"What does it mean?"
Matt half-opened his weary eyes and looked over at the redhead lying in the tousled sheets beside him, the curve of her naked hip protruding from the landscape of white cotton.
"What?" He mumbled, hoping to god this wasn't another girl who saw herself as anything more than the groupie she was. This? This meant nothing. Nothing had meant anything in a long time.
With one long, slender finger she traced the tattoo on his shoulder, following the fins and circle, down the curving line in the center of the ring. Matt reached over and placed a hand over it, interrupting her meditative tracing, and grasped the shoulder tightly.
"It reminds of who I am." He murmured.
"Oh." The redhead replied, her big green eyes blinking blankly above her freckle-splashed cheekbones.
With a heavy sigh, ragged with frustration, Matt heaved himself out of bed, ignoring the girl's imploring gaze as he slipped back into his jeans and threw his wrinkled, dirty t-shirt on carelessly. The girl's still-painted lips quivered with the desire to say something if he looked at her again, but as he went to the door his eyes remained gazing dead-pan, straight ahead.
Drawing a breath and mustering her courage she called; "Matt!" He paused. "I…I think I love you."
His shoulders tensed, and his teeth ground against each other. "Don't be ridiculous." He grumbled, and slammed the door behind him as he left the room.
In the stairwell of the moldy, dank hotel he paused, and gripped his shoulder again, chewing his lip and staring blankly into a place worlds away.
"Just who are you anymore, Matt?" He murmured, and then continued down the stairs.
T.K. lost his breath when he saw her, just like he always did, but after four months apart it felt new again, and he could barely move under the pressure of how beautiful she was and how much he loved her. Kari had been studying abroad for the spring semester, far away in England, and though they talked over IM and video chat daily, nothing could compare to seeing her in person.
Though she was sprinting from the second she passed the train doors, it took her an eternity to reach his arms, and he wished he could have unstuck his feet and closed the gap sooner, instead of standing frozen, habitually fingering the large locket around his neck. Finally, she crashed into him, wrapping him so tightly in her arms he had the wind knocked out of him all over again. He gulped in the air around her, permeated with her scent and aura. She turned her mouth towards his and he placed a hand on the side of her head, fingers twining through her hair, holding her face so he could pull her into their kiss as fiercely as he needed to. She started giggling, and with a bright smile pulled away, with her hands on his shoulders but his other arm still pinning her waist against his.
"So, I guess you didn't miss me too much, huh?" She chirped.
T.K. laughed, and it felt like he hadn't really laughed in all the four months until now. "Nah, sure you don't wanna go back and stay a couple extra months?"
A wheezy, strained voice interjected: "And let her bring home even more stuff for me too lug around? No thanks."
"Aww, Tai, you didn't have to get it all!" Kari exclaimed, moving towards her brother who was stumbling off the train with Kari's luggage somewhat cumbersomely in tow. However, her effort to run and help him was disabled by TK's relentless grip.
Tai chuckled breathlessly, placing the pile of parcels at their feet and then stretching his back with a groan. "No worries." He said. "I just expect you to get all my luggage when it comes time for me to reunite with any fiancé's I get in the future."
"But Tai," T.K. quipped. "That would require someone actually wanting to marry you."
"Ahaha," Tai replied, sneeringly, as Kari genuinely giggled. "Geesh, you remind me more of your brother everyday…"
Tai bit the end of the sentence, but realized his mistake too late. T.K.'s gaze fogged over for a moment, casting downwards as his mouth tightened and his hand rested on his locket again.
"Still haven't heard from him?" Kari said gently.
"No, last I heard he was touring America with the band…the news said he was under investigation for a few days on charges of drug possession—"
"Come on, T.K. you can't trust the media." Tai interrupted. "I'm sure he's fine."
A bubble of awkward silence fell over the three of them in the middle of that bustling station. Going on and ignoring the topic seemed futile, but none of them wanted to address it anymore. Finally Kari took T.K.'s left hand in her right, holding it tightly and pressing their wrists against each other so their tattoos connected, light and hope lining up between their skin.
T.K. gave her a strained smile. "Come on, love, let's get you home."
Izzy raised an eyebrow and turned towards the source of the flow of obscenities with an amused smile.
"You know, ever since you started going for your PhD your vocabulary has warped tremendously." He said.
Joe looked up at him with his blood-shot eyes, his hands pulling his indigo hair. His glasses were askew, and his shirt was half un-buttoned and spattered with coffee stains.
"It's easy for you. You had your PhD by the time I was starting Grad school…I'm four years in and getting old fast."
"I'm officially able to be rounded up to thirty! I'm starting to wrinkle!"
"Joe, I'm pretty sure that's just the constant worry-lines…"
"I found a gray hair yesterday!"
"Stress, my friend."
"Stress ages people!"
Izzy sighed and closed his laptop, smiling kindly at the moaning and rocking Joe. He pulled his swivel chair over to Joe's side and placed a hand on his back.
"Joe, it's summer. You should take a break."
"I can't, this is my career I'm setting up! If I wanna be a doc—"
"Joe, come on, what's one week gonna do? We can go camping! Invite the old gang!"
Joe raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I don't have time to plan a field trip…"
"So we'll have Sora plan it! That's what she does anyway."
"I do. You've been stressed out since you left the womb. It's time to kick back for a few days. …Hey! We can go up to Mimi's new lake house!"
"I guess if I bring my work with me…"
Izzy sighed so angrily it was more of a growl. "No Joe! No work, no school. Just sun, bar-b-que and booze!"
Joe hunched his shoulders defensively. "Well…if you're gonna force the issue…"
Izzy smiled, smacked Joe affectionately on the back and then rolled back over to his computer to finish his project and get in contact with Sora. The room was soon filled with the endless, over-lapping clicking of impassioned work.
She was so shocked when he picked up, for a long while she had no clue what to say. Sora had had the obligatory, automatic voicemail all scripted in her head, but in person she couldn't just ramble off the details and say goodbye. For the last three and a half years Matt had never returned a call, but she still felt it would be wrong not to let him know everyone was getting together, it happened so rarely nowadays. It had been so long since she'd heard his voice on anything but his records she had to trace it back to now-distant memories to make sure it was really him. And, though it was rough and gravelly along the edges with years of abuse, underneath it all was still Matt's smooth, smoky voice.
"H-hi Matt…this is Sora…" She stammered.
"I know. I still have your number programmed."
That threw up another hurdle, for a second her throat filled with an angry lump, but she swallowed it and pushed on. "We…uh, that is the sev—eight of us, you know, the old crew? We're…we're going to go to Mimi's lake house on the twenty-third. We all need a break and also sort of to celebrate Kari's graduation…and…and T.K.'s."
For a moment she thought he had hung up. But then he said, so softly it barely broke past the background static; "…He graduated?"
"Yeah, yeah and he got hired right away, a big company, they were really excited to have him, he…well…anyway, I just thought I'd invite you. If you wanted to come along." Matt's end was silent, but she heard enough background noise to know he was still there. "I mean, we figured you're busy with your band and all, so I understand if—"
"I'll be there."
She almost dropped the phone in shock. "Oh…really?"
"Yeah. The twenty-third?"
"Yeah, we're all gonna be there for about a week, and…are you really coming?"
"Yeah, email me the details. I'll see you there."
Now he hung up, but Sora was still sitting there with the phone to her ear for a long time afterwards.
