Dakota looked out of the window and watched the drops of rain slither down in intricate patterns.
"Ugh." She sighed out loud and looked over at her cat Dixie who was trying to paw at the droplets of rain on the window intently. She nuzzled her cat with her face and the two of them continued to watch the pouring rain fall onto the ground below.
"It's not fair, kitty." She exclaimed. "Rainy days are meant for staying indoors, for reading a good book, or curling up on the couch with a warm drink and a good book, you're lucky, you don't have to go to work."
Her cat cocked her head slightly failing to understand, but suggested a small mew nonetheless. Dakota gave her a peck on her soft black head and backed away from the window to gather her bag and dinner for work. Opening up the closet door she removed her umbrella and coat, pulled on her boots, locked her door and made her way to the elevator. It was a quiet ride down to the main lobby, which was dimly lit with yellow-tinged bulbs and was sparcely decorated with a couple of chairs by the front doors. She pulled up the hood on her jacket, popped open her umbrella and stepped out into the pouring rain in the direction of the city subway.
Upon arriving at work, everything seemed pretty quiet. It was a Sunday, thankfully, which where she worked meant a pretty uneventful time for her. Dakota's work hours were different from the average person. Since she worked the night shift, entering data, she didn't have to worry about the interruption of the phone or people demanding tasks to be completed, here she was pretty much alone.
She pulled out her workload for the night when her cell phone went off. She picked it up hurriedly; any distraction was a good distraction.
"Dakota! Hey!" She recognized the voice instantly; it was her best friend, Leslie. She was the complete opposite to her, and yet they got along fabulously. Leslie had blond hair and blue eyes, and yet seemed not to have fear of anything; she had a lot of friends, a complete social burtterfly and she had a career that she loved.
Dakota had long brown hair, brown eyes, always felt uncomfortable talking to more than one person at a time, had a couple of close friends, and had a career that she, well... tolerated.
"Hey, what's up?" She asked.
"Not much. I know you're at work right now, so I won't keep you long, but I just remembered I have the afternoon off tomorrow, so I wanted to know if you wanted to meet up for some chat time, at our usual spot?"
"Sure, what time?"
"Oneish? You'll be up in time?" Dakota rolled her eyes to the dreary ceiling above her head. For some reason people, even those who know her very well, seemed to think that she would sleep all hours of the day away.
"Yes, I can meet you then, I will see you there!"
"Great, I've got something I want to talk with you about."
"Wait- what did you-?" It was too late, Leslie had already hung up the phone on the other end.
I bet she did that on purpose too, little brat. She thought.
Oh well, I've got work to do anyways...
The rest of the night had been a dull, blur. Once she had gotten home she crawled into bed and fell asleep right away. One of the few advantages to the shift she work, when she finished her shift she could go straight to bed and not have to think about her work day. Many people she knew took their work home with them on a regular basis, it was like they were chained to their office.
Her alarm went off and she went through the routine of toast and juice, followed by dressing herself for the day.
She didn't want to eat too much as she knew that once she got to the café Leslie would somehow convince her, as she always does, to treat herself with a yummy indulgence. She gave Dixie some food before she headed out to meet her friend.
Arriving at the café she looked around for her friend. She was already waiting in a corner seat with two drinks and a couple of cookies sitting temptingly in front of her. Dakota walked up to her companion and gave her a big hug before sitting down across from her.
At this time of the day the café wasn't too busy, which made it the perfect place to meet. In the corner spot, to their left a fire was burning brightly providing welcome warmth from the cold draft of wind that pushed its way in from the outside. The walls were a muted terra cotta colour with paintings scattered across them of local artists.
Without skipping a beat Leslie pushed the drink towards her friend and raised her eyebrows and gave off a big smile.
"I took a gamble that you'd be in the mood for some hot chocolate this time around, something in the tone of your voice yesterday..."
"- It's perfect!" Dakota interjected gratefully. Taking the lid off the cup, she blew on it lightly to cool it down. Already she could smell its sweetness. Nothing soothed a cheerless soul quite like a warm, sweetened drink did. She took a sip and instantly felt better, the warmth filled her body in the same way being around her friend filled her soul.
