Author's Note: Yes, I saw all the relevant episodes involving Takato and Juri. No, I do not care. I like this story as it is, and I will not change anything about it or write any sequels. Therefore, kindly do not ask me to do so. Flames will be laughed at. Otherwise, enjoy the show!
A small flock of pigeons landed on the eaves of a small house in West Shinjiku, making the girl who sat by the window look up in surprise, and then sigh, reflecting that this was not going to be one of her better afternoons. She was fourteen years old, auburn-haired and slender, with hazel eyes that could sparkle with laughter or brim with tears of compassion. Juri Katou was well known for her gentleness - she would go out of her way to help anyone who was suffering, and she had a schoolwide reputation that anyone with problems could find a listening ear and some good advice with her. She was pretty and popular; not even the surliest tough who stalked the halls would say he disliked Juri. However, she was given to moments of introspection that might almost be called melancholy, making it hard sometimes for people outside of her immediate social circle to bond closely with her. She also had a particular hangup about this window, and she looked sadly at the pigeons, who suddenly found themselves wanting to be elsewhere and fluttered away in a swirl of grey feathers.
*Sometimes I just want to board this thing up,* she thought.
Right now, the window was wide open to catch the spring breezes, tossing her curtains and her long hair. Outside, there was a stretch of smooth blue sky, softened further by wispy clouds, wisps of whiteness so fine that they reminded her of fur. Tonight the sky would be spangled with stars, and she wouldn't be able to stop herself from lying awake looking at them. Even though it had been years since her adventures in the Digital World, she still had nightmares about them and probably always would. She knew that. She'd almost gotten used to them, but when they came over her... Just last night, she'd dreamed that there was a lion out on the roof, one who had spoken to her of strength and courage before blowing away like sand in the wind, and she'd awakened crying. It wasn't as bad as some of her dreams, but it had made her feel so lonely...
"Pull yourself together, Juri," she told herself sternly. "What would Leomon think of you, sitting here and feeling sorry for yourself? He didn't die just so you could sit in your room and mope. Hm... What should I do, then?"
She considered the matter for a moment. The solution to feeling lonely was to go find someone to spend some time with. That felt like a good answer; it would be nice to have someone to talk to right about now. All right then, who? She considered her options. Her first thought was Takato. He was her good friend, and, now that they were older, they'd dated a few times. She liked Takato and cared deeply for him, but there was something innocent in his nature that neither time nor trouble had ever completely removed. Takato was like a puppy; friendly, naive, eager to please, honest with his emotions but often clumsy in expressing them. He was good company if she was in the mood for having fun, but he wasn't always comfortable with her dark side, and she sometimes got the feeling he'd rather pretend it wasn't there.
*All right, not him, then. Not right now, anyway,* she decided.
She went back to considering her other options, running mentally down the list of Tamers. Ruki was her good friend, and would be welcome company right now, but she was currently out of town, spending some time with her mother. Jenrya was available, but she had never been as close to him as some of the others had, and his thoughts on problems tended to be more philosophical than practical. Shiuchon and the twins were a bit young; she would have felt strange trying to go to any of them for advice. She barely knew Ryo at all, and had a suspicion he would be more likely to joke her troubles away than take them seriously. Hirokazu would be even worse; she didn't know how Kenta stood him sometimes...
Kenta? Well, there was a possibility she hadn't thought of. And then again, why not Kenta? He was a friend, though perhaps not as close as the others - just close enough that she trusted him, distant enough that they wouldn't have too many expectations of each other. The more she thought about it, the more she felt sure that the person she wanted to talk to tonight was Kenta. She went looking for her address book, found his number, and went for the telephone. In a few moments, she heard the call being answered by a middle aged woman.
"Hello, Kitagawa residence."
"Good afternoon. This is Juri Katou, one of Kenta's classmates. Is he home?"
"He is. Would you like to talk to him?"
"All right, hang on," Mrs. Kitagawa said. "Kenta, phone call! It's your friend Juri!"
There was a muffled sound of a door being opened and shut, and a high-pitched noise that could only be Marine Angemon putting in his two cents; Kenta seemed to be having trouble convincing him that the phone call was for himself and not the little angelmon.
"Hello?" said Kenta finally.
"Hi," Juri replied. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything.
"Nah, I was just watching some TV," he answered. "So... what's up? You aren't having trouble with your homework or something, are you?"
"No, nothing like that," she said. "I was just wondering... are you... busy tonight?"
"Busy? Not really," he answered. "Why?"
"Would you like to go somewhere with me?"
"Not like a date or anything," she assured him hastily. "I just wanted someone to talk to, that's all."
"Oh," said Kenta. Juri waited for him to ask, "Why me?" but all he said was, "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know. Anywhere. The dessert shop, maybe. They've got a new kind of cake there I wanted to try."
"Cake is good. I like cake," he said. "Do you want to meet me there, or...?"
"I think that will work. You know which one I'm talking about, right? Hanoka's?"
"Yeah, I've been there before. See you in about fifteen minutes?"
"Okay. See you, Kenta."
"Bye, Juri. See ya."
She hung up feeling a bit more cheerful than she had a moment ago. It was nice to have something to look forward to. She might even have a nice time, and if nothing else, the food would be good.
"Mom, Dad, I'm going out," she called, scampering downstairs.
"Where are you going?" her father called back.
"Just up the block to the dessert shop," she called back. "It'll be okay; I'm going with a friend."
"Who is it? That Matsuda boy?" her stepmother inquired. There was no doubt in Juri's mind that her parents approved of her sometimes-boyfriend, and now that she was starting to grow up, were eager to see her solidify the relationship.
"No, just one of my friends," Juri replied. "This isn't a date or anything. I just wanted someone to talk to."
"Well, all right. Just don't stay out too late."
"I won't! Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad! If Culumon comes in, tell him I left a cookie for him on my desk."
"I will," her stepmother replied. "Have fun."
Juri waved a final goodbye and stepped out into a sunny afternoon. It was a beautiful day, warm and breezy enough to lift her spirits just by being out in it. A few slender ornamental trees grew here and there, showering the sidewalks with pink and white petals. Even in places where there was no room for trees, tiny flowers were peering shyly out of cracks to have a look at the sun. Whimsically, Juri took a fresh pink bloom that was peering through someone's fence and put it in her hair.
By the time she reached the dessert shop, Kenta was already lingering around the front door waiting for her. He had visibly grown up in the time since they'd first come to know each other, but some things never changed. He still had the same slightly untidy black hair, currently in need of a trim, the same black eyes, and still wore glasses, though a pair a bit more stylish than he'd had when he was ten. A recent growth spurt had sent him shooting up several inches, and his body hadn't quite filled out yet, giving him a storky look, as if he were never quite sure where his hands and feet were supposed to be. When he caught sight of her, though, he gave her a smile that told her honestly that he was glad to see her, and his dark eyes took on a soft glow. She smiled back.
"Hope you weren't waiting long," she said.
"Not too long," he replied.
"Pi pi pi," Marine Angemon opined from his perch on Kenta's shoulder.
"Don't mind him," Kenta said. "He has a short attention span."
"Well, let's not keep him waiting any longer, then," she said.
They stepped into the little shop, their arrival announced by the tinkling of a little brass bell. The sound seemed to please Marine Angemon, who flew up and nudged it a few times before returning to his partner's side. A few other people watched the spectacle with amusement; the dessert shop was a popular place for young people to come snack and socialize, and there were usually patrons there at all but the latest and earliest hours of the day. Kenta and Juri gave their orders to a cheerful cashier, who presented them with three slices of cake and a pair of milkshakes. Then they slipped off to one of the booths against the wall where they could talk in relative privacy. As soon as the treats were set out on the table, Marine Angemon dove at his with a happy squeal and began demolishing it, ignoring the fact that it was nearly as big as he was.
