I think most, if not all, Takari shippers were to some degree disappointed by the ambiguous ending of Digimon Adventure 02. I know I was, and I spent way too much time rationalizing how Takeru and Hikari really did end up together (picking out random, possibly nonexistent hints from the epilogue). Eventually I decided to take matters into my own hands and created the Perhaps Universe.

In this universe, Takari coexists with the epilogue. In other words, in addition to creating a plausible Takari romance, I also need to address the question raised by the epilogue: why weren't Takeru and Hikari standing together, like Kenyako and Sorato? (If they were together, why didn't they act like a couple? If they weren't together, what happened to them?)

Here I want to mention that I am not claiming that no other Takari story addresses the epilogue. I only mean that this is my interpretation.

I wrote three stories in the universe, which are alternate versions of each other. One of them has an optimistic interpretation; one of them has a neutral (and possibly most objective) interpretation; and the last one has a pessimistic interpretation. It will become quite obvious which of the three Once is, and I hope you enjoy reading. (All three, by the way, had "Perhaps" in their working titles, hence why I call my universe the Perhaps Universe.)

Any feedback would be VERY welcome! (Please especially point out typos, inconsistencies, and whatnot.) Furthermore your review will be a good way for me to glean whether I should post the other two Perhaps stories here too.

ETA (12.24.12) - No major plot points have been altered. I revised this story a little bit to flesh out some parts of the story a bit more and tighten the plot.

Once Upon a Fairy Tale

i. once upon a time

They had been browsing the discount section of the bookstore when Hikari spotted the book. "Wuthering Heights," she exclaimed in English, picking it out of the pile of tattered paperbacks. She reverted to Japanese as she explained, "It's one of my favorite books!"

Takeru leaned over her shoulder to get a better look. It looked nondescript. The cover was yellowed with age, announcing the title and author in simple block letters against the backdrop of moorland. Wuthering Heights. Emily Brontë. "Impressive," he said. "I didn't know that your English was so good!"

"No, silly, I read the translated version," Hikari said. "The English is way too complicated for me." She leafed through the book, grimacing, before her eyes lit up. "But Takeru, you are going to America for college. You should take the book with you and read it sometime."

He took the book dubiously. "What's it even about?"

"It's one of the most famous love stories!" Hikari exclaimed, her eyes growing dreamy. "The two main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, have been in love with each other since they were children, but they weren't able to find happiness together. Eventually they each married someone else, but they couldn't stop loving each – are you even listening to me?"

Takeru had not been listening. He had been staring at her lips, as he found himself doing quite often lately, and imagining how soft they must feel against his own.

"No," he said honestly. When she gave him a mock angry look, he had to laugh. "But I will buy the book. Eventually I will be good enough at English to read it."

He had not kept that promise. On the plane ride from America to Japan, he digs into the side pocket of his duffel bag for a pen, and comes up instead with the novel. Neglected and forgotten, its cover is falling off and the pages are crumpled. Takeru stares at it momentarily before remembering. Yes, the famous love story that Hikari recommended. It hasn't even been opened since its purchase.

Since there are still some time to go before the plane lands, and since he has indeed become quite fluent in English, he opens the book and starts reading.

Takeru had viewed his acceptance into an American university as a triumph. In reality, it took him a while to get used to America. Basketball proved to be the toughest transition. In Japan, his French ancestry had given him physical advantage. He was taller and stronger than most of his teammates, an advantage that he lost among his new American teammates, most of whom were taller and stronger than him. Often he would walk off court not having scored a single point, leaving him to wonder whether he truly had talent in basketball.

Schoolwork did not boost his self-esteem either. Aside from Japanese class, in which he held a natural advantage, the other classes were intense, rendered even more difficult by his fledgling English skills. It seemed laughable to think that he'd once been at the top of his high school English class. It didn't seem to matter how much time he spent in the library each day, preparing for classes. As soon as the professor began speaking, he would inevitably find himself lost.

Takeru grew somber, withdrawn. He greeted the world with mistrust and a scowl. His roommates stopped inviting him to weekend parties and his classmates stopped greeting him in the halls. In Odaiba he had been quite popular with girls, a "heartthrob." In California the girls looked through him as if he weren't there. When he wasn't studying, doing homework, or playing basketball, he would be sitting in front of the computer, typing words of frustration onto the screen for release.

Hikari wrote to him regularly, at first. Hello Takeru, hope you've been well, her emails always began, and went on to share with him funny anecdotes from her studies at Kyoto University. I went to my first college party today and mistook the punch bowl for actual punch. Guess you could tell what happened – I could barely get up the next day! Or, I took a photograph of a really cute boy and he turned out to be my teaching assistant. Fortunately he liked my photo. She would always end with, Can't wait to hear how things are going from your end. Hope to hear from you soon.

Takeru wrote back to her regularly, at first. Hello Hikari, everything has been well, he would always begin, and go on to find something interesting, something happy from his school life to tell her about. If he couldn't find anything, which was often the case, he would make up something. I was the best point guard the coach has ever seen. I wrote a great English essay and it will be published in the school newspaper. He didn't want her to worry about him. He didn't want her to find him unworthy.

Eventually, however, he tired of the façade that he was maintaining. He hated having to lie to his best friend, on top of pretending to his family that everything was fine, that he was loving America. So he stopped writing back to Hikari, stopped reading her emails altogether, and eventually she stopped writing to him as well.

It's better that way anyway, Takeru would tell himself, when he spent another Sunday afternoon alone, when his email inbox remained empty after hours of staring, even when Yamato casually brought up the topic of Hikari dating in college. It's better that she will never know that he was an utter failure.

Over Christmas break, he decided against going back to Japan, despite his mother's protests, and flew to New York to visit Mimi. She was attending culinary school at L'École and received him warmly. They spent a week exploring classic tourist attractions such as the Empire State Building and Times Square. On the last day of his stay, Mimi decided to try out her culinary skills on him and cooked him a gourmet French dinner, complete with appetizer, two entrees, digestive salad, dessert, and a bottle of white wine.

