The scene was a familiar one to Izumi: crowds of chattering students, gathered in sociable knots in their favorite locations, socializing and making plans. It was always this way after school, making it one of Izumi's favorite times of day. She and her friends could socialize while they were actually in class - or at least, between classes - but it was much more relaxing to have a conversation without a teacher hovering over them. Right now, she was with her friends Himeko and Miki in their usual spot next to the playground swings.
"So, does anyone have plans for today?" asked Miki.
"Not really," said Himeko. "I wish I did. My mother said she was going to be cleaning the house today, and I need an excuse to get out of her way."
"I thought I might go to the bookstore and see if the new manga I wanted is there yet," said Izumi. "Other than that, I'm open to suggestions. Why? Have you got something in mind?"
"Yes!" Himeko exclaimed. "I just heard from one of the girls in Class B, and she said there's a fortune teller who opened up a shop a couple of blocks from the mall."
"A fortune teller?" Izumi repeated dubiously.
"She's supposed to be really good," said Himeko. "That girl Raku went to see her, and she predicted she would fail a class, and she did!"
"Really?" asked Miki curiously.
"Well, actually, she said she would encounter trouble from a foreign country... but see, it was her World Geography class that she flunked! See? It was trouble from a foreign country - a whole lot of them!"
"Raku flunked because Raku chases guys all the time instead of studying," said Izumi.
"But how could the fortune teller know that?" Himeko persisted.
"You can just look at Raku and tell boys are all she thinks about," answered Izumi. "It was a coincidence. Those kinds of people specialize in making predictions so open-ended, there's almost no way they couldn't happen. I don't believe in all that fortune telling stuff... except in certain circumstances," she added, remembering her encounter with Shamamon. "But most of them are just clever fakes."
"That's all the more reason to go," said Himeko stubbornly. She never backed down from any idea she thought was good - one of the reasons Izumi liked her, but it could get tiresome at times. "You can go and get your fortune told. If it doesn't come true, we'll believe it was all just guesses."
Izumi thought about it. "Okay. I've got nothing better to do, anyway. Besides, it might be fun! It'll be different, anyway."
"Great!" said Miki, eternally excitable. "I want to get my fortune told! I hope she'll tell me how I can get a boyfriend!"
"Not you, too!" said Izumi with a theatrical groan. "All right, let's get this over with! But if I'm right and my prediction doesn't come true, I'll get you to pay for that new manga!"
"Deal!" said Himeko.
"Um," said Miki; she didn't look like she put quite as much faith in the fortune teller as all that.
"But if it does come true, Izumi can take us both out for ice cream!" Himeko concluded.
"Deal," said Izumi. "Now, let's get moving, or I predict my mom will ground me for being out late!"
"Right this way!" said Himeko. She set out at a dead run, forcing her friends to scramble to catch up with her.
*Well, this is going to be different,* thought Izumi. *I wonder what I should ask about? Let's see, asking for the lottery numbers wouldn't be fair - there's no way she could ever get that right. I suppose I could always ask about school, but that would be kind of boring. There's got to be more going on in my life than that. I'd like to know if I'll ever get to go back to the Digital World... but I don't know how to ask about that without giving it all away, and I'd never be able to tell Himeko and Miki if it came true or not...*
She was so wrapped up in thinking about what she would ask that she almost ran into Miki, who had suddenly stopped. Looking up, Izumi realized they had found the fortune-teller's shop. It was closer to the school than she had thought it would be, tucked into the corner of a building, where there had once been a rather unsuccessful tea parlor. Now the windows were hung with thick purple curtains, and a discreet sign hung over the door: "Lady Pristina - Fortunes Told."
The girls slipped through the door, triggering a chime, something shimmery that reminded Izumi of falling water. The inside of the shop was dim, lit by a few discreet lamps on the walls and a scattering of candles. There was a small table with a purple tablecloth thrown over it, upon which rested a crystal ball on a stand and a deck of cards. Several chairs were pulled up to it, but all were empty. At the far end of the room was a doorway, partly covered by a hanging screen of glass beads, their color impossible to tell in the dim light. A scent of flowers hung in the air, something sweet and cleansing.
"Hello?" called Himeko, sounding a bit nervous. It appeared she might be having second thoughts. "Is anyone here?"
"Coming!" called a voice.
A moment later, a woman passed through the screen of beads. Izumi blinked. If this was the famous Lady Pristina, she hardly looked the part. She was dressed in perfectly ordinary casual clothes - a long skirt and the kind of full-sleeved peasant blouse that had come into fashion recently. Izumi wouldn't have been ashamed to go to school wearing the outfit. Of course, the whole of it was brilliant purple, the same shade as the tablecloth, but the color suited her well. She wasn't old, either - no more than thirty, if that. The only things about her that made her look anything like a fortune teller was her flowing dark hair, held loosely in place by a hair clip shaped like a flower, her long dangling earrings, and a pair of dark, intelligent eyes, much enhanced by makeup. She gave the girls a pleasant smile.
"Welcome," she said. "So, another group of intrepid adventurers come to ask Lady Pristina for their fortunes. Well, sit down, make yourselves comfortable, and I'll see what I can do for you."
Rather taken aback by this entirely un-mystical manner, the girls sat down around the table and waited for Lady Pristina to seat herself. She came to rest with a graceful swish of skirts and hair and a clicking of beaded earrings.
