apologize to Popuri?" he asked.

"I don't know why I should," Kai replied, shaking his head. Without another word, Gray clapped Kai and the shoulder and walked back towards the shop, leaving Kai there.

He then found himself ambling again, walking down the road leading to Strawberry Fields. For a moment, he watched Makoto as he got on his knees and started planting seeds. When Makoto clambered to his feet, he looked over his shoulder and noticed Kai hanging out near the barn, arching his eyebrow.

"Hey there, Mackie!" Kai said, swaggering up to him. Makoto met him halfway. "Whatcha up to?" Kai asked, clapping his arm.

Makoto pointed at the fields. "Working," he replied. "I've been planting since seven-thirty." He gave a stretch, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. "What's up with you?"

"Nothing really," Kai replied coolly. "Just planning that party and all... By the way, I'm gonna open up the Seaside Lounge for lunch today if you wanna come by."

Makoto shrugged. "Maybe another day." Motioning to the huge sack of seeds at his side, he added: "I need to finish this planting today, and then I gotta check in on Anna's garden later."

"The people here actually let you into their homes now?" Kai asked incredulously.

"No, just their gardens," Makoto told him dully.

Kai chuckled. "Funny, man. Listen..." His expression became a bit more serious. "Whaddya do when you've pissed off everyone in town?" When Makoto arched his eyebrow at him, he shrugged and added: "Because I have no clue."

"Are you asking me because I have experience pissing off loads of people at once?" Makoto asked. Kai didn't say anything, and instead frowned. "Just try to stop pissing people off all the time and try to fit in."

"I can't believe you just said that," Kai said, his mouth agape.

Makoto gritted his teeth. "I'm just trying not to be a social leper anymore." He glared, getting Kai to inch back. Shaking his head, Makoto continued. "Just try to make things right with everyone. I mean, you've got ten times the charm I do, so if I can do it, you can do it."

"I'll try," Kai said with a sigh. He glanced over at the poultry ranch, and suddenly turned and headed away. "See ya at the party tonight, Mackie!" Without giving his sudden departure much thought, Makoto got back down on his knees again, only to be interrupted by Rick.

"What'd that jerk want, Mackie?" he called out, running up to Makoto.

Makoto looked up as Rick approached. "He was just blowing off steam," he said with a shrug. He stuck his finger in the dirt, and dropped in a couple of seeds. "I guess people are angry with him."

"Well, I'll have you know he did something to Popuri last night." When Makoto arched his eyebrow, Rick continued, pacing a bit. "Popuri came home crying last night! That jerk did something to her that got her upset!"

Makoto found he wasn't sure what to say. "Ummm... wow. That sucks."

"It does!" Rick snapped. But before Makoto could say anything else, he added: "You were with him last night..." He narrowed his eyes a bit. "Weren't you?"

"I don't know what he did," Makoto answered, half-focused on his planting. "Elli and I left early. But from what I saw, he seemed nice to your sister."

"He's just working that charm of his," Rick muttered. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "And what was this about a party?"

"Kai's having another get-together at the Seaside Lounge," Makoto told him. "That kid, Rock, is coming down from the Valley."

"See, Rock is alright," Rick said. "Did Kai invite Popuri?"

"I guess," Makoto replied, shrugging. "I don't know..."

"C'mon, Mackie!"

"It's the truth," Makoto told him pointedly. Rick sighed, watching as Makoto did his work. "Besides... if Kai did something to get Popuri upset, why would she still go to this party?"

"Are you still going?" Rick asked. Makoto shrugged, covering up a hole with some dirt.

"If Elli wants, I guess..." He paused, taking notice to Rick's scowl.

"You're better off not going," Rick told him. "Seriously."

Makoto looked up. "I dunno, man," he sighed. "Whatever."

Rick shrugged. "Oh well," he said. "I need to get back to work." With that, he headed back to the fence, waving to Makoto as he left. "See ya!" Makoto gave a wave back, and once Rick turned away, he got back to his work.

After another hour or two, he headed inside to eat a little bit of lunch. After heating up some leftovers from Elli's house, he sat down at the counter and turned on the television, watching a censored version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off for a while as he ate. Ein waited at his feet until Makoto tossed him a small piece of ham. He eagerly gobbled it up and stood there again, wagging his tail.

