A pair of pale violet eyes peered out of the cool shadows, watching the two boys who sat in the grass, only a few yards away and not even knowing that they were watched. Since they'd met each other and become familiar with the lives of Tamers, Takato and Jenrya had been trying to hone their battle skills to make sure they'd be ready in the face of their next attack. However, since neither of them cared for the idea of hurting actual Digimon, they'd settled for the next best thing: playing cards. They could often be found here in the park, crouched over their decks of imaginary monsters, pitting their favorite Digimon against each other in virtual battles. Ruki stared at them, sighing.
*How stupid can you get?* she thought. *As if you can learn how to fight from playing cards! As if that will do anything to make their Digimon stronger!* Ruki smirked a little. They could rationalize all they wanted, but she knew they were only making excuses. They just happened to like to play cards, so they made it sound like they were doing something important. What a couple of babies. She wondered why she even bothered watching them. Maybe it was just the reassurance of knowing that she was really the only person in this whole city worthy of being called a Digimon Tamer.
Takato slapped a card down in front of his friend. "Ha! Beat that, if you can!"
"Got you covered," answered Jenrya with a grin. He set down another card. "Two hundred extra points! How's that for an upgrade?"
"Aw, man!" Takato wailed. "I can't match that! Where'd you get that card, anyway? I haven't seen it before."
"It's one of the new ones that just came out," Jenrya answered. "You should go stock up before they're all gone."
"You're probably right," he sighed, looking down at his losing hand. "Man. Think I could convince Ruki to give me some lessons?"
"Not if you got down on your knees and begged," answered Terriermon, who had been watching the game from his perch on Jenrya's shoulder.
Takato laughed. "True! She's got more attitude than any five girls I know."
Ruki glowered in the shadows. They were laughing at her! How dare they laugh and make jokes about her like that? She wasn't something to be laughed at! She had worked so hard to make herself strong, and they still didn't take her seriously...
Not knowing that they were being overheard, the boys had reshuffled their cards and started a new game. Already, Jenrya's new cards were proving their use, and he was steadily racking up points. Ruki heard Takato groan as yet another of his Digimon was defeated.
"Maybe you'd better beg for those lessons, after all!" said Jenrya with a good-natured grin.
"No way! I'd rather get beaten by you than her - at least it doesn't hurt this way!" Takato replied.
"Only your pride," said Terriermon.
"My pride doesn't bruise easily," said Takato. "I'm used to being insulted - I hang out with Hirokazu. But if Ruki knew we were talking about her like this, she'd beat us both up."
"I don't see much chance of that happening," answered Jen calmly.
Takato looked surprised. "What? Don't you think Ruki would beat you up?"
"Oh, I don't doubt she'd try if we made her mad enough," he said. "I just don't think she could do it."
"All right! That's it!" Ruki shouted, bursting out from beneath the trees.
"Yikes!" yelped Takato. "Uh... Hi, Ruki. We were just..."
"Talking about me," she finished, glaring at them both with fire in her eyes. "You were talking about me behind my back."
"So what were you doing eavesdropping on our private conversation?" answered Jenrya calmly. "That's just as rude, you know."
Ruki flushed a little. "I wasn't eavesdropping. I was just on my way home and I heard my name mentioned. I heard you saying you don't think I can beat you up."
"Well, at least you're brave enough to admit it," she said. "Now I'll give you fifteen seconds to apologize."
Ruki goggled. "What do you mean, for what? For insulting me, nimrod!"
"I didn't insult you," said Jenrya calmly. "I said I didn't think you can beat me up, but that's not an insult."
"Listen, buster - I could beat you up any day of the week and you know it!"
"I can't say that I do."
"Jen," said Takato urgently, "maybe you'd better just say she can? Just in case?"
"I've got it under control," answered Jenrya calmly.
"You do not!" Ruki shouted.
"You're the one who's out of control," answered Jenrya. "What do you want to prove?"
"I shouldn't have to prove anything."
"Then why are you trying to pick a fight with me?"
"You started it!" she said. "Now you're going to get what you asked for. I'll show you to talk about me behind my back."
Jen held up his hands in a placating gesture. "Look, I don't know what's gotten you so riled up, but if it makes you happy, I apologize for talking about you. Okay?"
"Too late for that now," she said. "I'm going to make you eat your words."
"I'm not going to fight you, if that's what you're trying to say," said Jen. "I don't believe in violence. Fighting doesn't solve anything."
"That's what all the weaklings say. I'm about to teach you differently."
With all the strength she had, she threw a fist in his direction, fully intending to do some serious rearranging of his face. Instead, the blow never connected with anything, as Jenrya seemed to spontaneously manifest himself several inches to the left of where she'd been aiming. Surprised, she tried again, meeting with the same result, striking nothing but air. Jenrya watched her with his usual unruffled expression.
"Would you hold still already?" she demanded.
"I don't really think that would be in my best interests," said Jenrya. "I'll pass, thanks."
"Don't make fun of me!" She tried to hit him again, but anger made her swing wild; he dodged it easily.
"C'mon, Ruki, just calm down!" he said. "You're being unreasonable!"
"And you're trying to make me look stupid! Hold still and fight like a man!"
"Uh, Jen," said Takato, "maybe you'd better do what she asks, before she pops a vein or something."
"What she wants is to beat me into a pulp," said Jen. "That's not the kind of thing I compromise on!"
"That's what you think!" Ruki replied.
She drove her fist at him one last time. He caught it in his hand and deflected it off to the side. He held it steady, staring her in the eye for just a moment, making sure she got the point before he released her.
"Don't do that," he said. "You're just causing yourself trouble. I'm not going to fight you, and you're not going to hurt me, so give it up."
She glared at him for a moment, panting in fury. He was still as calm as if they'd been discussing the weather. She looked away.
"That's better," said Jenrya. "Now, if you aren't going to be sociable, would you please leave?"
"Oh, fine," she muttered. "Be that way. I don't want to hang around with you goggle-heads anyway!"
She turned and began to walk off. Jenrya turned the other way and prepared to go back to his card game. He had just enough time to register the sounds of footsteps behind him, and he jumped, just barely avoiding a sneak attack. He caught the foot that was being kicked at him and performed a quick pull that caught Ruki off balance. She would have fallen and probably hit her head on the ground if Jenrya hadn't caught her and set her down gently. She found herself staring up into his stormy eyes. His expression hadn't changed, but she could see he was angry.
"You can't beat me in an unfair fight, either," he said. "Come on, Takato. All of a sudden I don't feel like playing cards anymore."
"Right," said Takato, sounding a little stunned.
The boys collected their cards and their Digimon and took themselves somewhere else. Ruki just stayed where she was for a while. She felt as disoriented as if she'd been given a blow to the head. What had just happened? Jenrya hadn't even bruised her, yet somehow, here she was doing some involuntary cloud watching. She had lost. How could she lose to that peace-loving wimp? She sat up and dusted herself off. There had to be some rationalization for what had just happened, but she was having trouble thinking of one that sounded good, even to herself.
There was a swirl of shadows that was just visible in the periphery of her vision, and Renamon appeared on a tree branch. The golden fox took a survey of the terrain.
"They're gone," she said.
Ruki stared at the ground, almost in pain with the shame of it all. "You were watching."
Renamon performed a graceful leap, landing lightly on her toes next to her partner.
"You know I'm always watching," Renamon replied. "Especially when I sense you are in distress."
"You mean when I'm being beaten," said Ruki. "I made a fool of myself. You must think I'm weak now."
Renamon's expression didn't have much variety, but she tilted her ears in a way that looked puzzled.
"Do you think I'm weak?" she asked.
"No!" Ruki exclaimed. "How could I think that? You're the strongest person I know!"
"Well, then," said Renamon, "am I stronger now than I was when you first met me?"
"Yeah," admitted Ruki.
"Was I weak then?"
"No, not exactly..."
"What do you think it was that made me stronger now than I was then?"
"Well... we've been training," said Ruki carefully. "You fought and got stronger that way."
"And I'm better because you train me than I could be alone. Is that not also true?"
"Yeah. What are you leading up to?"
Renamon gave a small shrug. "The boy Jenrya trains."
"Oh," said Ruki.
"So I do not think you are weak," Renamon replied. "You are simply not trained to fight the way he fights. So no one could expect you to win."
Ruki made a face. "I don't like losing."
"When I wanted to be stronger," said Renamon, "I found a trainer."
"Huh?" said Ruki. "Wait a minute! You aren't trying to tell me-"
There was a blur in the air, and Renamon disappeared, leaving Ruki glaring angrily at an innocent patch of grass.
"Well, thanks a lot," she muttered.
She brushed herself off and began stomping home, feeling utterly annoyed. Bad enough that she had to be embarrassed in front of the boys, but to have Renamon see it... to have the fox- woman come out and advise her, as if she were a little child who didn't even have the sense to look both ways before crossing the street...
*It wouldn't be so bad if she didn't make sense,* thought Ruki. *But even if I were to take her advice, who would I go to? I'm definitely not going to ask him, no matter what!*
Then again, if she didn't ask someone for help, she was going to have to deal with going through the rest of her life knowing that one of those wannabe-Tamers could do something she couldn't. That was hardly an appetizing prospect, either.
"Huh. Even if I asked him, he wouldn't say yes," she muttered. "No way. And it's not as if I'm going to ask him anyway. I don't need to learn anything from him..."
She frowned, stopping in the middle of the path to aim a few punches and kicks at the empty air. Then she sighed, shoulders slumping, and started walking again.
Jen came home to find that his father was already there, sitting in his favorite chair and reading the paper.
"Hey, there, son," he greeted. "Where have you been? We were starting to wonder."
"Went to the park," he said. "I thought I told you, Takato and I were going to go brush up on our card-playing."
"Ah, yes, that's right," he said. "Did you have fun?"
"Well, sort of," he said. "Actually... something weird happened."
"Oh? Care to elaborate?"
"Um... It's sort of hard to explain, but I kind of beat up a girl."