"How does he do that?" asked Juri, giggling a bit as the tiny Digimon got frosting all over himself.
"I really don't know," Kenta replied. "He is a Mega, after all, even if he is a really tiny Mega. He's got to keep up his strength."
"Pi pi puuuuu!" said Marine Angemon around a mouthful of cake.
Juri giggled. There had been times when she'd envied the other Tamers for their partners, but that feeling had gradually become weaker as time went by. It helped that all the other 'mons seemed to like her; even the loner Renamon would have conversations with her. Culumon was a comfort, too; he would never be bonded to her as a true partner, but he did seem to care for her, and no matter how much he wandered, he would always come back to Juri's house when he was lonely or the weather was bad. Anyway, it was almost impossible for anything as funny and cute as Marine Angemon to make her want to do anything but smile.
"So," said Kenta, as the two humans began nibbling at their cake in a more dignified manner, "was there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
"Not really," Juri replied. "I was just lonely and wanted to see a friendly face."
"So, why me? I mean, not like I mind or anything," he said, "but why not one of the others?"
"I don't know," she said. "I just thought about everyone, and decided you were the one I wanted to talk to, that's all."
Kenta didn't look like he was buying that explanation. Juri searched her brain, stirring her straw around in her milkshake as she tried to put her feelings into words.
"It's kind of like this," she said. "I wanted someone around, but it couldn't be just anyone. You know I'm... a little sensitive about being around people. Sometimes I don't mind having them around, but sometimes it's just like they're using up all the air and I can't breathe, and I just want to run outside. But you're not like that. You don't crowd me."
"I don't?" said Kenta dubiously.
"No," Juri replied. "It's kind of hard to explain... You just don't take up any space that isn't yours. Well, think of Hirokazu. Everybody's got to notice Hirokazu. He takes all the space he can get."
"Ah," said Kenta. "Okay, maybe I understand what you mean now."
"Right. But you're not like that. Nobody can be uncomfortable around you."
"Oh. Well, thanks."
She smiled at him, the light coming back into her eyes. "Any time."
They relaxed a little, chatting casually about school and movies and the funny things Marine Angemon and Culumon did. Kenta was pleased to see Juri's melancholy air evaporating; she laughed and joked with him as they finished their treats. As they left the shop, she was smiling contentedly.
"That was just what I needed," she said. "Thanks, Kenta."
"No problem," he said. "It was fun. Maybe we should do it again sometime?"
"I might like that."
"Yeah. Me too. So, um... you walking home alone? Okay, that's a dumb question. I mean, it's not that long a walk from your house to my house so if you want me to come with you I wouldn't mind... not that it's a big deal or anything so if you don't want me to I understand..."
Juri giggled. "You don't go on many dates, do you?"
"No, not really..."
"Well, you might as well walk me home, then. It will be good practice for you."
"Okay," said Kenta, blushing a little.
They began to walk. The sun had set while they were eating, and now the city was full of soft blue shadows, mixed with the golden glow of windows and street lights, added to the shimmer of stars high overhead. Insects and night birds added their gentle music to temper the rougher city noises. The gentle breeze of the afternoon had turned chilly, reminding them that it was still a while before true summer came. Juri had been dressed lightly for the warmer daytime, and as the wind brushed by her, she rubbed at her arms.
"Cold?" asked Kenta.
"A little," she replied. "I'm okay, really."
"Do you want to borrow my jacket? It's all right, I'm wearing long sleeves."
"Well... if it really doesn't bother you..."
He offered her his coat, and she pulled it on. Owing to the fact that Kenta was several inches taller than her, its hem fell almost to mid-thigh on her, and her hands were hidden by its sleeves.
"Guess it's a little big," he said apologetically.
"Well, at least it's nice and warm," she said. She tugged it around herself more comfortably. "Even keeps my fingers from getting cold."
"That's one way to look at it," he said. He was quiet a moment. "So... do you go on dates very often?"
"Sometimes. I'm not really committed to anyone, though," she replied. "Most of the time I go with Takato. I guess you knew that already."
"Yeah, I kinda did."
"He is nice, and I care a lot for him," she said. "Mom and Dad like him, too - well, he did save my life. In a few more years, I'll be old enough to marry, and they're starting to drop hints that I ought to start thinking about getting serious... if not about him, than at least someone."
"You don't sound very happy about it."
"I don't know how I feel about it. It feels like just yesterday I was still a little kid playing cards, and now I'm growing up and people are talking about college exams and getting married... I just feel so..."
"Crowded," he supplied.
She looked surprised, then thoughtful. "You're right. It's just the same feeling."
A night wind rushed past her, making the overlong coat flap and her long hair stream out behind her. The flower she'd tucked into her ponytail band worked loose and fluttered away.
"Oh! My flower!" she exclaimed, looking behind her in dismay as it was swept away and lost.
"Don't worry; I'll get you another one," said Kenta.
He slung one of his long legs over someone's garden fence and hauled himself up, balancing precariously there for a moment before tipping over and falling with a thud onto the ground. She went to peer worriedly over the fence, but found him unharmed, picking himself up and brushing the grass off his jeans. He reached over to a nearby flowering shrub and carefully broke off a branch and handed it to her. She reached out and accepted it shyly, and their fingertips brushed for an instant. She was suddenly glad it was dark; she was almost sure she was blushing.
"Thanks," she said. "But I think maybe you should come out through the gate."
"I think you're right," he answered, looking embarrassed.
While Kenta tried to find his way out of the garden, Juri bound the flower into her hair, letting its perfume wreathe its way around her. She closed her eyes and breathed in the sweet scent until the sound of a closing gate told her that Kenta had returned.
"That's pretty," he said. "You look nice like that."
"You looked better without the grass stains on your elbows," she answered.
He twisted his arms around, trying to get a look at the stains and looking very much like an uncoordinated bird trying to flap its wings. "Ugh. Hope Mom doesn't get mad about this."
"Just wash it when you get home, and she won't find out," she said. "Come on. My parents will be worried if I'm not home soon."
"Oh, yeah, you're right. Same here."
They picked up their pace, and soon they were standing outside Juri's home. They lingered at the front door, listening to the faint indoor noises of diners enjoying themselves.
"Well," she said, "thanks for coming to see me. It was nice."
"Yeah, it was."
"So... I guess this is goodnight."
"I guess it is. Goodnight, Juri."
Their eyes met for a moment, and he had the sudden strange feeling that he ought to kiss her or something... but of course that was stupid. She had a boyfriend already, and anyway, he didn't really like her that way. They were barely even good friends, so why should he, why would he... The moment was past before he could even finish debating with himself, and Juri had waved goodbye one last time before slipping inside and closing the door. Kenta stared.
*Stupid, Kenta,* he told himself. *You are really, really stupid.*
He nodded, agreeing with himself. However, he couldn't exactly make up his mind which thing he had or hadn't done that was so stupid.
The next day was a busy one. All the students were kept working hard, as visions of college entrance exams danced in everyone's mind, and there was little time for socializing, or even thinking about socializing. It was only after classes let out that Kenta had time to catch up to any of his friends. He noticed Juri out in the front yard and found himself walking towards her.
"Hi, Juri," he said.
She turned away from the conversation she'd been having with one of her girl friends. "Oh, hi, Kenta! What's up?"
"Not much," he said. Casting around for a conversation topic, he asked, "Need any help with your homework?"
That was not an uncommon question; they'd worked together before, one on one or in group study sessions, for years now. He'd discovered that Juri was good at languages and had a knack for making dry old books make sense to him, while he was able to explain to her the complex mathematical equations they needed to pass their tests. It seemed to work out well on both sides. However, this time, Juri looked apologetic.
