A/N: I'm baaaack! Sorry for the wait on this one. It went through a rewrite and my not having a computer for a month on account of my old PC died on me.
This one is a LONG-ASS monster, the longest of all so far, I think. I could cut a bunch of the extra stuff but that's what's most fun to write, and this is fanfiction, so sue me. I hope you can enjoy reading it in bits instead of feeling pressured to read everything in one sitting, especially since it's mostly dialogue. (If anyone is reading this on their cell phone, know you are the most badass of the badass.) We're setting the stage for the next act, so while there's not a lot of action this time, there are several important revelations and decisions.
But I'm gonna try to end Act I next chapter instead of this one. Sorry! It's just there's a really important Thing That Happens which I wanted to be the clincher for Act I. I will do everything possible to make sure I get it into the next chapter. Ending at an even twenty chapters would have been nice, but I've always been an odd one.
Anyway. Enough of me talking about things you don't care about. Thanks for your wonderful support, and on to the story!
*NOTE: I made a couple changes in chapters 16 and 19. I'd originally meant for the Chosen to reveal to Noriko about the Spore kids' partners having disappeared from Digiworld, and it was really tripping me up that I forgot. I think it's too cruel for them to hesitate to tell them. So I've rewritten to include Noriko finding out about her missing partner in chapter 16. Thus, Takeru and Hikari's conversation in 19 goes a little differently.
Of Choices and Chances,
Risks And Rewards:
Nothing is Gained
That One Cannot Afford
"My heart wants roots
My mind wants wings.
I cannot bear
- E.Y. Harburg
As Akira brought the van around, Yamato dragged his arm across his brow and peered at his reflection in the koi pond. In the late twilight he couldn't make out much, except that the humidity had, as ever, run amok with his hair, as it were its own private playground. Just as he was thinking so, the lanterns flickered on, swathing the garden in a warm glow. He squatted at the edge of the pond and watched a pair of koi wriggle more than swim.
Steps on the stone pathway made him glance up. Someone tapped his shoulder with a can of beer. "Out of Coors. Hope you like Kirin," said Jitou Takamasa. The slanting light deepened the shadows at the creases of his eyes and mouth, evidence of age that Yamato had hardly noticed when they first met.
Yamato took the beer and nodded thanks. "Kirin's fine."
"Cheers," said Jitou, and they fell silent, drinking.
Jitou Takamasa. The name still gave him a thrill whenever he thought about the events that led him here. Here was Jitou Takamasa's expansive, two-story manse with sky-high windows. His Japanese garden and koi pond. His wrap-around patio, where the Teenage Wolves, Komori Akio, some baggy-cheeked paparazzi guy, and Jitou himself had grilled skewers of chicken and pork together only an hour ago. Drinking the whole time, of course. It didn't seem to matter to Jitou in the least that Yamato's crowd were all underage.
I'll be paying for it tomorrow, Yamato thought distantly. The periphery of his vision had already gone soft.
But he wouldn't give up this moment for the world. Whether it was an effect of the alcohol, or whether he was still star-struck – never in his wildest dreams had he imagined coming this close to Jitou Takamasa, famous rock artist and composer, while he was still an unknown. Komori deserves more respect from his clients, Yamato reflected with a wave of strong emotion, which had been hitting him off and on since around beer number three. His attitude toward Komori as of late had been nothing short of bratty. How their agent managed to swing this for them, he couldn't begin to guess.
Today's lunchtime show rolled out just as lackluster as Yamato had predicted. Audience participation consisted of coughs unsuccessfully hidden in sleeves, coffee slurping, one elderly woman tapping her foot and bobbing like a beach buoy as she nibbled on a slice of shortcake. Polite, geriatric applause after each number. One man left them a tip and asked them for "Hey Jude." They didn't take requests, Yamato was inclined to say, but Yutaka pointed out that Yamato loved "Hey Jude," and that the mention of it had snapped a few of their audience out of their vacant geniality. So they played it. Yamato sang from memory as best he could, and actually got a few whistles when they were finished. (Then he overheard a gaggle of ladies conferring on whether to request "Lean On Me," which meant it was time to thank everyone for coming and break down the set, super quick.)
As they unplugged the mics, the reporter from Rock-It approached the platform, grinning toothily and snapping pictures in spite of how not put-together they looked. Behind him came the paparazzi guy, and then Komori with a swarthy man in his forties with close-cropped hair, the cut of his deep purple shirt simple but clearly expensive. Akira was the first to recognize Jitou, which at least explained the paparazzi.
And then the truth came out.
The only reason the reporter had come at all was because Komori tipped him off that Jitou would there too. And Jitou was there because he had a show next month, part of a small Tokyo-Saitama tour, and the opening band had broken up, so they needed a replacement. And Komori, ever the opportunist, had wasted no time in suggesting the Teenage Wolves for the job.
They were going to open for Jitou Takamasa in Saitama in September. They were going to open for Jitou Takamasa. Had any high school garage band rocketed out of obscurity faster? Their future was made if they pulled this off. Comets. That's what they were, comets.
Yamato gulped his beer steadily. Half of him still doubted any of this was real. He was going to wake up tomorrow with a pounding headache, on the couch with a spot of drool on the cushion, and when he mentioned Jitou everyone would ask him the hell he was on about. Breaks like this didn't happen in real life.
Though Jitou seemed real enough right now, standing next to him as they drank in something like a companionable silence, which sent another giddy thrill up Yamato's spine.
"Looks like your boys have brought the van." Jitou had a voice that cracked like thunder.
Yamato looked over to the driveway, where Akira sat in the van, their equipment already loaded. "Yeah, looks like. I'll get going, then. Thanks for – thank you. For giving us this chance." He struggled to keep his face straight, professional, but trying made him feel like his nostrils were so huge and his eyes asymmetrical.
Jitou raised his beer. "Don't mention it. I like to give the newbies a leg up. But not if they're junk. I've listened to your stuff. It's got a sweet vibe, and the lead guitar's wicked. It's kind of funny, when I listened to your CD I thought this is definitely rock, but also definitely not."
"That sounds... awkward," Yamato replied, feeling awkward himself.
"Well, it's more interesting than the noise a lot of the wannabes put out these days. It's not going to get lost in the crowd. Anyway. Good luck, Ishida-kun."
Jitou Takamasa just called me Ishida-kun. Jitou Takamasa knows my name.
He needed to go somewhere private before anyone witnessed him spazzing out.
He piled into the van with Takashi and Yutaka. Komori tapped on the window, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. "Great work today," he said, looking directly at Yamato. "And congratulations, boys."
They drove back to Akira's to park the van in his garage. Yamato closed his eyes and tried to sleep, which Yutaka, naturally, couldn't allow, and after a while he found his collar stuffed with wads of candy wrappers. At least Akira was less inebriated than the rest of them, so they managed to make it to Odaiba in one piece. From there, Yamato trekked home with his guitar case slung over his shoulder, trying to decide whether he hated or loved the road, which kept wavering under his feet.
"Country road," he warbled, "take me home…"
It was close to ten by the time the elevator let him off on his floor. He was still singing under his breath as he rounded the corner, where his foot connected with a large lump sitting outside his apartment.
"Ow, dammit, Yamato," griped the lump.
Yamato bent at the waist to investigate this anomaly. He saw a mess of brown hair and arched eyebrows, not as fine as his but not overpowering either. Beneath the brow were a pair of tired-looking, thick-lashed chestnut eyes, which were narrowed in annoyance.
"Are you going to kiss me? It's not exactly close quarters here, care to take a step back?"
"Taichi," Yamato announced at last. Hah. Victory.
Taichi dipped his head. "Yamato."
Gingerly, Yamato lowered his guitar to the floor and eased down against the wall next to his friend. "I had a very interesting day," he said.
"So did I. Did your day involve monsters?"
Yamato's alcohol-slowed brain took a moment to process that. "Damn." He reeled on Taichi in a sudden panic. "I forgot."
Taichi waved a hand in his face. "S'okay. You forgot because we quit calling you. We quit calling because we didn't need your help. The monsters didn't even stay for tea – kinda rude, but hey, more crumpets for us."
The words sounded familiar but everything was so very spinny that he couldn't think of them except in a spiral. Tea? Crumpets? Tee-rumpets? "Just speak plain, ok, I'm not up for your special Taichi brand of wit. I think you're saying the monsters left without a fight?"
Taichi launched into an overview of everything that had happened earlier that day. Yamato half-listened. He should've made more of an effort to keep in touch with the other Chosen. In all the chaos – meeting Jitou, finding out just how soon their world was about to change – he kept thinking about it, looking for free moment to go off by himself and check in, but it never came. And the more he procrastinated, the more tangled he became in his bandmates' plans. He hadn't really forgotten about the monsters, at least not until after that unlucky third beer.
But the fact that his friends hadn't needed him was... a stroke of luck. Or he might not have gotten to spend the evening talking with Jitou. Was that selfish?
Koushirou had sent a text, he recalled fuzzily, letting him know everything was all right… he'd only found it when he was already on his way to Jitou's place.
"So Koushirou called the homes of the Spore kids who were involved in all this hoopla, but they wouldn't talk to him," Taichi was saying. "Their parents didn't seem to notice anything wrong, though, so probably their reactions weren't as severe as Ariyasu's. Ariyasu seemed okay too after a while."
It occurred to Yamato that he didn't know how long Taichi had been sitting out here, waiting for him. He'd changed out of his soccer clothes, but still had his duffel with him. "Taichi, have you been home yet? When did you get here?"