"You did what?" Mr. Lee repeated. "You had better have an explanation for that, and it had better be good."
"Well, there's an explanation for it, anyway," said Jen, dropping into a nearby chair. "I don't know if it's a good one or not. See, there's this girl I know, Ruki. She keeps showing up and trying to show off how much better she is than us. Well, today she was trying to prove she could beat me up, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. She had to have a fight, so finally I just had to give up and go along with it. I didn't hurt her - I just defended myself long enough for her to realize she wasn't going to hurt me, so she gave up."
"I see," said Mr. Lee. "But it's still bothering you?"
"Yeah," Jen replied. "It bothers me because it was my fault she started the fight."
"How did you do that?"
"Being careless, saying things I shouldn't. I was talking to Takato, and he was joking about her beating me up, and I said I didn't think she could. That was true - she really couldn't. But she overheard me and didn't like hearing it. She thought I was insulting her, so she had to try to prove me wrong. She kept telling me to take it back. I should have, just to keep the peace... but I guess I'm a little tired of her attitude, and I wanted to show her she's not as tough as she thinks she is. Only..."
"I think I hurt her feelings," Jen finished.
"I see," said his father. "Well, I'm glad you at least have this all figured out. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it?"
Jen sighed. "I don't really know. It's no good apologizing to her. What would I say? 'Hi, Ruki. Hey, listen, about yesterday, I'm really sorry I didn't let you beat me up.' She'd never admit I upset her. She's just going to hang around and be mad at me for the next couple of centuries."
"Is there any way you could make it up to her that wouldn't hurt her pride?" Mr. Lee asked.
Jen frowned. "Hm. Hard to say. She's got an awful lot of it to hurt. I really don't think she liked the fact that she couldn't beat me. Maybe I shouldn't have made it look so easy, but... I almost couldn't help it. I've had it drilled into me so long I don't even have to think about it anymore..." His voice trailed off, and his grey eyes lit up with inspiration. "Well, that might work."
"Got it figured out?" his father asked.
"I think I might know how to go about it," Jenrya replied. "And if it doesn't work, at least now I know for sure that she can't beat me up. Thanks for the talk, Dad."
"Any time, son. Glad I could help."
Jen trotted off to his room feeling a bit more cheerful. Terriermon shifted a little on his perch to whisper in Jen's ear.
"So, you really have an idea?" he asked. "This ought to be fun to watch."
"It should be," Jen replied, "especially if I can actually do it right."
"What are you going to do?"
"Well, first off, I'm going to apologize."
"For what? You didn't do anything wrong. She was the one who was trying to beat your head in."
"I know that. So does she. That's why I'm going to apologize. It's one of those weird things humans have to do to keep the peace."
Terriermon shook his head. "I'm never going to figure out human beings."
"Trust me, nothing drives a person nuts faster than having someone be nice to them when they're sure they don't deserve it."
"If you're sure," said Terriermon. "Then what are you going to do?"
Jen smiled grimly. "That will be the exciting part."
Ruki was sitting by herself when Jen found her, shuffling through a deck of Digimon cards and looking thoroughly disgusted. She was still smarting from the episode yesterday, and it made it difficult for her to enjoy any other pastime, even the few she actually enjoyed. Something in the dark reaches of her mind kept whispering that it didn't matter how well she did anything else if she could still be tossed around like a rag doll by a two-bit Tamer. When she heard the sound of sneakers on the graveled pathway, she looked up with fire in her eyes at the person brash enough to intrude on her privacy and found herself facing the current cause of her troubles. She glowered at him.
"You again," she said darkly.
"Yeah. Hi, Ruki," said Jen.
"What are you doing here? Come to gloat?" Ruki demanded.
"No, nothing like that," he answered. "Actually, I came to apologize."
"You were right. We shouldn't have been making fun of you. It was wrong, and I'm sorry," said Jen. "And while I'm at it, I'm sorry for the way that fight turned out. I had an unfair advantage. I was angry at you when I shouldn't have been, and I was showing off. I'm sorry."
Ruki stared, surprised. She was not used to this sort of treatment; she was used to people who either ran away or fought until she beat them. To have someone come along and wave the white flag and really seem to mean it... Try as she might, she couldn't see any trace of insincerity in his expression or manner. It was very confusing.
"All right," she said gracelessly. "I accept your apology. Now, go away."
"If that's what you want," he said, obediently turning to walk away. "By the way... you really did put up a good fight. You have potential."
Ruki goggled all over again. "Now I know you're lying."
"No I'm not," said Jenrya. "I can prove it, if you want."
She looked at him skeptically. "And just how are you going to prove it?"
"Well," he answered casually, glancing at his watch, "I'm expected to turn out for a lesson in about fifteen minutes. Want to come? You might find it amusing."
"Amusing? How?" Ruki asked.
"Because Jen always gets his tail kicked."
"What? It's true?"
"That," said Ruki, "might just be interesting. Okay, seeing as how I have nothing better to do..."
Trying to look as if she wasn't in the least bit curious and, owing to long years of practice, doing a fairly good job of it, Ruki trailed along after Jen. He led her to a residential-looking part of town and ushered her into a pleasant little house. They were met at the door by a distinguished looking gentleman with sharp dark eyes, who bowed politely and ushered them inside.
"I see you've brought a friend along, Jenrya," he remarked.
"Yes, Sensei. This is Ruki. I told her she could watch," Jen replied. "I thought she might learn something."
"Ah, I see," the man replied. "Well, Miss Ruki, you're certainly welcome to watch. I'm sure it will be interesting, if not educational."
"Thank you," she said. There was something about this man that made her feel as if she ought to be using good manners, as if she were addressing a priest.
"I'm going to go get changed," said Jenrya, scooting away.
Ruki allowed herself to be led into a wide empty room with polished wood floors and bare white walls, and she settled herself against the wall to wait. A few minutes later, Jen reappeared, having changed into clothes more suitable to the occasion, something similar to his teacher's own old-fashioned garments. The two of them took their positions in the middle of the floor and bowed to each other, Jen deeply, the teacher with little more than an inclination of his head. Ruki watched with increasing interest as they first went through a set of katas, Jen following every move his teacher made with easy grace.
*He makes it look so easy,* she thought, torn between annoyance and admiration. *I bet I could do that.* She wished there was some way she could sneak out of the room to try it. The last thing she wanted to do now was to let Jen see her trying to copy him.
Even as she was thinking that, the teacher stepped aside and began directing his student through a series of more complex maneuvers, spinning kicks and flying leaps, gyrations of hands and feet that went by faster than her eyes could follow. She revised her opinions - she wasn't sure she could do that. She stared, open mouthed, for a moment, then scowled. Had he dragged her all the way out here just so he could show off how good he was? Did she have to see what he was capable of doing if he'd actually felt like fighting back? Granted, this did make her glad he hadn't taken her up on her challenge, but...
Before she could work through that thought properly, the teacher called a halt. Jen relaxed, panting a bit and looking expectantly.
"You should be all warmed up now," said the teacher pleasantly.
"Very well, then. Let's see how much you've learned this week. Begin."
With a guttural cry, Jen sprang to attack, throwing out a punch that stunned Ruki - it looked to her as if Jen had suddenly decided to beat his teacher into a pulp. However, the teacher stepped calmly out of the way, his hands folded behind his back as if he were simply going for a stroll in the park. Jen was not discouraged; he struck out again and again, using every ounce of the skill he had displayed earlier. No matter what he did, however, not a single blow found its target. The mock-fight went on for several minutes, until Jen was sweating and exhausted. As the teacher sensed his student was out of energy, he caught the final blow, made a fast movement, and neatly deposited his pupil on the floor. Much to Ruki's surprise, Jen laughed.
"Never thought you'd be the kind to show off for an audience, Sensei," he said, letting his teacher help him to his feet.
"Me, show off? Never," answered the gentleman, dark eyes sparkling. "I'm just keeping you on your toes."
"How can I be on my toes when I'm lying on the ground?"
"Good point! All right, perhaps I was showing off," he replied. "You did well, Jenrya. I can see you've been working hard. I will tell your father next time I see him that you are performing satisfactorily."
Jen glowed. "Thank you, Sensei!"
The man chuckled. "Don't let it go to your head."
"I won't," said Jen. "I have plenty of people to remind me I'm not perfect." He glanced over to where Ruki and Terriermon were sitting, and it was hard to tell which of them he was referring to. It might have been both.
"I think I might know what you mean," the teacher replied. "Well, Miss Ruki, did you enjoy the lesson?"
"It was kind of interesting," she said in bored tones. "I guess I can't say I do this every day."
"You're welcome to come back any time," he answered.
"I think I'll pass," she said. As an afterthought, she added, "Thanks for letting me watch, though."
"No trouble at all. Would either of you care for a cup of tea before you leave?"
"Not today, I don't think," Jen replied. "Another time, maybe. Thanks, though."
Jenrya excused himself to clean himself up and change back into his regular clothes. Ruki lingered, waiting for him, finding she had questions she wanted to ask him. When he returned, she followed him outside and fell into step alongside him as he began walking home.
"Well?" he said. "What did you think?"
"I don't think I would have believed it if I didn't see it," she answered after a thoughtful pause. "Is it like that every time?"
"More or less. Actually, today was one of my better days. I didn't make any major mistakes."
"How often do you go through that?"
"I have lessons with Sensei three days a week, but I practice every day."
"Except on the days he's lazy and skips to play video games instead," Terriermon chimed in.
"Terriermon is my conscience," said Jen wryly. "He knows all my flaws and nags me about them... wish he had one, too."
"Humph. I don't let my Digimon treat me like that."
As soon as she said it, there was a flicker of shadow at the edge of her vision, and a voice brushed across her mind saying, "Oh, really?"
"Renamon tells me what she thinks of me, but she's more subtle about it," Ruki amended. "Unlike some Digimon, she has good manners."
"Who needs manners? I'm just an adorable little stuffed animal!" said Terriermon, assuming his most angelic expression.
Ruki rolled her eyes and decided that there was just no having conversations with some Digimon. She turned her attention back to Jen.