"Sorry," she said. "I don't really need any help tonight. Actually, Takato and I are going to a movie tonight, so I might not have time."
"That's okay," he said. "I was just, you know, checking."
He shuffled off, trying not to look too dejected.
"Pi pu pi pi pi," said Marine Angemon.
"No, I don't!" he snapped. "She's just my friend. We've been friends since we were kids in the sandbox together. Nothing's changed since last night."
"Kenta!" Juri shouted. "Don't leave yet!"
Kenta jumped several inches, suddenly feeling as if all his blood had suddenly leapt into its fastest rush, leaving his heart struggling to keep up.
"What?" he managed.
"I forgot to give your coat back last night," she said. "Here."
"Oh. Thanks," he said. He struggled through another of those moments when he couldn't quite remember how to use his hands before he finally managed to get his fingers around the material. He couldn't get it on over his bulky backpack, and didn't feel like trying to go through all the bother of taking that off so he could put the coat on, so he just slung the jacket over his shoulder. He could tell it had been around her; he could catch faint scents of her shampoo and perfume clinging to it. He began walking away not attending to where his feet were going, or even if they were touching the ground.
"Hey, Kenta!" called a familiar voice. Kenta came out of his daze long enough to see Hirokazu sauntering over. "Where are you going? Some of us guys are gonna be having a game over in the park. How 'bout you pick up your cards and join us?"
"Nah, I don't think so, not today," Kenta replied. "I'm kind of tired, and I have some stuff to do."
"Stuff? What kind of stuff?"
"Oh, you know, just... stuff," he said. Actually, all he had was homework, which wouldn't take too terribly long, but he just wasn't feeling very social right now. Hirokazu was his best friend, but at the moment, he thought he knew what Juri meant when she said that Hirokazu crowded. It made him doubly thankful that she didn't think Kenta did.
"Ah. Stuff," said Hirokazu, in a tone that said he didn't quite believe what he was hearing. "Yeah, that stuff'll get you every time. Well, good luck... and if you finish early, come on down. Ryo promised to try to get away from his studying long enough to play a few rounds."
"Okay," said Kenta. "I'll see what happens."
He waved goodbye to his friend and trudged home, leaving Hirokazu mildly worried. He had known Kenta for what felt like forever, and he wasn't used to Kenta saying he couldn't spend time with him. For Kenta to not want to be around him was a bit like having Guardromon tell him to go away and leave him alone, and Hirokazu couldn't help feeling a bit hurt... and worried.
"I wonder what's wrong with him?" he muttered.
"Perhaps he just wants some time alone," said Guardromon, clanking up behind him.
"What does he want that for?" Hirokazu asked. "Man, he must have problems. Poor guy." He shrugged. "Oh, well. He'll work it out somehow. C'mon, let's go find the others."
Meanwhile, Kenta was on his way home. He kicked off his shoes at the front door and tried to scamper upstairs without being noticed, but his mother apparently had eyes in the back of her head.
"Hello, honey," she called. "Did you have a good day at school? Did you learn anything?"
"Sure," he said. *Not to go anywhere with a girl, especially if she's already seeing someone else.*
"That's nice," his mother replied. "Do you have homework tonight?"
"Yeah," he said. "Lots of homework. Just call me when dinner's done, okay?"
"All right, honey. Good luck."
With relief, Kenta hurried up to his room and shut himself inside. Once he was safely sealed away, he dug out his math notebook and some sheets of paper, determined to think of nothing but numbers for the next hour or so. However, there was a small hitch in his plans... a small, pink, wide-eyed and winged hitch who did not appreciate being ignored. He didn't mind being at school so much, since there were plenty of people there who were perfectly happy to make a fuss over Kenta's partner. Homework was another matter. Marine Angemon couldn't understand why all schoolwork wasn't done at school, or why Kenta felt inclined to spend so much time studying. The little 'mon didn't have much concept of the future - to him, all times were "now" or "in a little while" and anything that wasn't happening in one of those two times wasn't worth worrying about.
Kenta, scratching his head over question 23, was suddenly aware of a presence hovering over his left shoulder.
"What do you want?" he asked Marine Angemon.
"Pi! Pi pi pi!"
"No. I'm busy."
"Pi pi piiiiii," Marine Angemon pleaded.
"Seriously, I can't. I've got to have this done for tomorrow; I don't have time."
Marine Angemon fluttered down and sat on Kenta's homework, effectively obscuring it. He looked up at his Tamer with a look in his eyes that said clearly that he was dying of heartbreak and just wanted Kenta to know how much he loved him before he went.
"Piiiiiiii..." he sighed mournfully.
"Oh, all right! Just stop looking at me like that," he said. "I suppose I could use a break anyway. Come on."
Marine Angemon gave a squeal of delight and did a midair double backflip. He followed Kenta into the bathroom, chirruping joyfully all the way. Kenta, used to the routine, said nothing. Instead, he turned on the lights and made his way for the bathtub. His family was lucky enough to have a classic Japanese bath, large enough for a grown man to sit in water up to his chin. To Marine Angemon, it was as good as an Olympic pool, and the day he'd discovered it had been one of the happiest moments of his life. Now he was all but purring in anticipation as his loyal Tamer filled the tub with hot water and soapsuds.
"There you go," said Kenta. "It's all yours."
Marine Angemon squealed and dove into the tub, splashing a bit of water on the floor as he did. Kenta sat down on the nearby stool to watch as his partner swam laps around the tub, playing a one-sided game of hide and seek among the bubbles. Bath bubbles were not an integral part of the traditional Japanese bath (mineral salts were preferable) but the seal-angel loved them so much that Kenta supplied them anyway.
*The things we do for our partners,* he thought, smiling a bit at the 'mon's antics.
"You know," he said aloud, "I could use a soak myself. Better make room."
He removed his clothes and quickly rinsed himself, thinking he didn't need to be too thorough since he wasn't that dirty to begin with, and then climbed into the tub, being careful not to step on the little angel. Then he settled back to relax a bit, floating in water up to his chin, his peripheral vision blocked off by mounds of suds. He gave a small sigh; here was where he wanted to be, alone in his own safe, warm little world.
*Okay, Kenta, let's see if you can face up to your problems instead of running from them.*
And it was true, he had a problem, and the problem was that something had gotten mixed up in his brain last night, and he wasn't quite sure how to resettle it. He'd seen Juri looking happy, happy to be with him, with her eyes sparkling in the starlight as their hands touched. He hadn't realized, until then, how beautiful she'd grown up to be.
*I'm not supposed to have a crush on Juri. I mean, I've known her for years and I never thought anything about her. Just... last night she wanted to talk to me, just me, and it felt good. She's so pretty and nice...*
He sighed. *Get a clue, Kenta. Juri's never going to think of you as anything but a friend. Why should she? You're nothing special. Just look at you. You're not good looking, not talented, not really that smart, not charming, not... not anything really. The most anyone can say about me is I'm a just another nice guy. She could do so much better than you. What are you? Ask anyone who Kenta is, and they'll say, "Oh, he's that kid who hangs out with Hirokazu." Or maybe now, "That kid with the Marine Angemon." You've never done anything worth bragging about your whole life except the one time you lucked out and got a Mega to like you. What have you got to offer her?*
As if in reply, a memory-voice wandered through his head. "You don't crowd. You're not like that. Nobody can be uncomfortable around you."
