Author's Note: This story was finished on August 24, on the date of my parents' 30 th wedding anniversary. I dedicate it to them, and wish them many more happy years to come.
Izumi shook the snow globe and watched as a miniature swirl of white momentarily obscured the view inside. The scene showed a miniature cottage nestled in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees that caught the snow in their branches. A tiny light bulb hidden in the depths of the snow globe made the house's windows shine softly, making it look warm and inviting, almost real. When she pressed a switch on the globe's base, it emitted a peaceful melody.
"How pretty," she said softly.
With a wistful sigh, she turned the music off and set the trinket back on its shelf with the rest of the collection. There were others, some larger or smaller, some without the lights and music, some with different scenes. All of them were lovely - and expensive. Sadly, Izumi's spending money had already run out, as the weight of bags hanging on her arms could attest. It was lucky for her that she was not the kind of person who needed to buy things to make a shopping trip fun. For now, she was content to look at the lovely things the shop offered, and then move on.
"Do you like those snow globes?" A sales clerk had come up behind Izumi without her noticing. "These here are twenty-five percent off."
"Oh, I'm just looking," she assured the clerk.
"That's all right," the woman assured her. She laughed. "If it's snow you want, you can get all you want outside, right?"
Izumi smiled. Just outside the shop's large picture windows, she could see a soft, steady swirl of white flakes. She had heard that there were going to be some snow flurries today, but for now, all they were doing was gently touching the ground and vanishing without a trace. The display was pretty and harmless - a bit wet to have to walk home in, but otherwise no trouble. Izumi was glad of that. Bad weather would send her fleeing back home, and she had no desire to leave just yet. It was early January, and her college had given her a few precious days after New Year's to spend at home with her family. Tomorrow, she would have to go back to school, and she was determined to enjoy herself as much as she could in the meantime.She continued to browse through the shop's offerings, with the lone clerk keeping a solicitous eye on her, should she decide that she was going to buy something, after all. There wasn't anyone else in the store right now for her to wait on; after all, it was late in the day already, and between the bad weather and the coming of night, most people had given up on shopping for the day. Izumi was free to do her shopping in private.
At last, the shop woman approached her and told her gently but firmly that the store was about to close in a few minutes, and perhaps she had better make up her mind whether or not she was going to buy anything. With a sigh, Izumi abandoned the turquoise earrings she had been admiring, thanked the clerk, and left the store. As she trudged up the sidewalk, laden down with the treasures she'd purchased, she saw the woman hanging up a "CLOSED" sign and disappearing into the depths of the store.
Snow continued to fall, heavy gray clouds blotting out any sign of the stars and moon that should have been up there somewhere. The temperature was dropping now that the sun had set, and smudges of white could be seen piling up on the ledges and sidewalks. Izumi was glad she'd saved money for bus fare; pretty as the snow was, she didn't fancy walking home in it. The coat she wore was more decorative than protective, and she would probably freeze in minutes if she had to stay out in this weather. She sat down on a bench next to another tired-looking shopper and a businessman on his way home from work, and set down her bags with a sigh. After carrying them for hours, it was a blessing for her tired arms to be able to relax.
The bus arrived just as her nose was beginning to go numb. She scooped up her belongings, wrestling with the tangled straps of shopping bags, and managed to be the last one to climb aboard. She found a seat all to herself near the back of the bus and piled all her bags in the chair next to her, shaking snowflakes out of her hair and brushing them off her clothes.
For a while, all she had to do was sit and thaw. It was warm on the bus, with just enough people to keep her from feeling lonely, not so many that she was crowded. As the bus wound its way through the city streets, she amused herself for a while by going through her new acquisitions: a couple of books, some music, a box of candy, a few new clothes. *A good day's work,* she thought, smiling.
She was leafing through one of her books when she became aware of something odd. The bus was slowing down... no, it was stopping entirely. It took her a moment to realize why this felt strange. She'd ridden this bus line for years, and knew its route like the back of her hand. A glance out the window reaffirmed what she already knew: there was no bus stop for the next few blocks. There was a traffic light at the other end of the street, but it was green just now, no reason to stop. In fact, the way looked clear, unless you counted...
She came out of her thoughts just in time to realize that the bus driver was talking. It was hard to hear him over the complaints and shouts of the other passengers, but the gist of what he was saying was clear: the weather was getting worse outside, and it was getting too dangerous to drive. He wanted to return his bus to its garage, and any passengers whose stops weren't along the way would have to get out. He wouldn't charge them for the trip, he said, but he wasn't going to drive any further.
"How am I supposed to get home?" she squawked indignantly. Her family's apartment was still miles away, a lot further than she would have wanted to walk even if it wasn't snowing.
"Try the subway," someone suggested. "It should still be running, snow or no snow."
Izumi nodded, trying to think. Did she know where the nearest subway station was? This wasn't a part of town she spent much time in - not on foot, at least.
While she was still trying to decide what to do, the other passengers on the bus were starting to get off the bus. She was either going to have to get off with them, or find a way to explain to her family why she was stuck in a bus garage. Scrambling to collect her things, she fought her way through the tide of muttering people and out into the cold air.
Standing outside, she could see that the snow was, in fact, getting worse. Whereas before it had been floating down gently, it was now pouring down in a rush, being helped along by a sharp wind. It whipped the snowflakes into swirling white clouds and flung them in her face. On the streets, snow was beginning to pile up, and the passing of cars was packing it down into something that looked suspiciously like ice. The bus driver had probably been right to turn and go home, no matter how inconvenient it was for her.
Well, now what? She consulted her fuzzy mental map of the city. She thought she knew the way home, and guessed that she was a little more than halfway there, by now. It was possible she might walk the distance. She thought she remembered there being a subway station somewhere along the route, but in the dark, it was hard to be sure whether she had passed it already; she was more used to traveling this route in the daytime. It was possible that she could take refuge in a store or restaurant until the storm blew over, if she was lucky enough to find one open. Most places seemed to have closed up for the night. Why, she asked herself irritably, had she stayed out so late?
There was nothing to be done about that now. Nothing good could come of standing around in the snow, which had already piled up on her shoulders and given her purple hat a white trim. She was going to have to walk and keep walking until an opportunity presented itself. That strategy had worked well enough while she and her friends were in the Digital World; it would have to work well enough now.
She walked. It was unpleasantly lonely out on the streets at night. Few people were brave enough to dare the storm, and those few who were strode swiftly by with their faces pulled into their coats, vanishing into the shadows without acknowledging her presence, making her feel as if she were the only real person left in a city full of ghosts. The wind picked up and blew more fiercely than ever, pelting every exposed inch of skin with what felt like chips of ice. Gone were the fat, friendly snowflakes of only a few hours ago. These snowflakes were sharp, biting things that stung her hands, her face, her ears. She set down her bags long enough to try to pull her hat on further, wincing as she got a handful of snow when she touched it. She tried to shove her icy hands into her pockets and still keep track of her bags. She wished heartily that she hadn't bought anything, and considered seriously just dumping them all on someone's doorstep and walking off without them. Only her innate stubbornness made her hang on to her packages.
*Why is this happening to me?* she thought, as she tried to brush away the snow collecting on her eyelashes. *I thought wind and water were my friends... Now they're trying to eat me alive...*
Time passed - she had no idea how much. She had begun shivering uncontrollably. She was aware of being deeply tired, more tired than she could ever remember being. The only time when she could remember feeling anything like this was back in the Digital World, crossing a patch of ice. Kouji had loaned her his jacket then.
*I'll bet Junpei never wished more that he'd had a jacket handy!* she thought. Thinking of her friends made her feel a bit warmer inside. *I wish they were here now...* By now, the cold was starting to creep into her mind, making it more difficult to think. She had nearly forgotten where it was she was supposed to be going, only that she had to keep walking forward, that there was supposed to be shelter up ahead. But why did she need shelter? She wasn't cold anymore, exactly, just numb, and so tired. She wasn't even shivering anymore. She wanted desperately to stop moving, to sit down, curl up somewhere, and sleep. Sleep would be nice. Already her eyes felt frozen shut. She was peering at the world through a pair of slits, burning with cold. It would be so much better to close them, to stop moving...
There was light ahead of her. She blinked in puzzlement, trying to figure out why that had caught her attention. In a moment, she realized that she was looking at a tiny ramshackle house nestled in among the shopfronts and larger homes. Its lights were on, glowing brightly through the falling snow and icy darkness. They looked so warm and inviting, and suddenly it occurred to her that she knew this house. She couldn't remember how or why it was familiar, but she knew instinctively that she'd been there before, that it was a good place, that she would be safe and welcome if she could just make it inside. Staggering on numb, exhausted feet, she was able to scramble up the snow-covered front steps and pound on the door.
"I'm coming!" called a voice inside.
Izumi waited, too tired to even try a response.
The door opened, revealing a large figure surrounded by golden light. For a moment, she thought of angels and other ethereal beings, and wondered dimly if she had frozen to death, after all. Then he moved a bit, changing the way the lamplight fell on them, and he became only a plain human being with a worried frown on his face.
"Izumi!" he yelped. "What are you doing out - never mind. Come inside before you freeze or something."
Izumi tried to take a step forward. She caught one of her unfeeling feet on an unfamiliar threshold and stumbled. Instantly, a pair of large, competent hands were catching her, steadying her, guiding her through the doorway. The door slammed shut behind her, and she found herself surrounded, amazingly, by still, warm air.
"Your hands are like ice," the other person was saying. He was talking in a fast, high-pitched voice that made him sound scared, though she wasn't sure what he was scared about yet. "Here, let me get some of that snow off you. Your clothes are soaking wet. Hold still, I'll do it."
She held still as long as she could, but the warmth was thawing her out again, and she began to shiver as her body started to warm again. She couldn't help but notice, as he brain began to function again, that the hands that busily brushed snow off her clothing were shaking a bit as well. Looking at his face, she thought she had never seen him looking so scared, not even when they'd faced Lucemon...
Junpei, she thought, as the name her frozen memory had been trying to find finally surfaced. I'm at Junpei's house.... He doesn't have a house, does he?
Then she remembered that he did. This time she couldn't blame herself for forgetting: he had only been living here for a few months, ever since he'd graduated from college. It had originally belonged to an elderly relative - a grandmother or great-aunt or something like that, who had grown too old to take care of it properly, so she had passed it on to the youngest of the Shibayama clan, choosing instead to live with her family where they could look after her. He had moved in earlier that year, shortly after his college graduation and the beginning of his new job. The whole gang had been invited over for a housewarming party. It was the first and only time Izumi had ever been inside its walls; if she hadn't attended that party, she never would have recognized it now. She would have walked right past it without ever realizing how close she'd been to safety.
"Your clothes are soaked," Junpei was saying. "You looked like a ghost, walking in all white like that. Are you okay?"
"That's got to be the silliest question ever asked," she said.
Junpei gave a laugh of relief. "You are okay! You've got to be okay. You wouldn't be insulting me if you weren't okay."
She managed to smile back, even though her face still felt half-frozen. "I'm fine. Really! Just a little cold and wet."
"You had me worried," he said. "But you're going to be okay now. I'll take care of you."
"It's just a little snow, Junpei," she said. Now that she was starting to warm up, she felt a little silly for nearly collapsing like that. She started trying to undo the buttons on her coat, but her hands were still so stiff with cold that she couldn't seem to manage.
"Um. Do you mind if I help with that?" asked Junpei.
She didn't answer. Taking that for acquiescence, he started fumbling at the buttons. His hands were still trembling slightly. In the end, it took the two of them to get the sodden coat off and relocated to a hook behind the door, where it dripped melted snow onto his rug.
"You're soaked to the skin," said Junpei unnecessarily. "I'm no expert or anything, but I think you need to find some dry clothes. You're never going to get warm like that. Here."
He led her to the bathroom, and she slipped inside and began removing the cold, damp things she'd been wearing. Snow had slipped past her coat's collar to soak her shirt, and her jeans were so wet, she might as well have thrown them in the ocean. It was a relief to have them off and let the warm air dry her skin. While she was peeling off her sodden socks, she heard a knock on the door.
"I'm hanging a robe on the doorknob," said Junpei. "It won't fit, but at least it's dry."
"Thanks," she called back.
She reached a questing hand out the door and closed her fingers around thick, woolly fabric. It turned out to be a well-worn blue bathrobe, somewhat frayed around the edges and looking a bit faded, heavy enough to for her to think it would keep her comfortable even if she were to venture back out into the storm. It had obviously been meant for someone taller and broader than she was, with its hems piling in folds around her feet and dragging behind her when she walked. It was wonderfully warm and comfortable. Once she had pulled it on and cinched it tight around her waist, she hung her wet things over the bathtub to drip dry, then ventured outside the room. A pair of slippers, she discovered, had been left by the door. These were a better fit; like any polite Japanese person, Junpei kept one or two pairs for the comfort of his guests. Thus attired, she headed back to the living room to greet her host.
"Feel better now?" asked Junpei.
"Much better, thanks," she replied.
"Good," he said, leaning back against the sofa cushions with a sigh. "You really scared me, you know that? All white and frozen-looking and not talking... I'm glad you're okay. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"Getting in out of the snow," she said. "I'm tired. Can I sit down?"
Junpei scooted over to make room for her, and she flopped down on the sofa next to him.
"That's better," she said. "I was out shopping and got caught in the storm. The bus couldn't make it all the way to my place in this snow, so I wound up having to walk. I thought if I just kept going, I'd have to find a store or a subway station or something..."
"And you found me," he finished.
"It's a good thing, too," she said. "I was almost done for. I was so cold, I couldn't think anymore. If I were out there any longer..." She shivered, suddenly cold again.
"It's okay now," he said. "You're safe, and nothing bad happened. Just... do me a favor?"
"Don't ever scare me like that again, okay?"
She managed a weak smile. "I won't. Scaring you like this is too cold."
"Good," he said. He got up and pulled back the shades. From where Izumi sat, she could see a silvery glitter that continued to stream from the sky, reflecting in the light of a street lamp. "It doesn't look like this is going to clear up soon. I can't even see the roads anymore. Nobody's going out in weather like this. You might just have to stay put for a while."
"I'd better call my parents," said Izumi, remembering suddenly. "They probably expected me home hours ago. They'll be worried."
"There's a phone in the cabinet over there," Junpei said. "Better use it before the phone lines go down or something."
"Don't say things like that. It's too much like borrowing bad luck," said Izumi, and went to find the phone. She dialed her parents' familiar number. Almost immediately, the phone was snatched up and answered by a breathless voice.
"Hi, Mom, it's me."
"Izumi! Where are you? We've been worried sick about you!"
"You aren't the only ones," she muttered, thinking of the fear on her friend's face and her own momentary mental chills. At her normal volume, she said, "Don't worry, Mom, I'm just fine. I just got caught in the snow and couldn't make it home."
"Where are you now? Do you need us to come pick you up?"
"Don't bother. The roads are snowed under; I don't think you can make it all the way out here. It's okay, though. I'm at a friend's house, and they won't mind me staying here until the weather clears up."
