Thursday, May 11, 2017

Disclaimer: Me owning Digimon? Still nope.

All-American Girl

By ebacusta

Chapter 14:

The Aftermath


Hikari was not looking forward to school today. It was Monday, the first Monday of October, and the beginning of her second month at Odaiba High School. She couldn't exactly say she was excited since the first month had been such a disaster, filled with highs and lows. Hikari had definitely hit her lowest point this past weekend. She tried to stay optimistic as she walked to school that morning by reminding herself that that meant the only way she could go now was up, but the dread in the pit of her stomach continued to grow with each step.

She was going to see those boys today. The very ones who had intended to rape her. The fact that her drinking as she had on Friday was completely uncharacteristic for her wouldn't matter. They hadn't known her long enough to know that, and she had no ground on which to complain. The damage had been done. No doubt, her reputation was about to take a huge turn for the worse.

Miyuki would have a field day.

Though on the other hand, perhaps this would be what was necessary to make Miyuki feel safe in her position as the reigning Social Queen Bee. Once she felt secure in that role, she would stop telling her father Hikari was bullying her, which meant Hikari had her holiday trip to California back.

Until her father found out what she had done, that is.

She heaved as sigh. She really just couldn't win. The school gates loomed large at the end of the street, as she continued her slow, steady pace. Once she was on school grounds there would be no escaping the torment that was sure to come. Could she handle it? At least out here she still had the option of running away.

She was just contemplating that option when a hand landed on her shoulder. She glanced to her left to see Takeru smiling back at her. To his left were Akari and Ryuji.

"Good morning," he said. Akari and Ryuji echoed him with "morning!"s of their own.

"Good morning," she replied, her voice less chipper than she hoped. She sounded like something was wrong. That would give Miyuki all the power over her she needed.

As if he'd read her mind, Takeru squeezed her shoulder and leaned in so only she could hear. "You'll do great today. Remember, I got your back." He pulled away and smiled at her, sharing a wink only she could understand.

Though it wasn't much, it made Hikari feel significantly better. Takeru was here. Even if she didn't have any other friends, Takeru was enough. She returned his smile. Well, almost. Miyako would be great too...

"Thanks," she whispered and the four of them headed into the school.


At her first opportunity, Hikari went searching for Miyako. She checked her homeroom, the nurse's room, the bathrooms, and the computer room, but the lilac-haired girl was nowhere to be found. Sullenly, Hikari climbed the stairs back to her classroom, worrying that her friend was avoiding her.

Miyako had probably been worried sick about her this weekend, since she never showed for their date on Friday and she hadn't called. But it wasn't on purpose that she'd left Miyako in the dark! Sometime during her adventure, her phone had disappeared.

Yesterday, Tai had taken her to Shibuya to find it. They had tried to retrace her steps and approached all the police boxes in the area to see if her phone had been turned in, but they came home empty -handed. Hikari had spent most of Saturday trying to think of a way to get in contact with her friend, but she had not memorized her number, she did not know her mail address, and she did not know where the girl lived. Considering she was banned from entering Shibuya without Tai's supervision, tracking her down at work was not an option, so she had grudgingly settled for trying to work things out at school Monday morning. It was a conversation she been looking forward to all weekend. Not.

Still, she wanted to get it over with. But how was she supposed to apologize if Miyako wasn't talking to her? As she crested the top of the stairs, however, she caught a flash of lilac and yelled the girl's name before thinking of the consequences.

Of course, everyone, not just Miyako, turned to look at her, but Hikari didn't even notice. The expression on Miyako's face made Hikari's blood run cold. To say she was upset was an understatement. Even from halfway down the hall, Hikari could tell her eyes were narrowed and her mouth was pushed down in annoyance.

Hikari was saved the embarrassment of being stonewalled by one of her only two friends by the chime announcing the start of second period. Miyako looked up as though searching for the sound. Other students began shuffling into their classrooms, having lost interest in whatever might happen. Hikari took a few steps toward her friend, but Miyako held up a finger and pushed it in front of her forcefully in a universal symbol of warning. Then, she turned and stalked into her class.

"Oh..." Hikari fretted, torn between chasing after her and not being late to class.

"Light a fire under it, Yagami," Miss Kinoki said, coming up the stairs behind her. "If I make it to the classroom before you, it's extra sprints during sports fest practice."

That settled it. Hikari ran for the classroom.


Hikari had planned to continue her search after Math class, but she had barely managed to stand from her seat before she had been called out by the person she had least wanted to see today: the boy from class 4. She had almost laughed that he thought she had any intention of going anywhere with him, but then he'd waved his "bargaining chip." Her phone.

The two of them had tucked themselves into a private corner by the stairs at the end of the hall. Hikari knew that sometimes boys and girls would tuck themselves in this spot to get a bit of PDA-appropriate privacy, and wondered if he had chosen this spot specifically for that reason. She tried to stand slightly out of the nook—partially so people would not misconstrue what was going on here, but mostly because she was scared he might try to force himself on her, though she tried to keep that fear off her face.

"Why do you have my phone?"

"That's an easy one: you gave it to me. Wanna try again?" It took what little brain power wasn't focused on making her look steady to keep her mouth from flapping open in shock. Why would she have given him her phone? "You seem a little confused. Can't remember doing it?"

It was like a punch to the stomach. He was right, of course. She didn't remember. But she also didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was right. The self-assured glitter in his green eye and self-satisfied smirk he wore were bad enough. Her whole body felt warm from the shame burning white hot in the pit of her stomach. "Now that that's settled, can I have it back then? Or are you planning to just steal it now?"

His smile softened as it widened, but it did not warm the cold look—was that pity?—in his eyes. "Of course, you can have it back, Hikari. I wouldn't dream of keeping you and 'Miyako' apart. I think she really wants to talk to you. 73 missed calls and who knows how many messages. I thought about texting her you were okay, but your phone was locked."

"Thanks for your concern," Hikari said, fighting to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Worse than pity. He was patronizing her. Beyond that, he was playing games. Anger flared in her chest, warring with the growing sense of worry. 73 missed calls? Hikari was definitely in for it."Now, may I have my cell phone please?"

A lock of his chestnut brown hair fell into his eyes as he took a step forward, reaching for her. Hikari took a step back without thinking about it, and then immediately wished she hadn't when as she watched that patronizing smirk grace his features again. The fact that he was wearing it made her even angrier. Of course, Class 4 wouldn't know he shared features with a much better human being who lived elsewhere in the world, but it was insulting to see those features abused like this.

"But you see, Hikari, you owe me. Not only did I keep your phone safe all weekend, even though Miyako kept me up the whole time, there's also the small matter of the money we spent on you on Friday."

Hikari couldn't believe what she was hearing. Rather, she couldn't believe that a boy like the jerk standing in front of her actually had the nerve to suggest what she feared he was suggesting. "Funny how none of your money went toward being a decent human being." The boy seemed a bit surprised by this outburst, but he said nothing. "What do you want?"

"I want you to finish what you started."

Hikari's sudden need to vomit was only overcome by the sheer level of rage that washed through her body. She could no longer keep her limbs from trembling. There were too many emotions coursing through her for her to control. How could she have let a disgusting person like this get power over her? It took considerable effort to push out her next sentence without bursting into tears. "And what exactly was that?"

"What do you think it was, Hikari?" The patronizing smirk. Hikari wanted to smack it right off his face, but she couldn't be certain she wouldn't just strangle him to death if she let her hands get anywhere near his person. Besides her mind was racing with possibilities? Were he and his friends the ones taking her to the love hotel? But that didn't make sense. Minors couldn't enter such establishments.

Okay, maybe they'd only been talking, but he wanted to take advantage of an obvious blindspot. For better or worse, he'd confirmed her memory of the night was fuzzy. Perhaps he wanted to trick her into giving up something she'd withheld on Friday. Hikari wanted to believe that was the case, but that seemed a bit too good to be true. (Though it would still make him the scum of the Earth, but such condemnations aside.)

Fine, maybe they had kissed. The thought made Hikari queasy. She didn't want to think she'd let a pig like this touch her, but it was possible. What was she supposed to do about kissing someone she couldn't remember she'd kissed? She stared at his mouth as though studying it would help her recall their Friday night encounter or at least answer her question. Unsurprisingly, the evening remained shrouded in fog. Still, she couldn't freak out in front of him. She didn't want to give him any more power of her than she already had.