*Yeah, because I'm such a pathetic nerd. How could a person be intimidated by that? That doesn't mean she likes you. It doesn't mean she ever will. She likes Takato, remember?*
Only she didn't. She'd said so, hadn't she? She'd said she wasn't really that serious about anyone. That would include Takato, wouldn't it? Maybe he had a chance. A very small chance, but still a chance. But he would have to move fast. He would have to tell her, openly and honestly, that he was starting to feel for her, and ask her for a chance to prove himself to her before she made up her mind about anyone.
Was he going to do that?
He sighed again. *Maybe I'll just sit in the bathtub for the rest of my life.*
Takato and Juri walked hand in hand down the sidewalk, chatting quietly and watching the stars. It had been a nice date - nothing particularly romantic or intense, just two people who liked each other having an evening out. Takato had paid for their dinner and taken her to see a movie. Now they were winding their way home again, walking slowly without any particular eagerness to get where they were going.
"I had a good time tonight," said Takato after a while.
"It was nice," Juri agreed.
"You know, Juri, we've been seeing each other for a while now..."
"Yeah, we have."
"I always have a good time with you. You're really special to me. I was thinking..." Takato paused, taking both her hands in his, looking into her eyes. "There's nobody else I'd rather be dating than you. You're really special to me, and well, if you feel the same way... Juri, do you think maybe you'd want to be my girlfriend?"
A night wind brushed past Juri's face, tossing her hair and carrying a faint familiar flower smell, just like the flower she'd been given the night before, when she'd looked into someone else's eyes and touched someone else's hand, and she had a brief unsteadying feeling of being in two places at once.
"I don't know," she said. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that kind of commitment."
"Oh," said Takato. "Well... I don't wanna rush you or anything."
"It's all right. I'm just... surprised. I need a little time to think about it, that's all."
"Okay. How much time?"
"A few days? Just to get used to the idea?"
Takato thought about that. "I guess I can wait that long. Tell you what, how about I take you out again Friday? You can tell me then."
"Friday will be fine," she said.
"Hey, are you okay? I didn't scare you or something, did I?" asked Takato. "You looked really distant for a minute there."
"I'm okay. I just have something on my mind tonight."
"Oh. Is something wrong?"
"No, I don't think so," she said.
"Well... I guess that's okay, then," said Takato. "You know, if something is wrong, you can always talk to me. I'll listen."
"I know you will," she said. *I know you'll listen... but will you understand?*
Hirokazu's worries for his best friend were not in the least bit relieved the next morning when he saw Kenta shuffle into the classroom and drop tiredly into his desk. Even Marine Angemon was less than his usual cheery self, hovering worriedly around his Tamer's head and twittering. Hirokazu ambled over and sat down beside him.
"Hey, man, what's eating you?" he said.
"I'm tired. I didn't sleep too well last night," said Kenta.
"Oh," said Hirokazu. "Are you sure that's all? 'Cause I've seen you short of sleep and you looked pretty bad, but you didn't look like this."
"It's not your problem."
"Not my problem, he says! Sheesh. Listen, Chumley, you're not brushing me off this time. You're gonna tell me what's on your mind if I have to get Guardromon to hold you upside and shake it out of you," said Hirokazu. "C'mon. I'm... you know, kinda worried about you. We're friends, aren't we? Friends and Tamers ought to stick together."
Kenta sighed a bit. "Guess you're right. Sorry, Hirokazu."
"Apology accepted," the other boy said. "Now, what's the problem?"
"Well... I'm not completely sure yet, but I think I'm in love."
"What?" said Hirokazu. "Wow. That was wasn't one I was expecting. Who's the girl?"
"Her," said Kenta miserably.
He pointed, and Hirokazu looked. On the other side of the room, Juri was standing with her back to the boys, chatting with a few of her other friends. Culumon had chosen this day to put in an appearance, and they were all having fun watching his antics.
"Ohhhhhh," said Hirokazu, nodding his understanding. "I gotcha now. When did that happen? Yesterday? That's when you started acting weird."
"Day before," Kenta answered. "She asked me if I'd go to the dessert shop with me, just to keep her company, and I thought it wasn't going to be a big thing, but, well, stuff happened. Maybe it was just the moonlight and the flowers, but suddenly I was seeing something I hadn't seen before, and now I can't get her off my mind."
"I see," said Hirokazu, doing a good job of looking thoughtful. "Hey, isn't she kind of dating Takato or something?"
"Kind of," said Kenta. "She said she's not serious yet, though - whatever that means."
"Then why the long face? If she's not serious about anyone, she's up for grabs," said Hirokazu. "Ask her out! Be bold! Sweep her off her feet and into the sunset and all that jazz."
"Aw, I don't know. I'm not good at that kind of stuff," said Kenta.
"Hey, you aren't losing your nerve, are you?"
"I don't have any nerve!" said Kenta. "Besides, what's the point? She's not going to go out with me even if I ask. Heck, Marine Angemon has more sex appeal than me."
"Pi pi puuu!" Marine Angemon said, preening.
"Well, he is a lot cuter than you," said Hirokazu. "Listen, seriously. Juri's your friend. She already knows you and likes you. She's not the type to stomp all over a friend for anything. She won't get mad at you or anything if you just ask to take her somewhere."
"I'm still not so sure..."
Hirokazu hit him over the head, making his glasses fall off his nose and clatter onto the desk. A few of the girls stopped their conversation to look at him.
"Ow!" he yelped. "Hey, what'd you do that for?"
"Trying to knock some sense into your stubborn head," Hirokazu replied. "My dad does it to me all the time. I thought maybe it would work better on you than me. Listen, tell you what - how about I do a little subtle talking to people and see if I can figure out how she feels, okay?"
"Do you know how to be subtle?"
"Hey, this is for a good cause," said Hirokazu. "Don't you know by now I'm not as stupid as I look?"
"I guess so," said Kenta. "Okay. I guess it can't really hurt."
"That's the ticket!" his friend replied. "Trust your old buddy Hirokazu. Everything will get straightened out."
"Thanks," Kenta answered, smiling faintly. "Weirdly enough, that makes me feel better."
"Of course! Just leave it all to me!" said Hirokazu. "Oops, teacher's coming! Gotta book. Keep your chin up, Chumley."
He gave Kenta a friendly punch on the shoulder, patted Marine Angemon on the head, and scooted off to his desk before the teacher could think of something to nag him about. She shot him a glare anyway, which he countered with his usual, "I'm too cool to pay attention," look, so she sighed and turned her attention to chalking math problems onto the board. Hirokazu took out a notebook and began copying them down, but his mind was busy with Kenta's problems.
So, his old chum had fallen in love? Good for him! It was about time Kenta started showing a little initiative. It was Hirokazu's opinion that Kenta and Juri might even make a good couple - their gentle natures were suited to each other. Of course, he wasn't going to say any of that to Juri. He wasn't going to say anything to Juri, because no matter what he said to Kenta, he knew he had all the tact and subtlety of a thrown brick. However, he was a good liar, good enough to fool Kenta, anyway.
*I'll just tell him I talked to her and found out she likes him, and that will be that,* he thought. *He'll take care of himself once he stops telling himself why he can't... Maybe I'd better talk to Takato, though, just to make sure.*
Dutifully, when lunchtime rolled around, he went to find his friend and tugged him over to a corner where they could chat in semi-privacy.
"Hey, wonder boy, want a word with you," said Hirokazu.
"Uh... sure," Takato replied, looking bewildered. "What's up?"
"I need to ask you something," he answered. "You and Juri are still just friends, right?"
Takato blinked. "Well... kind of."
"Kind of? You've gotta do better than that."
"Well, it's like this," Takato said. "I took her out last night and asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend, but she hasn't gotten around to saying yes yet."
It was Hirokazu's turn to blink in surprise. "What makes you so sure she's going to say yes?"
"Why wouldn't she?" asked Takato. "I mean, who else is she seeing?"