She was careful not to identify the friend by name or gender. She knew her parents fretted enough about what she got up to while she was away at college, not that they had any real reason to. In the last few years, she'd dated a bit, sometimes seriously, but never so seriously that she'd been more than fleetingly tempted to do anything her parents would object to. Then, too, she knew her parents were aware that the young man she called her best friend was interested in her in a more than friendly way, and she suspected they'd never quite trusted his motivations. If it came to that, she trusted his motivations: she trusted him to be motivated to anything and everything that would get her to see him as more than a friend. She knew that, but she was sure of her ability to keep him at bay for a day or two, long enough to get out from under the snow.
"Well... I suppose that's all right," said her mother reluctantly. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"I'm just fine," she assured her. "I'll let you know if anything comes up, okay? I love you, and I'll be home soon. Bye!"
She hung up the phone and turned around to find Junpei had disappeared. A moment of listening identified the sound of someone moving around in the kitchen, and a moment later, he came into the living room carrying two large mugs on a tray.
"Here," he said, setting down the tray and offering one of the mugs to her. "This'll fix you up in no time!"
She inspected his offering. It was a heavy pottery mug, large enough that it took both of her hands to hold it comfortably, and the warmth issuing from it chased the last of the chill from her fingers. The mug's contents were disguised by a billow of whipped cream, but she could guess by the smell what it was. She almost laughed.
"Hot chocolate?" she asked.
He grinned. "I happen to be a master of its preparation. Try it, it's good. The real thing, not that powdery stuff in the little packages."
She did laugh at that. "Only you would try to cure everything with chocolate." Nevertheless, she took a sip. Her eyes opened wide in surprise. "Hey, that is good!"
"I told you so," he answered smugly.
The two of them took their drinks and settled down on the sofa so they could chat in comfort. She asked him about his holiday and listened to him talk about his New Year's celebration and visiting with his family. She nodded and made encouraging noises from time to time, offering little of her own conversation. She felt drained after her close call, and was content to listen to a familiar, friendly voice and sip at her drink, letting it warm her inside and out. By the time both their mugs were empty, she was feeling pleasantly relaxed. She tried, and failed, to hide a yawn. Junpei glanced at the clock.
"Wow, it's later than I thought it was," he said. "It gets dark too early in the winter. My sense of time gets all messed up. Anyway, you've got to be tired after all that walking around in the snow."
She yawned again. "Just a little." She blinked; she was discovering that her eyes didn't want to stay open.
"Get some sleep. The bedroom's right upstairs. You can stay there tonight. I'll camp out here on the couch."
"I can't chase you out of your room like that. It wouldn't be..." The rest of what she was going to say was swallowed up by another yawn.
"No way. I'm not making a girl spend the night on a lumpy old sofa while I sleep in a nice soft bed. You need it more than I do."
She started to argue, and then changed her mind. It was just now starting to catch up to her that she really was at the end of her strength, and that she certainly didn't have the energy left to argue with Junpei, who she knew very well would spend the night in a bed of cacti rather than stint on giving her the best he had. She shrugged and allowed herself to be guided up the stairs and ushered into a dark room. She found something soft and fell on it, settled herself down comfortably, and tugged a fuzzy blanket over herself, and that was the absolute end of her energy. Just before she drifted off, she heard Junpei whisper a goodnight in her ear. He said something else, but before she knew what it was, she was asleep.
Izumi woke up and wondered why she was lying in a large, comfortable bed instead of her own little college-issued box spring bunk. Opening her eyes for answers, she found herself in an unfamiliar room - but not entirely unfamiliar, she realized. She'd never been in the room before, but she recognized a few of the furnishings from the times she had been to visit Junpei at his old apartment. The realization that she'd fallen asleep while still wearing someone else's old bathrobe brought her fully back to the present. She sat up, stretched luxuriantly, and went to have a look out the window.
A white world greeted her. Streets and sidewalks were indistinguishable under a carpet of snow; cars parked along the side of the street had been reduced to hummocks with the occasional headlight or rearview mirror peeking out. Snow was still coming down in a businesslike way. Gone were the swirling winds and stinging ice crystals. This was friendly snow, puffy clumps of flakes like clusters of feathers. She guessed the snow outside was two feet deep, at least, and the thick gray clouds overhead didn't look like they were done with their work. So much for her going home today!
She tidied herself up as best she could, lacking her own hairbrush, toothbrush, or a change of clothes, and then went downstairs to check on her gracious host. She found him just where he had said he'd be, wedged onto a sofa that was not quite wide enough to sleep him comfortably, tucked under a patchwork blanket and snoring gently. She smiled in amusement, reminded strongly of a well-fed cat lazing on its favorite cushion. She leaned over and prodded his shoulder.
"Hey, Junpei, it's morning," she said.
He tugged the blanket over his head. "No, it's not."
"Come on, it's time to get up."
Her smile turned wry; he had never been a quick starter in the mornings.
"You aren't going to stay there all day, are you?" she asked.
"Yes," said the voice under the blanket. Then, with dawning realization, he said. "Wait a minute, why are-?"
He peered over the edge of his blanket and found himself staring directly into a pair of sea-green eyes inches away from his own.
"Yow!" he said in surprise, and, forgetting that he was lying on the sofa and not in his bed, rolled over and fell on the floor. Izumi had to jump to keep from having him fall on his foot.
"Oof," he said into the rug. He shoved himself to his hands and knees and tried to disentangle himself from the quilt. "I think I'm awake now. Mostly, anyway."
"Oops. Sorry!" she said. "I didn't mean to wake you up that much."
"It's okay, it's okay," he said quickly. "It was time for me to get up anyway." He glanced out the window. "Doesn't look like I'm going to work today, though. Guess you can't go home, either. Not that I'm in a hurry to make you leave - I like having you here - but I mean..."
She laughed. "You have such a way with words, Junpei."
He grinned a little sheepishly. "Anyway... now that I'm up, how 'bout breakfast? I can whip something up in no time."
"You don't have to do that. I can take care of myself."
"No, really, I don't mind..."
"For pity's sake, Junpei, it's not like I'm sick or something."
"I didn't mean it like that!" he protested. "I'm just... you know, trying to be a good host, that's all. And I like doing things for you. You know that."
"Yeah, I guess I do," she replied. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you."
"That's okay. I understand," Junpei assured her. "So, what do you want for breakfast, huh?"
He grinned. "Coming right up!"
She wandered off again, resigning herself to an indefinite amount of time having her every whim granted by her eager friend. On reflection, she decided that there were definitely worse spots she could have landed in.
A hot shower made her feel more like herself, as did being properly dressed. The clothes she had worn yesterday were mostly dry now, and she had learned after a few years of swimming lessons that hair dryers worked as well on wet clothes as wet hair, so she was able to have reasonably comfortable garments when she finally reported for breakfast. She found everything ready and waiting for her, including Junpei, who seemed to be waiting for a word of approval.
"Very nice," she said, taking her seat.
They settled in and served themselves, chatting idly.
"Is everything okay? Did you sleep all right last night?" Junpei asked her, all puppy-dog eagerness to please.
"Like a log," she assured him. "I think I was out before my head hit the pillow." She smiled wryly. "I had sort of a rough day yesterday, you know. I was already worn out from shopping all day, and then having to hike through all that snow..."
Junpei glared out the window, as if the snow that was still piling up outside had attacked his beloved on purpose.
"I've never seen snow like this before," he commented. "Usually we just get a few inches, if that."
"You're right. I hadn't thought of that," Izumi mused. She supposed she must have gotten too accustomed to magical animals and elemental spirits to pick up on a little thing like an overdose of snow. "Let's turn on the TV. Maybe we can pick up a weather report. I'd like to know when we can dig out from under all this."
Obedient as always, Junpei got up and turned on the television, and did a bit of channel surfing. After skipping past a made-for-TV movie, a selection of cartoons, a few talk shows, and a sports channel, he found the morning news. His timing was good; the reporter was busy wrapping up a story on the economy and saying, "And now, our top story for today..."
"Great, we're going to have to sit through a bunch of news reports," he muttered, making a face of disgust as he returned to the breakfast table.
"No, wait, I think they're going to say something," Izumi replied.
The screen changed to show a cameraman's view of a frigid downtown scene. A voice over was saying, "...twenty-eight inches in less than twenty-four hours, with drifts as deep as four feet. Traffic has ground to a standstill as the roads are inundated with snow. With the white stuff still coming down and no end in sight, meteorologists are predicting this to be the worst snowstorm in living memory."
The scenes of snow-covered streets shifted to a view of weather map, where they could see a computerized image of something that was probably meant to be Japan. It would have looked more like their home country if it had been properly visible; most of its eastern edge was covered by clouds. A weatherman talked knowledgeably about freak atmospheric conditions and the collision of weather fronts that had caused the blizzard. He predicted the snow would continue falling for at least the rest of the day, with no meltdown in sight. Izumi gave a small groan.
"We're going to be snowed in for weeks," she complained.
"Look on the bright side," he told her. "Now you don't have to go back to school. You've got an extended vacation."
"That's true," she said, looking marginally more cheerful. "Too bad I didn't bring anything to work on. Knowing my teachers, they'll use the snow as an excuse to expect extra work."
Junpei looked affronted. "Nobody ought to use snow as an excuse to do work. Snow means you get to stay home and relax and have fun."
"Well, now, I don't have any choice in the matter, do I?" she asked. "I hope you don't mind me crashing here for a while. It doesn't look like I'm going to be leaving any time soon."
"Stay as long as you want," he said fervently.
"At least until the snow lets up," she said. She glanced around, re-evaluating her surroundings. "At least the place is comfortable. Haven't you changed things since last time I was here?"
"Yeah. Great-Aunt Kaede left me all her old furniture when I moved in. Nothing but a bunch of spindly old-lady chairs with legs like toothpicks. There wasn't any place for a healthy guy like me to sit down, y'know? So I've been trying to replace a few things. So far all I've managed is the bed upstairs and the living room furniture. Be nice to the living room furniture; I haven't paid for it all yet."
She laughed and promised that she would indeed be careful not to damage his new furniture, and they settled down to enjoy their breakfast. When the dishes were cleared away, Junpei went off to take his own shower and find a change of clothes (he was still wearing what he'd worn yesterday, now wrinkled from being slept in), and Izumi curled up on one of the living room chairs to watch the snowfall. She had to admit, she liked his taste. The chairs and sofa were decidedly masculine pieces: large, square-cut pieces with deep cushions, made to accommodate someone tall and solidly built in comfort. A dainty creature like her could curl up on any of them and feel surrounded by cozy pillows - very pleasant on such a cold, wet day.
*So Fate plays its favorite joke on me again,* she thought wryly. It seemed like life always fell out this way: when she was separated from everyone else, when things were going wrong all around her, some universal force seemed to arrange it so Junpei was always there to help her. It had happened often enough in the Digital World - sometimes it seemed like he was there every time she turned around whether she wanted him there or not. Whenever the group split up, it seemed he always went the same way she did. Of course, his own personal choice could have had something to do with that. But it had gone on happening that way, even in the real world. When she had been turned down for her top choice college, he had been the first to assert that he had it on good authority that the school was populated with snobs and she didn't want to go there anyway, and had cheered for her when she finally had been accepted to a good school. When she had navigated through an independent teenager's fights with her family, he was always a listening ear for her troubles. When a boyfriend left her brokenhearted, he was always there to lend a shoulder to cry on and assure her that he still thought she was the most desirable girl in the world. Now, just as always, he had turned up in the exact right place, just when she needed him.
*That's why he's my best friend,* she told herself, impatiently brushing away any thoughts about fates and predestinations. *It's just that he has that crush on me that makes him follow me around all the time... He must be mostly over that by now, too. He probably does it as much out of habit as anything. Nobody in their right mind really hangs on to a crush that long, do they?*
Junpei returned, decked out in clean clothes, his hair still damp from the shower.
"I didn't think there was much point in getting all dressed up just to stay in all day," he said, running a hand through his wet hair. "So, what are we going to do now?"
She looked at the expectant expression on his face and almost laughed.
*I think he really expects me to think up something exciting,* she thought, *as if I was supposed to have brought a circus with me in my back pocket! He really does think I can do anything.*
She looked around, searching for inspiration. It occurred to her that, stripped of his aunt's knickknacks and without any of his own to take their place, the room looked a bit bleak. Dust lay on shelves and in unused corners in much the way the snow lay outside. It occurred to her vaguely that the place really did need a woman's touch, and she wondered what it would take to find him a girlfriend who could eventually remedy the situation.
"You know," she said, "where I come from, people clean up their houses when they know they're having a guest over."
"I didn't know you were coming," he protested. He looked around, following her gaze. "Um. I guess I did kinda let the place go, a little. I've been busy with my new job and all."
"Well, you aren't busy now, are you?" she pointed out.
He gave her a sad puppy look. "You aren't really going to make me work on my day off, are you?"
"What do you think?" she said.
"I think I'm in trouble," he said. He gave an over-dramatic sigh, letting his head hang and his shoulders slump. "Well, if it'll make you happy..."
"It won't be so bad," she assured him. "I'll help. I'll wash these dishes, and you can start vacuuming the carpets."
"Yes, ma'am!" He hustled off to do as she was told. Smiling, she went to see what she could do about the dirty dishes.
Within a few minutes, she had returned the breakfast dishes to their previous pristine state, as well as dealing with several other plates and cups that had been lying in the sink since who-knew-when, and the whirr of a vacuum cleaner behind her told her that someone else was also hard at work. She found the cabinets where the dishes belonged and put them all away, then went to check on Junpei. She found him standing on a chair, trying to get cobwebs down from a corner of the ceiling without losing his balance and falling. Asking and getting his permission so investigate the upper rooms, she set off upstairs to see what needed doing there.
Izumi had discovered a long time ago that launching a project like cleaning could turn into a regular snowball effect: an intention to clear off her desk could lead her to start cleaning her whole room, straightening her closet, and sorting out her spring wardrobe. Now she set about exploring the upstairs floor of the house, dusting and sweeping as she exercised her curiosity. She found Junpei had been right about his aunt's taste in furnishings. She could make a distinction between those rooms he used and those he didn't - and not just by the dust on untouched surfaces. Most of the upstairs rooms were furnished with a collection of outmoded chairs and desks in various states of shabbiness. Izumi dusted and mopped in what appeared to have once been a sewing room, marveling that anyone would want to spend any amount of time in these hard, stiff-backed chairs. It was a relief to finally put her cleaning things aside and head back downstairs for lunch and some relaxation. She found the kitchen and living room spotless, and a rather sweaty and breathless Junpei waiting anxiously for some sign of her approval. She gave him a teasing smile.
"Much better," she said. "I knew you could do it."
They lunched informally on sandwiches and listened to the radio, gathering snippets of news from the outside world. All anyone seemed to be able to talk about was the snow. They listened to accounts of sporting events being canceled, businesses being closed down, travel being paralyzed. There were reports all over the city of people who had been working late and become stranded in their offices, with only the contents of vending machines for food. Power had gone out in a few places, and parts of the city had been declared disaster areas.
"Sounds like you don't have to go to school for a while," Junpei commented.
"Sounds like nobody's going anywhere for a while," answered Izumi. "I pity the ones with no electricity. I don't even like it when the lights go out in a thunderstorm."
