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Unconventional

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The whole plan was ruined.  Every last detail of this gift had been planned out in Ken's mind, from the the occasion, to the time he'd present it, even how he had planned to wrap it.  Of course, Daisuke being ... himself, all of that had flown out the window.  He could have re-purposed the gift for another occasion, but then Minomon... Well, Digimon weren't known for being good at detecting human social cues, though of course he'd meant well, and Ken couldn't truly begrudge him for being put on the spot like that.  This wasn't at all what he'd had in mind, but in the end, Ken supposed it couldn't have gone over much better.  The smile that broke over Daisuke's face sent Ken's heart doing strange little hiccups.  Every word that came from Daisuke's mouth was worth every yen he'd spent, one-hundred fold; he had liked the gift, even more than Ken had expected, and the way he tripped over himself in finding the words to properly receive it was so... disarmingly charming.  The disappointment and embarrassment Ken had felt in his lack-luster presentation, gave way to something warm and bubbling. 

Minomon saw Daisuke coming before Ken did, and he bounded down from Ken's shoulder, onto the desk just before Daisuke's arms flung into place.  It was instinct, pure and simple, that brought Ken's arms up to circle around his friend, catching them both from staggering backward under the force of his unanticipated enthusiasm. A breathy sound, not quite a laugh and not quite a sigh escaped Ken, his slender arms holding Daisuke tightly.  Something in the back of his mind raised an alarm, that something about this wasn't appropriate, but Ken could not find it in himself to listen.  For one brief instant, he thought they might melt together, so tightly were they wound around each either.  That warm, bubbling feeling from before turned to a roaring fire that brought the color from his cheeks to spread all the way out to his ears, and down to his collar.  Ken turned his head ever so slightly, the scent of Daisuke's shampoo tickling his nose.  The sensation of warm breath against his skin caused the hairs along his nape to stand up, a shivering sensation that crawled all the way up his scalp.  

"Ah... Nnh..."  was the non-committal response that came from Ken, for it was somehow the only thing he could conjure up in that moment. His mind was blank of anything but Daisuke, captured in exactly that moment, with eyes bright and a smile that could have rivaled the sun.  Maybe he had expected too much of Daisuke, but he didn't see it that way -- he had only ever seen it as having faith in his best friend, believing in him.  Never would be think of that as foolish.

Himself, however....

Ken swallowed thickly, his mouth oddly dry.

"I'm happy you liked them," Ken managed finally, his voice cracking ever-so-slightly.  "Even if this wasn't exactly what I'd intended it for... I still believe you deserve them."

As if he had forgotten how, Ken made no efforts to disentangle them. 

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Daisuke breathed in deep, smelling the clean scent of Ken. He was always so clean. Even after a whole day out on the soccer field, the man could still smell fresh. He smiled as he pushed away slightly, his arms still encircling his friend. "You're a dumbass." His smile turned into a sheepish grin. He caught himself glancing down at Ken's lips, and it took every bit of consciousness to yell at him to not kiss them.

With that, he abruptly forced himself away from Ken. He raised a hand to run through his hair, his head shaking slightly at his own thoughts, his own stupid thoughts. Choosing to avoid the feelings surging and bursting through his body, he grabbed Ken's empty bag and rushed to the kitchen. He piled the travel pans, knives, serving plates, and a variety of spices. His lip hurt from his teeth sawing into it, and he could feel tears stinging his eyes.

What the fuck, Motomiya.

With his haste, his finger slipped and caught the edge of the filleting knife. Hot and red, his finger bled bright drops into his palm and onto the kitchen floor. "Fuck." He said, scrambling to his feet and rushing to the bathroom. His good hand flung the cabinet open, and grabbed onto the box of bandages. He couldn't get the box open. Fuck, he couldn't get the box open.

It wasn't the first time Daisuke had had these thoughts. He had been struggling with them for most of their friendship. But it had never been that close to slipping. Maybe he had let his own guard down. He had skipped out on exams just so he could see the kid, after all. Being without Ken's presence made him feel like in a perpetual state of cabin fever. Being with him alleviated that. Oh, how it frustrated him that he had this strange co-dependence to a man that was so eager to find ways to get further away from him. Not intentionally, Daisuke had to remind himself, but didn't he feel the same way... At all? Like every day without the other was like having maggots crawling right under the skin, jittering and pulsating and waiting to chew their way out.

Daisuke managed to get a bandage out, at this point having bled all over the inside of the sink. He couldn't stop shaking his head, trying to sway the thoughts out of his head. This was a bad idea. Going to the Digital World was a bad idea. Being interested in Ken was a bad idea. "Fuck." It was more desperate, breathy and quiet.

Daisuke liked girls. He liked Hikari for even a year or two into his teenage years. He dated girls... But they never seemed to stick. Never seemed to get him. Too talkative. Too eager to please. Too flashy. He didn't know how to act, to the point that he didn't even know who he was.

Ken made it easy.

Why did he make it so easy?

Daisuke fumbled with the bandage, unable to get it open with one hand. Why was Ken angry at him earlier? Why was he disappointed? They were together. But not together. Never. No. Daisuke growled in frustration and threw the box of bandages into the sink.

Calm down.

Daisuke closed his eyes and took his uninjured hand up to the bridge of his nose. Nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen. Nothing can happen.

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Daisuke was gone so quickly that Ken felt the void as if the earth had suddenly opened up to swallow him whole.  Normally, it was he who drew away first, Ken who put distance between them.  He was always in control, never allowing them to linger, never allowing himself to sink into another person.  To be suddenly on the receiving end of denial left him so bereft that all he could do was stare silently after as Daisuke departed the room, Ken's arms still hanging loose in the air as if he expected him to return.  Where once there had been tangible warmth was now cold and empty, and much to his surprise, Ken felt a sudden, profound ache for what had been torn away.  Alarmed, he laid a hand over his chest, as if he could will his suddenly thrumming heart to be still.  

Why do I...?  he wondered silently, dazed, confused.

He didn't know how long he stood there, breathing in and out, trying to calm himself.   Nothing about him was calm. His pulse raced, his palms sweat, and his stomach did somersaults.  

Where most boys grew into adolescence with a blossoming appreciation for girls and all they had to offer, Ken had done quite the opposite.  He'd withdrawn, growing less and less eager to engage.  All around him his classmates whispered about which girls were prettiest, smartest, which ones they'd like to take on a date, which ones they'd like to take home -- and it's not that no one had noticed him.  His Childhood fame had earned him droves of fans, many of them girls.  Even if not for his intelligence and athletic accomplishments, Ken had always been on the pretty side as a boy, and had grown to be quite an elegant looking young man.  Girls had always been drawn to him; he had become well practiced in the art of turning them down as gently as he could.  