"Can you really tell us the future?" asked Miki, peering at the crystal ball and looking impressed.
Lady Pristina laughed. "I can try, anyway. The future is a tricky thing. It's a bit like looking at the signs on the side of the road. They'll tell you what's coming up, but they won't tell you a thing about what the world will be like when you get there. All I can do for you is read the signs."
It sounded like typical mumbo-jumbo to Izumi, no matter how factually it was stated, but she kept her mouth shut. Her two friends were looking rather impressed by this statement.
"So," the celebrated lady went on, "which of you wants to go first?"
"I do!" said Himeko. "Lady Pristina, can you tell me whether or not I'm going to get into the high school I want?"
"Well, let's have a look," Lady Pristina replied. She leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes and assuming a contemplative expression. "Yes... I sense a great amount of energy radiating from you... a great deal of determination and drive. You've never let anyone dictate your life for you; there's no reason they should start just because you're going to a new school. Set your mind firmly on one choice and strive for it, and you are certain to succeed."
"Thank you," said Himeko, sounding pleased and a bit relieved.
*That's really just general advice,* Izumi thought. *She didn't even promise she'd get in, only that she'd do well if she tried hard enough...*
"What about me?" asked Miki.
"Well, what about you?" the fortune teller answered teasingly. "Is there something in particular you'd like to know, or just a general reading?"
"Oh, um... just... tell me whatever looks important," answered Miki.
"Very well then... I sense that you are an accommodating soul. You like for everyone around you to be happy, so you find yourself doing things just to please them, regardless of what you really want to do. I would suggest standing up for yourself more, or you'll be liable to find yourself in a situation you can't get out of. Still, your kind nature has its admirers, and soon you'll learn the true feelings of someone who cares deeply for you."
Miki gave a little squeak of happiness. Izumi continued to sit silently.
*Anybody could have guessed from the way she acts that Miki gets shy around people... I was right - this really is all guesswork.*
"And what about you?" asked Lady Pristina. Izumi suddenly found herself looking into the fortune teller's dark eyes. "You've been awfully quiet. Don't you have any questions you want answered?"
Izumi hesitated. Now that the lady was actually focused on her, she felt suddenly unable to think straight. Her gaze was remarkably penetrating, making her feel as if she had a bright spotlight shining on her, even in this dark room. She realized she had abruptly forgotten what it was she had wanted to ask. She cast desperately for something halfway intelligent to say.
"Can - can you tell me... tell me who I'm going to fall in love with?" she blurted.
Lady Pristina smiled. "Yes, I do get a lot of questions like that. I'm getting to be rather good at answering them. Hmm..."
"Izumi doesn't believe in fortune-telling," Himeko piped up. "She thinks it's all guessing and coincidences and stuff, so you'd better make it good."
Izumi shot Himeko a glare. The fortune teller only seemed amused.
"A challenge, hm?" she said mildly. "Well, I'll have to get serious, won't I? Very well... A moment, while I gaze into the crystal ball..."
Lady Pristina leaned forward and cupped her hands around the crystal, gazing intently at it. For a moment, it was very quiet in the room. Miki began to fidget. Himeko yawned. At last, the lady began to speak.
"You're in luck," she said. "You are destined to find love very soon... You will meet him this very week, beneath an oak tree at sunset. He will be... an older man... rather mysterious... He'll sweep you right off your feet. And if you need a further sign, it is this: you will know the love of your life by whether or not he brings you a bouquet of red roses. You will have this sign in the next three days." She sat back and took a deep breath. "Well. I think I did rather well with that. Was I specific enough for you?"
"That was fine," answered Izumi mechanically.
"Lovely," Lady Pristina said. "Then, if you would be so kind, you might show your appreciation by leaving a little contribution in the urn by the door."
The girls said goodbye and left the room. As she passed, Izumi peered into the urn. It was well filled with bills; business seemed to be going well. With a shrug, she tossed a 500-yen coin into the collection as she passed.
"Well, that was kind of weird," said Himeko. "All that stuff about an oak tree and red roses... Even I'm starting to wonder if she might be a fake, now."
"Well, we won't have to wait very long to find out, now, will we?" said Izumi. "If somebody doesn't give me a bouquet of roses in three days, we know she was wrong."
"I hope she's not," Miki said wistfully. "I want to find out who likes me!"
"And I want to get into a good high school," said Himeko.
"You will," said Izumi. "Look, I don't believe the future's set in stone. I think you can have any kind of future you want, as long as you're willing to work for it."
"If you say so," said Miki dubiously, "but you know I'm not very popular with the boys. They like a girl who knows how to flirt and act cute, not one who gets tongue-tied and runs off every time she sees a cute guy. I'd feel a whole lot better if I thought there was one out there somewhere who liked me."
Izumi slung a friendly arm over her shoulder. "Hey, don't worry. At least Pristina's advice was good. Just have a little faith in yourself, and things will come out fine. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm going to go to the bookstore and see about that manga. Anybody else want to come?"
Her friends agreed to tag along, so they started making their way up the sidewalk to the comic book store. Izumi was pleased to find the manga she had wanted was in, and she carried it up to the checkout. Her friends browsed the stacks, flipping through their favorite stories and comparing discoveries. While they were thus entertained, the door of the store swung open wide, and Takuya burst in. He scanned the store, spotted Izumi, and rushed over to her.
