Rating/Warnings: R for scariness. See warning below.
Summary: Taiga needs vocal lessons when he gets cast in Elisabeth. He gets way more help than he bargained for.
AN: Halloween fic this this year, posted about midnight? Yay? I've been working on this all week and it topped out at around 19k words, so I'm not even sure this will fit in two posts, ugh.
REAL WARNING: Think Asian horror ghost movie like Ring or Shutter or White. Scary stuff happens to people you enjoy! Character death possible! I don’t want to spoil all the spoils, given the nature of it, but ghosts are involved and they are pissed.
It’s not gory or anything, though, not like crazy serial murder fic or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s plotty. So…good luck?
It wasn't the most fun trip Taiga had ever taken to Shibuya, but he tried to keep his mood in check as he strolled down the sidewalk, looking at the hastily scribbled map and address the manager had given him. Being asked to do a stage musical was exciting and flattering, if nerve-wracking, and Taiga was well aware that part of the reason he'd been asked, out of everyone, was to see if he could level up to the challenge. But it still hadn't felt good to be told to his face that his voice wasn't anywhere near where it needed to be and that he was going to need some serious lessons to come up to snuff.
That was fine, Taiga told himself sternly, it was true and it was fine. He was definitely willing to do whatever it took so that he could move forward. He had a group to think of now, after all, and Taiga was going to learn everything he could this summer so that he could come back to them stronger and better. He wouldn't let his group down. He wouldn't let himself down.
If he could just read this damn handwriting. Taiga came to a halt on the sidewalk, looking from the note to the building in front of him and trying to figure out if he was in the right place. Was that a four or a seven? A three? And what the fuck kanji was at the end? He was pretty sure he had the building right, at least, because the manager had drawn a little doodle of a smile with big teeth and the first floor was a dentist's office. Grumbling, Taiga went into the building and hoped for some kind of directory by the elevator.
None of the things listed seemed to be a vocal coach, but it was a pretty big building after all. Taiga decided to head up to the third floor (he was almost sure it was a three) and just take his chances. Maybe the office was new and the signs weren't updated yet? While Taiga was standing in the elevator, tapping his foot, his phone chimed in his pocket, reminding him that he had better silence it before he embarrassed himself. Taiga's lips twitched in amusement when his lock screen's alert showed a cheerful "GOOD LUCK" message from Juri plus a string of clover and microphone emojis. He thought about sending one back saying Juri should worry about himself already, but the elevator dinged and Taiga walked out, still looking at his phone. When he looked up, Taiga frowned because the narrow hallway only had two doors at the end, one dark and seemingly unoccupied, the other clearly some sort of ladies' modeling photography place (and not a very reputable one at that, given the head shots stuck up outside the door as examples).
"Seriously?" Taiga grumbled, looking back down at the note in his hands. He tried turning it sideways, then upside-down. "Uuuuugh."
He looked up, about to turn around, but then realized that the second office did have lights on after all. Once he took a few steps closer, Taiga saw there was a name stenciled on the door in thin, black script: Ikeshita Shiro, vocal instructor. Maybe the frosted glass had made it difficult to see from farther away, he guessed.
"Finally," Taiga grumbled, sticking the note and his phone in his pocket and reaching for the doorknob. It stuck for a second, and Taiga wondered if it was locked after all, but then it turned in his hand, just a bit stiff. He stuck his head in the office, looking around. "Hello?"
The decor of the small waiting room was a bit bland, the furniture and art out of date but not shabby. There was a small reception desk with no one standing at it, and Taiga called hello again. He was debating what to do rather than lurk awkwardly in the doorway, when finally a man came out from the door next to the desk.
"Can I help you?" he asked.
"Is this where…I mean, I've been sent here to take vocal lessons," Taiga fumbled his explanation. He pulled the door shut behind him, shuffling the few steps over the carpet with its dated geometric pattern. "Am I in the right place? I had some trouble finding it, and then it looked like no one was here…"
Taiga trailed off as the man watched him unblinkingly through his whole explanation. Taking a closer look, Taiga saw that he was not too much older than Taiga was, late twenties at most. His shirt and slacks were the same as the dressing room, bland and not exactly in-style, but nice enough.
"You got sent here?" the man asked. He narrowed his eyes, looking Taiga over.
"Yes…well, I think so," Taiga amended, thinking of the manager's terrible handwriting. "And it says vocal instructor on the door, so…is Ikeshita-san here?"
"I'm Ikeshita," the man said. He gave Taiga a faint smile. "You've come at a good time; I don't have any appointments this afternoon. Shall we get you signed up, then? We can start right away if you like, since there's no one else coming today."
"Oh! That's…" Taiga almost said he wasn't prepared, but then thought about the scrutinizing look the musical audition staff had given him. "Yes, let's get started, if that's all right. Please take care of me."