Some might have called Ken reserved, or maybe even chaste, but in truth, he'd closed himself off.  He had continued to excel in academics and extra curriculars, so if his parents noticed an absent interest in dating, they never brought it up, or seemed to mind.  Ken was loath to admit it, but girls had just never held his interest.  Certainly, he had female friends;  Sora and Mimi had always been kind to him and he was fond of them in return. Miyako was a good friend, and he felt a strong affinity toward Hikari... but that was where it ended.  He'd waved it away as being too preoccupied with school, with soccer, with the Digital World, and most people accepted that at face value.  But that didn't explain the way he'd withdrawn from the affection of his friends, how he'd shied away from anything but the most innocent of gestures, and kept everyone at arms length -- Particularly, Daisuke.  

Daisuke invoked in him something he'd never been able to name.  He did not feel it for any of his other friends, and for years, Ken had blamed it on Jogress; it was the only logical explanation.  But propriety dictated that they couldn't continue to behave the way they had when they were kids; so he slowly drove a wedge in between them.  Little things at first -- drawing away sooner, refraining from grasping onto his hand.  Resisting the urge to nestle closer when Daisuke fell asleep against his shoulder, and gradually avoiding the situation all-together.  He'd trained himself not to miss the closeness, the connection, the simple comfort of someone who seemed to understand his heart, and could calm him with a single touch.  Abruptly, his neatly wrapped up box of childhood feelings had come unraveled, and suddenly Ken was 10-years-old again. What he felt was so familiar, and yet so alien all at once.

It was the distant sound of scuffling and muttering that finally brought Ken back to the present.  Leaving Minomon and Chibimon to themselves (they seemed quite preoccupied with each other anyway, chatting happily about who was going to catch more fish), Ken stepped out into the hall.  A  glance into the kitchen revealed Daisuke's abandoned efforts.  Clearly he'd been packing, but now...?  

The sound of Daisuke's voice drew him to the doorway of the bathroom, where he rested a hand against the door jamb. The flashes of red and the mess on the counter had a very sobering affect.  Ken's eyes widened.

"--What'd you do to yourself?" he asked, taking a step closer.

Without thinking, he removed the bandages from the sink, then turned the knob.  Water flowed from the tap.  Making a soft clicking sound with his tongue, Ken tenderly took hold of Daisuke's hand and moved to place it under the faucet.  Cool water ran over their hands, washing away the red in thin rivers down the porcelain basin. For his part, Ken found the sensation soothing to his frayed nerves.  

"Geez... did you grab the knives blade-first?" he half scolded, half joked as he reached for a hand towel, drying Daisuke's fingers.

Finally, with an ease Daisuke hadn't been able to achieve on his own, Ken applied the bandage.  "Hopefully you won't need any stitches," he said, a twinge of sass slipping into his words.

His fingers lingered perhaps a moment too long, before he moved to withdraw them. 

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Daisuke's eyes were shut tight as Ken cleaned and covered his wound. He sighed heavily when it was over, and he looked up at Ken's reflection in the mirror. "I've had worse." Which was true, but the panic was still real, and he flexed his injured hand even though it stung. He wondered for a brief moment what was hurting more, his finger or his heart.

They both stood there for a few moments. Ken had moved to put the bandages back, Daisuke losing sight of him as the cabinet door opened and closed. There seemed to be a stillness in Ken's face that mirrored his own. It was quiet and behind his eyes, and Daisuke could feel it when their hands touched. There was something off with Ken too, and he wasn't sure what. He wasn't sure if he should pry.

Touching his bandaged finger to his lips, Daisuke leaned his butt against the bathroom sink and looked down at the floor. He honestly wasn't sure if he wanted to go to the Digital World anymore. He wasn't sure if he wanted to be here at Ken's, or around Ken, or even think of Ken at the moment. The thought alone upset him, but at that second he felt like it was the right thing. "I don't..." He started, but he was interrupted by Chibimon running head first into the bathroom, a concerned Minomon close behind.

"Daisuke~! Are you all right!? We're ready to go!" Chibimon stood back up, his giant head throwing him off balance as he got to two feet. There was a genuine happiness across his face, and the excitement was laden on his voice. It had been months since the two of them had gone--longer since the four of them had gone. Exams. It was because of those damn exams that they couldn't do something like this for so long.

Their Digimon deserved this more than anything. He couldn't back down now. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little cut." He smiled down at his partner, and swept down to pick him up in his arms. "Just let us pack up a couple of more things, and we'll get going, okay?" Chibimon nodded against his chest, and Daisuke felt his smile turn real. Daisuke turned back to Ken, finally feeling like he might be able to survive the next couple of hours with his best friend. "You ready?"

 

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If Ken was completely honest about how he felt (which, was rare) he wasn't sure that he wanted to go to the Digital World anymore, either.  He'd already been hesitant about it to start with, and if Daisuke had so much as implied that he'd changed his mind, Ken wouldn't have argued.  The day had started off so clear and bright, but his own personal storm clouds had rolled in, darkening his thoughts.  His heart had dropped back down to a reasonable pace, but to say he felt 'normal' would have been a lie.   It was as if everything he thought, or did, was delayed -- nothing made sense. He said things before he thought them, and did things he shouldn't have.  He could tell that something was off about Daisuke, but what, or why, eluded him.   Or maybe he was projecting.  He couldn't be sure anymore.   

Scooping Minomon off the ground, Ken turned to Daisuke with a stilted smile -- an upturn of the lips that didn't quite reach his eyes.  "Ready whenever you are.  I'll go grab the bag from the kitchen, you set up the portal?"

Ken did not wait for a response as he slipped out of the bathroom, down the hallway, back to the kitchen.  He just... needed a moment to compose himself, surely.  Chibimon and Minomon were so excited, he couldn't disappoint them.  Depositing Minomon softly on the counter-top, Ken set about finishing what Daisuke had started.  He made sure that the knives had been wrapped, so they wouldn't slice through the contents or casing of his messenger bag.  Then, he set to cleaning up the stray drops of blood that Daisuke had left behind in his haste.  It would have been bad if his parents came home and saw that, in a conspicuously empty apartment.  Knowing how his mother could, she'd probably assume the worst.  Not that he hadn't given her reasons in the past...

"Ken-chan, is something wrong?"  Minomon cut through his thoughts, and Ken lifted his head.  "You seem unhappy.  Don't you want to go?"

"Ah.. .No, no I do.  It's not that," he replied quickly, a soft attempt to reassure his partner.  

Slim fingers reached out and gently stroked Minomon's head.  In that moment, Ken couldn't help but notice, how much things had changed.  Minomon had never been a large Digimon by any stretch of the imagination, but he seemed so much smaller now.  Ken's fingers easily reached over his head and back in one subtle swoop.  No... in reality, it was his hand that had gotten larger.  He really wasn't a child anymore.   

"I'm just... I'm a little nervous I guess.  It's been a long time since I've felt like this."

Was he talking about the Digital World... or Daisuke? Or something else?

"It has been a long time!  But everything will be fine!  We'll have a good time, won't we?"

Ken smile softly, and pulled Minomon into the crook of his elbow.  Then, he used his free arm to hoist the strap of his bag over his shoulder.  

"Yeah.  I'm sure we will."

He didn't sound sure though.