Mimi's shriek of excitement could be heard even as the first car, filled with Tai, Kari, T.K. and Sora, pulled up through the front gate of the mile-long drive up to the house. When they pulled up to the sprawling vacation home Mimi was standing on the porch bouncing excitedly and near to tears with joy. Sora and Kari reached her first and the girls clasped onto each other with so much squealing and laughing and crying Tai was tempted to just stay in the car. But Mimi dragged him out soon enough, and he hugged her just as tightly as anyone, and she kissed him on the cheeks in the manner she had purposefully picked up in France, and had stopped making anyone in the group blush years ago. Joe and Izzy arrived shortly afterward, and the whole ordeal was repeated. The day passed in a blurry chaos of catching up, congratulating the graduates, asking Mimi about her new home in Hollywood, running back and forth to town for dinner things they had forgotten, and making fun of Tai's attempts to start a fire—his old camp skills had become rusty with un-use. Once the sun was down, and the fire was finally going they calmed somewhat, and sat in a half circle around the crackling blaze, their conversation brought down to taking turns telling the stories they had accumulated since their last reunion, and Mimi was especially thrilled to hear Kari's opinion of England.
As the moon sunk lower in the sky and Tai rekindled the fire for the fourth, and what they all said would be (really this time) the last time, the sound of an engine roaring up the driveway cut through their conversation. Sora got to her feet in surprise, as the others murmured curiously.
"Holy hell," Sora whispered, "he actually came."
"Who?" Tai pried, obliviously, as T.K. gripped Kari's hand in uncertain anticipation.
A single headlight cut through the blackness of the drive, a sure implication of the motorcycle rolling their way.
"Oh my god," Tai gasped, his voice shaking with restrained exhilaration. "Is that…?"
The light grew and brightened with it's approach, until it finally rolled to a halt beside Sora's sedan, and the driver killed the engine and swung off it's back, his blond locks swinging free of the helmet as he pulled it off roughly.
Matt turned towards the small group, his helmet cradled under one arm, as the free hand fiddled with the zipper of his jacket. They stared at him in shock for a long, awkward minute.
"Hey guys," Matt said, dropping his helmet and jacket on the back of his hog. "Did Sora not tell you I was coming?"
Mimi let out a wail and catapulted into his arms.
"Oh Matt! I can't believe you came!" She cried through her ecstatic tears as he stiffly hugged her back. "Sora did tell us, none of us would have believed you'd actually make it! I can't believe you're really here!"
Slowly everyone but T.K. got to their feet as Mimi dragged Matt over to the circle, where he rejoined his old group, starting with Izzy, with whom he shared an uncomfortable exchange somewhere between a handshake and a hug, and from there the rest of them just embraced him, distanced and hollow as it felt. Finally Tai approached him, and they stood facing each other for a second before Tai pulled Matt to him with ferocity, and held so tight his hands shook. It was the only embrace Matt fully returned, and Tai quickly turned away when it was finished, sniffling and trying to keep his cheeks from revealing their shine.
Matt walked over to where T.K. still sat and fished into his pocket briefly before drawing out a slightly crumpled envelope.
"Congratulations." He said, voice hoarse. "I'm…really proud of you."
T.K. mechanically took the envelope and replied softly. "Thanks."
Mimi suddenly shrieked again, making Izzy, who had the misfortune to be standing beside her, wince and cover his ears. Matt looked over sharply, expecting some horror.
"Matt! You don't know! T.K. and Kari are engaged!" She cried with glee.
Matt blinked in surprise, and turned back towards T.K., as Kari sat down beside him again. "Really?" He asked.
Kari smiled and showed him the ring on her finger, the pink amethyst framed by small diamonds glittering in the firelight.
"He proposed in September." She said, leaning against her fiancé's arm.
Matt nodded, and then shifted his weight, his hands searching for a casual placement somewhere. "Wow…that's…" He stopped and then scoffed in scorn at himself. "What am I doing?" He looked up brightly, a huge smile plastered on his face. "Congratulations!"
Kari beamed and embraced him again, this time with genuineness, and then Matt turned to T.K. once more, holding a hand out hesitantly.
"Bro?" He said, biting his lip.
T.K. pursed his lips, his foot tapping the dirt rapidly, as his hands twisted on his chair's arms tensely.
"We had a party, mom and dad both came." T.K. said softly.
"T.K….I'm sorry I wasn't there."
"Did you know I changed my major, too?" T.K. spat each word through his teeth. "I've got a double in communications and business."
"That's awesome, I'm sure you'll be great." Matt offered, helplessly.
Kari placed a hand on the thigh of T.K.'s tapping foot. "T.K…."
"Oh, and I've got my own apartment now, I've been living there for about two years."
Matt stared hard at the ground. "T.K. I'm sorry, I really am, but it was so hard—"
"It was hard for all of us Matt!"
"You don't understand, Gabumon was the only one—"
"Matt, we all understand! No one will ever replace them! We all lived it too, ok?"
"But you didn't—"
"Didn't what, Matt? Didn't abandon the friends I had left? Didn't cut myself off from the people who loved me? Didn't drown myself in substances and whores instead of getting support and guidance from my friends? Hmm…let's see…what else didn't I do Matt?"
Tai stood up. "T.K., this is too much."
Mimi added; "Yeah, come on, he's back now, let's just forget the whole mess and start over! You're brothers!"
"Yeah! Yeah we are." T.K. growled, springing to his feet. Matt stumbled back a step when he realized T.K. was as tall as him now, and broader. "We're brothers," T.K. spat the word. "I remember that, but somehow I think you've forgotten."
Matt clenched his fists, shaking as he stared down his brother. T.K.'s jaw was set, his shoulders square and his legs just waiting to spring into action. Matt took a step forward and Joe caught his shoulder, his pale, slender hands stopping him only with the re-acknowledgement of his friends around him, what little strength Joe had would have been useless against Matt's better physique.
"Come on guys, it's not worth it…" Joe begged.
"No," T.K. huffed. "No, I guess I've never been worth very much."
Matt started forward again, and Tai grabbed his other shoulder, as Kari gently held T.K.'s wrist, controlling him with her mere presence.
"You have no idea," Matt said, his voice thick with restraint. "How much you mean to me…"
"You've shown me just fine."
Tai tensed instinctively, ready to pull Matt back, but he didn't lunge; he merely released his fists and turned away, walking toward the house. He was too tired to drive all the way back tonight, but he would leave in the morning, after another restless night of trying to forget.
Most of them went to bed not long after that, Mimi went with Sora, who felt guilty for creating the whole mess, and Tai and Izzy soon followed them. Joe left Kari and T.K. sitting together soundlessly and motionless, staring into the flames, silently connecting in a way Joe thought was beautiful but impossible to understand, and something that seemed incredibly personal, so he left them to it.
It occurred to him that rooms had never been assigned, and he didn't want to go poking his head into every room for fear of getting himself into some embarrassing situation, as seemed customary to him. So he shuffled down the hallway trying to listen for noise or look for a light to show him which rooms were occupied, and wound up at the end of the hall, by a door that hung open a crack. He peered inside, unable at first to distinguish the difference between all the shadowy shapes, and finally saw a long figure stretched out on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Matt.
At first Joe pulled away from the doorway, ready to crash on the couch, but he found it was harder to walk away than he would have imagined. He was as hurt by Matt's disappearance for the last three and a half years as…well, not everyone, but most of them…but Matt was still a dear friend to him, still someone he had invested something in, letting him come back and kicked out so swiftly seemed wrong.