"I hate to think what it would be like in this drafty old house if we lost power," said Junpei, looking around apprehensively, as if he expected the lights to go out as soon as they heard their cue.
"I'm really lucky," said Izumi. "A little while longer and I'd be one of the ones stranded in a store or something... or worse, I could have wound up as an icicle. I don't think I could have gone on much longer. I couldn't even think, I was so cold. A few more minutes, and I don't think I would have recognized safety if I saw it. I almost froze to death..."
She hadn't confronted it before. Now she suddenly remembered what it had been like in that dark, cold world, and her throat closed up in remembered fear. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself. Junpei waited patiently, his expression concerned.
"I almost died," she said. "You saved my life."
"I didn't do anything. I was just in the right place at the right time," he said, but he looked pleased all the same.
"Well," she said, taking a breath and letting it out, "I'm glad I got that off my chest. Anyway... what do we do now? I'd hate to do anything too strenuous; we'll mess up our nice clean house."
"Our house?" he repeated.
"As long as I'm living here, it is," she said. Glancing out the window, she added, "That may be a while, so it might as well be home."
"Works for me," Junpei replied, grinning. "Hey, I know what we forgot to do!"
"We forgot to call the others. We ought to make sure they're okay."
"Oh, you're right," Izumi replied. "We should have thought of that a long time ago."
Junpei looked sheepish. "Well, you know, we're used to thinking of them being able to get through anything. Guess we'd better call them anyway, though. Just in case. How about you grab the phone down here, and I'll pick up on the upstairs extension?"
"That works." Izumi went into the living room to find the phone, and within moments she heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs as Junpei headed for the upper floor.
When she reached the telephone, she hesitated - not because she didn't know the right phone numbers, but because it was hard to decide who to call. After a moment, she chose a number and dialed. She waited as the phone rang... and rang... and rang...
"What's going on down there?" Junpei called.
"Nobody's answering," Izumi replied. She hung up the phone and thought a minute. It seemed clear to her that nobody was home at the Kanbara residence... but that didn't mean anything. After all, it was just after the holidays, and it was possible that they were visiting someone when the storm hit. Izumi consulted her mental address book and dialed Takuya's cell phone number.
Almost instantly, there was an answer.
"Hello?" said an eager voice.
"Takuya, you must have been sitting on the phone," Izumi joked.
"I'm sitting on my tail waiting for something to happen," Takuya griped. "I hate being shut in!"
"What's the matter? Don't you like snow?"
"I like it when there's a few inches of it. I don't like it when there's so much I can't get the door open."
Izumi had a sudden mental image of her fiery friend realizing he was doomed to spend the next few days confined to the indoors, and stifled a smile. Poor Takuya!
"Hey, hi, what have I missed?" a voice cut in. Junpei had picked up the upstairs phone at last.
"Junpei! What are you doing here?" asked Takuya.
"I live here," said Junpei.
"Huh? But then how come...?"
Izumi laughed. "I'm at Junpei's house, Takuya. I was shopping on this side of town when the storm started, and I got stuck here."
"Oh, is that so, huh?" said Takuya skeptically.
"Hey, this is totally innocent, okay?" said Junpei. "It was just a freak accident."
"Yeah, I'm not exactly wild about being miles away from my toothbrush," Izumi agreed. "On the other hand, it's better than sleeping in the subway. I heard on the news a lot of people are still stuck down there."
"I heard about that," said Takuya, without much enthusiasm. "About all anyone around here is doing right now is watching the news. Like that'll make the snow melt faster, if they keep watching the weather reports."
"Look at it this way: at least you still have electricity," Junpei reminded him.
"Brr! Please! It's bad enough here, without bringing that up," said Takuya with exaggerated horror. "Anyway, I'm glad you guys are okay over there. Have you heard from any of the others yet?"
"Not yet," Izumi admitted. "We were going to call them after we talked to you."
"Oh, okay. Well, you can tell 'em I'm fine - just bored stiff. Oh, and tell 'em I said 'Happy New Year' and I'll catch up to them when I can."
"If you're so bored, why don't you call them now?" asked Junpei.
"Wouldn't you know? I ran out of minutes last week! They haven't sent me this month's supply yet."
Izumi and Junpei both laughed. They said their goodbyes, and then began the process of catching up to the rest of their friends.
Finding Kouji and Kouichi was easy - finding one usually meant finding the other. Even when they were apart, one always seemed to know where the other was; it seemed to come with being twins.
"Happy New Year!" said Kouichi. It was nice to hear that he sounded happy.
"Same to you!" Junpei answered. "How do you like this weather?"
"The snow is nice, but they sent too much of it," Kouichi replied. "Still, I'm in favor of anything that gets me a few extra days of vacation."
"How's school going for you?" asked Izumi.
"Oh, are you there too?" Unlike Takuya, Kouichi didn't seem surprised or interested that Izumi and Junpei seemed to be in the same place. Either that, or he didn't really care. "Hey, Kouji, grab the phone - it's Junpei and Izumi."
"Man, we're going to have a regular party going on in a minute," said Junpei.
Kouichi laughed a little. "Yeah, just like old times."
There was a rattle of a phone being picked up somewhere else. "Hello?"
"Hi, Kouji, it's us," said Izumi.
"Oh, hey. Nice of you to call."
"We're just making sure everyone's okay," said Junpei.
"You know, I hadn't even thought of that?" Kouichi said. "Time just seems to stand still when you're snowed in, doesn't it?"
"How is everyone?" Kouji asked.
"Fine so far," said Junpei. "We already talked to Takuya a minute ago. I think he must be visiting somebody, and now he's stuck there." He laughed a little. "He didn't sound too happy about it."
Kouji gave one of his rare laughs. "I'll bet. It's the same over here, except that we don't mind being stuck visiting family."
Izumi made understanding noises. It was well known that the twins didn't get to see each other as often as they liked. They'd been accepted to two different colleges in different parts of the country. It had seemed like a fine thing at the time - a chance to re-establish themselves as individuals, instead of finding themselves tagged as a pair of identical entities. Within the first few months, though, they'd found themselves frustrated at no longer being able to see each other any time they pleased, and vacations came as a blessed relief. Now they were clearly glad that their college years were nearly over. They probably considered the snow drifts outside to be a windfall in more ways than one.
After chatting for a while longer, Izumi and Junpei said goodbye to their friends and prepared to check up on the last and youngest member of their group. They dialed the number and listened to the pone on the opposite end ring several times before it was finally snatched up with a breathless, "Hello!"
"Hey there!" said Izumi. "Guess who this is?"
"Hi, Izumi!" Tomoki replied. "Sorry I didn't answer the phone quicker. I was outside."
"What were you doing out there?" asked Junpei.
"Oh, hi, Junpei! I was just playing in the snow. You've got to enjoy it while you can, right?"
"Right," Izumi agreed, smiling. At moments like this, he seemed more like the cute little kid she remembered than the teenager he really was. Then again, he did have an affinity for snow.
"So you don't mind being snowed in?" Junpei asked.
"What? No way - this is fun! I'm going to try building an igloo later."
Izumi giggled. "Sounds like fun, I guess. Me, I think I'm going to stay inside. I've already been out in the snow, and it wasn't much fun. I get cold too easily."
"That's too bad," said Tomoki, genuinely sympathetic. "Hey, have you heard from any of the others? I tried to call Takuya, and nobody answered the phone."
"Try his cell phone," Izumi suggested.
"Good idea," agreed Junpei. "I have a feeling he'd like someone to talk to."
"Okay!" Tomoki agreed. The passage of years hadn't completely obliterated his admiration of the older boy. He'd probably be happy to talk as long as Takuya wanted.
When they had finally finished their conversation, Izumi hung up the phone with a feeling of accomplishment. If nothing else, it was nice to know the people she cared most about were weathering the storm. It would have been frustrating, knowing that they were in trouble and she could do nothing about it. It would have been just as bad as having her Spirit stolen, knowing she couldn't offer help when help was needed...
Junpei came down the stairs. "Well, sounds like everyone's doing fine without us. Nice to know we can have fun and not worry."
"Any ideas how we're supposed to do that? We can't exactly go outside." She gestured at the window, which had snow piled up against it, regardless of the fact that it was several feet off the ground.
"I dunno. I thought we might make some popcorn and watch some movies. I mean, who's going to tell us we shouldn't be watching TV all day in a situation like this?"
She laughed. "I couldn't have thought of a better plan myself."
"Great! I'll start the popcorn, and you can pick out a movie you like." He waved at a shelf, where there was a stack of DVD's piled haphazardly. "They're kinda mixed up, but there's probably something..."
"Don't worry, I think I can find what I'm looking for," she said.
She dug through the shelf's offerings, smiling to herself as she listened to the sound of popcorn popping in the kitchen.
*I'm glad I'm here,* she thought. *I didn't really want to be stranded, but if I had to be, I'd rather be here than somewhere else.*
The idea surprised her. Shouldn't she want to be home with her family? But no, she was growing up, becoming an adult. She loved her family very much, but she couldn't deny that she was ready to start living on her own. There was her dorm at school, but that wasn't really a home, but just a place to stay for a little while. As for her friends... they were her favorite people in the world, but that didn't always mean she wanted to spend twenty-four hours a day with them, especially when there wasn't an emergency to distract them. A pile of snow was an inconvenience, but as yet, it hardly constituted an emergency - not unless you were Takuya, stuck inside and unable to get out and burn off some of his restless energy! The thought of being trapped in a house with him during a time like this was hardly appealing. She could have gotten through it, but it wouldn't have been enjoyable. Likewise, she wasn't sure how well she'd tolerate a steady diet of Tomoki's bright-eyed enthusiasm... or, for that matter, Kouji's introspection. She'd never had the knack for bringing out his best side, the way Kouichi or Takuya could. Had either of the twins been the one to find her standing on his doorstep, he would have taken her in and made sure she was safe and comfortable, but he probably wouldn't have taken the time to try to make it fun. Was it because Junpei was still in love with her, that he tried so hard to please her?
"Popcorn's ready!" he called.
"Great," she said. She grabbed a movie off the shelf - at random; she had been too wrapped up in her ruminations to worry over a little thing like what movie to watch. His taste in movies matched hers closely enough that she didn't have to worry about making a bad choice, anyway. She put all her thoughts aside to concentrate on enjoying the moment. After all, until the snow outside melted, she had all the time she wanted to think.
"Is anyone but me hungry?"
Izumi looked up to see Junpei watching her hopefully. She had been half-drowsing, lulled by the familiar movie and the quiet of the house. Now she saw that the sun had gone down outside, and a glance at the clock confirmed that it was getting quite late. It was certainly well past the time for a meal of some sort.
"Just me," she said. "And since it's only you and me here, that's all the reason we need to start dinner."
"Sounds good to me. I think there's one of those microwave pizzas in the freezer..."
"No, I was thinking more along the lines of real food. You know, the kind you cook."
"You might not be all that impressed with the kind of food I cook," said Junpei. "I mean, it's good enough for me, but I'm not exactly a gourmet chef or anything..."
Izumi laughed. "You can't be any worse than my roommate. She's the kind who can burn water."
"How did she do that?"
"Put a pot of water on to make tea, and then got distracted and forgot about it. By the time she came back, she'd burned the bottom off the teakettle and gotten boiling water all over everything! ...So these days, if something needs cooking, she makes me do it."
"So, are you any good?"
"I haven't poisoned anyone yet," she answered. "Anyway, I think between the two of us, we ought to be able to manage something. It'll be fun!"
"Sounds good to me," he said.
She gave him a tolerant smile. "Anything that involves eating something is something you like, right?"
"Anything that involves spending time with you is something I like," he said.
She turned away, trying to hide a blush. Unable to come up with a comeback, she decided it was safest to change the subject. "So, I'll tell you what - you set the table, and I'll raid the fridge and see if there isn't anything in there we can turn into a meal."
"There won't be much," he warned. "I was planning on going shopping tomorrow... not like there's much chance of that now. There's mostly just going to be leftovers... they probably won't do you much good."
"I'll be the judge of that," she said briskly.
They moved into action. Junpei, busy with wiping down the table and setting out plates and glasses, heard more than saw as Izumi searched the refrigerator for edibles.
"Hey, Junpei, have you got any carrots?"
"How about cucumbers?"
"Don't think so."
"What good are you?" she asked in mock-censure.
He gave an exaggerated sigh, letting his shoulders slump in assumed grief. "None at all."
She laughed. "Well, do you have any tomatoes, then?"
"Try the bottom drawer."
"Oh, here they are! Congratulations; you've redeemed yourself."
"Now, where do you keep the casserole dishes?"
Junpei showed her where to find a collection of dishes. She examined them judiciously before finally finding one that suited her, and then put her friend to work slicing vegetables. He tried to watch her as she continued gathering and arranging ingredients, but after he accidentally nicked his thumb with the knife, he decided that he'd better keep his attention on what he was doing. Much to his disappointment, once he'd finished his task, Izumi chased him out of the kitchen, citing the adage about too many cooks and telling him she'd give him a call when everything was ready. He settled down on the sofa to wait, his expectation growing as the rattle of dishes gradually faded out, and enticing scents began drifting from the kitchen.
"I think that about does it!" Izumi called. "Come see what you think."
Junpei got up to have a look. What he saw surprised him.
"Where did all this come from?" he asked. "I didn't think I had all this fancy stuff."
"Oh, well, I just combined a few things," said Izumi. "After spending almost four years dealing with the college's so-called food, I've gotten very good at pulling together decent meals out of whatever's handy. Go on, try it. I want to see if you like it."
Seeing no reason to disobey, he helped himself to part of the contents of a casserole dish and sampled it. Izumi awaited his reaction.
"Hey, this is good!" he said. "This is really good. Can I kidnap you?"
She laughed. "Flatterer. I should have known there was truth in what they said about the way to a man's heart..."
"Hey, that's not fair! I was crazy about you way before I knew you could cook. This is just a fringe benefit."
She laughed, and the two of them settled down to enjoy their meal. After spending the entire day together, they were content to keep conversation to a minimum, choosing to enjoy their food in the silence of those who appreciate good cooking. When his plate was emptied, she refilled it without being asked.
When at last the meal had been reduced to crumbs, Junpei settled back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction.
"I'm telling you, Izumi," he said, "even if you weren't the prettiest, smartest, bravest girl in the world, I'd still marry you just for your cooking."
"Are you sure you've had enough?" she asked.
"More than enough, thanks. I'm stuffed."
"Well, that's a pity. I was just going to say, I found a pie while I was poking around in the freezer, so I set it out to thaw," said Izumi, feigning innocence, "and unlike some people I could mention, I saved room for dessert."
Junpei gave an indignant squawk. "You... you... you're not nice," he pouted.
"Hey, nobody said you couldn't have any," she said.
"Nah, I'd better not. I still want to be able to move."
She gestured at the windows, where snow was still piled up around the edges. "Where do you plan to go?"
"Oh, all right, you convinced me. But make it a small piece!"
Not long afterwards, an overstuffed and happy diner shuffled off to collapse in his favorite armchair. Izumi felt herself smiling in amusement as she tidied up the dishes.
