A/N: Thanks for the kind reviews! Sorry for the wait - this chapter nearly killed me, and between work and going back to school I hardly had time to write it. Anyway, it's here now, and there's a bit of info-dumping - I promise we'll have action next time. I actually cut it short - I wanted to add a scene with Takeru, but when I got to that point I decided it was better to post what I already had, so that will happen next time.
I'm making small edits to chapter one and eventually part of this chapter too, but nothing that will require a second reading.
So Much for the Good Old Days
"As faith for the future faded fast, he grows strong with their displeasure. It sets him free."
- Within Temptation: Deceiver of Fools
Lounging on the checkered sofa that was part of the Fuji TV studio, Ishida Yamato brought a cup of water to his lips and gulped it down. Sweat had gathered on his forehead like jurors in a courtroom. Outside, the temperature was a broiling 101 degrees Fahrenheit. The set was only slightly cooler, where Yamato sat baking under tall gleaming lights, dressed in a tight-fitting black shirt and dark jeans expertly frayed at the knees. Every few minutes, the make-up artist with pinched lips, as if he had a slice of lemon permanently lodged in his mouth, came by to touch up his face and rearrange the sun-bleached hair framing his face.
He crumpled the plastic cup in his fist, imagining it was his agent's neck. His deep sigh of satisfaction morphed into a growl as soon as the illusion faded.
"I'm going to rip this weird-ass couch to pieces if we don't get started soon."
Next to him, his bandmate, Michishita Yutaka, quit knotting stray ends of the threadbare couch together long enough to kick him in the shin.
"C'mon, man. This gig is going to plaster our faces on prime time TV from here to Chiba, Okinawa – even San Francisco! Small price to pay for that kind of publicity, right?"
Yamato glowered at the vast number of people milling around in an effort to film the commercial sometime before television went out of style. "They aren't even using one of our songs. Who's going to remember it's us?"
"Why are you always such a cynic?"
"Why are you always whining? Move." Mizuno Akira, their keyboardist, squished in between them and handed them tall glasses of iced tea. "Don't drink them. They're fake."
Yutaka grumbled, running his thumb along the faux ice rimming his glass. "The least they could do is give us real ice, before our brains ooze out our ears."
"It would only melt," Yamato pointed out as he inspected the fake lemon suspended in his non-drink.
He wondered again how their agent, Komori Akio, had sweet-talked him into filming a commercial, as if they were some boy band, some passing fad that needed to be milked for all its worth before society blinked and realized how entirely unfashionable they were. That was all right for his friends. Yutaka and their drummer, Arai Takashi, were shameless attention-seekers who would jump at the chance for any slice of fame, be it fifteen minutes or fifteen seconds. And Akira didn't care about anything that didn't have to do with his piano playing.
But Yamato was cut from a different mold than his friends. Or maybe he was just difficult (his father would attest to that quickly enough). The pseudo-partisan world of showbusiness beckoned, welcomed him as he'd never dreamed it would, and instead of embracing it, he found himself missing his days still stuck in the garage. Not that he intended to admit that he was so sentimental to his friends.
No. Coworkers. Bandmates. They were professionals now.
Komori was no flake at his job. He'd outlined each of the benefits with practiced eloquence: The Teenage Wolves had garnered an almost cult-like local fanbase ever since Yamato's father had jumpstarted their debut while they still wore middle school gakuran uniforms. Now that they had a record deal, a hot new sound, a contract with an agent, and an island-wide tour under their metaphorical belt, it was time to market their music even more relentlessly. The number one avenue for planting their names in consumers' minds was, of course, public television.
And it just so happened that a company approached Fuji TV looking for a boy band to promote Tik-Toks, their new foam-based footware which came in five gaudy colors. And it just so happened that Yamato's father worked for Fuji TV and had a son who was a rising star in the music industry. And it just so happened that the commercial director liked the Teenage Wolves and was on friendly terms with their agent and, wouldn't you know it, they were a perfect fit for the job.
It happened like that. Yamato's head was still spinning weeks later.
The hateful make-up artist (who probably spent his free time stealing candy from children and kicking puppies) approached and daubed Yamato's face with a brush. "So pale," he crooned as he worked, "but such thick lashes. You look like a French doll."
Yamato suppressed a shudder. Whatever happened to serious musicians playing music, not agonizing over their wardrobe, or piling on more make-up than a Kyoto maiko, or posing with prepubescent girls wearing T-shirts printed with their silhouettes?
"Ishida-kun," a stagehand called. Yamato caught his eye without the slightest tilt of his head, a trick he'd perfected during those years when it was cool to look like you weren't paying attention in school. It annoyed teachers, who'd considered him a rebel, and it just as easily unnerved the stagehand as he hesitantly stretched out his palm, in which lay Yamato's cell phone.
"It's gone off four times in the past thirty minutes," he said, fixing his attention on the phone rather than Yamato's face. Yamato snatched it out of his hand and flipped it open. "I like your ringtone," he added almost meekly. "The Grinch that Stole Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine."