Ikeshita gave Taiga that same faint smile and waved him back through the door through which he'd entered. Taiga took a few deep breaths as he followed, trying to ease some of the anxiety he suddenly felt about being assessed by a stranger, reminding himself that he was an idol and strangers heard him sing all the time.
"Don't be nervous," Ikeshita assured, settling Taiga on a stool. His voice was soft but articulate, and Taiga didn't have any trouble understanding him despite his low volume. "I'm sure I can help. Relax, then warm up however you usually do."
The first lesson progressed normally as far as Taiga's experience went. Ikeshita listened to him warm up and offered a few suggestions, then had him sing some scales and tested his range a little. The only thing that seemed odd was that after Taiga had sung a few things, Ikeshita asked if it was all right to touch Taiga's throat.
"It's just easier if I feel what's going on," he explained. Taiga tried to keep from tensing up at the idea of being touched by a stranger, but Ikeshita's gaze seemed like it saw through him. "But it's all right if you aren't comfortable."
"If you think it'll help, it's all right," Taiga said. His anxiety rose as Ikeshita lifted a hand towards him—left hand, he noticed with detached interest—but then strangely once Ikeshita's hand was against his throat, Taiga felt the anxiety draining back away, replaced by calm. Ikeshita's fingers were cool and dry around Taiga's throat, palm pressed firmly against his Adam's apple. It only lasted a minute anyway; after Taiga had sung another scale, Ikeshita pulled his hand away.
"I see," he said. "Yes, I think you'll do nicely. Let's try some more exercises, shall we?"
After that, the rest of his lesson passed by in a blur, and when Taiga snapped out of it, he found himself back in the hallway, holding a paper with a schedule written on it in neat, thankfully legible script. His phone buzzed in his pocket again, and when Taiga pulled it out, the time surprised him. Had he really been there more than two hours? He shook it off as he reached the elevator, figuring that he'd been involved in what they were doing and hadn't noticed the time passing. He was even more puzzled when he realized the sign next to the elevator said that he was on the fourth floor. Hadn't he pressed the button for the third floor?
Whatever, he figured as the doors opened and he stepped inside. It must have been a four on the paper after all.
"So?" Juri asked first thing when they saw each other next, a few days later. "How are the lessons? You all fixed yet?"
"Juri!" Taiga laughed. "I've only seen the guy twice! He's a vocal instructor, not a wizard. But it's going all right, I think."
"Yeah? Good." Juri finished tying his shoelaces and hopped off the bench, ready for Crea practice. Taiga was just tagging along, since his rehearsal schedule had him off this afternoon, but Juri pulled an extra pair of sweats out of his bag and shoved them into Taiga's arms. "Hurry up and change, we'll borrow a pair of sneakers off somebody. So what kind of stuff do you do there?"
Taiga whined a protest because what was he even practicing for? But he changed anyway under Juri's approving eye. "Vocal exercises, mostly, I guess."
"You guess?" Juri laughed as Taiga folded his street clothes and sat them on top of Juri's bag. "Aren't you there?"
"Clearly. But…" Taiga paused, feeling awkward. "It sounds weird, but afterwards the details are all a little fuzzy. Like I was trying to practice on my own later at home and I couldn't really remember how anything went?"
"Hm, you're usually pretty good with remembering vocal stuff," Juri said, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I know. And the other thing is that when I come out, it's always gotten really late. The second time it was dark!" Taiga shook his head. "That sounds weird, never mind. I'm sure it's just that I'm concentrating so I don't notice time passing."
"You're weird," Juri agreed, throwing an arm around Taiga's shoulders. "Come on, we'll give these fancy lessons you're paying for a test run."
Since they were in charge of every part of their Crea live, there wasn't any staff there even to roll their eyes at the five of them swapping Taiga in and out of various parts. Mostly Taiga was fooling around, just having a good time, but when he took Hokuto's place for a duet bit opposite Jesse, Taiga got more serious about it. Usually it was hard for Taiga to match Jesse's style, but it seemed easier than usual, the reach for the higher notes barely a reach at all, holding the long notes like he was just breathing them…
"Taiga!" Jesse called, snapping Taiga out of it. Taiga realized the song had ended and Jesse was staring at him. "Did you hear me?"
"What?" Taiga blinked. "Sorry."
"You were really into it for a minute there," Jesse said, looking impressed. "It sounded great! Give that vocal guy's number to Shintarou, would you?"
"Heyyyyy," Shintarou whined, making Taiga laugh, the weird moment forgotten.
As summer loomed closer, Taiga felt like all of his time was split between his vocal lessons, sneaking into Crea practices, and his rehearsals for Elisabeth. The musical staff seemed satisfied with his progress, which was a relief to Taiga to say the least. It still was nerve-wracking, though, having to work with people outside the agency and being constantly aware that he was representing not just himself but his whole agency. Taiga went home exhausted each day but started having trouble sleeping more than a few hours at a time, plagued by anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or cues, showing up on stage in embarrassing junior costumes, or being let go from JE as if they'd forgotten about him while he was busy all summer.