"So, how is it?" she asked, as he dug into the second entrée. "Compared to the restaurants in France?"

"Amazing," Takeru said honestly, his mouth stuffed full of food. "I bet your homework's best in the class."

"Really?" She raised her eyebrows.

He nodded. "Honestly Mimi, you would put those so-called cordon bleu chefs out of business!"

Mimi laughed, delighted. "You sure know how to charm a girl," she said. "I can't believe you were eight years old when we first met. Do you remember? You had a backpack full of snacks and you generously shared them with everyone."

That elicited a chuckle. "I remember you took more than your fair share too."

Mimi winked. "Perhaps I did. You know, I sort of miss the days in the Digital World. Sure, we had to fight for our lives most of the time, we didn't get to shower every day and had to wear the same clothes all the time," she added, wrinkling her nose, "but we always had each other. There was always someone there for you, even when you wanted the whole world to go away. Gosh, I'm not the one studying literature. You know what I mean?"

He did. Her words made him long even more achingly for his friends back home. "I know what you mean. I think I was too young to understand the Digital World at first and even hated it sometimes…" It still pained him to think of Angemon's death, even now. "But now I see that it made me a lot stronger."

"It does make you stronger," Mimi agreed. Then she met his eyes levelly with a gaze that allowed no dishonesty. "How is school?" Sometimes, the young woman was more perceptive than people gave her credit for.

Takeru forked the last of the steak into his mouth and chewed slowly to buy time. "Not very good," he admitted. "I barely scraped past last semester and I'm worried about what next semester's going to be like. I'm also awful at basketball and probably on the verge of being kicked off the team. If I do, I will lose my scholarship. I don't know why I ever thought that coming here would be a good idea."

Mimi is silent. Then she leaned over to put a sisterly arm around him. "It will get better," she said comfortingly. "It takes a while to get acclimated to any country. Any world."

They both smiled at the inside joke.

"Thanks Mimi," he said gratefully. "You're right. If I could survive the Digital World, I could surely survive college."

"That's the spirit!" She finished the last pieces of her neatly cut-up steak. "How's everyone back home?"

Immediately Takeru thought of Hikari and his smile disappeared. He glanced down at his empty plate. "Doing all right," he said. "I've been a bit busy and didn't really keep in touch."

Mimi's intuition was sharp. "How are things with Hikari?"

"She is…" Dating someone on the soccer team, Yamato's words echoed. Daisuke introduced them. He sighed. "I don't know."

Mimi was silent. Then she laughed. "Oh boy," she said. "Does everyone come to New York to get over Hikari?"

Takeru was puzzled. "What do you mean, Mimi?"

She shook her head, dismissing her point as unimportant. Then she grew serious. "Takeru," she said. "Here's a bit of advice for you. If you love someone, you let her know."

He blinked at her, wondering whether she was joking. That was obvious, wasn't it?

"I'm serious, Takeru. None of us ever doubted that you and Hikari would someday end up together."

None of us, except for myself. Takeru smiled grimly at his plate. It was the first time that anyone had stated so directly something on which he had never allowed his own mind to linger. In Mimi's small New York apartment, he had never missed Hikari as much as he did then, and she had never seemed as far away.

Mimi stood up, understanding that he wasn't willing to talk further about Hikari. "In any case, onto more important matters," she said. "Dessert! Coconut sorbet or chocolate cake?"

Mimi was right about one thing: school did get easier. Takeru spent the rest of winter vacation volunteering at a local library, reading books in his free time and helping to organize story time for children. By the time classes began again, he was pleasantly surprised to find that he could follow lectures quite well. He still wasn't as fluent as a native speaker, though his accent was lessening and he could talk to classmates without spending too much thought constructing his sentences.

Basketball got better as well. His teammates and opponents no longer seemed so tall and imposing. They were stronger, but he was quicker, and he learned to slip through the mass of bodies on center court to score unexpected points. The coach stopped benching him. His confidence returned with every point he scored and he slowly regained his naturally outgoing personality. He even gained a small but loyal fan base who attended all of his games. One afternoon, after an especially good game, one of the cheerleaders asked him whether he would like to have coffee. He said yes.

Her name was Jamie, he learned. She was from a place called Ohio. She had brown hair and green eyes. She wasn't Hikari, but she was pretty and friendly. He enjoyed her company enough that before the end of their coffee date, he asked her out to a movie. In the theater, their hands collided over the popcorn bowl and stayed interlocked for the rest of the movie. A few weeks later, she became Takeru's first girlfriend.

Jamie was lots of fun. She taught Takeru to dance, surf, and drive an American car, with the steering wheel on the left side. She also taught him to kiss and, after attending a party that involved too much alcohol, make love. He liked the way her hair tickled him when she laid her head on his shoulder and the way her green eyes sparkled whenever she was waving her pompoms. He liked the way that she was outspoken, like Miyako, and absolutely fearless, like Daisuke.

I could marry her, he thought once, as she lay beside him sleeping. He tried to imagine what their life together would be like and found himself superimposing their faces onto faces of actors in movies. Then he looked at Jamie and gave a start, because with her green eyes closed she bore a slight resemblance to Hikari.

They broke up on the last day of classes. Rather, Jamie broke up with him. "I don't think this is going to work out," she said, straightforward per her usual style. "Let's try seeing other people."

"Why wouldn't it work out?" he said, surprised.

Jamie shrugged. "Well, I'm going to be in Ohio all summer, and you will be in Japan. People change in three months."

"But we could keep in touch," he pointed out. "We could visit each other."

Jamie gave him a strange look. "Maybe," she said, clearly not meaning it. "But I still don't think we should keep on dating. We will meet other people, move on to better things." He blinked. Better things? She noticed. "Hey, no hard feelings. We will still be friends. I'll still cheer for you since you do still play for my school."

She gave him a friendly punch on the arm.

"Okay, sure," Takeru said, watching on numbly as Jamie jogged away to join her friends. The whole situation was surreal. To be quite honest, he was more confused than sad, and had tried to convince her otherwise only because that was what people in romance novels always did. He didn't know what breakups were supposed to feel like, but if they all felt like this, then they weren't so bad.