Heat flooded Yamato's cheeks, but he hid it expertly – the heavy layers of MAC powder on his cheeks helped. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was Taichi's ringtone. He'd programmed it quite without informing Yamato the day before the Teenage Wolves headed off on their first tour. He'd gone as far as to threaten that if Yamato didn't immediately pick up every time Jim Carey started yowling at him, he'd be cursed with perpetual split ends. Yamato hadn't bothered to change the song, miserable excuse for music though it was. An embarrassing ringtone was easier to cope with than Taichi's notorious obstinacy.
He granted the stagehand a curt nod, and the man scampered away. Yamato shuffled through his missed calls: two from Taichi, who had also dropped him a voice-mail, and one from Koushirou. Koushirou had also left a text message in his inbox:
Incident with the Digital Gates today. Don't know how serious yet. I'll keep you posted. We'll call a meeting this coming week for any of us who can make it.
Please talk to Taichi-san.
Frowning, Yamato turned off his phone and flipped it shut. What kind of 'incident?' Smart as he was, Koushirou was infamous for omitting details out of sheer absent-mindedness. Was Gabumon all right?
Yamato's chest clenched as it hit him that wasn't at all sure that he'd brought his Digivice to the studio. He must have; he'd never forget something so important to him. Frantically he peeled through his memory. Had he left it in the dressing room? The van?
"Let's take it from the top," the director was saying, sending his minions scuttling into place. Takashi ambled over and parked himself next to Yutaka, looking just as hot and frustrated as Yamato felt. The make-up artist fiddled with Takashi's hair until his eyes were visible through his long bangs. Then he moved away and the cameras rolled in.
Yutaka leaned past Akira and tapped Yamato's shoulder. "Yo, you okay? You're white as a sheet. Careful or they'll attack you with concealer again."
Struggling to swallow now that his throat had closed up, Yamato bobbed his head a few times, which seemed enough to mollify Yutaka. His vision seemed skewed by the blinding lights. And his lunch wouldn't stop cartwheeling in his stomach.
"Shoes!" the director cried. The four Wolves slipped their feet into the soft, sponge-like Tik-Toks, each in a different nausea-inducing color. Staring down at the gaudy green shoes didn't help matters. Yamato wondered idly if he'd even manage to make it through his single line, "Hey, these feel go-o-od!"
Someone darted forward and grabbed the cell phone from Yamato. His hands felt strangely empty without it.
Hours later, the Weary Wolves were allowed a respite. The director assured them he thought they'd taped enough viable film for their ten-second spot. As soon as he'd given them the OK to leave, Komori ushered Yutaka, Akira, and Takashi into a van outside to bring them home. Yamato waved good-bye and took the elevator to his father's office. It was quarter to seven, and Yamato was hoping to squirm out of cooking dinner. Maybe they could catch a bite at a nearby diner, or even McDonald's, if it came to that.
On the other hand, he wasn't sure he wanted to go anywhere but straight home. He'd found his Digivice in his knapsack, and had to resist kissing it in front of his bandmates. He'd been too upset to "think cool thoughts," per Komori's advice. But finding the Digivice, safe and showing no indication of trouble for Gabumon, had done a lot to ease his panic.
He stopped in a restroom to scrub off every trace of make-up left on his skin. His hair felt stiff, overloaded with gel, but there was nothing he could do about that until he got home and showered. Once he looked a little more like himself, he dried his face with a paper towel and checked the time on his phone.
His father had a guest in his office, a tall man in an official-looking suit and polished shoes. Ishida Hiroaki seemed oddly misplaced in his wrinkled shirt with the sleeves rolled up, sloppy tie, and graying, mussed hair. He didn't so much as glance up when Yamato rapped on the door.
Knowing Hiroaki, even though his shift ended at seven, they probably wouldn't set foot out of the building for another half hour. That left Yamato to entertain himself. He considered calling Taichi back, but just as soon shoved the thought aside. He wanted to hear whatever Taichi had to tell him in the privacy of his home, with enough space to digest the news at his own pace.
Sitting on a bench near a window, he pulled out a booklet of empty staff lines. The Teenage Wolves did not compose their own music, but it was a hobby Yamato liked to indulge in on his own time. Maybe someday he'd write something worth recording. He wasn't about to breach the subject with Komori yet, though – not until the Teenage Wolves had a solid fan following and some financial stability.
Their second single was slated to hit the market on August 10th. After that, their future would be in the hands of the critics.
He wrote for ten solid minutes, marking the page up and down with dancing black circles and slashes. A shadow fell over the page and he looked up at his father, baggy-eyed and in need of a shave, his jacket draped over one arm and his briefcase in the other.
"I need a smoke," Hiroaki said. "Let's go outside."
They walked down the hall to a balcony, and Yamato leaned on the rail, watching the dying sunlight snake its way through the maze of apartments and office buildings that made up Odaiba's core. Even at night the city was like an oven. Yamato suspected more than a little of his bad mood could be attributed to the ruthless weather.
Hiroaki plucked two cigarettes from his pocket, jabbing one at Yamato. Yamato offered his own sleek red lighter and soon curls of smoke began to drift from the balcony.
"How'd it go?" Hiroaki asked.
Yamato shrugged. "Fine," he said. "Not what I expected, but fine."
"What did you expect?"
"A little less bumming around."
