A/N: Hi again! Thanks so much for your reviews. You're a really great bunch of readers. I've discovered the Reply to Review feature (yeah, I know, I'm a real Johnny-come-lately) and from now on I'll try to reply to each reviewer at least once to show my thanks!
After three revisions, Chapter 3 is finally completed. I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know if you think these chapters are too lengthy - I'm thinking of trimming down by a third for future chapters.
Minor characters in this chapter: Yamato's bandmates (Michishita Yutaka - lead guitar; Mizuno Akira - keyboardist; Arai Takashi - drummer)
Enter the Emperor: All Rise
"No man is rich enough to buy back his past."
- Oscar Wilde
Meals were served buffet-style at Aomori, although Takeru couldn't find much of a difference between the cafeteria set-up and a slop trough. He rocked on his heels in line, his tray balanced on one palm, and ignored the roughhousing and chaos ensuing behind him. After the dining hall had been open for a good ten minutes, the line for the buffet dragged right out the door, and the battle to snag a decent spot for access to the freshest food broke out in full swing. Monday through Thursday was the same deal: boys raced from the showers to the cafeteria, barely pausing to tie their shoes, in an effort to avoid getting left with scraps. Friday was even worse.
Friday was pizza day.
Juggling his milk carton in one hand, Takeru crept half an inch forward with the other famished campers as space freed up along the buffet. All he wanted was one slice of pepperoni pizza, preferably not burnt, and not picked over by fifty other dirty, sweaty fingers. He'd deemed Aomori's meal plan fairly decent, as far as frozen processed food went. But he couldn't call himself much of a culinary connoisseur – at home, with his mother too bogged down with work to remember to feed herself, let along her beanstalk of a son, he'd gotten used to instant ramen and Beef'n'Bean burritos in the microwave. Daisuke said they'd permanently addled his taste buds. Which he thought was funny, considering the way Daisuke inhaled everything placed in front of him without a thought for where it came from.
With a critical eye, he scouted out and laid claim to a sizable slice of pizza – no pepperoni, rather heavy on the cheese, but still more edible than what passed for tuna casserole on the next tray over – and headed towards the dining area. Nakata and his crowd had already congregated around a long table near a window. He set his tray down and was immediately drawn into conversation.
Takeru met Nakata Shigeo during a mini-game in which he was Nakata's mark. An elbow to the groin and a benching later, they started chatting to pass the time. Nakata was a high school freshman from some ritzy private school in Sangenjaya – Takeru's own hometown. Once they unearthed that tidbit, Nakata dropped all barriers and greeted him like a brother, even used Takeru's given name – though Takeru hadn't quite overcome his own sense of propriety to do the same. Nakata's friends were a ragtag group of middle and high school boys from various wards in Tokyo, plus one who'd traveled all the way from Iwate prefecture. They were a nice bunch, laid-back, and didn't indulge in a lot of muscle-flexing except in good fun.
For a while they talked of nothing but basketball – whose skills were ace, who was struggling, which coach was the most shameless flirt with their mothers. Topics strayed to school, video games, sightseeing in foreign countries. The story of Takeru's eccentric biker grandparents in France somehow came out, and suddenly he found himself bombarded with demands to teach the others French swear words.
A timid voice broke in, almost clean swallowed by the deafening roar of the cafeteria:
"Can I sit here?"
Takeru glanced up, a trail of sauce dribbling down his chin. A tallish, sandy-haired boy sporting a navy sweatband hesitated just beside the table with his hazel eyes fixed on Takeru. Takeru shrugged, looking around at his friends, then slid down the bench to make room.
"Thanks." The boy's tray clattered on the table and he parked himself next to Takeru. "Did you get very far in that book?"
Takeru stared at him blankly for a minute, before he recognized him as the boy who had commented on his reading during Wednesday's scrimmage. He finished off the chunk of pizza in his mouth.
"Oh, yeah, I finished it," he nodded. "It was interesting –"
"You've got stuff on your…" The boy gestured to his chin with one twirling finger.
Embarrassed, Takeru snatched up his napkin and smothered his face.
"It's gone," said his companion, cheerfully. "My name's Seiki by the way. Hosoda Seiki."
"Nice to meet you, Hosoda-kun," Takeru replied politely. "I'm Ta –"
"Takaishi Takeru-kun, I know," Seiki interrupted him yet again. His eyes scanned Takeru's face with an odd, searching glint. "It took me a couple of days, but I figured out who you are."
By now, Takeru's surprise had melted into curiosity as it dawned on him that Seiki was deliberately ignoring everyone else at their table. His cheeks warmed. He didn't like the way Seiki looked at him. Like he was a rare work of Jōmon era art, pleasant and puzzling to look at, something to be deciphered.
"I mean that it took me a while to figure out you're that Takaishi Takeru," Seiki went on.
Takeru tried not to fidget. "Have we met before?"
