SixTones, Voice

Voice [Taiga, SixTONES, R]

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?

Voice

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?”

“TAIGA.”

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.”

*****

Taiga had hoped that once he quit the vocal lessons, the blackouts and forgetfulness would stop, but if anything they got worse. As the opening week of the musical approached, Taiga felt like he was only living half of his life at best, and it wasn’t even the good half. Whenever the director praised him for things he didn’t even remember doing, Taiga just wanted to scream with frustration that nobody could even the difference between the real him and whoever that other him was.

His bandmates could tell right away, any of them able to snap Taiga out of it by shaking his shoulder or grabbing his hands as soon as they noticed. But with the show starting, Taiga saw them less and less. There was no choice but to fend for himself, and to hope he wouldn’t snap out of it right in the middle of one of his scenes on stage.

Opening week, Taiga barely slept at all, coating everything in a haze of nerves and exhaustion. So when he started seeing things out of the corner of his eye, he blamed it mostly on the insomnia, on the tiredness of his eyes and having to wear his contacts instead of his glasses so much. He couldn’t even say what it was, really, just a flash of motion that caught his eye, but when he turned, nothing would be there.

During dress rehearsal the feeling intensified, the bustle of crew, make-up, tech, and costumers making it so that there always was someone unfamiliar just out of Taiga’s line of sight. He tried his best to ignore his growing uneasiness, to lock his face in a professional expression and concentrate on his lines and his singing.

And then he turned to make his stage exit and there, standing in the wings, was Ikeshita, smiling that vague smile. Taiga stumbled to a halt, blinking, and Ikeshita was gone. Taiga shook it off as best he could, blaming the stage lights in his eyes, his mind playing tricks on him, but when he came out for his next entrance, Ikeshita was sitting in the first row of audience seats, watching Taiga with such a piercing look that Taiga did actually trip that time, landing hard on his knees.

“I’m fine, sorry, I’m okay,” Taiga said quickly, cheeks burning, as the director and other actors called a stop to check that he was all right. His knees ached dully as he stood back up, but Taiga barely felt it under the pounding of his heart.

“Do you need a break?” the director asked, coming over to look Taiga over. Taiga opened his mouth to say maybe, but when he looked up from dusting his costume off, Ikeshita was hovering right behind the director’s shoulder, looking Taiga over with the same faintly critical air that he’d always worn during lessons.

“No,” Taiga said quickly, willing the director to step back as quickly as possible, hopefully taking Ikeshita with him. “Let’s keep going, I’m all right.”

It took all of Taiga’s dwindling willpower not to keep looking around for Ikeshita during the rest of practice. By the end of it, he was thrumming with nerves, unable to say whether it was worse to see him, which made all the hair on his body stand up, or not to see him and be convinced that he was standing just behind Taiga, watching all the same. After just an hour of it, Taiga found himself wishing wretchedly that he would have one of blackouts just so he wouldn’t remember the prolonged dread of the experience.

When he could finally sit down in the dressing area, Taiga was shaking all over from his adrenaline rising and crashing over and over. At least the room was small enough that Taiga could sit in the corner of it with his back to the wall and see the entire room at once, the others changing there mercifully ignoring him as they changed, anxious to head home themselves after a tiring day.

He had almost got his heart rate back to normal by taking deep, slow breaths and fisting his hands on his knees when his phone buzzed loudly from his bag, making Taiga stifle a shriek. It was Hokuto’s name on the screen when Taiga dug the phone out, and even so Taiga debated just ignoring it. When he tried to swipe the screen, it took his shaking fingers two tries to answer.

“Hello?” Taiga said dully. He tucked the phone between his ear and his shoulder and leaned his head back against the wall.

“Hi!” Hokuto said. The familiar voice was nice, soothing against Taiga’s frazzled nerves. “I wasn’t sure I’d catch you. Are you done with practice?”

“Yeah.”

“Everything go okay for dress rehearsal? Bet everyone’s ready to get opening day over with. That’s always the worst part, isn’t it? Once you actually start, it’s not so bad.”

“Sure.” Taiga felt his eyes start to slip shut. He tried to fight it, but couldn’t. “Yeah.”

“Are any of the guys there going out to celebrate tonight? Are you busy?”

Someone called a goodbye, and there was the sound of the door closing. Taiga opened his eyes just long enough to see that he was the last one in the room, then they fell shut again. “No.”

Hokuto tsked. “Nobody there knows how to take care of you. I’ll take you out, because it’s your first musical and I’m proud of you. Say yes, okay? I’ll meet you nearby, and I won’t keep you out long, I promise.”

It was on the tip of Taiga’s tongue to snap no, was Hokuto crazy? Taiga was exhausted, even a normal person would be, and all he wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed. But just before he said it, Taiga felt a light touch on his shoulders, as if someone was standing in front of him with their hands on his shoulders, pressing down lightly.

“Yes,” Taiga said instead, skin crawling at the thought of going home alone. He wanted to beg Hokuto to come and get him here, right now, but he swallowed hard against sounding like such a crybaby. He settled for, “But hurry up.”

“I won’t keep you waiting,” Hokuto promised. “By the time you’re changed and walk to the station, I’ll be there, I’m not far. West exit, okay?”

As soon as he hung up the phone, Taiga stood up and threw on his street clothes as fast as he could, hoping if he kept moving he wouldn’t feel or see anything else unsettling. His skin was itchy from dried sweat, but showering alone in this place was completely out of the question, and Taiga settled for just scrubbing the stage makeup off, then jamming a hat on his head so Hokuto wouldn’t be able to tell how gross he was.

When he pushed open the door to the theater, Taiga looked anxiously outside at how dark and open it seemed, but forced himself out. What was he going to do, stay in the theater all night? Then he’d be a smashing success during opening day, for sure.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Hokuto said as soon as Taiga got within speaking distance of him on the train platform.

Taiga was opening his mouth to tell Hokuto exactly how much energy he did not have for surprises, when Fujigaya stepped out from behind the pillar next to Hokuto.

“Fujigaya-kun?” Taiga blurted in surprise, then rolled his eyes at the identical smug looks Fujigaya and Hokuto were giving each other. “Well, I guess that’s okay.”

“You guess? Brat,” Fujigaya scolded, reaching an arm up as if he were going to put Taiga into a headlock, but it was much more like a hug. “Come on, let’s get you two some proper food.”

“Hey,” Hokuto slid back a half-step to ask Taiga as they let Fujigaya fall naturally into the lead in front of them. His hand found Taiga’s to squeeze briefly. “You okay? No one’s seen you all week. Any better?”

Taiga wanted to say that he was, but he shook his head, lacking the energy to lie. Ikeshita had been everywhere he turned today, watching from the wings and the audience, or anywhere else Taiga happened to look. As he trailed along, Taiga was careful to keep his eyes on either Hokuto and Fujigaya or his own feet, knowing that if he glanced around the crowded train station his persistent, unwanted shadow would undoubtedly be nearby.