Hiroaki laughed, or rather he made a rasping sound that was meant to be laughter – smoking had dried out his voice long ago. "Yeah, that's show biz. That's why I told you to bring a magazine. Next time maybe you'll listen to your old man."
Yamato shrugged again, starting to feel annoyed. He hadn't wanted to do the commercial in the first place. Komori – and his dad too, come to think of it – had pushed it on him, forced him to wear those ridiculous kiddie shoes and squeal over how they "feel go-o-od." He'd wreck his own tremulous bad boy image before he ever got to see the sales from their first single.
"At least they gave you a complimentary pair of shoes," Hiroaki went on, smirking. "You can never have too many shoes. I bet you'll wear them everywhere."
"Sure," Yamato snorted. "I'll wear them on stage and toss them in the mosh pit."
He puffed out a cloud of tobacco smoke and watched it disperse through the air. At least, out here, he was safe from reporters. His fans were largely preteens; their idol caught smoking would dash their perfect world view before reality did it for them.
"Hey," Hiroaki said, "I'm proud of you, you know."
Yamato choked and Hiroaki pounded his back as he coughed over the rail.
"Okay, this time don't go into shock. I'm proud of you. You're taking hold of your future by the horns, and you're not letting go. If I'd been half so goal-oriented at your age –"
He broke off, but Yamato knew what he'd been about to say. I wouldn't have dropped out of college I wouldn't have married your mother, I wouldn't have gotten divorced.
He'd heard it all before. He was privy to every time Hiroaki staggered home completely tanked, with another bottle of booze dangling at his side like an unholy extension of his arm. Sometimes he'd cradle the bottle tenderly, as if it were an infant. Yamato had seen pictures of himself tucked into the crook of his father's strong, pale arm. In those photos Hiroaki was always smiling, clean-shaven and timelessly youthful, unrecognizable in the guise of a proud father.
Yamato didn't know if there were any photos of his mother acting that way buried somewhere in their apartment. Natsuko probably kept them at her place, assuming she hadn't clipped Hiroaki out of each picture during the first week after the divorce. Though Hiroaki and Natsuko usually managed to be civil to each other these days, they'd crashed through the early years as if they were running class six rapids.
"Anyway." Hiroaki cleared his throat and adjusted his tie, a nervous habit that did him no good since he always loosened the knot until it fell apart completely. "I just wanted you to know that. And to celebrate, I'm treating you to dinner at Goethe's tonight."
Rolling his eyes, Yamato plucked his cigarette from his lips and said, "Tousan, any place named after an 18th century Romantic writer is definitely the wrong place for your father-son bonding ritual."
"I can't believe you'd accuse me of wanting to bond with my son." Hiroaki raised his arms in protest. "That almost makes me sound like some kind of family man."
"You? Never. It's just that Goethe is the author of The Sufferings of Young Werther. I think I failed that class because I laughed so hard at the end of book one, when he was separated from Lotte after 'taking her hand and wetting it with a thousand tears.'"
"So you think the spirit of Goethe holds a grudge against you."
"Well, I'm not going to push my luck. I'd be pissed at loud-mouthed high schoolers who laughed at my sucky pick-up lines too."
"I never thought you were the superstitious type."
"There's a lot you don't know about me," Yamato said. He planted his smoking cigarette butt firmly in an ash tray.
"Maybe that's because you're so opposed to bonding." Hiroaki followed suit and they made their way to the elevator. "All right, if not Goethe's, what about Shabu Zen?"
Yamato smoothed the quilt before he sank down on his bed. He bent over the side and dried his hair with a towel. Afterward, though his scalp was rubbed raw, the roots of his hair still felt rigid to the touch.
All he wanted was to get to sleep early and wake up sometime after noon, when hopefully all lingering negtivity from the commercial shoot would have evaporated and he'd be able to function like his normal self… whatever "normal" was these days. He'd never felt so drained.
But Koushirou's instruction to "Please talk to Taichi-san" swam across his mind, and finally he sighed and gave in. He wouldn't be able to fall asleep with that on his conscience. Reaching for his cell phone on his desk, he called his voice-mailbox and leaned against the wall.
Taichi sounded tired – almost reluctant to talk, his voice breaking several times throughout the message. Yamato's frown deepened as he tried to piece the story together.
"Hey, s'me. I know you're busy with your, you know, your – all the stuff that makes you too busy to pick up your cell – but could you call me when you get a chance? When you're not busy."
There was a long pause. Yamato began to wonder if that was the end of the message when Taichi spoke again with even less of his usual energy.
"Today weirded me out, Yamato. I don't mind telling you, but don't freak out or freak anyone else out, okay? It took ages for me to convince Sora and the others that I'm fine. And I am fine, just – just – confused. Maybe a little scared. But not, like, scared stiff. Right now I'm doing good. I'm watching soccer on TV. Soudai is losing so fricking bad, I mean what the heck was that, a pirouette?"
Well, he couldn't have been that upset, if he was still able to rant about college soccer.
"So, yeah, call me? Soonish? Thanks, man – Oh, by the way, this is Taichi. I didn't say that, did I? Ha."