"So, what's new with you?" She began.
"Well," she smiled mischievously, "I do have a small piece of news to share."
"Really?" Dakota asked her interest perked.
"Yes... I'm going on a trip!"
"You are?" Leslie smiled her playful smile again. "Where?"
"Now you know that is not the question you should be asking, you should be asking who?"
"All right, with whom are you going?" Leslie wiggled her eyebrows in a silly manner and continued to have her goofy smile. Dakota just looked her puzzled.
"With you, you silly girl!" Dakota looked flabbergasted now.
"What? No, that's impossible!"
"What do you mean why? First of all I have work...I -"
"-A job which you merely put up with, next excuse?"
"My cat... Who would take care of her?"
"Your parents, what else you got?"Her smile never wavered. "Look, you have the money put aside, I know that you can get the time off of work they owe you, and besides girl, I know that you're unhappy, you need this! Let us do this together!"
Dakota sat dumbfounded across from her friend. She knew things had come to a dull thud at work, it just wasn't giving her any challenge, and the hours she worked didn't exactly make it easy for her to have any social life. But had it really be that apparent that she was unhappy? Her eyes began to well up with tears as she looked up to her friend the truth of it all reflected deep in her blue eyes. She knew if she didn't really want to go her friend wouldn't push her, but she didn't want to find some excuse not to go, she actually wanted and needed this and was thankful to her friend beyond words for noticing. What she should have said was 'thank-you' but instead what came out was,
"When do we leave?"
A couple of days later, the two of them were ready, packed and off to the airport. They had selected somewhere warm for their destination, since it was winter where they were, they both figured the warm sun was the best way to lighten their spirits and take them away from the winter blues. After they had checked their luggage and went through customs they were ready to board the plan. Dakota found herself surprised at how excited she really was, she hadn't really taken the time yet to think about the fact that she would be spending the next week away from her job, apartment and mundane life. Leslie and she had just booked the trip and given themselves enough time to let their works know they would be off for a week, time to pack and time to let loved ones take care of their pets. Leslie also had a cat, another thing the two of them had in common.
They found their seats, fortunately beside one another and busied themselves chitchatting until a voice came over the con system.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking, Nicholas Brooks, here to inform you that we will be takeoff in the next couple of minutes. We will be reaching an altitude of 50, 000 feet and will arrive at our destination in approximately five hours and twenty minutes. We have received no news of any storms or disruptions in the area and so should hope to have a smooth flight."
The two girls watched as the stewardess' fluttered around the plane like butterflies, conducting their pre-takeoff rituals and then take their seats as the plane began to move in a nose to the air motion. Leslie and Dakota looked over at each other and grinned with excitement.
The heat hit them instantly as they deported the plane and walked out into the non air-conditioned terminal. They were stripping off layers as quickly as they could. An hour bus ride later and they arrived at their resort greeted with fruity alcohol-filled cocktails but attractive men in colour shirts and colourful shorts. The lobby of the resort was sleek and elegant; the colours were vibrant and clean. The two couldn't stopped giggling like school girls as one of the attractive men packed their luggage onto a cart and pushed it all the way to their room. After sadly saying goodbye to the handsome bell hop they examined the room that they would be sleeping in for the next few days. It was even more impressive than they had expected. It contained two beds, a gloriously big bathroom, which even included a phone on the wall, and a balcony with a hot tub that overlooked the rest of the resort.
"Isn't it wonderful?!" cried Leslie. "Dakota, come out to the balcony, you have to see this!" Dakota headed out and looked out to the amazing view before her, everything seemed so peaceful. Neither of them needed to say anything, they both welcomed the rush of tranquility and warmth that exuded over them.
"I don't know about you, but that airplane back of pretzels didn't cut it for me, I'm starving, what do you say we check out one of the restaurants?"
"I'm in," smiled Leslie enthusiastically, "and then maybe we can head on down to the beach and get in a quick swim before sunset!"
"That sounds perfect!" The two of them headed down to the main lobby and then turned to one of the restaurants that provided lunch. They both ate to their stomach's content and chatted about everything and anything.
"Are you kidding me? He was so into you at that barbecue! I thought he was pretty cute, why didn't you give him a call?" Dakota pressed.