"That's your nightmare?" Shintarou snorted when Taiga told him about the nightmares at a Shounen Club rehearsal. "The costume one I understand, but man, no worries about them forgetting you. I get asked where you are like three times a day."
"You do? Good," Taiga said, that making him feel better for some reason. "It's really hard, being alone there. Everybody in the cast is nice, but it's not the same."
"They aren't your group," Shintarou agreed.
Taiga's mouth twitched, amused by how seriously Shintarou talked about the six of them lately. "Technically you guys aren't my group either."
"The hell we aren't," Shintarou said fiercely. Taiga didn't wear his emotions on his sleeve like Shintarou did, but really he felt the same. Doubly so, now that so much of his time was spent elsewhere, without having the others right at his back. "Hey, you'll definitely come, right? I know you're busy and the musical's important, but it should be the six of us on stage together, even if it's just once this year. It's your Crea too."
"I'll try," Taiga said, meaning it. "I should get the schedule for that week soon. I really want to."
"Tcht, don't pressure him like that," Kouchi said from behind them, making Shintarou and Taiga both jump. Juri was with him, chuckling at the accidental jump scare. Shintarou scowled, looking determined but a little sheepish. "If it doesn't work out, that's fine. There'll be a space that's only for him on stage with us even if he can't come."
"Thanks," Taiga said, some of the tension he was carrying around in his chest easing. Kouchi shooed Shintarou off to go find Jesse, telling him to leave Taiga be for a few minutes. Juri stayed, looking Taiga over carefully.
"Are you okay?" Juri asked. "You seem a little…off."
"I'm exhausted," Taiga admitted. "I'm so nervous about the show, I haven't been sleeping well. Last night I had a dream that I was looking in the mirror but my reflection was somebody else, and even though I was trying to yell or whatever, my reflection just kept smiling."
"That's creepy as fuck," Juri said. Taiga nodded; it had been so disturbing that he'd been reluctant to look in the mirror all morning. Juri reached over to tug on a piece of Taiga's newly-blond hair. "But it makes sense, since you just had a shocking image change. Looking in the mirror probably does look like a stranger for a second, huh?"
"Oh. I guess so. It sounds so logical when you say it," Taiga laughed ruefully. Juri tutted at him sympathetically, and then pulled him into a hug. Usually Taiga wasn't much for that, but today Juri's tight grip felt good, reassuring.
"Don't run yourself into the ground just for us," Juri told him, rubbing Taiga's back with firm, warm strokes. "We'll be here waiting for you, I promise."
Taiga knew that Juri's advice was sound and that he should be resting when he had the chance, but it didn't stop him from sneaking over to Crea practices whenever he could. The knot of anxiety lodged in the center of Taiga's chest was becoming a more and more frequent feeling lately, and the only thing that could ease the the feeling completely was the distraction of the others shoving him around.
"Or maybe it's just that you don't have any responsibilities here," Hokuto snorted, which Taiga had to admit was true.
The Johnny's manager had given Taiga a talking-to about neglecting his actual assignment to attend performances he wasn't scheduled for, reminding that at his age a sudden rebellious stage was hardly cute. Reluctantly, Taiga had to admit that the manager was right, and had gone to bed with every intention of being at Crea in spirit only the next day.
Unfortunately, that night Taiga had the worst nightmare yet. The details of it were hazy as soon as Taiga woke out of it, but he remembered that it had felt endless, that the other five had been in it and Taiga had done something terrible to all of them, terrible enough that Hokuto wouldn't speak to him, that Shintarou's hands felt dangerous twisted tight in his shirt, that even Juri wouldn't forgive him. The dream clung to Taiga all morning, and he showed up to his practice in a fog, barely even remembering the trip there.
The acting coach had taken one look at Taiga's ringed eyes and pinched expression with a raised eyebrow, and Taiga found the words pouring out as if he'd lost all control of his mouth, asking if they couldn't get on without him just the once. Isn't that what double-casting was for?
"I know this is very important, I really do," Taiga insisted, "but it's…there's someplace it's very important that I be today."
The theaters were close enough that Taiga didn't especially need to rush, but for some reason he found himself almost running in his hurry, weaving between people and fidgeting with impatience at intersections. By the time he threw himself in the door of the dressing room, Taiga was sweating and panting for breath as if he'd run the perimeter of Dome three times straight.
"You made it!" Shintarou shouted in glee, Jesse and Kouchi hollering Taiga's name when Shintarou's shout got their attention, and the sound of their voices filled Taiga with relief so strong that Taiga's bag slipped out of his hands and to the ground with a crash. Shintarou grabbed Taiga in a tight hug out of excitement, arms strong and warm and squeezing the last of the nightmare out of him, finally.
"I did, I made it," Taiga echoed, hugging Shintarou back just as tightly. "I made it."
"Are you shaking? What's wrong?" Shintarou tried to push Taiga back far enough to look at him, but Taiga clung to him stubbornly. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, it's nothing." Taiga let Shintarou look him over, but dropped his eyes, embarrassed at his own crybaby nature.