Motomiya Daisuke was the first person outside his family that Takeru visited after his first year of college. A few years ago, the mere thought that the two boys would enjoy each other's company was unthinkable. Between warding off Digimon and exploring the intricacies of teenagehood, their uneasy acquaintanceship had matured into genuine friendship.

"So how's life in America?" Daisuke asked, chucking him a can of beer. "Is it like the movies?"

He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the middle of the apartment he shared with several teammates. It smelled of beer, soccer balls, and unwashed gym socks, with the walls plastered with posters of scantily clad models.

"Not quite," Takeru said. The number of beachgoers and surfers was way overrated in imported television shows. "It was a bit hard adjusting at first, but I think I'm in a pretty good place right now. How've you been?"

"Good, pretty good," Daisuke said. "I've been playing a lot of soccer. Don't spend enough time on classes, as Miyako would say, but hey, I'm on track to graduating so who cares?" He shrugged. "The national team expressed an interest in recruiting me. We'll see where that leads."

"Wow, Daisuke, that's impressive," Takeru said. "Congratulations!"

"Thanks," said Daisuke, looking pleased. "It happened a while ago. I mass emailed everyone about it."

Takeru scratched his head sheepishly, vaguely recalling seeing an email from his friend that was archived unread. "I guess I wasn't great at keeping up with everyone. I am sorry."

"Don't apologize to me," Daisuke said. "Most of us figured you were busy with your own life and didn't have time to worry about us. Hikari was the one who was really torn up about it. You just stopped responding to her emails and you are supposed to be her best friend."

At last her name came up. He would be lying if he denied having been waiting for the right moment to mention her. "How…how is Hikari?"

"Pretty good." Daisuke twirled a miniature soccer ball on his forefinger. "I introduced her to one of my teammates in the fall and they really hit it off, so they dated for a few months."

"Oh." Takeru tried not to sound too disappointed, even though he had been half-hoping that Yamato had been wrong. Then he reminded himself that he was supposed to be happy for his friends. "That's good to hear."

"Well, not really." Daisuke eyed him. "They broke up."

"Oh." Now he really didn't know what to say. Was he supposed to be polite and say something sympathetic? Or was he supposed to be honest and feel relieved?

He opened the can of beer and took a sip, savoring the burning bitter taste.

"But I shouldn't be telling you those things, right?" said Daisuke, frowning. "You should be hearing about all of these from Hikari herself."

The message was clear: it was the time to stop being a coward. "I will visit her. Is she back in Odaiba?"

"Nah," said the other boy. "She is staying at Kyoto for the summer, taking photography classes."

"Right." Takeru thought of Hikari, who in the span of five minutes went from unavailable to only a train ride away, and was suddenly vulnerable. "Daisuke…do you think she would be happy to see me?"

Daisuke sighed, an exaggerated long-suffering sigh.

"Takeru," he said, enunciating clearly as he answered an entirely different question, "Hikari can never say no to you."

Hikari lived in a small apartment complex near Kyoto University. Takeru slowly made his way through the maze of buildings, having committed her address to memory. There was no doorman, no elevator. The three flights of stairs provided more time to think, but not enough. He swallowed and wiped his sweaty palms on his pants several times before he rang her doorbell.

"Who is it?"

The familiarity of her voice struck him. He had really missed her. "It's me," he managed to say without choking.

He heard a gasp. Then the door was open and they were staring at each other. She looked beautiful in her white sundress, even more beautiful than he remembered. There was a certain sophistication about her that wasn't there before. Her eyes, however, remained as warm and brown as they had always been. "Takeru!" she said, genuinely pleased to see him. "I was wondering when you were getting back. Come on in."

They shared a hesitant hug. He followed her inside. The apartment was simply furnished on a student's budget. There was a picture on the bookshelf of the Chosen Children, stacks of books on the floor, and photograph proofs scattered all over the small coffee table. He picked one up; it showed Tailmon dancing in a field of flowers.

"Sorry about the mess," Hikari said, as she filled a teakettle with water in the kitchen. "I just finished all my finals a few days ago and didn't have time to clean up before photography classes began." She poked her head out. "What kind of tea?"

"Anything's fine," he said.

"Hmm," she said, rummaging through her cabinets. "Then it would have to be green tea. That's all I have left." She stayed a few minutes longer in the kitchen before emerging with two steaming mugs. He took one and he sat down on a chair beside him. "So how've you been? I haven't heard from you in a long time."

There was hurt in her eyes, much as she tried to hide it.

Takeru took a deep breath. "I'm really sorry, Hikari," he said, the words tumbling out unrehearsed. "Things weren't very good in the beginning. I was terrible at basketball and I was terrible at school. I thought I was going to fail out of college."

She winced. "All those emails you sent me –"

"I was lying," he said. "But I mean, it's a lot better now," he hurried to reassure her, when her expression failed to clear. "I'm really enjoying myself there. It just took me a bit of time to adjust."

"Why didn't you tell me?" she said.

"I didn't want anyone to worry," he explained. "Especially not you."

He hadn't meant to say the last three words aloud. Hikari's eyes grew round. "Why not me?" she demanded. "I'm your best friend. It's my job to help you feel better."

"I know."

"Honestly, Takeru," she said, closing her hand over one of his. "You would've been there for me if I were struggling, so you should've allowed me to be there for you. That's what friends do, right?"

In wonder, he looked at their clasped hands and then at her. She looked embarrassed and started to draw away. "I'm sorry, that was inappropriate."

He grabbed her retreating hand. They stared at each other, a prolonged silence falling uncomfortably over the room.

If you love someone, you let her know.

"I missed you, Hikari," he said. Then he pulled her toward him and kissed her. Her lips were soft and tasted of her favorite strawberry-flavored lip gloss. Her eyes fluttered shut and she slipped an arm around his neck, drawing the two of them even closer. He could feel her heart pounding through the thin fabric of her dress.

Kissing Jamie for the first time had felt like a ride on the roller coaster, not knowing where the next turn would lead. Kissing Hikari was like coming home, knowing that it was where he belonged.