Thanks to Taiga’s late schedule, there weren’t many people left in the restaurant by the time Fujigaya had them tucked in a cozy booth in corner of it. Hokuto slid in beside Taiga, squishing him unapologetically against the wall. Taiga shouldered him back, but not too hard; the close quarters felt reassuring at the moment. Taiga wasn’t hungry, but he picked at his food for Fujigaya’s sake, enjoying, if somewhat distantly, being spoiled by a favorite senpai.

“All right,” Fujigaya said once their plates had been cleared and they had some coffee in front of them. “Hokuto says something really serious is going on with you, and I can certainly believe it looking at you. What’s going on?”

“Oh,” Taiga said wretchedly, focused on stirring his coffee, “no, it’s fine. Don’t worry about me, I’m…fine.”

When Taiga glanced up, Fujigaya and Hokuto both had their arms crossed, expressions stern.

“Spill it,” Fujigaya ordered. “He warned me it was strange. Are you afraid I won’t believe you?”

“Ye—no,” Taiga corrected himself when Fujigaya’s glare intensified. “But talking about it doesn’t make it better. Plus it makes me sound crazy.”

Giving in with a sigh, Taiga told an abbreviated version of the story, trying all the time to shorten it so that it would be over with. Even talking about it made his skin crawl again, and Taiga was half-afraid that every time he looked up from his coffee cup that he would find Ikeshita in the fourth empty seat in their booth.

“Then today I kept seeing him,” Taiga said at the end of his story. Hokuto stiffened beside him. Taiga hunched in on himself a little more tightly. “Everywhere I went, he was watching me, and even when I couldn’t see him, it was like he was just behind me, somewhere. This is the first time all day I haven’t felt…” Taiga trailed off when he looked up and saw the way Fujigaya was looking at him. “What? See, I knew you’d think i was crazy.”

“That’s not it at all.” Fujigaya’s face was tight and anxious, pale underneath his usual tan. “Listen, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell it to anyone else. Promise? Hokuto, you too.”

“Of course,” Taiga agreed. Hokuto nodded.

“Back when…ah, how do I start this?” Fujigaya ran a hand through his hair, looking up at the ceiling for a second. “I was like you, Taiga. I didn’t have a group for ages. I don’t know if you remember me back then, or maybe you didn’t notice since I was so much older, but I was so frustrated. I felt like no matter what I did, I got passed over, that I was alone. So I decided I had to do something. I got the name of a vocal coach on recommendation from one of my senpai. In Shibuya. It’s Ikeshita that you’ve been seeing, isn’t it? Ikeshita Shiro.”

Taiga felt like his heart stopped beating for a second. “How did you know that?”

“Because I saw him too,” Fujigaya said grimly. “Everybody kept telling me how good I sounded, how much better, so even when I started to black out for days at a time, even when I knew it was all wrong, I kept taking lessons. Kitayama and Kawai were the only ones who noticed, the only ones I was close enough to since I didn’t have a group who knew me well enough to see through how I kept lying about it. Finally, I…well, I don’t know what happened. I came to in the middle of a concert, flat on my back on a cart with Kitayama on top of me. He said I’d tried to climb up over the rail, that I’d nearly jumped right off it. He had to slap me across the face to snap me out of it. We had to tell everyone we’d had a fight, and when everybody thought we hated each other, he went along with it for my sake. How was I going to explain that I’d nearly killed myself in front of a domeful of fangirls? I don’t remember a single second of that concert before that, and it was the second show of the day.”

As Fujigaya kept telling his story, Taiga felt either him or Hokuto start shaking, he wasn’t sure which. He reached for Hokuto’s hand without looking, and Hokuto squeezed it tightly.

“Kitayama put his foot down and made me quit the lessons,” Fujigaya continued. “And even after I quit going there, I kept seeing him. Just like you. I kept blacking out, I couldn’t sleep. When I was myself people kept asking why I wasn’t as good as yesterday, when I couldn’t remember yesterday at all. After a while I was so tired that I wished the other me would take over and stay, since everyone liked him so much better.”

Taiga thought about everything Fujigaya said carefully, uneasy about how closely his words echoed Taiga’s feelings. “But it stopped, right? You don’t see him anymore?”

“No,” Fujigaya said, voice curiously flat. “I don’t.”

“How?” Taiga asked desperately. Fujigaya shook his head. “How did you get rid of him? Fujigaya-kun, please.”

Fujigaya dropped his eyes to his hands on the table, curled into fists. His expression was so strange it took Taiga several seconds to realize that it was embarrassment. “I’m afraid you’ll hate me. I hate myself for it.”

“I won’t,” Taiga promised. “Whatever it was. Right now, I can’t even think of something I wouldn’t do to make it stop.”

“Can’t you?” Fujigaya gave a laugh, sharp and unpleasant. “I couldn’t either. I sent someone else to him. One of my kouhai who asked the name of my vocal coach, I gave it to him. After that, I didn’t see Ikeshita again.”

“Who was it?” Taiga asked, Fujigaya’s words not quite sinking in the whole way. “Who did you send there?”

“Oh, you won’t know him.” Fujigaya gave another awful laugh. “He wasn’t a junior very long after that.”

“What happened to him?” Hokuto asked. Fujigaya shook his head, refusing to answer.

The little food Taiga had managed to eat turned into a rock in his stomach, and Taiga’s hand was almost numb from how tightly Hokuto was squeezing it. Taiga wanted to say it was terrible, what Fujigaya had done, that he was right that it was unforgivable. But after the last few weeks Taiga could understand it too, better than he would have liked to understand.

“I get why you did it,” Taiga said. “But I wouldn’t do something like that. I won’t. Isn’t there anything else I can do?”

Fujigaya shook his head again. “I wish I could tell you something different. Taiga, listen to me, be careful. Don’t be alone if you can help it.”

“There’s nothing I can do about the show,” Taiga said miserably. “It hasn’t even started yet, it’ll be months before I’m back to work normally with everyone.”

“Maybe you should quit it,” Hokuto spoke up. When Taiga looked over at him, Hokuto’s face was just as pale and tense as Fujigaya’s, and Taiga would have bet any money that his looked just the same. “It’s double-cast, right? Just tell them you can’t. We’ll tell them you’re sick! They’ll believe it, looking at you.”

“Stop that,” Taiga snapped. “I can’t quit the day before opening day! It’ll be humiliating, it’ll embarrass Johnny’s too, and they’ll never ask me to try anything again. All of…this, it’ll be for nothing!”

“Taiga,” Hokuto’s tone turned pleading, but Taiga shook him off, pointedly turning back to Fujigaya.

“I can’t quit,” Taiga said stonily. “And I won’t do that thing you said either.”

Fujigaya face was grim but resigned. “Listen to me, I mean it. If you see him…when you see him, grab someone you trust, one of them.” Fujigaya stared into Taiga’s eyes like it was him trying to take control of Taiga’s body. Taiga shivered but didn’t look away. “And whatever you do, don’t let go.”

*****

Despite Fujigaya’s warning, there was nothing Taiga could do about his schedule, or nothing he was willing to do anyway. He had gone home after dinner with Fujigaya and Hokuto and fallen into a thick, heavy sleep. The next day, Taiga didn’t even remember waking up, didn’t remember anything until he was suddenly on the train on the way home.