But she couldn't stand there in silence like this any longer. Wasn't there some adage about hoping for the best or if you believe in something hard enough, it will come true or something? Besides, she couldn't bring herself to admit any other scenario to this pig than the one she wanted it to be, so… "What do I think it was? I think it was nothing, and you're just a desperate piece of crap trying to take advantage of what you think is an auspicious situation," she spat. Words could not describe the sense of satisfaction she felt at the utter look of shock and surprise on his face. This was much better than if she'd actually punched that patronizing smirk off his face like she'd wanted to earlier. "Quite honestly, it's pathetic. But let me spell it out for you anyway: if you think I'll do anything with you just to get back a phone, you're even dumber than you look."

She turned to go, through with this conversation whether he was or not, still trying to work through the mess of emotions flitting through her mind.

"It would be a shame if your parents were to find out."

That stopped her in her tracks. She knew it was playing right into his hands, but she spun around and met his gaze before she could stop herself. "You wouldn't dare!"

The self-satisfied smirk was back, but it seemed to radiate with less power than before. Still, he did his best to keep up his display of arrogance as he walked toward her. "Do you want to try me?" It seemed to Hikari that the ground careened to the right suddenly before jerking suddenly back to the left with the realization that was dawning on her. Whether he could unlock her phone or not, he had access to a lot more things than she wanted him too. Even if it was just knowing who was calling her, the first two lines of a message, or the subject line of an email. The realization made her feel exposed. It was like having her privacy being violated all over again. She had no retort for him now, and he knew it. She was too numb to move, it didn't take much time for him to reach her side. He looked at her, and Hikari forced herself to look him in the eye.

"It's only a matter of time before one of your parents calls your cell, Hikari. Then they'll only be one swipe away from the truth. Think it over." He patted her on the shoulder as he brushed past her. She flinched at the contact. He used her phone to wave goodbye as he headed toward the classrooms, and she just watched him go.

She hoped he fell down the stairs at least twice today.


Takeru was not one for eavesdropping, but he stood in the walkway pondering doing just that. Theoretically, he was watching some first year boys horseplay in the courtyard below, but he was actually wondering if he should follow Hikari and that boy who had called her out. Her whole demeanor had changed once she'd seen who was standing at the door. Takeru had never seen her interact with the guy before. Not that he knew all the people she talked with, but still Takeru's gut said something was up. Was he somehow related to this weekend?

Below, one of the first years finally managed to succeed in snatching some paper from his friend by accidentally kneeing said friend in the stomach. His friend crumpled. He freaked out as the other guys pointed and laughed at the pair. Of course, Takeru could be overreacting, and it wasn't necessarily any of his business, but he couldn't shake the feeling that this was all indirectly his fault. Still, best to go distract himself before he did something to make things even worse.

He turned to go find his friends and crashed into someone instead. "Oof!" a soft feminine voice said. On reflex, he reached out to steady the girl.

"Sorry!" he said, already ducking his head in apology. "I wasn't looking-"

"Takeru?"

Well, this wasn't exactly the distraction he'd meant, life, but thanks. "Oh, sorry, Miyuki," he said, raising his hands to look at the petite brunette. As usual, her appearance was en pointe. Her long hair had been softly curled at the ends, with her bangs loosely braided and pinned to the side. It was a simple, yet cute style that Takeru had always felt she didn't wear enough. It was secretly one of his faves. He could see her eyes lighting up, and he thought he knew the reason why. He'd been avoiding her since the project had been announced.

"Perfect timing! We have a pro—"

"Hey, you're the perfect person for this," he interrupted, knowing the flattery would smooth any ruffled feathers at him cutting her off. He clasped his hands on her shoulders in what he hoped was a totally friendzone'd manner. "I want to ask you something." It was shameless manipulation. Takeru felt guilty about using it, but he also really didn't want to have this conversation with her just yet. He needed just a few more days to get used to the idea of being alone with her in a room.

As predicted, Miyuki's whole demeanor seemed to perk up at the compliment. The smile she flashed him was practically radiating happiness. "Okay. What is it?"

Takeru had a sinking feeling she was imagining this conversation taking a completely different direction than he had intended. To make sure he didn't feed the fantasy, he looked distractedly down the the hall before focusing on her again. "The guy who called Yagami out. Did you know who he is?"

He felt her tense beneath his hands, and he immediately started praying to every deity he knew about that she wouldn't overreact or take this question the wrong way. "Why? Are you worried she might be trampin' it up with him in some dark corner somewhere?" The radiant smile was gone, replaced with an expression that was half-hurt, half-acidic. The cramp snuck up on him, twisting his gut so painfully for a split second, he couldn't help but wince. He tried to use that to his advantage, though it had been an accident.

"What? No! Where do you even hear these things?"

"Come on, everyone's talking about it, Takeru. I know you've heard about how drunk she was this weekend. I gotta say I'm surprised you're even still interested. She seems more Ryuji's type than yours. You know she made out with like seven guys, right?" This was going horribly off-plan. This was clearly a sensitive subject for Miyuki, who was revving up to jump into her smear campaign in earnest. Though Takeru hadn't been around for Hikari's earlier activities, he was pretty certain she wouldn't have had enough time to make out with seven guys—up three dudes from the gossip he'd heard before second period. Still, he had to get Miyuki focused on something else. "Used merchandise is the worst, you know? You never know where it's be—"

"Miyuki, as charming as this conversation is, I really don't care about that," though in reality he did. How did the rumor mill blow its stories out of proportion so quickly? He felt bad that Hikari was going to have to deal with this, and he wanted to help, but first he had to figure out who that guy was. "What I want to know about is the guy. What's his name? As the queen, I know you know anyone and everyone in our year."

She bristled a bit at the second compliment he'd slipped in. She considered this a moment before she crossed her arms and fixed her brown eyes on his blue ones. He tried to ignore how perfectly her long lashes framed her eyes, subtly enhanced with light makeup. "Why do you care about him if it's not for Hikari's sake?" She pushed her lips together in a subtle pout. She probably didn't realize she was doing it. She liked to think herself sophisticated and adult, but this was one trait, perhaps a holdover from childhood, that often snuck out when she was truly perplexed by something. He loved it. It felt like he was getting a peek behind the curtain of her public persona. It always made him want to pinch her cheeks or kiss her nose. Whether she realized it or not, she was distracting him. He had to make her stop.

Stay focused, Takaishi. Stay focused. "Because he looks really familiar, and I want to figure out if I know him." He stared at her eyes, refusing to let himself look anywhere else. "Please, Miyuki, do you know him?"

She stared at him a moment longer, and then caved. "I didn't really get a good look at him, but maybe it was Sato from class 4?"

"Sato?"

"Kousuke? Kensuke?"

"Is that it?" He hadn't meant to sound ungrateful, only to double check that that was all the information she had. But she took the question as a slight anyway. Probably only because she liked him did he avoid getting eviscerated.

"I know everyone who's anyone, Takeru, but I can't possibly memorize the names of everyone in our grade, okay? I have better things to do with my time. But I can find out more information about him if you want. What will you give me if I do? Coffee?" Her cheshire cat smile was starting to surface on her lips. She was trying to dragnet him, but he pulled out his greatest weapon-obliviousness-and fired off a response.

"Sato, Sato," he repeated, staring blithely at the courtyard where the first year boys were now roughhousing their way back into the school. "No, no, this is great. This is perfect! I can figure it out from this. Thanks, Miyuki!" He patted her on the shoulder and smiled, before turning to make a quick exit.

"Takeru, wait!" He flinched, having only made it several feet from her. "Our project?"

Curses.


Despite her best efforts, she wasn't able to find Miyako again until lunch, when she caught the girl walking back to her classroom after buying bread. It had taken all her strength to leave the classroom again, afraid she'd see that patronizing smirk again, but she had to apologize to Miyako. She needed the girl in her life.

"Miyako!" The girl in question looked up from where she'd been picking something off her shirt. Her expression soured instantly. She took one glance at the brunette, pursed her lips, and with a severe shake of her head turned and headed for the nearest exit. She moved with such speed that her hair flapped in the wind behind her.

"Miyako, wait! I just want to talk to you. Please don't cause a scene," Hikari said, hurrying after her, hand outstretched as if to emphasize her words.

"I'm trying not to. That's why I'm leaving," Miyako said through gritted teeth, walking faster. Hikari gulped. She was definitely in for it. Though she knew she deserved it, it didn't make her look forward to this conversation any more.

