Daisuke stared intently out the window of the train, watching for a particular bright yellow drugstore sign with a crack in the bottom right corner. He knew that ten seconds or so after they passed that sign would be the stop that he wanted.
He bounced slightly on his toes, energetic despite the early hour on a Saturday. Never one to sit down on the trains in any case, he was especially looking forward to a day at the remodeled and newly reopened Fujiwara Park. Not that there was anything particularly special about the park, aside from a nice patch of clear ground you could kick a ball in. Really, the best part was--
"Ken will be there, right?"
Daisuke swung around to face the train doors and jerked his school gym bag to the front. "Shhh!" he admonished it, glancing around at the variety of odd looks he got from fellow passengers. Thankfully, the train, absent today of commuters to work and school, was only about a third full.
Chibimon, wriggling out of the zippered opening, didn't look a bit worried or contrite. "You're sure they'll be there, right?" he repeated.
"Sure, I'm sure! I called Ken just before we left the house, remember?" Daisuke replied.
"But that was almost half an hour ago! I can't wait!" Chibimon exclaimed. "We haven't seen Minomon and Ken in forever!"
Daisuke grinned in agreement. "I know."
The end of winter vacation a couple of months ago had come all too soon. Once school started again, evil teachers who didn't care that Daisuke had just saved the world from eternal Darkness and Doom (and hadn't had any time to study while doing it) felt free to pile homework on him as always. Between that and soccer practice, he had had little free time.
Ken, apparently, hadn't been any better off, and they'd wound up only seeing each other three times in the whole two months before today, the first day of spring vacation. Now Daisuke had an entire day free to spend with his cross-town best friend, and he was staying the night as well. Unlike usual, he wouldn't even have to be home until dinnertime.
During school, he was always scolded about being late and not finishing his homework, which he would then inevitably have to stay up late to work on. Jun was always told to help him and then she'd spend the whole time complaining... But who ever had time for homework anyway when you had worlds to save and soccer to play and friends to be with?
"Daisuke, Daisuke, there it is!" Chibimon pointed excitedly at the battered yellow sign. "We're here!"
The familiar message came over the speakers: "We will be arriving at Tamachi Station momentarily. The doors will open. Please watch your step..."
Ignoring the warning as he always did, Daisuke edged as close to the doors as he could, waiting for them to swish open before charging out and up the stairs to the ground floor. His gym bag bounced against his back hip, the weight familiar and no hindrance to his enthusiasm.
Daisuke heard the glad cry and could just barely see Ken standing behind the ticket gates. He had to jump to peer over a (seriously dawdling) couple in matching chevroned blue shirts. He rolled his eyes as he dodged the lovey-dovey pair. "Yo! Ichijouji!"
"Minomon! Ken! Long time no see!" Chibimon, not waiting for Daisuke to fumble for his exit ticket, leaped over the gate and directly into Ken's arms (and on top of Minomon). Ken, surprised, wasn't quite able to hold onto them both, but the two digimon took the groundward tumble none the worse for wear. They bounced up and down and shouted happily as Daisuke finally found his exit ticket in his front pocket. He shoved it into the gate machine and passed through (finally!) to give Ken his own exuberant greeting.
"Wow, it's been a while!"
"The Park's really open again?"
"Mm-hm. Just the day before yesterday. The main patio's fixed and we have new swings. Oh, and the crack in the cement is gone so balls don't get stuck in it anymore."
"Great! I brought my soccer gear. We can play some one-on-one. It's going to be great!"
"Hm, yes. Great." Ken sounded weirdly distracted.
"Did you get lots of end-of-the-year exams?" Daisuke asked as they headed down the street towards the park. Ken looked puzzled.
"Not more than usual, why?"
"You're not so energetic today. I thought maybe you were feeling tired."
Ken froze for the briefest of moments, eyes widening a fraction before softening again to his customary gentle smile. "No, I'm all right. Thanks. I was just thinking about... about soccer."
Daisuke grinned. "Yeah, isn't it great? I can't believe it took so long for them to remodel the park. They might as well have built a new one!"
"Yeah." Daisuke frowned at the monotone answer, but it was immediately followed by, "I mean, yeah, it has been forever, hasn't it?"
Ken must be really tired from all his exams, and he was hiding it, like usual. Well, Daisuke know how to get rid of that. "Race you to the entrance!" he called, and took off down the sidewalk.
"Daisuke!" he heard Chibimon protesting and turned in time to see his digimon partner snatched up by his best friend, who started chasing him.
