I love my entire family. Really I do. But there are times when I think that my older brother was a vicious curse placed on this earth in human form to torment me.
"They were cluttering up my side of the room!"
"Well, you didn't have to throw them out! I've come across plenty of your junk and I don't just toss it in the garbage!"
"Geez, Kari, what's the big deal?" Taichi shoveled another handful of popcorn into his mouth, ignoring me in favor of the soccer game playing on TV. "It was just a bunch of paper! Anyway, you can still fish it out before mom takes out the trash."
I really wish it were possible to burn a hole through the back of someone's head just by glaring. I would've exposed Taichi's lack of brains to the world. "It wasn't just paper! It was the notes I took for my final history project!"
The blond teenager in the armchair beside Taichi's couch seat laughed. "Nice one, Tai. Maybe it's time to retire your brain and get yourself a new one. That one's had it."
"Shut up, Matt!" Taichi hurled a fistful of popcorn in his direction. "Speak for yourself!"
"Maybe you should volunteer to help your sister out," the redhead on the other side of the couch suggested, and offered me a smile. "After all, you were the one who threw out her homework."
I could've kissed him. That is, if he weren't my idiot brother's best friend.
"Aw, geez, Izzy!" Taichi slumped in his seat, looking thoroughly displeased. "The game is tied! And it's just getting exciting!"
"We'll fill you in when you get back," Yamato teased him, offering a wicked smirk. "Go clean up your mess, Taichi. Let your guests enjoy the game in peace."
"I'll get you guys for this," my brother muttered, getting reluctantly to his feet.
"Have fun, Tai!" Yamato called after him.
"Hurry back!" Koushiro added, cheerfully.
"Thanks a lot, Kari," Tai grumbled, rooting through the trash bin he's thrown my history notes into. "Just what I needed: an excursion into garbage central."
"You were the one who threw it out," I reminded him. "You've been awfully spacey lately, Tai. I thought your brain came back from its holiday after you recovered from discovering that Matt and Sora were officially dating."
"Ah, be quiet." He pulled a couple of crumpled pieces of paper from the trash. "Don't you have anything better to do than bother me? Go find yourself a boyfriend or something. Hook up with TK - or no, wait, don't. He's related to Matt; I'd have to hunt him down and drape his remains over a fence if he touched you."
I smiled. "One more page, Tai."
"Thank god." He tossed another crumpled ball out and straightened. "That was disgusting. But hey" - he glanced down at his soiled hands and grinned - "this should be good for a little payback."
Then he turned and headed back to the couch, hands held out ominously in front of him.
"Ugh! Tai, get away! That is seriously unpleasant!"
"Hey, that's sick! Back off!"
"Either one of you want a massage?"
"Tai, I mean it! Get away!"
"Come on, man, are you five years old?"
"Hah! I'll bet you guys are ticklish, though…"
I snickered to myself, pausing to listen to the shouts. Taichi and his friends had those weird guy-relationships where they'd taunt each other like crazy and avoid being serious whenever possible. And even when they were serious, they more often than not disguised it as a joke.
In all reality, those three were usually so close that I was starting to think of Yamato and Koushiro as my adopted older brothers.
"Why are you bothering me, you sicko? Go torture Izzy for once!"
"He's not as much fun to annoy!"
"Should I be insulted by that, or was it your way of giving me a compliment?" I think I was probably the only one who noticed the odd note in Koushiro's voice. It's hard to recognize, especially for someone as dense as Taichi - and Yamato tended to block stuff out when he was irritated.
"Relax, brainiac, you'll get your turn."
"Tai, go wash your damn hands already! That's really gross!"
"All right, all right, don't get all fussy on me. Sheesh!"
Lately, I think, the 'three is a crowd' thing is taking its toll on their happy fellowship.
Why should I worry about them? I pushed away from the door, forcing myself to stop eavesdropping. Taichi was seventeen; he could handle his own problems. I couldn't help but feel sorry for Koushiro, though… As the youngest member of their odd little group, he was easily the most likely candidate for unintentional ostracism.