Hikari followed Miyako down the steps and out into a secluded part of the courtyard, where she suddenly rounded on the brunette with such force that Hikari found herself beating a hasty retreat.

"Yagami. Hikari. Do you know how worried I was about you?" Miyako spat forcefully through her teeth, her finger jabbing at Hikari violently. Hikari had a general idea, but no chance to express that thought. "What the hell?! Do you know I spent three hours looking for you with Ken Ichijouji? Ken Ichijouji!" She emphasized, as though that, and not the three hours, was the real imposition. "He had plans, Hikari. Plans! And I ruined them by mentioning you were over an hour late for our date, and he, being a gentleman, just couldn't let me look for you alone! Do you know how embarrassing that was? At some point, I got so scared for your life, I started blubbering like an idiot, only to have you come waltzing into school like we never made plans to begin with!"

Hikari tried to find a place where she could interject to explain: she hadn't meant to stand Miyako up, she had made some very poor decisions that had almost had a really bad outcome, and she was so sorry to have ruined both Miyako and Ken's nights! But the words were flying out Miyako's mouth like machine gun rounds, riddling Hikari's heart with wounds oozing guilt, regret, and despair. Desperate to stop the assault, Hikari braved Miyako's jabbing finger and stepped forward, grabbing her friend's shoulders with both hands and shaking her as she tried to get a word in edgewise.

"Miyako. Miyako! Miyako! Listen to me." The bespectacled girl stopped, mid-jab. "I'm sorry—"

"Oh, you're sorry? So that makes it all better then. The countless hours I spent combing the streets of Shibuya looking for you, the sleepless nights I suffered this weekend imagining your dead body dumped in a dumpster somewhere, the time I wasted calling you over and over and over—"

"No! No, sorry doesn't make up for any of it. But I am sorry. I want you to know that. I am so sorry. I made a horrible mistake this weekend." Involuntarily, Hikari felt her throat closing up as tears threatened to spring to her eyes. Her voice sounded rough, but she swallowed as she prepared to force herself to continue. Miyako, sensing the sudden change in her friend's countenance, stopped, concern etching itself across her brows, likely despite herself. Hikari didn't even feel that she deserved to be worried over by Miyako anymore, but the fact that she still did made Hikari want to hug her as tightly as she could.

"A mistake? What happened?"

She really didn't want to tell this story. Miyako would think less of her, she would think less of herself reliving it once again, but she couldn't hide the truth from the girl who had been so worried for her safety this past weekend. So she took a deep breath and told her everything.

"Hikari," Miyako breathed at the end of the story. Her brown eyes wide with shock behind her glasses. Hikari wasn't quite finished though.

"I wanted to get in contact with you, to let you know I was all right and to apologize for standing you up, but I couldn't. And gosh, Miyako, I'm so ashamed of what I did this weekend. And somehow everyone knows!" Her face contorted as she tried to start crying again, but she paused a moment to forcibly regain her composure. She was going to stay true to the promise she'd made Saturday morning that she wouldn't cry about this anymore. Though that boy from class 4 made it difficult.

"What?" Miyako asked, her arms hesitantly around Hikari's shoulder as she tried to process the story Hikari had just told her.

"Somehow, my whole class knows."

"Everything?"

"I don't know! But they know something. It's all they talked about this morning before homeroom. But even worse than that, my brother is so mad I feel like he'll never trust me again. I really messed up this weekend, and you're probably reconsidering your decision to be my friend, but I'm so sorry." Miyako didn't say anything, still struggling to make sense of everything Hikari had told her. But that was okay. Hikari had moved on. "Anyway, until I figure out what to do about my phone, will you write your number down for me?"

"You can't just buy a new phone?"

Oh right. Hikari hadn't shared the latest development in this drama yet. Her voice trembled as she spoke, "Actually, I found my phone. Today."

"What?! That's good! So you have it—"

"Actually, no. Those boys from class 4 have it." She paused a moment, trying to still her quivering lip. "Evidently, I gave it to one of them to hold, and now they won't give it back unless I…" A sob forced it's way out, but she brutally cut it off midway was hard to say. The saline from her tears burned her eyes, but she blinked and swallowed, then forced the words out. "Unless I 'finish what I started' Friday night. I don't know what that is, but they threatened to tell my parents if I don't agree."

"What?" Miyako's disbelief was written all over her face.

Boy could Hikari relate. Despite her effort, several tears ran down her cheeks, and she hurriedly reached up to wipe them away. "Oh god, I'm an idiot. If my dad finds out about this, he'll lock me in my room for the rest of my life. Unless I tell him what happened or find a way to get my phone back, I'm going to have to go without one."

"Dude, that sucks!" Miyako said sympathetically, though she was staring distantly at the school. Was she listening, or was her mind still stuck on Hikari's earlier story? Should Hikari apologize again? She opened her mouth to do just so when Miyako spoke again, her voice quite sharp compared to before. "More importantly, though, who do they think they are? I'm gonna go kick their butts right now!" She straightened and started marching for the door, her anger written clearly across her face.

The change had been so sudden, it caught the brunette by surprise, giving the bespectacled girl a fair headstart. "Ah, Miyako, no wait!" Hikari cried out, scrambling after her. Miyako was within an arm's length of the door when Hikari managed to grab her and pull her back. "Please don't do that. You'll only make things worse. It's fine."

"No, it's not fine. Those douchenuggets need to be taught a lesson—"

"Miyako, please. For me, don't do anything," Hikari begged.

"But they—"

"Please. I'll figure it out."

The taller girl pursed her lips a moment and stared at Hikari unhappily, but finally slumped her shoulders and sighed, "Fine. But if they walk in front of me, you can't blame me if they trip."

Hikari laughed, the act of which lightened the load pressing down on her chest ever so slightly. "Thank you, Miyako. And thank you for caring. Your support means a lot."

"Of course," Miyako replied, hugging Hikari tightly. "I'm just glad you're okay. I was so worried."

"I know," the brunette said, returning the embrace just as tightly. "And I'm so sorry. You're the best thing that's happened to me since I've come to Japan, and I want you to know you're important to me."

"Stoooppp, you're making me blush!" Miyako cooed. From the tone of her voice, Hikari could tell that Miyako would be completely fine if Hikari did not stop.

Hikari laughed again and then indulged her, extolling her with all the praises she could think of.


As Takeru dragged himself from the theater club's club room, he added another bullet to his long list of reasons why he should have just let Miss Kinoki call his mother. The cast meeting had taken forever, and he'd had to endure strange stares and glares from other members who felt a newcomer, especially one not even interested in the arts, had no business in the lead role. Takeru wanted to say he agreed with them, but knew it would just come off as patronizing.

At least it was over now. He headed for the front gate of the school, but was surprised to see Daisuke sitting on the steps waiting for him.

"Finally done?" The soccer player asked. Though he was wearing his school uniform, he hadn't bothered to button his shirt up all the way or to properly fasten his tie all the way, which lay loosely tied against his chest. The effect, though unintended, was careless protagonist of an adventure story, Takeru thought. His hair, messy as always, only added to the image. Any moment, a life-changing alien or super-powered digital species or love-at-first-sight type of lady would come crashing down from the sky. Daisuke glanced at his cellphone. "That took forever. You sure you want to continue your chosen career as a ballerina?"

"Don't start," Takeru sighed, tiredly. "Thanks for waiting."

Daisuke grinned and raised two fingers in salute. "That's what friends are for!"

"Did you want something? You don't usually hang around school longer than you have to. Not that I'm complaining!" The two of them walked for the front gate, an easy air between them.

"True, but I caught the end of soccer practice after sports fest practice and thought I'd hang around to hear how your thing went. Since you were so excited about it before."

He'd stayed to cheer him up, Takeru realized, though obviously Daisuke wasn't going to admit that. Daisuke could be kind of dense, but it was times like this that forced Takeru to acknowledge that he really did care about his friends, even if he was awkward about showing it sometimes.

"Thanks." They had just reached the gates of the school when Takeru's stomach let out a long, low growl. "Wanna grab a snack?"

"Yeah!" Daisuke was always down for snacks. Takeru liked that he could count on him for that. "So?"

"It was awful. So boring. And all the serious actors hate me, because I took the main part."

"Hmm. So even a Prince has his problems?" Daisuke grinned at him mischievously.