"It is not," Shintarou said critically. "You're so pale you're gray, and your eyebags are bigger than Juri's."
"Your shirt's soaked through," Kouchi added, coming close enough to inspect Taiga for himself. He reached over to palm Taiga's forehead, the gentle touch making Taiga's eyes flutter. "Are you getting sick? Do you have a fever?"
"No, it's…" Taiga was reluctant to say, but under their combined stares finally admitted to the nightmare. "I can't even remember most of it, honestly. It's just anxiety about the show, really. Don't worry about me, I feel a lot better now." It was true; with Shintarou's strong hands still gripping his shoulders, Taiga felt steadier. "Anyway, shouldn't we rehearse? I am skipping my actual practice for you guys."
Determined to show that he was fine, Taiga shook off that morning as best he could and threw himself into work. Everything was a rush, now that they had to add Taiga back in, but none of them would let him apologize for the trouble.
"Especially not when you sound like that," Jesse praised. "If we had another couple hours to really fix it, you could have Hokuto's spot."
"Fuck you, Lewis," Hokuto said, barely even looking up from where he fussing with his mic pack. "This damn thing keeps having some kind of feedback right in my ear."
"Mine too," Taiga said. A few times it had even sounded like somebody else was singing along with Taiga, but combined with Hokuto's complaints, Taiga assumed there was some kind of sound system problem with feedback or playback delay. He brushed it off, along with the couple moments of light-headedness or of being snapped out of a daze by someone calling his name. All of it was easily explained by exhaustion or stage nerves, which Taiga had plenty of since he much preferred to have everything well-rehearsed.
But Taiga could take it if he was with these guys. He wasn't very good at trusting or depending on other people, but somehow the six of them together was different. Usually he tried not to think of them as his group, since he'd already had his heart broken over that once before. It was hard to imagine anyone else, though, who would understand him nearly so well, or be willing to change an entire concert they'd been planning for weeks just to include him at the last second.
"Five people aren't enough," Kouchi told the TakiCHANnel camera, making Taiga feel both pleased and embarrassed that a fuss was being made over him.
"It's a relief when we're six," Juri agreed. He caught Taiga's eye while the others were talking, as if making sure Taiga knew he'd meant what he said. Taiga nodded, feeling the same. As they were filing out, Juri caught Taiga's elbow and murmured that they were going to do it.
"It?" Taiga paused, looking over his shoulder. "What it?"
"Name ourselves." Juri watched for Taiga's reaction, eyes sparkling with mischief. "Finally. You're in, right?"
Taiga's heart raced at the thought of how much trouble they were going to get in, but he found himself grinning anyway. "Do you really think a name is all it will take to make us a group?"
"We're already a group," Juri answered, his voice fierce despite his low volume. "And if you want something done right, you do it yourself."
They absolutely got yelled at, and Taiga still wasn't sure telling fans the name they came up with would really fix anything, but curled up under Shintarou's sweatshirt between shows, Taiga slept like the dead.
For about a week after they became SixTONES officially, Taiga was still exhausted but felt otherwise normal. Gradually, however, the sense of unease began to creep back in. Taiga could never put his finger on exactly what caused it, he only knew that he didn't feel quite himself. The anxiety dreams returned, and soon Taiga found himself watching movies on his laptop far later than was smart, just to put off going to sleep for a while longer.
At least his vocal lessons were going well.
"You're coming along quite nicely," Ikeshita said.
"What?" Taiga blinked, and it was as if the room snapped back into focus suddenly. "Oh. Well, it's thanks to…" Taiga trailed off as he noticed the clock on the wall read 19:05. "Ikeshita-san, is that clock right? I just got here."
"Oh no, you've been here more than an hour," Ikeshita said. He smiled in the vague way that Taiga had become very familiar with over the last six weeks. "You were concentrating very deeply, though, so it's no wonder it seemed like no time at all."
"But…" Taiga started to protest, but then got distracted by the next exercise and forgot what he was protesting about.
Practices had started to become a strange affair. Snapping out of a daze at the end of a song was one thing, although it felt awkward to be praised for things that he barely remembered doing. Soon, however, it changed from half a song to longer and longer stretches. Some days Taiga would be taking a break one minute and realizing the next that everyone was packing up to leave. Other days Taiga would find himself on the train without remembering a single thing about what had happened that day.
"I asked you to practice this part yesterday," the coach said crisply, and Taiga winced. He didn't remember a thing about that, but that didn't make it any less embarrassing. "This is the second time this week. You're holding every one else up who prepared properly."
"I'm really sorry," Taiga said earnestly, head bowed. It was the only thing he could do, really. The other stage actors had been perfectly nice and welcoming, but Taiga didn't feel comfortable asking any of them what had happened before when he had the blank spells. It was too weird, right? Asking someone what you'd been doing with them when you had been there too. Sometimes he came to in the middle of a conversation, compounding Taiga's fears that to the other, normal people in the show he just seemed like a weirdo who didn't belong and couldn't keep his shit together.