As he finished his lunch, Makoto looked through the pile of mail he had brought in. Bills, a men's clothing catalogue, and a letter from his father. Makoto dropped his fork, and quickly tore open the envelope.

Dear Makoto,

Hello, son. I am writing again because I realized we really don't get to speak enough on the phone. I would like it if we could send each other a letter each week. At least we would be able to keep in contact. And I really am sorry that we had such a terrible fight over the phone last week. The last thing I want to do is fight with my only son.

I'm pretty sure you need some financial help. I know you are too embarrassed to ask, since you've always wanted to be so independent. Enclosed is a check for five hundred dollars.

Arching an eyebrow, Makoto peeked into the envelope. Sure enough, there was another slip of paper included. He read on.

So, Makoto, I am counting down the days until I visit you. I am looking forward to seeing you again, and to meeting Elli and her family. Please write back.


As he read over the letter again, Makoto got up and brought his plate to the sink. As soon as he washed it, he got out a pad and a pen from one of the kitchen drawers, sat down at the counter again, and hastily began writing.

Dear Dad,

Thanks for the money. I'm sending it back. I make enough money here for myself, and while I have to save up for repairs on my house, it's not something that I can't afford. So I can't take your money. Put it towards your trip here.

I don't really have a lot to say. You want me to write a letter, though, so I'll try to at least tell you something.

I'm glad that you want to meet Elli. She's really great. She was one of the first people I've really been able to talk to in a while. I feel like she's gotten me to become a better person. Not to mention, she is so patient with me. She's more than just the 'girl I'm seeing', Dad. I know I've written a lot of this before, but I want to show you how much Elli means to me.

"Hey, Makoto!" Giving a jump, Makoto dropped his pen and spun around, only to see Elli coming up behind him, holding a picnic basket. Elli let out a laugh, placing the basket on the counter next to him. Then she gave him a kiss on the head, and asked: "Why so startled, sweetie?"

"I wasn't expecting you," Makoto replied sheepishly, hiding the letter with his hands.

"I wasn't expecting to be caught bringing you lunch," Elli told him, sitting close to him.

Makoto smiled. "I ate already, but thanks."

"That's right..." Elli said. "You had leftovers, huh?"

Patting the basket, Makoto replied: "I'll eat this tomorrow for lunch, though."

"Here," Elli said, getting up and taking the basket. "I'll put it in the fridge for you."

"Thanks." Makoto watched her as she headed over to the kitchen, idly writing a little bit about living on a farm. When she sat down next to him again, he flipped over his letter and asked: "So how's your day been?"

She took notice of the letter, along with the one that Makoto's father had sent. "It's been good. How about yours?"

"It's been alright," Makoto told her. "Kai was talking to me about how everyone hates him now, and Rick was telling me about what a jerk he is. But I got a lot of planting done."

"That's great," Elli told him with a smile. "So, everyone hates Kai now?"

"I guess."

"Huh." Elli shrugged. "Say, are we going to that party of his tonight?"

"If you can't think of anything better to do."

"Well..." Elli replied, giving a mischievous smile as she touched his lap. "Let's see about that..." Half-grinning, Makoto leaned in and kissed her. After a couple of moments, they drew back from each other, and Elli glanced at the letter.

"Are you writing to your dad?" she asked, getting Makoto to cover up the letter again. Playfully smirking, Elli continued. "Is it something you don't want me to see?"

"I don't know what to write to my dad," Makoto blurted out. "But he wants me to write him a more often, now." He sighed, cupping his chin in his palm and sliding the letter over to Elli. "I guess he's worried about me, but I don't have a lot to talk about with him."

Elli found herself eyeing Makoto's letter, and quickly found it difficult to speak. "Well..." she started. "I guess..."

Makoto glanced down at the letter, and once he noticed Elli looking at it, he turned away. "I wrote a lot about you last time, too," he explained. "And all he said was: 'I'm glad you're seeing that girl...'."

"Makoto, that's okay..."

"But I told him how I feel about you, Elli," Makoto continued, looking at her again.

Elli placed her hand on his. "And I'm sure he understands that."

"Well, maybe," Makoto said. "But I don't know. He doesn't really acknowledge what I say to him about you, and that bothers me." He sighed again. "But I don't know... I know he cares and everything. He even asked how we were doing."