When they parted, they smiled at each other. "That was nice," said Hikari, a faint blush blooming over her cheeks.

"Better than Daisuke's friend?" he asked slyly.

"Better than your American girlfriend," she returned, brown eyes dancing.

They both laughed before reaching for each other again. Conversation ceased for some time.

In August there came their usual summer reunion. The Chosen Children gathered in the Digital World to reminisce about all that they had gone through together. Takeru and Hikari created quite a sensation when they showed up, hands tightly clasped together.

Patamon squealed in delight while Tailmon turned a little pink. The other Digimon looked torn being happy and being confused. Daisuke rolled his eyes and said, "What a surprise." Taichi and Yamato covertly exchanged bills with Koushiro and Jyou. Sora beamed at them from across the room. Iori and Ken grinned and gave them thumbs-up. Miyako gushed and twirled Hikari around until Takeru rescued her.

Mimi just winked.

ii. there were a girl and a boy in love

The summer wore on like a dream. Takeru found a part-time job, tutoring kids in English in Kyoto, and moved into Hikari's apartment. On weekdays, they would head out to their respective job and class in the morning, coming back in the afternoon to share their day's experience and cook dinner together. On weekends, Hikari would take him to all the tourist attractions in Kyoto, including Gion, the movie theater, and the Kyoto Tower.

He loved his new life. He loved waking up with Hikari nestled in his arms. He loved holding her hands as they ran mundane errands like doing laundry or grocery shopping. He loved making dinner with her every night, trying out new recipes posted on the Internet. He didn't think it was possible to love someone so much, until she would make one of her unconscious gestures like twirl in the living room or sing an impromptu tune, and he would realize that he couldn't possibly love her enough.

They made love for the first time on a rainy Sunday. The weather had been capricious all week and the sun was still shining when Hikari stepped out to get ice cream. Before long, the rain was coming down in gray sheets and Takeru was rummaging through her storage closet, looking for an umbrella. There was no need, it turned out, because Hikari stumbled into the apartment just a few minutes later, holding the precious purchases in her arms.

"Goodness, it's like a flood out there," she said, kicking off her shoes and leaving a pool of water on her floor. "But I got our favorite flavors!"

Takeru laughed and kissed her on the forehead, brushing away the matted brown hair. Then he noticed that her dress was almost shapeless from being drenched with water, so without thinking he reached for the zipper to help her out of the dress. He stopped and flushed, however, when he realized what he was doing.

He glanced at Hikari. When she met his eyes, she was smiling slightly.

The dress joined the pool of water on the floor, as did the rest of her clothes and his clothes moments later. Alternating between kissing and stumbling, they somehow made it into the bedroom and onto the bed. They were not each other's first time and they had known each other for a decade, yet Takeru felt as if he were discovering Hikari all over again as he explored every inch of her body, memorizing every curve, remembering the way she murmured his name as their bodies finally, inevitably came together.

Afterwards, they lay on the bed in a tangle of limbs, her bare skin warm against his, and shared childhood dreams as well as visions of the future. In that moment the future seemed golden and the whole world was within reach.

"I want to be a basketball player," he said, and then more shyly he confessed, "but sometimes I think that perhaps I could be a writer."

"I could see you being a great writer," Hikari said in her usual supportive way. "You told me that you enjoyed writing down our adventures in the Digital World."

He kissed the side of her neck. "What about you?"

"I'm in the teacher's program at Kyoto," Hikari said. "I love children and I've always wanted to be a kindergarten teacher." He nodded, remembering her mentioning it in the past. "I enjoy my photography classes though, so maybe I would do that on the side. It would be fun."

They lay quietly, content in each other's company. Then he said, "Whatever we do, we will be together."

It was a statement, but also a question, a plea for assurance.

Hikari's eyes were closed, as if she were asleep, but her hand slipped into his. Fingers interlocked. "Of course," she said. "We will always be together."

Reassured, he too closed into eyes and slipped into an easy slumber.

On the weekend of his mother's birthday, Takeru went back to Odaiba to have dinner with his family. To his parents' credit, they always showed up together on special days despite being divorced. Their sons' graduations, Takeru's championship games, Yamato's concerts, and major holidays including each other's birthday. Takeru sometimes wondered whether they felt a strain in each other's company, but always decided that surely any strain would have eased into comfort after so many years.

The food at the French restaurant, Gordon Ramsay, was excellent, although privately Takeru thought that Mimi's food held up pretty well. While Yamato and Hiroaki started bantering about the advantages of soccer over baseball, Natsuko turned to her younger son and asked the question he was expecting.

"How are things down in Kyoto?"

She knew about Hikari, of course. Takeru had been worried that she would disapprove of them living together, but she had seemed unconcerned when he first told her.

Takeru took a while to formulate a coherent answer. "It's been absolutely amazing," he said eventually. I love her, he wanted to add, but wasn't quite ready to admit that yet.

His mother nodded, visibly pleased. "I'm glad to hear this."

He was both relieved and surprised by the reaction of his usually overprotective mother. "You weren't…worried that we might be too young?" They had, after all, all but moved in together.

She shook her head. "No, worried isn't quite the right word. There is some anxiety on your behalf, certainly. But then any mother would. You are both very young and relationships are never easy." She patted his hand. "What you have with Hikari comes very rarely in life. Make sure that you treasure it."

He studied his mother's face. He knew that his parents were still deeply in love with each other and had once nursed a fantasy of them remarrying. But sometimes there were scars that no amount of time could heal, and whatever caused the initial rift in his parents' relationship was one of these instances. There were so many questions that he wanted to ask his mother, but he had a feeling that her feeling toward his father was one of the secrets guarded close to her heart.

Instead, Takeru smiled. "Thanks Mom," he said. "I will."

Soon after, it was time to go back to school. Takeru was seen to the airport by the Chosen Children and his parents. Tactfully, everyone found an excuse to wander off in order to allow him time to say a private goodbye with Hikari, who had been rather quiet the entire time.

"I'll be back soon," he said without preamble. They never needed to waste time on small talk. "We will write and call each other. I won't disappear this time."