"There you are!" he said. "Your mom said you might be here. I've been looking all over for you!"
"Why? What's the hurry?" she asked. "Nothing's wrong, is it?"
"Nah," Takuya assured her. "It's just that Kouji and Kouichi wanted to talk to everyone, and I've been trying to get them all rounded up. It's work!"
"Well, I'll come join you guys as soon as I finish paying for this," she said, brandishing her comic book. "The people here might not like it much if I took off without paying."
"Oh, okay," said Takuya. "Well, when you're ready, we'll be waiting. We're meeting in the park under the big oak tree."
"All right! See you there!" said Izumi.
Takuya nodded his understanding and went charging out again. Izumi's friends, who had been acting as interested spectators, watched him go with looks of surprise and delight. Izumi glared at them, silently demanding to be let in on the secret.
"Did you hear that?" asked Miki. "He said you were going to meet under the oak tree!"
"So?" Izumi demanded. "I'm just going to go hang out with the guys."
"Under an oak tree!" Himeko repeated excitedly. "Lady Pristina said you'd meet the one you were destined to love under an oak tree! Hey, maybe that guy is the one!"
"Not possible," said Izumi. "Lady Pristina said it would be an older man. Takuya's a few weeks younger than me."
"Well, you're still going to meet some other guys, aren't you?" Miki persisted. "Maybe one of them is the one."
"I've met all them before," said Izumi. "They're my friends, after all."
"Hey, nobody said you would meet him for the first time," said Himeko. "She just said you were going to meet him."
"Well, all my friends are the same age as me," said Izumi stubbornly, "except Tomoki, and he's younger, so it still doesn't count."
"Are you going to pay for that?" asked the man at the cash register.
"Oh!" said Izumi, realizing she was now the only one left in line. "Sure."
She pulled some money out of her purse, paid for her book, and went scooting off to catch up to her friends.
"Tell us how the meeting goes!" Himeko called.
Izumi didn't comment; she was too busy running. The park Takuya was talking about was a fair distance from where she was now, and she knew her friends would be getting impatient by the time she got there. While she ran, she mused over the odd turn that her day had taken. All the nonsense about meeting a mysterious older man... that sounded like something straight out of her manga, not the kind of thing that happened in real life. Still, it was an odd coincidence about the oak tree...
*So maybe someone will show up unexpectedly,* she thought. *Maybe that's why we're all getting together. Maybe Kouji and Kouichi want us to meet someone - a friend or a relative from out of town, maybe. Maybe I am about to meet my true love...* Then she laughed at herself, as much as she could while jogging at top speed. *I can't believe I asked such a stupid question! Of all the things I could ask... I'm not even the kind who worries about boys. I should have asked for my lucky number or something; at least then my friends wouldn't be teasing me.*
She reached the park and hurried town the trail to the oak tree. In the distance, she could see the rest of her friends. There didn't appear to be any strangers there, mysterious or otherwise. She slowed to a trot as she drew nearer to the rest of the group.
"You finally made it!" said Junpei. "I was starting to wonder."
"I didn't get lost," she told him. "I was just on the other side of town."
"You're telling me!" Takuya said. "Lucky thing I'm the buff athletic type I am, or I'd be wiped out from all that running around."
"Is that so?" said Kouji. "I suppose that's why you fell on the ground when you got here, and begged us to put you out of your misery."
A few people giggled. Watching Kouji and Takuya try to put each other in their places was a spectator sport they never got tired of.
"So, what's all this about?" asked Izumi. "All I heard was that you and Kouichi had something you wanted to talk about."
"Yeah," said Kouichi. "See... our mother's birthday is coming up this week, and we wanted to surprise her a bit."
"A lot, actually," said Kouji with a bit of a smile. "You're all invited, of course."
"Sounds good," said Takuya. "What's the catch?"
"The catch is that we could use some extra pairs of hands setting up," said Kouichi. "So we thought we'd ask you all to lend a hand for a worthy cause."
"Sounds like fun!" said Tomoki.
"Worthy causes are what we do best," said Junpei.
"I'm in," said Takuya. "Can't let you two mess it up, right?"
"Sure, I'll help," said Izumi."
"Great," said Kouichi. "Thanks a lot, you guys."
"This means a lot to us," Kouji added. "Anyway, the party is going to be on Saturday night. Does that work for everyone?"
No one had any objections. The twins nodded.
"All right, then. We'll get together tomorrow afternoon to start getting some supplies together."
"I won't be able to make it tomorrow," said Izumi. "I've got a club meeting."
"I can't come, either," Junpei added. "My class is going on a field trip. I won't be home until late."
Kouji looked disgruntled; Kouichi just shrugged philosophically.
"There's always something," he said. "Tell you what, then - if you two can't help with the supplies, you can take care of refreshments. You are our resident gourmets, right?"
"Something like that," said Izumi. "But I don't mind making some cookies or something. Is that what you mean?"
"Sounds fine," Kouji replied.
"I'll help," said Junpei.
"Okay. Come over to my place after school on Friday," said Izumi. "Bring some cake mix or something."
"Can do," he answered, ever agreeable.
"I'll bring some music," Tomoki volunteered. "My dad's got about a million CDs. We've got to have something good in there somewhere."
