"They look like they're doing okay."
I glanced away from my brother and his friends, giving Takeru a smile. "I guess so. You think I was worried for nothing?"
"No… if you were worried, I'm sure you had a good reason for it." He leaned back in his lawn chair and smiled back. "And from what you've told me, there's definitely something wrong. But I think if we give them the chance, they'll sort it out."
"I hope so." I sighed.
Taichi and his two favorite henchmen had decided to pass on the lawn chairs; they, unlike us, were sitting on the grass - plotting to take over the world, I have no doubt. Things looked perfectly normal. My brother was at his exuberant best - and making a huge mess of his overstuffed burger, I might add.
Like I said… normal.
"Hey." Takeru prodded at the arm I had resting by my side. "Are you planning to eat the rest of that?" he asked me, pointing at the remains of my own burger.
I shook my head at him. "TK, my dad goes crazy at cookouts. There are plenty more if you want seconds. Or thirds and fourths," I added. Taichi was probably on his fifth by that point.
Where he put it all, I had no idea.
"I wasn't trying to find out if I could have it," Takeru said. "I want to make sure you remember to eat. A cookout is supposed to be fun and filling. Stop worrying for now; you can always start up again tomorrow."
"I guess." I settled back in my chair and looked around. I really shouldn't be obsessing so much; after all, we were spending time at a really nice park, and the weather was beautiful. There was even a pond just past the neatly trimmed trees lining the clearing we'd set up in.
"What are you two talking about?" Miyako sat down in the lawn chair beside mine, a root beer in one hand and a plate with her second hot dog in the other. She gave me a conspiratorial grin. "Not planning a secret lovers' rendezvous, are we?"
"Don’t let Daisuke hear you say that," Takeru quipped. "We were talking about the terrible trio over there."
Miyako looked over, in time to see Yamato flip Taichi's plate deftly to spill the leftovers from his burger into his lap. "I hope you don't mean that in a perverted sense," she said, smirking a little as Taichi retaliating by leaping at the blond, spilling the rest of the food all over Koushiro, who was unlucky enough to be in its path. "Because any video tapes you come across, I think I deserve a copy of."
I laughed. "Where's your mind?"
"I am queen of the gutter, thank you." Miyako shrugged. "Anyway, you don't have to worry about Daisuke overhearing. Who would want to spy on a cookout when there's an opportunity to spend time along with Ken?"
"Point," I conceded.
"I don't know about that." Takeru smiled at me. "I kind of like the cookout."
Miyako snickered. "Very smooth, TK."
"I thought so," he agreed.
I shook my head. "You guys are both crazy."
"Hah!" Miyako grinned. "I'll tell you what's crazy…"
"Hey!" Taichi appeared to have given up on exacting revenge and was standing, dripping with mustard, relish, and soggy tomatoes. "Enough sitting around! Let's go swimming!"
"Swimming?" Koushiro repeated incredulously.
"Swimming?" Yamato echoed, no less surprised.
"… swimming after eating five burgers," Miyako finished, looking like she wasn't quite sure whether to laugh or bury her face in her hands. "That's crazy."
"Tai, swimming on a full stomach is dangerous," Koushiro pointed out, with more patience than I probably would've managed. "You can develop bad cramps while - "
"Well, we don’t' have to go out too deep," Taichi interrupted him, impatiently. "Anyway, if you can't handle it, brainiac, then stay here and we'll go without you." The stare he gave Koushiro held a definite challenge.
Oh no… Tai…
It usually took a lot to make Koushiro angry, but I could see his eyebrows angling down. "Well, if you want to injure yourself all on your own, then go ahead."
I exchanged worried glances with Takeru. This couldn't be good…
"Izzy, if you leave me alone with this moron, I swear to god I'll kill you." Yamato pushed himself to his feet and offered a hand back to his younger friend. "Get up and grab your trunks; we're going swimming." Once Koushiro was up, he took back his hand and immediately used it to smack Taichi across the back of the head.
"Ow! What was that for?"
"For being a moron," Yamato answered, with a pointed look. "Let's go."