He softly went back to the door and pushed it open further, sending a thick line of hallway light over the reclining man's torso, which Joe now saw was unclothed, and spotted with bruises. Matt shifted, his face still in darkness so Joe couldn't tell if he had noticed him or was merely tossing in his sleep.
"Who is that?" Matt murmured, clarifying the issue.
"It's me." Joe replied softly, then suddenly aware of how long it had been and how much they had changed, added, "Joe, I mean."
Matt sat up, clicking on the bedside light as he did so, sending a small cocoon of warm light around his bed. Joe hesitated in the doorway, instinctively wanting to burrow into that bubble of softer light, but looking at Matt's new, older body reminded him of the uncertainty of their relationship.
"What's up?" Matt asked, groggily running a large hand through his golden locks.
"I…uh…was looking for an empty bedroom…sorry I woke you." Joe shuffled his feet.
"Oh, well, I can go crash on the couch or something, I didn't mean to—"
"No, I mean, I was looking for a bed, but when I found you I thought…I dunno…maybe you wanted a chance to talk? Tell your side, you know?"
Matt's eyebrows shot up, and he seemed considerably more awake now. "Seriously?"
Matt looked him over for a minute, "What if I don't wanna tell my side?"
Joe shrugged and shoved his hands into his pockets. "That's fine. Anything else you wanna talk about?"
Matt's mouth hung open in surprise. "You…you really want to talk to me?"
"Well…sure…I've missed you." He blushed. "I mean, we all have."
For a moment Matt's eyes shone, but then he shook his head and looked away. "No…you'd better just go."
Joe took a step back out, but could bring himself to go no further. "Are you gonna stay for a while?" He asked, stepping back into the room and closing the door behind him.
"Are you really asking me that?"
Joe hesitated on the edge of the pool of light from the lamp beside Matt. "No…I guess not. I wish you would though."
"Joe." Matt's voice was harsh, Joe winced. "Stop it. I'm not welcome here. Don't add insult to injury by making it harder to leave."
Joe sucked in a deep breath and walked into the cocoon, up to Matt's side. "That's not true. There's some stuff to work through, sure, but…" He rested a hand on Matt's right shoulder, where the tattoo of his old crest was. "You're one of us, no matter what difficulties come up. We all need to fight and work through stuff so we can stick together."
Matt looked at him scornfully. "I've already ruined that."
"No. No, this isn't the kind of thing you can walk away from. It'll come back, again and again for the rest of your life. We are all a part of each other, there's no escaping it."
"What about being kicked out of it?"
"Anyone who thinks that's possible is a fool."
Matt softened slightly, and reached up towards Joe's left shoulder, pushing up the sleeve of his T-shirt to see the crest tattoo there, a cross with triangles at the joints.
"Good old reliable Joe." He murmured.
Joe sat down on the edge of his bed with a huff. "Nice way of saying predictable."
Matt shook his head, and then trailed his fingers down Joe's arm until they rested on his hand. Joe looked down at their hands with a small smile and then up Matt's much thicker arm to the bruised chest once more.
"How'd that happen?" He asked, reaching forward and resting a hand over the worst of the bruises, below the right breast.
"Do you get in a lot of fights?"
"I don't really know. I'm not a very happy person right now, it's a good way to vent, I guess."
Joe examined Matt's profile with a knitted brow. "That doesn't seem healthy."
Matt laughed softly. "Joe…"
"I know, I know…ol' reliable, count on me to worry over every little thing..."
Matt looked up, abruptly intercepting Joe's casual gaze with fierce eye contact. Joe swallowed hard, and with an embarrassed flush removed both his hands from contact with Matt. Matt reached forward and took his hand again leaning in closer.
Joe turned his face away. "Sometimes I wish I wasn't so predictable."
Matt was close enough that his breath hit Joe's neck. "Me too."
Joe turned back towards him sharply, wide-eyed, "W-what's that supposed to mean?"
Matt stared back at him evenly, the hand still firmly holding Joe's squeezed ever so slightly tighter.
Joe broke the staring contest, and the moment he started to lean in Matt met him halfway, pulling the kiss tighter than Joe had intended, stealing his breath and sending his heart into his throat. They were both new to each other, but where Joe was hesitant, gentle, testing the waters slowly, Matt was already wrestling him out of his shirt, his grip wherever he found it tight and strong. The opposing techniques only fueled the other more as each found the other's style intoxicating, Joe's hesitancy held a charm and innocence that Matt wanted to devour and own, and in turn Matt's animalistic passion, the feverish hunger behind his lips, left Joe overwhelmed and breathless and yearning for more.
Unable to believe this was happening, much less who it was happening with, Joe shakily whispered Matt's name, the breathless sound of which enflamed Matt to push harder, dig his fingernails into Joe's back and press him firmly against his chest, feeling their sweat mingle, their skin collide. Out of ecstatic shock now, Joe breathed his name again and Matt pulled off his belt, then set to fumbling with the fastening of Joe's pants, keeping their mouths vacuum-sealed the entire time, tongues dancing around each other, Matt's teeth tugging at Joe's lips. When he pulled off Joe's jeans, taking his boxers with them, he turned them so he could pin Joe to the headboard, as he kicked off his own boxers.
Suddenly aware of the point they had reach Joe pulled back, "Matt, I—"
Matt caught the protest with another firm kiss, then saying against Joe's lips. "It's ok. Trust me."
Matt moved to chew on Joe's neck, freeing his mouth again. "Yeah, but, it's so fast—"
Fierce blue eyes locked onto Joe's again. "Do you want me?" Matt asked, pressing his weight against Joe.
Joe gasped, instinctively going to hold onto Matt, for some kind of control, but Matt held his wrists back.
"Joe," Matt whispered, moving so they were cheek to cheek, his mouth at Joe's ear. "Do" he nipped his earlobe "you" and then ran his tongue along Joe's jaw "want me?"
Joe panted for breath, "Y-yes…" He shuddered, kissing Matt's neck afterwards.
"Then let me have you."
Joe nestled his face against the curve of Matt's shoulder, breathing in his scent, uncontrollably aroused by the sharp, smoky smell. Matt released his wrists, trailing his hand up so they gripped his shoulders, still keeping him firmly beneath him, but letting Joe's hands rise to Matt's sides, exploring his hips, back and shoulders cautiously, too shy to travel anywhere too erotic, but full of the desire to do just that.
T.K. pulled out the envelope Matt had given him as Kari cleaned up for bed in the adjoining bathroom. He ripped it open with his thumbnail, pulling out the check within and looking over it skeptically.
"What'd he give you?" Kari asked, coming over and slipping under the sheets beside him.
"A thousand." T.K. replied unenthusiastically.
Kari's eyes widened. "Really? That's super generous…"
T.K. grimaced, and then tore the check into four pieces. Kari sighed, and leaned in against his chest, nestling between his side and his arm and running one hand along his abdomen tenderly. Most nights together, the lightest touch from her sent T.K. into a fit, and he would attend to her slender, soft body as far as she would allow, never enough to satiate how much he longed to have her, but tonight he was far too preoccupied even for his passion to distract him.
"He's still your brother." Kari said into his shoulder.
T.K. tensed and looked away from her, playing with the chain of his locket. "I can't."
"Everyone mourns in their own way, T.K. Matt needs space. He always has, even with little things, with something so huge, I'm sure he—"
"It's not just the time he was gone." T.K. whispered. "It's what he became, even before he left. It seemed like he just…gave up. He fell into that unclean world that had always hovered so close to him, and let it overwhelm him. I was so…disgusted by him, his departure was almost a relief."