The group continued to make plans for a while, discussing decorations and the possibility of chipping in to buy flowers. Junpei volunteered to bring some of his magic tricks. Tomoki said he'd make a banner. It took some time for any of them to realize how late it was getting.
"Wow, would you look at the time?" said Takuya, glancing at his watch. "I'm late for dinner. My mom's gonna skin me!"
Kouji looked up. "You're right. The days are getting shorter... It's sunset already."
*Sunset...* Izumi thought. She looked around. All she saw were the faces of her friends.
The group said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, quickly or slowly depending on who was expected to be home at what time. Izumi herself walked slowly and thoughtfully. The part of the park she walked through seemed to be empty except for herself.
*So much for predicting the future!*
She started to smile, thinking how silly she had been to take the fortune-teller seriously. Then she stopped abruptly as it occurred to her that Kouji and Kouichi's surprise party was going to be in exactly three days.
"So, how did it go?" asked Himeko.
"How did what go?" Izumi asked. She had been more interested in her lunch than in the conversation going on around her.
"Your meeting," Himeko said. "You know, at the oak tree? At sunset?"
"It wasn't a meeting at sunset," said Izumi. "The sun was setting as I was leaving, but the meeting was still in the afternoon."
"So how did it go?" her friend repeated. "Don't hold out on us? Tell!"
"I had a talk with my friends. Kouji and Kouichi are having a surprise birthday party this weekend for their mother."
"That's it?" asked Himeko. "You didn't... see anyone? Nothing special happened?"
Izumi rolled her eyes. "A dozen angels flew down out of the sky and wrote my lover's name across the sky in fiery letters. Nothing happened, Himeko."
"I don't understand it," said Himeko. "I was so sure..."
"Well, you're just going to have to face it. The only thing even remotely indicative of anything romantic was that Junpei said he'd come over and help me cook the refreshments."
"Then it must be him," Himeko said, seizing on this information like a crocodile snatching its prey. "Who's this Junpei? What's he like? Is he tall, dark, and handsome?"
"Well, he is taller than me," said Izumi thoughtfully, "and he has kind of red-brown hair, so I guess that's kind of dark... but you know, actually, he's kind of on the pudgy side. And he's not exactly what I'd call mysterious."
"Oh," said Himeko. "Well, Lady Pristina never said he'd be tall, dark, and handsome, anyway."
Izumi laughed. "Give it up. Junpei's a really sweet guy and all, but if you met him, you'd know he's not boyfriend material. He's just a good friend."
"We'll see, won't we?" said Himeko. "All we have to do is wait two days. When's this party of yours?"
"Well, it's... on Saturday."
"Two days away! I knew it!" Himeko said triumphantly. "He'll bring you the roses the night of the party. You just watch!"
"All right, all right! Wow, Himeko, you can be so stubborn! You make me look like a wimp," said Izumi. "Let's take it as said that if Junpei doesn't bring me any roses at the party, we'll agree he's not the one, right?"
"Right," said Himeko. She was smiling smugly, as if she'd already seen the future herself.
"And no putting the idea in his mind!" Izumi cautioned.
"Of course not," said Himeko. "I've never met him. I don't even know what he looks like."
"Except that I just described him to you not five minutes ago," Izumi reminded her. She sighed. "I'm regretting I ever let you talk me into this fortune-teller nonsense. It's getting to be more trouble than it's worth."
"You might not feel that way two days from now," said Himeko. She drifted off to talk to some of the other girls in class, leaving Izumi to her thoughts.
*Only two more days,* she mused. *Two days, and I'll know, one way or another...*
She shook her head, wishing the party was already over and done with.
Promptly at four o'clock the next day, Junpei turned up on Izumi's doorstep carrying a plastic shopping bag.
"Where have you been?" she asked as she let him in. "I started without you."
"I can tell," he said. The air in the apartment was full of the unmistakable scent of chocoloate- chip cookies baking. "Anyway, I didn't have any cake mix, so I had to go buy some. Is this good enough?"
He held up a box of cake mix, showing a picture of a dramatically lighted piece of yellow cake with chocolate icing.
"Perfect," said Izumi. "Anyway, there are cookies in the oven already, but they should be almost done. We can start mixing this up while we wait."
They went into the kitchen, and Izumi started going through a cupboard in search of mixing cups.
"Okay, read the instructions off the box for me," she said. "What do I need?"
"Um... It says, 'Preheat oven to three-hundred fifty degrees...'"
"That's no problem. The oven's already heated up for the cookies. What else?"
"Let's see... Looks like we're going to need... two cups of water, a cup of vegetable oil, and two eggs."
"That's more like it. Look in the fridge and grab a couple of eggs, would you?"
He did as he was told, digging through the collection of juice bottles and bowls of leftovers; the laws of kitchen physics dictated that whatever he wanted would be at the back of the fridge, hidden behind something that ordinarily would have been too small to disguise it. When he finally returned from this endeavor, he found Izumi rummaging through a cupboard.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm trying to find the vegetable oil," she said. "I hope we have some."
"You've got to have some somewhere."
"Well, I found some olive oil..."
"You don't make cake with olive oil!" he said. "You put it on... I don't know, salad or something."
She laughed. "You have a lot to learn about cooking, I think."
"I'm willing to learn," he said. "Are you offering lessons?"