"I don't know, I'm not entirely sure what I think of him, I guess. Besides, after my last relationship ending so sour, I don't know if I'm ready to start another one, yet. You know what I'm saying right?"
She nodded, both of them had had relationships that went horribly wrong. The funny thing was the guys had been best friends too, and deep down Dakota was glad that when Jared and her relationship had ended so had Leslie and Tom's a couple of months later. It had become very awkward running into Jared's best friend. Now it made things easier, lonelier perhaps, but easier nonetheless. Dakota looked up to her friend's face, which normally was full of strength and a smile and saw sadness in her eyes.
"Hey," she said raising her pina colada, "we're here now together, two girls having an adventure of our own, who needs men anyways?" Leslie's face brighened and she too raised her glass to Dakota's.
"To no men!" Dakota laughed back.
"To no men!"
After quite a few mixed, fruity drinks the two girls made their way back to their room. They were both much more relaxed than when they had arrived and were giggling incessantly. After they both put on their bikini's Dakota looked at herself in the mirror with judgment. Whether it was the six alcoholic drinks she managed to have guzzled down in the past couple of hours or a trick of the mirror she found that there wasn't much for her to critique.
I don't look half bad...
The two of them laughed their way down to the beach and found a couple of lounge chairs under a mini hut. They laid out their towels so they could sit for a few moments and soak in the beauty of the aqua coloured ocean water. There was a slight breeze that accompanied the ebb and flow of the waves, but the sun was out and the air was warm so neither of them minded. It did not take long for an attractive, young man walked in their view and set up his own resting place one hut away. Leslie eyed her and gave her a wink but returned her gaze swiftly to the well maintained body of the man. Dakota could see the appeal of his body, but didn't see the attraction in his face.
"I don't know about you but I'm ready for a swim." Dakota followed her friend's eyes to the man and watched him as he too looked ready to get up and head for the water.
"Um, sure, I think I can manage that!"
"How kind of you to join me!" She responded ironically. Leslie gave her a sour expression and followed her friend down to the beach. The man dove right in and produced the perfect I'm so sexy exit from the water, with the ocean dripping down his chiseled abdomen as he shook hi hair of excess water. Dakota just laughed to herself as her friend pretended to splash around in the water but really just stared directly at him, eating everything he did up like he was dessert.
Dakota eyed her friend with a chiding look to which she responded,
"I'm looking for shells in the water..."
"Well, I'm going to go further out, you staying here?"
"I told you, I'm looking for shells..." She winked. Dakota nodded to her friend and slowly made her way further into the ocean. The water was lukewarm, but still since she was used to hot showers it was taking her body a bit to get used to before she would plunge right in. Besides, she wanted to keep an eye on Leslie and that guy she was cruising. She made her way until the water was up to her chest, sometimes higher when the waves hit her. She was truly at bliss and couldn't wipe the smile from her face. She took a deep breath and dived deep under the water.
The water felt great. It was cool, refreshing, and it made her feel like she was completely free from all of her ties back home. She poked her head up out of the water and looked over to her friend Leslie who had now managed to make her way over to the guy and had started a conversation.
Not interested in being with anyone? Yeah right! Then she had another thought.
What am I supposed to do here if she's hanging out with that guy? Wasn't this trip supposed to be about her and me? Suddenly Dakota felt a surge of heat rise within her and she had to let it out, so she took another deep dive under water, only this time she swam out as far as she could without resurfacing. She must have swam through a wave because she could feel an odd sensation float over her, wow that must have been a strong one, I'd better go up to the surface before I get too turned around, she thought to herself.
When her head first broke the surface of the water she had to wipe the drops away from her eyes. She looked around to see if she could see Leslie, but something wasn't right. At first thinking there was still water in her eyes she rubbed them again and scanned the surrounding area for her friend. She couldn't see her, she couldn't see anyone and the water was not the same water into which she had entered, this water was dark, murky and more like a lake of some sort. There were bushes and dark trees surrounding the water, definitely not palm trees, and where did all the huts go? A surge of panic began to overcome Dakota as she turned her body around and around in the water trying desperatley to find something familar.