Sometimes I think I've spent ninety percent of my fourteen years of life worrying about my accident-prone brother. He's got good intentions, but he's also got this horrible habit of messing things up royally.
Forget it, Hikari, I told myself, straightening the crumpled notes Taichi had just retrieved for me. You've got enough to worry about in your own life - even without Taichi's.
"You want my help?"
I tossed a smile over my shoulder, forcing back a wave of irritation as I repeated for what had to be the thousandth time, "I appreciate the offer, Daisuke, but I'm not allowed to let friends in behind the counter. I could get fired."
"Oh." Daisuke leaned back with his hands still resting on the counter, looking disappointed. "But you shouldn't have to do all the sweeping, Kari!"
"This is my job," I reminded him, setting aside the broom. I had a little time, and I wasn't likely to get much work done while he was there. "I get paid to sweep floors. Remember?"
"Hey, I'm not an idiot!" He grinned at me.
I couldn't help but smile back. No, not an idiot. A sometimes-annoying, occassionally-obnoxious, and still somehow incredibly likeable boy, with an intriguing personality and an infallibly cheerful nature. "Of course not, Daisuke."
"Well, at least I'm not working at a Laundromat," he commented teasingly.
I made a face at him. "If only I could say the same."
"I'll bet I could get you a job at the SuperStore," he offered. "My manager's pretty cool, and they like me there. Better than taking in people's dirty laundry."
"Maybe," I conceded. "But I don't like the hours there. This job fits perfectly with my schedule. Thanks for offering, though."
"If you say so." Daisuke leaned over the counter again, pushing the keyboard for the computer up a bit, and beamed at me. "Want me to drive you home when you're done tonight?"
"My brother's picking me up," I answered. "Thanks anyway, but he's got to drive home from Matt's house at about the same time. So it makes sense."
"Okay. I'll go harass Ken, then." He absently toyed with one of the pens on the counter. "I haven't hung out with him since the day before yesterday. I'll bet he's going through Daisuke-withdrawal."
"Sure he is, Daisuke," I agreed, without cracking a smile. "Sure he is."
He gave me a suspicious look. "You're not making fun of me, are you?"
"All the time, Dai." Takeru walked in through the open door, with a white paper slip in his hand. "Hey Kari," he greeted me, offering an easy smile. "I'm here to get mom's drycleaning."
"Sure." I smiled back and took the slip, turning to type the numbers into the keyboard. Takeru's presence relaxed me; he was like a stable setting in a very changeable world. There was a warm sort of sense about him that could brighten a room with just his smile. In my eyes, at least, he was a very special person.
And, incidentally… tall, blond, and gorgeous, too.
"Busy tonight, Kari?" he asked, placing himself at the counter beside Daisuke and smiling placidly at the shorter boy's scowl.
"Not really." I called up the order and pressed down on the foot controller to move the line around. "It's pretty dead n here. Daisuke's keeping me company."
"I would help," Daisuke added, still glaring at Takeru. "But Kari said no."
"I could get fired if my manager came in and saw," I explained.
"Wouldn't want that," Takeru said, not looking the slightly bit put-out by Daisuke's attitude. He had to be used to it by then, after all. "Are we doing something with the others this weekend?" he asked.
I moved his order out. "No, but that reminds me… My parents want to have a cookout on Saturday night." Better ask before I forgot again. "Tai and I can invite two friends each. You two want to join us?"
"Sure, sounds - "
"Really, Kari?" Daisuke interrupted Takeru, leaning forward eagerly. "You'd really invite me?"
"Yeah." I shrugged. "If you don't mind hanging out with Tai, Matt, and Izzy."
"Just you, and then your bother and four guys?" Takeru grinned at me. "Sure you can handle it?"
"Hmm… four good-looking guys, and me being the only girl…" I shook my head. "What do you think?"
"You think I'm good-looking?" Daisuke looked dazzled. "Wow… wow! I knew it!"
"Hey, you're one of four," Takeru reminded him. "So what time?"
"Around six, I think." I shrugged. "We'll probably eat at about seven."
"Aw, geez." Daisuke scratched his head and gave me a rueful smile. "I'm really sorry, Kari… I forgot. I'm doing something with Ken on Saturday."
