So far all was going to plan. The snake-thing was getting closer to my sister and Takeru, and any moment now it would be within our runes--
Yamato's hand tightened on my shoulder--I wondered if he was even aware of it--and we held our breaths as she crept closer and closer.
Hikari and Takeru were still happily chatting. I wondered at how calm they could appear. Then again, they might not be able to see her--as the snake-lady drew even closer, Hikari looked up uneasily but looked down again without appearing to see anything unusual.
The snake-lady herself approached rather cautiously. She paused just before our runes started, and I started as a thin whipped tongue, like a snake's, darted through the air as if testing it.
"I think she knows it's a trap," I told Yamato, as we watched her.
"But if she knew--why did she come?"
"That's what we're going to find out," I said standing as she crossed the rune boundary. "Jun! Now!" I yelled, even as I activated my own runes.
Jun did the same, the barrier springing into life in a mass of interlocking threads both visible yet not there in the same instant.
Takeru and Hikari jumped to their feet, and I guessed from their expressions that they could see her now.
The worrying thing was, the snake-lady didn't seem at all worried by this.
"Koushiro, get Takeru and Hikari out of here now!" I yelled.
"But Tai--" Hikari protested.
"We want to help," Takeru said.
"There's nothing else you can do now," Yamato said, coming to stand behind me. "This part is up to us."
"If you stay you'll only distract them," Koushiro said, tugging both of the younger kids after him. "Now come. The sooner we get you two home, the sooner I can get back to help."
They went at that. I think they both realised we would need Koushiro.
"Now then," Yamato said, turning to our captive. "You're going to learn not to mess with my brother!"
"Am I?" she sounded amused.
"What are you?" I asked. "Where did you come from?"
"So you can send me back again? I don't think so." She shook her head at me. "You know, you were right the other day. You're not very wise."
"What do you mean?" I asked but Yamato put a hand on my shoulder briefly.
"Ignore her, Taichi. She's just trying to confuse you," he instructed, narrowing his eyes at the monster in our trap. He'd pulled out a lighter and was setting a small fire he could manipulate--I wondered where he got the lighter. If he smoked I should have tasted it in that kiss--that line of thought was not helpful and I dismissed it.
"I don't think you're very wise," Jun said. "If you were, you wouldn't have walked into our trap."
"You can't pick on defenceless people for your meals," Yamato said warming to his subject.
"Oh, I quite agree with you," the snake woman said, idly following the path of Jun's runes that trapped her with her finger.
"What--you do?" Jun was astonished.
"Oh absolutely." Our foe smiled wickedly, forked tongue appearing briefly. "Which is why I've decided no more small fry. I'm going to take your power."
That is what I'd been afraid of.
"Jun--look out!" I yelled realizing too late she hadn't been tracing those runes--she'd been manipulating them. Jun blinked at me in incomprehension then got slammed back forcibly as the snake woman's heavy tail whipped through runes that should have restrained her.
"Jun," Yamato went running towards her.
I pulled him back, out of the path of the snake woman's scythe like tail.
"Hell," he said as it thumped into the ground just before him.
"She hasn't broken my runes," I said testing them. "Hurry, while she's still contained!"
He nodded and called upon the fire he'd set earlier to send against the snake-thing. She screamed as a fire ball hit her but it seemed to do no more than momentarily discomfort her--she batted it away, leaving scales that weren't even marked.
"This isn't working," I said to him. "She's going to break my runes, it's just a matter of time." I could feel the pressure she was applying to them, little stabbing pains in my head.
"So what do you suggest we do?" Yamato snapped, trying to concentrate on increasing the strength of the flame.
"There's only one thing we can do." I dumped my schoolbag's contents on the ground and began scrabbling through them--please be there, be there, be there--yes! I stood up with the dagger I'd been carrying ever since I'd met Yamato--I knew the section on bonding off by heart. "We've got to bond. We have to."