"See?" Elli asked him, smiling faintly.

Makoto shared the smile. "But I want him to see how I feel about you," he told her. "I mean..." He huffed. "I grew up hardly making friends or anything, so I would think he'd be happy to see that all changing." Sighing, he went on. "I mean, I told him about Cliff and Karen, and you, but I don't think it matters to him if I make friends or not. He doesn't even have any friends."

"Makoto, come on. Don't be like that."

"I just have this feeling that he doesn't even want me to be here," Makoto continued. The stern expression that crossed Elli's face a second before softened. "Despite that ending up here was the best thing that ever happened to me." Placing her hand on his shoulder, Elli listened as he continued. "I know he misses me and I miss him, but had I stayed home, I'd..." He trailed off, sighing.

Elli looked him in the eyes. "I'm sure that when he comes to visit, he'll see that being here has really helped you." She mused over her words. "I mean, he'll see how you were when you were younger, and how you are now... he has to see that living here is doing you a lot of good."

"I really hope he'll see it that way..." Makoto replied, slumping in his seat. "Oh well... he'll be here in the fall." He looked at Elli. "I guess we just have to see how it goes."

She took his hand, and smiled. "Yeah..." With a smile of his own, Makoto got up and led her to the door.

"Come on," he said, putting his arm around her. "I'll walk you back to the clinic."


Later on that evening, Rick sat down for dinner with his family, Karen, and Zack. Uncomfortably tugging at his shirt collar, Zack smiled nervously at Lillia, who smiled back at him. After that, he did his best not to maintain eye contact, instead idly looking around the dining room at the curtains and the hutch.

Rick pretended that he didn't notice Zack stealing furtive glances at Lillia, and motioned to the food. "Well, you guys," he said. "Let's eat."

"This meal looks great, Rick," Zack blurted out.

"Thanks, man," Rick replied, flashing a thumbs-up. He then took notice to Popuri, who sighed quietly. "Say, Popuri," he started. "Do you wanna see if a couple of people wanna hang out at the Inn or something later tonight?"

"They're probably all going to Kai's party," Popuri muttered, propping up her face with her fist. Lillia passed her a plate of vegetables; Popuri took it and only served herself a small helping.

"I doubt it, after what happened last night," Karen chimed in, looking across the table at Popuri. "Now, can we not talk about Kai?"

Popuri half-heartedly nodded, prodding at her food a bit. "Well, I guess we can hang out."

After all of the dishes were piled into the dishwasher, Lillia excused herself and headed upstairs to take her medicine. Popuri and Karen headed into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee, leaving Zack and Rick at the table alone. The guys sort of nodded at each other, not really making eye contact. Finally, Rick spoke up.

"Thanks for coming today," he said.

Zack nodded. "Thanks for inviting me," he replied. "I like spending time with your family."

"And my mom?" Rick asked. Zack gulped.

"All you guys."

"It's okay if you like my mom," Rick continued. Zack tugged at his collar again, averting his eyes. "My dad's not coming back, anyway."

Sighing, Zack said: "Don't say that, Rick. Your dad's out there, looking for that cure for your mom. And one day he'll find it, and he'll come home after that."

"A small part of me still believes that," Rick told him, indicating a small amount with his thumb and forefinger. "But it's been six years." Zack opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, Karen and Popuri came out into the dining room with the coffee pot and some mugs. "Sis, go get Mom," Rick told Popuri, tapping her on the shoulder. "I'll go get your cake out of the fridge." She nodded, and after setting down the mugs, she left to get Lillia. Before heading into the kitchen, Rick took one more look at Zack and shook his head, leaving Zack looking hurt.


Rock pointed his bottle of beer at Kai. "Some party you've got going here, buddy," he said sarcastically, half-heartedly bobbing his head to the Billy Joel song on the radio. Kai slumped down in his beach chair, eyeing the cooler that sat outside the door of the Seaside Lounge. It was still full to the brink with soda, beer, and hard lemonade.

"Yeah. well, people were supposed to show up," he told Rock. "I invited a whole bunch of people." Resting his chin against his palm, he mumbled: "Mackie and Elli might show up, though."