I blinked. Daisuke rarely refused an invitation I made. Perhaps this showed some hope for the future… "That's all right. I'll ask Miyako instead."
"So no good-looking Daisuke, I guess."
Takeru beat me to that one. "Does that mean we might expect bad-looking Daisuke to show up?"
The dark-skinned boy turned to give him a not-quite-serious glare. "You be quiet."
"How about average-looking Daisuke?"
I laughed and put Takeru's money in the till.
Algebra killed me. Literally.
That was why I was lying prone on the bottom bunk with my arms spread to either side when Taichi came into our room - trying to come back to life after finishing my homework for that night.
"I thought I was on the bottom this week," he commented - without even thinking about it, obviously.
Beside him, Koushiro covered his mouth to stifle something that sounded suspiciously like a snicker.
"Really?" I sat up and raised an eyebrow at him. "Who's topping you?"
I'd seen him make that same mistake before - and I was waiting for the same response as last time. As I recalled, he had tossed a careless arm around Yamato's shoulders, batted his eyes, and said, 'Are you telling me you don't know about us?'
I didn't get it, though.
"Ah, shut up, Kari." He frowned, and fidgeted the way he always did when someone said or did something he didn't want to deal with. "You know what I meant."
"I'm taking a rest after tackling the evil homework beast," I told him, trying not to look surprised. A quick glance around didn't reveal the familiar form of a tall blond. "Where's the other half of your shadow?"
"With Sora." Taichi shrugged. "If he's not with us, where else would he be?"
"Uh… Tai, he does have a band to practice with," Koushiro pointed out. "You know," he added thoughtfully, "when you think about it, he doesn't spend very much time with Sora at all - which is odd, considering she's his girlfriend. You would think - "
"Ah, whatever." Taichi waved that aside. "Kari, where's my new DVD? I know you borrowed it last night; where did you leave it?"
"Oh." I sat up. "It's in my bag. Just wait a minute, and I'll get it."
He leaned against the wall as I dug through the rest of the junk littering my bag. "You should ask before borrowing my things, you know. I never said you could take it."
"I would've!" I protested, pausing for a moment to look up at him. "But you were at Matt's still, and we really wanted to see it."
Somehow, that was not the right thing to say. Taichi immediately stiffened up as if I'd accused him of something he was actually guilty of. What did I say?
My question was answered in the next instant. Koushiro gave my brother a curious look, and asked, "You were at Matt's house last night?"
"Just for a while," Taichi said, quickly. "I had to talk to him about some stuff."
"But I thought you had to run some errands for your mother." Koushiro looked completely baffled - and I couldn't blame him. Errands? Our parents weren't even home that night. "That's what you said when I suggested that we go see a movie."
"Yeah… I did!" My brother gave me a look that said 'say anything and I raid your closet and paint all your clothes neon green'. But I finished early, so I stopped at Matt's on the way home."
"Oh." Koushiro seemed to accept that lie easily enough. "Okay."
"We would've called you, but it was already pretty late, and I didn't want to bother you or anything," Taichi added, scratching the back of his head. "Ehe… sorry about that…"
"That's okay." As if Koushiro would seriously hold a grudge over something like that. "The extra study time turned out to be beneficial. My teacher gave us a pop quiz this morning."
"Well… good, then." Taichi looked relieved. Then he raised an eyebrow at me. "Hey Kari, are you getting my DVD or not? We don't have all day, you know."
"I'll go grab the popcorn while we're waiting," Koushiro offered, and left the room.
I waited until he was gone. "Tai! What do you think you're doing? I thought Izzy was your friend!"
"He is!" Taichi protested, glancing nervously toward the door. "Listen Kari, you'd better not tell anyone about this - especially him, okay? I don't want Izzy to know I lied."
"Why did you lie?" I found the DVD and pulled it out, but didn't hand it over just yet. "Didn't you want to see a movie with him? You could've just told him the truth, you know."
"I was telling the truth now!" Taichi frowned at me. "I needed to talk to Matt about something, and I didn't want Izzy there to hear it. But if I told him I was going over there, he'd be hurt because I didn't invite him."