"Not that long," Taichi insisted, though his eyes drifted away from Yamato's. "Took Daisuke to the hospital because of his ribs. His dad met us there. The doc said Daisuke just needs to take it easy for a while, so his dad let me take him out for a milkshake, since it's his birthday and all. Then I called you after he went home, but since you didn't answer I just hit the arcade until it closed. That was around seven."
"So you've been here since seven?"
"No, after that I went to that new bar, you know, the one that just opened near Big Sight."
"And they let you in?"
"'Course not. I'm in high school. But there were a bunch of college kids hanging around the front – d'you remember Hagiwara Gamon? He was one of the soccer senpai when we were, like, nine. Anyway, so he invited me to the beach with them, and we hung out there drinking and being idiots and stuff. And Yama. I got kissed."
"Don't call me Yama. But congratulations. That's the first time since Shioka, right?"
"Shioka." The name of the girl he'd dated for less than two weeks slipped from Taichi's lips like a wisp of cloud. He sat with his head inclined toward the wall in tipsy languor. "She was better than Shioka," he went on after a minute. "College girl. Name's Mari."
"Cougar. Better watch out."
"Lay off. Twenty is not cougar age. And she was cool."
"– Fuji-something. I dunno."
Yamato hmmed. "Well, I didn't kiss anyone. I just found out we're going to open for Jitou Takamasa."
"Going to what for who?"
"A rock star," Yamato elaborated, almost failing to quash his inner fan boy. "He's big, Taichi, he's – he's huge. He's got a tour starting at the end of September, but the opening band, the one that winds up the crowd before the main event, quit out of the blue. So he asked us to do it. Us. The Teenage Wolves."
A big, curly grin spread over Taichi's face. "That's exciting, right?"
"It's unbelievable," Yamato went on, babbling a bit as he experienced what could only be called – though the rest of him balked at anything so cutesy – glee. "But Taichi, Jitou wants to meet with us again this weekend. And we have to come up with a set list. Which means I'm booked Friday and Saturday."
"Friday's the campout."
"Yeah, so what I'm saying is, I can't come on Friday, but I'll try to drive up on Sunday and see everyone for a little bit. If Jitou doesn't keep us late, maybe I'll come on Saturday night."
Taichi digested that for a moment and shrugged. "Okay. It'll be weird without you, though, I mean, your dad's the chaperone, and the cabin belongs to Sakurada. I guess Takeru will just have to fill your shoes."
"Luckily we're the same size."
"Hell if I know. You think I take notes every time my brother goes shoe shopping?"
"Well, you are you." Another shrug. "Gabumon will miss you."
That was the worst part of all of this. "I'll do my best to come for a little while," Yamato promised. Missing Gabumon made his gut twist, but after all he could drop in on him in Digiworld anytime. Besides, his partner had always supported Yamato's music. Excitement overrode guilt just then.
"So." At that, Taichi glanced at him as if expecting him to say something very meaningful. "Here we are. Wasted as yesterday's leftovers. You got a kiss from a cougar. And I am going to open at Jitou Takamasa's concert." He shook his head. "Time to face facts. We're amazing."
"I dunno much about Jitou Taka-whatever." Taichi yawned hugely. "But I agree with you. We're amazing."
"Drunk and skunk."
Yamato frowned. "You saying I stink?"
"Nah, I stink. You smell like rosy pink cherub butts, but you're way more wasted than I am."
The two fell silent as they mused on this evaluation. After a while Yamato dug a cigarette out of his pocket, ignited it, and puffed a wreath of smoke. The stale smell of the utilitarian hallway hung in the air, pungent alongside the nicotine fumes.
Taichi kept popping his cheek in and out. For reasons he didn't quite understand, it made Yamato nervous. He wondered if Taichi intended to stay the night. That was fine, the Ishida couch was open to any party-crasher who cared to make use of it (Yutaka, a repeat offender, might as well stitch his name on a pillow by now). Yet something didn't sit right with him. And Taichi was still sucking on his cheek.
"Did something else happen?" Yamato prodded, as it began to look like they'd both be sleeping on the hallway floor if he didn't.
The cheek paused mid-pop. Taichi drew a knee up. He gave a slow shake of his head. "Nah. Nothing... out of the ordinary."
But there was something. Yamato knew it, and if his brain were less foggy he would probably have a pretty solid guess as to what it was, in spite of Taichi's intention to sit on it like a goose with a golden egg. The last time he'd forced a confidence –
"You were digitized again." He didn't need to make it a question.
Taichi's fidgeting kicked up a notch, from restless teenager to six-year-old trapped in a church pew during Christmas service. "It happens often enough now," he said with a glower that both dared and forbade Yamato to push it.
He didn't have the patience for games. "I thought I asked you not to cut me off."
"That's why I came out here in the first place, to fill you in on everything you missed while you were out being Mr. Important. Ain't I a peach."
More like a cactus, Yamato thought sourly. But fine. If Taichi wanted it spelled out for him, he'd do it. Drinking made him irritable, so he kept things quick and neat. "I meant don't cut me off from you. You tell me this thing you don't understand is happening to you and expect me to shrug it off? I don't have the Crest of Friendship for being such a great follower."
"You don't have it for being such a sweetheart, either," Taichi shot back.
"And you didn't get Courage for putting everything on your own shoulders." He found himself standing. "In fact, I'm pretty sure your Crest rejected you for trying to play superhero."
"At least I didn't wig out and attack my friends when my Crest rejected me." Taichi scrambled up as well, leaning against the wall and blinking rapidly for a moment before his hands balled into fists.
"Which brings up another thing that's bugging me," Yamato shouted over him, ignoring the dig but getting angrier.
"And what's that?"
"All this business about shipping the monsters that came through the Spore Children's portal to the World of Darkness. I don't care if it makes sense, it feels weird. That place isn't just some junkyard, it's a cesspool of evil."
"First of all, Daisuke's team did it with Daemon, and we haven't heard boo from him since. Second, it was Gennai's idea, and he wouldn't make it lightly. Third, what other choice do we have? You didn't see those creatures, the damage they did. If they get stronger –"
"You have never seen the World of Darkness," Yamato countered.
Taichi's mouth snapped shut. He has never seen that place, Yamato's mind insisted, with a strange possessiveness. Only he and Sora encountered it in the old days. Hikari and Ken were drawn in by the ocean, and Takeru and Miyako swept along for the ride. That was it – half the team. The other half could commiserate, suck in their breath at all the right moments during the telling, but they were untouched. They might believe in it, but it wasn't real to them.
Even though he'd managed to claw his way out of that horrible cave, Yamato still found it again in his nightmares. Usually when his self-esteem was at its lowest. Sora did too. They used to talk about it – back when they still talked. He couldn't say there was any special camaraderie among those who'd been to the dark world, but he felt – he thought – it was likely that they'd be just as reluctant about reopening that Door as he was, no matter what the reason. Miyako had gone along with the plan, but Miyako was a follower. And her brush with the Dark Ocean, though harrowing, didn't weigh on her that it did for those who'd been sucked into the heart of it. If both Gennai and Koushirou thought this was for the best, and Taichi and Daisuke gave signed off on it too, Miyako would probably second-guess any doubts.
Half the team had never been to the World of Darkness. And Yamato wanted to keep it that way.
Taichi's fists began to uncurl, the fight seeping out of him. After a moment, he let his arms drop. "None of us think this is wise, exactly. But given a choice between risking opening that Door or letting the monsters reduce Tokyo to charcoal – I had to decide on the fly. I tried my best. I get what you're saying, but –"
"But, you shouldn't have made the decision by yourself," Yamato interrupted.
Heat bridged across his nose. "I wasn't by myself, Koushirou –"
"Yeah. You and Koushirou decide a lot of things."
"Well," he snapped, "if you wanted on the executive committee, maybe you should've shown up to help."
"I would have, but you said –"
"Are you sure about that?"
Something about Taichi's eyes made him look very solemn. It was probably only the gleam from the bare overhead light, Yamato told himself. But he felt himself recoiling.
"I mean it. Yamato. You've been with the Teenage Wolves since junior high. You're finally getting somewhere. No one wants you to –"
He broke off, grimacing hard. When he picked up again his voice was low, resigned. "You saved my ass when Vademon abducted me," he said. "I really – I rely on you. But you're miserable."
"I'm not miserable."
"Yeah, you are. The others might think you've just got the grumps, but those of us who know you can tell when you're stressed. You've been too busy for us for a long time, before we knew anything about these creatures, or the thing with me, or Digiworld's instability. And you've had to break promises with the band, or miss out on stuff we do. I'm asking, which is more important to you?"
"You're going to make me choose?" Incredulous, Yamato could do nothing but stare.
Taichi shook his head. "I don't want you to choose. I don't want you to have to. And I don't need an answer right now. Just think about it, okay? If you can tell me what kind of role on the team would work for you, or if you even want one, then I won't worry that I'm dragging you around, or doing things you don't like."
"Of course I want a role on the team," Yamato protested, cursing his late-night hoarseness. "Damn, listen, what I mean is – it's not my role on the team that I don't want, it's all the unknowns, the interruptions I can't put on a schedule or give two weeks' notice for –"
"That is the team, though," Taichi replied, sounding very weary.
"So, what?" Frustrated, Yamato raked his hair back, heart thumping as if he were afraid, which was ridiculous. "I can't be everywhere at once, so what, then? I should just quit the team?"
Once the words flew out, he felt poisoned.
Taichi froze. "I said I don't want to make you choose, didn't I?"