"I know," she said, her voice muffled by his T-shirt. "But I'm still going to miss you."

He kissed her, allowing the airport and the impending flight to melt away from reality momentarily. "I love you," he told her solemnly. There it was, his declaration, not flashy or fancy, but very heartfelt.

Hikari wiped her eyes quickly. "I love you too," she said. Then she stepped away from his embrace. "Have a safe trip and call me when you arrive."

He nodded. After he stepped through security, he turned to look for her. She waved. He waved back before disappearing into the crowd of travelers.

Takeru bought a ring for Hikari the summer before his senior year of college. Mimi took him to Tiffany's, a shop so full of glittering jewelry that he momentarily wanted to wear sunglasses. The older girl, who had evidently been here multiple times, wandered off to look at a selection of bracelets, while a sales associate with kind eyes approached Takeru. Her name tag read "Margaret."

"Could I help you look for something?"

"Yes," Takeru said, in fluent but still accented English. "I'm looking for an engagement ring for my girlfriend."

Margaret smiled. "My favorite type of customer," she said, leading him to a counter with a full display of rings. "Do you have anything particular in mind? Any particular cut or setting?"

Takeru blinked. Ring terminology was like another foreign tongue. "No…I don't know much about rings, to be honest."

She nodded. "All right," she said, selecting a few rings and setting them before him. "Here are some popular choices. This is a round cut, classic and generally the most popular. This is a princess cut, which seems to be especially popular with the younger generation. This is an emerald cut, my favorite actually, very sophisticated."

Takeru nodded, trying to keep his eyes from glazing over. He wasn't particularly interested in any of the rings in front of him. "I would like to browse for a while, if that's all right."

"Please do," said Margaret, "and let me know when you find something."

He did, almost an hour later. It was a simple, elegant ring, consisting of a pink diamond mounted on a platinum band. He couldn't name the type of cut or setting, but he knew that it would look beautiful on Hikari and go well with her pink-themed wardrobe. Mimi, who had finished her own browsing, joined him.

"That is perfect," she approved. Then she gave him an impromptu hug. "I'm very happy for you and Hikari. This is a big step!"

"We will be fine," Takeru replied, thinking that he and Hikari had been doing little more than following the natural course of their relationship.

What did not come as naturally to him, on the other hand, was how he was going to propose. Takeru wasn't interested in the displays of romance ubiquitous in movies. He just wanted their moment to be meaningful.

As usual, he joined Hikari in Kyoto after first visiting family and friends in Odaiba. This summer, he had secured an internship with a local magazine, the Kyoto Gazette, and enjoyed his work immensely. He wrote small features on local happenings and translated articles into English for the magazine's international website. Hikari, on the other hand, was teaching summer school for young schoolchildren.

They settled into their usual easy rhythm, blissful to be in each other's company after months apart. To him Hikari never felt like a stranger. Her presence in his life had always been a given. For that reason, he was never bothered by the distance separating them during the school year, even if their only contact had been conducted solely over email and phone.

Summer days always passed quickly. Soon it was almost time for his departure. When Takeru sat down one night to rummage through his suitcase, he found the ring box, waiting patiently in the corner next to a few books he never read. He sighed, knowing that his one mission remained unaccomplished.

"Hey Takeru," said Hikari, poking her head into the bedroom. He quickly shoved the box out of sight. "It's beautiful outside. Let's go for a walk."

"Sure," he said. "Where to?"

"Anywhere," she said. "Any suggestions?"

He was about to say no when his eyes lit up with an epiphany. "Yes, as a matter of fact," he said. "Let's go see the Kyoto Tower."

The Kyoto Tower was the tallest structure in Kyoto, standing atop a nine-story building opposite Kyoto Station. He had gone up there with Hikari the first summer he came to Kyoto, and had not gone up to the observation deck since. Hikari gave him a puzzled look. "Did you want to look at the stores?" she asked.

"Actually I'd like to go to the top," said Takeru. "I want to view Kyoto from above again."

He bought the tickets and they rode the elevator up to the observation deck. Fortunately, it was sparsely populated today, as one of Kyoto's famous summer festivals was ongoing outside. Hikari gave a sigh of pleasure as she surveyed the landscape of Kyoto, in addition to the surrounding mountains and some buildings in Osaka. She grabbed her camera and started snapping away so eagerly that she forgot about Takeru until he gently tugged on her arm.

"What is it?"

"Do you remember that we first met each other on Tokyo Tower?" he said. "We had just learned that you were the eighth Chosen Child and wanted to rescue you."

"Yes, I remember," she said, cocking her head. "We've known each other for a long time, haven't we?"

This was the perfect chance. Her eyes grew round as he drew her toward him, holding out the ring box. "Hikari, will you –" he began, but she had started to cry. He was suddenly frightened, afraid that he had somehow misread how their relationship was going. "Hikari?"

She wound her arms around his neck. "Yes," she whispered, her voice quivering. "Did you really need to ask?"

The news spread like wildfire, once Miyako was in charge of broadcasting. They had a huge party in celebration in Tokyo. The evening was a blur of activity. Yuuko Yagami hugged him, too tearful to speak, while Susumu Yagami assured him that he could not imagine a better match for his daughter. Across the room, Natsuko and Hiroaki were busy congratulating Hikari, and Takeru wondered what his parents were saying to make her laugh so hard.

Veemon upset a whole pitcher of vodka into the punch bowl, resulting in a few starry-eyed Chosen Children by the conclusion of the festivities. Taichi's eyes were suspiciously shiny. Yamato reprised his guitar and performed his old hits. Tailmon and Palmon involved everyone in a hilarious group dance that lasted for hours.

Takeru could not imagine a happier day in his life, and he was happiest by the end of the night when he finally managed to drag Hikari from Sora and Miyako. She was stunning in her new pink gown, with pink flowers in her hair and her new ring completing the ensemble.

"I love you," he told her, as they started dancing to a song called Focus.

"You're the focus of my heart," Hikari replied, echoing the lyrics of the song.

"I don't want tonight to ever end," said Takeru.