"You're kidding." Yamato stared at me, taking his attention off the snake lady completely. I winced as she took the opportunity to further attack my runes.
"Yamato, we need the power to stop her. Otherwise she's going to get away--" I had to break off at a particularly harsh attack.
"No way--Absolutely out of the question."
"There's no alternative!" I gritted my teeth and sliced across my left palm. "Yamato--" I pushed the dagger into his hand. "You have to--you know you have to--"
"No!" he said, stepping away from me. "Jun's my partner--I can't--"
"Yamato--" I begged, feeling the edges of my runes beginning to give.
It was too late.
My runes were shattered, and me with them. I screamed as I was torn into a thousand different pieces and then pain. Pain and blackness.
I was drifting. There was a strangely empty feeling all around me--like I was weightless. I opened my eyes.
Something cool and firm pressed against my head. I looked up startled to see black eyes watching me from behind glass. "How are you feeling?"
"I don't know," I replied.
"What's wrong with him?" a lighter voice asked. "He's sounds so--strange."
"It's as we feared," the first voice said. "Don't crowd round him. Koushiro, come here. I'm going to need your help."
Another pair of black eyes regarded me, these were red-rimmed.
"What do we do?"
"I think you'll get the idea. Draw on spirit and--"
It was as if someone had slapped me.
Everything was black again.
This time it hurt.
I was spun for I don't know how long, and slowly managed to make my way back to the place I'd been before.
"What was that all about?" I demanded, as I opened my eyes again.
"Hold on to him, Koushiro--" Jyou bent over me. "Taichi, how are you feeling?"
"Whatever you did just then hurt, Jyou!" I complained.
"Taichi! You're awake!" A new face joined the other two. The voice I recognised from earlier. Something about it--I should know this one, I thought. "Who are you?" I asked.
Shock flickered across the face. "Taichi--"
"Sit her down," Jyou instructed. "Yamato, I wonder if you could help."
There was a pause and then another person took Koushiro's place. He was light, and his eyes glittered blue--There was a kitchen and a jug. A touch--"What blue eyes you have." Did I really just say that?--I blinked as the scene vanished. Leaving in it's place another memory.
"What the--Taichi settle down!" Jyou shoved my shoulders back against whatever surface I was resting on.
"Let me go!" I wrestled with him, trying to free myself to get at the person behind him. All I could remember was that I was really, really mad at him--I swung at him but because of my bandaged hand couldn't do anything--
"I'm sorry, Taichi, I was hoping not to have to do this again," Jyou said. And again I was plunged into darkness.
This time I was spun so hard I couldn't even keep track of which was I was going. I panicked. I tried to think of why Jyou might be doing this to me but beyond the fact that Jyou made me think of libraries and I trusted him I could remember nothing about him--absolutely nothing. Big gaps of memory were missing--and not just Jyou--the voice before, the girl who had seemed so distraught--
Something stirred the darkness around me and new memories surfaced.
What are we doing?
Using spirit to draw anything that belongs to Tai back together. Concentrate.
The darkness around me thickened again. I listened with interest to the conversation unfolding about me.
Everything's so fragmented--
What do you expect? When she broke his runes there had to be some backlash. We're just lucky his mind wasn't completely splintered. As it is, we're going to have trouble enough putting Taichi back together . . .
That reminded me of something . . .
If I had a lip I'd be gnawing it.
Taichi . . .
The sun was falling right on my desk and I was sleepy. It was so warm . . .
The ruler slammed down on my desk.
"No dozing off in my class Yagami--"
A muddy field, a black and white ball, the blue uniform of our opponents--
I dived in and just managed to steal the ball, passing it.
The referee's whistle.
I'm pulled up my my team-mates. "Nice steal Tai-kun."
"Way to go Taichi."
Taichi . . . is me?
That would explain why my head feels like shit . . .
I concentrate on pulling myself--or at least my memories--back together, trying to consolidate them. It's like someone's been through my head with a blender--
Everything's such a mess! How are we supposed to put this back together?