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They were all ready and packed, at least in the physical sense. Daisuke had opened the portal from Ken's computer and entered into the Digital World. The surroundings were familiar, like an old friend welcoming them home. No amount of months away could fade the trails away from his mind. The contour of the forest slicing against the meadow. The nearby river gurgling a quiet herald for their return. He took a deep breath, always surprised how real it felt. He knew he couldn't look at the "real" world versus the "digital" world and expect one to be less tangible than the other. They were both very real spacial planes. He existed just as much here as he did in Tokyo. And if he had to choose one over the other, everything here just felt... Better.

He rolled his shoulders, the backpack full of supplies clinking pans against pots and shifting to rest just above his tailbone. "The usual, then?" It was a rhetorical question. V-mon and Wormmon were already scampering off in front of Ken and himself leading the way. He smiled, and it felt as warm as the sun the kissed his lips. The pain in his hand, in his heart, in his mind... It was melting away, and it didn't threaten to freeze again when he looked at Ken.

"It's way nicer here. We should have just spent the whole week here, probably." He turned his gaze to ahead of him. They were about to enter the forest. Some trees still had knife marks in their bark, ancient symbols from their shared past. The trail was about two miles long at a steady incline. In the end, they'd end up at a small clearing near a short waterfall. There'd been many nights they'd stay huddled inside a tent much too small for two boys of any age to share. Today, they just intended to set a fire, cook, and return home.

Daisuke just had a hard time understanding why he had to go back.

"You know, I came here one time. A long time ago... Uh, nah, maybe it was like two years ago," he passed into the forest, Ken following behind. A carved triangle in a nearby tree kept him on track. "By myself. I just, I dunno. I guess I was pissed off at something. At Jun probably. Yeah, no, it was definitely Jun. She was pissed off, because I was just existing." He pauses when he stumbles over a branch, laughing slightly  when he regains his balance. "Not like... Not like she wanted me dead, but you know how she can be. She wanted to have a boy over, and I wanted to watch TV. I lost. I got pissed. I came here." He was rambling, but the tension between them was palpable, and he wanted to alleviate that with words. He supposed it didn't matter if Ken was actually listening to him or not at this point. "I didn't even come with V-mon. I just ran up the fucking mountain. The whole way. Then when I got to the top, I screamed." He looked at Ken and smiled. "I screamed so loud that some Gekomon told me to shut the hell up." His fingers wrap around the straps of his backpack. "It felt good, somehow. Maybe it's just... Being here. Not just the Digital World but here. Memories, ya know?"

Daisuke takes a sharp turn up a steeper hill, their aged trail telling him to do it. V-mon and Wormmon were so far ahead he could barely even hear their excited giggles. "Shit was simpler back then, I guess." His voice trailed. "Screaming into some treetops probably won't fix any of the shit we're going through now. But I'm excited to try anyway."

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Although they walked side by side, Ken merely followed Daisuke's lead, while his mind and eyes wandered.  After all the years he'd spent traversing the Real and Digital worlds, Ken still wondered how he could have ever, at any time, thought that this place was just a Game.  Although it always took a moment to adjust when he arrived, this place was every bit as tactile and solid as the desk in his bedroom, or the potted plants his mother kept on the balcony. The air was as crisp as any he had ever breathed, the sand still got in your shoes, and the water still quenched thirst.  

This was a very real place, and he'd left very real scars.  These days, most Digimon remembered the Kaiser, but very few could easily identify the sadistic young boy who menaced them in the soft, reflective young man that Ken had grown to be.   Time had granted him a sort of armor -- he didn't Sound the same, or Look the same, not entirely.   He had let go, for the most part -- spent years atoning, attempting to pile acts of good and Kindness onto the scale so that it would finally tip and alleviate his guilt.  In his opinion, he would always be at least one act shy of achieving that goal.  It pushed him forward.  It motivated him.  So, when he thought that it had been almost a year since he'd last set foot on digital soil...

Shit was simpler back then, he heard Daisuke say.

Even when things were good, they had never been simple for Ken.   He wondered, had he failed?  Had he neglected this place?  Of course, things were peaceful now.  It had been years since the dark towers had been torn down, homes rebuilt. Years since Arukenimon and Mummymon, and Belialvamdemon. The problems now, were normal ones. This wasn't their world, not really, though they had certainly made it their playground.  If Daisuke hadn't dragged him back on this very day, when would he have gone back?

The sound and smells of the waterfall reached him before the familiar site came into view.  The digital world was full of places like this, teeming with growth, and life, and he wondered why he'd spent so much time out in the hot, barren deserts.  

Memories.  He was sure he had enough of them to fill  a warehouse of servers. Good ones.  Bad ones.  The two of them and their partners, passing the days in sunlight and water and grass and dirt.  Cuts and bruises, broken bones - his own, and those delivered by his hands.  Their backs pressed together as they slept, or didn't sleep, talking for hours with thousands of tiny points of light in a darkened sky on a clear night.  All of these things had meant more to him than he reasoned they were supposed to.

Would there be a time, when they were meant to stop meddling, stop coming here altogether?  

His thoughts were heavy, but seeing the energy slowly returning to Daisuke lifted him just a bit.  

"You really love it here, don't you?"  the words slipped out in a tone of wonder, laced with envy.    

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V-mon had been collecting firewood on their trek up, and Daisuke was working on setting together a fire. He paused at Ken's question, honestly a little surprised that it had been asked at all.

"Of course I do." Daisuke said bluntly. "I find I miss it more and more lately..." His voice trailed. Letting his butt hit the pebbled ground, he rested his elbows on his knees and stared off at the river in front of them. "I guess..." Picking up a stray stick, he stokes the wood that has yet to be lit. "You know, I had a purpose back then. When we all were fighting, we were something. I was something. I've never believed in anything so much in my entire life." With his free hand, he scratched at the side of his face before continuing. "You guys were... Amazing. And now..." He craned his neck up to look at Ken. "You're all kinda amazing without me." He laughed slightly before looking back at the pile of wood. "I miss  you guys, so coming here makes me feel less like I'm..."

Daisuke's shoulders slunk forward. It honestly wasn't that easy for him to make friends. The chosen, their adventures, although they were treacherous, gave him a sense of belonging. It distracted him from himself, gave him faith in those around him. If he could focus on them, then maybe he didn't have to focus on himself. But then they won, and then they started to grow up, and he just... Drifted. He craved the companionship for their comradeship with each passing year that it took a permanent pained residences in his stomach. School, careers, life. It just lost the flavor of desire for Daisuke. He knew what life tasted like back then, and he hadn't had anything like it since. He was afraid he never would.

So he skipped exams. He played hooky with his best friend. Because in the long run, did it matter? He wasn't a nihilist, he wasn't suicidal. He knew the answer to the question, but it didn't reside in the "real" world. It was here, at this waterfall, under this sun, breathing this air. Nothing else could compare. He didn't want it to.

"Yeah, I love it here. I'd never leave, if I had the choice."

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There were so many things Ken could have said, but the words stuck in his throat, never quite reaching his tongue.  As Daisuke spoke, he looked down at him with a strange sadness behind his eyes, an invisible weight pulling his shoulders down in a slump.  After a moment's pause, Ken tucked on leg under the other and settled on the ground beside him.  A hand came to rest on Daisuke's shoulder, as if by touching him, Ken could ground them both. 