"Give him a chance to come back. He can't get out of that if you're blocking the exit."
T.K. squeezed Kari against him, turning his face to press his lips into her hair. "I just don't want him bringing any of that life back with him."
"I'm sure, for a while at least, it'll be with him, but it's our duty as his friends—as his family—to help him break it away."
"You have so much more faith than me…"
Kari took his hand and pressed their tattooed wrists together. "You just have to keep hope."
T.K. smiled weakly, kissed her gently, and as they drifted into sleep clutched the locket in his hand.
Joe awoke slowly, drifting in and out of consciousness, wrapping himself in and then throwing off the blankets in an attempt to find the most comfortable way to remain in bed. It wasn't until he rediscovered the other body in bed with him that he finally found the will to wake. He did so with a start, opening his eyes and hitting full wakefulness in a millisecond as he propped himself up and focused in on Matt lying drowsily beside him. The night before came stampeding back to him, making his stomach flip with a conflict of confusion, excitement and fear. Matt looked over at him, still seemingly half-asleep, and smiled weakly.
"Morning." He said.
Joe took a moment to relearn how to speak. "G-good morning."
Gulping, Joe leaned forward, too shy to really do anything, but hoping Matt would take a hint from his gaze and nervously quivering lips and kiss him good morning. Matt reached up and put his hand on Joe's cheek, his fingers twisting through his bed-mussed hair. Joe turned his face into Matt's hand and kissed his palm, Matt pursed his lips and pulled his hand away.
"Joe…I…I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"
Joe sat up stiffly, turning away so Matt wouldn't see what he was sure was a completely pitiful expression.
"Yeah, uh, it's ok." He said, trying to control his voice. "You're in a weird place. Mistakes happen…"
Matt sat up as well, and put a hand on Joe's shoulder. "Joe, no, I don't regret it. I just…I feel like I pushed you too hard. I thought maybe you…"
Joe turned around, looking up at Matt with big, uncertain eyes. "Matt…I…I've wanted this for a long time. I'm thrilled."
Matt looked, if anything, more distressed. "Really?"
"Yeah." Joe blushed furiously. "I've always been attracted to you."
Matt gave a single note of disbelieving laughter, but his expression was still strained. "Huh. Who'd've thought…"
Joe fidgeted with the sheets, pulling them over his lap, and then shifting it around, pulling at creases and tracing wrinkles. Matt sat still, watching Joe with measured restraint, but his heart pounding in his chest. Finally, still staring at his knees, Joe reached forward and took Matt's hand, running his thumb over the battered knuckles. Matt finally let out a gravelly sigh and pulled Joe forward by the back of his head, and kissed him. He had only meant to make a quick connection, but Joe wrapped his arms around his neck and returned the kiss so sweetly Matt found himself unable to break away. Joe planted short, gentle kisses as Matt ran a hand along his back, enjoying himself too much to pull away, but his desire to protect Joe making him allow Joe to continue. Noticing Matt's lack of participation, Joe eventually leant back and looked up at the blonde curiously.
Matt chewed his lower lip, and could not meet Joe's eyes. "Joe…I don't—"
He was interrupted by a sharp knock on the door and Mimi's voice calling in; "Joe! Are you in there?"
Joe hesitated and then called back; "Yeah, uh, gimme a minute…"
"We're taking the boat out! Hurry up!"
Her quick footsteps faded down the hallway, and Joe and Matt sat in silence. Matt had lost his resolve to speak, and Joe wasn't entirely sure he wanted him to continue. Finally Matt sighed and scooted away across the bed and began rummaging for his clothes.
"Go on, they're waiting for you." Matt said, pulling on his boxers.
"Aren't you coming?"
"No, I don't think I'd be welcome."
"Ugh, I told you last night, it's just a rough place we need to work through. We want you back, Matt…"
Matt rolled his eyes and continued getting dressed. Joe moved over to him, and took his face between his hands, forcing him to look up. Blue and black eyes locked, and Joe's face was more determined than Matt had ever seen it.
"I want you back."
Matt's cheeks flushed, and, embarrassed by the intensity of the moment Joe dropped his hands and began stammering. "And…and I mean Tai is obviously happy to see you and I-I think T.K. just needs to, uh, push through his issues…but…er, we all would be really happy to have all eight of us together…again…"
Matt moved a hand up to the tattoo on his shoulder, and stared at the carpet deeply. Joe waited, wringing his hands until Matt looked up with a tense smile and nodded.
"One day. If T.K. still wants to kick me out after that, I'm leaving. But I'll do it, if it will make everyone happy."
Joe grinned massively, and nodded. "Very happy."
Surprisingly, Joe had been mostly right in thinking the sun would lift the mood. Instead of antagonizing Matt, T.K. chose to ignore him entirely, and the rest of the group, though a little awkward, tried to let the afternoon pass peacefully by holding back their questions and confusion and, at least for the time being, pretend that nothing had happened. They were taking Mimi's smallest boat out, and though the eight of them still fell significantly under maximum occupancy, the mere fact it didn't have a cabin was a massive downgrade for Mimi's usual style.
Tai brought a beer over to Matt, clinked the necks of their bottles together and then took a long gulp.
"Ridiculous day, huh? Couldn't be better." Tai said with a deep, satisfied smile.
Matt raised an eyebrow. "Are you really discussing the weather with me?"
Tai chuckled. "Yeah, well, I don't really know what else to talk about."
"What have you been up to? What are you doing with your life?" Matt took a swig.
"Not a whole lot, honestly, doing some PR for this company, but not too excited about it." He sighed. "I dunno, I'm in a bit of a slump career-wise. I just can't seem to find a job that really suits me." His gaze faded far away for only a split second before he forced himself back into focus. "I'll get out of it, I always do. At any rate, I'm always keeping busy with all the ladies that flock around me, so that keeps my spirits up."
Tai laughed at himself, being no lady-charmer, and Matt joined in, though he trailed off sooner than Tai, leaving only a stiff smile. As Tai quieted, Matt watched Joe climb back onto the boat from where he had been swimming with Sora, and caught his eye teasingly. Joe fished a beer from the cooler, focusing on it intently to pretend he wasn't blushing.
"So seriously Tai, where are you romantically?" Matt asked as Joe came over, sitting next to, but at a tactful distance away from, Matt.
"Oh, y'know, I had a girlfriend for about a year, but that wasn't going anywhere so we broke it off. But there's a couple women I work with who aren't too bad." Matt nodded and slid towards Joe, placing his arm around his shoulders. "My mom, and Kari for that matter, keep saying I need to find a woman to settle down with, and I guess they're right, but…" he sighed and scratched the back of his head absently. "I just don't think any of the women I'm around right now are the kind I'd really want to keep all that long, you know?"
"Oh sure." Matt said leaning more into Joe, as Joe fought to keep his cheeks from reddening. "Women in business tend to be a little too hard. You'd need someone more light-hearted to deal with your antics."
"Exactly." Tai agreed, staring out at the lake beyond Matt's shoulder by way of ignoring the interaction between Joe and him. "But I can't say I wouldn't just like someone to kill time with…if you know what I mean." Tai snickered again, and Matt smiled obligatorily as he took another drink.
Near the stern, Izzy swore and then called; "Hey Joe! C'mere a sec and help me with the radio!"