“How’d the first day go?” his mother asked from the kitchen when Taiga came through the door. Taiga had no idea; he didn’t remember a second of it.

“Fine,” he said simply.

“I can’t wait to see the news footage in the morning,” she went on. She turned from the bowl she was mixing to look Taiga over, eyebrows raising. “Oh, you poor thing, you look half dead. Come sit here, you can have some of these cookies.”

“I think I just want to go to bed,” Taiga said faintly. Truthfully he wasn’t tired at all, at least not in a way where he would be sleeping any time soon, but the idea of sitting and answering a bunch of his mother’s questions was nearly unbearable.

“Fifteen minutes more or less won’t make much difference in your state,” his mother said crisply. “Listen to your mother, already. Honestly, between you and your father, every time a show starts, you get yourself all in a state as if you haven’t done it a hundred times—”

Taiga used the only secret weapon he had left and came into the room to hug his mother tightly, until she ruffled his hair and said fine, fine, go to bed.

In the morning, Taiga stirred the miso soup his mother handed him without eating any of it and watched the clips of Elisabeth that the morning news shows aired, wondering who it was on that stage, wearing his body like a costume.

“Honey!” his mother called from the front door. “Shintarou-kun is here to see you!”

“Oh god,” Taiga grumbled, hardly in the mood for any more help. When he turned around, Shintarou was already standing in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed and expression firm.

“You weren’t answering your phone,” Shintarou said. “Hokuto told me everything from the other night.”

“So much for keeping his promise to Fujigaya-senpai,” Taiga snorted. Ignoring his sharp words, Shintarou marched over to Taiga’s chair and pulled him into a tight hug, Taiga’s face smushed into Shintarou’s T-shirt.

“Shut up, he loves you. No idea why, since you have to be such an asshole about it. I know someone who might be able to help,” Shintarou said, giving Taiga’s back a last thump and pushing him back. “So get dressed and let’s go already.”

After being bullied into his pants, Taiga trailed along dutifully after Shintarou without much of a fuss, and was mildly surprised when they ended up at the Kabuki theater. Sakuma met them at the actor’s door, tipping his phone against his head in a salute as they approached.

“You aren’t the only one who can call in senpai favors,” Shintarou said smugly, steering Taiga by the shoulders past the theater staff member as Sakuma waved them in. The staff member only rolled his eyes at them.

Sakuma chattered happily at them as they walked through the backstage area towards the dressing rooms, telling them about the differences in the show this year and their plans for Singapore. The sheer amount of energy radiating off of Sakuma made Taiga want to lie down on the floor and take a nap right in the hallway.

“Course I wouldn’t need to tell you any of this if you’d come to see it like good kouhai,” Sakuma said pointedly.

“We’re busy,” Shintarou and Taiga both whined. Shintarou promised he’d come soon, and bring some of the other guys.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sakuma said, but gave Shintarou a wink. “Teach a guy all your acrobatic tricks and suddenly he doesn’t need you anymore. Ah, here. Fukka! Some crazy fans snuck backstage to see you.”

“What the…oh!” Fukazawa looked up from where he was fussing with his hair in the mirror and grinned when he saw who was coming in. “Look who the cat dragged…fuck, Taiga!”

“What?” Taiga said defensively, sick of being told he looked like shit. His shoulders tensed up even more when Fukazawa’s face turned serious as he came over. He stopped about an arm’s length from Taiga and looked him over from head to foot, then turned to Sakuma.

“Go get like a million packets of salt from the lunch guys, quick,” Fukazawa told him, making shooing hand motions. Sakuma nodded and dashed off, and then Fukazawa turned back to Taiga, frowning. “And don’t you dare leave whatever thing’s been hanging around you in here, we’ve got enough weird stuff in this theater, as old as it is. Shame on you for tracking it in here in the first place.”

“It’s not like I can control it!” Taiga snapped, feeling lost. He turned to demand an explanation from Shintarou.

“Fukka-kun can see ghosts,” Shintarou said proudly, like he was showing Taiga the trick to a magic act. “He knows all kinds of stuff about them.”

“Don’t say it like it’s a cool trick,” Fukazawa scolded Shintarou as well. “Seriously, you let this get really bad, don’t you have any sense? You’ve had this group like two months, take care of it properly!”

“He’s been at his dumb musical!” Shintarou protested. “He won’t ever ask for help when he needs it!”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Fukazawa heaved a sigh, looking over Taiga again, still from that slightly odd distance. Taiga realized that Fukazawa was making sure that they didn’t touch accidentally. “Listen, I’ll tell you some stuff, but I’m not an expert. I don’t think I can fix this.”

Taiga swallowed his pride and murmured, “Anything you can tell us is fine, thank you. Sorry to be so much trouble. Seems like all I am, lately.”

“None of that. Negativity and keeping secrets tells ghosts you’re easy game.” Fukazawa looked up and clapped his hands as Sakuma came skidding back into the room, the bottom of his T-shirt folded up in a makeshift basket to hold a ton of salt packets. Fukazawa picked up two of them. “Okay, first thing’s first. Put one of these in each pocket. Normally just one pocket will do, but in your case, I’d say the more pockets the better.”

Taiga dutifully took half a dozen salt packets and put them in all the pockets that he had, then held open his bag for Sakuma to tip the rest of them in there for later.

“New ones once a day,” Fukazawa instructed, tearing one of the two packets in his hands open. “Buy a bunch of them at the grocery store or steal them from a McDonald’s, whichever. Stick out your tongue.”

Feeling like this was even weirder than a trip to the Hip Hop Clinic, Taiga obeyed. Fukazawa poured the contents of his packet onto Taiga’s tongue, shaking it to make sure all of it had poured out.

“Swallow.” Fukazawa watched like a mother making sure her kid took his medicine properly as Taiga tried to swallow a mouthful of pure salt, grimacing. Then Fukazawa poured some of the salt from the second packet into one of his palms and spit in it. Mystified, Taiga watched as Fukazawa used his thumb to smudge the salt around in his palm until it was dissolved in his spit. “Close your eyes.”

Taiga just did it. It was a relief to feel like someone might know how to help. He jumped a little when Fukazawa’s thumb swiped over his eyelid lightly, but it wasn’t any worse than having makeup put on. Taiga held himself still while Fukazawa rubbed some salt-spit on both his eyelids and then a smudge on each of his temples with his warm fingers.

“Better?” Fukazawa asked, and Taiga opened his eyes.

“I don’t know.” Taiga glanced from Shintarou to Fukazawa to Sakuma. He didn’t feel exactly better, still exhausted and wrung out, but he at least didn’t feel like every time he turned his head, Ikeshita wasn’t going to pop into view. “Maybe?”

“Uh-huh. Here.” Fukazawa reached behind his neck to undo one of his necklaces, then held it out to Taiga. Taiga took it. “Put it on, it’s silver. Iron would be better, but it’s harder to find. If you have any jewelry with amber or jasper, wear it.” Taiga nodded, assuming the directions were over, but Fukazawa kept going. “Next thing, go find a bakery right now and eat something with a lot of cinnamon in it.”