Taichi rubbed his head, cast a sheepish look at Koushiro, and followed. With the crisis averted, the three of them trekked off in the general direction of the pond.
Miyako turned to give Takeru and me a quizzical look. "What was that all about?"
"We don't know." There was a worried look on my blond friend's face. "But I'd sure like to find out." He and I both.
"Well…" I bit my lip, and looked over at Takeru again. "At least your brother isn't being a jerk."
I certainly couldn't say the same for mine.
I can't believe Tai would do that. I wiped at the counter slowly, unable to keep from thinking back to the previous night. He'd been acting like a regular jerk! What could have gotten into him?
Did he want to fight with Koushiro? It hadn't really seemed like that… when Taichi wanted to fight someone, he was usually straightforward about it. But he hadn't actually asked Koushiro to fight with him… This was different somehow.
What did it mean?
Ah, forget it, Kari, I told myself, shaking my head and moving on to throw the cloth back into the bucket of soapy water I had beside me. It's probably just some weird guy-thing that only Taichi would consider normal. Don't even worry about it.
If only I could stop myself…
The bell jingled, announcing a visitor. "Hi Kari!" Daisuke called out, and a minute later I saw him stroll in behind the counter - before I could stop him. He was beaming. "I got something to tell you!"
"Daisuke," I began, about to point out - for the tenth or eleventh time that week - that my boss's 'no friends in the shop' rule was still in force, "You have to - "
"I'm serious, Kari!" He surprised me by marching right over and taking hold of my shoulders. "Kari…" Then he sighed - just a little dramatically. "I know how good-looking you think I am and how good the times we've had have been…"
I blinked. "Um… Daisuke…?"
"No, no, let me finish!" He met my gaze with an almost humorously grave look. "I'm sorry, Kari, but I'm going to have to end things between us."
At that point, about all I could manage was, "Eh…?"
"I know it's gonna hurt, Kari, but I think it's best for both of us." He smiled at me. "Hey, you know, you should go for TK. I think he's interested."
What was this, some kind of freaky alternate universe? My mouth was working but nothing was coming out of it. Is this really Daisuke Motomiya?
By the time I managed to gather enough of my wits to put together a coherent sentence, he was already turning to head back out the door. "Whew! Glad that's over! No hard feelings, huh, Kari? We're still friends, right?"
"But we were never - " I took one look at the oblivious expression on his face, and sighed. "Of course we're still friends, Daisuke." Why bother arguing?
"Great! Thanks, Kari!" He impulsively gave me a huge bear hug, then bounded out of the back area and out through the door.
I stared after him. That was… weird…
Takeru came through the door less than a minute later, casting strange looks behind him. "Hey, Kari," he greeted me, looking a bit bemused. "Any idea what's up with Daisuke? He just came up to me a minute ago, hugged me, and said 'She's all yours, TH'."
"I have no idea," I admitted. "But he was just in here before that - breaking up with me."
He blinked - then grinned. "I didn't know you were dating in the first place."
I shook my head. "Neither did I."
"Well, I'm taking this opportunity." He leaned over the counter, still grinning. "Now that you're free, how about going out with me?"
"Gee, I dunno." I leaned over too, grinning back. Like I'd predicted, I wasn't really surprised. It seemed natural for us. "I'm just getting used to single life again. What's your offer, Takaishi?"
"Dinner and a movie?" He shrugged.
"It's a deal. Pick me up tomorrow at eight, and you've got yourself a girlfriend." We slapped our hands together and shook on it firmly.
"And to seal the deal…" He leaned over just a little more and touched his lips to mine - carefully and with a hint of hesitance. It was fairly short as far as kisses go, but it sent tingles from my lips all the way down over the rest of me.
I couldn't help but smile when he pulled away. "Takeru…"
"Wow…" He smiled back, the faintest traces of a blush on his cheeks. "Uh… Hikari…" The smile turned sheepish. "I feel like I'm ruining a really great moment with this, but I still need to pick up our drycleaning."
I laughed and took his pickup slip.
"All right!" The phone was shoved back down onto the hook as Taichi finished his call. "Pizza time! Who's coming with me to get it?"