They finally found the vegetable oil sequestered behind a can of green beans, and they went back to the job at hand. Izumi produced a mixing bowl and set it down on the table.
"Now, if I know these instant cake mixes, all we should have to do is mix up all the ingredients and pour everything into a cake pan," said Izumi. "Where's the cake mix?"
"I've got it," said Junpei. He brandished a fat plastic package full of something powdery. "Just gotta get it open..."
"I'll get some scissors," Izumi said.
"No, it's okay, I've got it... I think I've got it, anyway..."
"You haven't got it. You're going to make a mess!"
"I won't make a mess, I'm just going to-"
The packet popped open. Cake mix puffed up in a small cloud, coating his face, clothing, and hair. Izumi started to laugh. Junpei looked hurt.
"Oh, don't look at me like that!" she said. "I don't mean to - but you look so funny like that!"
"Well, I'm glad I'm good for something," he said, dumping the rest of the cake mix into the bowl. "Hope we still have enough to make the cake."
"You didn't lose as much as you think you did," said Izumi. She reached for a paper towel and ran some water over it. "Here, let's get you cleaned up."
"That's okay. It doesn't bother me."
"But you look ridiculous. Hold still!" She reached up to try to wipe the flour off his face, and he backed away.
"Hey, stop that!"
"Quit backing away! I'm trying to help."
"But that's cold! Stop it - ha, ha, hey! I mean it, that tickles!"
"What are you two doing in there?" shouted Izumi's mother from another room.
"Nothing!" they called in unison.
"Just cleaning up a little spill, Mom," Izumi clarified. "It's nothing to worry about, really!" She tossed the wet towel to Junpei. "Wash your face."
"Whatever you say," he answered obediently.
While Junpei obediently scrubbed his face and tried in vain to get the powdery substance off his clothes, Izumi carefully began measuring out cups of oil and water and pouring them into the bowl. Junpei watched with admiration as she took an egg in each hand, rapped them against the edge of the table, and cracked them deftly in halves.
"Hey, you're really good at that," he said.
"I should be," she said, picking up a fork and beginning to stir. "My mom taught me that trick when I was really little. You know how little kids are always trying to do what their parents are doing. Made me feel like I was really something, being able to cook like my mother."
"Yeah, I know what you mean. I always wanted to be able to drive the car like my dad. He hasn't let me do that, yet, though."
She laughed. "I should hope not! Cooking is safer. The worst you can do is make a mess."
"Well, we might burn something," he said. "Speaking of which... are those cookies of yours done yet?"
Izumi gave a yelp and dashed for the oven. She opened it, jumped back as the heat rolled out, and snatched up an oven mitt. Hurriedly, she took out three pans of cookies and began dumping them on a cooling tray. She found a spatula in a drawer and flipped over a cookie to check it.
"No damage!" she reported. "They're a little brown on the bottom, but they'll taste okay."
"They smell great," he said. "You must be a good cook."
She grinned. "Don't tell anyone, but these are the kind that come pre-mixed. I just cut them up and put them on the trays."
"Your secret's safe with me," he said. In the interest of being helpful, he had taken up her discarded fork and was now stirring up the batter. "Does this look okay to you?"
She took the fork and ran it through the batter, checking for lumps. "This should be fine. Good job, Junpei!"
"Thanks," he said, grinning with pleasure at the compliment. "What now?"
Izumi took the cake box and scanned it. "It just says we have to pour the batter in a pair of non-stick pans and let it cook for a while. That's easy."
The pan was slipped into the oven. While they waited for the confection to cook, Izumi went about taking the cookies out of the pans and sorting them onto plates.
"You sure did make a lot of cookies," Junpei commented. "How many did you think we were going to eat?"
"Not as many as it looks like," said Izumi. She pointed at the two largest pans. "These cookies are for the party." Pointing at the smallest pan, she said, "These are for us to eat while the cake is baking."
Junpei grinned. "I knew there was a reason I liked you!"
They settled themselves around the kitchen table to enjoy their snack. The cookies, still warm and soft from the oven, tasted wonderful. There were advantages to being the ones who did the cooking. While they enjoyed their treat, they chatted idly about local events. Junpei told her about his class trip to a museum. She told him about the fund-raiser her club was going to be having.
"We're going to be doing a little show, with music from all over the world," she was saying. "There's a girl in my club who's a dancer, and she's going to perform, and a few other people are going to be singing. They talked me into singing something in Italian. I don't know how well I'm going to do, but I said I'd do it anyway."
"You'll be great," he predicted. "The star of the show."
She laughed a little. "You have a gift for hyperbole."
"Never mind. It was nice of you to say, anyway. Why don't you come see the show? It should be fun. We're serving refreshments," she added playfully.
"Sure, I'll come cheer you on. When are you having it?"
"We haven't decided yet. It's still in the planning stages."
"Oh. Have you told the other guys yet?"
"No, just you."
A moment of silence passed, while they nibbled thoughtfully. Izumi found herself considering her consultation with the fortune teller again. She had forgotten about it while she had been busy with her domestic chores, but now it occurred to her that according to the prophecy, she had only one day to go before she'd find her true love... assuming, of course, that there was such a thing, and that the prediction really had been true. She still wasn't ready to gamble any money on that.