Joe hesitated as Matt's arm flexed around him, and then stood—Matt's fingers trailing down his spine—and joined Izzy where he sat at the steering station, fiddling with the innards of the boat radio, that spilled from the dash like the organs of some misfortunate carcass.
"Yeah?" Joe said. "What do you need?"
"Nothing, I've just about fixed it. I want to know what the hell is going on with you and Matt." Izzy said casually, not looking up from his work, and speaking quietly enough no one else could hear over the splashing and shrieking of the swimmers.
"Wh-what? Nothing. I mean…nothing more than normal." Joe took a drink to force himself to shut up.
"Joe, I've been living with you for almost a year now, and I know you think I never look up from my computer, but I'm observant enough. And I know you well enough after a decade and a half to know that you, my friend, are not a cuddly type, and certainly not with your guy friends." He connected the last wire and snapped the faceplate back in place.
"Well, yeah but that was Matt—"
Izzy finally looked up, skeptically. "Matt isn't a naturally physically affectionate either. What the hell is going on Joe?"
"I…" Joe stammered, and then broke off into a sigh. He could see by the way Izzy's face had hardened into its cool, logical expression that he had the equation all figured out already, and he would get verification one way or another. "I'll tell you later, I don't think everyone needs to know…"
"Joe, did you sleep with Matt last night?"
"Fuck Christ, Izzy."
"You did! In the name of Pythagoras what the hell are you thinking?"
"Keep your voice down." Joe hissed.
"Izzy, I…I didn't."
"Too late now, your blush alone tells it all."
"Right. Joe…" Izzy lowered his voice when he noticed Mimi looking over curiously. "Seriously, how could you…"
"I don't know, ok? It just sort of happened."
"I know! I know, ok?"
"Do you? Do you really understand—"
Matt cut in, calling over; "hey Joe, wanna grab me another beer on your way back?"
Joe instinctively turned to the voice, smiling brightly, "no problem." When he turned back to Izzy the smile deadened instantly in response to the younger's pained expression.
"Joe…" He started.
"Izzy, I'm an adult. I'm not gonna let anyone know, I'm not gonna let anyone get hurt. It'll be fine."
"Joe, you don't get—"
"You are not my keeper Izzy! This is my decision."
He turned away from him, pulled a fresh beer out of the cooler, and passed it off to Matt as he stalked to the bow, sitting on the front corner and staring out at the rippling water distantly. A fish jumped several meters away, and for a moment he let himself fall too far into reverie, memories of an old friend filling his heart with such longing he crumbled slightly, before redirecting his thoughts and quickly wiping the moisture from his eyes before it could fall.
Matt watched him thoughtfully as he gulped from his beer, ignoring the brief critical glance Izzy cast his way. Tai moved next to Matt, drawing his gaze off of Joe. He kneeled on the seat and leaned against the side of the boat, watching Kari as she and T.K. swam.
"She's an adult now, Tai." Matt said, noting the protective look in Tai's eye. "It's about time to let her out from under your wing."
"She's been out, she went to England last semester, all by herself." Tai replied quietly, Matt looked at the floor, "But I can't help it. She's the most important thing in the world to me, I won't ever stop watching over her."
Tai lowered himself to rest his chin on his hands, as Matt leaned back, tilting his head up towards the sun.
"You're a better brother than I could ever hope to be." Matt murmured.
Tai looked over at him with a scowl. "That's not true. I've let her down loads of times, almost caused her death of illness twice and one time, I accidentally kicked a soccer ball into her face and nearly broke her nose."
Matt smiled, but it was strained. "I appreciate that, but you know it's true. T.K. hates me, and I've only myself to blame."
Tai turned back towards the water, watching the ripples shimmer and warp. The sun beat down on the tattoo of courage where it nestled between Tai's tan shoulders.
"I really missed you." Tai whispered.
Matt sighed. "Believe me, I missed you too."
"It didn't help any of us move on, you know, losing you too."
"I know. Tai…can we not? I…I just want to be here. With you. I don't want to…I can't go back there right now."
Tai straightened and put his hand on Matt's shoulder firmly. Matt looked up at him, and stared into Tai's coffee-colored eyes imploringly.
"Yeah, that'd be fine." Tai said with a small smile. "Just don't leave again, ok?"
Matt bit his lip, and looked away, out at the water where T.K. was laughing and playing like he hadn't a care to weigh on him. Watching him now, Matt felt heavy.
"Matt." Tai said, sternly. "Don't go away again."
"I…" Matt swallowed, and looked back at Tai, then down at his knees. "I'll try."
Tai hesitated a moment, and then leaned forward to wrap his arms around Matt, holding him tightly. Matt brought his hands around Tai's back, but couldn't bring himself to return the strength with which Tai held on. After a second Tai pulled back, but kept his hand on Matt's shoulders, looking down at him with concern.
"Tai!" Kari's voice broke in. "Stop being such a loser and get in the water!"
Tai looked up at her and motioned to wait a bit.
"You were gonna say something?" Tai said, looking back down at Matt.
Matt opened his mouth, but then shook his head. "Never mind. I'll stick around, don't worry."
Tai grinned, slapped his shoulder and then with a monkey-like holler dove into the lake. Soon, he climbed back on board, but only long enough to grab Izzy and pull him in, still wearing the dry street clothes he had on over his swimsuit. Matt smiled, happy to see Tai's childish playfulness had not diminished with age. As he watched Tai swim away from the raging, vengeful Izzy, Joe took advantage of the emptiness of the boat to return to Matt's side.
"Izzy knows." Joe said quietly.
"Of course he does." Matt said, rolling his eyes. "Figures Izzy would be the only one to notice."
"What, were you trying to broadcast it to the whole boat?"
"…Not the whole boat."
Joe knitted his eyebrows. "I don't think…I mean, with Sora and everyone…we should probably keep this fairly quiet y'know? At least for a little while."
Matt raised his eyebrows and turned towards Joe, exposing his lean torso to Joe's roaming eyes. "Well, how long do you see this lasting, really?"
Joe stammered silently, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, and finally he turned away and stared hard at the water. "I…I don't know. I kind of thought we were…that last night meant that you…" He swallowed hard. "It doesn't have to be that long I guess."
Matt nodded silently, drained the last of his beer and pitched it into the lake. Joe couldn't even muster a lecture on littering, as he focused on keeping his face calm and his heart still. After a long while staring out at the water Matt swore softly and turned away to lay on one of the benches for a nap and Joe slumped into his seat and grabbed another drink.
After night fell they started another fire, sitting around it still in their suits and wrapped in towels. The conversation grew livelier, as a collective buzz brought on by the sun, exertion and mostly booze made them drop what uncertain re-connecting barriers had come up. The awkward pauses that had riddled the afternoon were now all replaced by the chaos of over-lapping conversations, constantly punctuated by cackles of laughter and, most noticeably, Mimi's shrieks of delight every-time she got another detail about Kari's wedding plans. The excessive amount of Long Island Iced Teas (home-blended by Tai, which meant they were easily double sized) had made her forget Kari had already asked her to be a bridesmaid, and she spent nearly fifteen minutes overwhelming everyone with her exclamations of joy and surprise until Sora finally calmed her down with another drink.