I smiled, not looking up from the TV. At least this conversation was familiar.
"Ah, go by yourself." Yamato waved a hand.
"Aw, c'mon! I'm buying the pizza that you guys are gonna eat; don't I at least get company on the way?"
"We did agree that whoever is hosting always takes care of food," Koushiro pointed out. "So Matt and I aren't obligated to do anything to help."
"I'll go," I offered.
"Not my sister!" Taichi groaned theatrically. "Dude! Someone else!"
"Goddamnit, Tai, just go already!" Yamato actually turned that time, offering another of those 'your refusal just makes you look stupid' looks he was so good at. "The faster you go, the faster you'll get back. Leave the rest of us in peace."
"You'll pay for that one, Ishida," Taichi promised, grabbing his keys. "Sure you don’t want to come along? My sister can keep Izzy company."
I winced. Tai, just shut up. He shouldn't be allowed to talk.
"Yeah, well, I can see why he'd prefer her company to yours." There was a barely-visible tightening around Yamato's eyes that suggested his 'mock' glare wasn't as mocking as one might think at first. "Get the hell out of here, Tai."
"Fine, fine." Taichi shoved his feet into his shoes, stepping out the door. "Geez… getting kicked out of my own home…"
Yamato shook his head. "I think he needs a brain recharge."
Koushiro had been stared at the carpet with seeming fascination, but he looked up and smiled a little at his friend's remark. "A brain would be required for that."
The blond snorted. "You're not kidding."
"I CAN STILL HEAR YOU TWO!"
"We know," Yamato said, and the two of them cracked up.
That was Yamato for you.
"So, Kari…" He turned on me next. "My brother told me you two are official now. That true?"
I couldn't help but smile. That was one of the better recent developments in my life. "Yeah. We're going out on Friday."
"Congratulations," Koushiro said.
"And on that happy note… I'm off to use your washroom." Yamato pushed himself to his feet. "Back in a few."
"At least he's acting normal," Koushiro half-muttered to himself, when the blond was out of earshot.
"My brother sure isn't," I agreed.
"You noticed?" He gave me a wry smile. "At least I know it's not just me, then. What do you think happened, anyway? It seems like all of a sudden he decided he didn't - " He paused there.
"Didn't like you?" I finished, tentatively.
"Well, I was going to say 'didn't want to be my friend any more' but the meaning is the same either way." Koushiro looked away from me. "We've been close friends for a really long time now - I can't understand why he's suddenly started shutting me out."
My heart went out to him. Whatever Taichi's reasons were, they'd come up so abruptly that the sudden change would confuse anyone - even a genius like Koushiro. The thing was… even before they'd met Yamato at summer camp that fateful year, those two had been good friends. Taichi had never seemed to have a problem with Koushiro before… so why now?
I'd have been willing to bet that the question was plaguing Koushiro more than me.
"If I knew, I'd tell you," I said, honestly.
He smiled, a little. "Thanks, Kari. I appreciate you being so understanding. I just wish I could ask Tai about this - but he seems to avoid the subject if I try to bring it up."
I nodded. My brother was pretty obvious when he was trying to be evasive.
Yamato sauntered back into the room at that point. "So what'd I miss?"
"Not a whole lot," Koushiro told him.
That was certainly true. It was what I always seemed to come up with, trying to understand the inner workings of Taichi's mind.
And I doubted anyone could guess what he was thinking right then.
Friday was seriously going to take forever to happen. I slid another hanger onto the rack and frowned at the pile still waiting to be fitted with pant guards. This job is mind-numbing, and Friday will never come.
That was just the way things worked, though.
It was Tuesday. Takeru and Daisuke were both working, so I wasn't likely to expect a visit from either - and I wasn't sure I could expect Daisuke to come by anyway, considering he'd "broken up" with me.
And the next night, I had shopping plans with Sora and Mimi - who was visiting for only a couple of days during her break. I was looking forward to that, too.
So, needless to say, sitting at work making pant hangers was not that fun.
The distinct ringing that announced a customer's entrance to the store sounded. Thank god… Human contact was going to be a godsent at this particular moment. I got up and headed for the front. "Hi… Ken!"
