A/N: Whaaat? Aveza is updating this God forsaken story? Whaaat?
Well, yes, sort of. For old followers of this story, you all have already read a Chapter Four, but I hated it. Like, absolutely hated it (still kind of do), so I took it down, tweaked it some, and here it is. I suggest reading it for people who already read the old version, because I did add some extra stuff, most of it subtle, but will, of course, gain import as the story progresses.
And now I'll shut up and let you all get to the reading! xD
Chapter Four: Something Rotten
The refrigerator had to go.
He had scrubbed it, disinfected it, hosed it down with blasts of skin-boiling steam, and, still, the stench of rotten, raw, oozing cow remained. To open the fridge door was a deliberate act of suicide: death by noxious fumes. For three days he had aired it out, soaked it top to bottom in bleach, and every morning he woke up thinking he had been dropped in the mountainous landfills of Haiti.
"Fuck this shit."
Tai tore off the protective mask on his face and slammed the door to the refrigerator shut. The appliance teetered creakily. He pivoted around and inhaled deeply in the opposite direction, water collecting around his eyes as vestigial wisps of the malodorous gas snaked under his nose.
"Aw, God," he moaned, fleeing the kitchen.
He rapidly disrobed as he walked into his bedroom, doffing his t-shirt and pajama pants and chucking them at the floor between grand, exaggerated sniffs. One hand yanked open a drawer, probing for clothes, while the other reached and snatched the cell phone from his nightstand. He speed-dialed a number, threw the phone on his bed, and resumed dressing.
The dial tone clicked off as Tai pulled on a pair of old soccer warm-up pants, his hands fingering the drawstring as Izzy's robotic, "Izumi, Koushiro," sounded from the speaker of his phone. For being a closet staple since his senior year in college, the pants were in remarkable condition, sporting only a few loose threads at the hem of the left pant leg. The only other item that had stood the test of time was its matching soccer jersey: black, breathable, and branded with his name arched across the back. His sister and mother had instructed him repeatedly to do away with the old things, and every time, he had told them no.
"Izzy," Tai called out. A sigh followed, and Tai grinned, catching a reflection of his smile in the bathroom mirror. He cleared his throat. Some bluntness would have to be applied. He didn't want to appear too delighted that he had caught the redhead at a bad time.
"To what do I owe the pleasure, Tai," Izzy replied, sounding increasingly like a miffed supervillain. Chuckles filtered through Tai's teeth, and he twisted the faucet knobs of his sink and cupped water in his hands.
"You know electronic shit, right?" he asked, stooping to splash water on his face. "What am I saying? Of course you know that—Fuck!"
His hands immediately pulled away from the stream of water, one of them gripping the wet rim of the sink bowl while the other flew behind, landing on a spot at the base of his spine. A pang spiked steadily up his back, unexpected and annoying, as if tiny mallets were knocking his vertebrae out of alignment. Over the gush of water, he could hear Izzy's distant continuation.
Exhaling sharply, he straightened his posture and switched off the faucet, the hand on his back beginning to rub tiny circles into the skin. In the mirror, he watched himself breathe.
"Yeah," he resumed. He studied himself a moment, tempted to twist around and peek over his shoulder, but the impulse was checked. He knew what was back there, what was, for the time being, safely covered by the hand that soothed his pain.
"Is everything a—"
"You know electronic shit, right?" Tai repeated. The question echoed off the bathroom tile, signaling that, for being the only person in his apartment, he was nearly yelling—at a piece of technology the size of his fist. He turned and grabbed his face towel, yanking it off its bar and expelling a sigh of relief into the terry fabric when the throbbing in his lower back diminished.
"I would agree that it is my specialty, yes," returned Izzy, nonplussed.
Tai smirked into his towel.
"Shit or electronics?"
Silence hummed from the phone. Ten seconds later, Izzy sniffed.
"Shall I continue to probe about your reason for breaking off into expletives or do you want me to assist you? Because I'm assuming the latter is your reason for calling."
"All right, Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass." Tai shoved his arms through the sleeves of a compression turtleneck. "My refrigerator smells like a cow's fucking backside. I need a new one. A good one. Preferably one that's odor resistant."
"Tai, I am a professor of computer science at one of the most prestigious technological institutes in the world, and you want me to give you home repair advice?"
"Get off your high horse, Tesla," Tai jeered, scooping up his phone from his bed. He fitted it snugly into his armband, turning off the speaker mode setting and adjusting the volume on his Bluetooth headphones. The sneakers came next. "Just be lucky I'm not asking you to build me one."