"We're all still here, you know," he began softly. "I know we've all been busy, but that's just part of growing up.  We have more responsibilities we have to juggle."  Though, he had to admit, it didn't hurt any less.  Hadn't he just been thinking, how much he missed everyone?  And hadn't he been just as guilty of being unavailable?

Hesitantly, he withdrew his hand. Like a child, he pulled his knees up to his chest, folded his arms, and rested his chin there. 

Maybe it was different for Daisuke.  Hadn't he always been the Hero of the Digital World?  Could he really blame him?  If Ken had somewhere that had welcomed him with open arms, trusted him with Greatness, wouldn't he have wanted to slip off into that place forever?  To drown out the less pleasant sides of life?  

It was irresponsible, but he'd tried it himself, once.  

"But... you know, living in the Digital World?  Not exactly as great as it sounds." His words were laden with an undeniable bitterness as he stared out across the riverbank.  

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Daisuke waved his hand. "Don't talk to me like I don't know that, Ken." It came out with an aggressive edge, and he wasn't about to reel it back in. "I know we're all growing up. Things can't be the way they used to be. Just..." He picked up a pebble and tossed it in the river as he tried to collect his thoughts. "You don't fuckin' get it, man. You never have." He swallowed. "I guess getting people to talk to me has been easier since all that shit we did, but it's not anymore real now than it was then. You guys are my friends. I don't really... Have much else. Or rather, how are other people even supposed to compare?"

He laughed under his breath, leaning a shoulder into Ken's. "It's different here, though. I get along with the digimon. There's no big conflicts now, and hopefully never again... But they always need help. We're humans and we're just kinda good at things they aren't sometimes. We could do well here." He left the 'we' ambiguous. Deep down, he'd love the 'we' to include more than just V-mon. "They'd protect us and feed us. We'd be needed."

And Daisuke guessed that's what it boiled down to. He had them to believe in, to support, and in return, they found a need for him. Despite all his insistant needs to be noticed, to be impressive, it came down to his simple belief in them that they all relied on. In turn, he relied on that. Now it was gone, and he was floundering. Struggling to see his place in the world. V-mon needed him. The digimon here could eventually.

Ken didn't need him anymore.

Did he ever, though?

Daisuke felt the smile on his face, but it didn't feel real. Eyes unfocused, he bit at the inside of his lip nervously. "This would be different than running away, Ken." And he wasn't exactly sure how, but he realized that it might not have been the best thing to say.

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Ken flinched.  It was just the tiniest tick in his cheek, a twitch of his arm, and a tightening of his jaw.  He waited.  He Listened.  But something about those words pushed him to a cliff, and it took much more than he expected to keep himself from tipping over the edge.   He hadn't thought Daisuke was really serious, but then he'd kept talking.  He knew well enough to know when Daisuke was even a little bit serious.  

"Are you sure they're the ones in need?"  Ken's voice was low as he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead -- as if looking at Daisuke might set him off.  "Don't you ever think that, at some point, we're meant to stop meddling here?"  

It was a thought he'd had more often than he cared to admit.  As much as he enjoyed his times in the Digital World, as much as he still felt like he needed to do right by it's inhabitants... maybe doing right by them, meant letting them take care of their world, on their own.  The thought that someday they might be completely cut off from this place wasn't a foreign one -- the older chosen had been barred from re-entering the Digital World for years, before.  Even now, they still couldn't open the gates on their own; that was something only those in possession of a D-3 could do.  Even with all that had happened with BelialVamdemon, and Oikawa, there was no guarantee that someday, they wouldn't be shut out, too.   

"What if someday, the gates just... closed.  For good, this time.   What then?  Would you just stay here forever, never see your family or your friends ever again? Just, leave behind everything that doesn't seem worth it.  That sounds like a great idea."  His words swung upward with sarcasm as he got to his feet.  "But, sure, you're right.  I couldn't possibly 'Get It.' "

Overwhelming, unnamed, but somehow familiar emotions spiked in his chest, gripped the back of his mind.  Calm down, he told himself, but it did nothing to ease his agitation.  He clenched a fist, inhaled through his nose.  He needed a minute to cool his head.  

"...I'm going to go look for some herbs to make tea,"  he said flatly, turning to walk down the river.  

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"Hey." Daisuke scrambled to his feet, slipping slightly on the loose rocks, his knee hitting the ground before finally pushing himself to stand up. "Oi. Don'chya..." He jogged to Ken and grabbed his arm, tugging the man back abruptly. "Don'chya fucking walk away from me, Ichijouji." His brown eyes were roasting under an anger that he was struggling to control. This was all that his mind had been on about for weeks, months. He may have set Ken off, but you know what? Good.

"What the hell would you do if Wormmon was left in the Digital World if that were to happen? Huh? What the fuck would you do? I can't even imagine anything worse than losing V-mon. And... And it's..." Daisuke huffed out. He didn't dare to say it. "So what if I would get locked away. At least I would be with him. At least I could be here in a world that I understand. What the hell makes the real world so special? All it has are tests and school and work. Stupid families that treat you like an idiot. Friends that have no time for you, will never have time for you.

"'Oh, Daisuke, you can start a family.' 'Hey, Daisuke. You can have your own business.' 'Don't worry, Daisuke, everybody has to go through the same shit.'" He spat in mocking voices. "No I fucking don't. And isn't that just the most grown up shit I could ever think of to do? Think for myself? Do what I want to do? What I know I'm good at?

"I belong here, Ken."

He didn't realize that his grip had grown so tight, his knuckles white, the veins in his hands throbbing. A sigh escaped from his nose as he withdrew his hand. "I know you lived here, Ken. I know you went through shit. I can't even pretend I understand what you went through. But besides all the..." He waved his hand vaguely. "I... I get why you might have done it. I think I got it even when we were kids.

"If the gates ever closed, Ken... Which side would you really want to be on? Just... Entertain the idea for me. What do you want to do in the real world that's worth more than all of this?" He turned slightly, looked out across the river, the foggy mist of the waterfall, the green tops of the trees, the lavender mountains in the distance.The sun was so warm, the sky so blue. So beautiful.

He would miss his friends. He would miss his family. But he already missed the digital world, and it was still a place that had always been open for him. He wondered...

He wondered...

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"I don't know!" Ken spat. The words were like bile, bitter and acrid.  Though his arm had been reclaimed, he could feel the ghost of Daisuke's fingers digging into his skin, and he was almost certain it would leave a bruise.  Ken advanced on Daisuke, gradually invading his personal space.  

" 'Yes, I'd stay here.  I'd leave everything behind for my partner.'  Is that what you want me to say?  Because I can't say that."  the edge in his voice scraped, and wavered. "I wish I could, but It's not that simple, and It never has been."   