"Who are they?" Rock asked, taking a sip of his beer. "The couple with the kid?"

"That kid is Elli's brother," Kai corrected. "But, yeah, that's them." For a moment, Rock flatly sang along with the Billy Joel song, just before taking another sip of his beer.

"So, why aren't people coming over?" he asked.

"Because," Kai answered, "I effectively pissed off everyone in this town yesterday."

Rock arched his eyebrows curiously, sitting up a bit. "How'd you manage that, buddy?"

"I said something to a girl that I shouldn't have said," Kai told him. "You know, that Popuri girl I was telling you about."

Giving a sardonic laugh, Rock asked: "You said something wrong to a girl?" Kai nodded, sinking lower into his seat. "But you always know what to say to girls! I mean, you're always freakin' getting laid." Kai fixed a glare upon Rock, but he remained oblivious.

"Yeah, well, it's not just about getting laid with this girl," Kai blurted out. He groaned. "I feel like such an idiot..."

Facing Kai, Rock held up his hands. "Whoa! Whoa! Slow down! You don't actually like this girl, do you?"

"Hell no!" Kai replied. "She's like a little kid!"

Rock chuckled. "Hey, I saw her in that bathing suit of hers. She's no little kid."

"I met her when she was twelve!" Kai cried, his face almost turning red. "It's just weird, man."

"Yeah?" Rock grinned. "So, what's she now? Eighteen or nineteen or something? It's cool if she's over eighteen, y'know."

"She's seventeen, you moron!"

"I dunno why you still see her as a little kid," Rock continued seriously. "I mean... did you see her in that bathing suit of hers?"

"Yeah, she's hot," Kai told him. "Whatever. All the chicks here are hot."

"She doesn't seem that bad personality-wise, either," Rock said. "I talked to her for a bit yesterday. She actually seems pretty cool. Kind of flighty, but still pretty cool." Kai half-groaned, half-sighed. "And she seems to like you."

"She did," Kai said. "Until I pissed her off." He groaned. "And I can't help but see her as a little kid. Like I said, I met her when she was twelve." He huffed, taking a sip of beer. "She still acts like a kid, too."

"Well, do you mind if I date her?" Rock asked.

Kai slammed down his beer. "She's off-limits, man!"

"So, that means you like her, huh?" Rock asked with a smirk. "Didn't you throw this party for her birthday or something?"

In exasperation, Kai replied: "Up yours..." He snatched up his beer, and swore under his breath. Rock simply laughed.

"What's the matter, Kai?" Grumbling to himself, Kai slammed down his beer and sank into his seat as Rock snickered at him. Then, once the sounds of a snare drum roll came from the radio, Rock sprang out of his seat and started singing slightly off-key. "That's great! It starts with an earthquake. Birds and snakes and airplanes... Lenny Bruce is not afraid..."

Kai rolled his eyes, muttering along with the song. "I have a hurricane, listen to yourself turn, world serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs..."

"Wrong lyrics, you moron!" Rock cut in.

Taking another sip of his beer, Kai asked: "Who the hell knows the lyrics to this song, anyway?" He shook his head. "You're an awful singer, by the way." Grinning, Rock continued, babbling about half the lyrics until he reached "Vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight..."

Slumping in his chair, Kai found himself staring up at the night sky as Rock carried on. He closed his eyes and saw more people gathered around, drinking and chatting. Then he imagined Popuri surrounded by everyone else, smiling and giggling.

And then somebody smacked him. He jolted awake and frantically looked about. "What the hell?!" From next to him, Rock rolled his eyes.

"Don't freakin' fall asleep on me, man. This party is boring enough as is."

Kai groaned. "Then go home."

"Can't, man. The train's stopped running."

"Then shut up."

Rock rolled his eyes again, and kept singing along with radio in an off-key falsetto: "It's been a long time since I rock'n'rolled..."


Kai made his way into the Inn later that night, only to be greeted with a few scowls from the guys. Managing a half-grin, he strode up to the bar and waved Doug over. "Lemme get a beer, man."

"Sure thing," Doug replied gruffly. He grabbed a glass and turned to the tap, and as he did, Gray came up to the counter with his drink and sat down next to Kai, mumbling out a greeting.

Kai sighed. "Thanks for coming to my party," he said sarcastically.