"Well, that's a right bit of a pickle you got yourself into, didn't you?" Dakota scanned the area trying to find the source of a deep voice she thought she heard.
"D-did... someone say something?" She ventured out. There was a snort before she heard a indignant reply.
"If that someone be me, then yes, I said something. Although, I don't know if that should really be your main concern right about now." Dakota paddled her way closer to the sound of the voice.
Just stay calm girl, no need to panic now, does any of this whole trip feel real anyhow? I bet you this is just a dream; I just need to concentrate on waking up...She closed her eyes tightly but then another voice piped up, this one softer and somehow tiny in sound.
"Ooh, that is a nasty spot to be, you're right there, Christopher."
"I wouldn't want to be in there, that's for sure, right bit of strange creatures in this here lake, there are. What were you doing, going for a swim?" As she approached the edge of the water, more shrubs and bushes came into view, but still not a person in sight, not to mention no clear path from which she could exit the cold, murky, water she was wading in. She pushed her body up a bit and thought she could make out the shape of an animal, she then moved over a bit to the left where there was a break in the bushes and sure enough she saw a horse standing not too far off.
"Hello?" The horse shook his head,
"Are you daft, girl? I asked you a question!" The horse turned his head to face the pouch attached to his saddle and continued to talk,
"She's seeming a bit rather rude, wouldn't you say, Wally?" Upon seeing this she gasped out loud,
"It is you! You're talking to me!" The horse chuckled.
"Is she serious?" He seemed to be talking to himself when he said that. "Of course I'm talking, but you know it is customary to answer one's questions."
Get a hold of yourself, she thought, he may be able to help you... even if he is a talking horse...
"I'm sorry, question?"
"I suppose you are in a bit of a predicament, so I'll forgive your inattention for the moment, I asked you what you are doing in there? Don't you know you're in dangerous water?"
"Yes, quite dangerous." The second, tiny voice chimed in.
"Honestly, I don't know where I am! I was swimming in sea, but this is definitely not the same blue-green waters I was just swimming in, do you know where I am?"
"Good golly, you can't be serious?" The horse turned his head again to his back and repeated his question, "She can't be serious?" Then he looked back at her. "You're in the province of Beniton, after Queen Beniton of course."
"Oh." Not sure what else to say Dakota came out with the awkward question. "Is... the province of Beniton a good place to be then? She wracked her brain trying to think where in the Caribbean the province of Bention could possibly be? For a moment it looked amazingly as if the horse almost gave a bit of a shrug before he replied.
"It's not the worst province to be, just don't interfere in the Queen's business and you should be fine."
There was a ripple in the water and she developed a cold shiver throughout her body which produced the most frightening goose bumps.
"Something doesn't quite feel right." She quivered.
"No, I wouldn't think so in that water, I wouldn't. It be best if you made your way out."
"I don't know if I can." She scanned the edge of the water once again looking for a place where she could climb up out of the water when another ripple in the water made its way to the surface. She could feel herself start to panic as she spoke, "the edge is too high and I can't quite reach it to climb up where you are! Can you help me?" Her voice was starting to sound rather shrill.
"Well, I don't know if you noticed this, but I am a horse, I don't have arms you know."
"I know that! But there has to be something you can do!" At that moment she could distinctively feel something very large move around underneath her, it felt like it was circling into her position.
"Well, hmm... perhaps I could... no that wouldn't do... what if I-? The horse attempted to move in closer to Dakota's position but didn't have anything with which to reach to her. It attempted to lower its reins towards her, but they still were just out of reach. She reached up as high as she could, the water level, although deep was still too low to the edge of the lake, it must be a dry season around here.
"Can't... quite... grasp..." Try and try as she might she just couldn't get enough power to push her body up to reach the horse's reins. Not wanting to look back she could feel the water rush toward her as something had broken through its surface. For a moment she went back under, unprepared she began to choke on the water.
I can't believe how this has all turned out, she began to think, all I wanted was a vacation, a place to get away from the real world...
In the next moment it was all a blur. She felt a gigantic pressure on her body as it pulled her up and away from the edge of the water.