Hikari laid her head on his shoulder. "Just one more year," she reminded him. "Then we can always be together."

"Yes," he said. The future stretched before them, bright and inviting. He could envision the house they would build together in the California suburbs, the two children they would raise together. He could see them decorating their front yard for Halloween and Christmas, could see them on the porch sending their children off to school. "Yes," he repeated again, holding the image of the future dear. "Just one more year. Then we will always be together."

They kept that promise until Hikari broke the engagement a few months later.

iii. who did not find the same happy ending

Later, Takeru found it difficult to reconstruct the night that started out as dinner in celebration of the Christmas holidays, proceeded to talks about the wedding, and concluded with a fight that marked the end of their relationship. He could clearly remember the night otherwise: the high ceilings of the expensive restaurant, the aroma of expertly prepared food, and the glow of Hikari's ring whenever it caught the candlelight.

"Mom says that we need to reserve the wedding venue now, if we want to have a chance of getting married next summer," Hikari had been saying over the appetizer of carpaccio. "I told her that we haven't even discussed when we'd like to get married, but she went and made a list of possible locations anyway."

"Next summer would be a good time," Takeru said. "We would both be done with school by then."

She tapped the fork against her cheek, unconscious of the gesture, of how adorable she looked. "You don't think that it would be too soon? We would only be twenty-two."

"No, I think we are ready," he said, believing his words. After a moment's consideration, he added, "Besides, it would be easier for you to get a visa if we were married."

Hikari stopped chewing. "A visa?" she repeated, looking puzzled. "To where?"

"To America." The answer was obvious to him.

Her expression didn't clear. "For a visit, you mean?"

It occurred to him then that they had never talked about their future. Sure, they talked about their dream careers, sketched out dream causes, and picked half-serious names for future children, but the exact logistics of their lives as newlyweds had always come as afterthoughts.

"Well," he said, "I was thinking of something more long-term."

"I thought you were taking the job offer from the Kyoto Gazette," Hikari said, after the words had sunken in.

"I'm thinking of turning it down," Takeru said. "My school gave me an offer to coach basketball and would sponsor my work visa. I'd also want to see whether I might be drafted into playing professional basketball."

"When were you going to tell me?" she asked. There was an unfamiliar edge in her voice that he did not like.

Takeru exhaled. "I just got the coaching offer last week," he said. "I was going to sit on it for a while. But I'm leaning toward taking it. It's not an opportunity that comes very often and I'd really like to try and see how far I could go in basketball."

"I suppose you couldn't do that in Japan," Hikari said, her tone neutral but her eyebrows raised in question.

"No, basketball isn't a major league sport here," Takeru explained. "I might get drafted, but I wouldn't get the same opportunities as I would in America. There are also more exit career options over there for retired basketball players."

She stopped drumming her fork against her cheek and laid it down by her empty plate. "What about writing?" she asked. "You have a passion for writing, you said so yourself, and that's something you could do here."

She was right; he did have a passion for writing, perhaps more so than he did for basketball. Right now, though, it didn't fit into the fabric of his plans. Not if it meant that he must remain in Japan. "I will be writing on the side," he said eventually. "I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do."

"I see." Hikari wore a strange smile. "All you do know that whatever you want to do, you would rather do it an ocean away from me."

"No!" Takeru reached for her hand. It was cold and limp. "I want you to be with me. That's why I want you to get a visa. You can come live with me in the States. You will love it here, Hikari. The beaches are beautiful and –"

"I never liked beaches all that much," she interrupted, withdrawing her hand.

He stared at her, feeling cold dread seep through his earlier enthusiasm. He never imagined that she would react so strongly.

"I have my life here," she continued. "I will be teaching kindergarteners starting in September and I got an offer to do freelance photography on the side. Not to mention, our friends and families are here. I've been very open with you about my plans and I had thought you were supportive. Am I supposed to put my life on hold, come away on an extended vacation, and wait for you to figure out where you want your life to go?"


"I'm sorry," she said, putting her head in her hands. "Everything I just said is so selfish."

"Maybe we should talk about this another time," he said, as the waiter appeared with their entrées. "It's upsetting you."

"It's going to upset me no matter when we talk about it," Hikari said. Then she sighed and bit her lip. She was, after all, a peacemaker by nature. "But you're right. Let's sit on this and talk about it when we're both calmer."

He nodded, even though he really didn't want to broach the topic ever again.

The rest of dinner went smoothly. Both of them did a decent job of pretending that nothing had happened. Wedding talk was shelved. They stuck to safe topics like their mutual friends and the Digital World, carefully maneuvering around any mention of their impending graduations.

It was snowing lightly on their way back. Hikari slipped her gloved hand into his and gave a soft sigh of contentment. As he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, he envisioned them walking up the decorated driveway to their house. He constructed every detail of their future home, as he had done the night of the engagement party. The house was so real to him that he could almost see the wreath mounted on their front door, the reindeers in the front yard, and the red and green Christmas lights. Then he tried to imagine what lay beyond their front door. He found that impossible.

At night Takeru fell into an uneasy sleep. When he woke up, Hikari's side of the bed was empty. He thought, for a few alarming seconds, that she had left him, before he noticed that her purse was in its usual place on the bedside table. With a sigh of relief, he went to search for her.

He found her in the dimly lit kitchen, her head bowed before a cup of tea. She seemed to be crying. His first instinct was to go comfort her and chase away the demons who dared to bother her. Then he remembered their conversation in the restaurant and padded back to the bed. He was the demon this time and he wasn't ready to talk just yet.

"Ready" came a week later, when Hikari asked whether they could go for a walk in the park. Takeru wanted to say "no" but he was due to fly back to school and time was running out.

It was a cold but moonlit night. They stopped to sit on a deserted park bench. He knew that the conversation was not going to end well when he noticed that Hikari was no longer wearing her engagement ring.

Hikari spoke first. "You knew all along that I would object to moving to America, didn't you?"

Caught off-guard, he stammered, "What?"