*It certainly is easy to make him happy,* she thought. Ever since she'd returned from Italy, she'd spent a lot of time watching people, trying to figure out what motivated them. Going to college had given her a chance to broaden her horizons even more. She felt she'd met every kind of person under the sun, by now. Quite a few of them had been good people. Many more had been less pleasant. By now, she'd had some experience with people who only cared about money, or popularity, or how much smarter or more athletic they were than the people around them. She'd encountered people whose lives revolved around trying to make themselves more influential, more powerful, more important, people who were always plotting and scheming to get their way. Next to them, Junpei was refreshingly uncomplicated. *All he really needs are a few basic comforts and some good friends to keep him company, and he's completely content. And he's not pushy, like some people. For all his hints and teasing, he's never once tried to force himself on me, not even to steal a little kiss, and I know he wants to...*
She shook her head; thinking like that wouldn't get her anywhere. She didn't really want to get into a relationship like that... it was fun to tease him, though. He was entirely too easy to tease for her to resist the temptation.
When the last of the dishes had been cleaned and put away, she slipped back into the living room to see what her companion in captivity was doing, only to find that he had fallen asleep. Once again she found her mouth twitching into a smile that was comprised of as much affection as amusement.
"Obviously you are just captivated by my company," she said wryly. "Well, goodnight, Junpei. Sweet dreams."
She lingered a moment more, and caught herself leaning forward as if to bestow a kiss. She backed off quickly.
*What am I thinking? Some of this snow must have gotten into my brain.*
Just before she reached the door, he stirred a bit, and she froze. How awake had he been, anyway?
"Izumi?" he called sleepily.
She relaxed. "Yes, it's me."
"Can I ask something?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"If the snow never melted, would you stay here forever?"
She hesitated, taken aback. What a question to ask! She started to point out the obvious, that sooner or later the snow would melt, and his question would be pointless, but something made her hold her tongue.
"Sure," she said. "Of course I'd stay."
He didn't answer, only sighed contentedly and resettled himself. Within a few seconds, he seemed to have fallen completely asleep. Izumi left the room quickly and quietly, pausing only long enough to turn out the lights. Then she retired to her room - or should she be calling it his room? - to settle down for the night, trying to shake her mind free of all unsettling thoughts.
It was very cold. Izumi walked through a world of ice, a place of snow-covered floors, icicle stalactites, and blue shadows. She was walking with a collection of vaguely defined presences that her mind told her were her friends... though, oddly enough, they didn't look as they did now, but as they had been as children, when they had been exploring the Digital World.
*That's right, I'm in the Digital World... but wait. That means that this place is...*
Even as she remembered what was going to happen, a portion of the floor ripped open, and something huge and angry burst out, thrashing and bellowing. She knew what this was: a Whamon, a mighty sea Digimon, and just now, it was out of its mind with claustrophobia, ready to attack anything that moved in its range of vision. She knew what was coming next, and she turned to cry out, too late to stop it...
A powerful blast caught Junpei and hurled him through the air, leaving him battered and dazed on the ground. Then there were monsters, looming over him, jeering at him because he was too weak and hurt to fight. Then they turned and began advancing on Izumi, and she tried to escape, but some force was holding her immobile, and she couldn't even cry out. She could only watch, helpless, as the monsters stood over him and jeered, battering at him as he tried in vain to protect himself. Then they seemed to tire of their quarry and turned to slowly advance on her...
There was a blinding flash. For a brief moment, something stood before her, a blend of man and machine that could only exist in a dream... or in the Digital World. It sent her enemies to oblivion in a burst of eye-searing light. Then it was gone, leaving only a limp and battered young man in its place. Izumi discovered that whatever force had bound her had vanished, and she rushed to his side. At her touch, he stirred faintly and opened his eyes. Seeing who had come to aid him, he smiled.
"What are you smiling about? You're hurt," she said, worry making her voice sharp.
"That doesn't matter," he answered faintly. "I don't care how much I get hurt, as long as you're okay."
"That's silly," she told him. "Hold still, maybe I can help you..."
The world shifted. She was standing in an undefined place, somewhere gray and swirling, like being inside a snow cloud. Up ahead, she could just barely see Junpei walking away from her. She hurried to catch up.
"Where are you going?" she called after him.
"I'm leaving," he answered. "It's time for me to go now."
"But I don't want to be left alone here!"
"But I have to go," he repeated. "There's no snow left, so that means it's time for me to leave. I can't stay any longer. I don't want to leave, either, but that's just what happens when snow melts."
He turned and began to walk off. She tried to follow, but the clouds obscured him, and she found herself wandering blind. She was surrounded by smothering clouds, so thick she could hardly breathe... and then she realized it was getting colder. It was snowing! She knew he couldn't leave her if there was snow on the ground. All she had to do was to catch up to him, to make him see it. She ran as fast as she could, struggling to push through the thick clouds, and -
She woke up. Her face was pressed into a pillow, one that felt suspiciously like the clouds she'd been struggling with, and she seemed to have kicked off most of her blankets, allowing the cold morning air to chill her skin. Outside, a bit of wan light too faint to be called a sunbeam was filtering through the blinds. So much for dreams! She sat up, taking a few deep breaths of the cool air, trying to clear her mind.
She supposed she ought to be able to be objective about dreams. Now that she was wide awake and fully aware, she could even figure out where it had come from and what had brought it on. She could easily recognize the beginning of her dream as a slightly garbled replay of one of their old adventures in the Digital World. It was one of her strongest memories associated with Junpei; naturally, spending a lot of time with him could bring it up. The ending had probably been brought on by his question of the previous night. She had thought it was a strange thing to ask, so her treacherous brain had brought it along to play with while she was asleep, and this had been the result. She ought to be able to take it all in stride.
Her brain knew it, but the rest of her didn't believe it. Dream or not, she had been honestly distressed, and that pain hadn't been any less sharp just because it had been provoked by a dream situation instead of a real one.
With sleep-dazed slowness, she managed to disentangle herself from her sheets, tug her borrowed bathrobe around her, and pad downstairs. One look at the clock told her that it was still too early for her friend to want to be waking up, but she didn't need to wake him up just to see him. If she couldn't feel settled until she had made sure she was really not alone, then there was no harm in checking.
Yes, there he was, exactly as she'd left him, curled up on his recliner, fast asleep. She smiled, feeling an irrational rush of relief. She took a few steps closer, and, guided by something she couldn't quite pinpoint, laid a hand on his shoulder. He stirred and opened one eye. He blinked and looked again.
"You're here," he said, still sounding half-asleep. He yawned, stretched, and looked back at her. "What time is it?"
"Too early," she answered apologetically. "I'm sorry, Junpei. I didn't mean to wake you."
"That's okay. Why are you up so early, anyway?"
She started to give some glib reply, but what came out was, "I... I had a nightmare, sort of. It woke me up. I guess I just wanted to see a friendly face." She forced a laugh. "I guess that sounds kind of stupid. I mean, I shouldn't let myself be scared of a little nightmare..."
"You don't sound stupid at all," he told her. "I know you're the bravest girl in the world. You have a right to have nightmares, after all you've been through. I know I have them - and when I do, I know I'd be happier to have a friend nearby."
She felt a warm rush of gratitude that chased away some of last night's chill. "Thanks, Junpei. That makes me feel better."
He smiled. "That's what I'm here for. You know I'd do anything for you... even get up at six in the morning," he added with a slight cringe, glancing at the clock. "That must have been some nightmare, to get you down here this early."
"Well... it wasn't a scary dream, exactly," she said. "It was just... I dreamed I lost something that was very special to me, and I couldn't get it back. It made me sad... and lonely. That's why I came looking for you."
"Oh," he said. "Yeah, I understand that. Sounds like your nightmares are pretty close to mine."
She felt a stab of sympathy. "Are they that bad?"
"Well... most of the time, no. But sometimes I have this dream where I'm back in the Shadow Blitzmon's arena, with everyone telling me how I'm no good and how nobody's ever liked me and they never will... but it just goes on and on, and you guys never come... or even worse, you do come, but you don't do anything. You just stand there and watch, and say there's no point in trying to help a loser like me, and just walk off and leave me alone... That's usually when I decide there's no point in fighting it anymore, so I just let the thing blast me, and I wake up."
"That's terrible," she said. "That's a lot worse than my nightmare. If you have any dreams like that while I'm here, I want you to come tell me, even if it's the middle of the night."
"Don't worry," he told her. "While you're around, I can't have anything but sweet dreams."
Impulsively, she hugged him. He seemed surprised by the sudden show of affection, but he was hardly willing to let the chance go to waste. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. For a moment, a strange sensation came over her, something that made her feel safe and contented, and she relaxed, letting its warmth chase away the chill of last night. After the confusion of her dreams, it was nice to have something safe and solid to cling to. With her head resting on his shoulder like this, she could almost hear his heart beating...
She pulled away; this was getting out of hand! The last thing she needed was to let him get the wrong idea. She watched him, worried that she had moved too suddenly, and that he might think something was wrong. Fortunately, he didn't seem to have noticed. He obviously could have stayed that way all day and been completely happy; letting go at any point would be too soon, so perhaps he couldn't tell the difference.
"I feel better now," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "Thanks."
"Any time," he said. He didn't sound as cheerful as he might have; he had definitely not wanted to let go! "So... now that we're awake, I guess we might as well get up. What do you want for breakfast?"
"Oh, I don't know. I guess we could go and look."
"I'll look. You cooked and cleaned last night, so now it's my turn to wait on you. Tell me what you want and I'll get it... within reason, of course."
"Surprise me," she said.
"Okay, let me see what I can do." He got up and wandered to the kitchen, and she took over the chair he had vacated. She heard the radio come on, playing cheerful morning music, and Junpei hummed along as he worked. Izumi smiled a little; his singing voice left something to be desired. Still, the noises were comforting, and did much to chase away the last vestiges of her nightmare. The feelings of loss and confusion had faded, replaced by warm contentment.
The new day turned out to be a quiet one. When breakfast was over, Izumi raided her shopping bags, hoping to find something fresh to wear. Luck had been with her, and she thanked her lucky stars that she had decided to take advantage of a sale at the lingerie store. She didn't mind having re-wear a shirt or a pair of jeans a few times, if it was absolutely necessary, but for anything other than that, it was nice to have a spare or two around. She really didn't want to spend every day of this impromptu vacation washing clothes! Once she felt reasonably clean and well-groomed, she went downstairs to see what could be done to pass the time.
Perhaps feeling that he'd overstepped himself earlier (never mind that it had been Izumi who had actually initiated the embrace), Junpei was keeping a respectful distance. Izumi decided she might as well enjoy some peace and quiet, so she picked out one of the books she'd bought yesterday and began to do some reading. Junpei hung around a bit, then seemed to get an idea and wandered off. He returned carrying a deck of cards. That was really no surprise. He hadn't given up his interest in magic tricks over the years - in fact, he'd gotten good enough that he had made some spare pocket money while he was at school, performing at parties and other functions. At any given time, he usually had on his person at least three decks of cards, a collection of handkerchiefs, some foam rubber balls in assorted colors, some index cards, a marker or two, a few coins, some soft wax, a book of matches, a loop of clear plastic wire, and an assortment of other odds and ends - and that was when he wasn't actually planning on putting on a show! Those friends who knew him well enough to tease liked to joke that he was really a little skinny guy, and the illusion of bulk came from all the things he was carrying around in his pockets. Whenever he was bored, he could take out some of his toys and practice his feats of legerdemain. Now Izumi watched out of the corner of her eye as he shuffled through the deck, pulled out the ace of spades without looking at it, made it seem to disappear from one hand and reappear in the other. He tucked it back into the deck, shuffled the cards, and drew his card back from the top. Izumi finally gave up on her book; it wasn't as interesting as what Junpei was doing.
"That looks like fun," she said.
Junpei shrugged. "It passes the time. Want to see me do a trick?"
"Sure," she said. "Show me."
"Okay. Pick a card. It doesn't matter if I see it or not."
She did as she was told, drawing out the eight of diamonds.
"Good. Now, memorize that and give it back," he told her.
She handed him the card and watched him slip it back into the deck. He patted it back into place, and then waved his hand over the deck in a mystical pass.
"Now, watch as my magic makes it float to the surface," he intoned. He ran his thumb along the edge of the deck, riffling through the cards, until... "Presto!" He reached the card on top and flipped it over, revealing the eight of diamonds. "What do you think? Pretty cool, huh?"
"You had a spare," she guessed. "The deck was rigged."
He grinned. "That's what you think. Here, we'll do it again, and this time..." He handed her a black marker. "This time, write your name on it - or draw a picture or something. I can't rig that ahead of time."
She complied, letting him shuffle the deck and selecting a new card. She cupped her hand around the card and doodled a drawing on it, a picture of her wind-symbol, and handed it back to him upside down, so she was sure he couldn't possibly see it. He tucked it back into the deck, made his mystic pass again, riffled through the cards, and once again, her card surfaced on top, complete with its markings. She exclaimed with surprise, and he grinned.
"Okay, now you have to tell me how you did that," she said.
"Lots and lots of practice," he told her. "It's really nothing fancy; it just takes a little skill. Here, watch. I'll do it again, slower this time."
He had her choose a new card, and this time, instead of holding the deck flat, he held it face out, so she could see his movements clearly. Now that he was moving slowly, she could see how he had slipped the card in at an angle, so when he was pretending to straighten the deck, he was actually pushing the card into his palm, keeping it hidden under his hand until he could set it back on top of the deck.
"You make it look easy," she said. "Let me try!"
"Sure," he said, ever agreeable. He handed her the cards, and she attempted to replicate his movements. What he'd made look easy turned out to be a bit more difficult than it looked.
"Okay, maybe it's not easy," she said, a bit ruefully. She was used to being able to do just about anything she wanted to, and it irked her that she was failing now.
"You just need more practice," he assured her. "It takes hours and hours to get some of these moves down pat. Here, maybe I can help."
He set one of his hands over hers, guiding it through the correct pattern of movements. She had to admit, it was easier with his help. There was something strangely pleasant about having his hand on hers, something that brought back the funny sense of warmth she'd felt earlier. She pushed it out of her mind.
"That's better," said Junpei encouragingly. "Just keep doing it like that, and you'll have it in no time."
"Well, I have plenty of time to practice," she said. She tried to copy the movements again without his help, and fumbled the deck. A handful of cards fell on the floor. She spat out an expletive in Italian, and was grateful her companion didn't know what it meant. He seemed to get the gist of it, though.
"I bet I know what part of the problem is," he said. "Those cards are too big for you. I get 'em oversized, so they show up better from a distance. You might be better off with a standard-sized deck. ...You've got such small hands. Almost like a doll's..."
He reached to touch her hand again. She gave him a few seconds before snatching it away.
"Behave yourself," she said.
"I'm trying," he told her, "but it's not easy."
She giggled. "You are absolutely incorrigible."
"Is that good or bad?" Junpei asked.
"Well... it means you just don't give up! How many years have you been after me? Ten?"
"About ten, yeah."