*But I do want to see what happens,* she thought. *What would I do if it came true? What if - well, suppose Junpei here really does show up at that party tomorrow with a dozen roses. Then what will I do? I'm not about to let myself get roped into a romance just because some crazy fortune-teller said it was a good idea!*
"What are you thinking about?" Junpei asked.
"Oh, well... I was just thinking, I sure hope you guys do something nice like this for me when my birthday comes up," said Izumi, ad-libbing quickly.
"I'll remind them," said Junpei. "When's your birthday?"
"I'll turn twelve in about two months," she said.
"Hey, that'll be fun. Then we'll be the same age for a few weeks," he said.
She blinked. "What do you mean?"
"My birthday's a couple months after yours. Then I'll turn thirteen. Until then, we'll both be the same."
"Oh," she said. She hadn't realized, consciously, that he was older than her, even by a year. It hadn't seemed important to ask. In the light of what she'd been told recently, it seemed a bit more important now.
They finished their snack in silence. By the time they were done, the cake was ready to come out of the oven and set it out to cool a bit. Once it was no longer too hot to handle, they both took a layer and started smearing chocolate frosting onto them.
"Got anything for decoration?" Junpei asked.
"Um... maybe. I don't know. Let me check."
She went poking around through the reaches of a set of upper cupboards, finally producing a tube of pink decorating icing, left over from a forgotten Valentine's day. She turned the tube over to Junpei and watched as he began writing out "Happy Birthday" in neat letters.
"I'd forgotten you were an artist," she said.
"Well, I remember you used to like drawing diagrams of boats and rockets and things, back in the Digital World. That's almost being an artist."
"Oh! Heh... Me, an artist. I kinda like that idea!"
The cake was assembled and admired before finally being put away to await the party. After that, there was nothing to do but clean up the mess and say their goodbyes.
"Nice to see you, Junpei," she said. "It's been fun."
"Same here," he replied. "I'll see you tomorrow, huh?"
"We're meeting back at Kouichi's place, right?"
"Right. See you then!"
He waved a cheery goodbye and walked off, and she slowly closed the door behind her.
*Well,* she thought. *Tomorrow we'll see!*
The day of the party dawned clear and sunny, with a pleasant hint of a breeze. It was perfect weather for holding a party, and everyone was happy to be out and preparing to celebrate. They reported to Kouichi's house that afternoon, laden down with party supplies. Izumi came carrying the cake carefully in both hands, while the cookies rested in a bag slung over her arm. Takuya was helping Tomoki carry a boom box and a stack of CDs, while Tomoki himself was carrying a cloth banner that appeared to be almost as big as he was. Kouji had a collection of balloons and streamers with him. Junpei had brought his magic kit, complete with a small folding table where he could work his card tricks. They found Kouichi waiting for them, scanning his living room with a critical eye.
"I thought we'd have the party in here," he said. "Unfortunately, Mom hasn't had a chance to clean up in here for a while, so it's kind of dusty. I was just thinking it might be nice to... you know, straighten up a little?"
They took the hint.
"No problem," said Junpei. "I'll grab a broom."
"Thanks," said Kouichi. "It'll be in the kitchen. I'll start picking up a little. The rest of you... just do whatever you think is necessary."
"Can someone help me hang up my banner?" asked Takuya. "I'd do it myself, but I'm too short."
"I'll help," said Izumi.
"Me too," Kouji added.
They went to work. With Tomoki standing on the ground to act as a spotter, Izumi and Kouji climbed on chairs on either side of the wall and began trying to hang the banner. Takuya started clearing off a space for the refreshments on the coffee table, while Kouichi scooted around the room, picking things up and straightening pillows. Junpei had found a broom and a dustpan, and he was circling the room, sweeping up the hardwood floors. He was walking backwards and not looking particularly hard where he was going, with the end result being that he backed into the chair Izumi was standing on. She had already been standing on tiptoe, trying to hold the banner high enough on the wall, and she lost her balance. Junpei heard her yelp and managed to turn just in time to save her from a nasty bump.
"Nice catch!" said Kouichi.
"You should be more careful," said Kouji. "She could have been hurt!"
"It's okay," Izumi assured him. "No harm done."
Takuya was laughing. "Way to go, Junpei! I knew you'd sweep her off her feet someday - I just didn't think you'd be using a real broom!"
"Ha, ha, really funny," said Junpei. "Hey, Izumi, how about we trade places? I'm taller than you, so I won't have to stand on my tiptoes to reach."
"Good idea. I'm a lot less likely to break my neck sweeping the floor," she replied.
The banner was hung. Once it was in place, Izumi found a rag and helped the others with their washing and dusting. While she was cleaning the windows, Junpei set up his folding table and started laying out his props.
"Nothing up my sleeve..." he intoned, "but... presto!" There was a small puff of smoke, and confetti flew everywhere.
"You're making a mess," Kouji complained.
"I'll clean it up," said Junpei, abashed. "I was just having some fun."
"Don't complain too much," said Kouichi. "At least it was an interesting mess."
That made Kouji smile a little. "It's better than that pair of old socks I found under the sofa."
"I'd wondered where they went," Kouichi said. "How they got under there, I don't claim to know."
Junpei grinned. "It was magic!"
"Maybe so!" said Kouichi. "You would know - you are the expert here."
"That's me!" Junpei agreed. "Junpei Shibayama, man of mystery!"