"Briefly," Seiki said, casual as a housecat. "I'm not surprised you don't remember me. I wasn't one of the most outspoken. I could never forget any of you, though. You look different than you did back then."
Takeru's irrational sense of being hunted intensified. He found himself turning away, and picked up his seltzer water and gulped it down. Then someone tapped his shoulder.
"Up for a friendly game?" asked Nakata, a subtle, concerned crease in his brow. Takeru was impressed by how easily he'd picked up on his discomfort. "The court by the parking lot is free, and I've got my own ball."
Takeru wasn't particularly thrilled about playing more basketball after doing little else all day – all week – but, under Seiki's surveying gaze, being anywhere but the cafeteria suddenly seemed ideal. He nodded and stood. "Yeah, let's go."
"Can I come?" Seiki swiveled around on the bench while the others deserted the table, watching them eagerly.
Takeru and Nakata exchanged a wary glance. "Sure, but don't you want to finish eating first?" Nakata said, waving a hand at Seiki's untouched plate.
"Why don't you meet up with us when you're done?" Takeru suggested.
For a moment he thought Seiki saw through their ruse. His smile drooped a bit, which was somehow more alarming than his creepy look of interest. But then he swung his legs back under the table, bending over his tray.
"You're right! I hadn't even noticed. I'll meet you out there then. Okay?"
"Sure thing." Takeru offered him a kind, slightly apologetic grin, a wave of guilt washing over him. He was amazed at himself. Why was he being so hard on this kid, whom he'd only known for a few minutes? Being suspicious, prejudging – that wasn't like Takeru. He might not always go out of his way to be social, but he was never unfriendly on purpose. "We'll catch up with you later, Hosoda-kun."
Nakata led his pack out the dining hall to the outdoor court. Takeru shuffled along at the rear, hands thrust in his pockets. In the hall he paused and looked over his shoulder.
Seiki was watching him, hunched over his knees, hands clasped together. From a distance Takeru couldn't be certain, but he thought he saw him smirking.
Sleep proved a slippery companion that weekend. Friday night, Hikari's eyelids stung with the effort to keep them closed. Finally she abandoned sleep and spent the night seeing how long she could keep Takeru awake exchanging text messages. Saturday brought only a small improvement, and not until the first rays of dawn filtered through her window. But she left Takeru alone as a reward for surviving her until 5 a.m. the other night.
On Sunday morning, she awoke to Miko curled up by her knees at 4:30, and tossed and turned with the morning light burning her heavy eyes. By 7, she knew there was no chance of falling back asleep amid the din of automobiles and motorbikes in full gear outside. She disentangled herself from her sheets and stumbled over to her dresser. A sickly ghost's face, gaunt and deeply shadowed, met her hollow stare in the mirror. Selecting a concealer brush, she worked meticulously to hide the evidence of her restless night.
Maybe the Sandman was skipping her room on purpose, knowing he would only bring nightmares, and other guests of the most sinister kind.
She didn't need his help to terrify herself with thoughts of the danger courting her brother.
She showered and, after snapping on a pink utility dress and clipping her hair back with a butterfly barrette, ventured to the kitchen to scrounge for food. She found her mother half-awake on the sofa and wrapped in a bathrobe, a steaming cup of coffee in her hands. Taichi lounged beside her with the remote control balanced on his knee. Both greeted her with identical pre-caffeine lethargy.
Taichi had been an early riser since childhood, but Yagami Yuuko loved her sleep. That she'd emerged from her bedroom before ten on a Sunday was a shock Hikari's sleep-deprived brain wasn't fit to register. Tripping on the hardwood floor, she threw her hands out and staggered into the counter.
"G'morning, sweetie," Yuuko said, with a bleary glance at her daughter. "Want breakfast? There's quiche in the fridge."
Hikari tentatively opened the refrigerator door and stuck her head in, half-expecting to be assaulted by a ravenous quiche monster that had inexplicably become sentient and evil overnight.
"Yamato and I made it," Taichi put in, guessing her thoughts. "It's cheese and bacon. A manly quiche."
Relieved, she lugged the quiche out of the fridge and cut herself a slice. Leave it to Taichi and Yamato to decide, at one a.m., that now was the perfect time to make quiche.
"This is your idea of a midnight snack?" she mumbled while reheating her breakfast in the oven.
She received no answer besides an amused chuckle. Nothing more was needed. Before high school had so completely absorbed most of their free time, Taichi and Yamato used to keep their kitchens stocked with home-made treats – pies and breaded noodles and curry udon. Hikari could reference the exact time they'd become too busy for each other, because she'd once again fallen victim to her mother's questionable-at-best cooking.
Her brother appeared in the kitchen with an empty mug, which he rinsed and dumped in the sink. She started as his arm hooked around her shoulders, drawing her in for a quick hug.
"You're up early today," he commented lightly, with an ease to his voice that had been absent since Friday's news.