"That's not fair!" Ken called in an exasperated voice, but he was laughing even as he followed with Minomon hanging onto his shoulder and Chibimon in his arms, surrounded and hampered by their giggling.
Daisuke made it to the park easily in first place. Ken, hauling both their digimon partners, had the additional misfortune to run smack into an irate old man with a sturdy walking stick. By the time Ken had outrun the old geezer's stick and leaped over the guard rails of the park, Daisuke, who had seen the whole thing, was laughing so hard he could hardly stand up straight.
"It wasn’t that funny," Ken admonished him, but he was smiling while he said it.
"Whatever you say..." Daisuke gasped around his giggles. He wiped the tears from his eyes and opened his bag. "Ready to show me your stuff?" he asked, pulling out his soccer ball and a stack of plastic cones for goal markers. "We can play teams." He gestured at Chibimon and Minomon.
Ken crossed his arms. "Well, that’s not very fair. Minomon doesn’t have feet!"
"But he can fly!"
"What kind of logic is that?"
"He could totally do awesome head butts. And Chibimon can’t run very fast. Isn’t that right?"
Chibimon nodded enthusiastically. "Sure! I’ll bet you’d be great," he said to Minomon. Minomon seemed to shrink down slightly. He looked to Ken for help.
"Let’s just leave them out of it. We’ll play one-on-one, just like you said at the beginning."
"Aw, c’mon, it’d be fun," Daisuke cajoled. He wasn’t prepared for Ken’s scowl.
"Stop it! Stop trying to make him do something he can’t." He picked up Minomon, holding him protectively.
Daisuke and Chibimon exchanged looks of bewilderment. "Um, hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to..." He trailed off, not really sure what he’d done wrong.
"Ken-chan." Minomon nuzzled Ken’s chest, and Ken looked away, his face flushing.
"Sorry," he said. "Just… Let’s just play one-on-one, okay?"
"Okay." Daisuke didn’t really care either way, as long as he and Ken were together. He’d just wanted to include everybody. Daisuke goofed around with Chibimon sometimes, but Minomon probably didn’t get to play sports much. And he really would be good at head butts.
Ken put Minomon down on the ground. When he turned back to face Daisuke, his eyes were more relaxed. "Ready when you are, Motomiya. Give me your best shot."
"Ha!" Daisuke let fly, and the game was on.
It was half an hour later before they stopped, sweating and happy. The two digimon, who had been their respective cheerleaders, bounced over to join them. Daisuke kicked the soccer ball up and down while Ken fed coins into the beverage vending machine.
"You’re still really good," he remarked. Ken had been a fast and hard opponent. Daisuke hadn’t had so much fun in a while.
"Did you expect me not to be?" Ken said, his tone a bit cold. He thrust Daisuke’s juice box at him and let go a split-second before Daisuke had hold of it. Daisuke juggled it quickly.
"Huh? No. I mean, yeah. You said on the phone that you’d been studying so much. I thought maybe you didn’t have a lot of time to practice."
Ken looked startled. "Oh." His hair slid forward as he bent his head to open his can of orange punch.
Daisuke frowned. Ken was definitely acting weird today.
But then Chibimon stole his juice, and he was distracted in wrestling it back from him. By the time he thought of the matter again and took a good look at his friend, Ken was smiling with Minomon on his shoulder, looking just like usual.
Daisuke mentally shrugged it away. He sucked down his chilled apple juice in satisfaction. "Next year is going to be so cool," he said. "Upperclassmen get to coach the new kids. And I'll get to borrow equipment over the weekend. Will you get to do that? Maybe we can have some matches together."
"I don't really know about that. I'm going to quit the soccer team next year."
"What?! Why?" The words 'quit' and 'soccer' could not form themselves into a single sentence in Daisuke's head on a normal basis, much less with the word 'Ken'.
"Well, don't you think I'm not playing as well as I used to?"
Daisuke thought about it. "No, not really. Why?"
"Really? I'm not slow? Clumsy?"
"Well, sure, a little, I guess. But that's how you always play."
Ken gaped at him. "What are you talking about? We played against each other in the match, remember? I was completely different then."
Daisuke shrugged. He didn't get it. "Because you were the Digimon Kaiser then. Duh. You mopped the field with us." And then the light flipped on. "Wait a minute, you're quitting because you can't beat me anymore?" Was that what all this weirdness had been about? "I can go a little easier on you, if that's what you want. But you can't quit soccer! You can't!"
"But I was only playing so well because I had that... that virus in me. And now I can't anymore."