There was a fire blazing in Ken's eyes that looked so completely out of place.  They were sharper around the edges, like broken glass.   Although he stood rigid and unwavering, inside he felt as if he couldn't stop shaking.  The fire that had taken hold blazed out of control, and though something in the back of his mind screamed for him to pull back, he could do no such thing.  Faster than he could blink he had grasped a fist full of Daisuke's shirt collar, pulling him sharply until they were nearly nose-to-nose.  For just a moment, eyes darkened, focused, and full of rage, it could have been the Kaiser standing before Daisuke.

"I know you still think I'm some kind of genius so this may come as a shock to you: I don't have any of the answers. But I am saying this, because I have thought exactly how you are thinking now -- That this place is somehow better, that all of the mundane things like, school, and work, and..."  he grit his teeth.  "That somehow, they're less."

Are you happy?  The words rattled through his head again.  And then, a sharp pain cleaved through his skull.  With a grimace, he released Daisuke abruptly, and barely resisted the urge to rub his temples.  "They're not less..." he wheezed. His eyes stung. "Maybe it's different for you.  Maybe you do belong here.  But I ..."

I never can. 

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The thumping in his ears wasn't just his heartbeat, it was Ken's too. It drummed so hard that he felt his chest swell, like there was too much blood in his body to be contained by his skin and bones. He could see the throbbing in Ken's neck, see the way his Adam's apple bobbed as he talked, saw the savageness in his eyes trying to consume him. It had been years since he'd seen this... The reminder twisted his stomach, made his voice croak unintentionally as Ken tightened his grip around his collar. Daisuke brought his hands up to plant onto Ken's wrist, he could feel hot breath against his face, and it made him grimace.

"Ken," he muttered, only to be berated more, until finally Ken seemed to be out of steam. He was released, and he let go of Ken as well, their bodies still close enough to hear the raised pulse between the both of them. He tried to find words. It's not that he didn't understand what Ken was saying, or where he was coming from. He just didn't understand why Ken couldn't understand where he was coming from. "It's..." He stepped forward, filling the gap between them until their chests were almost touching.

Here, at this waterfall, was some of his most cherished memories with Ken. They had been so close since that day in the desert, he had to crash through so many of Ken's barriers to get them to be standing here right now. When they battled, he felt more alive than any other time. He would awake from dreams covered in sweat, heart railing against his ribs, adrenaline screaming to relive those feelings. But these moments... The ones that involved skipping rocks, talking about after school activities, planning their next adventure in lands even uncharted by the Kaiser... They were quiet and insignificant, but it's what made Daisuke fall in love with Ken. He was so... Human when he was in Digital World. So relieved, so free.

Why would Ken ever want to go back? Didn't he realize how different he was here?

Wait...

 He loved Ken?

His eyes wavered around Ken's face, trying to pick a spot to focus on. Daisuke had attributed everything to just boyish hormones in the past. He felt the sexual tension, wanted to kiss his lips and feel his skin against his. But it never seemed right to act on it. He was a teenager, after all. Fulfilling desires like that for the sake of fulfilling desires could only end in awkward heartbreak. And sure, he always had loved Ken, but... Not like this. Not like this feeling of realization, where everything he had ever done up since their meeting had been for him in some regard. How even now, all he wished for was to be with him, to be with Ken as free and as happy as he can be. Naturally, being in the Digital World is where he concluded they'd end up. His frustrations of being shot down, to be yelled at, seemed validated now.

He reached up, gently put his hands on either side of Ken's flushed cheeks, felt the warmth of their anger in his palms. Pulling him down to reach his face, Daisuke looked into Ken's eyes, saw the feral fear in them, felt his own heart break and shatter like them. He was so beautiful and ugly and strong and broken all at once, and it just didn't matter how Ken reacted because he could handle it. They could handle it.

Daisuke pressed his lips to Ken's, and it was a stiff awkward thing. Ken wasn't expecting it, and Daisuke hadn't kissed many people in his past. But there was something different about it. There was an electricity to it, like the intimacy of it sparked their jogress connection, ran fire through all of his veins and made him whimper immediately against Ken's mouth. His fingers curled against Ken's cheeks as he kissed him again, felt that sensation like a buried memory from his past, floating to the surface of the now to pop into reality. He kissed him a third time, hoping that Ken would kiss back, that he didn't just let his dumb mind do dumb things again. But he might have.

He might have just fucked up big time.

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Ken barely registered the feeling of Daisuke's hands on his face, though it seemed to dull the pounding in his head.  The light pressure against his lips was nothing compared to the assault it brought on his mind.  Ken tensed, inhaled sharply through his nose, the fire and rage that consumed him pushed back under the force of electricity, and only now did he notice the intensity was not all his own. The aching chasm in his chest seemed to fill with the speed of floodwaters from a broken dam rushing into a dry lake.  It was almost painfully overwhelming.  It doused the blaze, the tension lifting from his body like steam rising from a smothered campfire.  His eyes slid shut, his hands tentatively finding their way to settle on Daisuke's waist as he leaned in, breathing in Daisuke, grasping like a child for that familiar, comforting feeling slowly seeping into his skin.

And then he drew back, slowly, a soft sigh pulled from his lips.  He opened heavy-lidded eyes to blurred vision, tears clinging to his lashes, half-dried tracks marking his cheeks.  His brow twitched, and his fingers curled tighter.  The flood waters receded, and in their wake was the stark realization of what had just happened. Like a startled rabbit, he pushed himself back, His eyes fully open now, a hand rising to cover his mouth.  His cheeks burned, and his pulse raced. He swallowed, and took a step back. 

"I..."  his voice cracked.  "I need to go."

Wormmon was still up the river.  His bag was still at their make-shift campsite. He forgot all of it.  He just wanted to run.    

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Daisuke felt empty when Ken left him, like all of the warmth in him was sucked out and he was left with a frigid, barren tundra. He longed to get it back, needed to get it back. Fumbling after him, he grabbed onto Ken's wrist and reeled him back, pulled him into an embrace so tight that he felt his own breath get knocked out. "Don't leave, Ken. Please." He buried his face into his chest, his fingers balling into the back of Ken's shirt. "I'm sorry. I'm so fuckin' sorry. I didn't mean to." But he did, he did mean to. "I mean, I didn't know how else to make you understand." Understand what? It didn't explain anything. "I know what you're saying. I get it. But you have to see it, Ken. You have to see that the you here is... The us here is different. There's shit to do in the real world. It's good for a lot of people... But can't you see? Can't you see why I feel like this just makes sense?"

He feels a sob wrap around his throat, chokes him until there's tears in his eyes. All the anger he felt a short time ago had melted away and replaced with sadness... For himself, for Ken, for them, for the Digital World, their digimon, their future... And he was so frustrated that he couldn't express what he meant, that Ken didn't understand or care to understand. 

Daisuke's eyes search Ken's. He feels the tense muscles in Ken's back, knows he can wrench out of his grasp if he really wanted to. He hoped with every fiber of his being that he wouldn't. At least for a little while. "I told you to live, Ichijouji. And I just want to know if you did." 