"I don't think I could take that kind of treatment three days a week... or any days of the week," she said.
"What kind of treatment? The way Terriermon acts? You get used to it."
"No, not that," she snapped. "I mean, the way your teacher treats you. I'd go nuts. Don't you ever just want to punch his lights out?"
Jen gave her a faintly amused look. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Because you were trying your hardest, and he wasn't taking you seriously!" Ruki exclaimed. "You might as well have been standing still. He might at least give you something to fight back against."
"If he really fought back, I'd be in the hospital," said Jen. "Just because he's not fighting back doesn't mean he doesn't take me seriously. He just doesn't need to fight. He's got nothing to prove, and neither do I. I know he's better than me, so what would be the point of me trying to prove otherwise? You might as well try to prove you can walk through walls like Renamon does."
Ruki frowned. "I still think I'd look for someone who'd treat me with more respect."
"He gives me all the respect I deserve. No more, no less. He corrects me when I make mistakes, and he tells me when I've done something right. That's what a teacher is supposed to do," answered Jen. "I'm going to him to learn, not to have my ego boosted."
"Hm," said Ruki.
"Trust me, it's really not that bad," said Jen. "When he pays me a compliment, I know I've earned it. I'll take that over empty praise any day."
"Well... I think he should tell you more often. You're..." she swallowed hard; the effort of being honest was hard on her. "You're really actually pretty decent. Now I know why you didn't fight me; I'm hardly worth your time."
"You could learn," said Jen.
"Who would I learn from? Nobody's going to teach me," she said. "My mom would throw a fit if she thought I was actually going out and trying to learn how to fight."
"Don't tell her, then."
"I'd have to. Lessons cost money. My allowance is pretty good, but not that good."
With the most carefully modulated tone he could manage, Jen said, "I could teach you a little, if you want."
She eyed him warily. "What's the catch?"
"No catch. Who said there had to be a catch?"
"There's always a catch," said Ruki. "You've got a plan hatching in the back of your head; I can almost hear it."
Jen laughed a little. "All right, tell you what. If you can figure out what the catch is, then you'll have the choice of either accepting it or quitting. If you can't figure it out, it won't bother you. How's that?"
She scowled at him. "You're way too smart. I'd hit you for it if I thought I could get away with it."
"Well, what do you say?"
"You'll really teach me how to fight like that?" she said. "You're not just looking to make a fool of me again, are you?"
"I didn't intend on doing it the first time. I'm trying to help it not to happen to you again."
"Why?" Jen repeated. "Is it so hard for you to believe anyone might just be a nice guy who likes helping people?"
"Yes," she said flatly. "But since I'm not likely to get a better offer, I might as well give it a try. Probably it won't work out anyway."
"You never know," said Jen with a shrug. "Well, where do you want to meet? We need somewhere with a lot of wide open space where we can practice without breaking something."
"Hm," she said. "My school's got a dojo in it the kendo team uses. I don't think anyone uses it in the evenings; we could go there."
Jen raised an eyebrow. "What kind of school do you go to?"
"A good one. We have an Olympic pool there, too," she said. She sighed. "Sometimes I hate it there. Bunch of snobs... Anyway, think you can find it without getting lost?"
"I'll find it," he said. "Meet me there, say... seven tomorrow?"
"Good a time as any."
"Okay. See you there, then. Bye, Ruki."
"See you... if I don't change my mind. See you around."
She strolled off, waving a casual goodbye over her shoulder. Jen turned and went his own way, but Terriermon twisted around to watch.
"Are you really going to try to teach her?" he asked.
Jen shrugged. "Why not? She could learn, if she wanted to. She seems to have the instincts for it, anyway. And she won't get tired of the hard work and give up."
"I always thought you were a little crazy," said Terriermon. "Now I know better. I know you're crazy."
"Oh, I don't know," Jen replied. "This might even be fun."
Terriermon shook his head. "This is some weird definition of 'fun' I haven't heard of before, right?"
Jenrya only laughed. Dealing with Ruki was going to take all his diplomatic skills, but he didn't mind - the challenge actually appealed to him. No matter what Terriermon said, he really did think this was going to be fun.
True to his word, Jenrya arrived at Ruki's school at a little before seven. He found Ruki lurking outside the front gates, her pale eyes glinting in the shadows in a way that reminded him forcibly of Renamon.
"You came," she said. "I didn't really think you would."
"I said I would come," said Jenrya. "I keep my promises. Anyway, I thought you were the one who was saying you might not show up."
Ruki shrugged. "It's been a boring day. I needed a change of pace."
"Ah, I see," said Jen. He looked around, admiring the school building. "This is a nice place. How many banks did your dad have to rob to be able to afford sending you here?"
"He didn't rob any banks," said Ruki with an edge in her voice.
"Uh-oh. What did I say wrong?"
Ruki gave him a glance that was ever-so-faintly forgiving, as if she was pleased he'd at least recognized he'd put his foot in his mouth.
"I don't have a dad," she said. "Not anymore."
"Ah. I'm sorry," said Jen.
"Don't go feeling sorry for me. I do just fine without him, and I don't need your pity."
"I was just thinking how much I'd miss my dad if he was gone," said Jenrya. "We've always been really close; I can't imagine what it would have been like if I'd grown up without him."
"Yeah, well, lucky you," said Ruki. "Did we come here to talk about our family lives or did we come here to fight? Because if we aren't going to get anything accomplished, then I'm going home."
"We aren't going to fight, but I might start teaching you how," said Jenrya. "But first, you're going to have to show me where the dojo is. I think I'd get lost in this place."
"It's this way," said Ruki. She walked through the gates, and did not look back to see if Jenrya was following her.
When they reached the dojo, Ruki flipped a light switch, and Jenrya prowled around a bit to check out the accommodations. Terriermon went and found a place to sit and spectate.
"Good enough for your standards?" asked Ruki with a touch of mockery in her voice.
"Perfect," said Jenrya blandly. "This will do just fine."
"Good. Now, what do I do?"
"Well, for starters," said Jen, "we're going to get a few things straight. The most important thing that I want you to remember is that we are not here to teach you how to go around pulverizing people who make you mad. Martial arts are for self-defense only. If you're going to try to use what I teach you to beat on people who can't defend themselves, then I'm going home right now."
"I thought you were going to teach me to fight," said Ruki. "What's the point if you aren't going to let me use it?"
"I guarantee, if you ever really need to get in a fight, this will help you out," Jenrya replied. "Remember how it felt when you were trying to fight me back at the park, and you couldn't? I'm going to teach you how to do that."
Ruki considered that a moment, then nodded slightly in agreement.
"Okay," said Jenrya. "Second thing. I am the teacher. That means you are going to treat me like a teacher... at least when we're in this room. Outside, you can go on treating me like a perfect stranger if that's what you want, but in here..."
"You've got the right to push me around."
"I have the right to tell you to do things when they're for your own good," Jenrya corrected. "That means you're going to have to trust me a little. Maybe you won't like everything I ask you to do, but you're just going to have accept that I am trying to teach you, not embarrass you or show off."
"I'm not big on trusting people."
Jenrya shrugged. "It's your choice."
"All right," she said. "If I don't like it, I can leave. Let's get this thing going."
"Fine," he said. "First thing we're going to do is work on the way you stand."
"What's wrong with the way I stand?"
Instead of replying, he moved his hand, lighting fast. All he did was touch the tips of his first to fingers to her forehead, but it was enough to make her stagger backwards a few paces as she was thrown off-balance.
"What did you do that for?" she demanded.
"To get your attention," he said. "If that had been a fist flying at you, you'd be on the ground by now, and that's not a good place to win a fight. Here. What you need to do is get your feet spread a little, with one a little behind the other - no, spread them a little bit more. That's it! Now, put your weight on your hind foot. Good. Let's try that again."
He moved his hand again. This time her head tilted back a bit with the impact, but her feet remained firmly placed.
"See that?" he said. "We'll work on polishing this up a bit, but basically, this is your defensive stance. My first mandate as teacher is for you to learn that. Be able to get into this stance automatically any time I give the word. Got it?"
Ruki nodded. She thought she could see the sense in it; it did seem to make her less likely to be knocked over in a fight, and she would have to be able to move in a hurry if she was attacked suddenly.
They spent the next few minutes fine-tuning the stance until she could strike it perfectly every time. Jenrya seemed genuinely pleased by her progress.
"You catch on fast," he said. "I'm impressed."
"Yeah, well, I'm not planning on letting you push me around forever."
"If you think you're going to be a match for me anytime soon, you're mistaken," he said seriously. "I've been doing this for years - since I was five years old. It's in my blood now."
"Five years old?" Ruki repeated. "How crazy is your family, to be teaching you to fight when you're that young?"
"Not crazy," said Jenrya. "The younger you are when you start, the easier it is to learn. My dad's been studying since he was old enough to walk, and he wanted to make sure I learned, too."
Ruki rolled her eyes a bit. "Figures."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Nothing that would interest you... sensei."
"Well... okay. It's your secret," said Jenrya. "Anyway, now that you've got your stance down, I think we have time for one simple kata. Here, watch me and do what I do."
Ruki did what she could to follow along, and by the time it had gotten dark outside, Jenrya deemed her performance worthy and called a halt.
"I think that's all for today," he said. "Just keep practicing what I showed you today, and we'll do some more... whenever we have the time."
Ruki gave a shrug. "It's not like I have any commitments."
"Mind if we meet a little earlier next time? It will give us more time to work. How about five- thirty?"
"Well, see you then," said Jenrya. He gave her a formal bow, and, caught up in a sudden burst of good manners, she bowed back to him. Then they went their separate ways.
*That really wasn't so bad,* thought Ruki as she walked slowly home. *At least he didn't pitch me onto the floor again. That's something.*
The shadows swirled, and Renamon was suddenly walking next to Ruki.
"That went well," she said.
"Spying on me as usual," Ruki replied.
Renamon's tail swished in silent laughter. "Just admiring your work. The boy is correct; you do learn quickly."