Takeru shot him a look. "Can you not?"

"Oh no! Is the beast within going to come out?!"

Takeru stopped in his tracks and fixed the brunet with an unamused glare. "I wish you'd just gone home." But Daisuke just laughed in response.

"I still can't believe you're doing it, dude."

"Believe me, I wish I wasn't. There are so many things I'd like to change about this past month."

"Welp, you can't, so no use dwelling on that," Daisuke replied airily, and Takeru was struck by the thought that Daisuke was right. Of course, the thought was common sense after it had been said, but there was no point in Takeru wasting any more time whining about not wanting to do the musical. He was stuck in it now. Much the way the Beast was stuck being a beast. Huh. Was this what they called knowing your character?

"Guess so," Takeru finally agreed and smiled. "So a snack. What do you want—"

"Hey!"

The two teenage boys turned to see a small group of college-aged kids glaring back at them. Daisuke regarded the group blankly, recognizing none of them. Takeru did the same, though he recognized two of them: the orange-haired kid he had decked on Friday night and Chestnut, the other scumbag who'd been touching Hikari.

Since neither boy made a movement to respond to their greeting beyond just looking at them, Orange-Hair decided to make their purpose in flagging the two boys down clearer. "Remember me?"

The group approached and Takeru tensed. Crap. Had they come to Odaiba to track him down? How did they even know he lived here? Still, he couldn't back down. "No?" Daisuke said at the same time Takeru replied, "Hmm, I remember meeting dirtbag, yeah." Daisuke turned to Takeru in shock. "What? You know them?" he hissed. Takeru barely shrugged, but Daisuke got the message. "Why do they hate you?"

"Long story," Takeru replied out of the corner of his mouth. "But we may be in for it." The group stopped in front of them as Orange Hair drew close, attempting to intimidate the two with a stare-down. Daisuke, though confused, was at least quite skilled in being impertinent. He stared back at the boy without wavering as Takeru did. It helped that Daisuke didn't like the color of the boy's hair. The stink eye came much more naturally that way.

Orange Hair didn't seem to think Takeru's retort was as cute as Takeru thought it was. "It's good you remember me, because it saves me the trouble of having to remind you. I got to thinking this weekend. We didn't really get a chance to talk on Friday."

"There's really not much to talk about," Takeru replied, suspicious. Despite expecting Orange Hair to make a move soon, Takeru did not see the punch coming. The force of its impact on his cheek spun him halfway around as he struggled to keep from falling.

"Hey!" Daisuke cried, wanting to check on his friend, but also acutely aware of what a bad idea it was to turn his back on a group of five boys out clearly out for blood. In addition to the orange-haired dude, there was also a boy with chestnut brown hair, a boy with shoulder-length black hair, another guy with two-tone blonde and black hair, and a final guy with red streaks.

"Yeah, you see, there is," Orange-Hair finished, cracking his knuckles and rearing back to deliver another blow.

"TK!" Daisuke exclaimed, starting forward on impulse to protect his friend. But Takeru didn't need him. Maybe it was thanks to his basketball training or perhaps just sheer force of will, but Takeru managed to pull himself together in time to spin around and swing, managing to clip Orange Hair in the jaw as the older man attempted to stop his forward momentum.

Not a moment too soon, because Red Streak, like a good wingman, had cut Daisuke off at the pass. Unlike Orange Hair behind him, who was a bit scrawny, Red Streak was well built—broad shoulders, muscled arms, a solid chest, and sturdy-looking legs. Daisuke himself was not scrawny looking by any stretch of the imagination. Club soccer had definitely helped him fill out and leave the era of awkward, gangly limbs behind him in middle school. However, Daisuke could also not pretend to be as brawny as the man in front of him. If he were being honest, unless the man were a giant oaf, Daisuke likely didn't stand much of a chance in a straight fist fight. Still, he was not the sort to leave a friend to fight a battle on his own.

"I don't know who you are, and I don't really care, but you're in my way. If you move, I'll leave you out of it when I beat the snot out of your friend over there." What was it the Americans said? Go hard or go home? Well, Daisuke certainly wasn't planning on going home. He cracked his knuckles and ducked as Red Streak took a swing. The brunet took advantage of this opening to land a solid uppercut on the dude. He turned just in time to avoid Two-Tone's fist, but could not avoid Red Streak's reciprocal punch, which hit him right in the side. He grunted as he collapsed to the left. But Red Streak and Two-Tone were closing in. No time to spare!

On the other side of Red Streak, Takeru was struggling to land anything through the wall of seemingly endless limbs attacking him. It was actually pure accident when Takeru's fist connected with someone's nose, but a blow to the head had knocked him off balance and sent his arm flailing. Still, he thought it counted. He ignored the pain in his leg as someone kicked him in the knee, and threw his fist towards the nearest stomach he could find. To his right, Black Hair doubled over with a groan. Takeru felt like celebrating, but the feeling was cut short when someone—Chestnut, he surmised—grabbed him from behind, managing to immobilize one hand long enough for Orange Hair to land a hook into his gut. In an effort to distract himself from the pain, as he tried to kick Orange Hair in the crotch (desperate times called for desperate measures, he assured himself), he mused that it was good he hadn't eaten his snack yet. Otherwise, he might have just barfed it up on Orange Hair's shoes.

With his free hand, Takeru reached back to claw at Chestnut's face. Across from him, Black Hair was recovering, and Takeru knew he could not ward off both Orange Hair and his black-haired companion with just one leg.


It wasn't often that Yamato had the chance to be alone with Sora. Albeit, they were waiting on Taichi, but to-may-to, to-mah-to. She was always a calming presence, but Yamato found her especially calming when she wasn't in the presence of her boyfriend. Not that Taichi brought out the worst in her! In fact, Yamato was certain it was the opposite, since Sora seemed to light up around Taichi in a way she didn't with others. The former musician supposed he could only describe the feeling as a pressure to be on when the two of them were together. To show that he was okay with the way things were, not the way they might have been. Which he was, no question. It was the showing part that at times exhausted him.

He studied the redhead next time him out of the corner of his eye. Though she was dressed in a simple shift and sweater, she wore the outfit with all the attitude of a budding fashion designer. She had accessorized with a couple rings and a long necklace, the charm hitting just below her breast, though he couldn't see it now because her arms were crossed over her chest as she glanced up and down the street, looking for her boyfriend's figure. Her fingers, nails painted pink, drummed against her arm in delicate impatience. To think that Sora, tomboy Sora, would grow up to be so feminine. Ten years ago, Yamato never would have believed it. She glanced at her watch again and sighed, and Yamato turned to looked down the street..

"How long does it take to pick up drinks? Sheesh," she grumbled to herself, though it was loud enough for Yamato to hear. He chuckled, his deep voice making the sound even richer.

"Come on, Sora. It's Tai, we're talking about. If lateness were a disease, he'd be terminal," Yamato replied, looking at her. He stuffed his hands in his pockets as he leaned back casually against the railing separating the sidewalk from the street.

"Yeah, but the conbini isn't that far away," she replied. She glanced at him, and Yamato held her gaze for a moment and then looked away, turning his attention to a small pebble on the ground. Idly, he kicked it between his feet.

"He probably got distracted by something shiny."

"Whoa now, put the claws back in, tiger!" Sora said, chuckling in surprise, but Yamato just laughed again.

"You can't say he doesn't get distracted easily."

"True, but he makes sure of the important things. Maybe something happened with his sister? She's still saying at your place, right?"

"Mmm."

"Poor girl. I wonder how long she'll stay. Though, if I were her, can't say I'd want to go home after this weekend either. I can only imagine what mom would have done if I'd have done something like that in high school. The weeping would have never ended!"

Yamato quirked an eyebrow in surprise. "Tai told you what happened?"

"Yeah, this morning. When he canceled our date this weekend, he said he didn't have much time to talk, but he promised to fill me in today. Why do you sound so surprised?"

"Er, well, uh...he's just been so tight lipped about it. It makes sense that he'd tell you though, so." Yamato neglected to mention that Taichi had yet to even tell him a CliffNotes version of what had brought his younger sister to their apartment a week and a half ago to begin with, nevermind what had caused this uncharacteristic outburst on Friday night. But, Yamato was only the best friend after all. He couldn't compete with the girlfriend.

Sora checked her watch again and stamped her foot lightly as she turned all the way around to survey her surroundings for her boyfriend, in case he'd been hiding all this time to play a joke on them. "He's about to be deadlipped when I get my hands on him."