"Tai, I think he'd rather deal with that than have you lie to him."
"He's not going to find out I lied to him, is he?" My brother snatched the DVD from my hands. "Listen, Kari, it's none of your business. So just… stop lecturing me!"
Then he turned and stalked out of our room, leaving me to stare after him in confusion.
Just what's going on with you anyway, Tai?
"That's weird." Takeru moved out of the way as I swept the Laundromat floor. The place was empty - strange, for a Friday night - and he was keeping me company while I finished cleaning. "Those three are all such good friends; why would they be excluding Izzy all of a sudden?"
I shook my head. "I don't know, but I really hope there's a good reason. Tai hardly ever lies - at least, not to people who are important to him." I sighed. "I really don't want to see Izzy get hurt, but it looks like that's where this is going."
"Well, whatever happens, I can tell you for sure that my brother would never let either of them down," Takeru assured me. "If there's one thing he's dead serious about, it's his friends."
"I know they'd never do it intentionally," I agreed - then smiled ruefully. "I guess I shouldn't be worrying so much about this. It's none of my business, really."
"I wouldn't say that," he disagreed. "Tai's your brother, and Izzy's your friend. You have every right to be worried. Even if it is none of your business," he added, with a grin.
"Thanks a lot."
"No charge." Takeru sat down on the counter, resting his feet on the edge of one of the laundry carts. "I'm surprised Daisuke isn't hanging out here tonight."
"Daisuke's working tonight," I reminded him. "Besides, a Laundromat isn't the most fun place to hang around in, is it?"
"Well, I know that, and you know that…" He chuckled. "And hell, Daisuke knows that, too. But he's here all the time anyway - whenever you're working. It's his super-not-so-secret plan to be around you as much as possible."
"Ah, Daisuke's sweet sometimes." I kept my eyes on the floor. "But he and I could only ever be good friends. It's just an exercise in futility trying to explain that to him. And I don't want to hurt his feelings, either."
It's just that there's someone else… A certain tall, blond someone… sitting on the counter I just wiped down…
"Yeah… that's tough." Takeru stared thoughtfully at the cart he was pushing around with his foot. "Much as I bug him, Daisuke is my friend." He pulled his foot back abruptly and looked up at me. "Listen… Kari…"
He paused there, seeming uncertain about whatever he planned to say next. I stopped sweeping and met his gaze. "Yeah?"
"You know…" There was a hint of a flush creeping onto Takeru's cheeks, and he coughed a little to clear his throat. My heart rate sped up a little. Is he…? "You know… I really like you. Right?"
It came out in a rush, so fast I almost didn't believe he'd really said it. But he was still looking at me, clear blue eyes meeting my own squarely. My breath caught. "TK…" That came out weird. I tried again. "I didn't know that…"
"Oh." He coughed again, cheeks getting redder. "Well, I do. But I didn't want to say anything," he continued hastily. "Because Daisuke and I settled our differences - more or less - and became friends. I didn't want to waste that by going after you while he still worshipped the ground you walked on."
It's strange how we sometimes think such similar thoughts. I hadn't wanted to go after him for pretty much the same reason. "I… know what you mean."
His eyes widened a little. "Kari?"
"I've sort of been thinking the same thing." I could feel my cheeks getting warm, too. "I wasn't sure if you were interested, but I didn't want to say anything while Daisuke might still get hurt because of me."
"Then… you feel the same." At my nod, he let out a long, relieved breath, and ran a hand through his hair. "Good. I was really afraid I sounded like a complete idiot. I've been thinking about telling you for a while now, but Daisuke's usually around when I talk to you."
My heart was beating hard, but I had to grin. "We're a pair of idiots, then."
"A matched set," he agreed, and we laughed. The atmosphere seemed a lot lighter between us all of a sudden. If we ever got around to it… I think… I wouldn't be surprised or nervous if he were to ask me out. "So we agree that we like each other?" he said.
"I'd say so." I nodded, feeling warm and tingly all over.
"But we can't date yet."