At first she expected to feel her chest rip apart from the monster's teeth, or the sound of rushing water surrounding her entire body as it was dragged down to the deep body of the lake. Her eyes were clenched tightly and her body shivered as a rush of wind brushed against her bare skin.
Wait a minute, is that right? She puzzled out in thought as she felt the goosebumps tickle her body all over as she was no longer exposed to any water. She slowly opened one eye to survey her surroundings. Straight in front of her was a large group of trees and when she looked down she saw the lake was below her and the large head of what must have almost been her demise sinking back under the water, that moved away swiftly in a blur from her sight. Realizing she was no longer in the water and was now flying in the air she panicked and began to flail around.
"Easy now, I'll lose my grip if you move around too much and that won't do either of us any good, now will it?" She heard a man talk into her ear. She glanced as much as possible over her shoulder to see a young man behind her, and then with her hands she felt that his arm was grasped tightly around her waist. Upon further inspections she realized that they were able to fly in the air as he was holding onto something that appeared like a rope.
"I'm letting go now, watch out!" He cautioned with a tone that was so matter-of-fact and before she could even say something he had let go of the rope and the two of them sailed down to the solid earth below them. He seemed to land what could only be described as a perfect landing while she on the other hand, as soon as his arm released from her waist had a hard time keeping her feet on the ground and fell onto her bottom. She made quite the thud, but was nonetheless happy to be on unyielding ground and no longer in the mysterious and beyond scary lake.
"Are you all right?" He asked her as he reached out his arm to her and helped her back onto her feet. For the moment she was speechless and so she just nodded slightly.
In the next moment a scuffle of sound approached them and through the surrounding foliage came the horse she had met earlier. Upon seeing her safe, he snored out what could be interpreted as a sigh of relief and then said exasperation in his voice,
"Oh lady, I am so pleased you are safe! Master you sure know how to show up at the right time!" The man walked over to the horse and patted his head affectionately, but then admonished him by saying,
"Christopher, why didn't you call me? That was a bit too close to call!"
"Master, I didn't believe you were close enough to help."
"Well, you're lucky that I was." He gave a stern look to both her and Christopher, making her feel like a scolded child. Dakota surveyed her peculiar surroundings. First, there was the forest that she appeared to now be in, definitely not the beach from where she had come, the weather itself was also much cooler and she was particularly aware now the lack of clothing she had on.
She also realized that her rescuer was a handsome man, who had golden, blond hair, green eyes, strong arms and shoulders that were covered by a simple green tunic, brown pants and a belt. His wardrobe was unquestionably something from the past, as no one in their right mind would wear something such as he was wearing in the twenty-first century, unless to a costume party.
She watched him some more as he fiddled with some of the gear that was attached to Christopher's saddle and she decided that she liked the way that his green tunic brought out the colour in his eyes. He looked at her inquisitively while his horse, which she could now see was a soft caramel in colour, had a definite look of concern in his eyes, something she would expect to see in a human and not in an animal.
She began to feel very overwhelmed at the whole situation, where she was the company that surrounded her, which included a talking horse of all things... a talking horse, she thought in amazement. And with that last thought she did something she had never done in her entire life, she fainted.
Dakota could feel the warm sun on her face along with a cool breeze rush across her body. She smiled slightly, how nice it is to be able to take a nap on the beach in the sun, and what an interesting dream she had. She opened her eyes expecting to look over and see Leslie lying beside her in a lounge chair, what she saw was a big snout in her face and a large waft of horse breath as he yelled out,
"Master, she's awake!" She turned her head away from the snout and pushed herself up off the ground to see that she wasn't in the same crowded forest as before, there were still trees that surrounded them, but they weren't as bunched at the top, as the sun was now able to peek its way down to her and warm up her body. She also noticed that she wasn't as cold any more and looked down to her body to see that she was now covered in some kind of cloak. A small wooden cup was handed to her and a voice came from above.
"Here, drink." She pushed her body the rest of the way up and looked over to the man who still had a look of concern on his face, for her. At first she took a small sip, it almost tasted sweet, it was the most refreshing, clean tasting water she had ever put to her lips. She greedily gulped down the rest of the water.