In his pocket, Yamato's phone burst to life. "I'm telling you it was something shiny," he said in a singsong voice as he fished his phone out of his pocket. Tai's name was on the caller ID. "This is him now, probably going to apologize for getting distracted by the one yen coin he saw on the street. Hello?"

"Yamato!" Tai's voice sounded ragged, as though he'd been running, but that tiredness could not hide the panic in his voice.

"Tai, where are you? Sora's about to flip—"

"Yamato, this is bad. Your brother—!"

Yamato was on his feet in an instant. Interesting how a single phrase could get the heart racing so quickly. "He's stuck in a fight. Really outnumbered. Near the food promenade by the park. Get here fast!" The last thing Yamato heard before the call ended was Taichi's voicing yelling to get someone's attention. Then the line cut out. Yamato cursed and spun in a circle as he tried to get his bearings.

"Matt?" Sora asked, her hand landing lightly on his forearm. He jumped. He'd completely forgotten she was here. "What happened?" she asked, worry evident in her voice.

"TK's stuck in a fight." The park. Which direction was the park? Yamato cursed and spun again, before he caught sight of the landmark he was looking for. Without waiting, he jumped the fence and sprinted across the street. Outnumbered by how many?

"What?!" Sora shouted after him. "Yamato!" He did not look back, but he knew she was following him and he knew he wouldn't be able to lose her. Had he not been so worried, the thought would have brought a smile to his lips.


Taichi didn't think he'd be hardpressed to find someone who agreed that the element of surprise was one's strongest weapon in battle. After all, you didn't need to worry about strategy, strength, or speed when you had the element of surprise on your side.

However, once that element was lost, things tended to get a bit dicier. And then, sometimes, neither strategy, nor strength, nor speed could save you from a sticky situation. Taichi was forced to admit this as a fist sent stars exploding across his vision, causing him to involuntarily release his fistful of hair and thus the person to whom it was attached.

3-on-5 was still a recipe for getting your ass kicked, but at least it was better than 2-on-5. He could not, in good conscience, have walked by after seeing Takeru getting triple-teamed by a bunch of gaudy-looking punks. Still, though Taichi had jumped in to save the blonde, in the end, he'd only managed to draw one person from Takeru and his friend, though he'd hope to draw both from Takeru.

Though his head was still spinning, Taichi could tell that Chestnut, whose hair he'd formerly had firmly in hand, was pulling back for revenge. Using a move he often used in soccer to rid himself of particularly pesky defenders, he feigned forward before bobbing back just as the brunet swung. He missed by a mile and the momentum threw him off balance long enough for Taichi to kick him right in the gut. He gasped in pain as he doubled over, but Taichi's victory was short-lived.

Behind him, Two-Tone took out his supporting leg with a well-placed kick to the knee. Pain burst through his body like a shockwave as all his weight came down hard on his knee. Before he had a chance to recover, Two-Tone swiped him right in the temple. Taichi did not want to be the only one on the ground, so it was only sheer force of will that enabled him to catch himself on his elbow. Still, Two-Tone was pulling back for a kick and Black Hair was recovering, and Taichi was suddenly feeling a lot older. In his youth, he could have sprung back from this in no time! Now…

"Takeru! Move! Get out of the way! Excuse me! Takeerruuu!"

But on second thought, Taichi was only 21. With renewed energy, Taichi pushed off his elbow and used the momentum from his launch to punch Two-Tone right in the stomach. Perhaps being on your knees had some advantages at times.

"Yamato, wait!" a female voice called.

"Tai!" The boy ducked, just as his roommate came flying over him and punched Two-Tone hard across the face. Two-Tone went flying to the side, and Yamato landed and without wasting a second, grabbed Black Hair, spun him around and socked him in one fluid motion.

"Matt!" his younger brother, cheered. He was tired. He'd been flailing a lot with limited success, and his face really hurt. Still, with his older brother there, Takeru felt his spirits returning. Despite the blood running from his nose, there was hope now! Reaching down into the dregs of his inner strength, Takeru turned and swung. Orange Hair had been swinging at the same time, but Takeru could not dodge the blow without stopping his own, so he tilted his head as far to the side as he could, took Orangie's blow in the ear and smashed his fist into his opponent's face.

Please break his nose. Please break his nose, Takeru prayed, but no such luck. While he did manage to bust the dude's lip, his nose was, unfortunately, still normal looking. But whatever. Takeru had many blows left to repay. He swung again and again, landing hits both times. Exhaustion had made his swings wild, however, and as he readjusted to swing again, Orangie managed to knee Takeru in the stomach, taking the air out of him.

"Oof!" he gasped. But before he had a chance to follow up, Taichi rammed the boy off his feet with his shoulder. Orangie staggered and fell, but Taichi reached down after him and grabbed him by the collar, drawing back to punch. More than anything, Takeru wanted to take a breather. To sit down and put his head between his knees and ride out this rising feeling of nausea. But Black Hair came flying out of nowhere, freeing his friend with a kick to Taichi's chest.

"Tai!" Yamato cried, jumping between Black Hair and his friend before any more damage could be done. So Takeru turned to help Daisuke, who was keeping Two-Tone and Red Streak at bay with a wall of flying (flailing?) fists and a fierce battle cry. Sweat was trickling down his face, but save for his heaving chest, he showed no indication of tiredness. Well, that was Daisuke for you. Red Streak looked like he was just about ready to brave the Flailing Fists of Doom, so Takeru took him out first, bringing him down with a tackle more appropriate for American football than a fist fight.

"Thanks, dude!" Daisuke called as he took Two-Tone out with a lighting fast soccer kick to the shin and then tripped him as he knelt to clutch his shin. He turned to take on Chestnut, but instead ended up spinning right into the boy's fist. Daisuke staggered sideways, but instead of crumpling as Chestnut might have hoped, he turned towards him more enraged than before.

"I'm getting really sick of you," he growled. Fear flashed in Chestnut's eyes. The older boy lashed out, but Daisuke, quick as lightning, ducked under the blow, sidestepped around him, and kicked him in the side. As expected, Chestnut started to double over, but what Daisuke did not expect was for the brunet to grab his leg as he did so. Perhaps with the intention of holding him until Two-Two could recover? Yeah, f that, Daisuke thought. It just so happened that Chestnut's head was just about the same height as the soccer ball was at Daisuke's last game when he'd scored the winning goal with a sweet jump shot. Time for a repeat performance?

It was harder the second time around since he only had one leg to jump from, and it was his weaker leg at that. Plus, he was already slightly off balance since his right leg was being pulled by Chestnut. Still, Daisuke was never one to back down from a challenge. He bent his left leg and sprung up, swinging his leg with as much force as he could muster. His leg collided with the back of Chestnut's head, who instantly let go of Daisuke's leg as his arms shot out to try and catch himself as he fell forward. Pulling his right leg in, Daisuke let his left leg swing down, hoping to do a complete 360 and land perfectly on his feet as he had last week. But the additional force from his now free right leg caused him to overshoot the landing.

Crap. This was going to hurt. It's just a dirt soccer pitch, it's a dirt soccer pitch, he chanted to himself. Though, he wasn't sure why. Landing on one of those dirt soccer pitches, hard after being baked in the sun, probably hurt just as much as landing on concrete. He should have thought of grass. He landed on his hand first, which he'd thrown out to catch himself. It twinged slightly as his weight rolled off it, but it slowed his fall enough that he was able to roll the rest off without much incident.

"Dai, are you okay?" Takeru asked, looking over from where he was trying to pin Red Streak on the ground. Daisuke didn't have a chance to answer before a whistle burst loud and clear through the air. The boys paused and looked around. The police. Noticing the crowd for the first time, Takeru realized someone must have called them. Well it took them bloody long enough! he thought irritatedly. How long had this scuffle been going on? As the gravity of the situation dawned on all of them, it seemed all nine boys let out a collective curse, before they scrambled to flee.

Takeru leapt off Red Streak and hurried to Daisuke, who was struggling to his feet, though all he wanted to do was lay there. Takeru helped him up and the two shoved through the crowd and took off sprinting into the park. Behind them, he noticed Black Hair and Chestnut doing the same thing, but they veered left as Takeru and Daisuke went right.