There was another pause, but it wasn't silent. A faint, rumbling noise was heard in the subtle static of their empty transmission, like the purr of a cat or the feebly jostled marble in a whistle. Even thousands of miles away, Izzy couldn't muster the gravitas to growl at him like a genuinely angry person.
"I'm surprised you even know who Tesla is," Izzy retorted.
Tai laughed before he could stop himself, his snickering delivered in spurts as he jogged in place before he opened his front door and ran out.
"Hah! Izzy, I think that's the closet thing you'll ever come to saying, 'Fuck you.'"
Tai enjoyed his runs through the city. Speeding past commuters, winding around street corners, dodging or outrunning everyone and anything in his way. He was immersed in the urban and not, carried not so much by the current of people as he was cutting through it. Years ago, the only running he did was on grass, cleated feet collecting dew and dirt as he dribbled countless soccer balls. But time had changed his playing field. Trees, blue sky, and open space were traded out for concrete, car exhaust, and crowds. He would always prefer the former, but there was distraction in the latter, challenge in the obstructions encountered en route.
While his boss was considerate enough to allow him a jet-lag grace period, Tai could only appreciate it so much. Three days in and he was anxious, restless, bothered by the lack of movement to his hours. On one lunch date with his sister, T.K., and Sora, his leg wouldn't stop shaking under the café table they shared, making their silverware quiver atop.
"Do you ever stop to smell the roses, Tai?" T.K. had asked him. "You look like you really need to go pee."
"And don't tell me you miss your office," Sora added, wryly.
"I don't," Tai had snapped. If anything, the corporate setting was worse: sitting at his desk, swiveling back and forth in his chair, eyeing the clock like a child on his last day of school. "And I drank two of these things." He flicked at the empty coffee cups in front of him before turning his eyes to T.K. "I don't know how you can drink four in the morning and not have to piss like a racehorse afterwards."
T.K. had replied by taking a generous sip from his third cup of coffee, smirking behind the rim.
"I am, Tai," he announced, "what they call an 'optimist.' Coffee is what makes me a bright-eyed one."
Tai had snorted in reply, unimpressed, as usual, with T.K.'s self-professed wit. Kari only smiled thinly and leaned into her boyfriend, rubbing shoulders.
"I think you miss traveling, big brother," she had said.
Don't I, Tai had thought. He looked away from her, both reassured and irritated that she had accurately read him. Again. He pressed a finger to the shaking fork by his empty plate, stopping its vibrations. Coming home was always an adjustment.
"I've been home three days, Kari," he had replied, forcing a smile. "You could try acting like I actually missed being here."
Kari's thin eyebrows knitted then, making her look especially determined. She had worn the face often when Catherine had visited in the distant past, and at the time, Tai had attributed the reaction simply to a struggle to understand her impossible French accent. But, seeing it resurface in Catherine's absence, Tai was beginning to think it had always been about something else.
He glanced at Sora who quickly stared down into her coffee cup, the hand stirring a spoon in the mocha liquid moving in tighter circles. T.K. had also looked away, leaning an elbow on the table and tapping his lips with his fingers, staring off at the opposing and, apparently, far more interesting wall.
His sister's sigh had been short, almost gurgled, curt, but curbed in all other aspects.
"So could you," she had muttered.
Tai grunted at the recent memory, aware he was frowning only when an oncoming pedestrian mirrored the look back at him, which, consequently, only made his disgruntlement worse.
"Izzy," he barked.
Despite the demanding approach of his conversations with the computer expert, both were at a level of comfort in their communication with one another to let phone dialogue ebb and flow with the tide. If they had other shit to do while speaking to each other, they'd let the silence trickle in, content to listen to the clack of fingers on a keyboard or the rustle of flipping pages, or, even, of the clink and clatter and chew of a meal eaten solo. When a subject was ready to be introduced, it was, and attention and reply would follow.
"Either someone interrupted your run or you've been thinking," Izzy replied. "Though, judging by the continuous panting I am so fortunate to hear from my end of this telecommunication, my guess is the latter."
Tai had a crude joke to tell in response to Izzy tolerating his metered exhales, but he shook his head, remembering why he was annoyed. A part of him wanted to ask the redhead a question, but the inquiry stopped behind his clenched teeth, swallowed down as he focused on his run—on the landing of his feet on concrete, the cycling of his legs, the throbbing of his heart.
He had just slipped back into enjoying the silence when he heard Izzy's typing hands cease, creating an absence of noise worse than radio static.
"Rumor has it that you were one step closer to monogamy in Vienna," he posed.