Yamato had worked hard to lift Taichi's spirits. He'd stayed over until close to three that Friday, teasing Taichi with jokes and friendly insults, and then refused to sleep over on account of band practice in the morning. He'd acted as if not a single unusual thing had happened – acted so normal that, for a while, they forgot the enormity of their troubles. But Saturday found Taichi uncharacteristically aloof and subdued. He kept to himself in their father's study until Susumu chewed him out for worrying Hikari and his mother, and so he contritely joined them for dinner. He even pretended to go along with his father's worn out dinner table jokes.
Today – whether it was because he'd finally managed to sleep through the night, or because his friends' combined medicines to cheer him up had finally kicked in – he seemed a little more like himself.
He rummaged through the cabinet and withdrew with his teeth clamped around a blueberry Poptart. Hikari suppressed a shudder (how could he eat them cold? Were his taste buds on strike?) and explained:
"I promised Daisuke-kun I'd meet him. Iori-kun returned from vacation last night, so today we're going swimming."
She didn't want to mention Digiworld with their mother in hearing range, and waited while Taichi puzzled that out. His expression cleared soon enough. "Oh! Okay. Well, keep your D-terminal on you. And no drunken beach sex or I'll ship you off to a nunnery."
Leaving his sister to sputter in shock, he returned to the couch to give his full attention to his sugary meal.
Hikari joined them with her breakfast and a cup of tea. They flipped through the channels and settled on some cartoons, Taichi entertaining his girls with cheeky commentary, and Yuuko retorting that no son of hers could speak of Doraemon with anything less than the utmost respect.
At quarter after nine Hikari pulled on her sandals and opened the front door.
"You're leaving now?" Taichi asked, poking his head out of the bathroom with his toothbrush dangling from his mouth.
"Yeah. We need to get an early start, because Miyako-san has to work in the afternoon."
Taichi nodded, quiet and thoughtful. He let his gaze drift to a vase by the telephone. "I wish I were going too," he said wistfully.
"You can't," she stammered. "Koushirou-san doesn't want you near any Digital Gates –"
"I know. I just wish I could." He made a frustrated noise. "You know what Tuesday is, don't you?"
Their anniversary. She knew.
He sighed, but offered her a smile, and went back to teasing. "Anyway, Daisuke won't be up yet. It's Sunday. He'll be unconscious till noon."
"He'll be up," Hikari replied, already shutting the door behind her. "There's no way even his bull-headedness can outlast the combined powers of Ken-kun and Jun-san."
"I hate you," Daisuke declared, sagging over a bowl of Fruit Loops. "I hate you, and your damn internal alarm clock, and for pete's sake, why were you getting tanked with my sister at eight in the morning?"
"I was not 'getting tanked' with your sister," Ken said sternly. He gestured to the piping hot bowl of soup on his placemat. "It was cognac. We needed it to make French onion soup."
"Sounds nauseating." Daisuke made a face and Ken chuckled into his bowl, which only annoyed Daisuke further. First he had to wake up at some ungodly hour, only to find his best friend and his sister fraternizing in his kitchen with a bottle of alcohol between them. Then they ridiculed him for misinterpreting the situation, even though it was so obviously a farce – Jun would flirt with any unsuspecting Y chromosome, as long as he fit her idea of attractive. If Ken thought she'd leave him alone just because of a three year age gap, he had another thing coming.
Daisuke considered himself a good best friend, and therefore it was his duty to protect Ken from his sister's mania. (One of these days he would write a book documenting all the symptoms of Jun-itis, which would sell millions and win tons of awards and they'd stick his name in elementary school textbooks and all that jazz.) At the same time, Ken's deer-in-headlights look when Daisuke stormed in on them hurling accusations just as Jun's arm was snaking its way around his shoulders had been priceless.
"Eat, Daisuke," Ken pressed, scraping his chair back and taking his own bowl to the sink. Daisuke heard the water run and Ken's hands scrubbing the bowl clean. "You've got perfectly good toxic cereal that will keep you buoyant enough to bounce off walls all day long. You'll be pre-diabetic before you're 30. Stop complaining about being tired."
Daisuke pouted and stirred his spoon absently. "I'm supposed to last the whole day on this?" he complained, staring at his measly "breakfast." "You want me to collapse from malnourishment?"
"I think you'll survive. Next time get up on time."
"This is cruel and unusual punishment."
The doorbell chimed, and Daisuke shot out of his chair like a bullet. "Hikari-chaaaan!" he sang, grinning broadly and dragging her inside by the arm. "This is great! I get you all to myself today. Let's do something wild and ridiculously irresponsible to shock Take-dork with when he gets back from finishing school."
Hikari rolled her eyes, smiling as she let herself be marched into the kitchen. "He'll be glad to know you're thinking of him. Hi, Ken-kun."
"Good morning." Ken raised a soapy hand in greeting. "Would you like a drink?"
"Oh, I'm not –"
"Hey, hey, it's my house, I get to play host." Daisuke steered Hikari to a chair. "Ken and Jun made some kind of witch's brew which I'm sure you don't want. But there are muffins! Here, you like blueberry, right?"