We have to. We can't leave Taichi like this. If you can't handle it I'll get Koushiro back.
No! He . . . needs the rest.
I'd found the voices again, and like a comforting light I gravitated towards them. Jyou and Yamato . . . especially Yamato . . .
And . . . I need to do this.
Now we're getting somewhere.
It's my fault. He was right, we needed to bond to defeat the viperna. Even the archivist said so--
Did you force the viperna to do this to Taichi?
. . . no . . .
Then stop beating yourself up and concentrate. The longer this is left the less chance we have of ever getting him back.
I want to go to them, to tell them that I'm back but I'm stopped as a new memory pops up. The girl again. She's crying.
"Tai, Neko doesn't like me."
"Sure she does."
"No she doesn't. See? She scratched me and it really h-hurts."
"Let me see. Aw--that's just a little scratch. Neko didn't mean it. She was probably trying to tell you something."
"Sometimes she doesn't like being picked up," I said, and brown eyes widened at me.
"I wasn't trying to hurt her, I just wanted to see if I could lift her by her tail--"
"I think that's your problem," I said. "Come on, let's go find Neko and make friends with her again."
"Okay," a little hand wrapped around mine. "You're the best big brother," she said confidingly.
"Yeah, you're not so bad yourself." The past words slipped easily off my tongue but beyond that--I didn't even know her name. There was a big gap . . . an absence of anything.
I've forgotten her! I can't have! She's important! I know she's important!
I began to panic. I couldn't let anything happen to Hikari--I was her big brother! I couldn't let that thing get her--
"Easy Tai-kun, easy!" I blinked, finding myself being held down again.
But not this time by Jyou.
He smiled, relieved. "You recognise me?"
"Of course. But Hikari! That monster's after her--you've got to help her--"
"It's all right. Hikari's fine. She'll be here to see you after school again--she'll be fine." Koushiro had my trust and I lay back down again, noting absently that Yamato was still nearby.
"How do you feel?"
"I--better I guess. But kind of fuzzy."
"Yeah. Like my head's full of cottonwool."
"Understandable, I suppose. Now, I'm going to ask you a few questions. What's your name?"
I answered the questions automatically, my mind returning to dwell on the fact that Yamato was standing silently beside the bed. He appeared to be staring at the wall, but I had the feeling he was stealing looks at me.
"Taichi, how did you find your runemaster manual?"
"We're not done yet," Koushiro sighed.
"So what do we do? Where's Jyou?"
"I--" I tried to hold on to the room and the voices, but it was as if I was being dragged down by the gaping hole of what I didn't know.
"Taichi? Tai-kun? Oh no--"
"We've lost him--"
"Excuse me, young sirs, but I wonder if you could deliver this package for me. I have to leave quickly."
"Oh, no problem."
"What did you say yes for? Now we'll be late home."
"Taichi, it's not as if we have anything to do anyway," Koushiro scolded. "Why don't you take the package?"
"We shouldn't speak to strangers. Didn't your parents tell you that? And that man was strange."
"Oh, and why is that?"
"Isn't it obvious? He called us sirs."
"Well we'd better alert the nearest mental hospital then--why've you stopped?"
"Dude, this package is addressed to us."
Then everything was gone and I was floundering in darkness.
There was nothing for me to hold onto--
Would I stay like this forever? Alone, in the dark?
--none of this would have happened.
Well, I didn't exactly ask him to want to bond with me. In fact, I don't remember asking for any of this--particularly the parts involving Taichi. Who says I have to bond with him--
Oh, just SHUT UP!
You heard me! Shut up--do you have any idea how lucky you are to have a bond at all? A connection like the one Tai-kun described does not happen everyday. You should be celebrating.
Because I get to spend the rest of my life attached to him?
And what's so wrong with Taichi?
He's so . . . he overdoes everything.
And you're any better? Half the time, you don't even try.