Yamato and Taichi had reacted similarly. Taichi released Orange Hair from the headlock he'd managed to get the boy in the moment he heard the whistle, and spun around, scanning the crowd. Frantically, Sora waved at him and chucked her head toward the service alley that serviced the nearby cafes.

"Matt!" Taichi exclaimed. Without hesitation, Yamato followed Taichi's voice. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Red Streak, Orange Hair, and Two-Tone scrambling to flee. Together, he, Sora, and Taichi raced down the service alley, ducking down an offshoot of the alley just as the police arrived at the scene.


The five of them reconvened in a small playground not far from Yamato and Taichi's apartment about twenty minutes later. Takeru held a fist full of bloody napkins to his face and groaned complaints as he limped through the playground's fence, Daisuke cradling his arm beside him. Yamato and Taichi were already there, sitting on a bench as Sora fussed over them.

"There were better ways you two could have dealt with that," she was saying. "Really, you two are such boys!"

It appeared the three of them had already gathered first aid supplies, because Yamato already sported a bandage on his temple and an ice pack on his cheek. Beside him, Sora was dabbing at Taichi's jaw gingerly with a disinfectant wipe. This did not stop him from quipping, "Wha za prob'em wif dat again?" His words slurred as he tried to keep his jaw still as Sora applied a bandage to a cut. She didn't reply until she had pressed it securely in place.

"The problem is that you, in particular, act before you think, Taichi!"she exclaimed, straightening as she pushed an ice pack roughly against what Takeru knew was going to be one awful looking black eye in the morning. Taichi winced and complained, "Ow!" but accepted the ice pack with a grumble of appreciation.

"Seriously, you didn't think about my feelings at all! You should have called the police, not Yamato. You know he's just as stupid as you are about these things." She turned at the sound of Takeru and Daisuke approaching and motioned for them to sit down.

"Hey! Hey, don't lump me in with him! We are totally dif—" Yamato started to protest.

"You two are cut from the same cloth, and you know it. I don't know if I've ever met two people more suited to be best friends. Even if one of them gets distracted by shiny objects too often." There was still tension in her voice, but this was said with a half-laugh, as though despite herself, she found the thought of it charming. "Takeru, tilt your head back more," Sora chided. "And pinch the bridge of your nose."

"Wait, what? Shiny objects? Is that a dig at me, Sora?" Taichi exclaimed, puffing up his chest indignantly.

Takeru did as he was instructed and immediately flinched. "It hurts."

"I don't know, Tai. Why don't you ask your roommate? He's the one who said it!" she said, as she dug some disinfectant wipes out of the bag on ground beside her. She smiled as she turned her attention back to Takeru, "I know, we'll get an ice pack on it soon, but first we have to stop the bleeding. In the meantime, you look quite beat up." As the intended object of the attack, Takeru had sustained more bruises and cuts than the others, but Sora patiently cleaned him up, humming over the background soundtrack of Yamato and Taichi fighting.

"You know it's true, Tai! You lose focus like that!" Punctuated by the sound of fingers snapping.

"What?! I do not!"

"You were supposed to be getting drinks from the conbini. That's like a five minute run at most!"

"I never said I was going to the conbini. I wanted to surprise Sora with a drink from her favorite smoothie bar!"

"We could have met there in that case! You could have told us!"

"Well, excuse me for trying to be a cute boyfriend, okay? And then a good roommate when I saw your brother getting beat up for reasons unknown."

Yamato felt a twinge of guilt. He'd been making fun of Taichi and his penchant for getting distracted, but it had turned out that the "shiny object" that had captured his attention this time was actually Takeru. And Taichi, without any knowledge of the situation, had jumped in immediately to help his baby brother out. Sora was right. Taichi always made sure of the more important things.

Taichi was still going, though Yamato hadn't really been listening. Complaining again about Yamato's use of the phrase "shiny things." He was not a child or a cat who couldn't help but chase after silly things! He was an adult! And he demanded respec— "Sorry," Yamato interrupted, hanging his head, ice pack still pressed firmly to his cheek.. "You're right. You don't get distracted by shiny things."

Taichi stopped, mid-sentence, suddenly out of steam. He paused a moment, letting his ruffled feathers settle, and then slumped back into his misery. "Thanks."

Sora chuckled to herself, as she examined Daisuke's arm. "It'll be fine," Daisuke was telling her, trying to pull his arm back. "Just a little twist. Happens in soccer practice all the time. I'll get—"

"Will you relax? I know how to deal with these, Daisuke. I used to play soccer too, you know?" she grinned at him, as Daisuke flushed a bit and mumbled an apology. She got to work wrapping it with gauze, and he watched her. The boys sat in silence a moment, all trying to pretend like their bruises weren't throbbing as much as they were.

"So it's great that you guys came to save us, er…"

"Oh, sorry," Takeru mumbled from where he was leaning back on the bench, an ice pack positioned over his nose, but resting over most of his face. "Daisuke, this is my older brother, Yamato, his roommate, Taichi, and Taichi's girlfriend, Sora."

"I remember Sora," Daisuke said, nodding at her. "She was with Hikari that one time. Nice to meet you two, though."

"You too," Yamato and Taichi grunted back in greeting, each raising a hand in acknowledgment.

"So, yeah, it was cool you guys came and helped, but why did we need help in the first place, Takeru?"

Oh right. Let's see. How could he say this without revealing any extra information other people weren't supposed to know? "Well, er...Friday night, Yamato and I got into it with some douchebags, and that was them getting revenge."

Takeru felt the bench shake as Taichi straightened suddenly. "What?" His voice was low, more animal than human. "That was them? Those were the boys who tried to take advantage of Hikari?" There was a second of calm before the bench shook again and Takeru heard Yamoto yell out.

"Tai, no!" The younger boy grabbed his ice pack and raised his head. Yamato had his arms hook underneath Taichi's armpits and was trying to pull him back to the bench. One glance at Daisuke told Takeru that the younger soccer player was completely lost. Hikari? He only knew one Hikari, and there was a pretty strange rumor floating around about her right now.

"Let. Me. Go," Taichi huffed, trying with some success to hulk himself out of Yamato's grip. "They tried to rape my sister. I'll kill them!" His rage, clearly evident on his face, was fueling him. Yamato was going to lose his hold in a moment. Sora stopped in the middle of putting a bandage on Daisuke's chin.

"Tai, no!" she said, hoping her voice would calm him.

"You….can't!" Yamato grunted trying to get a sturdier grip without losing the tenuous one he already head.

On the bench, Takeru was crying internally. He just wanted to rest. Didn't Tai understand how much his face hurt? Couldn't this wait for another day? Another moment, the older boy'd be free, and Takeru was definitely not in the mood to chase after him in an effort to prevent him from committing murder. So, he (sadly) put down his ice pack and tackled Taichi from the front, grabbing hold of the older boy's torso and turning himself into as much dead weight as he could. Still, he could feel Taichi pushing forward.

"Are you serious right now?" Takeru gasped in surprise, and started trying to hook a leg around one of Taichi's. "What are you? The Hulk?"

"Get off, Takeru! Get off! I'm gonna—agh, what the hell?!" Successful in tripping him, Taichi lost his balance and sent all three boys crashing to the ground. Takeru landed face first against Taichi's flat stomach and groaned. Good god, his nose. But Taichi was still trying to wiggle free, so with concerted effort, Takeru ignored the pain in his face and pulled himself across Taichi's body, hoping to weigh him down like a rope.

"Tai, will you just listen?!" Yamato was yelling.

"Please, my nose-!" Takeru yelled.

Sora, seeing that the boys were not getting through, intervened. Rushing over, she grabbed Taichi's head and turned it to face her, saying, "Tai, look at me. Look at me!" The flailing paused, limbs frozen mid-air as Taichi stared confusedly at his girlfriend, slow to recognize her. "You can't go after them. They're gone. It's been more than half an hour." Yamato and Takeru remained tense, ready to continue the fight if Taichi kept up the struggle, but after a minute, he collapsed with a heavy sigh and Yamato and Takeru collapsed too.

"My nose…"

They were all quiet a moment, catching their breath, before Taichi said, "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"In between getting punched in the face and kicked in the stomach, I'm sorry I didn't have time to fill you in our history together," Takeru grunted into the ground. Taichi sighed as though he'd just learned he only had five minutes left to live.

Yamato could tell his roommate was disappointed. That he wanted to get justice for the injustice dealt to his little sister. Yamato could relate. "The group was mostly different than it was on Friday, Tai," he said, hoping to lessen the feeling that Tai had missed his chance to get revenge.