Yamato thought for a minute, then dialed Taichi's number. He waited until the third ring. There was a click, and then:
"Taichi – what happened?" Yamato jumped in quickly, wanting to explain why he hadn't called earlier before Taichi had a chance to taunt him about it. "I'm sorry, man, I was at this thing with my band when you called, and I just got your message now –"
"Who is this?"
Yamato froze on the edge of his bed. "… Yagami-san?"
"Yeah," barked Taichi's father. "Is this Ishida?"
Yamato's mouth went dry. Staying on Yagami Susumu's good side had never been part of his skill set. Ask anyone and they'd say Susumu was an all-round decent guy. It was easy to see where Taichi got his goofy smile. But he'd caught Yamato in a few… compromising positions in the past. Puking in his best friend's bathroom in the middle of the night, in clothes that reeked of alcohol, wasn't one of his shining moments. To Susumu he constituted a "bad influence," and the cheerful, laid-back guy everyone else knew as Taichi's father was one of the people Yamato most wanted to avoid.
"What?" Susumu said to someone on his end of the phone. By the sound of her voice, it was Hikari, and a moment later he heard her clearly on the line:
"Hikari-chan." Relieved, Yamato let his shoulders droop and relax. "What's going on? Did I get your home phone by mistake? I thought I called Taichi's cell."
"No, you got it right." She sounded harassed. He thought he heard her sigh. "Oniichan's napping."
"Napping," Yamato repeated. He traced a fissure of cracked paint on his wall with a finger. "Is he all right?"
"I don't know. He was already asleep on the couch when I got home, but I heard about what happened from Daisuke-kun."
"Right," Yamato said, trying to pretend he knew as much as she did. "I hope I didn't say anything to make your parents suspicious."
"I don't think so. My dad's grumpy because of some ball game. I doubt he paid attention."
"Ah, right. Taichi asked me to call him, so this is the return message."
"Do you want me to wake him up?"
Yamato hesitated. He wasn't sure he'd be much use to Taichi in his current funk. But if Taichi really needed him…
"What do you think?"
"I think we shouldn't bother him," Hikari said without missing a beat. "I know what it's like to disappear. It tears at you. I think sleep's the best thing for him right now."
Yamato had stopped listening at the word "disappear," his insides knotting. His mind raced back to Ken and the ocean. Hikari and the lighthouse. Sora and the pit.
Himself and the cave.
He clutched the phone to his ear, pressing too hard, leaving an imprint of the keys on his earlobe. "Hikari-chan," he said, "start from the beginning.
"Tell me everything you know."
Puffy white clouds dappled the late morning sky. Just beyond the Yagamis' apartment, plum trees spread their leaves to grasp for sunlight, their limbs bent and beckoning. Taichi pressed his palm against the window and remembered swinging from those branches, his shirt hiked up above his navel, his shorts slipping down over his thighs. Sometimes he'd take Hikari with him and hoist her up onto one of the lower branches before climbing up himself. Or he'd hide deep within the canopy of leaves and crow at girls, and if one of them happened to be Sora she'd chase him, and he'd race her until they were both gasping for breath and, without sparing a thought for cooties, collapsed on top of each other.
He'd come home with scraped elbows and knees, blisters running down the cleft of his thumb, and enough grass stains to warrant yet another load of laundry. And his mother would admonish him, You really should be more careful. And his father would tell her that boys needed their freedom. The antiseptic on his wounds stung like a fiery kiss, as the little voice in the back of his mind whispered I did this…
But these days the trees were too parched for climbing, and anyway he had outgrown them. He opened the window for Hikari, who stretched her arm and watered their mother's potted geraniums. He went back to puttering around the kitchen and checked on the rice cooker.
"Fluffy yet?" Hikari set the watering can on the counter and peered around him. She'd been peering around him a lot lately, trying to glimpse his face while his guard was down. Somehow the muscles in his cheeks ached worse when his smiles were fake.
"Getting there," he replied. "Move over so I can scramble the eggs."
"Move over, 'please,'" Hikari corrected him as she ambled into the family room. Rediscovering her mug on the coffee table, she leaned against the sofa, sipping oolong tea while she watched the news.
Taichi decided there wasn't any real sense in saying "please" when he was the one in charge of making breakfast and the older brother besides, so he ignored her last remark and added milk to the eggs. He heard her make a sympathetic noise at something the newscaster said and assumed she wouldn't return to the kitchen until it was time to eat. Hikari loved tragic news. It fed her trove of gossip, which she would then share with Takeru so they could lament the sad state of the world together. Between the two of them, they knew enough sob stories to fill an entire volume of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
And it was his privilege as her brother to laugh at them when they spent hours discussing some trivial piece of news. And, often, to sidestep tearful accusations of insensitivity, as well as wayward kitchen appliances that unexpectedly took fight.
He poured the eggs into a skillet and lolled against the counter while they set. Even his own parents wondered how their children ended up so entirely different. They didn't share a blood type. They didn't even look much alike; Hikari was rapidly turning into a clone of their mother, and as far as anyone could tell Taichi took after some obscure uncle he'd only ever met twice, who lived in Hokkaido and studied Ainu culture. Apparently Taichi's ears were his uncle's legacy. He'd never met his cousins, but one look at their ears and he'd know them without being introduced. But on one thing everyone agreed – different as Taichi and his sister were, no one ever doubted they were related.