He tossed one over his shoulder and Hikari caught it deftly. "Actually, that's my brother," she giggled, "but blueberry's good."
"How's Taichi-san doing?" Ken asked with concern. He wiped his hands with a dish towel and perched on the edge of the table.
Hikari opened her mouth to reply, but Daisuke cut her off: "He's fine. He's Taichi-san," he said with unflagging certainty. "Besides, I'm sure Hikari-chan's sick of people hounding her about her brother."
The look that passed between Ken and Hikari irritated him a little. He hated when people shared secrets with each other and left him out. Worst of all, he didn't know if they were eyeing each other like that because, as usual, he was talking too much, or because he'd missed some pertinent point.
Thankfully the doorbell rang again, distracting Ken and Hikari from tossing each other furtive looks as Daisuke dashed to answer it. Miyako and Iori entered, loaded down with plastic bags.
Miyako breezed into the kitchen without bothering to say hello. "Guess what! Iori went to Hakone and brought us back kurotamago!"
She passed around the bag containing the small black chicken eggs, and each Chosen thanked Iori and took one.
"They are supposed to increase your life span," Iori said. "My grandfather says it's true, because they're boiled in hot springs. He thinks the hot springs have de-aged him by twenty years."
"Yeah, his skin looked baby-soft when I saw him this morning!" Miyako added enthusiastically.
Both Ken's eyebrows nearly shot off his face. Daisuke snorted milk up his nose.
"Are we ready to go? Since Miyako-san needs to be back by one, we should hurry." Iori took one look at Daisuke's almost-finished bowl and reached out to take it away.
Daisuke clutched it protectively. "You just got back and already you're abusing me." He lifted the bowl to his lips and drained it of its contents. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he pushed back in his chair and jumped up. "Okay, let's roll!"
They filed into Daisuke's bedroom, pausing to duck as Jun hurled a hair brush at Daisuke while spitting threats and curses. Daisuke suspected it had something to do with his using the last of her shampoo (it wasn't like he wanted to smell of coconut milk and flowers, but what could he do? He'd run out of Flex).
Daisuke started his PC and let Miyako set up the portal. "It's been a while," Miyako said before they dove in. "In spite of the circumstances, I'm glad to be going back."
"It's no surprise," Daisuke nodded. "I like Digiworld. I like Veemon. I don't think it's their fault that… you know."
He cleared his throat as color rose to his cheeks. He was the only one looking at Hikari; the others conspicuously turned away. "Anyway… Miyako, want to do the honors?"
Miyako raised her red D3. "Digi-Port, open."
They were encompassed by a familiar flash of bright light, followed by the dizzying sensation of falling head-over-heels. Daisuke always found it a little disconcerting that they could never see where they were landing, or when the ground was rushing towards them. It was like – all of a sudden – whump.
He blinked, finding himself beneath a bright sky, and waited for the vertigo to pass. Luckily they were so used to the whole process by now that no one would get sick –
"I warned you not to eat that second egg."
They ended up in a dense forest, full of ancient oaks climbing toward the sky and a maze of giant overhanging branches. Sunlight peeked through the leafy canopy and speckled the ground, which was covered in a layer of springy moss. Brushing aside sweeping fern fronds, Daisuke led the way through the thick foliage, trailed closely by Ken, who he could see arching his neck forward and scowling at something ahead of them.
Miyako leaned heavily on Hikari's arm, still slightly green and tilting her head away from the group. After she'd decided she felt well enough to walk, the others divvied out her bags among them, and Iori lectured her on the sin of gluttony off and on for a good ten minutes. Daisuke was amused until Iori started in on him.
He grumbled to himself about kouhai and their lack of respect towards their elders. A wayward frond seized its chance to smack the side of his head while he was distracted. He flinched, cursing, and fell back with his fingers at his temple.
"Daisuke, you're bleeding." Ken grabbed his elbow and forced his hand away so he could inspect the wound. "It's shallow," he announced with relief. "Miyako-san – bandages?"
"I've got them." Miyako grabbed Iori and nearly ripped the plastic bag he was carrying right off him. "And here's some Neosporin, just in case."
"It's not bad enough for that," Daisuke grumbled, flinching as Ken daubed the cut with a cloth.
"You were attacked by a plant," Hikari exclaimed in disbelief. Squeezing past Ken and Miyako, she replaced Daisuke at the lead and balanced on her tiptoes, surveying the area.
"This is Digiworld, Hikari-chan. We've been attacked by creatures that look like regurgitated Caesar salads. Why are you surprised?"
"Listen, we've seen a lot of strange things in this world, but we've never been attacked by anything that wasn't a Digimon –"
She broke off with a sudden yelp, and stumbled back as Daisuke's assassin frond took a swing at her as well. Snatching it with both hands, Hikari threw all her weight against the plant and bent it back, gasping at the strength and flexibility of its stipe. Daisuke and Ken took hold of the other end, and together they folded it until its tip meant the ground. There was a satisfying snap.