Taiga wrinkled his nose. “I don’t—”

“Shut up, do you like ghosts better?” Fukazawa asked. Taiga shook his head. “Didn’t think so. Last thing, you need sage and rosemary. The sage has to be dried but the rosemary has to be fresh. Burn the sage like incense in your room and wave the smoke around a little, put the rosemary under your pillow. Are you gonna remember any of this? Which two herbs and what kind?”

“Dried sage and, uh, rose…mary,” Taiga repeated, but it already sounded dubious. Truthfully, he thought those might be things his mother cooked with, but that was about all he knew.

“Geez,” Fukazawa said, like they were a bunch of trouble. He pulled his phone out and started typing. “I’m mailing you this, so get it right. All you guys too,” Fukazawa added for Shintarou’s benefit. “Salt in your pockets, eat cinnamon. Get Juri or Jesse to bake you some shit. If you aren’t careful, the thing’ll just move from him to you.”

Mail sent, Fukazawa dropped the phone back into his pocket and reached out to hug Taiga suddenly. Taiga guessed that now that he’d been salted, he must be safe to touch again.

“Good luck. I wouldn’t mind getting to do Kabuki with you again, so pull it together, okay?” Fukazawa gave Taiga a last squeeze before letting go. “Try to laugh, they hate that.”

“I’ll try,” Taiga promised, trying to remember when the last time he felt like laughing even was.

*****

After that, there was an unspoken rule in SixTONES that somebody had to be touching Taiga at all times possible. It made their photoshoots look a bit silly, but the staff all knew the six of them were close, and their interviews were all still about what kind of group they wanted to become and how long they’d known each other, so it didn’t exactly seem out of place. Fukazawa’s salt, silver, and cinnamon had made some difference, but it was only being with the others that made Taiga feel halfway decent, and with the musical still going on, not to mention Gamushara, Taiga still went for days at a stretch coping on his own.

They also made a point of seeing him as much as they could, working in meals, shopping trips, sleepovers as aggressively as any of them could tolerate it, no matter how late or how early those things had to happen. Even though he was glad for the attention, Taiga still felt guilty.

“I feel like I’m the most high maintenance girlfriend ever,” he said when Jesse was yawning over his coffee. They’d become masters lately at finding restaurants that stayed open the latest, and even so they were going to get kicked out of here in a half-hour.

“Aw, you’re cute so it’s fine,” Jesse teased, reaching across the table to poke Taiga in the cheek. The waitress brought their food, interrupting them for a few seconds. “Shit,” Jesse said right after she left, “I forgot to tell her we don’t have a salt shaker.”

“Here, let me help,” Taiga said sardonically, reaching into his pocket and flipped a salt packet across the table to Jesse for his fries. “Let me know if you need a refill.”

For some reason, probably exhaustion, Jesse cracked up over that, and after a second Taiga did too, both of them laughing until their stomaches ached. For the next three days, their group Line chat was full of pictures of foods the others needed an ’emergency Taiga packet’ for, and every time it set Taiga off snickering again. Fukazawa must have been right, because during those three days, Taiga didn’t have a single blackout.

By the time August Shounen Club filming rolled around, Taiga was looking forward to it so intensely that even Shintarou made fun of him. Planning to sleep over the night before, Shintarou had showed up at the Elisabeth theater to pick Taiga up, having run over from his own Gamushara performance so fast that he hadn’t even showered.

“It’s like you’re twelve again,” Shintarou teased when he came back from his bath and found Taiga dithering over what time to set his phone alarm for. “We used to be so wound up the night before your mom would have to come in here and yell at us like three times a night.”

“Shut up, you, you’re just as excited,” Taiga retorted, but it was true either way. “Anyway…it’s just nice. To perform together. The six of us meet so rarely all at once this summer…”

“I get it, me too,” Shintarou assured. “Even if this thing with you weren’t happening, when all six of us are together it’s a relief. And we miss you at double dutch, you know. It’s fun, but, I wish you didn’t have to be alone this summer.”

“Me too,” Taiga agreed. “But summer’s more than half over. All downhill from here, right?”

“Is it? How are you doing?” Shintarou asked. He sat down on Taiga’s bed, edging him over until they were shoulder to shoulder against Taiga’s pillows.

“I blacked out for the whole afternoon show,” Taiga admitted. He’d gone past the point of trying to lie about it to his group members specifically weeks ago. “It’s been bad this whole week. I tried burning some sage in the dressing room before everybody else got there, but it isn’t like I could get the whole theater. It’s worst on stage anyway.” Taiga leaned his head against Shintarou’s shoulder. “It feels like he’s mad I’m trying to get rid of him. Maybe stuff doesn’t happen as often, but now when it does it feels a lot worse.”

“Have you been sleeping?” Shintarou asked. “It doesn’t look like you have.”

“It was better for a little while, with the rosemary,” Taiga answered. “But it’s been getting worse again. And it only really works for two or three days, and it’s not like I can get fresh rosemary whenever. I tried keep a little potted plant of it in my room, but after a couple days I woke up and it was smashed on the ground outside my window. I had to tell my mom I knocked it off my windowsill.”

“We should be staying over here more often,” Shintarou said guiltily. Taiga made a face.

“You’re already doing as much as you can,” Taiga insisted. “Besides, it seems weird even as it is since we’re all busy this summer. I think my mom thinks we’re working up to group orgies, and what’s worse is, I think my dad might approve.” Shintarou burst out laughing, and Taiga gave a wry smile.

“Maybe we should try it? Seems like the only thing we haven’t tried,” Shintarou teased.

“Better that than Fukazawa’s spearmint, peony, and thistle tea. Seriously, that shit is awful, no wonder it banishes ghosts.” Taiga yawned, eyes getting heavier with every second Shintarou’s usual warmth sank into Taiga’s sore muscles. “Turn on a movie or something, okay? Sometimes it’s better if I leave the TV on.”

Taiga dropped off almost as soon as the opening credits had ended, happy to get every minute of sleep that he could while Shintarou’s presence had him relaxed enough to do it. He wasn’t nearly so relaxed a few hours later when he found himself standing alone on Elisabeth‘s stage a spotlight trained directly on him. He was wearing his Rudolph costume but couldn’t remember a single line he was supposed to say. The audience was all staring at him silently, waiting him for him to do something as cold sweat started rolling down Taiga’s back.

He knew it was a dream almost immediately, but somehow that didn’t make anything better. Taiga squinted under the bright stage lights, and when his eyes finally adjusted, he found Ikeshita sitting in the front row of the balcony, leaning forward so that his arms rested on the railing. The rest of the audience had disappeared suddenly without Taiga noticing.

“Kyomoto-kun, Kyomoto-kun,” Ikeshita tsked, like Taiga was a student who hadn’t done their homework properly. He was speaking a conversational volume, but Taiga could hear him clearly as if Ikeshita was standing right next to him. “Actually, can I call you Taiga-kun? I think we’ve become more than familiar enough with each other. You’ve certainly been clever lately, haven’t you?”