Maybe it was their chins – they both had very fine, unclefted chins. He'd given their chins a lot of thought the other night. They were lucky to have them. Large enough to define their mouths, but small enough that they didn't compromise the smooth curve of their jaws. Not strikingly masculine, but Taichi's athletic build made up for that – and at least they shared chins rather than ears. Thanks to Uncle Kazunari, Taichi's ears curved comically outward like spoons, once earning him the moniker "monkey ears," which Taichi's father used to claim he ate for breakfast. For a six-year-old, the thought was traumatizing. Hikari mercifully never went through that; her ears were flat and dainty.
At least their chins were the same. Among other things.
He couldn't talk to her about his vanishing act. That would bring up too many complicated emotions. He could barely handle it himself – the memory of his arm, physically there, he could feel it, but not visible – and she didn't deserve it. She'd been there already. It had nearly taken her from him. They could share the memory, along with everything else, their chins and their noses and various genes, but he couldn't let her share this.
He raised his hand, palm up, and trailed each ridge. His life line dipped from the valley between his thumb and index finger towards the bronze column of his wrist. Blue veins wound through his arm, forking here and there like the Nile Delta. He pressed two fingers to his radial artery and felt the very real, very present throb of his pulse. And that artery had disappeared like it were nothing but a wisp of smoke.
Hikari's questioning voice brought him back. He found himself staring at his mother's decorative lacquer kettle, and realized he'd slumped down against the counter so his elbows were all that kept him off the floor. He turned to her with the most casual look he could manage.
Her arms encircled his shoulders and she brought him down to her petite height. She said nothing but pressed against him, lashes brushing his cheek.
"Hikari…" He pushed her back lightly. She didn't budge. "C'mon, I'm really fine. Whatever story Daisuke fed you, I'm betting was an elaboration – you know, he likes that, what do they call it? Hyperbole."
Hikari shook her head. "You're not as talented an actor as you think. Besides, don't you think I know exactly what it's like?"
"I never said you don't." He could barely hide his agitation at her ability to read him. This was exactly why he avoided arguing with his sister. "But you're worrying for no reason. Today Koushirou's going to tell us it was all a lot of nothing, and that I was only sucked through the spacetime continuum and living the life of a Red Shirt on Star Trek –"
"Whatever he says," she interrupted quietly, "it can't take away that feeling of being nowhere."
She was right.
He'd never felt more out of touch with his own self.
Everywhere, and nowhere, and nothing at all.
"Where are you off to?"
Izumi Yoshie knit her brow as she watched her son pull on his shoes. "It's so hot out there," she added, gazing at the window where the curtains were drawn, as if the sun were an unfriendly visitor. New lines in her comely face deepened into her frown.
Koushirou patted his keys in his pocket and searched the floor for his laptop case. He grabbed it by the handle and tucked it under his arm.
"I'm meeting Miyako-kun," he said. "She wants to outline some of the main goals for this year's computer club with me."
At least it wasn't a total lie. Miyako had promised to show up at the meeting, and as long as he talked to her a little bit about the club's annual bake sale, he could report to his mother and sleep with a clear conscience.
… Or not, but it was the best he could do for the moment. If he gave his mother the smallest hint that he was involved with business in the Digital World again, she'd find a way to involve herself. God bless her, but he never wanted to look at another PB&J sandwich in his life.
"Take a water bottle," Yoshie said. "Take that reusable turquoise one, not anything plastic. And fill it with water – no fruit punch, no ginger ale."
"Okay," Koushirou called from the kitchen. He found the specified bottle and filled it with tap water. "I'm leaving," he shouted with one foot out the door.
"Are you wearing sun screen?"
He darted down the stairs before she could chase after him.
Walking into the outdoors was like running into a wall of snug, oppressive air, like a city-size sauna. Within minutes a trail of sweat trickled down the back of his neck. He walked until he reached the gymnasium and transferred from the reek of summer into a thick wave of body odor.
"Senpai!" Miyako and Hikari were reclining on couches, enjoying the air conditioned lobby. Miyako's hair was awry and both girls' shirtfronts were damp. "Sora-san and Taichi-san are in the gym playing racquetball. Aren't they nuts?"
Stopping short of the couches, Koushirou knelt in front of a low table and set up his computer. "Miyako-kun, I wouldn't be surprised if those two have transcended this heat. Or at least common sense."
"They must live off B.O. the way plants do carbon dioxide," Miyako muttered, and Hikari giggled.
Daisuke and Ken shuffled down the hall loaded with soft drinks from the vending machines. "Here's for you," Daisuke proclaimed, handing Hikari a lemon iced tea and Miyako a V8. "An' the Pepsi's for Sora-san, and the root beer's for Taichi-san."
"Sorry that we didn't get anything for you," Ken apologized to Koushirou, who raised his water bottle and told him not to worry, he'd been forbidden to drink anything but water anyway.
Daisuke settled back with his Cola and propped his legs up on the table, ignoring the receptionist who was shooting him the evil eye from behind a mound of paperwork. Ken popped the top off his Sprite and both boys simultaneously took a drink. For a moment they reminded Koushirou of himself and Taichi so acutely that he had to work hard not to betray his amusement.