Matt sat between Joe and Tai, his hands found more and more often on Joe's body and, as the night wore on, the places his hands found grew increasingly more inappropriate. Though Joe did his best to avert or ignore it, by this point in the evening, everyone was so far-gone that physical affection had become something of the norm, so it hardly mattered. Izzy even briefly took a nap across Tai's lap—until Tai woke him with a good cold shower as he dropped his drink flat on Izzy's head. Sora kept nearly flashing everyone with her constant readjustments of her already scandalous string bikini, and with the way she kept angling the display it was all but general knowledge she was trying to taunt Matt. The blonde, in turn, spent scarcely a moment looking anywhere but at Joe or Tai, the only time he peeled his eyes away was to a find a fresh beer. While Mimi got louder, which along with how many bottles gathered on the ground was the only real measure of time, he stopped looking at Joe as much, and his eyes, alcohol-glazed tough they were, watched Tai almost exclusively. Joe didn't take kindly to that, and by the time the eighth bottle clattered to his feet his previous show of avoiding Matt's advances were overwhelming abandoned and he was hanging off of Matt like a schoolgirl.
"Joe," T.K. growled from his other side. "Stop that, it's demeaning."
Matt finally turned away from Tai. "Hey, fuck you T.K. just keep pretending I don't exist and everything will be fine."
"Oh, kinda like you did to me?" T.K. snapped back.
Joe embarrassedly shrunk back into his own seat, but now Matt leaned across him, grabbing for T.K. but missing badly in his uncoordinated state. T.K. jumped to his feet, and Matt glared up at him, opting to stay seated and stable.
"I don't have to fucking deal with this…" Matt snarled.
"No, you never deal with anything, do you?"
Tai held out a hand, "T.K., cool it."
Matt shook his head, and leaned against Joe. "What do you care anyway, you've got your fiancé and your fancy wedding plans, what do you need to go butting into my life for?"
"What the hell is going on with you two?" Sora interjected, her tone poisonous. "You've been glued together all night."
Izzy looked ready to drunkenly explain the situation, unable to refrain from illuminating confusion, but Joe tossed him another beer and he was readily distracted.
"C'mon Matt, what's your deal?" T.K. demanded.
"Go back to your girl party, you prick."
"At least I'm not a fag!"
Matt got to his feet then, launching his fist towards T.K.'s nose. He didn't miss that time. A second after collision Joe and Tai were up, Joe to restrain Matt, and Tai to step in front, grab T.K. by the thick chain of his locket and pull him forward so their faces were so close the blood pouring from T.K.'s nose almost fell on Tai's face.
"Back the fuck off, T.K.!" Tai shouted. "Why the fuck would you go and start shit up like that? No one wants to do this right now. We're all here to fucking relax!"
Kari stood, appalled, but not sure who to yell at, so she threw out a non-specific 'stop it!', that at least made T.K. refrain from sinking a knee into Tai's gut. Tai, however, did not release T.K., while behind him Matt slowly sat down again with Joe's coaxing.
"Are you really taking his side, Tai?" Sora snapped, while Mimi started crying. "Let T.K. sock him one, I think we'd all like to see it."
"Fuck you, Sora!" Matt slurred. "You stay the hell out of this, no one wants to hear you bitch. Fuck knows I hated listening to you whine all the time."
"Are you serious?" Sora shrieked. "After everything you did to me—"
"What'd I do Sora? Really, what the fuck did I do?"
"I broke up with you. It happens. I'm sorry, ok? I'm sorry you actually loved me, and I just wanted to get laid."
"How dare you!"
Matt softened. "I didn't mean that—"
T.K. cut in. "I'm sure you did! You're nothing but dirty, using, whore!"
Tai shook him, prompting another cry from Kari. "Shut up!"
Mimi howled ever louder, and Izzy tried to push between T.K. and Tai, entreating them; "C'mon guys, there's gotta to be a more reasonable way—"
T.K. only used Izzy's interception as an opening to break free of Tai's grip, snapped the chain, and dodged around him tackle Matt. He knocked him over in his chair and the rolled on the ground, splattering blood with every thrash.
Kari screamed, the sound smothering out Tai's brash accusation flung in Izzy's direction as he stumbled to grab T.K. again. Sora stepped in front of him.
"Let 'em duke it out!" She snapped. "I hope that bastard gets his face caved in!"
"This is ridiculous!" Tai raged. "I don't care what's happened we are still a team!"
"I hate to say it," Izzy said, slumping back into a chair. "But I'm not so sure about that anymore…"
T.K. sat straddling Matt, who lay with his forearms guarding his face, absorbing the endless barrage T.K. was pounding into them, his vision blurred with blood and tears. He spat a hateful phrase with every punch, punctuating them with snarls or sobs, and he howled when Joe tried to pull him off, flailing wildly to get him away.
"T.K. stop!" Kari cried, but the blood was whining too loudly in T.K.'s ears and she went unheard.
"Sora!" Tai yelled, watching Joe fall flat. "Move!"
Tai growled and, having no time to work on any other option than what was offered, shoved Sora aside. Tai slammed his elbow into her side, knocking the wind out of her, and pounced on top of T.K.. He pulled him off of a now thoroughly battered Matt and pinned him to the ground.
"NOW STOP IT!"
Tai's voice fell with a finality that made all eight of them fall still and silent, even Mimi reduced to soft sniffling. There was a moment that felt like someone had hit the pause button, where nothing happened, and the event that had just unfolded lay thick in the air as each absorbed it on their own terms.
Joe finally broke it by moving to Matt, saying softly; "I'll take you inside to clean you up."
"I-I'll go with—" Izzy began but Joe interrupted him.
"No. It's ok, I've got it."
Tai stayed on top of T.K. until Joe had managed to half-carry Matt back to the house, and then he released him gruffly, climbing to his feet and stalking back to the broken circle of chairs. He grabbed his beer, downed the last of it and then tossed the bottle against a tree so it shattered, making Mimi hitch another sob and Izzy flinch.
"I'm going to bed." Tai grumbled, and turned away.
"Me too." Mimi whimpered. "What a horrible, horrible night."
Sora turned and walked toward the pier, fists clenched, huffing and growling. Kari slowly pulled T.K., who had continued sobbing, to his feet and led him away, and Izzy helplessly stayed to clean up.
Sora chucked a stone at the lake angrily, then bent to pick up another one. She had been throwing rocks at the lake for a while now, trying to cool her head through exertion. The summer night was thick, and she felt trapped, compressed, trying to shatter the constriction that was smothering her.
"I hate him." She grumbled, and threw a particularly large rock. "I can't believe I ever slept with a jackass like that." She grabbed a new stone and rolled it in her hand. "I hate him." When she said it this time it held less fire, and the stone continued to dangle at her side. A small sob hitched in her throat.
"No." She bit her lip. "You've shed enough tears over him. Don't…" a tear overflowed from her eye and trailed down her neck. "Don't you fucking cry over that bastard."
She collapsed to the ground, dropping the rock and drawing her knees to her chest. Her shoulders shook with sobs, and her tears dampened her arms and knees where she buried her face. One hand she lowered to grab her left ankle, where the love tattoo sat, and she scoffed amid her sobs. They had all gotten them, after the incident, to remind themselves of what had made them who they were; that they would never forget and never fall apart. It seemed so pointless now. After the sobs calmed, though the tears kept flowing, she looked up at the night sky, and through her blurred vision saw a meteor streak between the other stars.
"I wish you were here…" She whispered as a fresh sob lodged in her throat.
"Oh wow, that looks bad."
Joe and Matt were in the main bathroom, Matt sitting on the toilet while Joe hovered around him with the giant medical bag open and spilling its guts out all over the counter. He was currently cleaning a bad gash over Matt's eye, and Matt was grateful to the excess of drink from earlier so he wouldn't feel the sting.