Something fumbled about just out of their sight, escaping with quick but noisy leaps. Bellowing a well-practiced war holler, Daisuke lunged clumsily into the undergrowth. His hands brushed something slimy and with the texture of a cheese round. It made a desperate gurgling noise, but Daisuke locked it to his chest with his arms as the others caught up to him.
Hikari was the first to arrive. "Sukamon!" she cried, dropping to her knees and extracting the strange little creature from Daisuke's grip. She held him tenderly, and Daisuke could now make out his quivering, unnaturally long tongue, and the teeth that surrounded his entire body, dividing maxilla and mandible.
"Why did you attack us?" Hikari asked, stroking Sukamon's head (which composed more or less all he was) while he huddled against her. "Where's Chuumon?"
"Is this the same Sukamon you guys met way back in the day?" Daisuke knelt in front of Hikari, turning an apologetic grin on Sukamon. "Sorry, pal. But I wouldn't have grabbed at you like that if you hadn't been hitting us with leaves."
Sukamon only whimpered and clawed at Hikari with his bony fingers. His nails dragged down the length of her arm, leaving red trails in their wake. Daisuke's brow drew in anger and he leaned forward to pull Sukamon away, but was stopped by a warning look from Hikari.
He withdrew, but eyed her in such a way as to let her know he didn't approve. If she wanted to make herself vulnerable to such a volatile Digimon, that was her business. But he didn't have to like it.
Meanwhile, Ken had left Miyako and Iori with their bags, and trudged over to Daisuke's side. He put a hand on Daisuke's shoulder as he lowered himself to the ground, and murmured softly in his ear.
"Everything all right?"
Daisuke shrugged. "Hikari-chan knows him. I don't get it. How come Veemon and the others weren't here to meet us when we arrived?"
Ken frowned in thought. "Yes, we probably wouldn't have been attacked if they'd been here –" he started to say, but was cut off as Sukamon let out a shriek of terror.
"Sukamon!" Hikari cried, tightening her hold on the struggling creature. Sukamon squirmed and batted at her with his fists. "Calm down! You know me!"
But Sukamon only thrashed about more wildly, losing a little more control every time it set its eyes on the Chosen – and Ken.
"Do something!" Hikari cried helplessly.
Daisuke glanced up at Ken, who had taken a few steps back. Daisuke couldn't see his face, but his posture was rigid and he shrank against the base of a tree.
Sukamon struck Hikari on the chin and wrenched her hands apart. She fell back, and Sukamon tried to bound away. On a reflex, Daisuke's arm shot out and grabbed Sukamon's torso roughly.
"Will you knock it off?"
"It's the Emperor!" Sukamon shouted. Miyako and Iori, just appearing through the archway of fronds, froze in place. Speechless, Daisuke loosened his grip, and Sukamon plummeted to the ground. The Digimon scampered deep into the woods, his terrified wails becoming more and more muffled by the wall of trees.
"It's the Emperor, the Emperor, he's come back!"
No one bothered to chase him down.
Daisuke gradually made his way to Ken. He stared at his best friend, bent into himself, as if trying to grow small and invisible against the large trunk of his tree. Daisuke could hear his breathing through his hands, soft and ragged.
"Ken – Ken –" Miyako's lower lip quivered, her eyes big and shining. Daisuke wondered if she even realized she'd dropped her normal honorific for Ken.
Hikari and Iori both took one of Miyako's arms, and they wandered just out of sight beyond several slender, towering trees. Their hushed conversation was lost in a fog of noise, easily tuned out, but always comfortingly close by.
Ken didn't acknowledge them. Rooted firmly in place by shock or grief, only his shoulders moved with each heavy breath. After a moment's pause, Daisuke touched Ken's shoulder, and though Ken's position didn't change, he didn't shy away either.
He knew Ken only needed a minute to compose himself, but still it took all his willpower not to speak. Actually, he felt like laughing. Nothing he saw was the least bit funny, but the stifling lack of sound made his tongue feel like lead in his mouth.
It came as a surprise when Ken was the first to break the silence.
"That, I wasn't expecting," he said, and made some sound that could have been a laugh, but struck Daisuke as far more frustrated than amused.
"It's about time this world stopped tormenting you," Daisuke growled in return, giving Ken's shoulder another firm pat.
Ken shook his head, his mane of dark hair spilling over his face. "I don't have the right to ask for anyone's forgiveness before they're ready." He took a shuddering breath, finally turning to look at Daisuke. "Digiworld is a huge place. And we haven't come here overmuch in the past few years. We can't expect the whole world to know that I… I've changed."
"But it's not fair," Daisuke fumed. "You helped fix everything. You saved the world."
"Most of those last battles took place on Earth. They're just the stuff of legends here – to Digimon who even know about them at all."
"But you were used! You're not responsible –"
"Daisuke, enough, alright?" Ken snapped. "To some extent I am responsible, I've accepted that, and denying it doesn't help anyone."