"How was your trip, Ken-kun?" Hikari asked politely. She looked very cute, Koushirou noted. She'd clipped her hair with a barrette of entwined daisies and wore a simple white-and-blue summer dress. Her sandals lay haphazardly on the floor and he could see splashes of powder pink nail polish on her toes.
"It was fine, thank you." Ever polite, Ken gave a gracious nod as he capped his soda. "The bus was a little stuffy, but at least it's not a long ride."
"It's worth it to spend the weekend with me, ain't it?" Daisuke grinned, slinging an arm around his best friend.
Ken's smile of longsuffering sent Koushirou and the girls into rounds of laughter.
"How long do you intend to grow your hair? I think you've got Yamato-san beat by now," Miyako teased, tugging a few strands of her own.
Ken raked his fingers through his shoulder-length mane and shrugged. "I don't know. Do you think it's too long?"
"No! It suits you," Miyako objected immediately.
"Miyako likes Hyde," Daisuke added, as if this explained everything.
She seemed to agree. "If you grow your hair like Hyde's in Dune, it'll look nice."
"Who's Hyde…?" Ken asked cautiously, and they all laughed again.
At last Jou showed up, stubbornly wearing long pants and a collared shirt and paying for it with his dignity, and the group headed into the gym under the pretense of joining a basketball game. They found Taichi and Sora sprawled on the floor of the racquetball room, both exhausted, their racquets abandoned.
"I warned you," Miyako said, tapping Sora's shoulder with her Pepsi can.
Sora rolled her eyes and took several deep gulps.
"It was worth it," Taichi protested. He dropped down on his elbows and closed his eyes. "I'm zonked. Think I'll nap right here."
"Taichi-senpai, you should drink too. You'll get hypothermia." Daisuke thrust the can of root beer under Taichi's nose. Taichi thanked him and exchanged a look of amusement with Koushirou.
They counted the seconds.
"You mean hyperthermia," Jou said, right on cue. Sora snorted into her soda and Taichi slapped hands with Koushirou. "Hypothermia is the opposite of hyperthermia. That's when the body gets too cold."
Daisuke shrugged. "Same diff, man."
"And if you're looking to prevent heat stroke, it's best to drink lots of water, keep hydrated," Jou went on as if Daisuke hadn't spoken. "Carbonated drinks aren't as refreshing."
"Where's Yamato?" Taichi asked before Daisuke could engage Jou in a heated battle over the virtues of soft drinks (which Jou would inevitably lose in spite of his superior data bank; Daisuke's obstinacy even when wrong was a force with which his opponents were rarely equipped to cope).
"I think he said he was coming," Hikari said uncertainly.
"It's ten after… Has anyone heard from him since yesterday?" Koushirou asked.
Each Chosen turned to look at their neighbor. Aside from occasional phone calls and emails, none of them saw much of Yamato outside of school anymore.
Taichi's face fell visibly. Deciding it was high time to start the meeting, Koushirou opened his laptop and checked the wireless connection. "Does everyone know the reason we called for this meeting?" he asked as he waited for his browser to load.
There was a general assenting murmur, and all eyes turned furtively to Taichi, who leveled them with a dark scowl.
"For the ten billion megazillionth time, I'm fine," he insisted.
No one believed him for a second. Koushirou thought back to the follow-up call he'd made as soon as he got home on Wednesday. He'd given step-by-step instructions – "Stay away from the Gates, don't let anyone with a D3 open a portal near you. If you sense anything off, tell me asap." Precautionary measures, that was all they were.
But the whole time, Taichi hadn't said anything beyond the occasional grunt – Koushirou wasn't even sure how long he'd listened. And though he'd tried to coax him into confiding his feelings, his only reward had been a gruff, "Will do, thanks," and a promise to be careful.
He'd texted Yamato then. It galled him that, in spite of Koushirou's loyalty and deep affection for Taichi, he always preferred Yamato when he needed to talk. Why that was, he didn't know – Koushirou always made himself available, let Taichi know he was there for him, patiently listened on the few occasions Taichi took advantage of that.
But in the end it didn't matter that Koushirou was hurt by the lack of trust his best friend put in him. The important thing was that Taichi needed to talk to someone, and for whatever reason he couldn't talk to Koushirou, and no one would expect him to confide in Hikari, who'd been made so vulnerable in the same way only a few years earlier. So it had to be Yamato.
Who hadn't returned his call, and when he finally did, had promised to come to the meeting and was at the very least late, if not a no-show.
And this was the friend Taichi trusted most?
Koushirou pushed all that to the back of his mind. He didn't like to dwell on that subject. Besides, he was the only Chosen who could hold the floor this way. He kept his attention on the computer screen. "This is the email Gennai sent me," he said, pulling up a tab. "Don't get too excited by what I'm about to tell you. The email's not too illuminating, but basically it says that the Digital Gates are naturally unstable – they flicker in and out of existence. Taichi-san got caught during one such interval. That's why Daisuke-san was able to push him out of the way; the Gate wasn't absorbing him, just overlapping his dimension. But –"
"That's great, Taichi!" Sora exclaimed. Daisuke let out a whoop.