A hand clamped down on Taiga’s shoulder, making him jump, and when he whirled around, Ikeshita was right beside him, his grip on Taiga’s shoulder holding him in place. He was wearing his usual vague smile, but his eyes looked sharp and angry, much darker black than Taiga remembered.

“Don’t you know you can’t get rid of me with salt packets?” Ikeshita said, voice pleasant. “I’m not some wandering spirit who bumped into you in a hallway, some confused idiot who threw himself in front of a train. Don’t you remember, Taiga-kun? You chose me. You came right to me and let me in.”

Ikeshita’s hand came up to Taiga’s throat, making him swallow in panic, but he only rested it there like he had during those early rehearsals.

“Don’t fight me. I can make you so much more, make you famous.” Ikeshita’s coaxing voice made Taiga’s skin crawl even more than if he’d been threatening Taiga instead. “Haven’t I done it already? I can hear them, you know, when they praise you. How much they say you’ve improved, but it’s not really you they’re complimenting, is it? It’s me, it’s my voice.”

“I don’t want it,” Taiga managed to croak, finally finding his voice. “I want my own voice. I don’t need you.”

“So ungrateful.” Ikeshita’s grip on Taiga’s throat tightened. “Just like all those brats I used to give lessons to. Just like your cute little Fujigaya-kun. He was so desperate when he came to me, so easy to take over. Almost as easy as you. He told you the only way out already.”

“Shut up about him,” Taiga snarled, starting to struggle as he felt Ikeshita’s nails start to dig into his skin. “You’re just jealous of him, and of me! We’re alive and we don’t need you at all! You couldn’t make it even when you were alive, so just get out of here!”

“You don’t, huh?” Ikeshita hand became like iron, cutting off Taiga’s air. “Well, if you don’t want my help, Fujigaya-kun already told you how to do it. All you have to do is find me a new toy to play with, and then I’ll forget all about you and your little friends. Otherwise,” Ikeshita leaned in to whisper in Taiga’s ear, his lips paper-dry where they brushed Taiga’s cheek, “after I’m done with you, maybe I’ll play with them instead.”

Taiga tried to scream, but he couldn’t get out even a sound with Ikeshita choking him. He clawed at Ikeshita’s chest with his hands, struggling and kicking while Ikeshita just laughed at him until his vision went black around the edges.

“TAIGA!”

Taiga snapped wide awake all at once, drenched in sweat, lungs burning. For one horrible second he still couldn’t breathe, and Taiga thought Ikeshita really had crushed his throat. Shintarou’s face was right in front of him, looking panicked.

“BREATHE,” Shintarou shouted, and finally Taiga did, drawing in a ragged breath that felt like needles the entire way down, and then another, and then another. Taiga realized that Shintarou was holding his wrists so tightly it hurt, and then Taiga noticed the scratches down the front of Shintarou’s chest.

“Did I?” Taiga panted, guilt flooding his chest. “Shit, Shin, I—”

“It’s okay, I’m fine,” Shintarou interrupted. He let go of Taiga’s wrists and reached over to turn the bedside lamp back on. Taiga looked down to see the red marks rising against Taiga’s pale skin. Shintarou took one of Taiga’s hands with a much gentler grip and rubbed at his skin. “I guess we’re even. You were having a nightmare and I couldn’t wake you up.”

“It was him, he was,” Taiga’s breath caught again even thinking about it. “It was awful.” Hot, angry tears welled up in Taiga’s eyes and he couldn’t do anything to stop them, all of his frustration and powerlessness pouring out at once.

“Okay, it’s okay,” Shintarou said, rubbing Taiga’s back. “It’ll be okay, we’ll figure it out, okay?”

“What on earth is going on in here?” Taiga’s mother burst into the room, making both of them jump. “This is just like when you two were…Shintarou, are you bleeding?”

Taiga’s mother brought ice for Taiga’s wrists and the first aid kit from the bathroom to clean Shintarou up, accepting their explanation that Taiga had had a terrible anxiety nightmare.

“You’ve even got marks on your neck,” she said.

“I do?” Taiga asked. He looked past her to Shintarou, unease rising in his chest again. Shintarou nodded, mouth pressed into a thin line.

Kyomoto-san pushed lightly on the mark with her finger and making Taiga wince. “I hope that fades by morning, or I’ll owe your father a thousand yen over what kind of sleepovers you boys are having lately.”

“Mom!” Taiga scrunched up his face, panic forgotten momentarily. “Come on!”

“Try to get a couple hours of sleep, okay?” His mother stood up with the first aid kit, ruffling first Taiga and then Shintarou’s hair.

“I don’t know about you,” Shintarou said, “but I feel like I’ll never sleep again. This is what you feel like all the time, isn’t it?”

Taiga nodded, misery heavy in his chest. “Can we leave the light on please?”

They laid back down, the blankets still warm, but even with one of Shintarou’s strong arms around his shoulders and the room lit, Taiga felt a burst of panic every time his eyelids started to close. By the time morning came, neither one of them had managed to doze for more than a half-hour and never both at the same time, trading on and off as if they were keeping watch.

“You guys look like shit,” Jesse said bluntly when they struggled into work the next morning, all excitement over filming long having fizzled out.

“Are you okay?” Kouchi asked, eyeing them with open concern. Taiga and Shintarou exchanged a look.

“If you make a sex joke, I’ll kick your ass,” Taiga said, pushing up his sleeves to reveal his bruised wrists, while Shintarou lifted his shirt to show the scratches.

“Besides, Taiga’s dad already made all the sex jokes anyway,” Shintarou added. Taiga punched him hard in the arm. “Ow.”

The day passed by in a blur of exhaustion, Taiga feeling like he was constantly teetering on the edge of another blackout. He pushed the feeling back by force of will, wondering how long he could really keep that up, and hovered within grabbing reach of one of the other members all day. After Shintarou and Taiga’s story that morning, the others were constantly finding excuses to touch both of them anyway, Jesse and Juri rough-housing with Shintarou while Kouchi and Hokuto rubbed Taiga’s back or helped him stretch.

“Maybe you should just go home,” Juri urged during a break. Taiga’s energy had already run out, but he still glared at Juri. “Taiga, you can’t go on like this. At least lie down and sleep for a little.”

“No, thank you,” Taiga replied with a shudder. He realized he was rubbing his his wrists and forced himself to drop his hands.

“Kyomoto-kun?”

Taiga and Juri turned to find Hashimoto Ryo blinking at them.

“Hey, Hashimocchan,” Juri said, smoothing his expression back into his fun, friendly senpai face. “What’s up?”

Hashimoto smiled shyly. “Um, I was wondering…since they’re asking me to sing some more now, I was thinking about starting some lessons. It’s better to start earlier, right? Kyomoto-kun, you’ve been really working hard for your musical, so I thought maybe you could give me a recommendation?”

Taiga opened his mouth, the words right on the tip of his tongue to do it. Fujigaya had said, hadn’t he? The only way to make it stop was to send someone in his place, and Hashimoto was more than cute enough to make it work. Taiga had been so sure he would never put another junior through what he’d been going through, but he was so tired, so sick of fighting.