Tai chuffed, smirking at what he knew was revenge for his Tesla comment, but the amusement was bitter, the grin contorting to a grimace. The point of being in Japan was to avoid all thought on places that weren't home. Vienna wasn't home. It never would be, and though Izzy's remark was harmless, it resurfaced memories Tai would have rather left buried in Rome's Cimiterio acattolico.
"Matt's a fucking gossip," he said, hoping to both make light of the issue and to take the limelight off himself.
"Matt's an innocent party," Izzy parried.
"Then who told you? The only person I've told is—" He broke off, nearly startled enough to pause in his run. "Kari?" he burst.
"I take it she must be concerned."
"She shouldn't be."
For all his firmness in rebutting, Tai could detect the faint beginning "ehh's" of disbelief. A nostril flared, wormholing air.
"You have something say, Izzy, then say it."
A beat passed, and Tai imagined Izzy safely seated in a home office, absently swiveling in a desk chair before a lit computer monitor, fingers alternating between typing and tweaking the crown of his headset, biding time that left Tai's blood simmering from the wait. This was mumness affected out of tact, not preoccupation.
He cleared his throat, his guttural demand for a response.
"You honestly don't think you're being a tad... distracted with Catherine?"
"Since when have I lately? Or ever?" he retorted, then stopped. "University doesn't count," he added. "Besides, you know I like being unattached."
"Spare me the anecdotal evidence," Izzy dryly requested. "But the reports coming in suggest otherwise."
"Reports?" Tai was tempted to raise a fist at the heavens. He settled for picking up his pace, kicking off pavement at both a higher velocity and a higher speed. "What the hell? Kari has me on surveillance now?"
"Does your sister's concern come off as that trifling to you?"
Tai's right food skidded lightly on the pavement, another halted effort to keep himself from stopping completely. The computer genius might have been thousands of miles away, but Tai swore he could almost feel the push, the solid nudge that put him in his place.
"I would expect you to value the reasons behind Kari's precautionary measures, Tai," Izzy resumed. "She's your sister. How many times have you given her unwanted advice and she heeded it? You owe her proper reciprocation."
I'll owe it to her when I fucking feel like it, Tai thought bitterly.
All Tai could muster through the receiver was a sequence of increasingly agitated breaths, which Izzy respected for a full five seconds before he broke his silence.
"I understand that what happened in Vienna was... unfortunate," he delicately phrased, "but from my perspective, and I would opine that my position is, likely, one of the most objective and least emotionally influenced, your sister is making an effort to help you move on from that incident. However, you seem displeased with the homecoming you've received."
Displeased? Tai mentally echoed, grimacing. Try fucking tired of it.
"What the hell do you expect?" Tai snapped back. "I come home and the first thing my mother does is bring up my ex-girlfriend. Then my sister gives me the stink eye for God knows what shit she thinks I've done—and all I did was tell my ex that I still had feelings for her. Tell me what the fuck is wrong with that—and then my God damn refrigerator smells like the fucking armpit of Paris, and on top of that, there's the business of me getting a fucking date for Matt and Sora's wedding!"
Passing glares of reproof landed on him for his colorful soliloquy, and Tai ignored them all with a hiss. Other words wouldn't suffice, and still others were used simply to hold space, keep the rest of his speech from collapse, like a crutch.
Izzy, meanwhile, gave no reply. Dead static intervened, which Tai should have anticipated. The lack of response acted as a blank wall, clarity supplied to silently convey the obvious, which was that he was angry. The interlude allowed negative energy to be rechanneled into running fuel, and Tai trekked on through ten silent minutes before the words he had said prior lost their momentum, fading like the pain of a stubbed toe or jarred funny bone: extreme at the onset, laughable in retrospect.
He completed his run and slowed to a jog as he reached his apartment complex.
"Tai," said Izzy, as Tai pushed open the door to the building stairwell. "Even you can't deny that you've been giving your family and friends mixed signals when it comes to your involvement with Catherine. We understand that you two are... resolved—separate, but resolved. I think Kari is upset with you because your actions seem to suggest dishonesty in that regard."
"Kat and I left on good terms, Izzy. I care about her. I don't deserve shit for caring about her."
"No one said you do. But you seem to be playing a game that people your age shouldn't be playing."
"If it were that easy to set things straight, they would be, Koushiro."
Silence won itself over as Tai unlocked his apartment door, his stare fixed on the floor, as intensely as one hoping to drill through to earth's molten core. He kicked off his shoes, face stiff and numb from the cold outdoors, and sniffed. The only smell to smell was the subtle stink of his rancid fridge, but at least he remembered to keep it closed.