"Maybe so," said Ruki. "I just don't know what I think of being taught. I wish I knew why he's decided to be so nice to me all of a sudden."
"When it comes to explanations, the simplest ones are usually the best."
"What? You mean that he really is sorry for making me mad?" Ruki repeated. "Get real. Why would he be sorry? He doesn't like me. It's not like I'm nice to him or anything."
"He said you are a quick learner," said Renamon. "Perhaps you will learn the answer to this too, in time."
Ruki spent the next afternoon doing some thinking. She also practiced what her new teacher had taught her; she figured the more she practiced, the faster she'd learn, and the sooner she could show him that he was not the only person in the world who could learn this stuff. She had to admit, the patterned movements he'd insisted she learn were remarkably good for encouraging clear thinking. Once she had the steps memorized, she could repeat them over and over again without thinking about them, leaving her free to concentrate on other issues.
So far, she was cautiously enthusiastic about her new training. The only thing she could think of that she didn't like was that she wasn't used to being in the position of learner. She had gotten a bit used to the life of a celebrity, and it was hard for her to humble herself enough to admit that someone else knew better than her about anything. This went doubly so for someone she had been running down for weeks as being weak and rather stupid.
*He treats me a lot better than I deserve. He doesn't show off or try to put me down, and he could. Of course, I'd walk off if he tried it, but he could. He's being pretty nice to me, all things considered.*
She finished her kata and relaxed. If he didn't stop being nice to her, she thought she might just go nuts. It was almost more than her pride could take, that first she'd been beaten, and then the victor didn't even have the decency to gloat a bit.
*I don't like being in his debt. I need something to remind him who he's dealing with, and to pay him back.*
And suddenly, she had her solution. It was simple, it was practical, and it would fulfil her needs admirably. She smiled as she began her pattern again, finding herself eager to get to her next lesson.
When Jenrya arrived at Ruki's school that night, he was somewhat surprised to see that Ruki was carrying a small box with her. He glanced at it and raised an eyebrow, but Ruki offered no explanation, and he didn't bother to ask.
They started their lesson. Ruki could tell right away that this practice was more serious than her last one. She was ordered to do a number of stretches - partly, he said, to warm up her muscles so she wouldn't get sore, and partly to see how flexible she was. She found she was somewhat lacking in that department, though her teacher blamed part of it on the jeans she was wearing, and promised to see if he could find her some more suitable clothing. When he had deemed the warmup sufficient, he had her illustrate that she had, in fact, practiced her katas, and then taught her two more. She was told to continue practicing those, and to repeat the stretches every day.
"But they hurt," she complained.
"They won't if you practice," he said. "Besides, how are you supposed to do this if you don't stretch?"
He illustrated a high kick that sent his toes somewhere over his head. Then he looked at her and grinned.
"Here, you try it," he said.
She did her best to copy him, while he watched critically.
"Not bad," he said. "We definitely need to find you something better to wear than those jeans."
"Stop it," she said. "You sound like my mom when you say that."
He laughed. "Let me guess, she wants you to put on a skirt and makeup?"
"Right," she said.
"Well, I'd rather you find a comfortable sweatsuit or something. Much more practical." He smiled at her, and she almost smiled back.
"I'll ask my grandmother," she said. "Mom will be thrilled if she finds out I asked to go shopping, and I won't have to tell her why."
"You might want to tell her you're doing this, sooner or later," said Jen.
"The later, the better. Trust me."
"Okay, it's your choice," he said. "You ready for a break? You look like you could use one."
Ruki nodded and wiped a hand across her brow. She wasn't in bad shape at all, not with all the running around she did after school, but this was still hard work.
"A break would be good," she said. "As a matter of fact, I brought something with me. Hang on."
As Jen watched with interest, she went and retrieved the box she'd been carrying. Something rustled softly inside.
"Hope you brought your cards," said Ruki.
"They're in my backpack," he said, blinking in puzzlement.
"Good. I thought we might have a few quick games. Maybe I'll give you some pointers."
"I could go for that," Jenrya replied.
He went and retrieved his deck, watching out of the corner of his eye and Ruki picked through her box. It was full of Digimon cards, and she was carefully choosing a battle deck. He felt a slight qualm. He had no doubts that if Ruki had her pick of cards, she would be able to trounce him easily. He sorted through his own deck and went to sit across from her on the floor.
"We'll play a practice round first," she said. "We can get a feel for each other's styles."
"Fair enough," he said.
They began to play. Jenrya was surprised to see her playing a number of low-level cards and hardly any options. He won the first round of play easily, which struck him as wrong. He knew he wasn't a bad player, but Ruki was the best. He shouldn't be winning against her under any circumstances, but he was now slowly but surely racking up points. He looked up at her; there was a faint but definite smile playing over her features, and the glint in her eyes said she knew more than she was letting on. When the game was over, Jenrya had won by a large margin, but Ruki looked pleased with herself.
"Not bad," she said. "Better than I thought you'd be. Okay, now we play for real. Ready?"
"I think so."
"Don't think. Play."
He hurriedly collected his cards and did as he was told. Within minutes, the game was over, and he'd barely won a single round. He looked sadly at his final losing hand, and then up at Ruki, who was still smiling smugly.
"Still, not bad," she said. "I could have beaten you before, but it was easier when I knew what to expect."
"What did you do that for?" asked Jen, sounding a bit hurt.
Ruki shrugged. "I just wanted to see how well you played. You're okay, but you could be a lot better. You need to work on your deck. Look."
She took his cards and spread them out on the floor before him.
"See that?" she said. "Too many Perfects, too many Ultimates, not nearly enough Child and Adult cards. A Perfect will win you the round, but he won't get you enough points to bother with. Here, let me show you my deck..."
The two of them spent the next hour or so going through Ruki's box of cards and discussing the relative merits of different deck constructions. By the end of the session, Jen felt he'd learned a great deal.
"It's all about the option cards," she told him. "I love when I can play some little weak- looking Digimon and make it blow the competition away."
"The surprise factor, huh?" said Jen.
"Yeah. When someone underestimates you and you can prove them wrong..."
"I can't imagine anyone underestimating you," said Jenrya.
She rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't believe how many people from these out-of-town conventions think they can beat me just because I'm a girl."
"Well, we around here know better," said Jenrya. "Boy, would you look at the time? It's getting late. We'll have to pick up again tomorrow."
"All right," she said. "See you tomorrow, then. And remember what I said about those option cards!"
"And you remember to do those stretches. I think I can count on you to do them right. Right?"
"If it doesn't hurt, I'm not doing it right," she chanted. "I've got it. Later, slave driver."
"Bye, Ruki. Thanks."
"You too. Bye."
They went their separate ways, Ruki moving slowly to spare her tired and aching muscles, Jen with a wide grin on his face. This idea of his was turning out better than he'd anticipated. He couldn't wait to meet with Takato and the others tomorrow. His one regret was that Ruki was not going to be there to watch him put her lessons into action - he had a feeling she would love the looks of surprise on their faces.
The exertions of the day before left Ruki feeling so sore the next morning that she seriously considered claiming she was sick and staying home. Instead, she got up, took a hot shower, and went on with her day. Jenrya was right in his estimation of her mettle; she would not let pain or anything else get in her way. She did, however, seek him out so that she could casually suggest that since his lessons were only every other day, that they might do something of the same thing. He had just as casually agreed, and only Terriermon had the nerve to act as if there was something amusing about her innocent suggestion.
However, as the days went by, she found that she was less and less tired in the evenings, and felt a corresponding drop in how sore she felt the next day. As a result, she tackled her practices and lessons with increasing interest, and, she found, enjoyment. The feeling of increasing skill and strength was a good one, and it was a challenge. She liked challenges. She'd been looking for one for quite some time, ever since she'd realized that card playing was starting to get a little too easy...
*Though I don't know if I'd like this so much if Jenrya weren't teaching me.*
She shook off the stray thought without really bothering to analyze it. Jenrya was a knowledgeable teacher, patient with her mistakes and quick with praise, and his personality didn't get on her nerves like some people's did. He was easy to talk to, and he had intelligent things to say. In a weaker moment, she might have admitted that she was starting to respect him, but he was not what she'd call a friend, not like Renamon was. He was just a teacher, a bit like the ones at school except closer to her age and easier to get along with.
Somewhere inside the house, the phone rang, but Ruki gave it only the most cursory of notices. She had only learned this particular move yesterday, and hadn't been able to completely master it yet. At the moment, she and Renamon were out in the back yard, where the plants and stones would conceal that the young lady of the household was busy practicing karate with the help of an anthropomorphic golden fox. Renamon had a knack for this kind of thing that Ruki envied; she'd even attended a few of the early lessons just to keep her Tamer company, and she was usually somewhere close by when Ruki was practicing. Just now, she was illustrating how the move in question ought to be performed, and Ruki was watching her to the exclusion of all else.
"Ruki, phone call!"
Renamon jumped - straight up, disappearing in midair. Ruki could not vanish so effectively, though she wished she could.
"Who is it?" she asked irritably, annoyed at being interrupted.
"I don't know," her grandmother replied. "It sounds like a young man."
"I hope he's not selling something," Ruki muttered. She stomped inside and picked up the phone. "Whatever it is, I probably don't want to hear it."
"You probably don't," Jenrya replied, "but I have to tell you anyway."
"Oh, it's you," she said, her tone softening just a bit. "I thought you were a telemarketer."
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said. "Ruki, I've got some bad news - I can't make it to practice tonight."
"What? Why not?" asked Ruki. So far, she hadn't missed a lesson, and it irked her that her teacher was skipping out.
"I'm really sorry," he said. "It's just that my little sister's sick, and they need someone to stay home and look after her. My other sister and brother have already taken their turns, and they won't let me get out of it."
"Oh," said Ruki. "Well, I guess you might as well stay home, then. I sure don't want to catch whatever she's got. What has she got?"
"Yuck. I hate flu. Is she okay?"
"She's fine. She's just a bit of a dramatic, and she's playing it up for all it's worth. I think she'll be an actress when she grows up."