"Don't you ever get tired of all this?" she asked him. "I mean... not that I'm not flattered or anything, but I'm not the only eligible girl in the world."
"That doesn't matter." He looked away, uncomfortable. "You're the only one I'm in love with."
"What? It's the truth!"
"But don't you think you've carried this on long enough?"
"Hey, I didn't get a choice in the matter," he said. "It's just... I've never met another girl like you. I've never met anyone who even held a candle to you. I can't imagine wanting anyone else."
She started to reply, and hesitated, unsure what to say. Such an outpouring - made without the intent to flatter, but simply stating the painful facts - left her at a disadvantage. Anything she said to refute it would sound ridiculously feeble. What could she say, except that she thought of him only as a friend and wasn't interested in him any other way? She hated to have to say something like that to someone she cared about so deeply, but she gathered her courage and prepared to have a try anyway. She raised her head and made the mistake of meeting his eyes. All her carefully chosen words died on her lips. She lowered her gaze again.
"I wish we weren't having this conversation," she said.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"No, that's okay. Maybe I should be the one apologizing to you. I mean... you've been loyal to me a long time, and all I ever do is let you down."
"No you don't. You're my friend first. You've never let me down there."
"You are way too agreeable, you know that?" she said. "I'd almost like it better if you made a scene. Then I'd have a better reason to feel crummy about turning you down. I mean, I really do like you - you're really special to me, but..."
"Well, if that's the way you feel, why are you turning me down?"
The lights went out. Both of them jumped as the room plunged into grayness. The radio died out, the fridge stopped humming, and everything dropped into an unearthly hush.
"Aw, great, the power's gone out," Junpei muttered.
Izumi, relieved to have gotten out of a ticklish situation, got up and peered through the window. Through the tiny flakes of falling snow, she could see that the rest of the neighborhood was similarly dark, though the heavy snow clouds were making it evening-dark at noon.
"Looks like you're right," she said. "Now what are we going to do?"
"I think we're going to get cold," said Junpei grimly. "No power means no heat."
Izumi shivered at the thought; the room was warm enough now, but the heat wouldn't stay in forever, and it was likely to get very chilly in there before long. Izumi hated being cold, and recent events hadn't done anything to make her more enthusiastic about the idea.
"That's a lot of help," she said. "What are we going to do about it?"
"Well, lemme think... there's a little camp stove around here somewhere that runs on a battery. It doesn't put out much heat, and it won't last forever, but it's better than nothing."
"Find it," said Izumi. She felt much better in a situation where she could take leadership. "Do you have any spare blankets anywhere?"
"There's a bunch upstairs in the sewing room closet."
"Good. I'll get those. They'll be useful."
The two of them embarked on their separate tasks. The heater proved difficult in the finding, requiring Junpei to shovel his way through piles of other odds and ends he'd not yet needed to deal with. When he finally found it and brought it back, he found Izumi hard at work with a large pile of blankets. She was busy draping them over the windows like thick, mismatched curtains. He asked her about it.
"It's insulation," she explained. "It'll keep cold air from coming in through the windows. We ought to put something around the doors, too. It'll be easier to warm one room than to warm the whole house."
"That's smart thinking," he said. "You always have such good ideas."
She smiled a little, partly flattered, partly amused. She could have guessed she would get that reaction from him. She reflected a bit wryly that he was a rare species indeed: a man who would take orders from a woman without question! Some people would have taken it as a sign of weakness, but it suited her temperament well enough; her independent nature would have chafed under any other kind of treatment. She actually managed to feel somewhat cheerful as she finished with her impromptu wall hangings and went to help Junpei cover the doorframes. The so-called living room had really been just an open space, with partial walls marking vaguely where the kitchen began. With thick quilts hanging in strategic locations (with the help of a few nails, a hammer, and a bit of annoyed muttering) they managed to create a closed space that would hopefully hold in some warmth.
"Well, that should take care of that," said Junpei, standing back to admire his handiwork. "We might not be perfectly comfortable, but we won't freeze, either."
"I hope not," she said. "I almost froze once, and I'm not about to do it again!"
"Don't worry," he said reassuringly. "I'll make sure you stay warm even if I have to burn old Aunt Kaede's ugly old furniture. Actually, let's do that anyway. It's the best excuse I'll ever get."
She responded with a small laugh, and he smiled back at her.
*He is sweet,* she thought idly. Her conscience pricked her again; maybe she had made a mistake in turning him down. *Maybe I should ask him out, after all this is over... assuming that we haven't both driven each other to distraction by then.* It was entirely possible that this snow would keep them both under each other's feet so long that they'd both be sick of each other's company. Of course, considering the way he reacted to her, it was possible having her around twenty-four hours a day might drive him to a completely different kind of distraction...
"Hey, I just had a thought," he said.
"Hm?" she said, a trifle guiltily, as if she suspected him of reading her thoughts.
"If there's no power, that means the stove won't work either, so..."
She tried to drag her mind away from the intricacies of relationships and get it back to more practical matters. If the stove wasn't running right now, that meant...
"You're right," she said, as comprehension dawned. "What are we going to eat?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," he answered. "There wasn't much to begin with, and it's not like we can really get out to buy more..."
"Well, we'll just have to make do," she answered, with more conviction than she felt. After all, the storm couldn't possibly last much longer... but it had already lasted longer than anyone expected, and even when it cleared, it would take time before travel would be restored...
"Guess there's no help for it," said Junpei with a sigh. "Maybe if we're careful, we could thaw something over the stove."
"Maybe," she agreed. "Oh, well. Guess we'd better take stock of the situation. Maybe we'll find something you've forgotten about."
They made a search. There was still half a loaf of bread left, and some peanut butter, so they could at least make some sandwiches. A cupboard revealed two partially finished boxes of cereal, a box of sugar cookies, and a few cans of things that probably could be eaten without being heated, even if they wouldn't be particularly good that way. Their eventual verdict was that they weren't going to starve to death any time soon, but they weren't going to be doing any gourmet dining, either.
"This isn't exactly the way I planned to spend my vacation," said Izumi.
"You and me both," he said. "Still, it could be a lot worse... we could be braving it alone."
She thought of him weathering the storm without her and found the image an oddly sad one. Who would he have to tell him to hang quilts on the windows, or to conjure up creditable meals out of leftovers, or to show his magic tricks to? She thought of what would have happened to her if she hadn't found his house, and she shivered all over again.
"You're right," she said. "I'm really, really glad we're together."
"So am I," he answered softly.
Mentally, she cringed. When would she learn to stop saying things like that?
"Let's make dinner," she said.
They gave it a try. Their experiments had varying degrees of success; they were eventually forced to conclude that you couldn't thaw a frozen pizza over a space heater, at least not without more expertise than they had. They ate it anyway, and topped it off with the last of the sugar cookies and played around with trying to warm two cups of instant tea. There were plenty of cold drinks in the fridge, drinks that were likely to stay cold whether the power was running or not, but cold was the last thing they wanted right now. Eventually, fed if not completely satisfied, they settled down to pass the rest of the night as best they could.
Electric lights were out of the question, but some diligent searching on Junpei's part had produced a few alternatives: a flashlight and a collection of candles. What sun there had been had vanished, and they had set the candles around the room to give them enough light to see by. They couldn't provide much in the way of warmth, but the dancing flames did give the room a sense of coziness. Izumi appropriated the flashlight, tucked a spare blanket over herself, and went back to reading her book. Junpei amused himself for a while by idly making origami animals. Izumi was faintly surprised; she hadn't known that numbered among his skills, but here he was, making butterflies and dragons and wild animals by the light of a candle. Encouraged by his example, she picked up the deck of cards he had discarded earlier and began practicing the trick he'd taught her. Eventually, she gave it up as an exercise in futility. Her long, slender fingers might have been attractive to Junpei, but they also seemed to attract cold as well, and the air in the room was getting chilly. The subtle movements the card trick required were next to impossible with half-frozen hands.
"Hey, Junpei," she said, as he set a paper crane with the rest of his collection, "how did you get into doing magic, anyway? I remember you telling me you started when you were a little kid, but you never really said why."
"I guess it's kind of a long story," he said. "See... you know I never really fit in with the other kids, when I was young. I was always the kind who got picked last for kickball and that kind of thing. Well, I've never exactly been what you'd call graceful - Nature didn't intend for me to be a marathon runner or a gymnast. But you know how boys are at that age. They admire the people who can run the fastest, or hit a ball the furthest, or climb a tree the highest. Only time I ever tried to climb a tree, I fell out and cracked a rib. I was never much of an athlete, either. So one day I was complaining to my parents about how it wasn't fair that everyone else could do this stuff, and I couldn't. They told me, why don't you think of something you can do and they can't? Well, of course I told them that there was nothing I could do that they couldn't. Mom and Dad didn't think much of that, and told me to quit complaining.
"Anyway, I thought about it a while and didn't come up with much, until one day I was wandering around in a toy store, and I saw this box with a little magic kit in it. You know, the top hat and the collapsible wand and plastic flowers and all that stuff. The outside of the box said that anyone could master the tricks in minutes, so I ran home and counted up all my money and found out I had just enough. So I bought it and took it home. Then I surprised myself, because I could do it, and nobody else I knew could. A few people were impressed, and I thought that was pretty cool, so I checked out a book or two from the library to see if I could learn some more tricks... and here I am."
"Of course, by now, you've done a lot of things nobody else could do," she said. "Like saving two worlds, for example."
"That took all of us together, and then some," he said. "For the time being, I'll settle for being a good magician. What do you think?"
He made a playful flourish and pulled a cluster of silk flowers from nowhere. She laughed and accepted the bouquet.
"You're great," she told him. "Did you ever think of going professional?"
"Oh, I daydream about it once in a while," he admitted. "I'm a lot better about performing in front of crowds than I used to be. A couple months ago, a friend from school let me visit the hospital where he's working and put on a show for some of the kids there. That was fun. I like kids. It's rough on a kid, being sick and scared and away from home with a bunch of strangers around... Made me feel pretty good, making them smile. I like that."
"I think you have a talent for making people smile," she said. "Maybe you should look into going professional. You'd be a success."
"Well, now that you mention it," he said, "I have kind of been planning..."
"Planning what?" she asked, interested.
"Well, see, there's going to be a competition in Las Vegas this summer for close-up magic - that's what I do, see. I've been saving up to go. If I make a good showing, well... who knows?"
"Oh, that'll be exciting," she said. "I wish I could watch. I'd go cheer you on."
He gave her a sidelong look. "You could come along, if you really wanted to."
Now it was her turn to blush. "What a thing to say!"
"Hey, I didn't mean anything by it," he said, all innocence. "You probably could come. I mean... hotel rooms aren't all that expensive in Las Vegas. You could probably afford it, if you saved."
"We'll see. I don't know what I'll be doing this summer," she extemporized. "Still, I'll think about it."
"Oh, okay," he said. He went back to folding paper flowers. Izumi retreated behind her book.
*That was close,* she thought. Much as the idea of seeing the lights of the legendary city appealed to her, she wasn't sure she cared for the idea of the snickers she would get from her friends if they were to get wind of her taking off to the so-called "Sin City" with Junpei. It was safer for her reputation if she stayed home.
Eventually, the light of the candles began to burn low, and the two of them agreed they had better save some of their resources for tomorrow. Both of them were tired after their early start that morning. Izumi walked around her side of the room, carefully blowing out candles. Junpei seemed to be making himself a nest on the sofa using some of the spare blankets. The cold didn't seem to bother him as much as it bothered her, but the temperature was liable to drop to uncomfortable levels now that there was no sunlight left, and what little warmth it had brought was departing. Izumi thought how cold it would be up in the room she'd been using and found herself hesitant to leave the relative warmth of the living room.
As if sensing her hesitation, or perhaps just recognizing an opportunity, Junpei said, "You know, it's going to be pretty cold up there."
"I know," she said.
"I don't want to sound like I mean anything by this, but we'd really be warmer if... you know."
"If we both stayed here tonight," she finished. "Um. I don't know..."
He offered a weak grin. "I promise to be good. I just don't want to you to freeze again, and maybe get sick or something."
"Well, when you put it like that," she said. "I guess it'll be okay... but if you try anything, you'll regret it."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said.
*I wouldn't be too sure about that,* she thought wryly, but she let it slide. After all, they had been forced to share sleeping quarters before, when they'd been traveling in the Digital World, and he'd always behaved himself. Of course, there had been other people around, and they'd both been a lot younger then, but... she decided she trusted him. And it would be warmer.
She picked herself out a place on the couch next to him and tugged a blanket around herself. He'd already been sitting there most of the evening, so her place was already comfortably warm, and she snuggled down comfortably until she was surprised to find herself resting against his side. She sneaked a glance at him; he was pointedly looking the other way, the picture of innocence. He probably would have been whistling jauntily if he'd thought she'd believe it. She felt a smile spreading across her face; she couldn't help but be amused. Why fight it? She half-turned, the better to take advantage of his warmth, and rested her head against his shoulder. It was surprisingly comfortable; Nature had intended him to be cuddled. She waited to see what he would do. With painstaking slowness, alert for any sign of danger, he carefully slipped his arm around her. She didn't move. He sighed and relaxed. She continued smiling, long after both of them had fallen asleep.
It occurred to her that it was odd that she had fallen asleep sitting up. She supposed vaguely that she must have dozed off somewhere. Still, she wasn't fully awake, and she felt no inclination to get up and start moving again. The air touching her face was cold, and she was resting against something pleasantly warm. She resettled herself, and... it moved.
She jumped, eyes flying open to look around frantically. At the same time, Junpei came awake and began trying vaguely to fend off whatever was attacking him. They recognized each other at the same time, and Izumi relaxed marginally as she remembered where she was.
"Don't hit me," he said. "I wasn't doing anything, honest!"
"I know, I know," she said. "You just... startled me. Or something like that."
"Sorry," he said contritely.
"It's okay," she said, mostly because she knew he couldn't really be blamed for it. She didn't feel especially forgiving; actually, she felt mildly disgruntled, though she wasn't completely sure why. Perhaps she just hadn't slept well enough... though she certainly didn't remember having trouble sleeping...
She went in search of fresh clothing (her last clean outfit, if she didn't count a fancy party dress that would be entirely impractical in this kind of weather), shivering as she hurried to strip off her old outfit and wriggle in to the new. She returned downstairs to find a meager breakfast laid out, in the form of two bowls of cold cereal. There was no point in objecting to it; they had to eat something, and it was a chance to use up the last of the milk before it could go bad. After that, they prepared to deal with another day.
Huddled in what had become her favorite chair, tucked securely under a blanket, Izumi mused that this adventure was becoming somewhat less adventurous than it had first seemed. Being snowed in for a day or two was marginally interested, even exciting. Being snowed in for more three (or was it more than that? She was losing count) was boring. Having no electricity was doubly boring, because they couldn't even use the television to wile away a few hours. They were reliant upon only those appliances that could be run on batteries, and even those had to be rationed. Junpei scrounged up a few double-A's, so they could at least listen to the radio.