Where's this coming from? You don't even know me--
Any more than you know Tai. It's killing me, knowing what you have and that you don't even care. Tai-kun is a great person--he's so generous, and giving, and brave--
Stop it, Kou-kun, you're making me blush.
He's that important to you?
Damm right he is.
Then why don't you two bond?
I would in a second--but I don't think it works that way. Besides Taichi's chosen you.
. . . I don't get why. I mean, I like Jun . . . I love Jun. If this was meant to happen with anyone, shouldn't it happen with her?
Maybe . . . someone is trying to tell you something.
Come on . . . would bonding with Taichi really be that bad? I know he acts like an idiot but under that sort of heedless attitude and hurricane like hair he's a great guy.
And he has great legs.
And a nice butt.
A nice butt, huh?
Nice butt? I thought you liked Jun!
I do! I, uh--
Let me theorize a moment--you wouldn't be objecting to Taichi not on the basis that you didn't like him, but that you liked him too much, would you?
You think that's going to fool me?
Okay, so that's sort of what's happening. It's like I can't go near him without being drawn in, and that's dangerous.
I haven't trusted anyone besides Takeru like that for years. I'm afraid of what he might do to me.
Yamato, I'm not quite sure what you're afraid of, but Taichi has a good heart. He'd never intentionally hurt you--unless you keep shutting him out maybe. Or hurt his sister--or interrupt the soccer world cup--returning to our original topic of conversation, I don't think you have to be afraid of Taichi. He's good and sweet and kind and--
Stop it, Kou-kun. You're really making me blush.
Tai-kun? You're back?
Yeah . . . but where's 'back?'
We need to draw him back out and quickly--where's his manual? I need his rune!
That won't do any good--you need a rune master to activate it.
And Jyou's asleep, damm it--I'll go get him. Keep talking to Tai-kun, don't let him slip away. You know what Jyou said--time--
I don't. I said peevishly.
It doesn't matter--just hang onto me Taichi. Koushiro will be back with Jyou in a moment--
Yamato, I don't think I can. You're so far away, and I keep getting pulled--
Taichi, you've got to!
Help me--please--I was suddenly scrabbling for a hold on anything as everything began slipping away from me again--
There was only one thing I could do.
I threw myself at the only source of stability I could find--Yamato.
If you let me go I'll fall--please, please, don't let me go--
Memories rose but I shoved them down. Please, please, please--
"It's okay, I've got you. You'll be all right--"
"Yamato? What on earth--"
You'll be all right--Yamato's words whispered through my mind again and I let myself drift, knowing I was safe.
A hesitant whisper intruded into my consciousness.
I concentrated a moment. "Hikari?"
"Yes," she leaned over me and I could see there were tears in her smile. "I guess you got your memories back."
"Yeah . . . wait, this isn't my room."
"We're at Jyou's. His parents are away--he's been taking care of you. He even let me stay here, in case anything happened. I was so worried Tai--you are never, ever, to do anything like that again."
"No problem," I agreed, batting at my fringe with my hand and discovering it was bandaged. "I suppose that explains your pyjama's."
"Jyou said that I wasn't to try and wake you until morning--so I got up early."
"Wait--you slept over on a school night?"
"It's Saturday, Tai."
"You've been out for three days."
"Three days?" I flopped back on the pillows. "But--"
"Koushiro and Jyou took care of everything. Our parents think you've been away at a soccer camp." Hikari sat on the edge of the bed and took my hand. "I'm so glad you're back. There was a while before Jyou got here that we didn't know if you were going to be all right or not."
"The snake-lady shattered my runes," I remembered.
"She's a viperna. The archivist got back To Koushiro--she's an advanced kind of magical creature. They're sending a couple more runemasters to deal with it. Everyone thinks you're really lucky to be alive. When your rune's broke, so did your mind."
"Wonderful." My mind wandered back to that last battle--had all that really happened? "Wait--Jun--is she?"
"Oh, she's fine. A little bit bruised from getting knocked down, but then again the viperna didn't break her runes, just twisted them."