There were footsteps down the hall. The cigarette had burned out while they weren't paying attention. Yamato couldn't break away from Taichi's gaze, which looked like glass posing as steel, about to shatter if its pretense were revealed.
"It's late," he said when he could no longer bear it.
His friend nodded. "Just… think about it. That's not so much to ask, right?" One hand rose to give Yamato's shoulder an uncertain pat, a grating semblance of familiarity, as he turned to leave. "Not so you can choose. So you can stop feeling like you have to."
After he was gone, Yamato stayed in the hall, starting another cigarette, his idle hand tapping an erratic rhythm on the old guitar case. Trying to think and not to think at the same time. He was miserable.
The day of the campout dawned pearly blue and warm, with a pleasant light breeze that danced through the grass and tree branches, tasting almost like autumn. It would be hot as ever by noon at the latest, Daisuke knew, but by then they'd be at the camp cooling off in the lake. For once he was up early, things packed, and waiting outside on the concrete with Taichi and Hikari, both of whom had their necks craned so far out in search of Ishida Hiroaki's RV that they looked close to tipping over.
They made a big group – twelve campers plus Hiroaki (although he'd only grunted and looked surly, Yamato insisted his dad was happy they'd badgered him into playing chaperone; it gave him an excuse to hide out on the water and fish). The RV could take eight besides the driver, so the entire junior team would crowd in, plus Taichi. Sora would follow in her mother's car with Mimi, Jou and Koushirou.
The RV rolled up just as Daisuke began to think about grabbing hold of his friends' shirttails before they made like dominoes (or, alternatively, giving them a nudge toward the inevitable. He always got antsy when he had to wait around). Hiroaki reached across and pushed open the passenger door. Dark smudges ringed his eyes and his chin was shaven unevenly, but beneath his floppy hat with the herring emblem he looked as close to "cheerful" as he ever did. "Riding shotgun, Taichi? My son's abandoned me for his friends."
"Sure," Taichi said with a shrug. "We can be grumpy old men together."
"Because seventeen is exactly the same as forty," Hikari giggled.
"Forty-one," grunted Hiroaki, gesturing to the grooves lining his forehead. "Much as I wish I could trim a year. Or two. Had more luck with online dating when I was still thirty-nine…"
Daisuke hopped into the trunk so Taichi and Hikari could pass their bags to him. Takeru, already occupying the back seats with Miyako and Iori, slung his arms over the headrest to supervise. He wore a T-shirt open over a Caribbean blue tank top that brought out the impish glimmer in his eye.
"Careful," he warned as Daisuke hefted a bag onto the pile of luggage and camping equipment. "That green tote's got the makings for tacos. Crush the tortillas at your own peril."
"I won't crush – ow! – anything but my own toes." Daisuke grimaced and prodded the fallen bag off his foot.
Rather than go out the trunk and enter through the door, he climbed over the back, eliciting a squeal from Miyako as he landed half in her lap with his injured ribs protesting loudly. Hikari had claimed the window seat of the middle row, so he plopped down next to her and helped himself to her little bag of sour gummies. After slamming the trunk shut, Taichi hopped into the front and they were off.
"Where are we meeting Ken-san?" Iori asked as the RV rolled onto the Rainbow Bridge.
"Tamachi's on the way, so we're going to stop at his apartment," answered Hiroaki.
"Who wants some tunes?" Taichi threw open Hiroaki's monolithic case of CDs. "Uh, we've got Oda Kazumasa, Kuwata Keisuke, Michael Jackson, Queen –"
"Anything from after we were born?" Daisuke yelled at him.
Hiroaki laughed – or barked, rather. "Y'know, driver's supposed to have pick of the music."
"Never fear, I've found something we'll all appreciate," Taichi said triumphantly, sliding a CD out of its pocket. "Ahh, a timeless classic– 'The Teenage Wolves: Garage Garbage' – from 2003."
Miyako sucked in her breath. "Oh my God, I remember that! I did some of the mixing!"
"Holy crap," Takeru snickered. "What songs are on there?"
"Uh, let's see – 'The Girl in the Snoopy T-shirt.'"
"The hell," muttered Daisuke.
"I think that was about some crush of Arai's. Lasted maybe a week. These are all from their 'we're a nobody garage band, we can do whatever' phase, obviously – 'Find You in My Dreams'; 'Princess Anesthesia'; 'Never Ever Never' – remind me to give Yamato hell for those – and, I shit you not, there's one on here called 'Split Ends and Split Pea Soup.'"
Whoops erupted from the rear. "Play it! Play it!"
"Alright, alright." Taichi popped the CD into the player. "This is what you get for being a cheesehead and skipping the first day of the campout," he said as if to the absent Yamato. Next to him, Hiroaki's shoulders quaked with silent laughter.
The travelers remained enamored with their discovery the duration of the ride to Tamachi. Ken was waiting on the curb outside his apartment building with a single backpack. He looked bewildered on finding the others in such effusive high spirits.
Though Daisuke's couldn't help but dim a bit at his appearance. Ken mumbled a greeting as he ducked his head through the door, the curious glance that had crossed his face gone in a flash, his manner exuding aloofness. But Daisuke refused to be discouraged. He forced himself to grin big and wide, until his cheeks hurt.
"Hey!" he burst out, feeling like a balloon on the brink of popping.
Ken averted his eyes. "Hey."
He slid into the seat in front of Daisuke without offering anything more.
Well, this royally sucked. Daisuke hated being in a fight without anything to hit. He couldn't hit Ken, because he wouldn't hit back, just sit there with hurt eyes full of self-recrimination. Or he'd go coldly silent. Even for Daisuke, ostensibly the Best Friend in the equation, getting past the bulwark when Ken'd made up his mind not to allow him was like trying to open a blister pack with nothing but his own bitten-down fingernails.
Daisuke fell back against the cushioning with an unhappy huff. There was, he supposed, nothing else for it but to think up some way to get Ken talking in more than monosyllables. If he could do that much, maybe this whole thing would blow over. Anyone could tell they didn't see eye-to-eye about the Spore Children, but that didn't mean they had to treat each other like enemies.
He waved arm through the gap between their seats. "Guess what."
"What?" Ken's voice was quiet.
"I said guess."
A sigh. "I can't guess."
"Well, not with that attitude."
He waited, but no response was forthcoming. Figured that when the only other option was to engage, Ken picked the avoidance route. Shrug it off, Daisuke instructed himself. Man, Ken had no idea of the monumental efforts Daisuke put in to control his quick temper whenever Ken's nerves were frayed. He deserved a medal. "Taichi-san dumped Tabasco in my birthday milkshake for my birthday," he plunged on.
From the front, Taichi smirked at him. "Whatsamatter, Daisuke, can't handle a little zing?"
"It almost," Daisuke continued with an injured air, "made me hack up on the table."
"Wow," Ken murmured.
"That's all you can say? 'Wow'? How 'bout helping me plan my revenge?"
"Come on, Daisuke. You know you're just going to tip his kayak first chance you get."
Two whole sentences! And even a note of exasperation. All was not lost.
"But imagine how much more beautifully it'll pull off if you help."
"That's right," Taichi interjected loudly, "go on talking about revenge, it's not like I'm in the same car with you or anything."
"Kayaks are easy to get stuck in. He might drown," Ken pointed out.
"Then I will gallantly dash to his rescue and perform CPR," Daisuke declared. "Then he'll owe his life to me and I'll make him pay his debt by hauling my second ramen cart. It's brilliant."
Taichi groaned. "Just let me drown, okay?"
A bit of color had returned to Ken's pale face. Good. And that was definitely a hint of Ken's old bemused smile. Daisuke let himself relax. Fighting with Ken put a crick in his neck which made him feel sixty rather than sixteen. Nothing was exactly fixed between them – yet – but at least he'd managed to scale that damn wall.
They parked in a lot on a hill and followed a sloping trail into the woods with their luggage strapped to their backs. It was a bit of a hike, but after their adventure in the mountains of Server no one was about to complain. On reaching their isolated campsite, Hiroaki gathered his rod and tackle and took off for the boat rental. The kids were left to "unpack," which they did as swiftly as possible by dumping their bags and mess kits in a jumbled heap on the floor of the little cabin. They'd improved, Taichi remarked, considering last year not everything made it indoors before, as such things go, orderliness gave way to the swampy heat and lure of the lake.
When Sora and her passengers came tramping through the trees not twenty minutes later, they found a trail of clothes already strewn across the grass toward the edge of the water, and their friends splashing around in their swimsuits. Squatting among them on a large rock was Taichi, in threadbare jean shorts and bare feet, presiding over the scene like an indulgent mother. Sora waved him over. As he jogged up the grassy slope, the tan line at his ankles stood out like a warm brown stripe.
"Need help with your stuff?"
"A little," Sora admitted with a wry tip of her mouth. "I'd forgotten how much those three tend to pack – Koushirou-kun with his gadgets and Jou with his motto of 'think of the worst thing that could happen and prepare for something even worse than that.'"
"And Mimi-chan with her own version of that motto," Taichi smirked. "Let me guess, Koushirou's already in there setting up for wi-fi?"
"We'll need it to open the Gate," huffed a voice within the cabin, sounding somewhat insulted.
Taichi exchanged a look of mischief with Sora. Then he hefted a par of duffels from the trunk and bounded up the cabin steps with a salute of "Morning, princess!" to Mimi, who stood in the doorway.