The news from the outside was only marginally encouraging. The weather experts expressed their educated opinions that the worst of the storm was over, saying that there would only be a few scattered flakes that day, and probably none at all the next. Already, work was being done to clear the city's main roads. Unfortunately, nobody had ever seen a snowfall quite as severe as this one, and the city was inadequately prepared. It would probably take days to get every part of the metropolis cleared. Likewise, resources were being stretched thin when it came to dealing with power outages and frozen water pipes.
"At least we don't have that problem," said Junpei. "It's bad enough being cold. It would be worse if we couldn't even brush our teeth."
Izumi nodded. She could think of other problems that could come from a sudden water shortage, but they were far too awkward for her to want to think about them.
"Maybe we should be taking some precautions," she suggested. "You know, filling jugs and things... and maybe fill the bathtub. I read in a book where some people did that, so they'd still have water to wash with."
"It's way too cold up there for a bath," said Junpei. "Couldn't hurt, though. I'll take care of it."
"I can do it," she said.
"You'll get cold," he pointed out, not entirely wrongly. It would be like a refrigerator in the unwarmed upper rooms, and it would be even worse if she managed to get herself wet trying to fill tubs and jugs. He didn't seem nearly as bothered by the cold as she was, but then, he had better insulation. "I'd rather do it myself."
"Well, if you want to do all the work yourself, I guess I shouldn't argue," she said. "I just hope you know I can do most things for myself."
He grinned. "I know that. Maybe that's why I like doing them for you. It's a privilege."
Junpei set out in search of water jugs, leaving her faintly bemused.
*He really is a weird guy,* she thought. *A hopeless romantic. He belongs in one of those fairy tales... not that he's exactly what you think of a Handsome Prince being, but he's got the act down pat.*
She shrugged and went back to reading her book. From somewhere upstairs, she heard the soft thunder of water running, and then the rattle of jars and jugs being filled. Then there was a clunk, a sloshing sound, and some words she couldn't completely hear, though she got the tone of them. A few minutes later, Junpei came back down with a quantity of water splashed down the front.
"It was slippery," he said, by way of explanation. He was rubbing his hands together, trying to warm them. He was shivering slightly - as anyone would be after being doused in near-freezing water.
"I told you to let me do it," she scolded, but she got up and wrapped her blanket around him, ushering him to the sofa. "And why didn't you get some dry clothes while you were up there?"
"I didn't think about it. I just wanted to get back here where it's halfway warm," he answered, a bit indistinctly. His teeth were starting to chatter.
"Oh, for pity's sake," she said. "Well, I can't have you turning into an icicle. Tell me where you keep your clean cloths, and I'll get you one."
"In the bureau in my room. Shirts in the top drawer, pants in the next one down."
She braved the chill of the outer rooms for the three minutes it took to dash upstairs, grab a clean sweatshirt, and scoot back down again. She tossed him the shirt.
"Take those wet things off and put that on, before you catch a cold," she ordered.
"You don't have to tell me twice," he said. He started to push back his blanket, then remembered he was in the company of a lady. "Don't peek."
"As if I would," she said primly, turning her back.
She heard sofa springs creak as he got up, and then heard a rustle of cloth. She kept her eyes fixed innocently on the wall in front of her. Voyeuristic curiosity gnawed at her; there was nothing like telling her not to do something to make her want to do it anyway. Finally, she gave up and sneaked a quick peek over her shoulder - and immediately turned back before he could see her. How embarrassing, if she were to be caught! Especially after the times in the Digital World when she had threatened dire fates if he were to dare peek at her. Though it wasn't like he needed to be embarrassed. He might not be an Adonis, but he was hardly repulsive. After all, he had lost some excess pounds about the same time he had lost his tendency to use candy as a substitute for companionship, and without the padding of heavy winter clothes... She clamped down hard on that thought before it could be finished. She flatly refused to follow any train of thought that led to the conclusion that he looked better without his clothes! Closed her eyes and took a breath. Maybe he had been right to tell her to not to look.
"You can turn around now," he said.
She did not want to turn around; she was sure she was probably blushing. Still, there was no way to explain refusal, so she did as she was told and hoped he wouldn't notice. Vain hope! Junpei always noticed everything about her.
"Oh, come on," he said. "I know it's embarrassing, but it's not that bad."
She raised her head in her best haughty manner. "I happen to be a very proper lady."
*Ha! That's a laugh.*
"Well, I don't know about you," he said, "but I am staying right here where it's warm."
"I feel just the same way," she said, "and I want my blanket back."
He tugged a corner free. "There's enough to share."
*Oh, so that's how it is,* she thought. Still, it was silly to avoid him now when she'd already spent the night practically sitting in his lap. She bowed to the inevitable and went to join him.
"Comfy now?" she asked.
He grinned. "Warm as toast."
It occurred to her that this whole episode could have been manufactured by him just to get her into this exact situation. Then she decided she was wrong. Junpei was a bad actor and worse liar. Things like this just seemed to happen to him, both the accidents and the unexpected windfalls. She settled down with a sigh and picked up her book. If he noticed she didn't seem to be turning its pages as often as one would have expected, he didn't say a word.
The next day dawned unlike the previous for several reasons. For one, their heater had quietly died in the night, leaving the room icy cold. The room was not dim and gray as it had been before, but full of brilliant light. Lastly, Izumi knew exactly where she was when she woke up: resting against the side of a dear friend, and she was not at all displeased with the situation. After yesterday, she had finally had to surrender on the physical proximity front and let him stay next to her all he pleased. For one thing, he was hard to avoid, now that they were confined to a single room. For another, it was a lot easier to stay warm when the two of them were close together. He seemed to have gotten the message that it was all right to stay close to her, even put his arm around her, so long as he respected certain limits when it came to where he could rest his hand.
"Are you awake?"
She twitched; she hadn't realized he was watching her.
"Kind of," she said sleepily. "What are you doing up?"
"I was just watching you," said Junpei. "I was going to get up, but I didn't want to wake you. You looked so peaceful. I thought..."
"Oh, nothing," he said, looking slightly embarrassed. "You know, just... stuff."
That hardly counted as an answer in her book, but she decided to let it slide. She seized on a safer subject.
"Ooh, it's cold in here," she said. "What happened to our stove?"
He straightened up a bit and glanced at it. "Light's out. Guess it's battery finally went dead. That figures. The little thing was never meant to be a central heater. I'll put in a new battery."
Junpei got up to deal with the heater. Izumi sat up and stretched, wondering vaguely what time it was. There was a clock on the wall, but they had already raided it for batteries to feed to the radio, and it was now telling the world that it was, in fact, four twenty-eight whether it was or not. She decided to resort to old-fashioned methods and have a look outside. Light was streaming through the gaps in her makeshift curtain, and she flung it aside. She exclaimed in delight.
"Oh, Junpei, come and look!"
He dropped what he was doing - literally; she heard something thump into the carpet as he got up - and came to join her. Spread before them was a wonderland of silver and diamond and... what jewel could possibly shine as brightly as morning sun on pristine snow? Every rooftop, window ledge, and telephone line was draped in icicles, each one vying with the other to reflect the most sunlight.
"Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?" she asked, awed.
"Only once," he replied.
She tried not to blush and was not very successful. How was it that he could say things like that and get such a reaction from her? If anyone else had tried it, she would have rebuffed it, either with some clever reply if she liked the person, or with a well-placed slap if she didn't. Probably it was because he wasn't just trying to be charming. In his eyes, she really was the most beautiful thing in existence, and saying so was a matter of simple fact.
"You know," she said, "I think I'm starting to understand how you feel."
"Hm?" he said, looking surprised.
"Well... right now, I really could wish this snow would never melt. I've been happy here. It's strange... If someone told me I was going to be snowed in here for weeks more, I wouldn't mind at all."
"Um," he said. "I'd like it a whole lot better if I were warmer... and had something to eat besides peanut-butter sandwiches. Maybe I can find something for breakfast."
He walked off, leaving her confused by the change of mood.
"What was that all about?" she muttered. Had she said something to offend him? She didn't think he had. Normally, it was next to impossible for her to make him angry; he seemed to think even being insulted by her was better than no attention at all. She mulled over the problem while she ate her breakfast, but came to no sound conclusions.
The day ground on. Izumi finished the book she'd been reading and started on the second. Junpei sat on the floor (close to the heater, of course) and built a house of cards. Every time Izumi peered over the edges of her book, the structure had risen higher, going from a simple three-tiered pyramid to a knee-high platform to a waist-high megastructure. He kept walking out of the room at intervals, coming back with more decks of cards. She had to admit, she was impressed. Junpei might give the impression of being a bit awkward and foolish, but he really did have talent. His large hands moved with all the delicate precision of a surgeon's... or, she thought, a magician's. He had always been good with his hands, whether it was doing card tricks or building model trains. Every time she had ever visited him in his old apartment, his room had been full of plastic locomotives on lengths of track. Now he made his living working for an engineering firm, and spent much of his day putting together scale models of this and that. It suited him.
When the house of cards - more like a castle of cards, by now - had grown to chest height, a vagrant draft slipped by, causing a partial collapse. The rest of it stood forlornly, looking like a building that had tried to match its strength against an earthquake. Izumi echoed Junpei's groan of disappointment.
"Oh, and it was going so well, too," she said sympathetically.
"That's okay," he answered, with a philosophical shrug. "I was almost out of cards, anyway. Besides, half the fun is knocking them over." He gestured at the remains of his creation. "You want to do the honors?"
"Why, thank you!" she said, laughing. She got down on her hands and knees, peering thoughtfully at the lacy, intricate structure he had created. It was almost too pretty to destroy, but since most of it was gone already... She plucked a single card, and the rest of them collapsed with a papery swish. Junpei laughed.
"Done like a professional," he said.
"A professional what?" she teased.
"Uh... you got me there," he admitted.
She laughed. "Point for me!"
"Why bother keeping score? You'll always come out ahead," he told her. "You've got an unfair advantage."
Izumi smirked a bit; she thought she could make a good guess as to what her advantage was. It crossed her mind to wonder what kind of game this was, and what prize she was playing for.
"Need a hand cleaning up?" she offered.
He gestured broadly at the cards, which were obscuring the better part of the carpet. "Be my guest."
She grabbed a handful of cards and began sorting them into stacks, watching him do the same. He was quicker at it, but then, he had more practice. While they concentrated on separating diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades, they exchanged random bits of conversation.
"You know, I went to see that movie last week - you know, the one with the aliens that take over the shopping mall. I was slapping my forehead through the whole thing, and I still sat there and watched it. I must have been crazy."
"There's this guy where I work, and I'm telling you, he wears the exact same suit every single day. I think he sleeps in the thing."
"A couple of weeks ago, some girl in my dorm tried to cook a pizza at two-thirty in the morning, and then walked off and forgot it. It burned up, and we had to have a fire drill in the middle of the night in December weather. She's not allowed in the kitchen anymore."
"I picked up this silly-looking lunchbox with cartoon critters on it, to take my lunch to work in, and wouldn't you know? Somebody stole it. That's just my luck, isn't it?"
"There's this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant just a block away from my school that makes this white chocolate cheesecake with raspberries that's just out of this world. If we ever get out from under all this snow, come up and visit me and I'll take you to get one."
"Boy, Izumi, you sure know how to motivate a guy."
"I know how to motivate you, anyway," she said, setting a neat stack of cards off to one side. "And it's not like your motivations are hard to figure out. You've always been pretty transparent."
"Oh. I hope that's a good thing."
Izumi laughed. "Of course it is! It's one of the best things about you."
"It is?" he asked hopefully. "What are the others?"
"I'm not going to tell you just yet," she said teasingly. "It might go to your head."
"You're teasing me," he said, hanging his head. "It's not nice to pick on me."
"No, but it's fun," she said. "Come on, lighten up. I'm just playing; you know I like you."
"I know, I know." He flashed a grin. "It's just not every day you give me an opening to tease back."
She laughed. "All right, all right! Point for you." She peered under the chairs and sofa, making sure they hadn't missed any stray cards. Finding that there weren't, she handed all the cards she had sorted to Junpei and went back to her chair. She was just settling in to start reading her book again, when he spoke.
"Hey, Izumi," he said, "you weren't kidding about me coming to see you, and us going out together when this is all over... were you?"
"No, I wasn't kidding, not about that."
"Wouldn't that be kind of like a date, though?"
She paused, wondering if she had just talked herself into a problem. She settled for what she deemed the safest answer. "What do you think?"
"I think you get a kick out of jerking my chain," he said.
She didn't answer, trying to pass the remark off as insignificant. But, asked a tiny voice in her mind, wasn't he right?
The sun had climbed high in the sky, and was now creeping past its zenith and moving into its afternoon routine. To Izumi, this passage of time presented a small dilemma. Her internal clock was insisting that it was nearing lunchtime, and that she ought to be thinking about going and finding something to eat. She certainly was thinking about it. For the last half-hour or so, she had been entertaining wistful thoughts about a piping hot plate of spaghetti and meatballs with plenty of melted cheese on top - comfort food, to her way of thinking. Actually, she would have settled for a piping hot plate of almost anything. Cold cereal or lukewarm soup was hardly going to satisfy her, but that was all there was available. Hungry as she was becoming, she balked at having to choke down another bland, cold meal.
*I'll want to eat something, if I get hungry enough,* she mused. *Maybe I can distract myself until then. Hm...*
"Hey, Junpei," she said, "you wouldn't happen to have a portable CD player around here, would you?"
"Yeah, there's one around here somewhere. Why, do you want to use it?"
"If you don't mind."
"Sure, be my guest. I'll dig it up for you."
"Thanks! Hang on, and I'll be right back."
Izumi scampered upstairs, heading in the direction of her shopping bags. There should be some CDs in there that she hadn't heard yet; they would keep her occupied for a little while, at least. However, when she went digging through her bags, she found something else much more interesting. With a glad cry, she snatched it up and ran downstairs again.
"Hey, Junpei!" she caroled happily. "Look what I found - lunch!"
He looked up, and stared in surprise as she saw she was brandishing, of all things, a box of chocolates.
"Where did you get that?" he asked.
"A candy store," she answered playfully. "More recently, from my shopping bag upstairs. I was planning on saving it for an emergency, but this is an emergency."
"And you're going to share, right?"
She laughed. "Of course I'm going to share. I'm not that cruel."
"You're an angel," he said fervently. "A goddess of mercy."
"I'm just lucky I had the sense to hang on to my shopping bags," she said. "I almost dumped them, while I was out in the storm. Here, help me get this thing open. I swear, they seal these things up like they think chocolate's more valuable than gold."
"It is," he said.
They tore off the cellophane wrapping and sampled the box's contents. They tasted heavenly.
"Are you sure we're allowed to do this?" Junpei asked.
"Why not? Food is food," she assured him. "Desperate times call for desperate measures."
"If you say so. Here." He selected a candy from the box and proffered it. She reached for it, and he pulled it just out of her reach, grinning playfully. "Nuh-uh. You have to let me give it to you."
She hesitated for a moment, uncertain what he was talking about. Then she saw his game and gave a mental shrug. She obediently opened her mouth and let him feed it to her. Then she quickly moved to regain the upper hand by returning the favor, which seemed to flatter him. Well, what harm was in it? It was a silly game, but fun, in a strange way she couldn't quite pinpoint. She was too busy concentrating on this odd meal and even odder way of eating it that she was not paying attention as the radio continued to play. Junpei heard something on it, though, and he laughed.