He eyed the appliance from the kitchen doorway, hands on his hips, exhales quieting as his pulse regulated itself to a normal tempo. After some thought, he retreated to a closet, rummaged through its spare contents, and returned with duct tape, which he immediately put to work on the edges of the refrigerator.
As if perceiving what Tai was doing, Izzy offered suggestions for the refrigerator's impending replacement.
"Unfortunately, your demands for an odor-proof refrigerator are beyond our time. However, there are several models with built-in air filters that would do just as well to solve such a problem in the future."
"Great. Email me the list."
"You're looking at least seven hundred thousand Yen, here," Izzy warned.
Izzy chuckled, and Tai reactively smiled. If even their stoic computer whiz could muster a laugh in the wake of Tai's hyperbolized woes, he could do the same.
"Theories as to why Kari would nag me on this, Izzy?" Tai asked, stepping back as he admired his handiwork.
"To avoid overthinking—which you have heckled me to do repeatedly in several occasions—I assume she is being her usual, caring self. You often skew that you're the only one who frets and worries over your sibling, Tai. But she has one, too. You."
He allowed the point.
"I guess so," Tai said.
Still, he had an inkling there was more involved. The intuition was inexplicable, untraceable, but he had it nonetheless. While he heard Izzy clacking away at his keyboard, he pulled out his mobile phone and opened up a thread of texts from Kari, thumb tapping letters into the screen.
As he was about to hit Send, he reconsidered, deleted the text and told Izzy he was going to put him on hold.
The dial-tone rang for Kari's number, and Tai received her voicemail, which was T.K. yapping on about how, if he was hearing this message, then the fair maiden Hikari had been captured by a vicious dragon and was in the process of being rescued by a blond, humbly precocious knight with fabulous hair.
Tai rolled his eyes and promptly texted Matt with, 'Your brother is a crazy son of a bitch,' to which the blond replied, quickly enough:
'You just figuring that out now, Einstein?'
Resigned, Tai sat down at his kitchen table, idly flipping unsorted mail over as he drew his laptop forward, rubber feet bumping over the wood. He resumed his call with Izzy.
"You send me that list yet?" he asked, booting up the screen.
"I do have other things to do than research for you," Izzy replied.
"Unless Mimi is calling you to bed, then you don't have better things to do, Koushiro." Tai opened up his email, expecting nothing but spam and a reminder that he was returning to work soon.
What he got was neither.
At the very top of the list, in bold print, was a message from his boss:
Where others might have squirmed at the title, perspiring like pigs and feeling like their bowels were swimming in acid, Tai made a face and raised an eyebrow in both suspicion and hostility.
"Someone had better be fucking dying," he muttered, hovering the mouse arrow over the link. "If this is one of those monthly newsletters on safe airline travel..."
He clicked the link while Izzy asked a bemused, "What?" and immediately afterwards, his jaw disconnected, slackened like someone had knuckled him smack under the chin. Brown eyes blinked twice, stared, blinked again, and then Tai reared back, slouching and sliding off his chair as if he had just been the victim of a vicious internet prank.
"Fuck me, Koushiro," he groaned.
"I... uh..." He could hear Izzy scratch his head in confusion through the speaker of his phone. "I sincerely hope that is an expression of distress and not a serious order," Izzy finished.
Tai had no stomach to appreciate the joke.
"Fuck me," he repeated. "Fuck, fuck, fuck."
Breaking through Tai's list of obscenities was Izzy's ensuing, "Is this a work-related dilemma?", which was an inadvertent acknowledgement of Tai finding himself in deep shit. Next to his relationship with Catherine, Tai's job was the single most harped on and cursed subject in his repertoire of conversational taboos.
Even if Tai wanted to reply, he couldn't. He double-face-palmed, hands sliding down as his fingertips found purchase on the thin skin under his eyes, dragging, pulling them in the same way the news he just read was making his heart slowly slug its way down into his intestines.
His bowed head absorbed the glow from his laptop screen where the message that uprooted him lay bare and naked, exalted on the spare white plane.
It began with, 'There's been a change of plans, Kamiya...' and it finished: '...Your flight to Paris is tomorrow night, 8:00pm sharp.'
A/N: Next update will come sooner, I hope. Well, it will take less than a year, I promise. ;) Good thing is I have a decent bit written for when Tai lands in Paris, so I have no excuse.
Any comments, questions, criticism are appreciated! I am really trying to write my best for this story, so any feedback—positive, negative, ambivalent, would help.
Thanks in advance for your reviews, and, as always, thank you for reading! :)