"Mary didn't want to go," Gray told him, getting a beer from Doug. "l didn't want to just ditch her and go, you know." Kai kind of shrugged and gulped down about half of his beer. "So, have you talked with Popuri?" Gray continued.

"No," Kai told him. "Why should I?"

Gray didn't speak up right away. He took a sip of his beer, and shook his head. "You're an asshole."

Grinning, Kai looked over at Gray and readied himself to give him a playful punch on the shoulder. But when he noticed Gray giving him the cold shoulder, he settled back into his seat with a sigh. "I guess you're right, buddy," he started, getting Gray to glance up. "I should apologize to her."

Arching his eyebrows, Gray watched him get up and pay for his beer. There wasn't a trace of his usual grin on his face as he did so. Then Gray turned and noticed Ann watching as well, who mouthed to him: "He's actually apologizing?"

"Yeah," Gray mouthed back. Incredulously, Ann shook her head and went about her work.

It didn't take long for Kai to find Popuri. Once he turned the corner, he ran into her, along with Karen and Rick. "Look who it is," Rick sneered. "Shouldn't you be at that party of yours, Kai?"

"Yeah, well..." Kai found he had trouble admitting that his party was a bust. "No one..."

"No one showed up?" Karen asked him. Kai nodded.

"Good," Rick commented.

"Shut up, Rick," Kai snapped. "I want to talk to your sister, so leave me alone." He turned his attention to Popuri, who looked a bit baffled. Taking in a deep breath, he approached her. As he came closer, he could see tears welling up in her eyes. But before he could say anything, she slapped him in the face. He winced. "Listen, Popuri," he started, rubbing his sore cheek. "I was a real jerk the other day, and I'm totally sorry."

"You're a real jerk all the time, Kai," Rick grumbled, folding his arms across his chest.

Shaking his head, Kai went on. "You're real special, Popuri." The look on Popuri's face softned. She sniffled, wiping a tear away. "And a guy like me could learn a lot from a girl like you. So..." He paused. "I'd like to make it up to you."

"Kai..." Popuri started.

"I need to do something really nice for you," Kai continued. He caught sight of Rick's disapproving stare, and said to him: "I'm serious, Rick. I have to make this up to your sister."

Popuri's face brightened. "Kai...?" she asked. "Do you mean... Are you..." She stammered a bit, her smile widening. "Are you asking me out?"

Kai was little taken aback at first at how fast Popuri went from angry to happy, but then he replied. "Uh... yeah," he said. He managed a smile, and added: "Totally! We should totally go out tomorrow night."

"Oh, no you don't!" Rick exclaimed, holding up his hands. When he saw Popuri wasn't even paying attention to him, he turned to Karen. But she simply shook her head, looking unsure of what to say or do.

Popuri rolled her eyes at Rick. "That sounds great, Kai!" she exclaimed. "Meet me at my house tomorrow at seven."

"Umm... yeah," Kai said, giving a slight grin. "You got it, babe." With that, he waved goodnight and headed away, leaving Rick, Karen, and Popuri there. Rick and Karen glanced over at Popuri, who looked stunned and ecstatic. She put her hands to her mouth.

"He asked me out!" she exclaimed, her words muffled by her hands. Then, unable to contain herself, she grabbed Karen by the wrists. "It took him five years, but he finally got the courage to do it!"

"It's not a matter of courage, Popuri..." Rick muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Whatever, Rick!" Popuri retorted. She beamed. "I don't care. I finally have the chance to go out with Kai!"

Rick folded his arms over his chest. "Well, we're making it a double date," he told her. "I'm not letting you go out with that jerk by yourself."

Popuri huffed. "You're not coming with me, Rick," she said, putting her hands on her hips. "I don't need you and Kai getting into a fight on our first date."

"First?" Rick asked. "I'm hoping it's the only one..." Before he could say anything else, Popuri stomped hard on his foot. "Awww, shit!!" he cried, hopping up on one foot and wincing. After the pain died down, made his way with Karen and Popuri to the Inn, sulking all the while. Still, his gloomy mood couldn't deter Popuri's cheerfulness.


I know, I know... I've been gone forever and I apologize. Well, thanks everyone for reading... Happy New Year!!