Taken aback, all Daisuke could think to do was go back to the others. Ken had made it clear he wasn't interested in this conversation, so he expected him to follow. But a moment later Ken called from behind:
"Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have shouted at you."
Daisuke turned around. Ken was still sagging against the same tree, looking world-weary and somehow as young as he'd been when he'd first donned the Emperor's cloak and guise. Daisuke cursed his impatience. He reached up to scratch his chin.
"I just hate to see you in pain," he said miserably. "When you've already gone through enough for ten Kens."
For the first time, Ken smiled. He clambered down to Daisuke on the flat ground and slipped an arm around his shoulder. "I know. I appreciate it, Daisuke." He squeezed his arm, then glanced ahead of them. "We should get back to the others before Miyako-san has time to think up a new way to lift up my spirits."
"She's probably halfway through planning your Get-Well-Soon party," Daisuke joked back, falling into step beside his tall friend. His senses were still heightened, trying to gauge Ken's mood, but Ken appeared to have lapsed into a period of calm. Maybe it was just like he'd said: he'd accepted his life as it was.
They found their teammates huddled around Miyako's D3. When Miyako heard them, relief spread plain across her face. Iori and Hikari were more subtle, dipping their heads in Ken's direction and then moving on as if nothing had happened.
"Miyako-san's got a light on her D3," Hikari explained. "We don't know what it is, but we think it could be Hawkmon."
"It's about time!" Daisuke tramped over to her. "But why would he be traveling alone?"
"That's why we have to be cautious," Iori said.
"Miyako, this means you take the lead." Daisuke gave her a push forward. Miyako yelped and shot him a dirty look. Then her eyes fell on Ken. For a moment Daisuke thought she would bring up what Sukamon had done, and braced himself for another meltdown.
Miyako shoved the First Aid kit at Ken. "You carry this," she said.
Ken blinked at the bag. "Um, okay?" He took the kit from her and slung it over his shoulder.
"Since I'm in the lead, it's better if someone who won't be distracted carries it," Miyako went on. She tucked some hair behind her ear and planted her hands on her hips.
"I got it," Ken nodded. The corners of his mouth lifted. "Don't worry. If you get attacked by any wild ferns, I'll be right there with the antiseptic."
"Good," Miyako replied with a satisfied nod. "Then let's go."
She set off, flanked on either side by Iori and Hikari like a pair of sentries. Daisuke exchanged a look with Ken. A slow smile crossed Ken's face, which quickly morphed into a full-blown smirk. He patted the kit and sauntered after them.
Ken's dark moods didn't take him very often anymore. And it was becoming much easier to cheer him up when something happened to remind him of those dark days. But there were times when it seemed that some shadow came to linger over Ken, cast by a titan none of them could see or dream of fighting. Those times reminded Daisuke more than anything that the horrors in Ken's past had never been defeated, just swept under the rug.
And there they'll stay. Daisuke set his jaw.
Maybe they could invest in full room carpeting.
The doorbell rang three times before Yamato finally answered it. Even then, it wasn't he who noticed the bell, but Akira, who had thrown himself across Yamato's couch in front of the TV while the rest of the band huddled in the kitchen. They were messing with a new tune Yamato had been toying with over the period since the commercial shoot when Akira's voice suddenly cut through:
"Yamato, do you want to get the door or what?"
Yamato stared at him blankly, fingers poised on a G chord. He shrugged and, peeling off the guitar strap, picked his way carefully through the scattered equipment cluttering the floor in the hall.
He opened the door to Taichi's gleeful face.
"Yamato! I have amazing news. You might need to sit down for this," he announced, gripping Yamato's shoulders. Something behind Yamato caught his eye and he let go with a sheepish laugh. "Oh, sorry. Didn't know you had company. Hey, Mizuno."
Akira saluted him with a beer can before going back to his game show. "Yo."
"That's okay," Yamato said easily, leaning against the doorframe. "We're not doing much, just trying to keep cool."
"On that note, would you mind inviting us in?" Taichi asked.
Yamato obliged, making room for him to squeeze through the narrow doorway. He craned his neck to catch a glimpse of whoever had come with Taichi – and his mouth went dry.
Sora's carrot red hair was cropped shorter than ever, parted at the side and curled in a graceful bob. She wore a minimal amount of make-up, just enough to bring out the color in her cheeks. She paused in front of him, biting her lower lip, searching his face as if there she'd find a hint of what he was feeling.
He lifted his chin as she passed into the genkan without another word. Swinging the door shut, Yamato kicked their shoes aside and headed to Akira and the couch. He pulled the tab off a can of beer and took a gulp.
"You want any?" he called to his visitors.
Taichi looked like he was considering it, but Sora turned to him with a wrinkled nose and his expression changed. Yamato caught on and his frown deepened. He knew Sora was no stranger to drink – except in his company, apparently.
"Nah, I think we're good," Taichi said cheerfully in that way of his, oblivious to the mounting tension in the room.