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For a long while, Ken was utterly still.  Stiff, and silent except for the sound of his hitched breathing.  He could have pulled away if he wanted to, he had the strength, but he lacked the will.  He half-listened to Daisuke's words -- rushed apologizes, disorganized explanations, but it all sounded like water in his ears.  He felt like he was drowning.  Down was up, and right was left, and Ken wasn't even thinking about their argument anymore, as much as he was reeling over how he'd lost his composure, and somehow ended up... here.  He'd felt everything spiraling out, then all at once pulled back into reality, and for what?   Daisuke's arms round him were both a snare, and an anchor.  He wanted to run, as much as he wanted to hold on and never let go.  His chest felt hollow, and empty, or too full to breathe.  

No one, besides his mother, had ever kissed him before.  And that was, of course, entirely different.  It could have meant nothing, or it could have meant everything, but both ideas had him utterly paralyzed.  Ken wasn't narrow-minded, but he'd had a very conventional upbringing.  Boys kissed girls.  Girls kissed boys.  He knew there were obviously exceptions, he wasn't sheltered, but the thought of himself, kissing another boy, had never crossed his mind.  That just wasn't something boys - or men - traditionally did, especially not with their best friend.  But Daisuke had.  And Ken, despite himself, for even just a moment, had reciprocated as if it were the most natural response.

Why?

Because it was Daisuke?

In the wreckage of his mind, trying to put the pieces together, there were two things that Ken knew, that had always been true:  The first, was that from the moment they had met, Daisuke had invoked in him a range of feelings that no one else, before or since, ever had. The second....

I told you to live, Ichijouji.  And I just want to know if you did.

The second, was that Daisuke had always been, and would always be, a better, brighter person than Ken could ever hope to be... and he was drawn to that warmth and light like a flower in shade yearns for the sun.

"Motomiya...."  his mouth dry, he swallowed, trying to push his heart down from where it seemed stuck in his throat.  The expression in the depths of Daisuke's eyes was so much that Ken felt overpowered by the mere sight of them.  He shrank, and averted his gaze.

"I -- I don't know what you mean,"  Ken replied nervously.  Finally, pressing his palms against Daisuke's shoulders, he made a weak attempt to loosen himself from the arms that encircled him.  "I'm standing right here, aren't I?"

He knew the minute the words had left his mouth, he probably wasn't going to get away with that kind of answer.

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Daisuke laughed. It was one laced with disbelief, amusement, sadness. He gave his arms some slack, let Ken's rigid body drift slightly away from him. "Yeah, you are." He moved his hands up Ken's arms, squeezed them gently as if using it as a reassurance. "And I don't think you'll ever understand how much that means to me." He rested his forehead on Ken's chest, shaking his head as he wrapped his arms around Ken's waist again. The taller man wasn't leaving yet, and he was going to take advantage of the closeness. He wanted to get drunk on it before he maybe lost it forever. "But I mean... Are you... Living it for yourself? Are you living your damn life, Ken? I don't think I am, and I want to fix it. I want to live for myself."

The more he talked, the more he knew they'd be going back that night. That this moment would become a memory. That Ken would to go college, and he would be forced to go to ronin school. He'd be behind, he'd be a failure. He's finally get through college, he'd get a job and...

How mundane. He felt the anger welling in him again, his fingers twisting across Ken's back. "I want..." Daisuke swallowed. He'd already come this far. He'd kissed him and there was no taking that back. He had feelings, and there was no changing that. "I miss you, Ken. I don't want to keep missing you. This... Place reminds me of us. I want to live for that. You don't have to as well, but I just... I want you to be happy. More than anything."

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If Ken hadn't known better, he'd have sworn he was coming down with something; he was all-together too warm, light-headed, his heart beating heavily, like a base drum in his chest.  They'd been this close before, but it had never been like this; laden with something so heavy, so implicitly intimate.  Maybe it had always been that way, and they'd only been too young to understand it.   With age came understanding.  Comprehension.   Fear.  Of the unknown.  Of losing everything with just the wrong words.  Of crossing some undefined line.  Of being sucked back into the dark void that had swallowed up whole pieces of his childhood, times and places he couldn't remember.   Daisuke had told him to live, and he'd wanted to.  For his family.  For Wormmon.   For his brother.  For everyone he had done wrong.  For that vague and distant memory of a person standing next to him in the desert, his name gone, his face a blur.  For a chance to somehow make right everything he had touched and ruined.

For Daisuke.

I want you to be happy.

His stomach dropped and his mouth opened, but his throat closed.  

His life was far from joyless.  He had his family, his partner, his friends.  He was good at school, an accomplished athlete.  There were smiles, and warm arms, and laughter, all wrapped up in countless memories he was never sure he deserved.   There was Daisuke.  Bright, like the sun.  Shining, like the moon and stars in dark nights where he thought he'd stumble and never see light again.   

The thought that he might ever lose Daisuke -- to life, to the digital world -- was the most terrifying thing he could imagine.  

With shaking hands, Ken silently brushed his fingers over Daisuke's cheek. He felt so warm, and Ken looked at him as if had never touched anything so real in all his life.   His lips moved, his throat worked, but no words came out.   He leaned his head down, closing the gap between them until he could feel his own breath bouncing off of Daisuke's cheek, a pale thumb running over tanned jaw.   Ken's brow crinkled, and before he knew what he was doing his eyes had slipped closed.   His lips found the corner of Daisuke's mouth, hesitant and soft, their noses brushing awkwardly until he shifted into place.  Like pieces of a puzzle, they fit, and for a moment, he forgot convention, forgot tradition, forgot every question.

There was a third truth that Ken knew;  Daisuke was always the exception.  

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Daisuke grounded his hands on Ken's shoulders. He sucked in air against Ken's lips, his own quivering against them. Ken was kissing him. He leaned into it, felt it all--Ken's body against his, the way his lips moved timidly with his lead, even how it tasted... Like butterscotch, for some reason. He smiled, running his hands down Ken's arms, letting them rest and grasp elbows. He jarred him forward, took Ken's mouth more completely, let his inhibitions falter in the face of their eagerness. Slipping his arms around Ken's waist, he beckons Ken's lips open with his chin, lets his tongue taste the sweetness of the skin there. He tries to keep focused, tries not to let his legs fall out from under him.

He had never been hungry for anything so much in his life.

When would it end, though? They were syncing, but Ken was still erratic. He was going to lose him to panic, and he felt just a little bit like he was taking advantage. Ken was kissing him, but did he want to? Ken in his right mind would never...

But he was so comforting. Like a warm bath, he was engulfed in the feeling. It brought a heat to his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He drew Ken's body closer to him as he tilted his head, let his tongue roll against Ken's, and he knew...

No, it had been a mistake.

His eyebrows furrowed, and he groaned against Ken's mouth and leaned back. He brought a hand to his mouth and shook his head. Their heartbeats were railing in his ears, and he was making him nauseous. They kissed. They kissed and he couldn't take it back, and Ken didn't want it. Not really. Why would he?

They couldn't do anything with this. They would never stay here. Going back home wouldn't fix anything. He felt one knee loosen. He felt so much heavier than he ever had, like gravity had increased without notice. He grabbed onto Ken's shirt for purchase, but it didn't help. He fell to his knees, his eyes downcast, his fingers to his lips. He shook his head, wanted to shake out the past few minutes. This time he pushed away, but he was protecting them, right? Like he always did?