By the time they got everything indoors, and Sora had satisfied her much abused sense of tidiness by kicking the unpacked bags against the walls so that at least walking around wasn't so much like a game of Battleship, Koushirou had finished fixing them up with Internet. In a surge of electricity, twelve Digimon landed neatly inside the cabin. It was like turning on a radio at full volume. Biyomon flung herself at Sora with all the momentum of a torpedo, while the others broke away in a din of excitement to join their partners.
Even Jou ended up in the lake that day, unable to refuse Gomamon anything now that he was feeling better. (An hour later he was back in the shade with a bright, angry burn across his shoulders, in spite of having smothered himself in sun screen.) The air was bright with chirrupy birds and roughhousing children. It wasn't the same as having the campout in Digiworld, Sora reflected, but the spot was very nice. They were surrounded by trees and utterly secluded. Only Hiroaki knew that not all of the voices ringing through the branches were human; they could see his boat floating indifferently on the waves toward the center of the lake.
"Viva la vida loca!" Daisuke crowed, taking a flying leap off the dock. The splash caught Miyako in the face, and soon she'd enlisted Takeru to help her chase Daisuke out of deep water. Iori and Koushirou were talking quietly on a beach blanket, Tentomon and Armadillomon spread on their stomachs beside them. Ken and Wormmon had taken themselves under a tree to read, and Taichi and Mimi were play-fighting in the shallows, laughing and yelping like a pair of puppies, their shins streaked with mud.
"It's so pretty here!" Biyomon exclaimed, fluttering down from the treetops to settle beside her partner.
"I'm glad you approve." Sora flicked her glance to the main reason they couldn't go to Digiworld in the first place, who was currently staggering in water-logged swim trunks as he fended off Mimi's attempts to pinch his ears. He hadn't said a word, but Sora knew he couldn't be enjoying this trip as much as appearances suggested. Then the thought, at least he's still around for it, flashed through her mind unbidden. She shoved it aside, but her mood was already spoiled.
Hikari lay on a blanket next to her with Gatomon. They'd been talking with Sora about high school earlier, until Hikari fell into a doze. Sora was surprised Gatomon wanted to be out in the sun with all her fur.
… Speaking of fur, where's Gabumon got to?
When Gabumon heard that Yamato wouldn't arrive till Saturday evening at the earliest, his ears drooped and he sagged into his haunches. But he was happy for Yamato, he said. He couldn't really understand what made this such a golden opportunity, but of course he was glad, and he hoped Yamato would have a chance to play his harmonica at the concert. Then Agumon swept him off to do something that didn't involve water, but Agumon was back with Taichi now, and Gabumon nowhere to be seen.
"Biyomon, you don't know where Gabumon is, do you?"
"Oh, he's looking for food."
"For food? But we brought everything we need."
"He just said he wants to pitch in."
Sora stood. "Can you take me to him?"
He was lonely for sure, she thought as Biyomon led her through the woods. They found him below a ledge near the spidering roots of a wide old tree, sniffing mushrooms in the dark soil. It took some management for Sora to get herself to where he was, as hunks of dirt broke off with each step she took. When she dropped to the earth, Gabumon came up to her with his paws cupped around a clump of mushrooms and berries.
"I was thinking of making these into a stew," he said in his familiar gentle, sleepy tone.
Sora bent to pick stray leaves and twigs out of his pelt. "It's really sweet of you, Gabumon. We can ask Koushirou to look online and make sure those are safe to eat." She studied him for a moment. "You guys were really brave in the fight with Baihumon."
He lit up. "Thanks. It was definitely one of our more memorable battles. Though I'm still not sure about handing over the Omega Sword."
"Yeah, what are we supposed to do if Baihumon decides to go back on his promise?" Biyomon asked, ruffling her feathers.
"Hopefully Gennai will come through for us in that event," Sora said slowly. This was one subject she didn't like to dwell on. Not just because of the threat Baihumon posed – also because he was a Sovereign, and if one Sovereign had it out for them, what was to stop the others from doing the same? According to Gennai, none of the them but Azulongmon cared overmuch about the well-being of the young, very mortal adventurers in their midst.
"I suppose it won't matter if I can't digivolve anyway," Gabumon said.
She started. "Why wouldn't you be able to digivolve?"
"I can't without Yamato," he answered placidly, "and every year he gets more wrapped up in his life in this world. That's how it should be. I always liked listening to his music. It makes people happy, because he puts so much love into it."
The compliments to Yamato's music made something in her chest ache. "Yamato wouldn't ever ditch you. If you need his help, he'll be there. You know that," was all she said.
"Of course. But if it's a lot of trouble for him to come to Digiworld these days, I think I will retire."
"Gabumon," Biyomon cried.
"Only if that's what he wants," Gabumon said placatingly.
"But Gabumon, what about what you want?" Sora persisted, scratching the fur at the base of his horn, his favorite spot. "Because, to be honest, I don't think Yamato knows."
"Knows what I want or what he wants?"
"I want Yamato to be happy," Gabumon said. "I got everything I ever dreamed of when I met him."
He took another whiff of his collection while Sora stared at him in bemusement, and popped a mushroom in his mouth.
"Hmm. Needs salt."
There was one fundamental difference between the children and the Digimon. Nothing so base as the absence of fur or feathers or the ability to breathe fire. It wasn't a popular topic for discussion. Koushirou would delve into it, sometimes, in the realm of theory, but his musings tapered off before they reached any height. That difference was their objects of desire.
The Chosen Children had endless dreams. The fact that Yamato's were ripe to be realized did not mean he dreamt any bigger than the others. There was Daisuke's ramen cart. Jou's medical degree. Hikari's teaching license. The book Takeru wouldn't admit he wanted to write someday. Takenouchi Toshiko's pre-War kimono collection that Sora longed to expand.
Dreams of falling in love. Of having children. Of sending his tired, hardworking mother, who clipped every picture of Paris from her magazines, on a trip to see the real thing.
Of sharing the secret that caused most of his headaches, as if it had grown so large that it pushed against the walls of his cranium until they fractured.
Of traveling to different countries. Of speaking at least two languages and achieving moderate fluency in three more.
Of being about two inches shorter.
Of being two inches taller, and becoming more like the brother who had been her shelter whether the storm lashed or a spring shower caught her unawares.
Of fixing all his mistakes, going back in time and stopping himself, no matter what that took, no matter how it changed his future.
Of proving herself to her mother without changing for her.
Of having a thousand friends and never being lonely, ever again.
Of letting loose a barbaric howl that slashed the night air to ribbons.
Of kisses on a park bench amid binders of long Latin words and fortifying cups of coffee.
Of being followed, and leading them all to a better, stronger place.
The Digimon had only one dream. To be with you. To be for you, and you to be for me, and us to be together.
To be with you. With you. To be.
"Ooh! Look at that rock over there! It's got a mane like a lion!"
"Right there! That crevice, that's its eye! Wait, you might need to come to this angle."
"… Yeah, still not seeing it."
"How can you not see it? It's freaking Mufasa!"
"You're making it up. Wait – oh, there it is! Hi, Mufasa!"
"Take a picture for me?"
Hikari tossed her camera to Miyako, who dropped her paddle to grab it with both hands. "I can't believe I caught that," she giggled.
"Me either," said Sora from her place near the nose of their canoe. Her voice was strained. "You guys are going to drop it in the water if you keep throwing it back and forth."
"It'll be fine!" Miyako leaned over the side, looking close to falling in herself as she snapped the picture. Once she was happy with the result, she wound her arm back and threw the camera back to Hikari in the canoe she shared with Mimi.
Mimi threw her head back and laughed. "Sora-san, you look like you're going to be sick."
"Don't worry, Sora-san, if there's a chance the camera will get wet, I'll swing down and grab it first," Hawkmon reassured her as he surfed the air above them.
"Or I will," Biyomon piped in.
"Or me," added Palmon, swinging her vine-like appendages.
"Good, because I won't," grumbled Gatomon, who'd only been enticed to come with them by the chance of catching a fish. She shot a leery glance over the edge of the canoe.
Though the canoe he shared with Daisuke was some distance away from the girls, Ken could hear their bubbly chatter carried on the breeze. Silently, he stroked the water with his oar.
"They sure are loud," Daisuke commented. Light flashed off his goggles like a torch.
"We're going to lose them if we don't catch up soon," Ken said.
Daisuke shrugged. "That's okay. We're on higher orders." He paused for a second, making a little bob forward and squinting. "Damn him. He's got his eye on us."
Ken followed his gaze to Taichi and Koushirou's canoe. They'd gone out on a "scientific voyage" to chart the lay of the land, though the only one who seemed to be doing any charting was Koushirou – Taichi reclined in the back taking the brunt of the rowing, and intermittently spying on Ken and Daisuke with his little silver telescope. (Ken was not sure why the campsite needed charting anyway. Probably Koushirou was just bored.) Taichi had good reason to spy. His boat was expected to mysteriously capsize if he weren't careful, after all.
"We're never gonna get close enough at this rate," Daisuke grumbled. "That's it. Ken, we have no other choice. We have to switch to submarine mode."
"I don't think our canoe has a 'submarine mode,'" Ken replied tolerantly.
"Veemon." Daisuke took his partner by the shoulders. "You have to swim under them and push them over."
"No way!" Veemon snipped.
"For me, Veemon. For queen and for country. And if those don't work, think of all the milkshakes that stand to be ruined if fiends like Taichi-san are allowed to go unpunished."
Veemon looked doubtfully at the water. "I'll have to stay underwater all the way over there, right? I can't hold my breath that long."
"We'll give you a straw."