"Yagami!" Yutaka crowed, leaping over a kitchen chair to drive his fist into Taichi's forearm. "Sora-chan too! Long time no see, girl!" he cried, pulling Sora into a swift hug that shocked her into dropping her handbag.
Taichi winced and massaged his arm. "Geez, Michishita, you don't greet your mom that way, do you?"
Yutaka belted a laugh, throwing an arm around Taichi in a familiar way that made Yamato hold back a sigh. Yutaka was a great guitarist, but he had no concept of social boundaries.
During their years as an unknown garage band, when their usual audience was comprised of longsuffering family members and a few encouraging friends, Taichi and Sora were a couple of their regulars. They'd come by during practices too, if the timing didn't conflict with their sports schedules, and that became more frequent for Sora after she began dating Yamato. Around the same time, those visits became noticeably fewer for Taichi.
Early on there were jokes about appointing Taichi and Sora honorary members of the band, or "exalted groupies" as Taichi preferred to call them. But the dynamics of the relationship among the three of them changed after Yamato and Sora broke up. Between Yamato and Sora, it was almost nonexistent.
"So what's the great news?" Yamato knocked Akira's hand off the arm of the couch and took a seat there, nursing his beer.
Taichi's grin broadened, somehow, and he nudged Sora with his elbow. "Do you want to tell him?" He was practically jumping in place, a completely different Taichi from the morose person Yamato had coaxed out of depression only two days ago.
Sora nudged him back. "Go ahead, silly, tell him before you burst."
Bursting seemed like a definite threat. "Out with it, Taichi," Yamato teased, "or Takashi will start singing." From somewhere in the kitchen came a howl of protest.
"Okay." Taichi spread his hands, palms up. "So you know what the day after tomorrow is."
Yamato stared at him, uncomprehending. "It's… Tuesday?"
"Oh Lord." Sora's arms dropped to her side. "You can't not remember!"
Yamato bristled and had to work hard to curb his temper. Funny how she could raise his hackles with barely a word.
She grew even more irate at his silence. "Our anniversary, Yamato!" she cried, now flinging her arms wide.
For a tense moment Yamato thought she was referring to their anniversary – which was in January, and which they hadn't celebrated in years. Every fiber in him wanted to shout back, take her to task for coming here just to rub salt in his wounds.
His fury must have shown on his face. As soon as he stood up Taichi quickly stepped between them, considerably less chipper.
"Camp, Yamato," he clarified, glancing between them. "August 1st. Our anniversary."
"When we first met," Sora added for the benefit of their captive audience. Akira and Yutaka were both frozen in place, and Takashi had drifted over to the kitchenette counter for a better view.
Yamato's shoulders drooped as the truth dawned on him. Damn. Now he looked like a real winner.
"Oh," he said. Nice recovery.
Sora clenched her arms over her chest. Yamato recognized it as her I suffer the jerks of the world in martyr-like silence posture and almost flinched.
Valiantly plowing on, Taichi continued, "So, I know we don't usually do anything until the middle of August, so we can celebrate with Hikari –" Myotismon's defeat, Yamato registered, "– but Sora and I were thinking that this year, at least we old-timers could do something fun on the 1st too. Becaaaause…"
He paused for dramatic effect, which took seven seconds to incubate – Yamato counted.
"Mimi-chan's coming back!" he exclaimed at last.
Yamato's brow lifted. "Wasn't she due sometime next week?"
"She's coming down early to stay with Sora," Taichi replied. "It's all been arranged."
"She called me very last minute to tell me she'd quit her job at the mall and wanted to come over now instead of later," Sora explained. "Remember last year she couldn't come at all because of her dad's fall down the stairs? She wants to make up for lost time."
"I can't believe she has the money to switch flights on such short notice," Yamato said with a shake of his head. "How long is she staying?"
"Four weeks, until the new term in America begins," Sora said. "So will you come with us to meet her?"
"At the airport," Taichi said. "Sora's driving to Narita Airport on Tuesday to pick her up. I'm gonna tag along. Jou and Koushirou already promised to come too."
Yamato looked down at his hands, which were occupied in picking at the threadbare couch. He hadn't even realized it. "I don't know," he said at last. "I mean, this is real short notice."
"Tell me about it. We haven't even finished making space for her at home," Sora said. Yamato couldn't tell whether or not that was a dig at his pathetic reason for not wanting to come along.
"Yeah, well. I'll think about it. We – the band – we have a lot of work to do, so no promises."
Taichi seemed ready to leave it at that, but Sora pursed her lips, expression incredulous. "Work? Even this Tuesday?" She picked up an empty can and held it aloft like a trophy. "You call lounging around with alcohol and watching game shows work?"
"We're taking a break, Sora!" Yamato countered. "And Akira's the only one watching TV!"
"That's 'cause any other time I do more work than the rest of you put together," Akira muttered under his breath.
"This is exactly how you were when we were dating," Sora hissed.