"Who was the same?" Taichi asked.

"I'm not going to tell you that."

"Who was the same, Yamato?"

"How will knowing that help, Tai?"

"Because then I'll know who to punch the next time I see them."

"Tai…"

"Hey, sorry to interrupt, but, uh...what?" The three of them looked over at Daisuke, who was sitting on the bench looking completely lost. "Those guys tried to take advantage of Hikari? Who is Hikari?"

Takeru glanced at Taichi to see if he was against explaining, but Taichi merely lay there looking stone-faced. Takeru sighed, and turned his attention back to Daisuke. "Yagami, Daisuke. It's Yagami Hikari."

Daisuke stared at him blankly for a moment...and then freaked out. "WHAT?! They did what to her?"

"Nothing happened, thankfully, but the rumors are partially true. Hikari was really out of it on Friday, and some dudes tried to take advantage. Yamato and I fought them off, but obviously they wanted a round two."

"What?" Daisuke asked again, but this time it came out breathy as he tried to fit this information into what he'd heard at school. "But they said, she was willing—"

"Who said that? Who?!" Taichi demanded, sitting up instantly. From where he lay across his lap, still too exhausted to get up, Takeru lifted his head and made subtle "Cut it out! No! Abort mission!" gestures at Daisuke by jerking his hand across his neck. Daisuke glanced between his friend's shut-up! movements and Taichi's pissed off expression, and faltered.

"Uh, that is… er, they? Um...I don't know...just, you know...uh, whispers on... the wind..." he grumbled. He tugged at his shirt collar with his unbandaged hand and glanced off to the side. Taichi sighed and nudged Takeru to get off him. Tiredly, Takeru got to his feet and reached out for his ice pack.

"Only some of the rumors are true, okay? Hikari is exactly who you thought she was, Daisuke. The girl from Friday is not her, so don't let that influence your opinion of her," Takeru said.

Taichi nodded and sniffed at Daisuke, crossly, "Yeah, my sister's a good girl, so don't get any ideas." It irked him to know that people were talking about her like she was some kind of floozy.

"I won't!" Daisuke said, defensively. "I'm not that kind of guy—wait, your sister?!"

"Yes, Taichi is Hikari's older brother," Takeru supplied from beneath his ice pack. Daisuke lightly tapped his bandaged hand against the palm of his other hand. Now, it was starting to make sense. He had been wondering how Takeru had managed to get so close to Hikari so quickly when he, the King of Cool, had had such difficulty. But if their brothers were roommates—and evidently, best friends—that meant Takeru had been getting a lot more face time with her than he was.

Typical. Stupid TS. He got all the luck.

"I see,"Daisuke said carefully since Taichi was staring him down as if to ask if he had a problem with Hikari being his sister. He glanced at his wrist, and sighed, clapping his hands to his thighs and then wincing slightly. He cradled his injured wrist as he stood. "Well, look at the time. I gotta go."

"Tai, stop being so threatening," Sora scolded him. "Daisuke, don't let him chase you off like this. You can stay if you like."

"Nah, I actually do have to go," Daisuke said, nodding at the clock situated on the other side of the slide. "I'm way past late for dinner. Mom will be worried. Gonna have a time explaining this to her too." He gestured at his face on the last bit, but smiled to show he wasn't too worried.

"I'll walk you," Takeru volunteered, ice pack still firmly in place on his face. He took a step "forward" blindly, almost tripping over a stone in the process.

Daisuke chuckled. "Nah, you can relax here with your brother. Clearly, you have a lot of lovin' to give that ice pack."

"Well, we are getting married so…" Takeru replied, and the two boys chuckled. Takeru, facing the slide, held his fist out for Daisuke to bump, though Daisuke still stood a yard behind him by the bench. Good-naturedly, Daisuke trotted around the bench to Takeru's outstretched fist and bumped it. "But seriously, I'll at least walk you out," Takeru replied. He took the ice pack off his face to show his commitment, and Daisuke obliged. He said goodbye to the three young adults and then walked away with Takeru, cracking jokes and laughing.

When they reached the street, Daisuke stopped him. "Here's good. Thanks for the escort."

"No problem," Takeru shrugged.

"I guess this explains why Hikari has been acting so weird lately."

"Yeah." They were quiet a moment until, as Daisuke turned to go, Takeru spoke, "Hey, don't tell anyone, okay? Not even Ryuji or Akari or Toshi. This is Hikari's private business, you know?"

"Obviously, dude. I won't say anything."

Takeru nodded once and smiled, "Thanks. See you tomorrow."

"See ya!" Daisuke said with a small wave and headed off down the street. It was super late. The sun had long since set. Takeru was suddenly overcome with an intense feeling of gratitude for his friend, who had had his back unconditionally, no questions asked.

"Daisuke!" Takeru called, raising his hand and waving. Daisuke turned. "Thanks for today! I owe you one!"

The soccer player was almost at the end of the street, but Takeru could just make out the big grin on his face and the peace sign he flashed at him by way of reply. With his bandaged chin and temple, Takeru could not help but frame the scene in his mind. He placed his friend on the promenade by the beach, the sun setting behind him, grinning off injuries like the total badass he was. A peace sign—'Anytime, dude!'—before he turned the corner, out of sight. Total hero of a kid's anime, Takeru thought. Or maybe romantic lead's best friend in a shojo. He grinned and immediately regretted the decision, suddenly reminded of the pain his face was in.

"Well, what do you say we head on home?" he heard Taichi say behind him.

"Takeru, you wanna come over?" Yamato asked.

"Can I stick my face in your freezer?"

"Um...I guess…?"

"Then, I'm game!"


"You guys are home late!" Hikari exclaimed from the kitchen. Right. Takeru forgot she was staying here. He thought about making a quick exit, but his own freezer was much further away than his face would have liked. "Dinner's almost ready—whoa my god, what happened to you? Takeru, you too? Are you okay? Oh! Sora! What happened to them?"

"Boys being boys," Sora replied. "Hey, Kari." She crossed the room to hug the younger girl and then peeked into the kitchen. "Wow, dinner looks great! Is it okay if I crash the party?"

"Sure," Hikari said. "I have extras I haven't cooked yet. Give me a few minutes. Takeru, you too! Come in, come in. Goodness, what happened to your face? Tai, is that a black eye?" She had been stuck looking between the boys' faces unsure of who to approach first, but now she crossed the room to examine Taichi's face. Though he was much taller than her, he leaned back against the couch and let her turn his head this way and that as she fret at him. "You got in a fight?"

"They deserved it," he sniffed.

"Tai. And you too, Yamato? Your cheek is swelling to the size of a-"

"Actually, I'd rather not know how big it is, Hikari, but thanks. I think I'll also avoid mirrors for the next week or so until it goes down," Yamato replied. "But thanks for your concern." Still, she examined him too, red eyes shining with worry as she gently cupped his face.

"Ooh, I'll get some more ice," Hikari said. "Gosh, Takeru, your nose."

"Yes, my nose. Let's not talk about it. It's self-conscious. It would like a freezer though. As would the rest of my face. Excuse me." Hikari followed him into the kitchen, worrying after him. When he actually put his face in the freezer, Hikari started to convince him to just put ice on his face instead, but Sora stopped her.

"These boys are hopeless sometimes. You and I will tag team it. I'll take care of this, and you get dinner? I think we're all famished." Hikari nodded, but cast a bemused glance at Takeru. After some maneuvering around Takeru's body, she retrieved the uncooked marinated pork from the freezer and got to work on frying it.

An hour and half later, the five satisfied young adults were pushing back from the table. Three of them had plans to cuddle with an ice pack, but as Hikari started gathering the dishes to wash and Sora stood to help, Takeru changed his mind. There was something that had been bothering him since Friday, and this seemed like a perfect chance to figure it out.

"Don't worry about it, Sora. You've done enough. I'll help Hikari," Takeru said. Sora protested at first, but Takeru insisted, and when Taichi (pathetically) held his arms out for cuddles, she caved, rolling her eyes playfully as she went with him into the living room. Yamato trailed behind them already miming puking into every available receptacle.

Hikari laughed and shook her head as she turned back to Takeru, who was pressing a glass of ice water to his temple. "Thanks, Takeru, but you should rest. I've got this."