"Yell a little quieter, would ya?" Hirokazu scolded. "I don't want him to hear!"
"When did Jeri start seeing Kenta?" asked Takato, stunned.
"The other night. Day before yesterday, I think."
"Wow," said Takato. "I thought something seemed strange last night, but... wow. Kenta? That's not one I would have expected. How did that happen?"
"How should I know? He only told me a little while ago," Hirokazu replied.
"Well, why are you telling me, anyway?" asked Takato. "Do you really want me to be sitting around worrying one of my best friends is trying to take my girl away?"
"Hey, Juri's not your girl," said Hirokazu, with a tinge of annoyance. "And Kenta's not trying anything, because he already thinks he's so hopeless he shouldn't even bother. I was just trying to do you and him both a favor making sure he wasn't going to steal her by accident."
"Oh," said Takato.
"Right," Hirokazu replied. "If you think Kenta would ever do something to like that on purpose, you obviously don't know him as well as I thought you did."
He turned to stalk away, but Takato caught him by the shoulder and turned him around again.
"Friday," he said.
Hirokazu stared at him. "No it's not. It's Wednesday."
"No, no, no," said Takato. "I mean, Friday is when Juri said she'd tell me what she's going to decide. You can tell Kenta he's got his chance." His expression turned faintly sad. "You're right, Hirokazu. She's not my girl, and I shouldn't think of her like that. I guess I have started to take her for granted. If I lose her, well... I guess I'll know whose fault it was."
"Wow," said Hirokazu. "That was really deep."
Takato laughed a little. "I guess it was. Well... may the best man win, I guess."
"Sorry, but I'm not playing this game," said Hirokazu. "Don't worry, Takato. Everything will work out, somehow. Anyway, I'm gonna eat my lunch. See ya." He wandered off muttering, "Man, am I ever glad I'm not in love."
Takato picked up his lunchbox and wandered outside. Nobody ever tried to stop the Tamers from eating outside if they wanted to, largely on the grounds that some of them had partners who didn't fit conveniently into classrooms, or in some cases, even through the classroom door. Guilmon was easily found, snoozing beneath a tree. At the sound of his Tamer's footstips, his finlike ears stood up, and his golden eyes opened. He raised his head, eagerly sniffing for the lunch boxes Takato was carrying.
"Hiya, boy," said Takato. "Ready for lunch?"
"Yeah, lunch!" the Digimon cheered. He scrambled to his feet, the blinked in surprise. "Is something wrong, Takato? You look sad."
"Nah, I just have something on my mind," he said. "I think I just grew up a little a minute ago."
"Did it hurt?"
"A bit," he said, "but I'll get over it." He considered that a while. "Yeah, that's right. I really think I will."
"That's good," said Guilmon. "As long as you're okay. Can we have lunch now?"
"Yeah, that's a good idea," said Takato. "Let's have lunch."
Inside, Hirokazu was completing his reconnaissance mission by reporting back to Kenta.
"Well," he said, "I've got good news, and I've got bad news."
"I wish you hadn't said that," said Kenta. "It always makes me sick to my stomach hearing that. All right, what's the good news?"
"The good news is, you've got a chance with Juri."
Kenta's eyes lit up. "Really? Then what's the bad news?"
"The bad news is that your chance is going to last about forty-eight hours."
"Give or take. Probably a little bit longer, since you'll actually have until Friday night," Hirokazu replied.
"How come I've only got until Friday night?"
"Because that's when Juri's going to make up her mind," said Hirokazu. "Listen, Takato asked her to be his girl, but she won't say yes or no until Friday. Now, if she was really that keen on dating our goggle boy, she would have said yes right off the bat, right?"
"But she didn't, did she? She brushed him off. Takato thinks it's because she's got someone else on her mind, and I only know one other guy who's been out with her recently," Hirokazu said. "But she's not gonna wait around forever. If you don't come out and do something, you're going to get left behind. So... you have forty-eight hours to convince Juri to give you a chance. Got it?"
"Yeah, I've got it," said Kenta. "Man. I thought I'd have a little more time to work with than this."
"Pi pi pi!" said Marine Angemon.
"Yeah, you're right. The sooner I start..." He got up from his desk, gathering together all the courage he had, the hidden supplies that had gotten him through clashes with Beelzemon and the D-Reaper. "I'll be right back."
He walked over to the place where the girls were sitting in a sociable knot, swapping gossip as they nibbled their lunches. He thought Juri looked mildly subdued, as if there was something preying on her mind, and he almost hated to talk to her and maybe add to her worries, but this was important. Just as he was trying to think of something to say, Marine Angemon fluttered down and chittered in her ear. She jumped and looked up.
"Oh, Kenta! I didn't hear you coming," she said.
"Sorry," he said, blushing a bit.
"So... did you want to say something to me?"
"Yeah, I did," said Kenta. "Juri, I was wondering... would you... do you... needanyhelpwithyourhomework?" he blurted.
She gave him a long, considering look. Then she nodded. "Sure. I could always use some help with my homework."
"Really?" he asked, his face brightening.
"Really," she replied. "Do you want to walk me home?"
"I'd love to," he said sincerely.
"Great," Juri replied. "It's a date."
"Well, a study date," she amended, blushing a bit as her schoolmates tittered. "I'll talk to you then. Bye, Kenta."
"Bye, Juri." Kenta wandered back to his desk in a faint daze.
*Well, that wasn't so hard,* he thought. *Though it didn't really come out the way I wanted it to. Well, I'll be with her tonight. That's a good start. I'll just tell her how I feel tonight.*
The wind brushed through Juri's open window, tossing her curtains, but she didn't notice. At the moment, she was lying full-length on the floor, all her attention fixed on the open pages of a textbook and the sheets of notebook paper that were strewn around. She thoughtfully chewed the end of her pencil.
"So the answer is ... eighty-six?" she hazarded.
"Check your answer. Are you sure you did everything in the right order?" asked Kenta gently.
"Um... Oh! I see." She erased what she'd written and reworked the problem. "There! Is that right?"
"You've got it," he replied. "I know it gets tricky with all the exponents and stuff."
"It makes my brain spin," said Juri. "I wouldn't understand it at all if you didn't explain it so it made sense."
He shrugged modestly. "It just takes a while to catch on sometimes. Seriously, you're doing way better at this than Hirokazu does."
She giggled. "I'll bet. What's he going to do when it's time for his college entrance exams?"
"Stay up all night cramming and crying to me on the telephone about how unfair life, his parents, and university exams are," Kenta answered. "And somehow, he'll pass anyway, because he's Hirokazu."
"You're probably right," Juri replied. "What about you? Do you think you're ready?"
"I think I am... or I will be, when the time comes. As ready as anyone can be. Then again, my parents want me to go to the University of Tokyo, and you know what that's like."
Juri made a sympathetic wince. "That's the toughest school in the country. Then again, if you can get in, you can do anything you want when you're done. I wouldn't mind going there myself, if I could." Her face took on a dreamy expression. "I heard someone say that if a couple can get into Tokyo University together, they'll find true happiness... that might have been in an anime somewhere."
He grinned. "I think I saw that show."
"It's a nice story. I'd like to find happiness with someone."
"You will," he said. "How could you not? Everybody likes you. I like you. Not like my opinion counts for much, but..."
"Your opinion counts," she said. "It's as good as anyone's."
"Sure. You're one of the nicest people I know. You're always so gentle and sensitive... It means something if you like me."
"Really? Wow," he said. "Hey, maybe we'll both make it to the university together."
"I'd like that," Juri replied. She smiled a little. "Then you could keep on helping me with my homework."
He grinned bashfully. "I don't know about that. I have a cousin who goes to college, and he says its next to impossible to flunk out. You probably wouldn't need me."