Eventually, the work was done, and they stood back to review their work. A large "Happy Birthday" banner spanned one wall, while every other available surface had been decorated with crepe paper or balloons. The party food was spread out on the table, covered with colored plastic wrap until it was ready to be served, and a glass punch bowl stood ready to receive the drinks. Everything had been swept, scrubbed, or polished until it shone.
"Good work, guys," said Kouichi. "We made good time. We still have a couple of hours before Mom will get here."
"Maybe we should dress up a bit?" Izumi suggested. "I mean, it wouldn't be quite right if we set up this nice party and showed up in the sweaty old clothes we wore for cleaning."
The idea was met with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but eventually they all agreed to it. They left the house promising to return more suitably dressed. Izumi walked home, mulling things over.
*I think it's all coming true,* she mused. *She said we'd meet under the oak tree at sunset, and we were having a meeting there... And he is older than me, even if it's just by a little bit... The "mysterious" part might be talking about his magic... And he did sweep me off my feet, sort of... I don't know. This just isn't coming out the way I thought it would.*
An hour and a half later, she returned to the house. It was evening now, with the stars just beginning to come out, and the room was lit brightly, emphasizing the festive mood. Someone had turned on the boom box, and the little house seemed to be filled with bouncy music, loud enough that it could be faintly heard outside. Izumi reported to the front door garbed in a long pink dress, and she looked very pretty. She rang the door, and was greeted by Takuya, who was looking rather unusual in a shirt and tie.
"Do I look all right?" he asked. "I feel kinda dumb. I hate dressing up."
"You look fine," she assured him.
She walked into the house and started circulating among the small crowd. She could see Kouji and Kouichi, looking equally anxious as they waited for their mother to arrive home and find her surprise. Tomoki was standing a vigil over the snack table, positively daring anyone to try to steal something before the party started. One member of the group was conspicuous by his absence.
"Where's Junpei?" asked Izumi.
"He's late," said Takuya. "I don't know where he could be. I would have thought he'd get here early to practice, but he never showed. Hope everything's okay."
"There's still time," said Kouichi. "He doesn't have to be here for another... twenty minutes," he added, glancing at his watch. "He'll get here."
Izumi tried to take this to heart, but she felt oddly nervous. She was surprised at herself; she wasn't ordinarily a worrier. Did she really expect him to turn up at someone else's birthday party with a present for her? Did she actually want him to bring her those roses? Or was she afraid he would?
*I just want to stop wondering,* she told herself. *It will be a relief to get this all over with.*
Takuya was peering through the curtains at the sidewalk outside. "Oh, hey, here he comes! Better late than never!"
Izumi went to the window and looked. Sure enough, there was Junpei, dressed in his best, walking hurriedly up the sidewalk. It was hard to see clearly in the dim light, but she realized with a start that he was carrying something.
She opened the door and peered out into the evening shadows.
"There you are!" she called. "We were wondering if you got hit by a bus on the way over."
Junpei looked up, caught sight of her, and picked up his pace.
"Nah, I just decided to stop on the way over here and pick something up," he said, as soon as he was within comfortable conversation distance. He climbed up the steps so they could talk face to face, and he evaluated her in her party dress. "Wow, Izumi, you look really pretty... I mean, not that you aren't always pretty, but..."
She managed a small smile. "You don't look half bad, yourself."
"Thanks," he said, blushing a little. "Anyway, I'm glad I met you out here... I have a surprise for you."
"You... you do?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'm going to tell everyone I got these for a centerpiece, but they're really for you, so don't let anyone else get them. Here." He handed her a bouquet of flowers.
They were lilacs.
"Oh," she said, slightly stunned. "Thank you. That was... very nice of you."
She stepped back so he could get into the house. She realized everyone was looking at her.
"What was all that about?" asked Takuya.
"Oh, Junpei just brought some flowers," she said. "As a centerpiece."
"Hey, those are nice," said Kouichi. "I'll go see if I can find a vase for them."
Not sure what else to do, Izumi turned her flowers over to Kouichi and retreated to a corner of the room to think. She felt oddly let down. After all that, the prediction hadn't come true, after all. She'd been told she would know if someone was her destined soulmate by whether or not he brought her red roses. Junpei hadn't brought any, so therefore, he wasn't the one. She supposed she ought to be a little relieved, but all she felt was a flat sense of disappointment and confusion.
Despite all that, the show had to go on. When Kouichi's mother finally arrived, she was greeted by a hail of confetti and a raucous blast of party blowers.
"My goodness! What's all this about?" she exclaimed, laughing.
"We threw you a party," said Kouji, looking shyly pleased.
"Yeah. Happy birthday, Mom!" Kouichi added.
"Thank you - all of you!" she said. "My, you did go all out, didn't you?"
"Only the best for you," said Kouji. "We even got you a present."
"You didn't have to do that," his mother replied. "The best present I could ask for is having my two boys together."
Kouji grinned. "That's why we got it for you. Where did you put it, Kouichi?"
"It's in my room! I'll go get it."
Kouichi raced from the room, and returned seconds later carrying a brightly wrapped gift box. Everyone crowded around close so they could watch Mrs. Kimura open it. Inside the wrapping paper was a jewelry box, containing a silver locket with a gold inlay of birds and flowers. Inside the locket were two pictures, one of both of the twins. Mrs. Kimura put it on and hugged her sons, and the crowd clapped and cheered.