Almost worse was Taiga's consistent worry that he actually couldn't keep his shit together. It was a constant struggle of whether Taiga should try to sleep earlier or stay up later to practice. Whichever one he picked always seemed to be the wrong answer the next day, and the more anxious Taiga felt about the situation, the more the episodes seemed to happen. Once he had woken up and realized that he was in a room of the theater he had never been in before, and by the time he'd found his way back he was entirely late back from lunch break.
"Maybe I'm not cut out for this after all," Taiga murmured, staring at his pale complexion and ringed eyes in the mirror. His cheekbones were definitely sharper than they should be, and even his hair looked tired and over-bleached. "What kind of idol even am I if I can't handle one musical?"
His mother's voice right behind him made Taiga jump ten centimeters, and when he whirled around clutching his chest, she looked exasperated.
"I've called you ten times! You're late! You're not even dressed, and what are you just staring into that mirror for like that? Didn't you hear me?"
"I…what?" Taiga glanced around in complete confusion. "I can't be late, I just got up."
"Just got up? You've been in here for an hour." Taiga's mother took a closer look at him, exasperation melting into concern. "Is something going on? Lately…well, I know how you get yourself worked up over things. But even for you, the last couple weeks have been a bit much. Half the time when I'm talking to you, it's like you're a million miles away."
"I guess it's exhaustion," Taiga said, not sure what else to blame it on. "I've really been in here an hour?"
"Maybe you fell asleep with your eyes open. It would explain the creepy way you were just staring at yourself when I was yelling right at you." Kyomoto-san reached over to smooth Taiga's hair down, the touch making Taiga feel calmer. At least until she added, "It's no wonder, when I could hear you practicing half the night instead of sleeping like you obviously need to."
Taiga felt a chill like cold fingers skate up his spine. Last night he had gone to bed early.
"Don't bullshit me with your 'I'm fine,'" Juri said, crossing his arms. He looked a little silly half in and half out of his photoshoot clothes, but it didn't detract from the steel in his voice. "Jesse said you stood him up for shopping yesterday, and Kouchi said you blanked out right in the middle of a conversation this morning. Twice."
Taiga dropped his eyes, jaw clenched. "I just forgot," he lied; really he didn't remember even talking to Jesse this week, much less agreeing to meet him. He could have checked his phone, but the thought of having a bunch of mails he didn't remember sending made him more and more reluctant to look at it.
The others had been asking him if he was all right more frequently, but the truth was that he'd barely seen them at all since Crea ended and Gamushara summer stuff started. Taiga didn't want them to have to worry about him when they were busy with their own things, so in the few moments he had talked to any of the other five, he'd pasted on a smile and insisted everything was okay, just busy. Just like he was pasting on a smile right now, willing Juri to believe him.
"I'll apologize to Jesse. I'm fine, really. I can handle it."
Juri's expression softened. "I know you can. But that doesn't mean you can't talk about it, too. It's great you get to try a big challenge on your own, but we're still here for you. Obviously something serious is going on. It's not like we'll only be your friends when everything is going fine. The point of us being a group is that you're supposed to trust us. So will you let us help, already?"
"Okay," Taiga agreed, feeling small. He fidgeted with the shirt in his hands. "But it's…weird."
Taiga explained in a low voice about the forgetting and the blanking out, how he could barely remember half his rehearsals at this point, and how two days ago he had found himself in the theater's costume room, wearing a costume he'd never seen before and that had nothing to do with the musical. Juri listened quietly without interrupting, brow knit together in concern, and Taiga could barely meet his eyes by the time he was done.
"See? I sound crazy." Taiga clutched his arms to himself. "It's like that nightmare where you're on stage for a play you never rehearsed? It's like that all the time. It's not that I don't want you guys' help, it's just that I don't see what you can do about it."
"This, for a start." Juri wrapped arms around Taiga and hugged him tightly. Taiga stood stiffly, feeling awkward. "I don't think you're crazy."
"Thanks." Some of the tension leaked out of Taiga finally.
"Come on," Juri encouraged, slapping Taiga on the back before pulling away. He tugged his shirt on. "Let's get this photoshoot over with and then we'll talk about it, okay? With the others. They're worried too."
"Okay." Taiga let Juri take his hand and tug him along. The others were already sitting on the set, and Juri dropped himself and Taiga right into the midst of them, causing a ripple of good mornings and backslapping from the others. Taiga felt embarrassed by the attention, but it was kind of nice anyway.
Juri kept one hand on Taiga at all times, it felt like, either an arm around his shoulder or linked through Taiga's elbow. It seemed a little silly, but Taiga had to admit that tucked in between Juri and Shintarou, he felt steadier than he had in days.
"What's the matter, afraid I'll bolt?" Taiga teased, shaking his arm a little.