"I'd want to spend time with you anyway. You're my friend," she said. She blushed a little. "Actually, I didn't really need your help tonight. It was just a good excuse."
"To spend some time with you," she clarified. "I wanted to, before-"
"Juri?" a voice interrupted from downstairs. "Are you almost done? Dinner's almost ready."
"Coming, Mom!" she called back. She looked apologetic. "Sorry, Kenta. Looks like we're going to have to stop. Do you want to stay for dinner? I'm sure my parents wouldn't mind."
"Nah, I think I'll go on home. I didn't tell my parents I'd be staying that long," he replied. "Thanks anyway, though."
He gathered his things, and the two of them went downstairs together, Kenta mentally berating himself.
*Rats! The perfect opportunity, ruined by the dinner bell! One of your days is almost up, and you're not going to get another chance... Okay, Kenta, pull yourself together. Just go ahead and say it, and get it over with.*
They reached the front door, and he stepped outside, only to linger on the doorstep.
"Well, it was nice talking to you," he said. "I really enjoyed it... even if it was homework and stuff."
"It was nice talking to you too, Kenta."
"Um, yeah. You know, Juri, you've always been a good friend, but the other night, I started thinking that... well, this is going to sound kind of strange, but..."
He swallowed a few times, trying to come up with the right words for what he wanted to say, but his mind had suddenly gone blank. He was suddenly realizing how close together they were standing, and that she was looking up at him through her long dark lashes with her gentle sad eyes. He almost thought he could smell her, a sweet clean scent like flowers. He was paralyzed between the conflicting urges to get down on his knees and confess his undying devotion, or to run away and hide under his bed for the rest of eternity.
His decision was made for him as Marine Angemon gave him a sudden sharp shove against his head, pushing him forward, and the next thing he knew, he was kissing Juri. It was hard to say which of them was more surprised, but the shock melted away quickly as they made up their minds to enjoy the unexpected windfall. It took a little while before they broke apart again, both looking a little stunned.
"Wow," he said.
"Yeah," she said. She gave a nervous little giggle. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Me either," he said. "But I meant it."
She stared. "Really?"
"Yeah, really," he answered.
"So did I," she replied. "Good night, Kenta. Come back soon."
She slipped inside, leaving him standing thunderstruck on the doorstep. Marine Angemon fluttered around and waved a flipper in front of his face.
"Pa pi po pu pe pu pa?" he chirped.
For a moment, Kenta said nothing. Then he grinned slowly.
"Marine Angemon, I am going to owe you big time for this!" he said.
He gave a jubilant whoop and began running up the street, jumping and cheering, while Marine Angemon fluttered behind, wondering why it was that humans had to make such a big problem out of love.
Juri went up to her room with some serious thinking to do - serious enough that she felt like she needed someone to talk to. She went for her pocketbook and fished out a cloth-wrapped treasure, her old D-Ark. She didn't always keep it on her person anymore, as there were times when the memories associated with it were uncomfortable. Tonight, though, she needed her partner's friendly presence, and this little box was the most solid link to him she had. Another reason she didn't keep the D-Ark out in plain view was that it still had a habit of doing interesting things even though the Digimon connected with it was supposed to be long gone. She took the wrapping off of it now and cradled it in her hands. Though the night was chilly, the device was warm to the touch.
"Are you there?" she asked quietly. "We need to talk."
She looked down at the dark screen, and her reflection looked back. For a brief moment, her own eyes were replaced by those of an animal, proud and strong but gentle as well. She smiled faintly.
"Nice to see you again," she said. "Sorry to drag you away from... wherever you are now, but I really need someone to talk to."
The warmth at her fingertips spread; Leomon didn't mind coming back for a while if she really needed him.
"Thanks," she said. She settled herself down on her bed, making herself comfortable. "Leomon, you remember Kenta don't you?"
Leomon did; she could feel his amusement as he remembered the gawky, bespectacled boy.
"Well, he's grown up a lot," said Juri, a bit defensively. "We've gotten to be good friends. He's really nice. I know you'd like him a lot now if you met him again. You'd be surprised. Even I'm surprised. I just sort of turned around one day, and there he was, and I realized he's really something special."
She paused, reevaluating her statement, and found it truthful. *He is special. I don't think he knows it, though... It's nice to meet a guy who's gentle and humble, and doesn't have to prove how cool he is all the time. Maybe he's not the best-looking in the world, but I guess he does have a kind of appeal... maybe it's his eyes. He has such kind eyes. And the way he kissed me, so softly...*
A wave of amused impatience washed over her, and she pulled her mind back to the present.
"Sorry," she said. "But do you see what my problem is? Well, no, I guess you don't. The trouble is that, well, I'm kind of dating Takato right now. And I like Takato a lot - he's been my friend for a long time, but I'm not really in love with him. I never was, but we've always been together, and after he saved me in the last battle... it was like I was the princess in some fairy tale, and now I'm expected to ride off into the sunset with my white knight. Being around him... I feel like I have to love him whether I like it or not, and then I feel guilty because I don't... But it's so easy with Kenta. He doesn't ask anything from me; he's just there for me, and so happy just to be with me..."
There was a quizzical feeling, saying just as clearly as words, "So, what's the problem?"
"I know, it looks easy," she said. "But it's more complicated than that. See, Takato's asked me to be his girlfriend. He cares for me, and I don't want to hurt him... but I don't want to hurt Kenta either. Or me. I really don't want to hurt myself."
Puzzlement, and concern. She could almost feel a pressure on her shoulders, as if someone had laid a comforting paw around them.
"Thanks, Leomon," she said shakily. "I know you try so hard, but it's just not the same as having you here with me where I can see you and touch you. It hurt so much when you left... and my mother, too. Stepmama is nice, and we get along so much better now, but I still miss my real mother. I love people, and they go away. And if I fall in love again, and I lose them, I won't even be able to get this close to them. They'll just be gone, and I'll lose another little piece of myself. I don't know how many pieces I can stand to lose. Leomon, I... I'm scared to fall in love again."
Warmth washed over her, emanating from the device in her hands and wrapping around her like a blanket, instilling her with some of Leomon's strength and courage. She relaxed. Even if she couldn't see him, Leomon would always be close by her, watching over her. He wouldn't let her make the wrong choice. He would give her the strength to do the right thing. With the D-Ark pressed over her heart, she fell into a peaceful sleep.
Kenta was early to school that day. He'd awakened at sunset, feeling the warm rays of the sun creep across his face, and just the realization that it was a brand new day was enough to make him spring out of bed and go to greet it. How could anyone sleep in when there was a whole day full of possibilities to explore? He was dressed and fed and out the door well before the time when he was usually just waking up. He all but ran to school, with Marine Angemon flitting behind him, squealing in delight that his partner had finally learned the correct time to wake up.
When he finally arrived at school, he decided not to go directly inside, choosing instead to linger near the playground. A few other early risers were still there, younger children enjoying the chance to socialize before classes. A few of them had a card game going, giving him a moment's reminiscence as he thought back to the days when he, Takato, and Hirokazu would do the same thing. He hung around and kibitzed for a while, but eventually he decided he didn't feel like standing still any longer and wandered back to the school gates. By this time, other students were arriving. A few of them waved to him, but he didn't strike up any conversations until he saw his particular friend.
"Hirokazu! Over here!" he called.
"Hey, man! You're early. What'd you do, set your clock wrong or something?" asked Hirokazu, hurrying up to greet him. Guardromon clunked along behind him, keeping his eyes peeled for any dangers that might lurk in the schoolyard; just because he hadn't found any yet didn't mean there weren't any.