"Well, hope she gets better soon. Tell her I said so."
"I will. We'll practice tomorrow, okay?"
"Okay. See ya."
Jenrya hung up the phone, aware that his sister was watching him. Shuichon loved telephones; one of her few regrets in life was that she didn't know many people that she could get away with calling and talking to. She'd once gotten herself in trouble by randomly dialing numbers from the phone book and trying to engage whoever was on the other end of the line in conversation. Now she looked at her brother curiously.
"Who was that?" she asked. Her voice rasped a bit from the cold, but Jenrya was relieved to hear that she sounded better than she had a few days ago.
"That was Ruki," he said.
"She's a friend."
"Is she your girlfriend?"
"No, just a friend."
Shuichon looked at him as if he'd told her two plus two made six. "But if she's a girl, and she's your friend, then she's got to be your girlfriend."
Jenrya laughed. "Ruki hasn't got to be anything. She'd be mad if you told her that, too. She doesn't like being told to do things. Ruki is her own person."
"Do you like her?" asked Shuichon.
"Yeah, of course I like her. She's my friend."
"Is she pretty?" Shuichon persisted.
"Well... maybe. I guess," said Jenrya, taken off-guard. "Yeah, sure, Ruki's pretty. In her way."
"If you like her, and you think she's pretty, why don't you ask her to be your girlfriend?" Shuichon asked.
Jenrya laughed. His sister looked at him in confusion.
"What's so funny?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said. "It's complicated, that's all. You'll understand when you're older."
Shuichon pouted. "I hate when people tell me that. When will I be older?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe tomorrow."
"Really? You think?"
"Sure, why not?" he replied. "What do you want to do until then?"
"Read me a story!"
"All right, which one?"
As Jenrya retrieved the book for his sister, he smiled wryly. The things kids came up with. The day Ruki even gave him a second look would be the day Guilmon swore off bread and Terriermon became a diplomat. He was probably better off that way, too. The idea of Ruki acting all lovey-dovey was a strange and scary image. He picked up the book and sat down at his sister's bedside to read.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who wanted to become a warrior..."
Ruki flopped despondently on the couch and stared at the ceiling. Her grandmother, who sat mending one of the rips Ruki had managed to tear in her clothes, looked up at her with surprise.
"Why the long face?" she asked.
"Mm," said Ruki with a shrug.
"Oh, one of those," her grandmother replied, returning to her sewing. "They'll get you every time, won't they?"
"Why are you acting so smart? You don't know what's going on," Ruki accused.
"It doesn't take a wizard to figure it out," said her grandmother. "Every other day for weeks now, you go out in the evenings and don't tell anyone where you've been. There's a new glow about you that hasn't been there before. And now a boy calls you on the phone to tell you something, and you're acting like... well, like a girl who's just had a date canceled."
"I am not dating anyone, Grandma."
"Don't worry, you don't have to be ashamed of it. Granted, you're a little young, but you always were a precocious girl. Still, there's nothing wrong with having a boyfriend... Why, if I'd never had one, where would you be now?"
Ruki rolled her eyes. "What part of 'I'm not dating anyone' didn't register? I'm not ashamed of anything, I'm telling you plain and simple."
"All right, then," said her grandmother. "What are you doing?"
"I can't tell you," said Ruki. "You won't like it. You'll make me stop."
"I promise, Ruki, as long as you aren't breaking any major laws, I won't try to stop you from doing anything. I know you better than that."
"Okay," said Ruki, taking a breath. "It happened kind of like this..."
She spilled out the story of the would-be fistfight and its aftermath, and her trip to Jenrya's dojo, and his offer of lessons, and how she had come to be practicing every day in secret. She was relieved to see that her grandmother was listening with no trace of censure on her face.
"Well," she said. "You're right, that isn't what I was expecting... but you do like doing things your own way, don't you, Ruki?"
"You aren't going to tell me to stop, are you?" she said. "Because I won't, even if I have to climb through the windows to get there."
"Don't you worry about that. I'm not going to stop you. I have no problems with you continuing your lessons. They certainly won't hurt you. I've been told they teach focus and discipline, and you could certainly use those - no offense."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Ruki.
"Well... you have a lot of energy, a lot of drive and determination, but you haven't had anything to do with that energy lately. I've seen you getting bored and frustrated. If your new friend can give you something to focus your talents, all to the better. And he sounds like a nice young man."
Ruki caught the note in her grandmother's voice. "Come on, he's just a friend. I'm not going to fall in love with him or anything."
Her grandmother laughed. "To listen to the way you talk, you'd think love were some terrible disease you might catch."
"It's almost as bad," said Ruki. "When people fall in love, they act all stupid and spout poetry and stuff. I'm not going to do that."
"Some people do that when they're in love," her grandmother replied, "but that's not what love is - or not the only kind. There are different ways to love someone, you know."
"What do you mean?" asked Ruki, looking puzzled.
"Well... let me put it like this. That flower over there on the windowsill, I raised from a seed, and took care of every day so it would grow. When I was a little girl, I had a pet puppy that would follow me to school and wait at the door until I came out. I loved your grandfather. I also love you and your mother, and I love all my friends. Likewise, I love this flower and I loved the puppy. But that's not all the same kind of love, is it?"
"I guess not," said Ruki, trying to make it all make sense. "I guess you mean I could maybe love someone without acting all stupid about them. I mean, you love me and you never act stupid."
She laughed a little. "Thank you. No, I show my love in other ways... like listening to you when you need someone to talk to, and fixing these holes in your shirt. How did you manage to get your clothes in such a state?"
"I climbed a tree," Ruki replied, "and I fell into a bush."
"That's what I thought. I did the same thing more than once, when I was growing up. There were more trees to fall out of then," her grandmother replied. "Anyway, there's nothing wrong with sweetheart's love - what you so uncharitably call 'mushy stuff.' It's perhaps the most common among young people, but that doesn't mean it's all there is. The best kind, the most important kind, is just harder to see and takes more time to cultivate. It's the kind that supports you when times are hard, and binds people together to make them stronger than they were alone. Some people are so dazzled by the other kind that it's all they see, and when it dies..." She sighed and shrugged. "Perhaps it's a sign of your wisdom that you want something more."
"Thanks grandma," said Ruki. "I'm going to go to my room now. I need to think."
"Run along. I'll be back later to give you your shirt."
Ruki got up and wandered into her room, thinking. She'd never given much thought to love before; perhaps she really had gotten dazzled into thinking the sweetheart's love her grandmother talked about was all there was.
*Well, I love Grandma, and Mom, most of the time. And Renamon, too, I guess. But Jen? Well, he's my friend, and Grandma says friendship is a kind of love... I guess that will do. I don't think I mind having a friend...*
Fortunately for all involved, Shuichon's condition improved, and Ruki's lessons returned to their normal schedule. Jenrya was pleased by the situation. The evening he'd spent looking after his sister, he was surprised how much he'd missed his new after-school activity. When he'd started out, he hadn't considered too much what the future would be like, but now he was realizing he actually enjoyed teaching. Other than occasionally complaining if she felt she was being pushed too hard, Ruki was turning out to be a good student. She was a quick learner and practiced hard, and she always seemed to be ready to tackle the next lesson. The extra practice was doing him good, too; his teacher had commented that he seemed to be showing an improvement.
More than that, he was enjoying the company of his student. It took a lot of patience to get behind that prickly facade, and to sort the act from the reality and see what the girl underneath it all was like. So far, he liked what he saw: pride, intelligence, and strength, a determination not to let anyone from achieving her potential, and a great deal of courage. That alone would have been enough to make him admire her. However, as the weeks went by, he began picking up the subtleties that he'd missed at first glance - her wry sense of humor, a certain protective streak towards those she felt needed help... even the capability to feel sad and sorry and uncertain. Discovering these things didn't make her any less admirable in his eyes, but it did make her a lot easier to be around.
*I wouldn't want to tell her,* he thought, as he spied her coming up the sidewalk, *but I'm actually starting to like her company. Hope Terriermon never finds out; he'd tease me to death about it.*
"All ready for another fun day with your favorite teacher?" he called when she was in hearing distance.
"Don't flatter yourself, kid," she answered. "You know I only come to you because you're the only instructor I can afford." Her tone was anything but friendly, but her eyes glinted with a mischievous light. That was where you had to watch if you wanted to know her emotions - her eyes. If she didn't want anyone to know what she was thinking, she'd stare at the wall. As it was, she was inviting him to join in the joke, and he grinned.
"You get what you pay for, you know," he told her. "Anyway, come on in. I've got something special in mind for today."
"What, you've thought of some new way to torture me?" she asked, but her eyes said she was curious.
"How did you guess?" he asked.
They went through the obligatory stretches a bit faster than normal. Jenrya knew it was probably not right to rush, but he was rather excited himself. To ease his nervousness, he asked to see her go through the drills he'd taught her, and was reassured to see that she did everything perfectly. She was ready for a new challenge.
"We're going to try something different today," he said. "Do you feel ready to try some sparring?"
"Like what you and your teacher were doing?" she asked.
"Kind of," he said. "I doubt I'll be able to dodge you with my hands behind my back, but the idea is the same. Give it a try and let's see how you do."
Ruki nodded, keeping her expression neutral, but inside her heart was pounding. She hadn't tried anything remotely like this since her ill-fated fistfight months ago, and the memory of it made her nervous. Practicing patterns was a lot different from actually fighting someone who could fight back. She took her place in front of him and bowed. Then they began.
For one instant, she thought she was back in the park again, watching her first punch go right past him... but strangely, it didn't bother her, because they'd practiced enough to know he was supposed to do that, and where he would end up next, and what she could do about it. She retaliated quickly, knowing he'd have to move again, to go the way she wanted him to go. She struck out again, and he blocked it, and that was okay because it left him unprotected right there...
*I know what this is! It's a strategy game, just like the cards! I can do this!* She almost laughed, and Jenrya caught her expression and grinned at her.