"It's okay. I want to. Dinner was delicious, so I have to pay my compliments to the chef somehow." Hikari started to protest again, but Takeru shut her down by holding a dry dish towel in her direction. "I'll wash and you dry?"

Hikari took one look at his face and nodded. "It's okay, I'll wash. You look like you really want to put your face back in the freezer."

"Was it that obvious?" Takeru grimaced, but gratefully let her take the sponge from his hand. He dug out a bag of frozen corn from the freezer and held it against his face with his shoulder as Hikari started washing.

Takeru was just getting into the groove of the chore, enjoying the mindlessness of washing dishes when Hikari broke the silence. "But seriously, Takeru, what happened? You don't seem the type to pick a fight without cause. Did Taichi start it?"

Oh, right. He'd done this because he wanted to talk to her, but since he'd failed to start the conversation, he was stuck walking down Awkward Avenue. "Oh, no. Um...actually, it was revenge for Friday."

"Friday?" she asked, looking at him as she handed over a plate. "What happened t—" She trailed off as the realization dawned on her, no doubt aided by the guilty way he was avoiding her gaze.

"Oh my god." She didn't pick up any of the chopsticks in the sink to wash them, stunned into paralysis it seemed. "Oh my god," she repeated, turning to look at him. He could see the guilt and disgust in her eyes as he finally met her gaze. "This is my fault. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry!" She was clearly about to lose herself in the black hole known as guilt, so Takeru quickly put his hand on her shoulder.

"Hey, it's no big deal."

"But your face—"

"Yeah, my face. I hear girls like it when a boy's a little roughed up." He winked at her cheekily, but when it failed to produce the giggle he'd hoped for, he tried a different tactic. "Listen, Kari. It's definitely not your fault. Okay?"

"But if I hadn't—"

"No, no, listen to me. It's not your fault. What kind of sore losers go to get 3 more of their friends to come beat up one kid because they got owned for trying to take advantage of a drunk girl? Which, by the way, is illegal anyway! A douchebag, that's what kind. And the Law of the Douchebag commands that all douchebags must commit acts of douchebaggery, which they did. So you see, there's literally no fault left for you to claim in this incident."

Hikari slowly closed her mouth, which she had opened in hopes of getting in a single retort during Takeru's tirade, but he had made a fair point: who got sore over being stopped from taking advantage of an underaged girl? He was staring at her, waiting for her to object so he could smack it down, no doubt. But finally, she just sighed and quirked the right side of her mouth up. "Thanks for the perspective. I needed that."

"Any time." He smiled back at her and squeezed her shoulder before he went to exchange his now half defrosted corn with a bag of frozen edamame.

Hikari watched him before turning grabbing a pair of chopsticks and scrubbing. "Still, I'm sorry."

Takeru shrugged. "Nah, they clearly needed another beat down 'cuz they obviously didn't learn the first time." They fell into silence. The conversation over, but obviously not forgotten, because he could see the worry etched in the tenseness of her face. This was his chance to ask, before the subject got changed to something less awkward.

"But actually, there is something I want to know. You don't have to answer if it's too personal a question, but… why'd you do it? Friday night, I mean. It doesn't seem like you."

Hikari nodded slowly as though he'd just said something wise and thought-provoking. A small smile was on her lips. "I was wondering when someone would ask."

"Taichi didn't?"

"No, he did kind of. But I didn't think he'd understand so I didn't tell him."

Rocks began to pile up in his stomach. If she hadn't told her brother, than she definitely wasn't telling him, and now he'd just gone and made things awkward with his prying question. But it was bugging him so much. He had to know. He was just about to open his mouth to make a pathetic plea that he would understand (though he knew next to nothing about her or her past experiences) when she spoke.

"Because he looked like Chase."

He'd been so busy making a case in his head, he almost didn't hear her. "What? Who?"

"The guy from class 4. He looks like Chase."

"What guy from class 4?" he asked, though he was pretty certain he already knew. "The one who called you out of class today?"

Hikari nodded. "He was there on Friday."

"But we only ran into college-aged guys. No one from our school." He could tell this piqued her interest, so he explained what happened on Friday as he dried the last set of chopsticks and watched her clean the sink. As he talked, he could see her expression was brightening a bit.

"Oh, thank god," she sighed when he finished. He shot her a confused glance—not exactly the reaction he was expecting after learning the identity of her would-be molesters. Hastily, she tried to explain. "I mean, it's good to know that Class 4 wasn't one of them. Today, he implied that something happened between us, but now I feel more certain that it didn't. I mean, right? If he was nowhere to be found, then that means that for whatever reason he'd already left, right?"

"Uh, I guess?"

"So I don't owe him anything," she concluded, looking very much relieved.

Takeru just squinted at her. "Sorry, I'm a little confused."

"Ah, sorry. Let me start from the beginning," she said. And then she told him what happened when she'd first approached them. Her face was burning with embarrassment at first, but his expression was only thoughtful, not judgmental. And she felt herself ease into the story a little. "So, I was just feeling really down and really lonely, just really missing Chase, because I always talked to him when I was having rough days."

She trailed off a minute, staring at her hands, but whether it was in thought or out of sadness, Takeru couldn't tell. Then suddenly, she met his gaze. "You know, it's like two months ago, I had this amazing support system, and now I have nothing. And everyday, all I can think about is that I'll be back with them soon. Two more months, and I'll get to see them. 10 more weeks. 70 more days!" For a moment, her face was alive with delight at the prospect. And then the expression fell and her shoulders slumped.

"Do you know why this all started? Miyuki told her dad I'm bullying her. My dad is trying to win a contract from him, so Dad said he wouldn't let me go back in December if I didn't stop." Her voice broke, and she paused a moment, trying to regain her composure. Even still, her voice was watery when she continued, "But what can I stop, Takeru? Going to school? Breathing? I thought I could stop talking to you, but that didn't fix anything. And then, just like that," she snapped her fingers, "70 days turned into two years. I just lost it. And then, there was this boy who looked just like Chase. Sadness took the common sense right out of my brain."

She paused again, struggling to level her voice. "I wish I could go back and change it all. I've tainted Chase's memory by associating him with a sicko. I'm the worst." Despite her best efforts, several tears slipped down her cheeks and she hastily reached up to scrub them away.

"No, you're not. You're human. We all make bad decisions sometimes. Sometimes, because we're bad people, and sometimes, because we've had a bad day." He was quiet a moment, waiting for Hikari to react to the encouragement, but she only nodded half-heartedly. So, after a beat, Takeru continued, his voice quiet, "You know the first day I asked Miyuki out was a pretty rough day for me. We'd just lost to these jerkwads from across the Bay for fifth straight game. But they were who we needed to beat to go anywhere in the summer tournaments, so it all seemed pretty hopeless. On the way home, I ran into Miyuki, who'd been making eyes at me from the sidelines for ages by that point. I'm pretty oblivious, but even I'd noticed by then. We had a really nice conversation, and I asked her out. And then we beat them in the first summer tournament."

Hikari was quiet a moment as she processed this, unsure what to do with this information. Finally, she said, "Are you calling Miyuki a bad decision?"

"Maybe. Honestly, I don't know. What I do know is, bad decision or not, she made me really happy for a while there." For a moment, they locked eyes, and Hikari saw the sadness and hurt swimming in his own eyes. Once again, she was forced to remember that though Miyuki had been Satan incarnate to her, she must have been someone completely different to him. And whatever hurt Miyuki had caused her, Takeru was truly hurting, missing her in his life. Him missing someone, her missing someone. Just the two of them. Then the moment ended. Takeru tapped the counter lightly as he turned away. "Thanks for answering my question. I know it probably wasn't easy. Now, if you'll excuse me, my face has got a hot date with this freezer."

Hikari stared after him, dazed. Somewhere inside, something was twisting uneasily. "Yeah, thanks for… helping with the dishes…"

o-o-o-o-o-o

An extremely long chapter. I wanted to wrap up all this drama and move on to the next bit, so no apologies. It did end up being a lot wordier than I intended though. I wrote this over a year and a half ago. I've tried fixing it time and time again, but I think it's best to just let this be what it will be, and start over fresh with something new. So I hope you guys enjoyed it. Look forward to the next chapter! (No preview this time. Sorry.)

Thanks for all the reviews. I'm not going to list them this time, but I really really really appreciate them. If I may be so bold, I'd like to ask you guys to keep 'em coming! I'll keep these chapters coming, slowly but surely.