"I'm a failure." Matt moaned.
"You are not."
"Sora…T.K…..I've been such shit to them."
Joe sighed. "We're all drunk, Matt. No one meant what they said out there."
"I can't believe I said that to Sora…I never meant to hurt her…really," He looked up, and held on to Joe's shoulders earnestly. "Really, Joe, I just thought…I thought she would distract me. I thought maybe if I dated her I would forget."
"Yeah…" Joe placed a bandage on the wound, and then frowned as he drunkenly made a realization. "You dated Sora long before…what were you trying to forget back then?"
"And you…god, I'm gonna do the same thing to you…" He pushed Joe away roughly, making him rock back and catch himself on the tub. "Get away from me Joe, I'm bad news."
"Matt you're drunk." Joe said, righting himself again. "Really, really drunk. Just let me clean up this elbow and then you can go sleep it off."
Joe wrapped a bandage around Matt's elbow tenderly, as the blonde continued to moan; "I'm a terrible person."
"No one blames you Matt."
"I do. That's all that matters…"
Joe paused, and then changed the subject. "What am I to you?"
"I dunno…what are you to me?"
"A friend…" Joe sighed. "I…I want to be with you Matt. I love you."
Matt cringed. "You're drunk."
"You don't want that…do you? You don't want me any more than you wanted Sora."
"I tol' you that."
Joe sat very still, staring at the damp tile floor. "Then why?"
Matt looked up at his with big, apologetic eyes. "I'm an awful human being."
Joe sniffed, and then nodded slowly. "That's fine. I understand."
"No you don't…"
Joe bit his lip. "No." He said softly. "I don't."
Matt continued mumbling, though it lost any continuity from that point, and finally Joe got him up and led him to the bedroom, where he lay him down, and then hesitated before leaving. As Matt lay in the darkness he placed one hand over the image on his right shoulder, and then slowly dug in his nails and drew them across it, leaving deep, red gashes through it, and then he passed out.
T.K. couldn't sleep. His nose was still sporadically trickling blood, and Kari had opted to sleep in Mimi's room. So he knelt outside, beside the last smoldering embers of the fire, sifting through the dirt and ash to find where his locket had fallen. He eventually found it, amid a patch of sticky blood, and did his best to wipe the red liquid off its face. He held it close to his chest, and let the memories flood over him, waves of bittersweet heartache going through him and spilling from his eyes.
There was still blood on his knuckles, and he looked down at it blurrily. What had led to this? Where had everything gone so impossibly wrong? The pain of loss was one thing, but the pain of seeing Matt again—it was so raw and pure he didn't know how to cope with it. But he had, after long hours of drunken musings, come to the idea that all of his emotions had somehow been misplaced. Beating his fists into Matt, declaring his hatred over and over, had finally taken him that final step towards a new level out of the personal hell he had been living in. Having said and done it finally made him lose the real feeling of it, and he felt as though an old skin had peeled off and he was fresh to the night air.
"Oh, you're up."
T.K. looked over his shoulder to see Mimi standing in her robe and slippers, looking red-eyed and disheveled, and still a little drunk.
"Yeah, couldn't sleep."
"I imagine not, with the way you behaved."
"That was a terrible thing to do T.K. and Kari is really distressed by it you know! Are you too selfish to take her into consideration?"
T.K. absorbed that for an extended moment and then laughed softly. "It's always about her Mimi, she's my whole life." He closed his fist around the locket. "I don't need anything else."
Mimi was taken aback, and in her half-drunk state swayed in surprise. "Oh…well good."
T.K. smiled at her and then gently led her back to the house.
Joe wandered into the kitchen just as Izzy was coming in from cleaning the fire pit. They nodded to each other, and then Joe slumped into a stool by the kitchen island while Izzy dropped some bottles in the recycling bin. He moved to sit next to Joe, but Joe simply dropped his head onto his arms and muffled a pathetic groan.
Izzy sighed and went instead to the refrigerator. He grabbed a bottle of water and put it in front of Joe, and proceeded to pull a variety of vegetables out of the crisper drawers.
"I always said things wouldn't work out if you acted on your feelings for him." Izzy said, placing carrots, celery, and beets on a cutting board.
"I know…I know…" Joe moaned, forcing himself to sit up and drink some of the water.
Izzy began chopping the vegetables into sizeable chunks. "I know you think you're in love with him, but that's only because when you're around him you go back to being that twelve-year-old geek. Who you are now is not the same kid who swooned over a blue-eyed rebel who could play the blues."
"I am though, Izzy. I'm still just some dweeby, predictable loser…that's why he'll never care about me like I care about him."
Izzy turned around a stared sternly into Joe's face. "No, Joe. You are a brilliant, kind, and dependable person. Matt is too unstable to give you what you deserve. Stop looking at him through the idolizing filter you've been wearing for the past decade. You are the better person, stop blaming yourself for his stupidity in turning you away." Izzy sighed deeply then turned to search Mimi's cabinets and finally pulled out a juicer from under the counter. "No matter how awkward or weak you feel, you know who you are, and what you're doing with your life. You should be proud of that. I still have a lot of faith in Matt, but he has a long road ahead of him. Matt can't accept himself, and I'm sorry, but you're not the one who can help him do that."
Izzy put the vegetables in the juicer, and loud whine filled the kitchen as Joe stared at the counter top, peeling the label off his water bottle. Eventually Izzy walked over with two glasses of juice, and handed one to Joe.
"It'll help with your hangover tomorrow." Izzy said.
"Gee, thanks doctor…"
Izzy smiled, and took a large gulp. "I really mean it. You should be so proud of yourself."
"Thanks Izzy…you always did know how to figure things out." Joe obligingly took a long gulp of the juice.
"Yeah." Izzy said, staring out the window. "Almost always, anyway."
Joe reached out and put an arm over Izzy's shoulders. The kitchen became terribly quiet again, as the two of them sat somberly and finished their drinks.
"It's shifted! This is very bad! Everyone come quick!"
Matt and the others raced to answer Izzy's distress call. The new team was on a mission in the digital world, what had seemed like a routine clean-up job had turned on them violently, when what had been thought to be a fairly innocent data-pileup had exploded into a fully-functioning virus. As they watched, it rolled through the digital world horrifically fast, eating everything, and leaving only a blank, empty space behind it. The digidestined kids were trying to fight it, but it was unlike anything they had encountered. It wasn't a digimon, it wasn't a dark spire, it was just a mass of chaos and death. By the time the original group had joined Izzy, Palmon and Tentomon had already been swallowed.
"We've got to get in there!" Kari cried, reaching for her D3.
"No!" Izzy said, grabbing her arm to stop her. "We've got to get them out. I'm patching your guys' digivices to create an emergency extraction path, but I'm still working on how to pull the digimon out." His voice broke, but he kept typing frantically at his keyboard, even as he couldn't see through his tears. "Get ready, and go on my signal!"
The map of the digital world was evaporating on the computer screen, the angry red wave that rampaged across it drawing terrifyingly quickly towards the blinking dots that indicated the digidestined's locations. It was getting so close. Matt couldn't tear his eyes off of the little yellow dot of T.K., his heart was pounding in his throat, his hand twitching around his digivice.
"Izzy!" Tai shouted, as a branch of the virus swiped close to Agumon.
"Hold on! This procedure could make everything unbalance and shut down the whole system. We have to get them all at once! I can do this!"
"Izzy come on!" Sora screeched.