The match proceeded, and as they grew more comfortable with the game, Jenrya started retaliating a bit, testing her defenses. She deflected him easily. True, he wasn't giving her the full effect of what he could do, but for a beginner, she was doing very well. She looked like she was having the time of her life. It was easy to forget she hadn't been doing this as long as he had, or longer.
Unfortunately, it was easy for her to forget, too. Caught up in the excitement, made overconfident by her success, she was starting to lose track of what she was doing. As she dodged a kick, she missed her footing, and she felt her ankle buckle painfully just before she began falling. She struck the hardwood floor with a thud. Within an instant, Jenrya was kneeling next to her.
"Are you all right?" he asked urgently. His grey eyes were dark with worry.
"I turned my ankle," she answered.
She sounded annoyed and embarrassed at being forced to admit she'd hurt herself, but it was no time to worry about her personal feelings. Jenrya moved to examine the injury.
"Can you move it?" he asked.
"A little," she said.
He gently ran his fingers over the injured ankle. "I don't think it's broken or anything. You probably just sprained it. Don't worry; I do it all the time."
"I've had sprained ankles before," she answered irritably. She tried to shove herself to her feet, but her feet had other ideas. Her sore ankle refused her hold her weight, and her knee twinged from where it had been forced to bend the wrong way when she fell. She winced; she could stand pain, but there was a limit to how much any person could be expected to bear quietly. "Ow."
"Do you... need a hand up?" he asked uncertainly. He was not entirely sure he wouldn't get bitten for asking, but he couldn't leave her there on the floor all night.
She glared at him, but she seemed to have reached the same conclusion. "I guess."
He carefully pulled her upright again, helping her stay balanced as she tried not to put any weight on the wrong foot.
"Okay, I'm standing up," she said. "You can take your hands off of me now. Or are you enjoying yourself?"
"I'm trying to keep you from falling on your butt again," he answered. "Look, I know you don't like being hurt, and I know you don't like having to rely on anyone else. On the other hand, you are hurt, and you can't hop on one foot all the way home. You're just going to have to deal with that. I am standing here offering to help, and I am not going to take no for an answer. Now, I can be just as stubborn as you can, so either you can let me help you get home, or we can stand here and argue about it all right."
She looked at him, and the expression in her eyes was amazed.
"You're really something else when you get angry," she said.
"I'm not angry," he replied. "You just don't respond well to people being nice to you. If I didn't say something, we really would be here all night."
"All right, all right," she said. "If it makes you happy, you can follow me home."
He relaxed slightly, as if glad she wasn't going to argue with him, or try to hit him. "I knew you'd see reason. Your house is within walking distance, isn't it?"
"Good. I don't have money for a taxi right now, so we'll have to walk. I think we can manage if you lean on me. Here."
Rather clumsily, she managed to get one of her arms over his shoulders so he could help her balance. She tried not to lean on him too heavily, but it was hard not to, the way her knee and ankle ached every time she accidentally put any pressure on them. She soon learned that if she didn't trust Jenrya to brace her, she wasn't going to get very far, and would likely fall on her face. She gave up and leaned on him. He didn't seem to have any trouble bearing her up, at least, though after some reflection she decided she shouldn't be surprised. She didn't weigh that much, after all, and Jen was no weakling. Hopping along like entrants in a three-legged race, they made their way up the sidewalk.
"Ruki, I'm really sorry about this," he said.
"Don't apologize to me," she snapped. "I hate being apologized to - especially when there's nothing to apologize for."
"But there is. You wouldn't be in this mess if it hadn't been for me," he said. "I don't have any business teaching you. I'm just a student myself - I don't know enough to really train you properly. I was rushing tonight, trying to get to what I wanted to do, and now you're hurt because of it."
"I'm hurt," she said, "because I wasn't paying attention like you taught me, so you can drop that big self-pity act. You are a good teacher, and if I screw up it's my own fault, okay?"
"I don't know," he said. "It won't be long before we're done with the basics... I don't want to see anything happen to you because I didn't know enough to keep something like this from happening. Maybe we ought to call this off, or find you a new teacher or something."
Ruki rolled her eyes. "Hello! Earth to Jen - I said it's not your fault. Can I make that any clearer for you? It's not like I was stupid enough to think I'd never get hurt learning this. Whether you like it or not, I am not giving up, I am not getting a new teacher, and you are not going to spend any more time standing here telling me how it's your fault. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," he said.
"Good," she said. "You know, you're a pretty nice guy, but you're still a gogglehead sometimes."
"Really?" he said. "Then why are you so determined to stick with me?"
She looked casually up at the sky, watching the first few shy stars looking out at the world. "I dunno. Just habit, I guess." Then, more energetically, "Look, there's my house. Thank goodness."
"You live there?" he asked in surprise.
"What? Something wrong with where I live?" she asked.
"Oh, no, nothing," he said quickly. "It's just... not what I expected."
Ruki relented a little. "My mom's a model," she said, as if this were a shameful secret. "She makes pretty good money."
"Ah," he said.
He managed to get the front gate open and closed without any major disasters, and the two of them hobbled up to the front door. It was answered immediately by Ruki's grandmother.
"There you are," she said as she began to open the door. "I was beginning to wonder where you - Ruki, what happened?"
"I fell," she said succinctly. "Can I come in, please? I'm getting tired of standing on one foot."
"Of course. Come in, both of you."
The children were escorted inside, and Ruki's grandmother helped her take a seat on the sofa and prop up her injured limb.
"Nothing life-threatening," she declared, "but we ought to put some ice on it. "Rumiko, stop staring and get an ice pack."
The last remark was addressed to no one Jenrya could see, and he looked around just in time to see a very pretty blonde woman hurrying off to the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a lumpy package wrapped in a dish towel. She did look like she could be a model, Jen thought, but she didn't look much like Ruki. He never would have guessed they could be related if he hadn't seen them in the same house.
"There," said Ruki's grandmother, setting the ice pack into place. "That should make it feel better." She turned to look at Jenrya. "Thank you very much for bringing her home. Knowing my granddaughter, it must have been an interesting trip."
"It was no trouble," he said. "Ruki and I get along pretty well."
"That's good to hear," she said. "You must be Jenrya. Ruki's told me about you. I'm sure anyone she likes must be nice. Won't you stay for a cup of tea before you go?"
"I wish I could," he said, "but I need to get home. I have homework to finish, and my family will be waiting for me."
"Well, we won't keep you from them," she replied, "but come back and visit some time."
"I will," he said. "Goodbye. Bye, Ruki."
As he made his quiet exit, Ruki's mother whispered to her, "He was nice. Good-looking, too. I'm glad to see you're finally starting to settle down a little."
"He's not my boyfriend, Mom," said Ruki, making a face.
"Don't interfere, Rumiko," said her grandmother. "Jenrya's just a friend of hers, that's all. Come, let the girl get some rest. She's had a difficult evening."
Gently but forcefully, she guided her daughter out of the room.
"What did you do that for?" asked Rumiko. "I think if Ruki's going to grow up, she ought to be encouraged."
"It has been my experience that children will grow up when they are ready," said her mother. "And as far as romance... young people tend to fall in love quickly enough without encouragement. Let the girl be."
"You could be right," Rumiko sighed. "Still, it would be nice to know she's going to fall for the right kind of person someday, wouldn't it?"
"I trust Ruki's judgement, and so should you. She's a smart girl - wiser than her years at times. She will do what's best for her when the time comes. You'll see."
Meanwhile, Ruki was relaxing in the living room, listening to the murmurs going on in the hallway without really hearing what they were talking about. Of course, she could make a guess, but she had too many thoughts of her own to worry about without trying to guess what her mother and grandmother were thinking as well.
While she was still sitting there, the shadows in the corner warped, and Renamon appeared.
"You are hurt," she said. She sounded faintly accusatory.
"You should have called me. I would have brought you home again."
Ruki frowned. Now that Renamon mentioned it, it seemed like the obvious thing. Renamon could have gotten her home faster and more easily than Jenrya ever could, and it would have probably been easier on her pride.
"I just didn't think of it," she said. "I was all mixed up, and Jen was insisting he walk me home and wouldn't take no for an answer."
"He was only worried about you. He would have known you were safe if you were with me."
"Well, he didn't think of it either," she said. "Look, I'm sorry I forgot about you, okay? So you can get off my case."
"I am not offended," said Renamon. "I am simply surprised. It is not like you to rely on another human being so much."
"Well... Jen's different. I know I can trust him. He likes me," she said, with a bit of surprise. That exact thought had not occurred to her before.
Renamon smiled a little. "As he should. If he had known you this long and not liked you, I'd be worried about him."
Ruki laughed a little. "Yeah, because you'd probably clobber him."
"I might," Renamon replied, with a swish of her tail that passed for laughter. "Well, I see you are well taken care of. Do you want me to stay a while?"
"No, Mom and Grandma might decide to come in and check on me," Ruki decided. "Thanks for caring, but I think I'm okay for now."
"Very well. I will be close if you need me." She turned and phased back into the shadows again.
Ruki sighed and settled herself back on the sofa. It looked like she was stuck here for a while; her grandmother wouldn't tolerate her moving around too much unless she had a good reason for it, so she might as well get comfortable. At least her ankle didn't hurt much anymore; the ice pack was doing its job. Her knee was starting to ache again, though, and she made a mental note to tell someone the next time they came by. Until then, there wasn't much to do but think.
*Renamon's right - it is strange for me to trust someone so much. I guess I've gotten more used to having Jen around then I thought I had.* She paused, evaluating that thought. Jen? When had she started calling him by a nickname? She thought she had heard Terriermon calling him that on one of the occasions he'd decided to drop in on their lessons; she must have picked it up from him. He never seemed to mind it much, so why should she? Still, she didn't think she'd ever been close enough to anyone to call them by a nickname before. Nor had she ever let a male touch her so closely since her father had gone out of her life. Not that their painful hop home counted as a romantic stroll, but still...
*It was just because he was making an issue over it,* she told herself.