"Nah, I just couldn't sleep any longer," Kenta answered. "How could anybody sleep on such a beautiful day?"
Hirokazu looked around to see what kind of day it was and shrugged. "Yeah, whatever. So, anyway, how'd it go last night with Juri? Get anything accomplished?"
"Well, yeah..." said Kenta, blushing. "She kissed me."
"Aw, yeah! That's my man!" Hirokazu cheered. "See, I knew you had it in you! So are you two an item yet or what?"
"I dunno. I mean, this is all happening so fast, I'm not really sure where I stand now..." He gave a small laugh. "This has got to be what it's like to be drunk; I don't know which way is up anymore, but I feel too good to care."
"Yeah, you kinda look that way. I haven't seen you this happy since you found Marine Angemon," Hirokazu replied. "Well, congrats and all that. Hope everything works out and you're both happy."
Kenta grinned. "Me too."
"Hey," said Hirokazu. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure, ask me anything."
"What was it like?"
"What was what like?"
Hirokazu blushed a little. "Being kissed."
Kenta's expression went dreamy. "It was amazing... Hey, wait a second," he said, snapping back to reality. "Why are you asking me? You told me you'd already been kissed before!"
"I have!" said Hirokazu, looking uncomfortable. "I just haven't kissed Juri before, okay?"
"Pi pi pu pu piii!" Marine Angemon scolded.
"I don't believe him, either," Kenta replied. "And here I spent all this time believing you when you said Ruki kissed you after that party!"
Hirokazu laughed. "Hey, man, I thought you would have known I was lying about that!"
"If she ever finds out you were saying that..." said Kenta, looking speculative. Hirokazu winced.
"You wouldn't really tell her, would you?" he asked. "Seriously, you wouldn't tell her. You wouldn't do that to me, would you?"
"See you after class, Hirokazu!" said Kenta. He waved a cheery goodbye and scampered off.
"Hey, wait up!" Hirokazu shouted. "You come back here! And after all I've done for you, too!"
It was too late; he was already gone. Hirokazu sighed and looked at Guardromon.
"If he tells Ruki," he said, "you'll protect me from her, right?"
"Her? You must be kidding," Guardromon replied.
"You're learning my attitude. That's not good," Hirokazu sighed. "Oh, well. At least if I'm in the hospital, I won't have to go to school. See you later, Guardromon. I'm gotta go catch up to Cassanova Kenta."
Waving a goodbye, he scampered into the school.
For once in her life, Juri was not paying attention to her class. Normally she was a good student, but today she just couldn't keep her mind on her studies, even for the lessons she usually enjoyed. Instead, her mind kept skipping around from her date with Takato to the kiss on her front doorstep. She had only a few hours left to make up her mind. Who was she going to chose? Or should she even choose either of them? She chewed her eraser as she pondered her options.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Kenta looking out the window, his mind clearly somewhere else. He was smiling faintly, and she wondered if he was thinking about her. The idea sent a tingle through her blood, and she quickly pulled her gaze back down onto her notebook.
*I don't think I'm in love yet,* she thought, *but I will be soon if things keep going the way they have. I don't know if I want that. This is just a high school crush; we're just kids; we can't be in love after just a couple of days. It won't work out, and I'll get hurt again...*
She sighed and turned her gaze in the other direction, where Takato was hard at work. To the teacher, it might look like he was jotting down notes, but from this angle, she could see that intertwined among the equations was a veritable parade of Digimon, far more realistic than the ones he'd been drawing a few years ago. He'd been spending his spare time lately drawing comic books based loosely on their Digital World adventures, and he was looking into having them published soon. Today, though, he looked faintly distracted, even worried, and she wondered what was on his mind. Did it have anything to do with the decision she'd promised she'd make? Every once in a while, she thought she could catch him looking at her, and she would quickly drop her gaze. She also thought she saw him glance at Kenta a few times, but surely that was her imagination. He didn't know about Kenta yet, did he?
*What would happen if I didn't choose either of them?* she wondered. *Would they go around being suspicious of each other, thinking it's the other's fault for taking me away? I can't do that to them; it would ruin their friendship. Besides, it's just prolonging the inevitable. I have to choose somebody someday, right?*
The teacher called on Takato, and he got up and went to the board to work out a math problem. Juri watched him as he puzzled his way through the question.
*Would it be so bad if I chose him?* she wondered. *I do like Takato. He's always been a good friend, and he cares about me. He'd be good to me, I know. He'll be successful someday; he can take care of me. Face it, no matter what the stories say, people don't always marry for love. I could live with that, I think. I can keep house and cook the meals and see my husband for a few hours a day... and be safe. And if it doesn't work out, after all, it won't hurt so much if he leaves.*
She put down her pencil. The choices were all very clear to her. Takato loved her and would be hurt if she turned him down, and she didn't want to hurt him. She didn't love him, but that was all right, because falling in love could hurt so much, and she didn't want to be hurt anymore. Even if she didn't really love him, she could still be kind to him and make him happy, and he would never know the difference. Kenta didn't really love her; it was just a silly childish crush brought on by a few confusing moments under the stars; he would get over her, and then he would look back on all this as the silliness it was.
The bell rang just as Takato finished the question, and the class was dismissed. Juri got to her feet with her mind made up.
*It's best this way.*
"Takato," she called, "I need to talk to you."
Kenta, who had been packing his bag, suddenly found that one of his books didn't want to fit in properly, requiring him to take out everything and reorder it. Coincidentally, that also gave him a good excuse to listen in on the ensuing conversation.
"Sure, Juri," said Takato. "What do you want to say?"
"I've made up my mind," she said. "I've decided my answer."
*Here it comes,* thought Kenta, his heart rising.
"I'd be happy to be your girlfriend, Takato," Juri said.
Kenta's heart crashed down into his shoes and shattered. He shoved his books roughly into his bag and rushed out of the room.
"What got into him?" asked Takato.
"He must be in a hurry for something," Juri replied, not quite meeting his eyes. *He'll get over it, it's nothing, he'll get over it...*
"Yeah, that must be it," Takato replied. "Hey, you know, this is a big event! We should go somewhere and celebrate. I don't have much money with me right now, but I think I have enough to get some ice cream or something."
Juri forced a smile. "That would be nice. I'd like that."
"Great!" Takato enthused. "Let's go."
He reached for Juri's hand, and she took it, following obediently and wishing wholeheartedly that there was a better way for her to choose.
Among the swirling crowd of people rushing out of the school, Hirokazu was all but invisible, perfectly congruous in his junior high uniform. It made it much easier for him to loiter inconspicuously as he waited to see what would become of his friend. He had half a notion that Kenta would try to talk Juri into to going out again, on a real date this time - after all, it was the next logical step if they really liked each other. Of course, it was really none of his business what the two of them did together in their spare time, but Hirokazu suffered from a sense of brotherly protectiveness where his friend was concerned, and he liked to be where he could watch out for him if he needed it. Today his instincts were paying off, as he was surprised to see Kenta rushing blindly out of the school with his face tear-streaked and his partner chattering worriedly behind him.
"Oh, great," Hirokazu sighed. "Something's gone wrong. Again. Naturally." He tried to press through the crowd, but he didn't have quite the pushing power necessary. "Guardromon! A little help here!"
Guardromon waded easily through the crowd, scattering students right and left. When he reached his Tamer's side, he picked him up and set him on his shoulder, carrying him effortlessly across the schoolyard.
"Where do you need to go?" Guardromon asked.
Hirokazu considered. "The playground. That old climbing thing that looks like a dinosaur. That's where he'll be."
"Right! Onward to the rescue!"
"Yeah, whatever. Just get moving, would you?"