"You didn't actually expect me to get a visa and come live with you in America. You've known me long enough to know that I would've refused." She looked up, eyes dark and unreadable. "Just as I refused the first time when you wanted me to apply to American universities with you."

He wanted to protest, but could not, even though he knew in his heart that she was wrong. There was never a moment when he doubted that he needed her in his life.

Hikari didn't seem surprised by his lack of response. She was no longer even looking at him. "I wonder why it's so easy for you to be far away. Why is it so easy for you to lead your life without me?"

"It's not true –"

"Do you know that I sometimes wait by the phone for hours, hoping that you would call, while you always seemed to be in the middle of something more interesting whenever I call? There is always a basketball game, a writing workshop, something." The words were tumbling out, anguished and uneven. "It's as if…you could always count on coming home to me, whereas I could never figure out where you would go next."

Takeru felt as if he were traveling down a dangerous road at full speed, unable to avoid whatever was coming. She had it all wrong, and yet he realized that he did not understand her as well as he thought he did. He had never known that she minded being excluded from his university life. He had never known that she did not feel as secure in his love as he always felt in hers.

"You misunderstand," he said. "My decision had nothing to do with you."

He realized the words were wrong as soon as they came out of his mouth. He tried to explain, but Hikari waved his words away.

"Takeru, be honest with yourself," she said. "Do you truly love me?"

Hikari's eyes were wide, scared, and most of all expectant. This was like a scene lifted from those corny romance movies that Mimi and Miyako loved to watch. He knew that he was supposed to say, yes, of course I love you, and those words were truer to him than any basketball offers. He loved her, had loved her since he was an eight-year-old boy holding her hand as they fell from the sky.

But the words I love you weren't strong enough to convey everything he wanted to tell her. He had never been running away from her. Instead, he had been running toward the future in his mind, the fairy tale ending he so desperately wanted for the two of them, an ending distinctly different from that of his parents, still in love, still yearning for each other.

The only problem was, the road to the fairy tale ending had yet to be paved. He had no way of knowing that the road would not take an unexpected turn and lead them to repeat his parents' story. He had no way of knowing that their journey together would not be hampered by disillusion. The Christmas lights strung around the imagined house twinkled, beckoning him to come and step through the front door. This was a leap that required faith in himself, in Hikari, and in their love for each other.

He thought once that they would be able to face it together. He was no longer sure.

Takeru reached out to cup Hikari's face. Then he leaned in and kissed her, not letting her go until they were both gasping for air.

"Answer me," she whispered, a plea.

His arms dropped to his sides; he couldn't make the leap, not yet.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Hikari was crying and looked fragile, the way she looked when he rescued her from the Dark Ocean the first time, when he thought he'd lost her forever. It hadn't hurt at all when Jamie broke up with him, so why did it feel as if his heart was being ripped to pieces now?

"It's okay," she said. "At least we know."

"Hikari –" he began, because he didn't intend for his answer to be end of the discussion, yet there was no more chance to mend the rift. She was taking something out of her pocket. It was the ring box.

"I don't deserve it," she said, handing it to him. He didn't take it right away. "Please give it to someone who deserves it." Her eyes said, someone from whom you will never run away.

They did not speak on the way back to her apartment. As soon as she unlocked the door, he went inside their bedroom and started to pack and she sat in the kitchen to brew a last pot of green tea. He hailed a cab to take him to a nearby motel. She gave him a silent hug as farewell. He smelt the scent of her shampoo as she buried her face into his shoulder, and every time he started to speak, the words died in his throat.

She was gone before the front door closed and she wasn't there to see him board the plane to America. He didn't know whether to be regretful or relieved.

They saw each other a few years later at Ken and Miyako's wedding. Hikari was the maid of honor, as expected, and Takeru was one of the groomsmen with Daisuke. The rehearsal had been beyond awkward, though part of that was attributed to Takeru's own paranoia that he and Hikari were being scrutinized by the others. He knew that their breakup had sent shockwaves through the group, with Hikari bearing the brunt of concerned questions. The wedding itself is a painful reminder of what could have been theirs.

The actual ceremony, fortunately, went off without a hitch. The newlyweds were so radiant in their happiness that the estranged couple a few feet away escaped under the radar. Afterwards, everyone attended the reception at the Plaza Hotel. In many ways, the reception bore resemblance to Takeru and Hikari's engagement party, down to the happy parents – though not his or Hikari's – and the punch bowl that Veemon managed to lace with alcohol again.

Takeru walked around, catching up with friends that he had not seen since his last trip to Japan, which was the summer after graduation. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hikari following Miyako everywhere, helping her friend do everything from gathering presents to holding half-finished wineglasses. He had to marvel at her ability to maintain a cheerful expression despite her obvious exasperation.

For such a small ballroom, Hikari and Takeru managed to stay out of each other's way quite successfully until Miyako cornered Takeru after a champagne refill.

"You two," she said, hands on her hips, "are pathetic."

"You look beautiful, Miyako," he offered weakly.

She would have none of it and gave him a non-too-subtle shove. "Go and play nice, would you?"

"What –"

"Don't you get tired of this façade?" Miyako demanded, rolling her eyes. "She's not going to bite."

He found her on the other side of the ballroom, standing next to a tall, broad-shouldered young man who was her date. He counted the steps it took to cross the room. One hundred and sixty-seven. Both Hikari and her date turned when they heard him approach.

He managed to find his voice. "Hi, Hikari."

She inclined her head. "Hello, Takeru, hope you are enjoying the reception," she said without visible strain in her voice, even though it was the first time they talked since the perfunctory greetings at the rehearsal. "This is Hideyoshi Masaru, my boyfriend. Masaru, this is Takeru, an old friend."

Masaru had a kind smile. Even as he wondered how much the other man knew about his past relationship with Hikari, Takeru could not help feeling friendly as he shook hands. "Good to meet you," he said sincerely, before gesturing to his own date. "This is my fiancée, Katie Roberts. Katie, this is Hikari, a good friend."

"Nice to meet you," Katie offered in shaky Japanese.

Hikari shook her hand, smiling. "Nice to meet you too, Katie," she replied in equally shaky English.