"Mmhmm, you can't be trusted," Juri murmured back, tightening his grip. Shintarou gave Taiga an "accidental" shove into Juri's shoulder, squishing him between them, and Taiga rolled his eyes even as a small grin took over the corner of his mouth.
"Nice shot!" the photographer called over, drawing Taiga's attention. "All right, can we get some pair and trio shots, please? Jesse-kun, Matsumura-kun, and Tanaka-kun to start with."
"Yes," Juri called back with Hokuto and Jesse. He gave Taiga's arm a squeeze. "Think you can make it on your own a couple minutes?"
Taiga opened his mouth to tell Juri to fuck off, but as soon as Juri's hand left his shoulder, black swept in from the corners of Taiga's vision, then he tipped over in a dead faint.
When Taiga opened his eyes, he was curled up on a couch with Juri and Kouchi's concerned faces looming over him. Taiga tried to sit up, but a wave of dizziness made him groan and close his eyes to keep the room from spinning, his stomach rolling.
"Don't move," Kouchi said. Taiga felt Kouchi's hand press down against his shoulder. "I'll go get some water." There was the sound of the door opening and closing.
"What happened?" Juri asked. "Do you remember?"
"I dunno. Last I remember was you getting up and then everything went black." Taiga chanced opening one eye, and when the room stayed relatively level, the other. "Sorry. How long have I been out?"
"Maybe fifteen minutes. It's really serious, isn't it?" Juri looked Taiga over closely. Taiga wanted to squirm but didn't dare, afraid he might actually throw up right on Juri.
"I don't know," Taiga confessed, the knot of anxiety in his chest drawing even tighter. "I don't know what it is. I've been sick during shows before, or over-exhausted myself. This doesn't feel like that. Nothing like this has ever happened before!"
"Shh, okay, don't make yourself sick," Juri soothed, patting Taiga's hand where he had it clenched in Juri's sleeve. Juri's eyes were dark with worry, and Taiga hated how it was his fault.
"I hate feeling like this," Taiga said blackly. "Like I'm not in control of my own body! Ever since the Elisabeth rehearsals started…"
"That's not when it started," Jesse interrupted. Juri and Taiga looked up to find Jesse and Kouchi in the doorway, Shintarou hovering nervously behind them. "It was after that. When you started the vocal lessons."
Taiga opened his mouth to argue, then closed it, frowning. He tried to think back, but everything was kind of a blur in his memory. "Was it?"
Jesse nodded, stepping out of the way so that Kouchi could come in and hand Taiga a water bottle. Shintarou came in too, sitting on the floor next to Juri just a little too close like he wanted to be comforted too but was trying not to be obvious about it. Juri offered him a wan smile before turning his attention back to Jesse and Taiga.
"Yeah," Jesse said, coming to sit on the edge of the couch. Taiga slid his feet back to make more room as he uncapped the water bottle and took a cautious sip. "Remember when you came to Crea practice a couple times? You sang that duet with me, Hokuto's part. After the song ended, you were just standing there, staring at nothing until I tapped your shoulder. That was the first time it happened around us." Kouchi and Juri nodded, both looking uneasy.
"You didn't sound like you," Shintarou spoke up.
"Good?" Taiga felt like squirming again. "That's why they sent me to a vocal coach."
"No!" Shintarou snapped, his vehemence startling everyone. "Everyone kept saying how much better you sounded, and I knew that's what you wanted, so I didn't say anything, but when that happens, you don't even sound like you! Even if you got a lot better suddenly, you should still have your own voice, right? I've known you since we were little kids, I know your voice. More and more, you don't sound like yourself at all, and it gives me the creeps!"
"Hey!" Taiga snapped, chest filling up with an unpleasant emotion that wasn't quite hurt and wasn't quite anger. "It's not like I've been doing all this stuff for myself, you know! Did you like it better when I sucked?!"
"Yes," Shintarou said bluntly.
"Shin-chan!" Kouchi scolded, glancing back and forth between them.
"No, Shin's right," Jesse said. "I've been singing with you for years. When you…go away like that, it doesn't sound like you. I thought it was just, you know, the lessons. But that is when this all started."
A tense silence fell for a few seconds, Taiga glaring at Jesse. Hokuto interrupted it by coming back into the room to say they'd told the photographer that Taiga seemed to have come down with a fever, and that the staff thought they had enough shots to make the shoot work without taking any more.
"Any better?" Hokuto asked.
"Fine, thanks." Taiga scowled, still out of temper, as Hokuto put a hand to his forehead. "Quit it, you're not my mom."
"Being a jerk won't scare us off," Hokuto informed him, flicking Taiga's forehead gently. "I'm sorry we didn't notice sooner. I guess we're the only ones who know you well enough to tell the difference, so you can't expect us to just ignore you."
"I noticed," Shintarou grumbled. Juri elbowed him in the ribs.