They were left on barely a strip of land, so close…too close…
The screen went blank.
Matt woke up alone, to the sounds of summer rolling in full-force. Outside, leaves rustled and cicadas roared, while dark yellow sunlight slanted through the blinds, sending stripes of light and shadow across him. His whole body burned, and his head felt like it was in a vice. He managed to pull himself out of bed, but the second his feet hit the floor he could not imagine what the point of doing so had been. He had no reason to get up, no reason to go on. He heard a wave of laughter from the kitchen, and it hit him more painfully than any blow from the night before. They could push the night aside as a fit of drunken exuberance, and then just forgive and forget. They were still a team, still understanding and loving and forgiving, and Matt felt so far away from them. But there were no other people in the world he had ever or could ever conceive of having that closeness with.
He pulled on a wife-beater and jeans, threw the rest of his clothes in his duffle bag and stole out the door. He skirted past the edge of the kitchen, glancing in despite his better judgment. His passing glance showed him Kari and Mimi at the stove, T.K. bothering Kari with kisses to her neck as she tried to flip pancakes, Mimi working diligently on some eggs. The rest crowded around the table planning what other excursions they could do that day, laughing and joking. For one moment, he sought out Joe, and saw him sitting beside Sora, conversing with the others in the stiff way of someone not all there, but he seemed to be managing. Then Matt was past, and moved on to the front door, and slipped out as silently as he could manage into the thick wall of hot, muggy air.
His heavy boots crunched the gravel loudly, mingling with the Cicadas in a grating symphony. His accompaniment stopped dead when he turned around the corner of the house to see Tai sitting on his motorcycle, dappled light streaming down on him, the golden light playing on his bronze skin and making him into a pseudo statue in the stillness of Summer. Tai looked up at him soberly, sizing up the black eye, the stiff stance, and then falling on and lingering sadly over the slashed tattoo. The drone of the cicadas rose and fell in waves, chaos and calm shifting around them, as the two of them stared at each other, suspended uncertainly in the thick, warm air.
"What are you doing Tai?" Matt asked.
"You were going to leave?" Tai said, so quietly.
Matt didn't respond, he merely tightened his grip on the duffel bag and looked at the ground. Another wave of stillness rolled through.
"Why would you leave without saying goodbye…again?" Tai whispered, his voice leaking through a filter of sorrow.
"I don't belong here anymore." Matt responded weakly.
"You always have a place beside me."
Matt closed his eyes, and knitted his brow, pained.
"I ached every day you were gone." Tai continued.
"And I left…because it hurt to be near you."
Tai's eyes widened in shock. "I never meant to hurt you. How…?"
Matt dropped his duffel bag as he closed the space between him and Tai. The roaring of the cicadas reached a long climax, high above them, as if in rhythm with their lives. The kiss was soft, slow, but even without ferocity or haste it managed to convey all the passion that had been knotting in Matt's heart for all those years. He pulled away, dropping his arms back to his side, while Tai sat paralyzed in the position Matt's kiss had placed him.
"I'm sorry." Matt said, stepping back and lifting his bag again. "You're the only one that still supports me, but it hurts too much for me to be near you. You're straight, and I…"
Tai got off the bike, and stepped forward to place his hands on Matt's shoulders, as the cicadas faded to a low hum.
"Matt," He said. "I love you," it was a strange thing, coming from him, a broad and sweeping comment that seemed to encompass some new over-arching meaning of the phrase. Friendship, brotherhood, companionship, it all fell within the three-word statement. "I will be whatever you need me to be."
Matt fell into his arms, and for a long time they did not move. Matt leaned against Tai and all he did in return was hold him. Selflessly, without for a moment considering pulling away, without trying to look at his face, without swaying or caressing him, Tai held on.
"I've been so alone, Tai." Matt said. "Gabumon was the only one who ever stood by me, no matter how many mistakes I made. The only one who forgave my stupidity, and accepted all the terrible things about me. He was the only one I could go to about how I felt…after he died, I had to hold so much inside of me, things that no one, not even me, could forgive. I hurt people, and because I was full of so much darkness that I couldn't get out, I hurt myself…"
"I know. It's ok. You've got me now."
"It's all my fault. If I hadn't been so stupid, if I had waited…then at least Davis and the others wouldn't have been in there when…"
"You did what you could, we all did. If it weren't for you, T.K. might have been left behind too. Who knows if we would have had time?"
"But what if—"
"Matt, it's done. Let it die."
Matt nodded against Tai's shoulder. "I'm not ready."
"It's ok. I'll get you there."
Soon Tai went back inside, to gather his things and say goodbye, to explain what he could and to promise that this time, the separation would not last. Matt waited on his bike, and as he went to grab the keys from his jacket pocket, he noticed they felt heavier, and pulled them out to see a new keychain attached. Matt opened the large, bulky locket and a folded piece of paper and a single white feather fell out. Confused, he twirled the feather between his fingers as he read the note, quickly at first, but then slower and more closely. He scanned the page several more time, in uncertain, swollen silence until a tear splashed across the scribbled ink. Tai returned, his large backpack strapped on now, and he walked up to the bike with confidence and certainty that made Matt realize all over again how much he needed him. Matt folded the paper up tenderly, put it and the feather back in the locket, and with Tai holding firmly to his waist ignited the engine and turned down the road.
Dear Big Brother Matt,
I'm sorry for everything that has grown between us. I'm sorry to have said those cruel things, and I'm sorry you've spent all this time hating yourself for something you did for me. Until now if there was one thing I was truly spiteful about, it was the fact that you saved me. I blamed myself, thinking if I hadn't been there things would have gone smoothly, and everyone would have gotten out. For a long time, I dwelled on that, it was only Kari that got me out. Kari made me happy to live again. The truth is, Matt, after spending so much time angry and resentful, I found the strength to love life again only because she was in it, I never would have made it without her. And now, in some small way, I am grateful you pulled me out and let me keep my life. Thinking about how it was there, in the digital world that day, I don't really believe I would have survived a moment longer, and whatever else may or may not have happened had you made a different decision, you saved my life. This is my token of gratitude.
This feather is from Angemon's wing. It is all that was left of my hope after the collapse. With Kari's help, I have rekindled that hope in my heart, and no longer need to hold onto this. I give it to you now as my hope that someday we will be brothers again. It is my hope that you will someday forgive yourself and find a life that brings back the joy you once had. It is my hope that you will someday find a place among us again, and that we will have the maturity and sympathy to accept you. Even if it's all you have, Matt, hold on to hope, and someday I have faith that it will bring us back together again.
I won't say I don't still harbor a lot of anger, I can't say if you came back now and decided not to go I'd welcome you with open arms, it'll take a long time for my gratitude to overwhelm all the years of pain. But I believe that time will heal all wounds, and someday, our hopes will bring us back together.
This has been sitting on my computer for ages. I've been waiting for some time to polish it up and get it out there, but I always found excuses to procrastinate. But, here it is, finally, a digimon fic, which I've always meant to do.
As I often do with my fics, this is titled after the song that I listened to most and/or that I think relates to the story. I feel like "Mad Season" the song is similar to how Matt is feeling as he comes out of his long-standing depression and self-loathing. Similarly, the concept of "Mad Season" is how the whole gang is feeling throughout this fic, while their lives unravel within a single brief period.
Thanks for reading! Please leave any and all thoughts, good and bad (but avoid the ugly, for courtesy's sake), I'm big on honest, constructive comments so be not afeared to speak your mind!