Then again, that didn't usually make a difference to her. Her mother made issues over lots of things, like wearing dresses and makeup, and that didn't mean Ruki did them. So why was she listening to Jenrya? Because she wanted to make him feel better?
*No wonder Renamon's worried about me. I'm not acting like myself tonight. Why not?*
Could it be - no, it couldn't possibly be - because she liked him? Liked him enough that she wanted him to like her back? She shook her head; it was very bewildering.
"Get a grip on yourself, Ruki," she said. "Jen is your friend, and there's nothing wrong with liking a friend, so just don't get yourself all worked up about it."
That made sense. She had never really had a lot of close friends; it was natural that she would not know exactly how to deal with the situation the first time it came up. Well, now she could relax and just take things as they came, because there was really nothing exceptional going on. Except... did friends ever want to be touched and held just one more time?
Jenrya knew that it would take Ruki at least a week or so to recover enough from her accident that they could resume practice, so he consequently spent a lot more time in the park hanging out with Takato. However, after a few days of that, it became harder not to notice that he didn't seem to be having as good a time as he might have once.
"What's your problem, anyway?" asked Takato. His friend had been staring off into space in the middle of a card game, and his mind had obviously not been on cards. Takato didn't particularly mind, since Jenrya had been consistently beating him lately anyway, but he was a little worried about what might be going on in his friend's life.
"Oh, it's nothing," said Jen. "It's just... well, this is going to sound stupid, but I miss Ruki."
"What?" said Takato. "Did I hear you right?"
"Well, I haven't seen her in a few days," Jen replied. He had told Takato about the evening lessons, but not about Ruki's sprained ankle. He didn't think she would like him blabbing about her accident all over the city, and he deemed it wisest to respect her privacy.
"And you miss her," Takato finished. "Are you sure we're talking about the same Ruki?"
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with Ruki."
"Well, maybe not," said Takato doubtfully, "but she's just... you know."
"She's not a lot of fun," said Guilmon disapprovingly, as if being not a lot of fun was the worst thing it was possible to be.
"Well, your idea of fun is stuffing yourself with peanut-butter sandwiches until you fall over," Jenrya retorted.
Guilmon looked puzzled. "What's wrong with that?"
Jenrya declined to answer. "Ruki's really okay," he said. "She's... well, kind of like... okay, think of Terriermon."
Takato looked at Terriermon. In his opinion, he'd never seen anyone who was less like Ruki.
"Why?" he said.
"Just listen. When you first meet Terriermon, you might think he's a real jerk, because he's always goofing off and insulting people and never uses any manners. It takes a while to get used to that, but it's just how Terriermon is. Once you get to know him, he's a really good friend. Ruki's like that. She's just got her own way of doing things, that's all."
"I guess," said Takato. "You'd be the one to know, I guess. I mean, it seems like you're with her all the time lately... How come you stopped seeing her? Did you have a fight or something?"
Jenrya almost smiled. "Kind of."
"Well, go apologize to her or something."
"She doesn't like apologies. She told me so. She just needs a little time to herself, that's all."
"Oh," said Takato. "You know, if I didn't know it was you and Ruki, and if I didn't know you were just teaching these karate lessons, I'd think you had a crush on her."
"I don't!" said Jenrya.
Terriermon laughed. "Jen's got a girlfriend! Jen's got a girlfriend!"
"Oh, put a sock in it," he said. "I don't like her like that. I just admire her a lot, and I like her company and I think she's really special, but I... I really am talking like I've got a crush." He winced, and Takato laughed.
"Can I call 'em or what?" he asked.
"It's not funny, Takato," Jenrya replied. "I mean, what if I do like her? It's not like I can go up and hand her a bouquet and a box of chocolate and sweep her off her feet. That would do the exact opposite of make her like me - she'd probably try to bash my head in."
"Don't worry, you'll think of something," said Takato. "You always do, right?"
"Yeah. Me and my bright ideas. That's what got me into this mess in the first place," said Jenrya. He glanced at his watch. "Dinnertime. I've got to get going, or Mom will have a fit. See you later, Takato."
"Bye, Jen. Good luck."
Jenrya began walking home, though not as quicky as he might if he'd really been worried about getting to dinner on time. Terriermon perched on his shoulder.
"You don't really have a crush on Ruki, right?" he asked. "Because if you did, you'd tell me, right?"
"No, I wouldn't, because you can't keep a secret," said Jenrya, teasing. "And I don't know if I have a crush on her or not. I mean, she's not like any girl I've ever met before..."
Terriermon sighed. "You really do like her. Rats! I don't want to get stuck with her for the rest of my life!"
Jenrya laughed. "Be nice, or I'll find a way to make you move in with Impmon!"
"Where does he live?"
"I don't know. Next time you're complaining you're bored, I'll send you to find out."
"Great," said Terriermon. "Just what I always wanted. Oh, well. Even he might be more agreeable than Ruki."
Jenrya just smiled a bit. "We'll see."
A few days later, Ruki woke up early. She was not quite sure why, having only a vague memory that she'd been dreaming about something up until now. She couldn't remember what her dream had been about, only that it had been a good dream and she was happy in it. Something about going somewhere and... too late; it was gone as soon as she tried to think of it. Even so, she stayed in her bed, eyes closed, enjoying the peaceful feeling of knowing it was early morning and she was the only one awake. It must have been very early; the birds in the garden were making their greeting-the-sun music, but even with her eyes closed, Ruki could tell that the light level was still low. Even so, with all the racket going on outside, it was impossible to sleep, so she got up.
As she'd suspected, the sun had not risen enough to peer through her window, and the garden outside was foggy and mysterious. She wondered idly where Renamon was. She was probably out somewhere, perhaps running through the city enjoying being alone with the rising sun. Ruki thought about calling her and decided not to; the golden fox was probably happy where she was.
Instead, she began going about her morning routine, ignoring the fact that it would be hours before she actually needed to get up. She was pleased to note that her ankle was no longer sore - she could walk around the room with nothing more than a bit of stiffness that quickly faded once she'd moved around some. Likewise, the pain in her knee had faded to nonexistence. Soon she could begin her training again.
Once she was dressed, she wandered into the front of the house. She didn't feel like eating breakfast yet, and she wondered what else there was to do this time of day. Maybe it would be nice to go out into the garden for a while. She opened the front door slowly, so that it would not give off the faintest squeak, and then shut it silently behind her. The air outside felt cool and clean, and she took deep breaths of it, letting it finish the job of waking her up.
It took a few moments to realize that there was something odd happening. Amid the chorus of birds, there was another noise that was becoming rapidly louder and more distinct the more time went by. Ruki, curious, closed her eyes and listened. It was a regular tap-tap-tapping sound, and it seemed to be coming closer. She had just enough time to realize that it was the sound of running feet before she saw a shape pass by the front gate, a human in a gray sweatsuit and running shoes. He was out of sight again by the time she realized who it was: Jen!
Without thinking about it, she moved. She was out the gate in a heartbeat, and within a few strides, she'd caught up to him, matching him footfall to footfall. He turned his head to look at her, meeting her eyes and nodding a bit, and she nodded back. That was all the agreement they needed. Silently, they followed each other up the sidewalk and around the block. If one slowed down a little, the other would likewise slacken their pace. If one sped up, the other would match them stride for stride. Through at all, they did not speak or look at each other, but they didn't have to. All they needed to hear was the sound of their feet hitting the ground in perfectly matching rhythms. When they had circled the block and reached the front gate of the Makino house again, they paused, nodded to each other again, and Ruki went back inside. Jenrya silently jogged off.
Inside the house, Ruki found her grandmother making breakfast.
"Well, there you are," she said. "And here I thought you were still in bed."
"I woke up early," she replied, "so I decided to go for a run."
"Did you enjoy yourself?"
"Yeah, I did," Ruki replied. "As a matter of fact, I think I may do it more often."
Her prediction came true. The next morning at sunrise, Jenrya was waiting for her at the front gate. They seldom spoke to each other, concentrating instead on their footfalls and breathing, but Ruki enjoyed the outings just the same. When she asked him why he had appeared on her front walk, he only said that he'd liked the look of her neighborhood and thought it looked like a good place for a morning jog. She did not bring up the subject again, but she wondered sometimes how much jogging he'd done before he had learned where her house was.
Meanwhile, lessons proceeded, both for fighting and for card playing. Jenrya was more careful in how quickly he conducted the lessons, but he never again suggested that she not continue learning. He also let her win sometimes at her sparring, or at least she thought he did; she still wasn't convinced that she was good enough to beat him if he wasn't helping. She knew she let him win at cards sometimes. She also knew he knew, so it didn't matter.
*I have nothing to prove to him,* she reflected. *It's just like he said - I know I can't beat him yet, but I know it doesn't matter. He knows he can't beat me at what I do, but he knows it makes no difference. Funny, I didn't think I'd ever make sense of it.*
She was having these thoughts over breakfast one morning, after finishing up her daily jog, and was now studiously spreading strawberry jam over a stack of toast. In the household of a model, fried foods were practically as forbidden as burning the house down, so breakfast was always something simple, like toast and jam or fresh fruit. The only time Ruki could ever get any of what she considered real food, like scrambled eggs and sausage, was when her mother had an early photo shoot or was otherwise out of the house.
Even as she was sitting there considering that predicament, her mother came sweeping in. She was in a temper that morning because she'd gotten up even before Ruki to get ready for an early appointment, only to be called a few minutes ago and told that something had gone wrong and the shoot was being canceled. She dropped into a chair and gave her daughter an appraising look.
"You aren't going outside looking like that, are you?" she asked.
"What's wrong with the way I look?" Ruki replied. She felt rather miffed; after all, she had taken a shower and washed her hair that morning after she'd finished her run, and she thought she looked just fine.
"Nothing, if you're going to a dirt bike race," her mother replied. "Honestly, Ruki, you're getting a little old for this tomboy business. You can't spend the rest of your life running around in jeans and T-shirts. Those aren't even good jeans, look at them - the knees are nearly worn through."