Hikari's face split with relief. She swung her arms around her brother and kissed his cheek; laughing, Taichi extracted her and the hope on his face sent Koushirou's spirits plummeting even further.
Ken gave Koushirou a puzzled look and asked, "If that's all it was, why did you bother to call us all here?"
Koushirou shut his eyes briefly to gather himself. He hated to be the harbinger of bad news. Maybe he shouldn't have bothered showing them the email and raising their spirits, but – too late for any of that.
"The email came with an attachment," he reluctantly continued, "which took some finagling to open, but it… contradicts everything in the main message."
Silence fell over the group like a shroud. Their confusion was tangible, pervading the air. He could almost imagine the bird of hope fluttering away.
He opened the attachment. A beam of light shot from the screen, ballooning towards the far wall like a film projector. Every head turned and squinted as a face steadily materialized within the light. First a pale oval, then the jagged shadows of a nose and the sockets of eyes, unkempt white hair and rounded shoulders. From the many wrinkles across the plain of his forehead to his handlebar moustache, he was their guide: Gennai.
"Greetings, children. It's been a while." Gennai's voice crackled with static.
"That's Gennai!" Daisuke cried.
"He's old again," Hikari said.
"I can't tell where he is," Sora added, her eyes flickering over the dark expanse beyond the old man's head. "A cave, or some place?"
Taichi and Koushirou nodded at each other. "Yeah, it doesn't look like his home," Taichi murmured.
Gennai didn't have the power to deage himself anymore, and he'd left the comfort of his underwater home – none of that boded well for the Chosen.
"Well, well, it's been four years, weren't you expecting something like to happen? Ha!" Gennai laughed, or coughed; it was hard to distinguish as he covered his mouth with his sleeve. "At least you're used to the routine by now, so you'd better hightail it over here before we're in too deep and end up with another mess like Apocalymon."
Hikari might have cursed, but only Koushirou had the presence of mind to be shocked. The others were glued to Gennai's quivering hologram.
"There's a lot you don't know about." Gennai paused and seemed to consider his next words. "If I'd been free to tell you, I would have done so earlier. But the Sovereigns are, as you can surely imagine, rather stuck on their own ideas. And they're slow. If I'd been in charge, we would have avoided everything, but no, Digimon have to do things in order, in sequence. 'The time is not right,' yada yada yada.
"But let me address Koushirou's question. You email me so regularly and receive riddles for answers. I'd say I do it to increase your skills, but I don't know how much more refining you need, my boy.
"What you need to know is that the process which Taichi is currently undergoing is irreversible."
Now Koushirou couldn't tear his eyes from Taichi's stunned look. Nor could he move or speak. His tongue inflated like cotton in his throat.
"I'm sure you recall your final battle with Etemon, when MetalGreymon succeeded in shattering him and the Dark Network. You were so amazing that you ripped a hole in the sky – yes, indeed, you did it. It was not already there. You created a wormhole without a destination, so the wormhole read your data and decided to drop you off in a familiar place; in this case, the park in your hometown.
"On that day, you were able to use your Digivice to return to Digiworld through a warp rather than a Gate. You became digital. We'd given all of you protection from that in the form of your Digivices, but falling through the warp ended it for you, Taichi. And that, I'm afraid, is a very bad thing.
"Once a non-Digital being is digitized, many doors open that were impossible to seek before. You traversed them without realizing it – when you passed through your computer to fight Diaboromon, when you returned to Digiworld to give up your Crest. Little by little, you've been losing your connection to your world, and becoming more and more a part of ours.
"I'm sure you have many questions. We'll arrange a visit soon, yes?"
Gennai's picture blinked and vanished.
The silence that followed seemed to stretch into eternity.
Taichi's shoulders shook. He covered his face with his hands and took a few raspy breaths. Then he seemed to come to his senses; his eyes narrowed, and he shot to his feet and raced to the wall –
"Wait a minute – wait a damn minute, you dirty old geezer –"
He pounded his fists where Gennai's torso had been only minutes before. "You can't just disappear! 'Losing your connection,' what the heck is that supposed to mean!"
"Taichi!" Sora cried, at the same time Daisuke yelled, "Cool it, Taichi-senpai!"
Jou barreled to his side and reached out a hand, but quickly drew it back at Taichi's withering glare.
Hikari was close to tears.
"Guys –" Koushirou waved his arms futilely, hoping someone would calm down long enough to listen to reason, "guys, hang on for a minute, we can't lose our heads –"
"Lose my head!?" Taichi belted a violent laugh that struck Koushirou like a sock to the jaw. "I'm losing more than my head, I'm turning into a – a – Gennai!"
The voice was deep and fluid, not loud, but firm and commanding. Hikari's sniffles, muted in Miyako's shoulder, were the only sound as Yamato stepped through the doorway.
He started to cross the room. Taichi brushed his hair away from his wet eyes and let out a snarl.
"You –" His voice was raw and mangled to the point that it was almost unrecognizable. "You bastard, you never returned my call –"
Yamato came to a halt just in front of him. He towered over Taichi by a full four inches. Hunched against the wall, Taichi's face purpled with anger and he looked on the verge of throwing a punch.