"What does that matter? There's lots of sucky players on our team too. But it's still fun. Why should you quit something that's fun?" He gasped as the horrible truth occurred to him, more terrible than he had ever imagined. "Are you telling me that now the virus is gone you don't think soccer is fun anymore?"
Ken stared at him. And then he took a quiet sip from his drink and stared across the park. When he turned back to a fretting Daisuke, he smiled brightly. "No, you're right. Soccer's fun. Maybe I won't quit after all."
Daisuke was still confused, but at least the important thing was resolved. "Great," he said, relieved. "So let's go home and see what your Mom has for a snack!"
"Sure," Ken said. "I'll even race you there!"
Ken won that race, but only because he cheated and took off first. Daisuke was very vocal with his complaints on that score, but Ken just scoffed. "You weren’t fair to me!" he reminded him. They shoved each other playfully all the way up the stairs to Ken’s family’s apartment.
"I’m home!" Ken called as they entered. Mrs. Ichijouji, as pleasant and inviting as always, came out to say hello. She’d laid out slices of honey cake and a pot of real English black tea for them at the dining table.
Daisuke grinned. His mother usually just threw him a bag of chips if he said he was hungry. More often than not, she let him root around in the kitchen himself for something to eat. It was funny (in a good way) to see Ken’s mother, all ready to take care of them.
"C’mon, let’s eat in my room," Ken said. He always seemed embarrassed when his parents were being nice. Daisuke shrugged. The cake smelled amazing, no matter where they ate it.
Daisuke scooped up his plate and the teapot, while Chibimon and Minomon took hold of their teacups. Ken grabbed the cake platter and his own plate and led the way to his room. They set everything up on the small table there. Daisuke wasn't sure when, but Ken had brought in another chair sometime after the Christmas party when he and the others had first been here, so now they could sit comfortably while their digimon hung out on the tabletop, chattering together. Daisuke looked around, pleased at what he saw.
He liked Ken, and Ken’s room had a lot of his personality in it. It was super neat, for one thing, everything in its place. He liked the dark, serious colors. He liked the elevated bed, which was an adventure to climb up and down and just made for besieging the castle type games. He liked Ken’s desk, all modern and cool and giving the impression that it knew how smart its owner was.
His head tipped as he noticed that Ken’s desk was currently strewn with papers and books. "What’s all that?" he asked, gesturing with his fork. A piece of cake sailed off. "Oops!"
"I’ve got it!" Chibimon leaped and managed to catch it in his mouth.
"Wow, that was great!" He held up a hand for a high five with Chibimon, who grinned back at him, his mouth full of cake. Daisuke turned to Ken, laughing, but Ken was no longer at the table. "Ichijouji? What’re you doing?"
Ken was busily cleaning off his desk. He looked up, a sheepish expression on his face. "I was in such a hurry to meet you, I didn’t have time to put this stuff away."
"That’s okay. You should see my room." Daisuke caught sight of a few of the book titles. "You’re studying? Over break?"
Ken shrugged uneasily. "I’m taking a study course. It starts on Monday. I wanted to be sure I was caught up."
"You’re taking a study course and you’re studying even before it’s started?" Daisuke scratched his head. Now he felt kind of embarrassed himself. He never did any more studying than absolutely necessary. He couldn’t imagine working so hard. "Do you always study so much?"
Ken seemed to hesitate. He neatened the corners of the pile of papers in his hands before replying. "I did before. I have to get used to it again."
"Before I became Ken Ichijouji, child genius."
Daisuke giggled. "What are you talking about? Aren't you still Ken Ichijouji?"
But Ken was frowning, looking almost angry with him. Ken lost his temper so rarely, Daisuke didn't know quite how to react. He watched, bewildered, as Ken turned away without answering and piled the study books in the corner against the wall. Ken stomped back and sat down without once meeting Daisuke's eye.
"Hey, where's your computer?" Daisuke asked, suddenly realizing it was gone.
Ken stabbed his cake with his fork. "I gave it to my Dad," he replied shortly.
"I wasn't using it anymore."
"Why not? I thought you were really good at that stuff."
Unexpectedly, that seemed to make Ken angry again. "I just didn't want it anymore. Kids our age shouldn't have computers, anyway."
"Lots of kids have computers." He counted them off on his fingers. "Izumi-san and Miyako, of course. Taichi-sempai. Sora-san. Hikari-chan uses one. I send her email and she even replies, sometimes," he revealed proudly.
"God, your brain is so simple. I can't even believe it."