The dark-haired boy smiled at me. "Hi Kari," he said, and handed me a pickup slip.
I smiled back. As Miyako had said more than once, Ken was really a "catch" - silky dark hair, dramatic pale skin, and huge, piercing blue eyes. He looked even nicer when he smiled; it was difficult not to return it. "I didn't know you brought your drycleaning here," I said, typing my password into the computer.
"I don't often," he confessed. "How are you doing, Kari? I haven't seen you in a couple of weeks."
That was one of the down sides of going to a different school from the rest of us.
"Not bad," I told him. "How about you? I mean, I assumed you were okay, since you could handle having Daisuke over so often, but what have you been up to? Anything exciting?"
"Well… sort of." He got a funny little smile on his face that I couldn't remember ever having seen on him. "Daisuke talks about me?"
"About every five minutes or so." I typed the invoice number in and waiting for our ancient computer to load the order. "There's a sort of consistency to it, I think. At least he can be consistent." I smiled wryly, remembering the previous night. Unlike Tai…
Ken rested his elbows on the counter. "Problems?"
"Well… sort of." I returned his cryptic answer. "They're not so much my problems, really. It's my brother."
He raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
I hesitated for just a moment. It wasn't really my place to blab to everyone about Taichi's life… but then, I'd already told Takeru, and Ken was one of us, after all. "I'm just a little worried about the way he's treating Izzy," I admitted.
Ken was a great listener; he managed to look interested without being too intent. "How so?"
"Just… ignoring him. Lying to him. Not acting like a friend." I brought his order around as I was talking, so he didn't have to wait around if he didn't want to. I wasn't about to hold his clothing hostage just so he'd listen to me. "He'll not show up when they've planned to do something together, and a lot of the time he just leaves Izzy out of things. It's not like Tai."
"Hmm." Ken frowns. "That does sound off."
I nodded. "And it came out of nowhere - Izzy's really confused."
"Maybe he's got a crush?" Ken suggested.
I blinked at that. "Huh?"
"Well… some people get stupid when they're attracted to someone," he continued, looking thoughtful. "I suppose it's possible that he might ignore his friend in favor of pursuing that love interest. Don't you think?"
"I never thought of that," I admitted. Then I shook my head. "No, that can't be it. Tai still spends time with Matt. It'd be a bit weird if it was some sort of selective ignoring thing."
"I guess that's true." Ken shook his head, ruefully. "Sorry, Kari… I really can't think of anything."
"That's okay." I smiled at him. Ken could be so hard on himself. "It's not your problem. You've probably got enough to worry about with Daisuke always hanging around," I teased.
He smiled back, looking sort of strange again. "Oh, it's not so bad."
"I'm just kidding," I told him. "Daisuke can be weird sometimes, though. He was in here a few days ago, acting kind of funny. I didn't even know we'd been dating, but he broke up with me anyway."
Instead of laughing at that, Ken gives me another weird look. "Did he really?" There's an odd note in his voice, too.
"Yeah. I shouldn't mock it, I guess." I smiled ruefully. "It was serious to him. I'm surprised you didn't know, though," I added. "I would've thought Daisuke would tell you, what with you two hanging around together all the time."
If anything, the expression on his face only got stranger.
I tried to cover the awkward moment by making a joke. "You know, sometimes it's almost like you two are dating."
Ken sucked in a long breath. "Well… actually…"
"Ken and Daisuke are what?" Sora looked surprised.
"Dating." I was still a little shocked myself. I never would've guessed that, if Ken hadn't told me. "Ken says they have been ever since last Saturday. That's why Daisuke was breaking up with me, I guess."
Mimi giggled. "You know, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner."
Sora and I both turned to stare at her.
The three of us were spending the afternoon at the mall that day - like we'd planned as soon as we knew Mimi would be visiting. The only unfortunate point had been that Miyako had to work. Otherwise, she would've come with us, too. It was still fun without her… but it would've been more fun if she were there.
Especially for this particular conversation.
Mimi swirled her straw in the slush she was carrying around, careful not to jostle the bags she had hooked on her elbows. "What?" She smiled brightly at us. "Don't tell me you never wondered!"