"What's so funny?" asked Izumi.
"Oh, I just heard them talking on the news," he said. "They're talking about how bad this all is, how it's this big disaster. I'm sitting here thinking, I've got an absolutely gorgeous girl sitting on my sofa feeding me chocolates, and it's all because of a national disaster!"
She saw the funny side and laughed a little. "Well, they do say every cloud has a silver lining... and we've had a lot of clouds hanging around here lately."
"So that makes for lots of silver linings? Maybe so," he agreed.
"Hm," she said thoughtfully. Talking about the news and national disasters had reminded her that there was still a world outside this cozy place. It was easy to forget about it when the world was blanketed in snow, but she was starting to think that might not be so wise. "You know... I hope my parents never find out I'm doing this."
"What? Do you think they'll be angry about you being here?" asked Junpei uneasily. Izumi's parents were nice people, but he didn't want to get on their bad sides. He might want them to look favorably on him someday.
"I don't know... They're a bit old-fashioned when it comes to things like girls spending the night with boys. They seem to think I'll get into mischief if I'm not chaperoned or something. Wouldn't your parents be a little scandalized if they knew I was here living with you?"
"I don't think they'd really mind," he admitted. Coloring a little, he added, "They might approve. They've been dropping hints I ought to propose to you ever since I turned eighteen."
Izumi thought she knew what he meant. On those occasions when she'd gone to visit him, his family had always been very friendly towards her. She got the impression that they thought she was his girlfriend (perhaps not a difficult conclusion to draw, considering the way he talked about her). Her guess was that they had never quite figured out why such a pretty and vibrant young woman was drawn to their seemingly ordinary son, but they weren't eager to see him let such a good catch get away.
"Why didn't you?" she asked.
"Why didn't you propose? For all you knew, I might have said yes."
"You wouldn't have. You've been brushing me off since the day we met."
She laughed. "Junpei, when we met, I was eleven years old. I barely even knew what hormones were. Nobody had a chance with me, then."
"Oh," he said, assimilating that. Apparently it had never occurred to him that just because he had been interested in the opposite sex at the time, it didn't follow that she would be. "Well... actually, there was a time when I was going to propose... but then it turned out you were dating that other guy then - what's-his-name, the redhead with the flashy car. So I kind of lost my nerve."
"I remember him," she said vaguely. "Maybe you should have gone through with it, after all. Considering the way things fell out between us, I still might have said yes, just to spite him."
"I wouldn't have wanted that. You'd have regretted it later, and I'd catch all the trouble for it," said Junpei, bleakly realistic. "What happened, anyway?"
"He was fooled by my innocent facade into thinking I'd be a sweet little thing who'd hang on his arm and agree with him all the time," she said. "And I was fooled by his handsome facade into thinking he might have a personality to match."
"Geez, I'm sorry, Izumi," said Junpei sympathetically. "I didn't mean to stir up bad memories."
"It's okay. You didn't know. Anyway, he's long gone now."
"Anyway... you're seeing someone else now, right? I was sure I heard somewhere you had a new boyfriend," he said. "Ouch. Maybe you'd better be worrying about what he's going to think of all this."
"Oh, he won't find out. He's out of the country - part of a foreign exchange program," she said. She made a face. "I stopped hearing so much from him after he mentioned he'd made friends with a girl in France."
"Stupid," he said with feeling. "That's a rotten thing to do."
"You aren't kidding," she said, glad to have someone to vent to. "I mean, bad enough getting dumped, but couldn't he at least tell me to my face if he's found someone new? Or at least call me."
"It's a cowardly thing to do," he said, with a vehemence that he rarely exhibited. He was normally the gentlest of people, but when if his friends were being bothered even the least bit, he showed the side that reminded people that he had once been a Legendary Warrior who could easily blast anything that annoyed him into a hundred pieces. "Any guy who'd pull a stunt like that doesn't deserve a girl like you. I can't imagine ever doing a thing like that to anybody."
"I know," she agreed. She settled back on the sofa with a sigh; she hadn't realized how tense she was getting. "You know, back when we first met, you used to frustrate me so much."
"I did?" he said, as surprised by the information as by the seeming non-sequitur. Being frustrated, he was used to, but he'd never thought of himself as the one doing the frustrating.
"Well, look at it from my perspective... I don't mean to brag, but I do know I'm pretty."
"Beautiful," he agreed fervently.
"Like you said. Anyway, I was used to people noticing me. I was used to them pursuing me... even saying they were in love with me. So maybe I'd let my guard down, let them get to know me, and they'd find out there was more to me than just a pretty face, and they'd always back off. So I got used to the idea that I couldn't trust people who acted like that. Then you came along, acting just the same way, and I was just waiting and waiting for you to get the idea that I wasn't what you thought I was and go away. Imagine how frustrated I got when you never let up!"
"Never have, never will," he asserted. "You want to know why?"
"Well... Okay, I'll admit it: when I first met you, all I saw was a pretty girl. Then I got a chance to get to know you, and you know what I found out? I found out that not only were you pretty, you were brave and smart and loyal and nice... See, you weren't what I thought you were; you were a million times better, and the more I got to know you, the more wonderful you turned out to be. That's why you never have to worry about losing me. Not when the one thing I want most is to spend the rest of my life with you, so you can keep on surprising me."
She bowed her head, feeling completely floored and a little inadequate. "Junpei, I... I think that's got to be the sweetest thing anyone's ever said to me."
"Aw, well..." he said, blushing a bit. "Did it make you feel any better?"
"Yes," she said. "It makes me feel wonderful."
Inspiration seemed to strike him. He got up and began walking out of the room.
"Wait right there," he said. "I'm going to go get something."
She waited, puzzled and curious. After a few minutes had passed, Junpei returned with something in one of his hands, but it was so small that his hand engulfed it; she could really not make any guesses as to what it was.
"I forgot where I put it," he said. "Anyway... here. It's the ring."
"Ring?" she repeated, nonplussed.
"From the time I didn't propose to you. It isn't much - well, I couldn't afford much at eighteen - but I remembered you liked purple, so, well... why don't you open it?"
He handed her a tiny velvet box. Trying to keep her hands from shaking, she lifted the lid. Inside rested a silver ring set with deep purple amethysts, accented with chips of diamond so tiny they were nothing more than points of light.
"Que bella," she whispered. "It's beautiful! But Junpei..."
She started a feeble protest, but he held up a hand.
"It's yours. I bought it for you. Keep it - no strings attached," he told her. "It can remind you that there'll always be somebody there for you."
She slipped the ring onto her finger; it was a perfect fit. She looked up at Junpei again.
"Thank you," she said. "I'll treasure it."
Suddenly, she jumped up and flung her arms around him, hugging him fiercely.
"You really are... a wonderful person," she said shakily.
Then she took off, heading upstairs. She didn't care how cold it might be up there; let Junpei think she'd gone crazy. He let her go, for which she was thankful. Just now, she needed some space and privacy, because she was completely overwrought.
A few minutes later, she returned, tossing her hair and looking completely unconcerned. Junpei met her at the bottom of the staircase, looking worried.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "I've never seen you look like that before."
"Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I just got a little over-emotional. It's a girl thing," she added facetiously.
"Oh," he said, looking not entirely convinced. "Well, if you're sure you're okay... I didn't mean to upset you or anything..."
"I'm fine," she said. "Really."
She returned to her chair, pulled on the headphones of his CD player, and listened to her music, effectively blocking him out. He stared, wondering just what he'd managed to do wrong this time.
The next day dawned brilliantly - and damply. The sun was doing its work, busily melting snow and setting icicles to dripping. It even felt warmer inside the house, and the air outside had turned almost mild. The mood inside had improved somewhat, too. Izumi had almost managed to convince herself that she hadn't been rattled the day before, and her normally optimistic nature was reasserting itself. As for Junpei, he was being particularly attentive and agreeable, eager not to cause another scene. He stood just behind her, peering over her shoulder as she looked out on the snow-covered landscape.
"It won't be long now, will it?" she asked.
"I guess it won't," he agreed. "Not long until what?"
"Until the snow melts," Izumi said. "Until I go home again."
"Oh," Junpei replied. "I guess it won't." By his tone, she guessed that he didn't know whether she expected him to be glad or sorry about this.
"I have to admit, I'll be sorry to leave," she said. "Weird as it's been, I've enjoyed myself here. I'll have to come back more often. Though I can't say all of this has been fun..."
"It would have been nice to be a little warmer," Junpei agreed, "and to not have to live on peanut butter sandwiches. Not that we're going to be doing that anymore, either." They had used up the last of the sandwich bread over lunch. It was anyone's guess what they would wind up having for dinner. He stared thoughtfully out at the dripping icicles. "You know, if we didn't mind taking our time about it, we could probably make it as far as the end of the block."
Izumi turned to look at him. "Is there some special reason we would want to do that, or was that just an observation?"
"Well, my neighbors down there, they run a little corner grocery. It's probably not exactly open right now, with the snow and all, but they know me. They'd probably sell us something, if we could make it down there."
"Hm," she said, mulling the idea over. The idea of going out into the snow was hardly thrilling, but the prospect of a change of scenery and the chance to see some new faces were tempting, as was the prospect of fresh food. While she was thinking, something new occurred to her.
"Hey, Junpei," she said, "do you hear that?"
"Be very quiet, and listen."
They both became still. Now that they were paying attention, it was possible to hear a faint hum.
"The heater is running," he said.
"The electricity's back on!" she exclaimed.
There was a spontaneous victory celebration, as both of them began exclaiming in delight. Junpei actually picked her up and spun her in the air, making her squeak in surprise.
"This does calls for a celebration," she said, when she was safely on the ground again. "Let's see if we can make it to the store, and we'll see if we can find something suitable for a party."
"I'm all for that," he said. "Just let me find my coat."
A few minutes later, the two of them were suitably attired for a trek through the snow and were setting out through the front door. Izumi blinked as the strong sunlight struck her sensitive eyes; she concluded she had been trapped indoors for far too long. It felt good to be out in the sun and wind again. The air was surprisingly mild, not what she would have expected just from looking through the window. This kind of weather was atypical, and had to fade out quickly once the freak conditions that had bred it were gone. In a few days, all this snow would have melted away, leaving nothing but a few puddles to show where it had been.
In the meantime, though, it was still a force to reckon with. Fortunately, so was Junpei. The snow was piled up more than waist-high, higher in some places, but it was still no match for his determination. He pushed and dug and shoved and stomped, and a path was slowly cleared through the drifts. All Izumi had to do was follow along in his wake. It was slow going, and he was panting slightly by the time they had reached the end of the block. A few last kicks and shoves cleared the way to a previously almost invisible door in the wall. Junpei tried its handle and found the door unlocked. The pair went in, and their arrival triggered a bell over their heads.
"Hello!" Junpei called. "Is anybody home?"
There was a stir somewhere above their heads. Seconds later, a woman came down the stairs, followed by a small child. The woman looked friendly, still on the young side of middle age, with a round, kind face and laugh lines around her eyes. The child was a pigtailed, rosy cheeked little girl, no older than five or six. She caught sight of her visitors and gave a squeal of delight.
"Hi, Mister Junpei!" she called happily. "Did you come to visit me?"
He grinned. "I sure did, Emi. I came all this way especially to see you. How do you like all this snow, huh?"
"Mama won't let me go out and play in it," said the little girl with a pout.
"It's very good to see you, Mr. Shibayama," said the woman pleasantly. "The storm doesn't seem to have caused you too much trouble. Who is your lovely companion?"
"Oh, this is Izumi," answered Junpei, apparently pleased by the compliment to his beloved. "She's... a very special friend of mine. She was visiting when the storm hit, and got stuck here."
"Ah," said the woman.
She glanced at Izumi, discreetly sizing her up and reading between the lines of Junpei's glib speech. Then she caught sight of the ring Izumi was wearing and relaxed. Izumi guessed the woman had assumed it was an engagement ring, which seemed to make everything all right.
"Well, any friend of yours is a friend of ours," the woman said. "I hope you'll both stay a while, now that you're here. Poor Emi misses her friends from school, and she's been restless."
"No problem, Mrs. Yoshida," answered Junpei. He didn't seem to mind being abruptly recruited as a baby-sitter; from his attitude, it had happened before. "We did intend to pick up some groceries while we were here, though..."
"Of course," said Mrs. Yoshida. "For a good friend like you, I'll give you a discount - since this is a special situation."
"Great. Thank's Mrs. Yoshida," said Junpei. "Hey, Izumi, tell you what - why don't you pick out what you want, and I'll pay for it? I'm going to visit with Emi for a bit."
"Fine with me," she answered.
She began walking down the aisles, trying to decide what ought to be brought home for dinner. She was smart enough to know they couldn't carry but so much back home again through the narrow tunnel they'd cut through the snow. Fortunately, living on a college student's budget had taught her to make the most of what she had, especially when she had a choice in her resources. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Junpei playing with Emi, making origami butterflies and doing tricks to amuse her. Clearly he had not exaggerated when he'd said he liked children; both he and his young friend appeared to be having a wonderful time. Izumi was normally a person who made quick decisions, but she found herself taking some extra time in making up her mind.
At last, carrying a double armload of shopping bags apiece and listening to Emi and Mrs. Yoshida's invitations to come back soon, the pair set off through the snow. The sun was already creeping toward the western horizon, hurrying as it always did in the winter months, by the time they reached home again. Junpei wrestled the door open (a good trick, with his hands full of shopping bags) and dumped his burdens on the kitchen table. Izumi followed at a leisurely pace, savoring the comfort of the house. While they had been gone, the heater had done its work, and it was delightfully warm.
"Now what's going to happen?" Junpei asked.
Izumi began opening the shopping bags and picking out the things she needed. "You are going to stand back," she said with a declamatory flourish, "while I proceed to dazzle you with my culinary skills."
"What are you going to do that for?" he asked. "It's not like you really need to."
"It's fun," she said. "I'll call you when I'm ready."
Junpei went without argument. Izumi was pleased. There were few things that irked her more than guys who hung around trying to prove they knew how to do whatever she was doing better than she did. She needed free reign to work effectively.
For the next few minutes, she stayed pleasantly occupied with her culinary endeavors. She had never considered herself the housewifely type, in terms of staying contentedly home cooking and cleaning while her husband went out and worked, but she did like to cook. It gave her a pleasant sense of accomplishment that she couldn't get from folding clothes or vacuuming carpets. It was a sensual experience involving the manipulation of things that looked and smelled and tasted good... and then when you were done with what you were making, you could eat it. Good food tended to relax people and put them in a good mood; after all, it was hard to find anyone who didn't enjoy a good meal. In that sense, Junpei had a lot more sense than people gave him credit for.