Just find me a new toy, it seemed like Ikeshita was whispering right in his ear. And I’ll leave you and your little friends alone…

The words were right there, right in his throat. “He’s—”

“He isn’t taking anybody new,” Juri interrupted, grabbing one of Taiga’s wrists hard enough to make Taiga stifle a yelp. Juri smiled at Hashimoto, squeezing Taiga’s wrist again in warning. “Sorry, kiddo. Hey, but I think Iwamoto-kun has been seeing somebody good too. Why don’t you go ask him?”

“Okay, sure. Thank you!” Hashimoto said brightly, heading off in the direction Juri had pointed.

As soon as he was gone, Juri let go of Taiga’s wrist, and Taiga drew a ragged breath.

“Sorry, sorry,” Juri apologized. “I couldn’t let you do it. You would have never forgiven yourself.”

“You’re right,” Taiga said. He shuddered, thinking how close he’d come. “Thanks.”

“What a mess.” Juri tugged Taiga into a hug, and Taiga didn’t resist. “What are we going to do?”

Taiga shook his head, all out of ideas.

****

With Taiga limping through the end of summer, looking forward to Shounentachi practices was about the only thing that could cheer him up. As much as he knew that end of the musical wouldn’t solve all of his problems, or practically any of them, it still seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel that he would get to work with his best friends every day instead.

“It feels awful,” Taiga confessed to Kouchi over the phone during a break. “I was so excited about Elisabeth at the beginning, and now I would give almost anything to make it end.”

“It’ll be good to have a change of venue,” Kouchi agreed. Taiga closed his eyes, the sound of Kouchi’s voice making him feel less alone, if only for a few seconds. “We’ll be closer to you all the time. Hang in there. We’re here waiting for you.”

“I know.” Taiga took a deep breath, trying to steel himself for another whole show. Not that he remembered the first one. He’d only come to when he’d seen his phone lit up with Kouchi’s name, sitting on top of his bag. “I’ll work hard.”

Somehow, he made it, and Taiga left the theater for the last time without looking back even once, hoping heartily that it would be a long time before he got asked to do anything like that again. Conversely, coming into the dressing area for Shountentachi for the first time felt like coming home. Surrounded by SixTONES and Snow Man, Taiga felt like he could draw a deep breath for the first time in months.

Fukazawa gave Taiga a couple days of full rehearsals before pulling him aside and asking him how things were going. Taiga noticed that Fukazawa did that without actually touching him.

“Better here,” Taiga said. “All the stuff you told me to do, it helped a little, but it’s…gotten pretty bad.”

“It looks pretty bad,” Fukazawa said bluntly. “Taiga, it’s really not good that it’s gone on so long. The longer a spirit hangs around, the harder it is to get rid of. The more powerful it gets.”

“I can only get rid of him by sending somebody else for him to have instead,” Taiga said, deciding Fukazawa should know the whole story. “I won’t do it. I won’t do this to somebody else. So I’m stuck. But it’s not so bad now that I’m back here. The others can snap me out of it right away when they notice, and they see it way earlier than anybody else noticed because they know me so well.”

“That’s not solving the problem,” Fukazawa pointed out. “Whatever this thing wants, if you don’t get rid of it, sooner or later, it’s going to get it.”

“I just don’t think that anything really can solve it,” Taiga said, letting Fukazawa in on the deepest part of his fear about the situation. He held up his hands, helpless. “What else can I do?”

Fukazawa sighed, unhappy. “Let’s tell the others, at least. Eleven pairs of eyes are better than five, right?”

It seemed to work at first, but as Taiga settled into rehearsals and some of the excitement wore off, the episodes and the nightmares both started to grow steadily worse again. Both groups were trying so hard to help that Taiga was reluctant to tell them how bad it had gotten, to distract them from practice.

“Taiga?” Hokuto asked with a frown when he caught Taiga staring. He reached out to squeeze Taiga’s shoulder. “You’re here, right?”

“Uh-huh,” Taiga said. He offered Hokuto the best smile he could manage, trying to keep his eyes from straying back to where he knew Ikeshita was standing against the wall, watching them. “I’m here.”

Me too, Ikeshita’s smile seemed to say every time Taiga saw him, in the practice room, on stage, out in the audience seats. I’m not going anywhere.

“You’re doing the thing again,” Jesse said once they got into actual stage rehearsals. It was still blocking, so there were lots of breaks, but it seemed to be singing on stage specifically that increased the number of blackouts Taiga had. “You went out right in the middle of the first verse. Even when I grabbed your hand, you didn’t come back right away.”

“I don’t remember any of it,” Taiga admitted. “Listen, it’s going to happen during shows. Maybe you shouldn’t try to snap me out of it.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Jesse hissed, edging closer so no one else would overhear them arguing. “Why would I do that?”

“It’ll look ridiculous if my voice keeps changing mid-song,” Taiga pointed out. He ran a hand through his hair. “And you’ll get yelled at if you keep fucking up the choreography grabbing and shaking me. Just…it’s fine. What’s the difference who’s singing? If it’s better me instead of regular me some of the time, maybe that’s fine.”

“Taiga!” Jesse snapped, looking genuinely angry. “There’s no better you and regular you, there’s just you! It isn’t you at all when that happens, it’s that fucking guy! And I don’t want to sing with him! I want to sing with you!”

“Don’t yell at me,” Taiga said defensively, wishing he’d just lied.

“I’m not yelling at you! I’m…” Jesse caught himself and took a deep, slow breath. “I’m just yelling. Sorry. I’m scared.”

“Try being me,” Taiga told him.

“You guys okay?” Shintarou asked, appearing behind them. “They’re gonna block the next scene.”

“We’re fine,” Taiga said, brushing by Shintarou and escaping as quickly as he could. He knew Jesse wanted to help, knew they all did. But really, he was realizing, they couldn’t.

As opening week approached, Taiga faked excitement for the sake of the others. He’d had so much practice doing it that he could even fool them. Taiga couldn’t make them believe that nothing was happening, but he could pretend that things had leveled off, that they at least weren’t getting worse.

Well, most of them.

“You can’t fool me, you know,” Juri said, cornering Taiga in the dressing room and eyeing him. “I know you aren’t telling us when something’s happening. That’s how it got so bad the first time, remember.”

“Juri, the thing is,” Taiga said, exasperated, “that there is no ‘the first time.’ It didn’t get better and then worse again. It’s been this bad all along. The more time we spend on stage, the less of it I remember, and even when I’m awake, I see him all the time.”

Juri looked Taiga in the face for several very long seconds, then seemed to accept Taiga’s words at face value. “Is he in here right now?”

Taiga nodded. “He’s behind you.” Taiga dropped his eyes to Juri’s shoulder, unable to look Juri in the face. “He’s been talking lately. He never used to do that before, just watch. He says I’m stupid for not sending him Hashimoto. He tells me ways he could make me hurt myself on stage. He says after me…” Taiga struggled to say the last part out loud, the part he hadn’t told anyone else yet. “He says he’ll take one of you next.”