Despite the language barrier, the women seemed on track to a friendly acquaintance, until Hikari caught sight of the sparkling ring on Katie's right hand. Her face changed, her mouth curving into a brittle smile. The change was subtle and Takeru was the only one who noticed.

Hikari caught Masaru's hand, just as he was about to launch into a conversation about basketball.

"I think Miyako is calling us again," she said. "I'm sorry that we must go," She turned to Katie. "It was nice meeting you, Katie. Good to see you here, Takeru." She met his eyes squarely.

Looking confused, Masaru gave a quick bow in farewell.

Katie stared after Hikari, somewhat bewildered. "Did you say that she was a good friend?"

Takeru was staring after her as well. "Yes, she still is."

"She didn't seem very happy to see you," Katie observed.

Takeru turned back to his fiancée. "It's probably just the strain of being Miyako's bridesmaid," he assured her. "Anyone would short-tempered after running around all evening. Come on," he urged, before Katie could protest. "I could do with another glass of the Veemon Special."

Takeru stretches as the seatbelt sign switches on. He feels wide awake, despite having spent the past ten hours reading. Carefully he tucks Wuthering Heights into his duffel bag and glances out the window. The landscape of Tokyo is starting to unfold beneath him, the buildings and streets coming into focus.

The plane begins its final descent. He closes his eyes, feeling a thrill of anticipation. He hadn't visited Japan in quite a few years. In his defense, he hadn't been actively avoiding it. Yamato's wedding to Sora had taken place in Paris. Mimi's wedding had taken place in New York. And once his career as an author had launched, he had been too busy to attend other weddings, even though he was always on the guest list. It is fortunate that his book tour takes him to Japan on the same weekend as the reunion. It will be an easy way to see everyone again.

Customs and luggage checkout go smoothly. Takeru follows the sea of travelers toward the exit, where a crowd of people awaits, some holding signs of specific names. He had declined when his publishing company offered the same service, citing family in the area as the reason, though he is wondering whether he would be recognized by fans when he hears his name being called.


He stops. That voice, it can't be –

"Hey Takeru, it's me!"

Hikari is waving at him. She looks almost unchanged, aside from having longer hair, and as always his breath catches at how beautiful she is. In comparison he feels self-conscious. After his career as a basketball coach ended, his body had gone slightly to seed, and his longer hairdo gives him a shaggier look that goes over well with fan girls, but perhaps not so much with a former fiancée.

She, however, takes no notice of his discomfort as she steps close and hugs him. Even after all these years, she still smells the same. He wonders whether she still uses strawberry-flavored lip gloss.

"Good to see you!" she says. "I wouldn't have recognized you if your picture weren't in your book's jacket. You look good."

"Thanks, you look even better," he says. "Where's –"

"Everyone else? Well, they just might be planning a surprise party for you, but don't tell them I said that. I wouldn't have ruined the surprise if I didn't know that Daisuke and Yamato might be pulling a few pranks on you. Well, and Veemon spiked the punch bowl. Of course."

He laughs. "Thank you for the warning."

"No problem," she says. "Where's your family, by the way? Aren't they coming along?"

Takeru shakes his head. "They are coming on a later flight," he says. "My son has another week of school left."

Hikari's expression doesn't change. "In that case, shall we head out?" she says. "Masaru is waiting for us outside."

"Your family is here?"

"Of course," she says. "My little boy loves your book and can't wait to meet you in person."

Takeru nods; he should not have been surprised. She wouldn't have come alone; she has her own family. This is his chance, however unscripted, to speak with her alone. "I read the book," he blurts out.

She looks confused. "Which book?"

He takes it out of his bag and hands it to her. She flips through the book, her frown clearing. "Oh, this book." Brown and blue eyes meet. "Took you a long time to read it. How did you like it?"

"I…it isn't a happy ending."

"No," she says. Her tone is gentle and sad. "I'm afraid it isn't."

"Catherine and Heathcliff never end up with the person they love." He sounds almost accusatory, even though she had warned him, all those years ago.

Hikari shakes her head. "Some love stories are flawed from the beginning."

No, that cannot be it. He remembers the kisses shared at sunrise, the words whispered at night, and the heartbeats they shared when they made love. "Ours wasn't," he says. "Ours…isn't."

Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. "Perhaps not."

"If I hadn't been so stubborn," he says, stumbling over words despite his eloquence as an author, "if I had taken the offer from the Kyoto Gazette, maybe we could've…"

"It isn't all your fault," Hikari says softly. "I didn't want to compromise either. Yes, Takeru, perhaps you wanted to run away, but if I had been willing to follow, it didn't matter how far away you wanted to go."

"I used to dream about a house," Takeru whispers. "Our house. I can still see it so clearly now. Sometimes I even try to see whether it exists in the real estate pages."

She is blinking tears away, though her eyes continue to meet his. "Please don't."

He can't. "Do you live in a house with Masaru? Does it have a front yard? Does it have a porch?"

She is silent for a moment. Then she says, "We live in an apartment, Takeru."

He holds her gaze. "I never stopped." With her, he never needs to elaborate further.

"I know," says Hikari. "I knew the moment I saw your wife's ring."

He remembers the haunted expression she wore for the rest of Miyako's wedding reception. Katie's engagement ring bears no pink diamond. "I couldn't give her your ring," he explains. "It belongs to you."

She lays her hand on his cheek, the touch light and fleeting. The bustling airport terminal melts away from reality and there are only the two of them.

"No," she corrects him. "It belongs to us. I never stopped either."

His breath hitches and her hand falls to her side. Takeru does not move to close the distance between them. There are too many regrets, too many what-ifs and heartbreaks standing between them. All they have left are broken pieces of what could have been a fairy tale, a pink diamond ring kept in a drawer in his office, and this moment of complete understanding.

With visible difficulty, Hikari turns away. "Masaru's waiting outside."

The spell is shattered. There is so much that he needs to say, but the words would have to bide their time. If there ever would be a time.

Takeru grabs the handle of his suitcase.

"You're right. Let's go."

Wordlessly, they step through the sliding doors and into the bright sunlight.