After that, they all settled down to enjoy the party. Everyone sampled and duly praised the refreshments, and Junpei impressed them all with his feats of prestidigitation. When the show was over, they turned the music up and settled in to socialize and enjoy themselves. Despite the party atmosphere, Izumi still felt vaguely uneasy.
*I can't believe I'm letting myself get so down over a stupid fortune-teller,* she thought grumpily. *My life is not determined by what that woman says. I've never let anyone tell me what to do, and I'm not going to start now. I can do anything I want. I don't need her blessing to fall in love...*
She looked across the room, where Junpei was chatting with some of the other boys. Would she have really felt so disappointed, if she hadn't actually wanted, on some level, to find out they were meant for each other. She had to admit, he was a good friend, and she liked his company. They always seemed to have a good time together. He was talented, kindhearted, and utterly loyal to anyone he cared about. There was no question in her mind that he cared deeply about her.
*And he's not going to stop liking me just because someone somewhere he's never even heard of says he shouldn't,* she thought. *And neither should I. He's a good person and a good friend... and he might be more than a friend, if I gave him half a chance. So maybe I will. Not because I think it's destiny or anything like that... but because I like him.*
She walked over to where he was talking to Tomoki.
"Hey, Junpei," she said. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Sure," he said. "What's on your mind?"
"Well, I sort of wanted to talk in private," she said. "Why don't we step outside and look at the moon?"
He might have occasionally given the impression of not having a lot on the ball, but he did know how to take a hint.
"Sounds nice," he said.
They slipped out the back door and into a tiny yard, graced with a single ornamental tree. The moon was indeed out and shining brightly, nearly full, tinting everything it touched with blue-silver light. They gazed at it in silence for a while.
"So," said Junpei, after a few moments had passed. "What's on your mind?"
"Well... I've just been doing a little thinking," she said. "Junpei, do you believe in Fate? I mean, do you think everyone's life is already laid out for them?"
"Not exactly," he answered slowly. "More like... maybe everybody has a lot of different destinies, you know? Like maybe... there are times when we can make a choice that will change everything. Maybe I have a future as a great magician, or a chef, or an engineer, or an artist, but the choices I make will determine which one I get. Does that make any sense?"
"A little, I think," she said. "I like the idea of having a choice."
"Ah... So, is that all you wanted to talk about?"
"Not exactly. I was thinking... Sometimes I think there might be one person out there who's meant just for me. Then other times I think maybe the one I'm meant for is just the one I choose to stay with."
"What's this leading up to?" he asked.
"I was just thinking, well, I like you. You're a nice guy. You're fun to be around. I'm comfortable with you. I thought maybe I've been being a little too hard on you and maybe... I don't know. Maybe we could try and see if things work out between us."
"Really?" he asked.
"Really," she said. "Listen, I'm not ready to say I'm in love or anything, but... who knows? It could work. I'm ready to take the chance, anyway."
"So am I."
She laughed. "I know. So, what do you say? Want to go out and do something sometime?"
"Love to," he said. He paused. "Hey, Izumi, can I ask you a question?"
"Well... you had the weirdest expression on your face when I gave you those flowers," said Junpei. "Didn't you like them?"
"Oh, I liked them," she assured him. "They're beautiful. I was just... surprised, that's all. I mean, lilacs aren't exactly the usual things to give a girl, are they?"
"I know what you mean. I had to run all over town trying to find some," Junpei replied. "That's why I was late."
"So, why lilacs?" Izumi asked, curious.
"Well, you know, I wanted to get you something special, and I remembered we were walking somewhere once, and we passed a house where someone had a lilac bush growing. You said something about how you always loved the smell of lilacs, and you thought they were a pretty color, so I thought you'd like it if I got you some. I mean, any chump can buy a dozen roses, and I didn't want to be just anybody to you."
Izumi became very still for a moment. Junpei eyed her, concerned.
"You okay?" he asked. "I didn't say anything wrong, did I?"
She turned to meet his eyes.
"You know," she said softly, "right now, I could almost believe in destiny."
Inside the house, the rest of the crowd was noticing that two of their members were missing.
"Has anybody seen where Izumi and Junpei got off to?" asked Takuya.
"Oh, they went outside," said Tomoki glibly. "She said something about going to look at the moon."
The older boys exchanged glances. Kouji walked to the window and peeked out.
"They don't look like they're looking at the moon to me," he said.
Takuya stood next to him and peered past the curtain. "You're right. Actually, it's hard to tell from this distance, but I think their eyes are closed. That's the best way to do it, anyway..."
"What do you know about it?" Kouji asked.
Kouichi came and tugged the curtains closed.
"It's none of our business," he said. "Let them have their privacy."
"You're no fun," Takuya grumped.
"Just think how you'd feel if it were you being spied on," said Kouichi. "Let's talk about something different... Hey, did you hear? A guy in my class said he met a lady who can see the future. Do you believe that? I think he said her name was Lady Christina or something like that."
"Lady Pristina. I've heard of her," said Kouji. "They say everything she predicts comes true."
"Oh, come on," said Takuya, brushing off the comment with a wave of his hand. "Everybody knows that fortune-telling stuff is nothing but a bunch of guesswork and coincidence."