“Taiga…” Juri started, but Taiga shook his head.

“Don’t you see? There’s no way I can make him stop!” Taiga felt the beginnings of hysteria creep into his voice and for once, didn’t try to stop it. “I can’t do anything, and neither can you! Fukka said sooner or later he’ll get what he wants, and he’s right!”

“No, he isn’t!” Juri snapped back. He gripped Taiga’s forearms, pushing him back against the wall. “Calm down. He can’t have you. You’re ours and he can’t have you.”

“You’re wrong,” Taiga whispered, then just gave up arguing and let Juri hug him. He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see Ikeshita grinning about how wrong Juri was, but it didn’t stop him seeing it anyway, Ikeshita always on the back of his eyelids lately, like a terrible movie his brain wouldn’t stop playing.

Taiga made it until the third day of shows without any major incidents, just a scatter of short blackouts and one nightmare that was so normal it was almost funny, of him realizing he’d danced the entirely of SixTONES’s new song in his underwear, just before they announced they’d filmed the show for DVD release.

“Let’s fucking do it,” Jesse had laughed when Taiga passed that one on. “We’ll sell so many copies we’ll get our own Countdown Concert.”

“Shut up, shut up,” Taiga giggled, sleep deprivation making it twice as funny as it had any business being. “Or else we’ll have Matchy-san haunting us too!”

“They can fight it out,” Jesse gasped, laughing so hard he could barely talk. “Matchy-san is scarier than any ghost that would follow you around!”

Apparently Ikeshita had taken that as a direct challenge, because Taiga blacked out at the start of the second show and didn’t come to until almost the end, Shintarou and Iwamoto pinning his shoulders against some scaffolding backstage. Their eyes were wide with panic, and so were the faces of Watanabe, Abe, and Hokuto standing right behind them. Taiga’s shoulders hurt sharply when he shifted, and he was soaking wet, he realized slowly. Fukazawa was standing at Iwamoto’s shoulders with an empty water bottle in his hands.

Everything seemed to be moving so slowly, as if Taiga was waking up from a deep sleep.

“What happened?” Taiga asked, voice a croak. When he licked his lips, they tasted like salt.

“Taiga?” Shintarou asked, like he wasn’t sure. Taiga’s stomach twisted more tightly.

“Yeah, it’s me. What did I do?”

“Made a dramatic exit from the stage, is what,” Iwamoto answered. “Did a pretty impressive imitation off the back of the second level of Shintarou’s incredibly stupid back flip and nearly broke your fucking neck is what. Shota broke your fall, thank goodness.”

“You went kind of crazy,” Shintarou said, voice hushed. “It took both of us to pull you off him. It was like when you had that nightmare and scratched me up. You didn’t stop fighting until we slammed your back against this scaffolding, and then you just went limp. I thought we’d broken your neck. You didn’t come to until Fukka poured half a bottle of salt water down your throat and then the rest of it over your head.”

“There must be some iron in the scaffolding,” Fukazawa said. “Lucky break.” The pinched set of his mouth said he didn’t think anything was lucky about this at all.

“I…” Taiga looked from face to face, feelings of guilt and uselessness welling up in his chest until they were choking him. “I’m so sorry, I’m so…”

“Okay, calm down,” Iwamoto said. He let go of Taiga’s shoulder and Taiga collapsed immediately, knees refusing to hold him up and Shintarou’s grip not at a good enough angle to take all his weight.

Shintarou dropped to his knees beside Taiga, hands still tight enough on Taiga’s arm for him to feel it through his costume suit. There was a sudden swell of applause and cheering from the audience, and cold realization washed through Taiga as he looked up at Shintarou.

“The show isn’t over, is it?” he asked, dreading the answer. He didn’t think he could stand, much less dance or sing. Shintarou shook his head.

“He’ll have to go back out there,” Abe said. “After that flip, they’ll think he’s dead if he doesn’t show back up.”

“Look at him, he definitely can’t,” Hokuto said, kneeling down beside Taiga and trying to help Shintarou. Taiga felt half-drunk with exhaustion, none of his limbs obeying him when he tried to move, plus nauseated on top of it from having a stomach full of saltwater.

“Abe-chan’s right,” Iwamoto said grimly. “It’s close to the end so we can get away with most of it, but he has to come out for bows. Can you stand?”

“No,” Taiga whispered. Here it was finally, him living his perpetual nightmare of the last four months, where he knew it would be better if he had stayed asleep, if Ikeshita had taken him and just kept him. It would be better for all of them. It was what was going to happen in the end anyway, wasn’t it?

“Yes, you can,” Shintarou urged. “Hoku, help me.”

Somehow they got him on his feet and kept him there, at least one if not two people holding him up the entire time, through final bows and last song. Taiga’s whole face hurt from his fake smile by the end of it, from pretending that he couldn’t see Ikeshita standing in the aisle, hip settled against the armrest of the girl on the end quite comfortably, as if he could wait all the time in the world.
Taiga was down again as soon as they got him into the wings, and Watanabe too, his knee jammed when he had broken Taiga’s fall earlier.

“Were you dancing on that?” Miyadate snapped in horror when they yanked Watanabe’s costume pants off to take a look at it.

“Adrenaline,” Watanabe said sheepishly. “I barely even felt it.”

Taiga didn’t see the rest of argument because Shintarou scooped him up off the ground just then, carrying him towards their dressing room. The motion made Taiga’s stomach roll, and they barely made it inside the room before he threw up his stomach full of salt water into the trash can. After that, Shintarou tugged off Taiga’s costume, stiff with salt where it wasn’t damp with sweat, and wrapped Taiga in one of Shintarou’s hoodies to rest, curled up in a miserable ball. Shintarou rubbed his back for a few minutes before he got up to change himself.

“I tried to tell you,” came Ikeshita’s voice, close as if he were sitting in the spot Shintarou had just gotten up from. “Why don’t you just give up already?”

Taiga hunched down even more deeply into the hoodie and ignored him. People came in and out of the room, but Taiga only paid distant attention to it, pretending he was asleep while they talked in hushed voices around him. Finally Taiga felt someone kneel down close to him, a gentle hand pushing back the hood he’d tugged over his head.

“Are you asleep?” Juri asked. Taiga opened his eyes and shook his head. “Your dad’s coming to pick us up. I told him you’d gotten sick.”

“Us?” Taiga asked, voice scratchy.

“I’m coming with you. Here, drink this.” Juri held out a water bottle, and Taiga eyed it warily. “It’s regular water, I swear. Well, Jesse tried to bless it so it would be holy water, but I’m pretty sure the minister’s license he got off the internet doesn’t actually make that work.”

Painfully, Taiga pushed himself to a sitting position. His shoulders ached exactly like he’d fallen off the second story of the stage, and when he tugged Shintarou’s hoodie off to hand Juri, Juri swore at the mess of bruises rising across Taiga’s back.

“Yeah, a sex story is not gonna explain these to your parents,” Juri said. His touch was gentle on Taiga’s back, but even that made Taiga wince. “Let’s try and get you in the shower, okay?”