"What are you saying? That I'm lazy?"
"I'm saying that you use this band as an excuse to ignore your friends!" Her voice was growing shriller by the minute. Before long his windows would shatter.
"Sora, just drop it," Taichi said in a tone obviously meant just for her, but audible to all. For no good reason, Yamato's anger sparked at him too. Even if he was asking her to lay off, something in his manner made it obvious he was taking her side.
She wouldn't listen anyway. "Last year you said you couldn't even come to the anniversary picnic because you had to practice."
"I did have to practice," Yamato seethed.
"And you couldn't have rescheduled? You couldn't have come by even for a few minutes?"
Yamato dug his fingers into his hair. A harsh laugh burst out, surprising even him with its warmth. "You want to know why we broke up? This is why. Miss Nag-and-pout. Why did I even let you in here?"
"I broke up with you!" she shot back tearfully. "Do you ever think why – and I – I – I have to get out of here. I'm going."
She fumbled for her handbag. Yamato stalked ahead of her and flung open the door. "Be my guest!" He made a mock bow and flourished his hand.
"Yamato." Taichi scowled at him. "Don't."
"I didn't start it this time," he retorted. "You should go too."
"Fine," Taichi snapped, brushing by him and scrounging for his shoes. Sora was out the door before he got the first one on his foot. "You really piss me off sometimes, you know."
"Right, 'cause not wanting to make a last minute trip to the airport is such a crime!" Yamato fumed. "It's not like I said I never wanted to see Mimi at all!"
"I thought you guys were over this," Taichi mumbled, heading outside.
"Yeah, well, we're not. Tough."
Taichi swiveled on his heel and pinned him with a look. Yamato stared him down, stubbornly refusing to make peace, even though it wasn't Taichi with whom he was upset.
Finally Taichi sighed, glancing over his shoulder at Sora waiting for him by the stairs. "I'll call you later," he said, moving away.
A little surprised that he hadn't been the one to give in, Yamato gave a curt nod. "Alright. Bye."
He waited until Taichi met up with Sora. They stood by the rail talking for a minute. Taichi's arm slipped around her, and though she didn't lean in to him, Yamato noticed some of the tension ease from her shoulders. He shut the door and touched his forehead to it, willing his temper to simmer down. Footsteps in the hall brought him back to reality and he turned to Yutaka and Takashi loitering nearby.
"So… are we done here?" Yutaka asked. He was carrying his guitar case as if he meant to leave regardless.
Blood rushed to Yamato's face. Without answering, he swept into the kitchen and started on the dirty dishes. The rush of water from the faucet filled his ears, drowning out his bandmates' good-byes, and the slam of the door as they left – Yutaka couldn't do anything quietly.
"See you later, Yamato," Akira said from the doorway.
Yamato jumped at his voice. "See you."
Akira shifted his weight to his other foot. "What ever happened between you two?" he stammered out, uncomfortable as ever asking after someone's personal life. Yamato had never known Akira to be nosy. He scowled at him over the counter.
"I don't really know," he confessed. "It's like she said. She broke up with me. She had reasons… I never thought they were good enough." He snatched a towel off the rack and wiped his hands.
"So you're still interested in her?"
"I didn't say that," he snapped. "I've barely even seen her over the past couple years. These days Taichi has to promise her the moon to get her to go to our concerts."
"Okay, okay, I wasn't trying to insinuate anything," Akira replied smoothly. "Just wondering. Because I don't want you to get involved in anything that could compromise the band."
"Like anything that could stain our rep. We're teetering on the edge, Yamato – we'll make it or break it with this next single. Pretty much any scandal would end our contract. Girls always lead to scandals."
Tight-lipped, Yamato turned his back to Akira, steadily wiping down the dishes. "Lucky for you there's no girl."
"That's good. But just think about what I said. This band can't afford to lose you."
He closed the door much more gently than Yutaka as he left, leaving Yamato alone with the drone of the TV and a litter of empty cans. Alone with his thoughts.
The band couldn't afford to lose Yamato. But Yamato wasn't at all sure he'd mind losing the band.
1.] Jōmon era art: Jōmon culture was responsible for the doguu statues, including Shakoukidoguu, from which Ankylomon and Angemon's DNA digivolved form, Shakkoumon, was derived. Yes, I'm trying to be clever.
2.] kurotamago: Literally, "black egg." They are chicken eggs boiled in hot springs, which turns the shells black from the minerals. (But they taste like regular hard-boiled eggs.) If you eat one, your life will be extended by seven years. Eating more than two isn't a good idea because you could decrease your life span. I have no idea if they make good souvenirs or if they spoil too quickly… Iori's mom probably has magical powers of preservation. ;)
3.] kouhai: The opposite of "senpai" – the junior member in a scenario.
4.] genkan: Entranceway where shoes are taken off and replaced with slippers.
Wild guess which Digimon looks like a regurgitated Caesar salad.
Please review... I'll do my best to get chapter 4 up quickly!