Got them into this, like he always did?

"This was a mistake, wasn't it?"

And he could still feel Ken's tongue against his, and it felt swollen and foreign, and he wanted it back.

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Ken had never tasted a drop of alcohol in his life so he couldn't be sure, but intoxicated was the only way to describe how he felt -- complete with dizziness, disorientation and slowly crumbling inhibitions.  His heart sped up, his breathing hitched, he struggled to keep up.  He'd made up his mind -- he thought -- he'd started this, it was--
It was more than he bargained for.  He was clumsy, fingers on the back of Daisuke's neck, startled by the sudden intensity of it all.  Too fast.  Too fast.  He didn't know what he was doing, the only thought in his mind to surrender, to trust, but instead he tensed, he fumbled.  Overwhelmed, he forgot to breathe.  For all his book smarts and finesse on a soccer field, here he had no point of reference, no experience.  Unnamed feelings, warm and soothing, and ravenous surged through his veins, and--

When finally they parted, Ken gasped for breath.  Was he... relieved?   When Daisuke pushed back, when he spoke, Ken's stomach turned over.  
No, definitely not relieved. He could feel the warmth drain out of his body as he stared down at Daisuke.   The words struck him as surely as though Daisuke had rammed a fist into his solar plexus.   He shuddered, as shame and embarrassment washed over him.

He wanted to be sick. 

"...Is that what you think?"  He croaked, folding his arms around himself.  

 

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He was so stupid. He was always like this. He acted before he thought, and sometimes that worked out. When they were all working on saving the Digital World all those years ago, he did it all the time. Things just worked out. But there was a very important key factor to that: he had his friends to believe in. He'd pull the trigger, and they were the bullet. He didn't have them in this case. It was just him. And he was shooting blanks.

Daisuke ran a hand down his face, sighed out heavy and long. No, it's not what he thought. He didn't think kissing Ken was wrong--it was the most right thing he could ever have done. It was the implication that nothing could happen going forward that crushed him. That this was the only time he'd ever be able to feel his lips against his, and that crushed him--completely.

Was he just thinking ahead? Maybe Ken... Could change? Maybe they could just forget it all for real? Forget the standards, forget who they're supposed to be so they can...

No...

"Y-yeah... Yeah. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..."

He was so warm. He had never felt so connected to Ken, and how could he possibly be sorry about that? How could that be a mistake? He turned it in his head, tried to find words, tried to fight back the tears that wanted to breach his eyes.

Say something, Daisuke. Say anything. Ken's heart was railing in his ears, there was a panic that flooded his chest and he felt like he was going to drown. He had to say something. 

"I just don't know what to do, Ken. I..." He breathed. "I..."

He couldn't say it. He couldn't fucking say it, and the tears came down before he could stop them.

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Breathing was difficult.  Ken's lungs had turned to cement, and he choked on the burning sensation rising in his throat.  This wasn't just about a kiss anymore.  It wasn't about skipped exams, or the fights they'd had (more in just one day than he could recall them ever having before).  It wasn't about the way they'd practically wrapped themselves around each other in Ken's bedroom, or how he'd lingered too long after bandaging Daisuke's hand.  It wasn't about how Daisuke had dragged him back to the Digital World when he wasn't sure he was ready, or how he'd suggested he might leave the Real world for this one for good.  It was about all of that, because in the end, it all came back to the same thing, didn't it?  At the core, every single one of those things tugged on the same, tightly-wound strings.  But there were no more thoughts left inside of Ken, only a noxious cocktail of emotion he struggled to digest.  Disgust was in there somewhere, though who or what it was directed at, he couldn't be sure.  And then there was distress, and a surging of righteous indignation.  Ken was shaking, and he tightened the grip on his own arms as if he could steady himself.  For one moment -- because it was Daisuke, it was always Daisuke -- Kind-but-Guarded Ken, had lowered his defenses and allowed himself to feel whatever it was that he'd been harboring toward his best friend, and it had only gotten him this.  Pain.  Like Daisuke had plunged his hand directly into his chest and squeezed his heart until it popped like a balloon.   He had dared to turn their world upside down, and now he was just going to... to...

And Ken let him.  Worse, he'd actually bought into one of Daisuke's least sensible moments.  He'd never felt so foolish, so stupid, so--

The dull throbbing in his head made itself known again, and Ken shut his eyes against the pain.  That headache had never actually gone away, had it?   Every word out of Daisuke's mouth grated his nerves, felt like needles stabbing his temples. He pulled a breath into stiff lungs, opened his eyes, ready to lash out and --

He stopped. His mouth half open, the words died on his tongue at the sight of those tears.  The air left his body, and it was a long, silent moment before his burning chest reminded him to draw breath again. 

He wasn't the only one in pain, was he?  A cold knot formed where Ken's stomach should have been.  His arms slackened, and the tension in his shoulders eased.  

"Daisuke..."  Ken rarely called him that out loud -- almost never -- but it fell from his lips with the weight of an anvil.  How was it possible for a name -- barely two syllables -- to carry so much feeling?  Some part of him wanted to reach out to Daisuke, touch him, pull him close and bury his nose in his hair, and--

But for a split second he imagined Daisuke pushing him away again, and it was like a knife across his belly.   But hadn't he done that himself, so many times before?  Always pulled away, always kept him at arms length.  ...Had he been doing this to Daisuke for years?   Instead of going to him, Ken's grip around himself tightened again, as if he could physically hold all those feelings in.  

"It isn't like you to be so indecisive."  He'd meant it to sound gently teasing, but instead it came out strained and broken.

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Daisuke laughed softly. "Yeah," he said, distantly. It sounded as if he was longing for something different, like a conversation from the past. "I guess. I guess not." He raised his head to look at Ken, but he couldn't match his eyes. He focused on his lips, but felt the flush rising in his cheeks again, causing him to avert his gaze to someplace past his head. "I'm sorry."

He ran the back of his hand against his eyes, slumped into himself as he tried to compose himself. Trying to pick up the pieces of himself was difficult when he had no idea what they had even constructed before. Who the fuck was he? Who was he without the people around him? Without Ken?

"I'm good at making decisions when it matters." He said, not even sure if he believed that either. But decisions about himself... Yeah, they didn't matter as much. "Not that... Not that this doesn't matter." He corrected himself. He got to his feet, stretching his back absently. "I'm going to go find out where V-mon went. I'm not so hungry anymore." He watched the river for a lingering minute, until he turned away from Ken. 

He was running away, he knew it. And he was pretty sure Ken knew it too. He was an expert in it, after all.

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"Mm." Ken's response was wordless.  Non-committal.  He was fine with running. Right then, it was all he wanted to do.  

"I'm... I'm gonna go for a walk," he said finally, to Daisuke's back.  He was already starting to back away, slowly. "I'll... meet you back at the waterfall. Tell Wormmon I'll be back.  Ok?"

But he didn't wait for a response.  He knew he wouldn't get one anyway.  He turned on his heel, took a breath, and began walking the opposite direction down stream. 