He got as far as raising his fist, but let it hover uncertainly in the air. Yamato didn't give it a thought. He wrapped his fingers around Taichi's airborne wrist and locked eyes with him.
"I did return your call," he said with extraordinary calm. "It's not cool to cuss me out when I don't deserve it."
Slowly, Taichi's ragged breathing returned to normal. His fist unclenched, and Yamato let his arm drop to his side. Yamato put his hands on either of Taichi's shoulders and gripped him hard while Taichi struggled to pull himself together.
Then he said, quietly, "Koushirou, when are we heading to Digiworld?"
Startled at being addressed, Koushirou thought for a minute, and then said, "I'll have to ask Gennai for particulars. We don't know where he is or how to find him, and I don't think any of us are interested in wandering Digiworld aimlessly until we stumble over him."
"Especially if there's danger involved," Miyako put in.
Yamato nodded. "Find that out, then." Turning back to Taichi, he asked, "Do you want to go home?" Taichi's reply was too soft for Koushirou to hear.
Even the normally gregarious Daisuke was subdued as they tramped into the lobby and exited the gym. The sun glinted off glossy car roofs as it dipped behind the jigsaw puzzle of office buildings across the street. Someone was blasting a spicy hip-hop song from their car radio. The music sped past and they were left with the rhythm of the city pulsing in their ears.
Jou and Koushirou walked up to Taichi, side-by-side and united in concern. With his best bedside manner, Jou said, "It might not be as bad as it seems,"
Nodding, Taichi squeezed Koushirou's shoulder. Koushirou stiffened at the familiar touch, and tried not to look too bewildered when Taichi smirked at him.
"You know," Taichi began, "the next time you suspect something's up in Digiworld – call Yamato first, will ya?"
"Yeah, yeah," Yamato steered Taichi towards the crosswalk. "Of course you'd prefer it if I went digital."
"But you'd make such cute wallpaper for my desktop."
"I'm pretty sure I'm already gracing the desktops of thirteen-year-old girls nationwide. I'll send you a link to my fanlisting."
"Ooh, and then I can make kissing noises at the screen –"
Koushirou tuned them out. Let Yamato look after Taichi. Work whatever magic he had that made him such a valuable friend.
"Do you want me to…" Miyako gestured between herself and Hikari.
Hikari shook her head. "It's all right. I'll see you all soon." She hurried after her brother.
Ken nudged Daisuke, who lifted his head glumly. "Aren't we going in that direction too?" he asked.
Daisuke shrugged. Ken searched his face, and exchanged a look with Miyako. "What's wrong with you?" Miyako asked.
"Nothing," Daisuke mumbled and kicked a rock into the street. "Let's go."
He trudged down the crosswalk and Ken, wearing a bemused half-grin, hustled after him.
Sunlight enfolded the last four Chosen. Jou and Sora were failing at pretending not to study Koushirou, which was typical of them. None of the other Chosen really understood how difficult things were for Koushirou as he tried to mediate between two worlds, but Jou and Sora always innately knew when he felt overworked – probably because they were so used to the feeling themselves that they'd memorized the signs.
Sora's face suddenly cleared, as if she'd come to a decision. She tapped Koushirou's arm.
"Would you like to grab a bite to eat with me?" she asked with a soft, affectionate look.
Koushirou had never felt more grateful for Sora's intuitive grasp of other people's emotions. How she'd known exactly what he needed was a mystery considering until this moment he hadn't realized how reluctant he was to be alone himself.
But he read in her expression that she was afraid of that too. This was what she needed as much as he did.
"I'd love to," Koushirou said. "Thanks, Sora-san. Jou-san?"
He'd expected Jou to refuse, with the excuse of an exam or chores to be done. But Jou instantly brightened, and he replied,
"That would be great. Miyako-kun?"
"What? Oh – me?" Startled, a rosy blush colored Miyako's cheeks and she tugged at her shirt. "Well, I mean – curfew's not until ten –"
"Then come along." Koushirou smiled at her. "I wanted to talk to you about the computer club's bake sale anyway."
Miyako stared. "What bake sale?"
"The one we're holding to raise funds for new equipment," Koushirou said, starting down the street at a casual, easy pace. Jou and the girls fell into stride behind him and he sensed Miyako struggling for a reply.
"Don't worry," he reassured her, "you won't have to bake anything. Mom's key lime pie usually rakes in enough for the whole trimester by itself. But we need to discuss it anyway."
"Um… okay." Miyako still sounded confused.
Deciding to head somewhere close by, they turned Eastward towards the station. Koushirou resolved to push the gym and Taichi's fate out of his mind, at least for an hour or two.
1.] I have no idea how real commercials are filmed. I drew from stories I've heard from my high school drama teachers. If anyone feels like offering up information, it's more than welcome, and I'll see how I can work it in.
2.] The Sufferings of Young Werther: I read it for a class and had to share. Really, you must read it. It's so much fun to cackle each time Werther fails to do himself in.
3.] Soudai: Abbreviation for Waseda University, Tokyo.
4.] Hyde's in Dune: Hyde of the visual kei band L'arc~en~Ciel. Dune is an album and a song from 1993. Hyde's hair was pretty incredible back then.
Please review, it really makes my day! Constructive criticism more than welcome.