"Whatever." Taiga stared at his hands, twisted tightly in his lap. "That's nice and all, but what can you do? You can't follow me around all the time. You can't come to my practices, and you all have Gamushara anyway!"
"For starters," Juri said, voice leaving no room for argument, "I am definitely going to your next vocal lesson with you."
"Would you relax?" Juri said. "We'll just tell him I'm interested in signing up. Even if he won't let me watch, I'll just hang out in the waiting room."
"I got it, I got it," Taiga brushed off Juri's explanation. Uneasiness had been sitting in Taiga's stomach like a rock since his fainting spell the day before, making it difficult to eat and impossible to sleep. That was probably for the best, though, Taiga thought, since the last thing he needed was another batch of nightmares.
Juri didn't seem put off by Taiga's snappishness, simply followed Taiga out of Shibuya station and towards the office building Taiga's lessons were in. Taiga felt irritated by the way Juri was clearly watching him out of the corner of his eye the entire trip, but he tried to remind himself that Juri cared about him and not to show his irritation as much as possible. It wasn't like he hadn't given the others plenty to worry about in the last couple days.
"Here?" Juri asked as they stepped into the tiny lobby and towards the elevator. "It doesn't look like much, does it? And nothing's labeled either. How does this guy get any business?"
"Search me. Word of mouth, I guess." Taiga stepped inside the elevator, frowning because standing in it with Juri made him realize how tiny this elevator actually was. After a second, Juri's words sank in. "Although, I've never seen anyone else come in. Actually, I've never met anyone in this building besides Ikeshita-san."
"Hm. What floor?" Juri asked, brushing past Taiga to push the button when Taiga told him fourth floor. They were silent for the minute it took the elevator to rise. When it came to the fourth floor and stopped, nothing else happened for a long minute, long enough for Taiga to feel the the start of some panic in his chest, before the doors finally slid open. "Man, you sure know how to show a guy a good time."
"Shut up, no one asked you to come along," Taiga grumbled, striding out of the elevator as quickly as he could without making it look like he was hurrying. "Hurry up, you're making me…late."
Taiga stopped in front of the door. The glass was dark, and where a name had been stenciled on the door the letters had been mostly scratched off so that only thin shreds of it remained stuck to the glass.
"What the hell?" Taiga asked. He looked over his shoulder, where the shady photographer's advertisements were still across the hall, and back, but the office remained dark.
"Here?" Juri asked dubiously. He reached off to scratch a piece of the shredded door decal off, rolling it between his fingers. "Are you sure we got off at the right floor?"
"I've been here two dozen times!" Taiga snapped. The door was locked when Taiga tried the handle, but when he gave it an irritated jerk out of sheer temper, the knob twisted in his hand with a reluctant creak. "See? He probably just forgot to turn on the front light or something."
"Or something," Juri echoed as they stepped into the pitch black office.
"Hello?" Taiga called. He felt along the wall for a light switch, and when he couldn't find one immediately walked forward from his memory of where the furniture was. "Ikeshita-san?" Taiga thumped his knee hard into the counter, and turned around, cursing under his breath.
A pale face was hovering in the darkness. Taiga shrieked before realizing it was Juri's face, lit up by the glow of his phone.
"Fuck, calm down!" Juri snapped. "You nearly gave me a heart attack! What's this guy's full name?"
"Ikeshita Shiro," Taiga answered, digging out his own phone to use as a flashlight. He looked around while Juri kept diddling with his phone, the office furniture the same as ever, the glass on the framed art reflecting Taiga's face lit up by his phone back at him just as creepily as Juri's face had been hovering, seemingly body-less. Turning away with a shiver, Taiga went to stick his head through the door to the practice room, even though it was plain by now that Ikeshita wasn't here.
Finding the other room empty as expected, Taiga instead located the light switch along the wall near the counter, and flicked it on. Juri looked up at the flood of light, expression unusually serious.
"This isn't listed as his office online," Juri said.
"So what?" Taiga said, clicking his phone's screen off. "Maybe he moved here recently. Maybe he has an office somewhere else."
"It's somewhere else, all right," Juri grimaced. "Taiga, I don't think you should see this guy anymore."
"Why not?" Taiga demanded, exasperated. "I do actually need vocal lessons, you know!"
"Not from him." Juri held up his phone. "This article says he killed himself almost twenty years ago."
"That's…that's ridiculous. I saw him two days ago. It's a guy with the same name or something."
Giving Taiga a flat stare, Juri used his thumb and finger to expand the webpage on his phone's touchscreen, then held it back up to face Taiga with the enlarged picture of Ikeshita.
"Juri, I saw him two days ago," Taiga insisted. He was trying to sound rational, but fear was starting to claw up from his stomach, making his voice sharp and brittle like glass. "He was right here! This office is here, isn't it? I'm not standing in fucking Narnia, here!"
"Have you even looked at this stuff? Everything in here is so old it's practically back in style again." Juri pointed at the chairs, then reached up to run his finger down the glass of the nearest piece of art. Juri's finger wiped a clean line down the glass and came away almost black with dust. "Taiga, seriously, look at it."