"How did they get away?"
"Well, Koushiro knew there was something wrong. He told us to go home without him, and went back and we, well we followed him--"
"And when we got there Jyou had just turned up and he and Koushiro and Jun were trying to drive the creature away. Yamato had put this circle of flame around the two of you, and was managing to keep her away and you were unconscious. The viperna eventually went away. They think that it took a lot of her energy to break your runes and she won't have recovered her strength yet, which means we have a great opportunity to take her out."
"You said 'we'," I noted.
"Yes," Hikari looked at her hands.
She was afraid of something--probably that I'd be mad at her. And why would that happen unless--
"This was too important for us to be left out of," Hikari said. "We want to help put that thing away. After what it did to you--"
"You should have known better--especially after what happened to me," I said. "Still, I suppose it's no use saying that now. What did you do exactly?"
"Takeru and I took your manual out of Koushiro's bag. We figured at least one of us had to be a runemaster."
"It's not his fault, Tai. He was so worried about you, he didn't even notice when we took his manual as well."
"I'm a element adept, trial pending. Takeru's the same, only a rune master."
"Well, at least you've got other wizards to help you through your trial. Koushiro and I had to muddle through on our own."
"Yeah," Hikari smiled then turned serious. "I can't believe that all that happened to you and you didn't tell me."
"It was the rules, you know. Although I don't know how many times I came home bursting to tell you about something that had happened only to remember that I couldn't. I'd been hoping you'd get magic too, so I could tell you. Although I always expected you'd be a runemaster, like me."
"So you're not mad?"
"Not overly. A little bit worried about your trial, but you and Takeru should be all right." I squeezed my sister's hand and she smiled. "So, does Yamato know about this?"
"Takeru and I wanted you to tell him."
I choked. "What? Why?"
"Because he seems to feel guilty about almost getting you killed. We were hoping you could work on that."
"Forget it," I told her. "You two will have to do your own dirty work."
"Oh well," Hikari sighed then quickly kissed my cheek. "I'm going to get breakfast now," She said, a little flustered by her act of emotion. Our family usually didn't go into displays like that.
I smiled, then curled up again and shut my eyes. Perhaps it had been three days--I was still rather tired.
Well not tired exactly. Just comfortable where I was and not alert enough to want to do anything.
I opened a lazy eye. "Hmmm?"
"Hikari told me you were awake. Can I come in or are you resting?"
"I'm resting, but you can come in." I wriggled over so there was room on the bed for Yamato. "How are you?"
"I'm the one who should be asking that question," Yamato said, sitting.
"Well, I'm a lot better now that you're here," I answered sleepily.
There was a pause. "You don't mean that--after everything that happened?"
"Hmm?" I opened my eyes again.
"You should be mad at me--I thought you were--"
"Huh? I thought back. "Oh, yeah, I was mad at you. I'm too tired to be mad now though. Especially since I know you were just scared when I asked you to bond."
"Um . . . how do you know that?"
"I just do," I blinked. Actually, there was a lot of things I knew about Yamato I wasn't sure how I knew. "You wanted me to meet your father--"
"How on earth did you know that? I know I haven't told anyone here that--"
"Your father is a runemaster and he might be able to explain this whole weird situation," I finished, meeting Yamato's eyes. "Okay, this is just scary."
"Wait--I think I know what's happened. Right at the end, last night--I pulled you into me to stop you from drifting away before Jyou returned. Maybe you picked up a few of my memories while you were there--that's when I was thinking of my father--"
"I wonder what I was thinking of?"
"Ice-cream. Strawberry Ripple."
"That's right," I said. "I was wondering how that would taste if you mixed it with--"
"Lime supreme," Yamato finished. "This is really too freaky."
I smiled at him. Somehow he didn't seem as displeased as if this had happened before the whole viperna breaking my runes thing. "Would your Dad be home now?"
"Yeah. You don't want to meet him this instant, do you?"