Unlike the show itself, Taiga remembered every excruciating second of Juri helping him get showered, changed back into his street clothes, and walk outside and into the back of his father’s car. He faked normalcy as best he could to try and keep his father’s questions to a minimum, but every time the car went over a bump, Taiga clutched at Juri’s hand. By the time he got to collapse into his own bed, Taiga wondered if death would really be so bad. It couldn’t be worse than this, certainly.

“You’re staying, right?” he asked Juri anxiously. Then he thought of Shintarou’s chest with scratches down it, and Watanabe’s knee. “Never mind, you shouldn’t. If I have another nightmare…”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I’m staying.” Juri kicked off his jeans and climbed into bed next to Taiga. He tucked the blankets securely over them. Taiga was already on his side, sleeping on his back completely out of the question, and Juri rolled him gently over so that Taiga was sprawled half over his chest, no chance of rolling back onto his injuries. “Just rest. You’re sleepy, right?”

Taiga wanted to say no, that he was never going to sleep again, but somehow, he actually was. Juri looked guilty, Taiga realized. “What did you do?”

“It wasn’t just water,” Juri admitted. “I got a couple sleeping pills and crushed them up. Sorry for lying, but you need rest. I’ll be right here until you fall asleep, I promise.”

Just until then? Taiga wanted to ask, but it already seemed like too much effort. With Juri petting his hair gently, about the only place on his body that didn’t hurt, Taiga fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.

*****

In the morning when Taiga woke up, Juri was already gone. He had mailed Taiga’s phone to say that he had an errand to run and that he would see Taiga at practice. Despite the frightening events of the day before, the night’s sleep had helped Taiga more than anything else had in weeks, and he felt almost halfway human as he got dressed and ate breakfast, like he could at least think straight again. His back ached where Iwamoto and Shintarou had slammed him into the scaffolding, but a hot shower and some aspirin took care of the worst of it.

Just like he had every morning since they’d talked to Fukazawa, Taiga carefully placed a salt packet in the pockets of his jeans, shirt, and jacket, leaving the rest of them in the outside pocket of his bag, just in case. Satisfied that his sodium content was only slightly lower than a McDonald’s Big Mac set, more than a match for any ghost, Taiga headed out to catch his train.

The changing rooms were quiet since Taiga had arrived early, aside from a few staff members that he exchanged good mornings with. Taiga changed, glad there was no one there he had to explain his bruises to, and went out to take his time stretching, hoping to ease the stiffness in his back before anyone noticed. Despite the peacefulness, it was hard for Taiga not to expect the other shoe to drop any minute, waiting to catch sight of Ikeshita in the mirrors or for another fainting spell.

“Stop it,” he scolded himself under his breath. “Quit thinking about it.” Taiga drew slow breaths in and let them out again just as slowly, stretching out his arms in front of him until his face was almost flat to the floor and willing his body to relax at least some of the tension he’d been carrying around for weeks.

When he sat back up, Juri was standing in the doorway, watching.

“There you are!” Taiga turned so that he was looking at the real Juri instead of a reflection. “I woke up and you were gone.”

“You made it here fine,” Juri said, shrugging with one shoulder. He came into the room, towards Taiga, and something about the way he moved drew Taiga’s attention. “Feeling better?”

Yes,” Taiga said with relief. “I didn’t dream or anything. I really needed that. Thank you for staying.”

Juri shrugged again, giving Taiga a half-smile. The feeling of strangeness intensified, but Taiga still couldn’t put his finger on why. Juri held out a hand to help Taiga off the floor, and Taiga took it without thinking.

As soon as Juri touched Taiga’s skin, Taiga knew it was wrong, all wrong. For weeks Juri’s hands had been the one thing that could snap Taiga back to himself immediately, warm and comforting, but as soon as Juri’s hand closed around Taiga’s wrist and yanked him up, Taiga knew it was the same fingers that had wrapped tight around his wrist the last time he was in Ikeshita’s office, the fingers that had left angry red marks against his pale skin.

“You’re not Juri,” Taiga said, voice coming out a scared whisper on the first try, so he snapped it again, louder. “You’re not Juri!”

Juri laughed, or Ikeshita laughed with Juri’s face, which was the single scariest thing Taiga had seen yet. He yanked his hand away as if he’d been burned, clutching it to his chest.

“Tanaka-kun came for some lessons of his own this morning. You should have seen him begging for you,” Ikeshita said, his grin sharp enough for Taiga to cut himself on. “Begging to take your place. He made a deal with me.”

“No!” Taiga tried to back up as Ikeshita took a step closer, but the mirrors were right behind him, the glass freezing cold against his back. “No no no…”

“He forced me to swear I wouldn’t get back inside you, and then he traded himself for you.” Ikeshita stretched out Juri’s hands in front of him, fingers spread wide as he examined them. “He’s not so bad, I guess. Smarter than I thought, too. He bound me with iron and salt so I can’t go back on my end of the deal, lucky for you. And then, do you know what he did next?”

Taiga shook his head. The others had started to come in for practice, and Taiga wished desperately that they would notice them from the other side of the room, notice how wrong things were going, but they seemed miles away. Even their voices seemed distant to Taiga, who couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of Juri’s face with a stranger looking out from his eyes, grinning that awful grin.

“He had bleach mixed in with the water in his water bottle,” Ikeshita said matter-of-factly. The bottom of Taiga’s stomach seemed to fall out. “He thought I wouldn’t want him anymore either if he ruined his voice. But I was too fast for him; I’m so much stronger now than when I started creeping into your messy little head. Now I wonder which of your little friends could have possibly taught him all those clever ideas?” Ikeshita tapped his chin with one finger.

“Fukka.” Taiga’s spine straightened, panic crawling over his skin like ants as there was a sudden shout behind Ikeshita, then a scream and more shouting, but still Taiga couldn’t look away from his face. “What did you do? What did you do?!

“I brought Juri’s water in with me, of course. It was such a good trick, I thought I’d reuse it.” Somehow Ikeshita made Juri’s smile even sharper. “So don’t get any ideas about finding anyone else to help you. It’ll only end badly for them, I promise you. Just ask Fukazawa-kun over there, but you can’t expect much of an answer. And if you’re very, very good, maybe I’ll let you see your friend once in a while.”

Juri’s face went blank for a second, and then he blinked, looking around in confusion.

“Where…Taiga?” Juri blinked harder, brown eyes back to their normal, warm selves. “But I was just…how did I get here?”

Tears spilling down his cheeks, Taiga threw himself into Juri’s arms, squeezing him fiercely and trying to blurt out an explanation, but his throat was half-closed from tears and panic. He’d barely managed to say anything when Juri’s arms went tight around Taiga, one arm like iron around the small of Taiga’s back, the other hand coming up to knot fingers in the hair at the base of Taiga’s neck. His fingers were cool and paper-dry against Taiga’s skin. Taiga tried to struggle, but he could barely move, and he cried out in pain as the hand in his hair pulled tight.

“Oh, Taiga-kun,” Ikeshita murmured right in Taiga’s ear, lips brushing his cheek. “We’re going to have so much fun together.”

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