"Whatever," Daisuke griped, letting his oar drop with a bit more drama than necessary. He propped his chin in his hand, setting his glare at Ken's knees.
It was all Ken could do not to smile. He put down his own paddle, and the canoe drifted aimlessly on the lazy sunlit lake. Wormmon climbed up Veemon's back and clung to his head as they watched the fish swim by. For a while they floated in silence, but Daisuke kept shifting with restless energy, and Ken knew it couldn't last. He dreaded what might happen if Daisuke were the one to choose their next topic of conversation.
"How are your ribs?" he asked hesitantly.
Daisuke blinked. "Um, okay I think." He lifted his shirt and poked around a few times. Ugly bruises mottled his chest. "Kinda twinges. I maybe shouldn't've swum so much earlier."
Those bruises looked more painful than Daisuke would admit. But the boundless energy of the junior team leader couldn't be stoppered by anything less than a vegetative state, Ken reflected wryly. At least nothing was broken.
"I'm sorry," he heard himself say, surprised when his voice cracked.
"It's not your fault." Daisuke scowled. "You didn't hit yourself with a crowbar and accidentally trip over a vortex that lets in a bunch of demon beasts. Man, I don't get how you can trust them after that."
And now he'd opened up the very subject he'd meant to steer away from. His subconscious was a loathsome traitor. "I don't trust them. But I stand by what I said."
"What you said when?"
"At the park with Kawada Noriko."
"You mean about making sacrifices and letting people make bad decisions if there's the teeniest smidgen of a reason why they might be justified?"
"About showing them friendship and understanding," Ken shot back, "instead of accusations."
"To people who hit you with a crowbar."
Ken shook his head. "Kumagai is on a level of his own. He's all raw nerves. I don't know if we can reach him, but the others… it's too early to write them off as hopeless."
"Dunno, finding out that if they do something, they could turn Tokyo into a barren wasteland, and then deciding to keep at it ain't a very hopeful sign, if you ask me."
Perhaps it was just that he was so on edge these days. Perhaps the heat had taken its toll. But he couldn't take that comment in the way it was meant, somewhat droll and matter-of-fact. No matter how right it might be, it agitated every fiber of his body, every cell.
His hasty change in posture caught the attention of Wormmon, who came scurrying to latch himself to Ken's leg. "You're right, it's not a very hopeful sign," Ken said coolly. "That's why I wonder how I even came to be here right now. I mean, back when I was the Emperor, I don't remember giving you guys too many indications that I would ever change. In fact, I'm pretty sure the crap I pulled went way beyond anything these kids have done."
"Let's see, there's the time I tried to make you pick which of your friends would die an excruciating death. The time I captured Agumon and then put him through one nightmarish experiment after another. Or how about all the Digimon I forced to fight each other gladiator-style, under the influence of those goddamned Dark Rings, while I watched from my 'throne' and laughed at them, laughed at the sight of friends ripping each other to shreds, their misery made me happy –"
"Ken!" Daisuke's expression had changed. "Stop."
"Ken-chan," pleaded Wormmon.
"– the time I built my own monstrosity by a game of mix-and-match, a reflection of my hatred and destructiveness, and when I couldn't control it any more than I could my own pathetic life, it took away the only one who knew everything and still cared about me. The only good thing in my life. All things considered, I don't know why you ever forgave me, let alone accepted me as a Chosen. You should've kicked me to the curb with Kumagai and the rest."
He lifted his head, not sure when he'd dropped it into his arms. His vision was a blur of tears. The insistent nudge at his shirt was Wormmon, now in his lap and clucking commiseratively. Then Daisuke, who had been gawking at him from his end of the boat as he'd been struck by a brick, suddenly lunged forward and flung himself around Ken's shoulders. Astonished, Ken found his nose pressed into Daisuke's shirt, just under his collar bone, the scent of him filling his nostrils.
It wasn't a hug – not quite. More like a rather cartoonish rendering of a half-nelson. Daisuke was a very physical type, and when his words failed him he tended to react on impulse. Whatever he was thinking, it had the intended effect. Ken's jaw snapped shut as if on automatic. A moment passed before he realized Daisuke was speaking.
"Everything back then sucked." The hand at his neck tightened its grip almost imperceptibly. "I'm so freaking stupid. I don't know how to make any of it better. I'm stupid and I don't know how to show you that you're a good person. You saved the world, Ken. You did. You went through some serious garbage and a lot of jerks took advantage of you. If you insist on feeling guilty about what they made you do, I don't know how to help. But you're a different person now. You're my best friend, you came through for everyone, and damned if it's not the bravest thing I ever saw."
Ken's heartbeat about stopped midway through Daisuke's speech. He'd forgotten how vulnerable he was to his friend's unreserved candor.
"Daisuke, we – we're going to tip over if you don't –"
"Wha? Oh. Whoops. Sorry, Veemon."
Said Digimon had thrown himself bodily at Daisuke's deserted seat in an effort to balance the weight of the canoe, not that his thirty-pound self could make much of a difference. Water had sloshed over the edge and pooled at Ken's feet. Daisuke scrambled back to the bow end. The back of Ken's neck felt unnaturally cold once his hand was removed.
"Heh heh. That was close. Taichi-san would never let me live it down if I came out here to push him in and fell in myself." When Ken said nothing, Daisuke's grin fell. "Look," he sighed. "There's one big difference between you and those kids. When you were the Emperor I fought you with everything I had. Same as I'm doing now. But you changed, and you decided to try to fix what you could, even though you were by yourself. That's why I trust you, Ken. Who knows, maybe those kids'll figure their lives out and we won't have to fight them. Until that happens, though, I'm not gonna act like what they're doing is okay."
That was, Ken had to admit, eminently fair of him. So they'd only managed to maintain the status quo, but at least they understood each other better now. "Just promise me you won't go out of your way to antagonize them."
"I'll try," Daisuke said, growling a little as he leaned back on his elbows, "but that Kumagai will be better off keeping a lid on it than trusting in my patience."
"You don't have much to spare," Ken agreed.
With his head tilted so that the cords of his neck stood out, and the wind ruffling his shirt, Daisuke looked the picture of summer indolence. His words from moments before scrolled through Ken's memory: 'you're my best friend, you came through for everyone, and damned if it's not the bravest thing I ever saw.' How Daisuke put up with a wreck like him, how he stooped to pick up the pieces Ken himself couldn't be bothered to reach even on his good days, would probably always be a mystery. But if Ken was the brave one, then not a saint in a hagiography could match Motomiya Daisuke in kindness.
Petting Wormmon, his gaze slid to the lake. "Looks like Taichi-san and Koushirou-san are getting ready to head in."
"So they are."
"We can still catch them if we paddle really hard. Koushirou-san's not much of an oarsman."
"I'll swim under them if you give me that straw," Veemon offered.
"Eh, it's okay."
"Come on, I know how much you want to see Taichi-san with his wet shirt plastered to his pectorals."
His friend's head shot up, crimson flooding his sun-tanned cheekbones. He gaped at Ken in amazement. "What – I never said –"
"It's a joke, Daisuke." Ken cocked his head, ignoring certain rueful pangs the sight of Daisuke's red face gave him.
The corner of one brown eye twitched uncertainly. "Oh. Haha."
"I bet it'd be something, though."
He actually flushed a shade darker. "Well, we might as well. He'd never let me live it down if I didn't at least try, either." Picking up his oar, he started turning the canoe in the direction of the dock. Ken grabbed his own to help – as he always did. As he always would – while Veemon and Wormmon snickered in the middle of the boat.
The Dunking-Of-Taichi went off without a hitch, thanks to the fact that Taichi had been balancing precariously with one foot on the dock and one in the canoe when Daisuke and Ken paddled by. Of course, they'd made a slight miscalculation, which they discovered when Taichi's next move was to swim over and topple their boat from beneath. And, once they were all well saturated, it seemed a pity not to make sure every one of the other Chosen got a special dousing as well. So they sneaked into the cabin and returned with an arsenal of water balloons, which they lobbed mercilessly at their shrieking friends, until everyone's legs had turned to jelly and the ground was littered in a profusion of brightly colored shreds.
"Can everyone hear me? More or less? Okay, good. Doesn't matter if Daisuke can't hear, he never listens anyway."
"How you all doing tonight?"
Mimi joined the other Chosen and Digimon gathered around the makeshift stage (a couple of overturned milk crates that had been holding logs and kindling) as they let up a rollicking cheer. Behind them, the blaze in the fire pit hissed and spat in the twilight. Taichi, playing emcee, raised his hands imperiously and the noise died down.
"Not too shabby, sounds like, eh," he about cackled as he flung Mimi's costume feather boa around his neck. He'd also nicked a fluorescent orange life vest and a pair of blue-tinted clown glasses. Garish and tacky were the words of the day. On his neck were a pair of butterfly temporary tattoos which Mimi had affixed herself while he was washing dishes and couldn't escape. She gazed on her handiwork with pride, even though he'd already managed to rub off the antennae.
"Welcome, Digimon and Digi-friends, to our fourth annual summer campout extravaganza. We're doing things a little differently this year, but it's just a different kind of fun. It's a cozy cabin, in'it? Sure, you won't find hot water or mints on your pillows, the floors were laid down in the 50s and haven't been cleaned in almost as long, and it looks like something's growing in the latrines. But that's all part of the rustic charm. Plus, the chances of your tent going up in flames because it's in the middle of a feud between two Tyrannomon are significantly fewer. So that's something. Though, given Jou's luck, it could happen anyway."
"Don't give the big man in the toga any ideas," Jou groaned, jabbing a thumb at the sky.