"I really didn't." Sora smiled a little. "But it's kind of cute."
"That's what I thought." After I'd gotten over the shock, and finished congratulating Ken, that is. "It makes sense when you think about it. I just never knew Daisuke liked boys."
"Neither did I," Sora agreed. "But then, I don't know Daisuke as well as you probably do, either."
Mimi giggled again. "It must be the goggles!"
I blinked. "Huh?"
Sora coughed, and Mimi's eyes went wide. "Oh no! I wasn't supposed to say that, was I?"
"Goggles…" I was lucky I had a strong heart; two major surprises in twenty-four hours were a bit much. "You mean… Tai is…?"
"You didn't hear it from us," Sora said, quickly. "Actually, we're not even supposed to know. But I accidentally heard Matt talking on the phone with Tai… and he came right out and said it."
I blinked rapidly a few times. Tai is…he's… "Can we sit down for a minute?"
"Sure," Sora says, kindly. We steer over toward one of the benches set up around the mall.
"Thank you." I really needed some recovery time. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, but finding something like that out about someone you've spent your entire life with is just a little bit of a shock!
"I'm sorry you had to hear it like that," Sora apologized, sitting beside me. "We really weren't going to say anything - I'm sure Tai would've told everyone when he was ready, and that would have been a better way to hear it."
"I just don't know when to stop talking, I guess." Mimi giggled nervously, sitting down on my other side.
"Ah… it's ok." I shook my head, and smiled. "I'm not upset or anything - it's just a little bit of a shock, that's all." Did this have anything to do with the way he was treating Izzy? I couldn't see how, but… maybe…
Sora patted me on the back. "It doesn't really make that much of a difference to you, does it? Tai's still your big brother, after all. He's not going to change."
"Oh, I know… I just have a whole lot of questions that he probably wouldn't answer anyway." I managed a rueful smile. "I guess there's not much point in dwelling on it."
"Oh!" Mimi suddenly brightened. "I have an idea! Let's go find you a really nice new outfit! You can wear it for your date on Friday! How does that sound?"
I smiled back at her. "That sounds great, Mimi."
"I think it's so great that you two are finally together!" she bubbled, as we stood up again to move through the mall. "I always thought you'd make such a cute couple!"
"And it's good to see some of us getting together," she added, with a sigh, "instead of breaking up."
I stared at her.
"It's not that big of a deal," Sora said, giving her friend a 'look'.
I turned my stare on her instead. "You and Matt broke up?"
"Not exactly 'broke up'," she admitted, smiling wryly. "We're just… sort of… taking a break. Lately we've both been thinking that we might've made better friends. So we're going back to being just friends for a while to see if that works better."
Geez, talk about a lot of big news in a short period of time. "When did this happen?"
"Two weeks ago." She gave me another apologetic smile. "I'm sorry for not telling you, Kari, but I figured we'd tell everyone when - if - we decided to break up for real. The only person I've told is Mimi."
"And Matt's probably told Tai," Mimi added. "Maybe Izzy, too."
Tai knows? I had a sudden flashback to the conversation I'd had with Ken the other day, and a terrible sort of suspicion struck me. 'Maybe it's a crush,' he had said. 'I suppose it's possible that he might ignore his friend in favor of pursuing that love interest. Don't you think?'
Taichi was ignoring Koushiro… and spending all his time with Yamato.
And now I'd found out that not only was Taichi interested in boys, but Yamato was single again.
Could it be…?
I stared at the floor of the mall, listening to Mimi and Sora chat away without hearing anything they were saying. Is Tai trying to ditch Izzy just so he can have room to hit on Matt? My brother wouldn't be so cruel!
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed right.
Why else would Taichi be so mean to Koushiro? He'd never so much as given a hint that he wasn't interesting in being friends with the younger boy before - but as soon as Yamato had broken up with Sora, suddenly Taichi had no time left for Koushiro but plenty for Yamato.
What else could it be?
I was more than just annoyed with my brother by that point; I was seriously angry. How could he do that to a friend of his? Couldn’t he at least explain, instead of leaving Koushiro to wonder about it?