Plenty of people had said similar things before -- not the least, his own sister. He'd never thought Ken would be one of them, though. "I can't help the way I am," he said, hurt. "And what's so great about having a complicated brain, anyway?" he huffed.
Ken seemed to deflate. "Nothing at all." He hung his head. "But I can't help the way I am either."
"Sure." He felt on slightly more solid ground there. "No one can."
"Ken-chan?" Minomon bounced to Ken's side, unsettled by the argument. (Was this an argument? It was, wasn't it? But they'd argued before and come out still friends. So they'd be okay this time, too, right? Right?) Ken picked up the green child-stage digimon and hugged him.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have called you simple." He looked almost tentative when he asked, "Want to play some video games?"
"Oh, I want to play!" Chibimon immediately put in. He looked as relieved as Daisuke felt.
"My parents talked with me last night. I was going to go to Sawada Junior High. But now they say I don't have to."
"That's good," Daisuke answered carelessly, yawning. He and Ken were side by side on the floor using Ken's extra blankets for covering, with Chibimon and Minomon nestled together on a pillow by their heads. He was looking forward to another day of goofing off tomorrow with just the four of them before he'd have to head home in the evening. "Private schools are too hard to get into anyway. Only geniuses go to Sawada."
"Yeah... I know that," Ken said, sounding irritated and much too awake.
Daisuke woke up a little. He wished he were better at understanding people. "So you want to go to Sawada?" he guessed.
"Of course I do!"
"What's so great about it, anyhow?"
"It's a good school. It'll give me a better chance at Seijyou High."
"I can't believe you're thinking about high school already."
"You should, too. It'll come sooner than you think. Just three more years to prepare for your exams."
"I'll worry about that when I get there. Anyway, you can get into Seijyou High easy. Your grades are perfect!"
"You're assuming I can keep it up."
"Of course you can! You're smart."
"Stop saying that! I was never smart. I was a dumb, cowardly kid until Oikawa made me into-- into-- this."
Daisuke frowned and curled himself into a ball under his blankets, puzzling this out. "But you can't say you're two people," he insisted. "I mean, you were always who you are now, right?"
He saw his friend give a little start. Ken seemed to think about this for a really long time. "Miyako-san said... Back when I joined you all. After I stopped being the-- the Digimon Kaiser. She said you were the only person who didn't think that I had changed."
"Uh-huh. So?" Ken seemed even more unhappy by the answer, this time not answering for a full minute. Daisuke glanced at Chibimon, but his digimon partner was still asleep. No support from there.
"So... you think I'm still the same person I was when I was the Digimon Kaiser?"
There was a flap of blankets, and suddenly Ken was up on his elbows and staring at Daisuke. Moonlight from the sliding doors bleached his face pure white. His eyes were huge and spooky. "So I was always an evil sadistic dictator who treated digimon like non-living bytes of data?"
"Huh? No. 'Course not."
Ken frowned, looking gratifyingly confused. Daisuke was glad he wasn't the only clueless one anymore. "What do you mean then?"
"Well..." Daisuke scratched his head, looking for inspiration. Chibimon gave a brief snore, as if just to provoke him. "Well..." He was no good at explaining things. He just felt things and did things without bothering to think about why. "It doesn't matter what you do. Or what happens to you. Or what people say about you. You're still... Ken."
"And is it... good to be 'Ken'?"
"Of course! You're my friend! I like you lots just the way you are!"
Ken was silent for a really, really long time.
"So, um, can we go to sleep now?"
Ken sighed. He sounded happy, for some reason. "Yeah."
"Okay. Um, good night."
Daisuke was already half asleep when he heard Ken speak again, softly, as if he were talking to himself:
"I still want to go to Sawada."
"Huh?" He scrubbed at his eyes and blinked at the dark ceiling. "Why?"
"I just decided. I still want to."
"I'll tell my parents tomorrow." He heard Ken shift in his blankets, and when he looked, Ken had turned his back to Daisuke. "Besides," Ken said, voice slightly muffled, "Sawada is in Odaiba. I'll be closer to you and everyone."
"Oh, yeah." Daisuke was more awake now, the meaning sinking in. "That's right! We could go on picnics and adventures and play all sorts of games together. We could meet up every day!"
"Maybe not every day. I'll have a lot of work to do."
"Every other day then. Every weekend at least."
"Yes. Every weekend. Promise?"
"Promise!" he answered swiftly. It wasn't as if it needed any thought.
Daisuke waited a while to see if Ken had anymore to say. But this time, he was allowed to drift off, into dreams of long weekends filled with sunshine and soccer and playing with the best friends a kid could ever have.