*This might be our last chance to have dinner together like this, at least for a while,* she thought. If the weather stayed as pleasant as it had been today, there was no chance of the snow lasting much longer. *This is just about the end of this little adventure. I ought to try to make this really special.*
She set a pan in the oven and left it to cook for a while. Once it was done, everything would be ready, but she had a few minutes to kill until then. What to do? Her thoughts went to her new dress, still folded carefully in its bag. It wasn't exactly winter wear, but it was warm enough inside now that she could wear it in comfort. And after all, this was a party, so she might as well dress the part. She didn't think Junpei had ever actually seen her in anything other than casual dress, and she was in the mood to be generous. She'd give him a treat.
"Dinner's almost ready," she called to him. "Would you mind setting the table? I'm going to go upstairs and freshen up a bit."
"Sure, no problem," he said.
"Great! I'll be down in a minute!"
She darted up the stairs. More than the promised minute elapsed, and still she did not appear. He fidgeted, wondering what exactly she was doing up there that was taking so long. At last, he heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and he looked up in time to see her coming through the door. He stared.
Izumi was now garbed in a green dress of some shimmery, satiny material, something so sleek and smooth it fairly begged to be touched. Tiny glass beads were worked into it, catching the light and glinting like tiny stars. The skirt was short enough to show off slender calves and shapely knees; the upper half was nicely calculated to show just how well she'd matured in the last few years. She had pinned her hair up in a graceful knot, with a pair of curls framing her face. The color of the dress brought out her eyes, making them seem deep and mysterious. Junpei took a few mechanical steps toward her, stopped, closed his eyes and swallowed hard, somehow managing to get a grip on himself.
"What do you think?" she asked, twirling playfully in place. The twirl made her skirt rise an inch or two, and he stared harder than ever. He shook himself again.
"You look... nice," he managed weakly. Sensing that was hardly adequate, he added, "Really, really, really nice."
She giggled. "Thanks. I thought you'd like it. It really isn't seasonal right now, but I found it at the mall, and it fit so well, I just had to get it."
"Yeah," he said. Obviously he thought it fit her well enough.
"Anyway, dinner should be ready now. Shall we go?"
"Uh... yeah," he said again. "Um... Izumi, one thing?"
"Warn me next time you do that."
She laughed. "That wouldn't have been any fun. Come on."
Izumi set out the dishes with a feeling of smug satisfaction. By all indications, this dinner should be a grand success. Everything she'd prepared seemed to have come out perfectly, and she had to admit, Junpei's reaction to her new clothes had been gratifying. It was nice to feel she could be irresistibly attractive to somebody. Certainly, for the first few minutes of the meal, he couldn't seem to take her eyes off of her, and he kept missing his plate with his chopsticks.
Gradually, though, she began to get the sense that something was wrong. She became aware that she was the one doing most of the talking, while he answered quietly, politely, and without animation. He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time staring off into space - not at her, which she would have understood - but at some indefinable point halfway to the wall. He was also picking at his food, which struck her as wrong. She knew he had been working hard that day, and knew very well that he hadn't had a decent meal in days, and she knew the food was good because she was eating it herself. With all those conditions holding, he should have been enjoying himself. She felt a stab of concern.
"Are you all right?" she asked him.
"Oh, um... I'm fine," he said.
"No, you're not. You've never been a good liar. I can tell something's bothering you."
"Well, it's kind of hard to explain," he said.
"Tell me anyway," she said. "I don't like seeing you unhappy. If there's anything at all I can do..."
"Well, I don't know, but... Are you done eating?"
"Yeah, I guess so," she said.
"Then let's sit down somewhere we can talk a little better."
She didn't see why they couldn't talk over the kitchen table, but he didn't seem to be comfortable talking at all, so she decided not to make an issue of it. She got up and followed mutely behind him. He sat down heavily on the sofa, as if he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. She sat down carefully next to him, waiting for him to speak, but he didn't even look at her.
"It'll be okay," she said, trying to sound soothing. "Just go ahead and say it."
"I dunno," he said. "I guess I've just been kidding myself."
"What do you mean?"
"Well... It's just... having you here, it's been almost like a dream. Suddenly you're right here, and I can see you and talk to you whenever I want to. Falling asleep with you in my arms and seeing you first thing when I woke up... It made me really happy, being able to spend all the time I wanted with you. It was almost like..." He colored a little. "Almost like what I imagined it would be like being married to you. I didn't ever want it to end... so maybe I let myself pretend a little. I didn't want to think too much about what it would be like when you were gone, so I just tried to pretend things would stay this way forever. But... now it's coming to an end, and I don't really want to face it..."
"You make it sound like we're never going to see each other again," she said.
"We're never going to be like this again," he replied. "Even if you come back and visit me here, it won't be the same. For a couple of days, life was almost perfect..." He hung his head. "It's not enough."
"I'm really sorry," she said. "I am. I hate to see you hurting, but I don't know what I can do."
"Would you do something for me, if I asked?"
"What kind of something?"
"Would you kiss me?"
"Huh?" she said, surprised.
"I want you to kiss me," he repeated. "Even if it's just because I'm your friend and you want me to be happy, or even if you just feel sorry for me. I just want you to do it of your own free will... I can pretend it means something, at least. I don't know. Maybe I just want to kid myself a little while longer."
She was quiet a moment. "You've really got it bad, don't you?"
"More than you can possibly imagine."
"In that case, I think I will kiss you."
That was all he could manage to say, and then her lips were against his. She held them there a moment, feeling him tense a moment in shock, then slowly relax and begin to respond. Then they broke away, breathless and stunned.
"Wow," she whispered.
He took a shuddery breath. "Man, I've been waiting a long time for that."
"Something tells me," she answered, "you're not going to wait that long for the next."
They kissed again, and this time, they didn't let go, but clung tightly to each other as if they'd never let go, and the feeling she'd been fighting off since the day she'd arrived on his doorstep suddenly bloomed full force, and it was wonderful. She was so glad she had his warm, solid presence to cling to, because she was shaking, and her world was spinning. The monitor-voice in the back of her mind, the one that kept trying to make her back off and stay safe, was telling her she should not be doing this, that she had to pull away before it was too late, but... she couldn't... couldn't quite...
...She felt so warm...
Suffice to say, the dishes didn't get cleaned up that night. They were dealt with the next morning, by a pair of young people who were in considerably better spirits than they had been when they'd left the dinner table. They were both in a rather giddy mood, talking animatedly, laughing and joking... and then turning silent to watch each other shyly. From time to time, he'd reach out to touch her or stroke her hair, as if he couldn't quite believe she was really there.
Now, though, all the dishes were put away (a lot of the food that had been sitting out all night had to be thrown away) and Junpei, still brimming with unfocused ambition, had decided to try to shovel the walk. He didn't actually have a snow shovel, but he wasn't about to let that stop him. He'd taken a large pan from the kitchen cabinets and decided to tackle the snow with that.
Izumi sat by the window and watched him work. Now that the power was back, they had taken down the heavy blanket-curtains, letting the sun shine through and giving her a good view of everything that was going on outside. She could see him digging away. He was wearing a heavy winter coat that didn't do much to flatter his physique, and he was sweating slightly from the exertion of digging. He turned to get better leverage, and his foot found a patch of ice, sending him toppling backwards into a snowbank. Izumi giggled as he wrestled his way to his feet, making impromptu snow angels where he'd fallen.
*Not exactly the kind of guy a girl fantasizes about,* she mused.
A few neighborhood children had been turned loose by their parents to play. They, too, were giggling over his fall. A few scooped up snowballs and tossed them at him. He grinned at them and began shoveling together handfuls of snow to toss back at them. The children squealed and dodged - pointlessly, as the missiles were thrown several feet off target - and scrambled to retaliate. Within seconds, he had completely forgotten about shoveling snow, unless it was to make snowballs. Soon he was covered from head to toe in white powder where the children had scored.
*No, not the kind a girl dreams about,* Izumi thought, *but definitely the kind she could love.*
Love? When had that happened? He had always been nothing more than a friend... admittedly a good friend, the one she could always come to when life was getting her away. He had a way of lifting her spirits and making her laugh. In his presence, she felt comfortable and accepted, valued and special and beautiful. His accommodating nature was well suited to her own more headstrong ways. And after last night, she couldn't deny even to herself that she felt an attraction to him. Objectively, she could still see he was hardly the most handsome man in the world... but she wasn't in a position to be objective anymore. The attraction stemmed from a genuine liking and respect.
*And what's the difference between that and love?*
Looking back at her actions over the last few days, she had to admit that she hadn't been acting like someone who was "just a friend". She was pulled to the inevitable conclusion that she obviously liked him more than she thought - and probably had for longer than she wanted to admit. Just when had she fallen for him? Just this week? Last month? A year ago? More than that? She couldn't say. It had built up slowly, without her noticing, until it was too late to turn back. Like it or not, she was stuck with him... and she realized that now that she was here, she wouldn't have it any other way.
*I guess Junpei's not the only one who knows how to fool himself,* she decided.
The front door opened, and Izumi looked up to see Junpei returning, covered in snow. Unaware that anything out of the ordinary was preparing to happen, he started trying to undo the zipper on his coat, but was interrupted when Izumi swooped down and flung her arms around him. She got snow all down her front and didn't care in the least. She met his startled look with her most impish expression.
"What would you say," she asked, "if I told you I was desperately in love with you?"
"I think I'd faint," he said.
"Well, then, maybe I won't say it," she answered playfully.
"Say it anyway!"
"All right, then." She took a deep breath. "I've been sitting here thinking about... well, a lot of things, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I really am in love with you. And I thought it was important enough that you ought to know."
He stared as if he wasn't quite sure what to make of her. "You're kidding me. You're pulling my leg again."
"No. Listen. It sounds kind of weird to me, too, but I really think I've got it right this time. There is more between us than just friendship, and I think it's about time I started dealing with it. So now I am."
"Say that again, to make sure I'm hearing this right. Are you really saying...?"
"That I love you? Yes. That's what I said."
He shook his head wonderingly. "I don't believe it. Say it again."
"All right, all right: I love you. There, happy?"
Izumi laughed. "You're greedy."
"You're right, I am," he agreed. He put his arms around her and held her close. "I just hardly believe this is happening... I always wanted... but now I don't really know what to do..."
"Well, in situations like this," she prompted, "it's sort of customary to kiss the girl."
He complied, and she nearly purred in contentment. She loved it when she was right.
A blissful afternoon was interrupted by a distant noise. Izumi turned towards it, trying to identify it. Something about her gave her a sinking sensation.
"Do you hear that?" she asked.
"Huh?" said Junpei dazedly. His attention had been occupied elsewhere, and it would take more than a distant and unidentified noise to distract him.
"There's a sound coming from over there," Izumi insisted, waving vaguely. "Listen and tell me if it sounds like what I think it is."
They both listened. The sound was drawing slowly nearer, a cross between a drawn-out scrape and a humming moan. Even as they were watching, a large machine rolled slowly up the street, throwing up plumes of snow and leaving a cleared road in its wake. Junpei and Izumi stared.
"Darnit," Junpei muttered.
"Don't use language like that," said Izumi. "It's not strong enough."
"Please tell me this doesn't mean what I think it means."
Izumi sighed deeply. "I'm afraid so. I don't have any more excuse to stay... and my parents will be waiting for me... and I have to get home in time to pack and get ready for school."
"You can't even stay just a little while longer?" he asked, his eyes pleading.
"If I did that, I'd wind up staying longer than I can afford," she said. "It's not that I want to leave, but..."
"You have to," he finished. He sighed. "I knew it was too good to last."
She didn't have an answer for that. Like it or not, the adventure was over. She set about gathering up her things, her treacherous hands and feet carrying her through the chore far faster than she would have liked. If only she could stay just a little while longer... but all too soon, she found herself standing on his doorstep holding all her bags. She turned back to face Junpei.
"Well," she said slowly, "I guess this is goodbye... for a while, anyway."
"I'm going to miss you," he said. "Come back as soon as you can. I don't know how I'm going to manage once you're gone."
She managed a half-smile. "You got by all right before I showed up here."
"I didn't know what I was missing."
"That's true... Neither did I. Well, I'll try to come back soon, then. Even if I have to skip classes, I'll manage something."
They shared one last kiss, holding it as long as they could: it would have to last them a while. Then, regretfully, she shouldered her bags and trudged out into the newly cleared road.
Izumi walked slowly, thinking about this and that. She felt a nagging sense of being cheated. Junpei was lucky, in his way. In allowing himself to feel wholly and completely, he'd been able to enjoy his time with her to the fullest. She'd tried to bury her emotions, and the result had been that she'd missed out on a lot that could have been good.
*Why didn't I see it before? Why didn't I know what I was missing?*
Well, maybe it was just habit. He had wanted a relationship before she was ready, so she'd gotten used to keeping him at arm's length, long after the need was gone. And then, too, she had rather wanted to try dating a few different people, instead of just going for the first one that was available. But then again... Somehow, she'd always known that Junpei wasn't the kind to fall in love casually. Some people could do that - they could have one night stands and weekend flings and come out with their hearts whole. Some people could fall in love and get their hearts broken, but recover and love again. But Junpei was one of those rare individuals who gambled the entire contents of their heart on one person; for him, it was win all or lose all. Maybe, deep down, she had doubted her ability to reciprocate something like that. She wasn't quite sure she was ready to love someone completely and forever.
*But I would have been perfectly happy if the snow had never melted. Isn't that the same thing, really?*
She sighed and shifted her grip on her bags, and as she did so, the sunlight caught the gems on her ring, making them glitter. She stopped in mid-step, thinking. Slowly, she turned around and looked back. Behind her, she could see Junpei watching her from an upstairs window. She smiled, and decided it was time to finish something that should have been done a long time ago.
"Hey, Junpei!" she shouted.
The window slid open, and he put his head out into the cold air. "What?"
"Do you know why we're not married?"
"Because you never got around to proposing to me, you twit!"
He stared a moment, but he was too far away for her to make out his expression. A second later, he pulled his head back into the house and slammed the window shut. Izumi waited patiently, fingers crossed.
Then the front door of the house burst open, and Junpei came dashing out, forgetting to shut the door, leaving his coat and hat forgotten. He skidded on the slick ground, found his balance, ran up the street as fast as his feet could carry him. Just before he reached her, his foot found a patch of ice, and he fell facedown at her feet. He pushed himself up. There was snow clinging to his clothes and hair and eyelashes. He looked up and let his eyes meet hers.
"Izumi," he panted, "I know the snow melted and all, but... will you stay forever anyway? Will you marry me?"
"I was hoping you'd ask me that," she answered. "Of course I'll marry you, Junpei."
"You... you will? Really?"
He was on his feet in an instant, pulling her close, holding her as if he never intend to let go. She felt dampness touch her cheek and realized he was crying. Suddenly her eyes didn't feel completely dry either.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"Don't thank me," she told him. "I think I'll enjoy it."
"You will! I promise, I'll do everything I can to make you happy. You'll see!"
"You're making a pretty good start already," she told him.
They kissed again - and then she suddenly pulled away, prancing a few paces up the street.
"Come on!" she told him.
He stayed where he was, looking confused. "Come where?"
"We've got to go tell my parents," she told him. "And your parents, and the rest of the guys... and anybody else we run into! Good news is supposed to be shared, right?"
"Right," he agreed, smiling.
She took his hand, and he followed, laughing for joy as the two of them carved a new path through the fallen snow.