They reached the playground, and Hirokazu jumped down from his partner's shoulder and scrambled inside the playset. It was a tighter fit than it had been when they were children, but he managed. As he'd expected, Kenta was huddled in the deepest hollow, the place where they'd always hidden their cards. Now all that was hiding there was a young man with tear-spotted glasses, trying to disappear into the shadows. Hirokazu crawled into the space and sat down next to him.
"You okay, man?" he asked quietly.
Kenta shook his head. "No."
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Kenta sniffled. "She chose him. I thought she really liked me... but she chose him."
Hirokazu didn't know what to say. He ran a few replies through his mind, but none of them seemed like they would do anything to cheer his friend up. He sighed. It was so hard when he couldn't get out of his problems by playing the joker. When someone really needed comforting from him, he didn't know how to give it.
"I'm sorry," he said at last.
"What are you sorry for? It's not your problem."
"Your problems are my problems, too," said Hirokazu. "It's always been that way. You know that."
"Yeah, I guess so," said Kenta. He took off his glasses and tried to wipe them clean again, then rubbed at his eyes. "I feel so stupid. Stupid for crying, stupid for falling in love, stupid for ever thinking I had a chance..."
"You know what?" Hirokazu replied. "You're not the only one who feels stupid. Wish I knew something to say to make you feel better."
"It's okay... Hirokazu?"
"Thanks for being here. You're a great friend. You know that, right?"
"Yeah, I know," said Hirokazu. But for once, he really wasn't feeling that great.
A couple walked up the sidewalk. They were still holding hands, in public no less, a sign that a few of the more conservative Japanese citizens would have considered tantamount to announcing their engagement. If they could hear the pair's thoughts, however, they would have heard a different story.
"You sure you're okay?" asked Takato. "You seem... distant."
"I'm fine. Really. I'm very happy."
"No, you're not. Juri, why are you lying to me? You ought to know you can't lie to me."
She looked down at the sidewalk. "I'm not lying."
"Yes you are," said Takato. "You've never lied to me before. Why are you doing this to me now?"
"You're imagining things, Takato," she said, trying to make her laugh sound natural. "Nothing is wrong. Why would anything be wrong?"
"Juri - Juri, look at me."
Takato put his hand to Juri's face, turning her head gently around so they were eye to eye.
"Tell me what's wrong," he said. "It's okay. I think I know, anyway. This is about Kenta, isn't it?"
He'd found the button to push, and got a flood of tears in response. She buried her face in her hands, sobbing, and he gently guided her off the street and into an alley, away from any prying eyes. He put his arm around her and held her until she got herself back under control.
"This is all wrong," she said through her tears. "I don't know what I'm doing... I don't know what to do..."
"You can start by being honest with me," said Takato. "What's really going on?"
"I'm not sure," she said. "I think I... think I might be falling in love with him. I don't know how it happened..."
"That's what I thought was going on," he said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to hurt your feelings," Juri answered, sniffling.
"And what about you? What were you doing telling me you wanted to be with me when you really wanted to be with him?"
"I was scared," she said. "I didn't want to lose anyone I loved again, so I decided I just wouldn't let myself fall in love. I would have been good to you, Takato. It would have been all right. It was what I had to do."
"So, let me get this straight - you were planning on breaking Kenta's heart, not to mention your own, and then lying to me about it, and you thought that was the right choice?"
She blinked. "Well, when you put it like that..."
"I'll put it another way," said Takato. "If you don't love me, I'm not going to date you, whether you think you ought to or not. That's the wrong way to treat you. It would be selfish and cruel, and you're too good a friend to treat like that. You'll always be my friend, no matter what." He gave a small laugh. "Actually, I think I already knew this wasn't going to work out. I knew as soon as I found out about Kenta. He's not the kind of guy you go out with just on a whim. I figured if you two really were seeing each other, there had to be something out of the ordinary going on."
"How did you find out?" Juri asked. "If I didn't tell you, and he didn't tell you..."
"He told Hirokazu," said Takato, "and Hirokazu can't keep his mouth shut. If you glued it shut he'd learn to talk out of his ears."
"You might be right," she said, the faintest of smiles beginning to form. "Takato... believe me when I tell you I didn't mean to cheat on you or anything. I just needed someone to talk to, and he cheered me up. That was all it was... it just didn't stay that way."
"Well, I know someone who probably needs cheering up now," Takato replied. "Maybe you ought to go return the favor."
"What about you?"
"Aw, I'll be fine," he said. "Like I said, I worked through this a while ago. I just want you to be happy."
He was surprised to have Juri throw herself at him and hug him tightly.
"Thank you," she said. "You'll always be my best friend."
He hugged her back. "I can be happy that way. Now go. Someone else needs you more than I do."
"I will. Thank you, Takato! Bye!"
And with that, she turned and ran like the wind.
"He's probably at the playground!" Takato shouted after her. He was not sure she heard him, but that was all right. She was following her heart, finally, and that wouldn't steer her wrong.
The gloomy silence inside the stone dinosaur was broken by a voice.
"Hark!" said Guardromon. "Someone approaches."
"Tell them to go away," Hirokazu replied. "Now is really not a good time to be bothered."
Guardromon looked puzzled. "I don't think that's the right thing to do."
"That's why I do the thinking around here," Hirokazu replied, "and I'm telling you-"
"Kenta?" called a distant voice. "Kenta, are you here?"
"Oh, my," said Hirokazu. "I just remembered, I... left a cake in the oven. I gotta go now."
He scrambled out of the opening and back onto Guardromon's shoulder.
"Cake?" the android said, puzzled. "But Hirokazu, you don't even know how to-"
"Just get going. I'll explain it on the way home," Hirokazu said. Raising his voice, he shouted, "Hey, Juri, he's over here!"
"Wha?" said Kenta, reviving from his depressed daze. "Oh, no, Hirokazu, I can't talk to her now..."
"Sorry, Chumley, you're on your own now. See ya!"
He growled with frustration, and Marine Angemon made twittering noises of confusion as Guardromon and Hirokazu clomped off into the sunset. Kenta felt like hiding, but where else was there to go? He was already as hidden as he could possibly be, and Juri was still coming to look for him. What did she want? She'd already made her decision, hadn't she? What could she possibly have to say to him? "I'm sorry; I thought it over and decided we're really better off as friends; I hope you don't mind." Well, he didn't want to hear it. He was just readying a scathing reply when she peered into the hollow at him, and the sight of her tear-streaked face chased all the anger straight out of him.
"What happened to you?" he said.
She sniffled a little, then burst back into tears again. He hurried over to her side and helped her crawl the rest of the way inside, and she settled into his lap and sobbed on his shoulder while he stroked her hair.
"I'm sorry, Kenta, I'm so sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to hurt you... Do you hate me now?"
"Hate you? I could never hate you, Juri."
She looked up at him. "Are you sure? I hurt you... I broke your heart..."
"It will heal. Hearts have a way of doing that."
She shook her head. "Not mine..."
"Your heart's not broken."
"How do you know?"
"If it was broken, it wouldn't work, would it?" he asked. "But it does. Otherwise you wouldn't be crying."
"I made the wrong choice," she said. "I had to come back and apologize, and tell you... Takato and I aren't going to be a couple. He thinks you and I should have a chance together, and I think he's right. I want a chance to love you, and be happy."
He felt tears coming to his eyes. "I want that chance, too."
"I know." She smiled uncertainly. "I'm still scared. But I'm going to be brave. For your sake, I think I can."
"I don't know why me," he said. "I really don't have much to offer you. I know I'm not good looking or talented or any of that, but... I will be good to you, I promise you that."
"That's all I need."
She relaxed into his embrace, and he tilted her chin back to kiss her again, both of them feeling very glad that they were hiding from the world.