Titters rippled through the group. Taichi waited them out, twirling one end of the boa in loops. "Let's kick things off with some testimonials. How about we start with you." He pinned Mimi with a look, as if she were a newly added insect in his collection. She supposed this was revenge for trying to prank him all day. "You look like a woman just brimming with mystique. A femme fatale, if you will. Please begin by telling the audience your name, age, blood type, star sign, Chinese Zodiac sign, the sine of a 45 degree angle, your favorite taco topping, and the last time you wet your bed."
"Tachikawa Mimi-chan! Sixteen! Type O! Libra! Snake! Root two over two! Sour cream! And femmes fatales are born potty-trained!" Mimi fired off into the knobby stick Taichi had made up his mind was a microphone.
He whistled. "We've got a live one! So, Mimi-chan, what do you look forward to most about our campout?"
"Tacos!" shouted Takeru.
"Baked beans!" bellowed Daisuke from where he sat shoveling the leftovers from dinner into his mouth.
"I'm asking Mimi!" Taichi shook his head and put out his hand to help her onto a crate. "Come where everyone can see you. Ignore these jokers. They're just jealous of your skills with the curling iron. What do you look forward to most?"
"That's easy. Seeing Palmon, of course," Mimi giggled as her partner blushed happily.
"Alrighty then, what do you look forward to least?"
Taichi raised his arms. "Like these?"
"Those are magnificent. Ten-ten."
"I thought they were pretty macho and impressive."
"Now keep away."
"Aw, just one hug –"
It was amazing how that smirk of his only ever seemed to grow. One day it would shoot off his face like an overstretched rubber band and smack someone in the eye. That person would probably marry him for it, too.
"Final question. If you could have one wish granted this year, what would it be?"
Daisuke began shouting again. "Your questions suck!"
"Oh my God, Taichi, what did you do, swallow a Care Bear?" Sora added.
"Oy! Who organized this shindig? When you get off your lazy asses and put together an event, which took enormous effort and personal sacrifice on my part, then and only then can you make your own questions," he responded loftily. "I'm not feeling the love here. Come on, guys, where's the love?"
"Why don't you check with the Care Bears?"
"You're all going to wake up tomorrow covered in silly string," Taichi growled.
While the baiting continued, Mimi's glanced over to where Jou stood with Gomamon draped on his shoulders. He was in khaki shorts and a collared T-shirt, with a visor on his head that gave him the air of a new hire on his way to lose at miniature golf with his boss. His nose and ears looked like cooked lobster. The utter Jou-ness of the picture he made reminded her of long days passed wandering through the woods with the peak of Spiral Mountain their dogged pursuer, a time when she felt nothing but fear, except when he came up beside her. Talking, in spite of the war that rode at their heels, about only practical things. What they would eat and when they were running out of water. To make sure the fire was properly put out before they moved on. How often to change the wrappings on Ogremon's arm, and how the best way to get him to sit still for it was to tell him Leomon could sit like stone, without even breathing. Things that kept her rooted in the present while time slipped like rice through her fingers.
What wish would she have granted? She wanted to kiss him. She wanted to, so she would. Before the night was over.
Their enthusiastic emcee had other, less sentimental surprises in store that soon had a privileged few regretting their snide remarks, after they'd been subjected to the ritual pie-in-the-face. Then Miyako put on some music, the Digimon vied for possession of the whipped cream can, and everyone else broke out the marshmallows.
Catching Jou alone proved more of a challenge than Mimi had expected. He wouldn't stray more than a few feet from Gomamon, for one thing, but that was okay. Their partners sometimes felt like extensions of themselves, and privacy was a non-issue. Of more concern was the way he seemed glued to the other Chosen – helping Sora impale marshmallows on skewers, huddling by the fire pit with Iori and Takeru, joining Taichi, Daisuke, Miyako, and Koushirou in the construction of a s'mores version of the Rainbow Bridge. He made the rounds, hobnobbed with everyone – except her.
It couldn't be on purpose. Sora's report of their meet-up at Seaside Terrace had been nothing but positive. She'd definitely heard the phrases "she has a warm heart" and "I like how I feel when I'm with her" mentioned. Yes, there'd been some talk of geographical distance and conflicting personality traits, but so what. Mimi managed to keep in touch with her Japanese friends no problem, even after living in the US for years. Long distance was a problem, but not an insurmountable one. As for the rest, differences were what made people fun. Mimi knew her share of people. No one wanted to date themself. Except Narcissus. And Gilderoy Lockhart.
She only had a couple days left before a plane came to fly her across the ocean, to New York and soft pretzels and goggle-eyed pigeons whose vapid fearlessness around humans made it a miracle they hadn't gone the way of the dodo. Part of her was ready to go home. Maria had emailed her about a Green Day concert in a few weeks. And track and field would resume when school did.
But ever since this trouble in Digiworld began, the thought of going home left her with a hollow feeling. Like once Tokyo harbor vanished from the plane window, everything she'd done this summer would disappear with it. Like it wouldn't be real. Track meets, homework, shopping with Maria, the homecoming dance. That was the life waiting for her in New York.
She needed an anchor in this life.
Finally her chance came when the last of the sunset had drained away, the sky a serene indigo mantle. While Mimi was helping Palmon clean her vines of s'more damage, Hikari came by passing out packets of sparklers. She looked around for Jou and realized she'd lost sight of him.
"Hikari-chan, where's Jou-senpai?"
"I think Gomamon wanted to swim again."
Sure enough, she found Jou and his old sea dog of a Digimon at the boat dock, Gomamon gliding carefree through the water, while Jou crouched on the slimy planks watching over him.
He glanced up as she joined him. "Oh, hey, Mimi-kun."
"Hey," she returned, self-consciously touching her hair. "He just can't keep on land for long, can he?" she said, bending down next to him.
"Nah," Jou agreed. "It's been a long time since we were last stuck in a desert for days on end. We old fogeys don't have that kind of stamina anymore."
"Speak for yourself," said Gomamon. Before Jou could reply, he made a sudden dive after a fish.
Sighing, Jou dropped down on his rear, cured for the night of his need to be immaculate. He scratched at his left leg with the heel of his sandal. Mimi wondered if he wanted her gone. She wondered what he would do if she just kissed him, right now, with a dirty bum and the burned skin on his nose already peeling. Probably go into anaphylactic shock. It still might be worth it.
"Want to do sparklers with me?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Sure."
She ripped the packet open with her teeth. An avalanche of fragile senkou hanabi sticks poured into her hands. After he took one, she returned the rest to their packet and left it on the dock. Then she realized: "I don't have a lighter."
"I do," Jou said, pulling one out of his pocket.
She narrowed her eyes. "Why do you have that? You're not a closet smoker, are you?"
"No way. That stuff can kill you." He let her pinch the tip of the sparkler between her fingertips as he fumbled to ignite the downward end. "It's from home, and I brought it in case the others forgot to pack theirs, so we wouldn't end up trying to start a fire by rubbing sticks together."
"Aw, that's thoughtful. Though we would just let Agumon start the fires, in that case."
"Yeah, well, what if he had a sore throat?"
"Gabumon and Biyomon too?"
"It could be an epidemic."
She shook her head with a laugh. "That's just like you. You think of everything."
"Well, it works out now." At last the flame caught and the little sparkler began to shine and hiss. Thin ringlets of smoke escaped into the night as they watched the coruscating gleam climb the stick, entranced.
If a moment could be called perfect, this was it. Jou's body heat like a cloud beside her, the face of the moon on the lake. The noise of the campsite was a familiar, reassuring ambience in the back of her mind.
She didn't want to lose the magic once the sparkler fizzed out. "Hey, Jou-senpai, can I tell you something?"
"That depends on what it is you want to tell me." He sounded nervous, as if his throat were tight.
She floundered for a second, but brushed it off. Nervous sometimes seemed his default state, after all. "What could I tell you that you wouldn't want to hear?"
"I don't know. That you've got warts on your toes or something."
"Or that you eat your boogers."
"I do not." She tossed her head. "I am a femme fatale, remember?" Which maybe wasn't the most auspicious thing to say, considering.
"Yeah, you're a regular Helen of Troy."
"That's true," she nodded. "I do think men would start a war over me."
"If, by 'men,' you mean 'Gekomon and Otamamon.'"
She pouted. "You're sucking all the romance out of being compared to Helen of Troy."
"That's not much of a romance. It's a tragedy. Heroes dropping one after the other."
"Let's talk about something else," she said hastily, sensing the Homeric epics were blithely sabotaging her best efforts. Efforts that would never reach fruition if she let herself get distracted, though his shyness was alarmingly endearing. She leaned into him a little, and pounced. "Jou-senpai, have I ever –"
"Oatmeal," Jou blurted out.
She stared at him. "… Um, what?"
"I forgot to bring the oatmeal." Why was he suddenly standing? "I knew I was forgetting something. I can't believe it, I checked off the entire list before we left. It was checked. I bet the box is lying there on the counter still."
"Could you forget about the oatmeal for a second? We're supposed to do pancakes tomorrow anyway."
"Pancakes." He groaned like an old, tumbledown shed. "Nothing but sugar and carbs. I've condemned us all to malnutrition." Taking out his phone, he called up GPS. "Maybe there's a market near the boat rental."
"You don't have to deal with that now," she said, tugging insistently at his arm. "No one cares if we don't have oatmeal tomorrow morning. Seriously, no one. Taichi-san always makes it with hot water instead of milk so it gets all pasty and gross, and the rest of us will have to take refuge in pancakes anyway. Come on. Please?"