"No," Taiga said, even though he already was looking. The upholstery on the chairs, the fading carpet, suddenly everything did seem worn, covered in a layer of dust. How hadn't he noticed before? "No no no. This is crazy! I'm telling you, I saw him two days ago, right here, the same as I'm looking at you right—"
The lights went out suddenly, leaving them in the pitch black. Taiga jumped half a kilometer when a hand wrapped tight around his wrist.
"Can we get out of here and argue someplace else, please?" Juri hissed, already yanking Taiga towards the door.
At least the vague outline of the frosted glass was visible, not that it stopped them from tripping over themselves and each other in their rush to reach it. They thumped into the door in a confused tangle, and for one horrible second, the handle stuck again.
"Come ON!" Taiga yelled at it, panic crawling up his throat and making his whole mouth taste metallic. He shouldered into the door, trying to jar it loose, and finally on the next desperate yank, the door gave, sending Taiga and Juri spilling out into the hall, blinking in the sudden light. Tagia's shoulder ached dully from ramming the door, and when he looked down at his wrist, pink fingermarks were wrapped around his wrist. "Dammit, Juri! How am I supposed to explain your finger marks bruised around my wrist to people?"
Juri's face was pale and his eyes were wide when Taiga looked up from his wrist to glare at him.
"Dude, I didn't grab your wrist." Juri held up his hand, an identical set of marks around his own wrist. "You grabbed me. Right?"
An hour later, back in Taiga's kitchen, Taiga's hands were still shaking despite being wrapped tightly around his mug of tea. It had been a strained and endless train ride back to the Kyomoto house, Taiga jumping every time they passed so much as a reflection of themselves in the window. The marks around their wrists had faded quickly, thankfully, but Taiga kept tugging his sleeves down as if afraid to even look at the place where the marks had been.
Juri had retrieved Taiga's laptop and was still researching Ikeshita on the internet. At first Taiga had snapped at him to knock it off, he didn't want to know any more, but Juri ignored him and Taiga gave up quickly, too wrung out to argue about it. All he could manage was a dull grunt every time Juri dug up another piece of information.
"Geez, why is this so difficult?!" Juri demanded, scowling at the tabs he had open in his browser. "Couldn't this guy have had the decency to die after people started putting all their shit on the internet?"
"Go back and ask him," Taiga said, scowling into his tea. He still didn't quite believe what Juri was telling him could actually be true, but it hardly mattered. After the scare they'd had, Taiga was in no hurry to go back for another lesson.
"No, thank you. Okay." Juri turned the laptop so Taiga could see more of. Taiga side-eyed it, clutching his mug more tightly. "So it seems like this guy used to be some kind of idol himself? He gets mentioned a couple of times with an agency called Jet Coaster Promotion, but it doesn't seem like he amounted to much. I can't even tell if he was in a group or a solo artist. He must have graduated out, because he isn't on any of the Jet Coaster talent lists I've looked at. After that, in 1995 and 1996 he's mentioned as the vocal coach in articles or press releases for other talents."
The door opened, Taiga's father calling hello from the entryway, and Taiga called back that they were in the kitchen.
"The only other thing is the news story about his suicide," Juri finished, clicking to that tab and scrolling through it again. It was the same page he'd loaded on his phone, the headshot of Ikeshita wearing that same vague smile Taiga had seen dozens of times. "It doesn't have much detail. I'm starting to feel kind of bad for the guy, actually. Seems like he was pretty much a nobody."
"Oh, hey," Taiga's father said, glancing over Juri's shoulder as he came into the kitchen. "I know that guy."
"You do?" Taiga asked, exchanging a puzzled look with Juri.
"I remember the story, sure." Kyomoto-san opened the fridge, voice muffled as he rummaged around inside it. "He had a great voice, but he was a better vocal coach. His agency…"
"Jet Coaster," Juri supplied.
"Right, that's right," Kyomoto-san agreed, emerging from the fridge with a bottle of orange juice. "They had a younger image, but would keep older guys around to train younger ones. Probably strung Ikeshita along after he should have had the sense to quit because he was a good coach, and then by the time he realized it was useless, he would have been too old to try with another agency either. Lots of places did that in those days; some probably still do."
"They don't seem like the agency had a good reputation," Juri said, looking back at the computer.
"They didn't. Around that time there were a couple ugly accidents, and they folded." Taiga's father gestured with the juice bottle. "Anyway, that's not why I remember the story. Ikeshita killed himself in front of one of his students, right in the middle of a lesson. Tried to take the student with him, too."
"In the office he was renting in Shibuya," Juri finished, reading from the article. He made a face at Taiga. "Well, I hope you got your money's worth, because you definitely aren't going back there."
"Back where?" Kyomoto-san asked. "The whole building burned to the ground a few years after that. Although I'm sure they've rebuilt something there now."