"They're comfortable," said Ruki. "Besides, it's not like I'm going to do anything special today; it's Saturday."
"I know," Rumiko said, "but still, you should start taking a little more care of your appearance. People judge you on the way you look, you know."
Ruki bristled. "Maybe they judge you," she said, "but my real friends like me the way I am, no matter what I look like."
"Maybe now," she said, "but it's going to be more important when you grow up. You need to start learning how to take care of yourself, or you're going to get into trouble."
"No, I'm not," said Ruki. "I know how to take care of myself, and I don't need your stupid advice."
She tossed down her uneaten breakfast and stormed out of the house.
"Ruki, come back here and finish your breakfast!" her mother scolded.
"I'm not hungry!" Ruki shouted back, and stormed out of the house.
She made it as far as the park before she ran out of steam, and she dropped down under a tree to sit and sulk a while. She supposed she shouldn't have spouted off at her mother like that, but...
*But she's wrong. The people who matter don't care what I look like. At least, I never noticed that Renamon cares how I dress... and Jen sees me all the time in sweaty gym clothes, and he still likes me.*
Yes, whispered an annoying little voice inside, but you're only a friend and a student. If he wanted a girlfriend, he'd find one who was pretty and didn't insult him all the time.
She scowled at herself. As if she really wanted to be his girlfriend. She didn't, especially if it meant having to dress up like a Barbie doll and act as if she had all the will of a wet noodle.
*But Grandma says that's not the only kind of love there is. Maybe...*
She had a brief flashback to the morning run, remembering how he always stayed beside her, matching her every step. That was her kind of relationship - quiet and supportive. She thought she could stand being in a romance if it worked something like that.
"Ruki?" said a voice uncertainly. "Are you okay?"
Ruki jumped. "Don't sneak up on me like that."
"Sorry. I just saw you sitting here and thought I'd come say hi."
Ruki looked up and was met by Jenrya's serious stare. For a few seconds, she seriously considered telling him to go away and let her think.
"I'm okay," she said at last. "I'm just having a bad morning. My mom was picking on me again."
"Yeah. She has this crazy idea that if I don't turn out just like her, she must be doing something wrong, so she tries to deck me out in frills and makeup every time I turn around. It's ridiculous."
Jen laughed a little, and Ruki gave him a cold stare.
"It's not funny," she said.
"Sorry, I'm not laughing at you," he said. "I was just thinking that Terriermon would sympathize if he were here to hear this. He's stuck at home playing dress-up with Shuichon. If you think you've got it bad... at least you can say no. Terriermon has to pretend to be a stuffed animal."
That made Ruki smile a little. "You're right, that's worse."
"Anyway, you shouldn't worry too much about how you look," he said.
"I don't," she said. "I just hate having to dress up. You can't do anything in a skirt except stand around a look pretty... and even if I do dress up, I'm never going to look like my mom."
"No," said Jenrya thoughtfully. "I think you skipped a generation. You kind of remind me of your grandmother."
"Is that good or bad?"
"That's good," he assured her. "Besides... wait a minute. How much can I get away with saying before you decide to get mad at me?"
She gave him a speculative look. "You can say one thing, maybe. But not too much, because I'm not in a good mood today."
"Oh," he said. "Well, then, here goes... I think you're better looking than your mom is."
"You're lying," she said.
"No, I'm not. I mean, she is pretty, but she looks... I don't know, like a doll or something. It's all on the surface. You have something more."
"Oh," said Ruki, feeling slightly baffled. People did not ordinarily tell her she was pretty, not unless it was her mother trying to cajole her into dressing up. "Well, um... thanks, I guess."
"Any time," he answered. He glanced at his watch. "Or maybe not. If I don't get moving, I'll be late for my lesson. You wouldn't want to come along, would you?"
"Yeah, I think I'd like that," she said.
He grinned. "Race you there!"
"What? Hey, that's not fair! Wait up!"
They ran out of the park and up the sidewalks as fast as their feet could carry them. By the time they reached the home of Jenrya's sensei, they were both flushed and panting.
"Well," said the teacher as he surveyed the arrivals on his doorstep, "starting practice early, are we?"
"Something like that," Jenrya replied.
"Nothing wrong with that... I see you brought your friend again. And how are you today, Miss Ruki?"
She was slightly surprised, and flattered, that he'd remembered her name. She considered his question carefully.
"Improving," she told him finally. That earned her a smile.
"Really? How very admirable," he said. "Come inside, and let's see if the same can be said for our friend Jenrya."
Within a few minutes, Ruki found herself seated against the wall once again, watching Jenrya go through one of his lessons. Observing carefully, she thought he really had improved since that last lesson she had watched, months ago... or perhaps her eye had become more attuned to his art. After a while, she gave up on trying to make the distinction and simply sat back to enjoy the show. Perhaps he was aware of his audience's attention, because he was moving with a display of skill that she had never seen before. She was impressed at how easily he seemed to move, with the same easy, almost weightless grace that she had always admired in Renamon. It was funny how watching someone this closely made her aware of little details she hadn't picked up on before - the depth of his eyes, the way the light caught his hair, the surety of his movements. What finally drew her out of her thoughts was the sudden realization that she was not breathing as easily has she had a few minutes ago, and she forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep breath.
*Funny,* she thought giddily, *Mom told me he was good-looking. How come I didn't notice until now?*
Meanwhile, Jenrya continued with his practice, trying to keep his mind on what he was doing and not on the person who was watching him a few feet away. Why was her presence bothering her? It hadn't bothered him a bit when he had first brought her here, when she was just barely not an enemy. Now she was one of his best friends, and just knowing she was a few feet away was giving him a singular case of the jitters. What could be going on, to make him feel this way? Maybe it was just because she hadn't been giving him that same intent look before. He'd never seen that look before, that peculiar stare, as if she was trying to memorize his every move, every aspect of his appearance. She usually didn't give anyone that much attention, and having the full weight of her gaze on him was unsettling. Her eyes had always been her most compelling feature, giving the viewer glimpses of a heart that was proud and brave... and utterly unattainable.
*Just my luck,* he thought bitterly, kicking at the air. *I should have listened more closely when people told me I was falling for her, and now it's too late to turn back...*
He finished what he'd been doing and paused, waiting for his teacher to give him his next instructions. The sensei simply stood and studied him a moment.
"Is something bothering you, Jenrya?" he asked quietly. "You seem agitated."
"Are you sure?"
"Well... maybe a little?"
"If you are going to be distracted, we cannot proceed. You will not be performing to the best of your ability if your heart and mind are troubled. Unless you can clear your troubles from your thoughts, I am afraid we are going to have to call a halt."
Jenrya bowed his head. "I'm sorry, Sensei. It's just... I think I need a little time to think."
"If that is what you need," his teacher replied. "We'll pick this up again on Monday. You are dismissed."
The two of them bowed to each other, and Jenrya scampered away to clean up and change. Ruki stayed where she was, uncertain. When Jenrya returned, the two of them said quiet goodbyes and stepped back into the sunny afternoon. Despite having nowhere in particular to go, they began to walk, falling into step beside each other.
"Hey, Jen..." said Ruki awkwardly. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" he said, jerked out of his thoughts. "About what?"
"It was me, wasn't it? You got distracted because I was watching you."
"It wasn't your fault. I just had something on my mind, that's all. Besides, I invited you, didn't I?"
"Yeah," she said. Very quietly, as if not wanting to be heard, she said, "It was nice of you to ask me to come."
"I thought you might like something to take your mind off your trouble at home," he said. "Don't go getting all upset now; that's not what I wanted."
"I know. These days, I almost believe you really are a nice guy who likes helping people," she said, smiling faintly.
He gave her a quizzical look. "Almost?"
"Old habits die hard."
"Ah," he said.
"Yeah," she said. "And I think I believe you really were sorry for making me mad, that day. It was just... I thought I was so much better than you, because you always wanted to take the peaceful way out, and didn't try to prove yourself like I do, so I thought you had to be weak. And then when I couldn't even touch you, I felt so weak and stupid for letting someone like you win."
"How do you feel now?" he asked.
She shrugged. "It doesn't bother me anymore. You're not what I thought you were. You're... nice. Wait a minute, that sounds dumb. My Mom is nice. But you're strong and smart and you still treat me like I'm something special even when I'm making a fool of myself or insulting you, and... I'm not good at this."
"It's all right," he said. "I think I know what you mean."
She shook her head. "No, you don't. I don't even know what I'm talking about. I guess I'm all confused. I just never could figure out why you don't get mad at me and kick me into next Tuesday."
"I'm very patient. I have to be, to live with Terriermon," Jen replied with a faint smile. "Besides, I like you. You know that."
"Yeah, I guess. Why?"
"Why? Because... because you're different, I guess. Special. I've never met another girl like you before."
Her smile was wry. "Maybe that's a good thing."
"Maybe," he answered, "but that doesn't change the fact that I think you're great just the way you are."
Surprised, she turned to look at him, and her eyes met his. She had a sudden realization that this was rapidly approaching the kind of mushy talk she'd sworn she'd never get involved in, and an equally startling realization that she no longer really cared.
"Jen..." she blurted.
They both blushed and turned away again. They stood there staring at their feet for a moment, trying to pull their emotions together.
"Neither one of us is going to say it, are we?" said Ruki at last.
"No, I guess not," he answered.
"Guess neither one of us is as brave as all that."
"I guess not," said Jen. "Hey, Ruki?"
"What would you think if we skipped our practice tomorrow and went to the movies or something instead?"
"I'd say you were asking me out on a date."
"So? How about it?"
She considered a minute, staring off into the sky. Then she gave him one of her wry smiles.
"Just don't let Terriermon come with you," she said.
"Don't worry, I won't," said Jen fervently.
"Good," she said. "So... are you going to walk me home now, or what?"
He grinned at her. "You don't need walking home. Let's run."
They ran, sprinting up the sidewalk side by side. Ruki laughed as she ran, thinking that if having Jenrya teach her about fighting could lead to something like this, it would be interesting to see where it would lead when they started studying love.