. . .

 

Ken lost track of how long he’d been walking along the river.  His hands ran back and forth over his arms, tapping his elbow, playing with the sleeve of his shirt.  Fussing, fidgeting, all the while trying to sort himself out.  Putting distance between them had confirmed his suspicions; he’d been so attuned to Daisuke that he was no longer able to separate which feelings belonged to whom.  It was a strange phenomena, and one they’d never openly discussed, but seemed to have something to do with physical proximity.   It had started sometime after their first Jogress, but rarely did it seem like more than enhanced intuition, or an uncanny ability to read each other’s body language.  When they Jogressed-- when they were in sync it was empowering, and he felt like he could take on the world.  But, when they conflicted, or emotions ran high… well, ’overwhelming’ and ‘disorienting’ were good words for it.   The longer Ken walked, the more it helped to quell the flood of feelings, grant him some space inside his own head.   Even so, he felt exhausted, his headache persisting with a vicious stabbing that seemed in time with his steps.  

Calm down, he told himself, for what must have been the tenth time already.  It did him no more good than it had the first time, or the second, or the third....   

He ran a hand through his hair, then down his face with a heavy sigh.  His pulse had finally slowed, his breathing returned to something resembling normal.  But when his fingers brushed the corner of his mouth, he paused.  The memories were still fresh, his cold fingertips a stark contrast to the warm breath and soft skin he remembered from less than an hour ago.  (It had been that recently… hadn’t it? He’d begun to lose track of time).    He remembered the intrusive sensation of Daisuke’s tongue in his mouth, and he could feel the blood rushing to his face.   Knuckles pressed firmly against his lips, Ken stared at the ground just in front of him.  He felt as though he’d crested the hill of a roller coaster, a steady climb that left him plummeting hard and fast, his breath and stomach left behind as the world rushed up to meet him.   There was no denying the truth anymore; he had kissed Daisuke, and he had liked it.   He was well into his teens and he’d never so much as flirted with anyone before; he’d been out of his element, but he hadn’t been uncertain, had he?  But Daisuke.  Brash,  unabashed Daisuke, it had just been an impulse to him, hadn’t it?  A moment of desperate spontaneity, that he... regretted.   The thought turned Ken’s stomach.  For not the first time, he had followed Daisuke’s lead, and this time it had brought him to a place that he couldn’t take back, even when he wanted to.  Just the thought made him feel as though someone had tied stones around his ankles and thrown him into a lake.  It shouldn’t have hurt this much.  That it did, pointed him towards one conclusion: Those strong, un-nameable feelings he’d been carrying around for almost as long as he could remember?

He was, quite likely, in love with his best friend.  

But what was he supposed to do with those feelings now?  Naming them had done him absolutely no favors.  Was he supposed to pretend it never happened? Shove them back in a bottle?  It seemed about as easy a task as putting toothpaste back into the tube!  Not to mention the heavy implications that came along with realizing the depth of his feelings for someone of the same gender.

What if this ruins our friendship?  His chest tightened at the mere thought.


A cold breeze whispered across his neck, and he shivered, folding his arms tighter.  It was just enough to bring him out of his head, and back to his surroundings.  Somehow, he had strayed away from the river, and now stood in the midst of trees and brush. A low fog had begun to roll in, and it had grown so much darker that he questioned how long he’d really been out walking.  It couldn’t have been sundown already, could it?   

“I should get back…” he mumbled to himself.   Facing Daisuke just then wasn’t exactly at the top of his list, but then neither was being lost, alone, in the woods after dark.  

He stopped and turned around slowly, listening for the river.   All he had to do was follow the sound, and he’d find his way back easily enough.  As he moved through the worn dirt paths, he couldn’t help but notice the wisps of fog had begun filling the space between the trees, obscuring his line of sight.  No matter which way he turned, there was no familiar rushing sound, no babbling of water over stones, and no sign of the woods thinning out.  Instead, he heard the breeze through the leaves overhead, and faintly, in the distance the sound of…

Ken froze mid step, and his blood ran cold.  “No…”

There was no mistaking the distant sound of waves against the shore.   No longer looking for the river, Ken arbitrarily picked a direction, and quickened his pace.  Panic slowly began to set in as he scanned his surroundings.  It wasn’t just darker, but duller, as if the color had been sucked out of the foliage.  Among the bushes, shadows seemed to move, living and breathing in this otherwise dead place.  When at last he found the river again, purely by chance, it did nothing to ease his fears;  the water was gray and silent, it’s depths invisible, and the sand and pebbles bore the color of charcoal from a burnt-out fire.  Ken turned to walk upstream, his pace brisk as he rubbed his arms for warmth.    He wasn’t lost anymore; he knew exactly where he was, and that was much worse.  It had always been there, at the back of his mind, but he was able to ignore it.  He only heard it sometimes in complete silence, only saw it occasionally in dreams.  This was neither.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered under his breath. “I shouldn’t have been brought back here. Why…?”

It felt as though cobwebs were settling in his mind, and he shook his head to clear them.


“Calm down,” he told himself again, more firmly this time, as if it might suddenly work.  “There has to be a way back.  ….What was it?   What was it that Hikari-san said… As long as I want to go back, and there is someone who wants me back, I’ll be able to leave?”

Oh, but there’s no one who wants you back.  How can they, if they don’t even know you’re gone?

Ken skidded suddenly to a halt.   The voice could have come from inside his own head, the way it seemed to swirl around him.  He looked around apprehensively, his feet sliding into a defensive stance.


But I know where you are.  And I know who you are.  Ichijouji Ken.  I’ve waited for this day for a long time.

Teeth grit together, Ken whirled sharply to look behind him.  “Who’s there?!”

But there was nothing.  Nothing except the same shapeless shadows slinking through the mist.  Ken raised his arms, his eyes darting from side to side.  Another chill ran down his spine, and he turned to flee.

And there, right in his path and barely three feet in front of him was a towering figure, a blot of violent blood against a sea of ash.  White horns twisted toward the sky, and massive, leathery wings unfolded to block his way.  Alarmed, Ken stumbled back.  It may have been years since the Chosen Children had laid eyes on this creature, but Ken had seen it many times in his nightmares.  


“You’re--”

Yes.” Grandly, the dark visage spread its arms, hands white like death, and sharp claws on display. Yellow eyes glinted from the shadowy slit of its hood.  “The one you banished here so long ago.

Ken didn’t need to say the name, but it fell from his dry lips all the same.

“Daemon.”

The Dark Digimon laughed in reply, a deep sound that rumbled through Ken’s bones.   “And here you are, all alone.  It must be my lucky day.”

Instinctively, Ken reached into his pocket for his D-3; he found nothing but lint. He’d left it in his bag, and his bag was at the waterfall. So was Wormmon.  Even if he’d had it, there was no guarantee that his digimon partner could even come to him in this place.  He felt his already meager well of confidence quickly diminishing.  With no offense or defense available to him, Ken did the next best thing;  he bolted for the trees, hoping to lose him in the woods.  

 

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