I nodded again, even thought it hadn't been a question. "I'm willing to wait if you are."
His answering smile was as bright as ever when he looked at me again, and it made my stomach do flip-flops. "Kari, I could wait as long as it took. No matter what."
Life, I decided, not looking away from Takeru, was pretty damn good.
The doorbell rang.
Must be for Mom or Dad. I didn't loop up from the book I was reading for my literature class. There shouldn't be anyone there for me, and Taichi was over at Yamato's house again.
The doorbell rang again.
"There's someone at the door!" I called out, to whoever was home.
"Kari, could you get that?" Mom called back. "I'm repotting these flowers, and my hands are filthy!"
I set aside my book and got up. The doorbell rang a third time as I was heading for the door. "Just a minute!" I quickened my pace, and opened the door as soon as I reached it. "Sorry about - Izzy!"
Koushiro smiled at me. "Hi Kari. Where's Tai?"
He doesn't know where Tai is? Uh-oh… I tried not to look surprised. "Ah… he's out for a while, Izzy." Don't ask where… I wasn't about to lie for my brother, especially not to someone I considered a friend. "Was there a reason you were looking for him?"
He blinked. "Well… we… had plans. He said I should come over tonight, and we'd go collect Matt - then maybe take in a movie, or just hang out…" That trailed off, and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet, clearly not sure what to do or say next.
I didn't blame him.
Tai, you idiot…
"Geez, my brother's a moron sometimes!" I smiled at him, trying to act like everything was okay. "He must have left his brain in his locker at school today. Come on in - I'll call the cell phone, and see what's keeping him." Or, call Yamato's and find out why he was being such a jerk.
Koushiro accepted my invitation with some relief. "Thanks, Kari."
"Go ahead and sit down," I told him, and went to use the phone in my parents' room. This probably wasn't a conversation he needed to hear - even from just one end.
"Hello?" Yamato answered after just one ring.
"Hi Matt." I sounded strained, but like that was a surprise. "Put Tai on?"
"Sure, Kari. Just a sec."
There was some background noise, and then Taichi's voice filled the line. "Hello?"
"What the hell are you still doing over there?" I had to make some effort to keep my voice low. "Izzy's over here, and he says you invited him!"
A moment of silence answered me. "Yeah, I did," Taichi said, after a while.
"So, what, did you forget?"
"No… I just… don't feel like seeing him tonight." There was an odd note in his voice. "Look, I'm gonna be at Matt's until late, so make up something to tell Izzy for me, okay?"
"What!? You have to be - !"
"I'll see you when I get home," he interrupted.
And then he hung up on me.
Great. Great great great! Some brother he was being, leaving me to lie for him just because he felt like being a crummy friend. Thank you, Tai; my life was now complete. What the hell was I supposed to tell Izzy?
I'm not going to lie for him, I decided, heading back into our sitting room. He can just forget that. Anyway, Izzy deserves the truth.
I just wasn't sure how I was going to go about telling him.
As it turned out, though, it wasn't necessary. "Tai's at Matt's house again, isn't he?" Koushiro asked me, when I came back.
I stopped short. "How do you…?"
"I'm not an idiot, Kari." His voice was amazingly steady. "Once, it didn't seem strange - but twice? It doesn't take a genius to figure things out."
My heart went out to him. He seemed to be taking it so calmly, sitting quietly on our couch as he talked about the way his best friend had betrayed him. "Tai wouldn't really want to hurt you, Izzy," I told him. "I know that for a fact. It's just…"
"It's just, that's Tai for you. He doesn't mean anything by it, I know." He sounded fine; even smiled at me as he got up from the couch. "You can tell him I don't mind. It's all right if he wants to spend time with just Matt, you know. I'd just appreciate if he didn't lie to me any more."
I didn't know what to say to that. "Izzy…"
"I'll just hang out at home tonight. I have a good deal of homework I need to start working on, anyway." He slid his shoes on and opened the door. "I'll see you later, Kari."
"Bye…" I watched him go, feeling horrible for no real reason.
Whatever my brother was going through, I hoped he would fix it soon… Before someone got hurt, and he lost one of his best friends for good.