It was dark, and their sparkler had petered out, but somehow she knew he was loosening his collar, and probably wishing he had knee socks or a tie to straighten, so his big, awkward hands would have something to do. Where had her confidence gone?
"I'm trying to tell you I like you." It came out like a barb, loaded with frustration. Dammit. Things had gone much smoother with Michael; he'd asked her out by covering her locker in heart-shaped stickers, which admittedly took forever to pick off at the end of the year, but the sentiment had knocked her silly at the time.
Jou seemed knocked silly himself.
"That came out wrong," Mimi said, taking his clammy palms. "I mean, not wrong – that is, I like you. And I was wondering if you'd like to go out with me sometime. On a date."
At least she'd finished strong. He hesitated a moment, and doubt started to creep up on her again, but then he squeezed her hands.
"But you're going home in a few days, and we probably won't see each other for a year."
"Sooner than that," she protested. "I'm planning to come for New Year's. And we'll run into each other in Digiworld. And there's always the Internet."
"When I'm online, I'm always studying. I can't chat and study at the same time."
"You could take a break. Some people take breaks. Contrary to what you may have heard, they don't spontaneously combust after."
"Oh, you've followed up with every single one, have you?" he said, jokingly. Turning away from her, he dipped his fingers in the lake and went on: "It's not a good idea, Mimi-kun."
"Yes, it is! It's a great idea. In fact, you and me are my best idea ever."
He shook his head. "I've thought it through since talking to Sora-kun, and –"
"What? Did she say something bad about me?" Heart in her throat, filled with an urgency to find someone to blame who was Not Him and Not Herself either, she spoke without thinking. "It figures, I let her in on my secrets and she has to think the worst of me for it. You'd think I haven't changed at all since I was ten."
"She didn't say anything 'bad' about you," he interrupted testily. "As if she would. I made my own choice, and, frankly, this is one of the reasons why."
"Your childishness," he said, which was horrible of him, to just say it like that, like he told people who asked him out that they were childish every day. If he'd shouted it, at least it would justify how much she felt like she'd been slapped.
"Oh," she said. And, "Okay."
"I'm sorry if that's harsh, Mimi-kun. You know I think you're a great person. And I'm childish too, in my own way. We're just different. You like to flirt and gossip and need to always be entertained, and I'd like nothing better than to dig a hole in the ground and stay there studying until finals. But we're not in elementary school anymore. I'm trying to learn to be an adult."
"And you think I'd hold you back?"
"Not on purpose. It's just, we live in different worlds."
"Unless the multiverse has converged and you're actually a parallel Kido Jou who also got sunburned this morning, I'm pretty sure we live in the same world," she scoffed. The sarcasm is strong with this one, the echo of Taichi in her mind added sagely.
"You know what I mean."
"No, I really don't. I'm not being difficult." Well, maybe a little, she was. But only because he made a rejection (rejection!) feel like a break-up. "I just don't see why you won't even give me a chance. We always have fun together, don't we?"
"Fun isn't the best basis for a relationship."
"Maybe not, but I think it's a pretty good start."
"Well, there's another way we're different."
Mimi crossed her arms over her chest. Not because she was angry, because she wanted to get small. So small that the hurt couldn't find her. Her eyes smarted. "Next time you turn down a girl who asks you out, cut the explanations to the bare minimum," she advised him. "'No thanks, I'm not looking for that right now' is really all you need. Really."
"You asked me why," Jou replied with a hint of annoyance.
"Excuse me for being human," she snapped. Then she whirled around, her ponytail a whip in the air, and stalked off for the cabin while he stood watching her, the packet of sparklers upended and scattered like a game of pick-up-sticks around his feet.
No, she hadn't expect him to turn her down. Maybe that was conceited of her, but she'd thought she knew how he felt. But maybe it was all her projecting her own desires onto him, there was nothing really between them, only friendship and a general concern for each other's well-being, because they were used to being concerned about it. Old habits die hard.
It was stupid, so stupid to get this worked up over a rejection. Now she understood how far she'd been riding the high, anticipating happiness simply because she wanted it. Planning the future of the future. Counting chickens instead of counting blessings. Flagrantly overusing proverbs.
She was pathetic. She wanted a cozy blanket and a shallow movie and a gallon of chocolate-chocolate ice cream. What she had was a sleeping bag and the last of the marshmallows. She ate them robotically, hoping he wouldn't come in any time soon. Maybe he'd decide to sleep under the stars rather than share a room with her.
Maybe he'd wanted to shake her off his tail for a long time. Maybe that was why he hadn't come to pick her up at the airport. To him she would always be the tag-along little sister-type who couldn't do much for herself, often annoying but too vapid to stay angry at for long. In his mind's eye she'd never changed out of that frosted cupcake dress she'd worn to feel like a princess. If only she hadn't gone for the crown too. Even she thought that was overkill.
Taichi was up too early. Too. Damn. Early. So early that he actually had to throw on a sweatshirt after squirming out of his sleeping bag to combat the lingering chill. He'd only had three hours of sleep, and while he could run on less, it tended to make him absent-minded and grouchy. He was only human, after all.
Agumon and Gabumon, nested together, kept on snoring peacefully as he got up and went outside. There'd always been something about summer mornings Taichi loved. In the weak dawn, with the birds an indomitable discordant choir, the promise of a sweltering afternoon settled into a contented calm where no one felt obliged to do much of anything. He sat on the front steps and gazed at the white gold cresting the ripples in the lake.
He'd almost dozed off against the railing when a buzz in his pocket made him jump. Whoever was calling him at this hour ought to be clothes-pinned to the line by their ears. He took out his phone and answered without checking the ID.
"I want a role."
Taichi blinked sluggishly. "Me too. With butter. And cinnamon."
"Not that kind, idiot," Yamato's voice hissed. "My role on the team. I want it. You asked me to think about it, and I did. Digiworld comes first."
"… Yamato, where are you right now?"
"At Prince Hotel in Yokohama."
"Jitou's putting us up," Yamato explained with a note of discomfort. There were few things he liked less than a hand-out. But Taichi imagined it wasn't easy to say no to your idol.
"Bet you're getting the superstar treatment too. Five star restaurants, Jacuzzis, streams of fan girls chasing your taxi and shrieking –"
"Stop it." He sounded embarrassed.
"Just messing with you," Taichi said. He paused and worried his lip for a moment. "So. You've decided you want your role on the team."
"You know that means, with Digiworld as unpredictable as it's been lately, I could be calling for your help at any time?"
"Yeah, I know."
"And that we'll be in a real jam if we're relying on you and you can't get away?"
"And that that could happen right in the middle of your big time show?"
A sigh. "Yeah. I know, Taichi. I've thought it through."
"For, like, a day."
"I don't need any longer," he said impatiently. "I'm a Chosen, first and foremost. Everything else can wait if it has to."
His pitch suddenly skyrocketed. "Look, I don't even know if I want this job. Yesterday it all seemed too good to be true, the gig with Jitou, the pay-off, but now it's just hitting me – this could change everything, everything. I mean, I never planned to go to college, but if things go well next month, I could end up missing the rest of high school. Komori's talking tours, photo shoots, another single before the year is out. He's trying to make us the next hot thing."
"Isn't that what he's supposed to do?"
"I guess. It's happening so fast, though. I didn't expect… I thought there'd be more time."
Taichi lowered his head. "If you came to this decision because you're scared of the future, then I can't accept it."
"Stop," growled Yamato. "Don't go telling me what I feel. I know you think you 'know' me, but I am me. I'm ahead of you on this, Taichi, I'm the top of the class. I know it in my gut. We weren't brought to Digiworld all those years ago just to push it aside once we're adults. And I am with you guys. One hundred per cent."
He should keep arguing with him, Taichi thought. Make sure he really wasn't being hasty. People thought Taichi was the brash one, and Yamato the coolest cucumber in the patch. That was the general state of affairs, but Yamato had a brash streak of his own that usually manifested under duress.
He knew he should, but a big part of him didn't want to. Things were better when Yamato was there. He needed Yamato there. He'd tried to get him to consider his options because it was the right thing to do, but the truth was, Taichi couldn't imagine what would happen to him if Yamato had decided his career took precedence over Digiworld.
And he couldn't help feeling a huge sense of relief that now he didn't have to imagine.
So he said, "Okay," feeling guilty at the same time a weight fell off his shoulders. "If you say you're with us, I believe you."
"Better," Yamato said.
"So, what now? You gonna come down to the camp?"
"Tonight, I hope, but not till late. We have a few things planned for today. Most important is a show at the public hall."
"A show? Isn't that really last minute?"
"It's actually Jitou's friend's show. He slipped us into the line-up during dinner last night. We're only doing a couple songs, but you know, gotta snatch every opportunity that comes your way. And it's still the most impressive room we've ever performed."
"Cool. Well, good luck."
"You want to talk to Gabumon?"
"Is he awake?"
Taichi peered inside. Though he hadn't moved, Gabumon's eyes were open and fixed on the doorway as if he knew he'd be summoned if he just waited. It seemed all he could do not to jump in the air and try to fly when Taichi waved him over.
Taichi handed him the phone. "Call for you from He of the Luscious Locks. I'm going for a swim, look after my phone for me, alright?"
Gabumon nodded, brow scrunched as he tried to figure out how to manage a cell phone with his snout. As Taichi threw off his shirt and waded into the shocking cold water, he saw him whipping the phone back and forth from ear to mouth. He smiled to himself. They always managed. Somehow, no matter the odds, they always managed.