Tai, you jerk…
I didn't see him at all on Thursday; after school, he'd already gone over to Yamato's place, and I had to go to work before he'd come back home. But I knew I'd see him later that night; he'd be the one picking me up and driving me home.
"You seem distracted, Kari," Miyako pointed out, waiting as I pulled her mother's drycleaning off the line. "Something wrong?"
"Sort of…" I forced a smile. "But it's not something I have the right to tell you about." Time for a distraction. "Did you hear about Ken and Daisuke?"
"No." She leaned over the counter, my problem forgotten at the mention of Ken's name. "What about them?"
My smile became real.
I was starting to think I had a masochistic streak in me somewhere.
After the echoes of Miyako's screaming and squealing had faded from the store - they had remained long after she had rushed out to tell everyone and their dog her news - I settled down to clean. And to think about exactly what I was going to say to my brother when he came in to pick me up.
I didn't have long to wait.
"Kari!" Almost before the bell announced his arrival, I heard Taichi calling me from the front of the store. I'd just about finished up for the night, and was ready to start on my cash-out; he was early.
"Hey, you ready?" He gave me his unique big goofy grin that even Daisuke couldn't match exactly, and leaned against the counter. "We're going to see a movie tonight, so I wanna get you home as fast as possible first, all right?"
I had a whole day and a night of built-up indignation to release at him, and so I didn't even start with any small talk. "A movie, huh? Are the three of you going, or are you leaving Koushiro out for no good reason again?"
His expression molded into something confused. "Huh?"
"Tai, I was around when you invented the 'dumb' act - it's not going to work with me." I put my hands on my hips and scowled at him. "I heard about Matt and Sora - that's why you've been spending so much time with Matt all of a sudden, isn't it?"
"What? Matt?" His eyebrows went down. "What are you talking about, Kari? I always spend time with Matt - he's one of my best friends!"
"Exactly! One of your best friends!" I wasn't going to back down on this, even if he got mad at me in return. "And meanwhile, your other best friend is wondering what the hell's going on when you ditch him to hit on another guy!"
His eyes went completely wide. "How did you…?"
I decided not to say anything about what Mimi had let slip. "Sora told me she and Matt broke up - probably right around the same time you started leaving Izzy out of your 'private' time - isn't that right?"
Taichi's mouth worked, but he seemed to be having trouble finding words.
"And I'll bet you didn't even think about what Izzy thought of all this, did you?" I glared at him, wishing I could make him see his friend the way I'd seen him. "Just because you've got a thing for Matt doesn't mean you have to go ditching your other friends!"
"A thing for Matt!?" Taichi's hands came down on the counter, hard; his eyes had gone from wide to narrowed down to slits. "What the hell are you talking about, Kari? I do not have a thing for Matt!"
That incredulous denial caught me off-guard. I'd expected some stuttered excuses, maybe some lame attempt to prove me wrong. Not this kind of indignant anger… "But you told him you were gay…"
"Of course I told him - he's my friend! Kari, where the hell are you getting these ideas from?" Taichi looked about as serious as I'd seen him - and totally pissed off, too. "You think I'd do that to Sora? She's my friend, too - and they're not even broken up; they're on a break! Even if I did have a thing for Matt - which I don't - I'm not low enough to hit on Sora's boyfriend!"
I bit my lip, my own righteous anger wilted in the face of my brother's. "But Izzy…"
"Look, Kari," Taichi said angrily, fixing me with a glare. "Whatever business I have with Izzy, it's definitely not your business. I don't butt into your life, so keep your nose out of mine!" He pushed away from the counter and stalked toward the door, pausing as he passed Takeru, who had just come in. "Why don't you drive her home?" he suggested curtly, and left.
I slumped back against the counter, feeling drained. I was wrong… But then what…?
Takeru made his way around the counter, giving me a concerned look. "Kari, what happened?"
"I messed up." I moved to lean my head against his shoulder, feeling like my insides were twisting around. Even with my boyfriend's comforting arms sliding around me, I couldn't get rid of that horrible feeling.
"I messed up big time."