Ken watched Daisuke stare at the bundle in his hands. "Uh, what's in it, a roll of your dirty socks?"
"It's your birthday present."
"It's not socks." Ken rolled his eyes, about ready to open the wrapping himself.
"Good, 'cause I'm not a house-elf." Daisuke gave the present a shake, frowning as he listened closely. "Is it the answers to all the high school entrance exams?"
"I think you overestimate my hacking ability."
"Is it a puppy?"
"You'll find out if you open it."
"Fine, fine." Daisuke flopped on his sleeping bag and juggled the present a few times before finally tearing into it. And tear into it he did. With his teeth.
"Hey, wait a minute, these are socks!" Scowling, Daisuke held up a pair of black socks printed with flames.
Ken grinned. "Yeah, but that's not all."
"Ooh." Daisuke's mouth made an O as he shook the socks out and a cascade of candies fell into his lap. Veemon jumped to his side instantly, already beginning to drool. "Ooooooh. Ken. Wow."
"I didn't know so much candy could fit in a sock. Not that I've ever thought about it before. Why haven't I thought about it before? That would be a great science fair project."
"Daisuke." Veemon pressed at his leg, eyes huge and round. "Can I…?"
"Yeah, sure. Dig in. You too," he added to the hopeful-looking Wormmon. The two Digimon leapt into the candy like it were a tempting pile of raked leaves.
They were the only ones in the cabin at present. The rest were outside flipping pancakes or hiking up the trail to the lodge to get shaved ice from the vendor. Hiroaki had left around sunrise to cast his rod again. (He was nursing a grudge against a rather daring catfish who'd made off with his bait three times without giving him a chance to reel it in.)
Ken's mother would turn green at the thought of her son eating candy before breakfast. She'd be the envy of Emerald City if she knew they were also planning to put chocolate in the pancake batter. Oh well. Ken unwrapped a hard caramel candy and licked it.
"So belated presents aren't so bad, huh?" he asked after they'd dedicated a few minutes to making satisfying sucking noises with their candies.
Daisuke nodded. "Belated presents are undeniably Great with a capital G. Maybe you should forget my birthday more often."
"I'll make an effort to forget next year too, then." Though he hadn't forgotten, per se. He'd been avoiding Daisuke, the act of which meant he missed delivering the present in a timely manner. But if Daisuke wanted to call it forgetting, that was fine with him.
"Hey, Ken," Daisuke said after a while.
Almost choking on the caramel as laughter caught him off-guard, Ken reached over and punched his friend's arm. "Geez, Daisuke, I almost died."
"'Geez-Daisuke-I-almost-died' does not begin with B."
Ken looked at him, impressed. "Did you revive this game solely to show off the fact that you now know an animal name that starts with E?"
"Beats 'iguana,' don't it," Daisuke said proudly.
Veemon and Wormmon opened a pack of gum next and set to seeing who could blow the largest bubble. Wormmon, having no luck at all, eventually adjusted the rules so that only Veemon blew bubbles and Wormmon got to pop them. It was while they were cleaning up the mess that resulted from this that the conversation took an unexpected turn.
"Let me guess. Aardvark? Or are we picking up from where we left off?"
"No, no. This is different. I… I have something I want to tell you."
Ken paused in scraping gum off the floor. Daisuke's mouth bunched to the side as it often did when he felt uncomfortable. Laying down his knife, Ken sat back on his knees and waited while Daisuke leveled an intense glare at a knot in the wood.
"I… you remember yesterday, when we were in the canoe?"
"Yes," Ken nodded. "I remember yesterday."
"Well, you remember how you said that the reason I wanted to knock Taichi-san into the water was just to see his… his…"
"Shirt plastered to his pectorals, I believe it was."
Daisuke's face colored. "Yeah. That. Well. The truth is – the truth is – I kind of do."
"Do what? Want to see Taichi-san's pecs? I think he's running around shirtless right now, actually." Taichi would no doubt go fully au naturel if there weren't thorns in the bushes.
"Yeah – I mean, not just his – I mean – I'm gay," Daisuke blurted out.
Ken let that hang in the air for a moment. "I see."
"I see? I tell you my engine's revved for dudes and all you can say is I see?"
"What would you prefer, 'leapin' lizards,' or 'well, I do declare'?"
"So, you don't mind?"
"I mind when you sneeze in my face instead of into a tissue. I definitely don't mind that you're gay. You really thought it would bother me?" he asked, trying not to sound hurt.
"No, I didn't, it's just…" Daisuke's eyes narrowed. He hunched forward with an expression of shock. "You didn't know, did you?"
"… Er, I –"
"You did know!" Daisuke shot to his feet. "You knew that I'm gay!"
"Well, it was only kind of a guess."
"You knew and you didn't tell me!"
"You wanted me to tell you that you're gay?"
"No! That you knew that I knew that I knew – that I am – you know!"
He stopped to catch his breath. (Veemon and Wormmon watched them, rapt, with lollipops dangling from their mouths.)
After giving Daisuke a moment to recover, and to wrap his mind around the fact that Ken had been one step ahead of him even in this, Ken gingerly patted his back. "It's true that I did come to the conclusion that you're gay," he admitted. "I'm sorry if that's upsetting. I just didn't want to force you to confide in me before you were ready. That's why I never brought it up."
He picked up a couple gummy bears and pressed a red one into Daisuke's palm. There. It was the gummy bear of reconciliation. Daisuke fiddled with it at first, but eventually bit its head off.
"So, when you were talking about me wanting to see Taichi-sans' pecs, you meant it?" he asked.
With a shrug, Ken shook out a few more gummies. "I was testing the waters. Sometimes I tried to give you openings in case you wanted to tell me but weren't sure how to start."
"Damn," Daisuke sighed.
"Really, I'm sorry."
"No, it's not you. You didn't do anything wrong. I just can't believe I could've gotten this off my chest ages ago!" He shook his head and chuckled. "Ah, figures."
"Can I just say, I don't think there's anyone on the team who would give you trouble over this," Ken pointed out. "And if they do, I'll kick their butt."
That elicited a grin, followed by a wicked look. "Thanks, but I fight my own battles. You're welcome to despoil them once I'm done, though."
"Deal," Ken said. Terms clarified, the two friends shook hands.
"Ahh, it feels good to have that over with." Daisuke groaned as he arched his back in a stretch.
"I'm glad you decided to tell me."
"It's not like I thought you'd ditch me or anything. It's just… kind of hard to say. Took me a while to admit it even to myself. And I don't have any practice with this sort of thing. You're the first person I told. Well, besides Veemon. And Jun, but she figured it out on her own too."
Coming in third wasn't too shabby. Third made Ken feel inexplicably warm. "Can I make another guess?" he asked. "When you say you want to look at Taichi-san, you really do mean Taichi-san."
There he went, fire engine red again. No, that was too cliché. More like sliced watermelon red. "Yeah," he confessed as if suffering from a toothache. (Which he would be shortly if they kept stuffing their faces with more candy than the damage from Halloween.)
"But isn't he –"
"Straight? Yeah. Probably."
Ken nodded. Well, everything was as he'd imagined it to be. Daisuke liked Taichi and Taichi was Oblivious and Probably Straight. The extremes of Daisuke's dejection these past weeks since learning of Taichi's troubles started to make sense.
He wanted to say something encouraging. A best friend ought to. But even if Taichi were bi, Ken felt pretty certain that he didn't have a thing for his zealous protégé. If he did, he was some actor. So Ken settled for patting Daisuke's back some more, and helping him construct a tower out of gummy bears.
It meant so much that Daisuke trusted him. Almost too much. Sometimes Ken was afraid of what he could do, being trusted so much.
He balanced a green gummy bear on the heads of a red and a gold one.
Then Taichi himself descended upon them, the floorboards creaking under his feet. He was indeed shirtless, with a towel around his neck and his bangs slicked to his forehead. This time Daisuke turned the peculiar maroon of raw maguro.
"Hey, Pinky and the Brain, we need you outside," Taichi began before noticing the sweet explosion around them. "Uh, if you're done building Candyland, that is."
"It'll look way cooler than your s'mores bridge when it's done," Daisuke harrumphed.
"I have no doubt about that." Considering the Digimon kept stealing the s'mores and eating them before they had a chance to be used in the bridge, there wasn't much to compete with. "Seriously, though, we need you at breakfast. There's just been a message from Gennai. Sounds like something's going down in Digiworld again."
"But we're on vacation!"
"I know. Stupid evil dude forgot to pencil that in his schedule." Returning out the door, Taichi snapped twice behind his back. "Two minutes. I'll see you there."
Daisuke turned to Ken with a sigh. "Just great. I never get to relax! No wonder I'm so tense all the time."
With a conspiratorial smirk, Ken swept a stray hair out of his face and leaned toward Daisuke. "Yeah, but look on the bright side."
"What bright side?"
"Taichi-san has a stunning lumbar curve."
Poinsettia. That was the shade this time. Vibrant, festive, red poinsettia.
1.] senkou hanabi (線香花火): Short, thin sparklers that you light from the bottom and dangle.
2.] Gilderoy Lockhart/ house-elf: The Harry Potter references abound.
3.] raw maguro: raw maguro tuna.
Congrats! You have reached the end! A few things I wanted to get in this chapter never made it, specifically things to do with Ken. Reconciling him with Daisuke had to take precedence, so other Ken-related questions should get answered next time. Thanks for your patience, and now I shall leave you with a riddle:
ambrosia is to the gods as reviews are to _