"I didn't realize I was so thirsty," she blushed. "Thank-you." She thought back to all the drinks her and Leslie had consumed during lunch and realized that her body was probably dehydrated. He nodded at her and took the cup,
"I'll get you some more." He then simply walked over to a small creek and dipped the cup into it and handed it back to her. This time she sipped at it more slowly, while she took in her surroundings, a little more sober this time. He sat down across from her and commented,
"I am guessing you're not from around here. I'm Blaine and this is my horse Christopher, who I am assuming you have already met?" She nodded slowly. He looked at her expectantly. After a moment he finally asked. "And you are?" She closed her eyes at her foolishness.
"I'm Dakota." She reached out her hand, meaning to shake his hand, however he misunderstood and thought that she was reaching out as she wanted to stand and so grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet, which in turn as she wasn't expecting to be pulled up at the moment fell right into him and her cup full of water tipped out all over him. Once again, embarrassed at her foolishness, she mumbled out an apology and then tried unsuccessfully to wipe the water off with her hands. He eyed her strangely and she stopped what she was doing only to leave her hands on his very muscular chest.
Wow, she thought without really thinking and then realized what she was doing. Remove you hands you silly girl. She peeled her hands away from his chest and wiped them off on the cloak that was hanging precariously about her body, causing it to slip to the ground down to her feet. This time she could have sworn that his face blushed. He turned his eyes to the sky and tried hard to look her in her eyes when he talked.
"So, tell me, what were you doing in the Lake of Iggy? Wearing nothing more than... well, what you're wearing?" This time she knew she saw his cheeks blush a slight crimson. "Are you not familiar that this is called the Lake of Iggy for a reason?"
"Well, you said so yourself, I'm not from around here. It's not like I decided to go for a swim in this lake, on purpose!"
"Someone forced you into the lake then?" Blaine shook his head, trying to make sense of the situation."
"No, no one forced me into the lake, I arrived there... by accident I guess you could say."
"You fell in then?"
"No, actually, I sort of swam up into it, if you can believe that?" Blaine looked over to his horse Christopher who was watching the conversation intently.
"You dove in and then swam up to the surface?" Christopher attempted. Dakota felt her cheeks flushing out of frustration now.
"Well, no, was swimming somewhere else, under water, I suppose a current pulled me really far, because when I came up to the surface I was in this lake. I just never imagined a lake to be connected to the sea." She pointed in the direction from where she thought the lake was, only to realize she was all turned about and wasn't sure of anything anymore. Once again Blaine and Christopher exchanged looks.
"What?" She was beginning to get really frustrated. "What is it? Why do you keep looking at each other like that? You think this is funny? I know how this all appears... and how the hell is it that I am talking to a horse, don't you think that perhaps that is the crazy part in this whole situation, not the crazy lady who ended up in a lake?" She flipped her hands up in exasperation.
"Calm down my lady, calm down," Christopher began. "It's no that we're keeping secrets from you, it's just that this sort of thing doesn't normally happen, in fact it's more of a rumour than an actual reality." He didn't comment on the fact that he was indeed a talking horse.
"He's right; in fact the last time a situation like this occurred was over a century ago. So if we're having a bit of a hard time believe your story, it's just that..."
"Just that what? You think I'm lying to you?"
"To be honest, my lady. I don't believe that you are?" Christopher said. Now it was Blaine and Dakota's turn to exchange glances. Even she wasn't believing what she was saying to be true. The horse continued. "Master, there I was eating some grass, waiting for your return, when she did indeed seem to appear from under the surface. She couldn't have been there very long otherwise Iggy would have likely spotted her sooner." Blaine nodded slightly, possibly conceding.
"True. Well, this is an unfortunate situation for you and I would like to hellp you, really I would..."
"What do you mean you would like to help me?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing. And to think I thought he was handsome, unbelievable jerk...
"He... usually charges a fee for his services.." Christopher answered for his master who was starting to look sheepishly away once again. She became so disgusted, she pulled on the strap of her bikini, drawing his eyes down to her attire,
"Well as you can see, I don't have much and I am kind of stranded here. I suppose I'll have to go and find someone else to help me. Thank-you good sir, you saved my life so I will not be ungrateful, thank-you horse, Christopher it was nice knowing you even if it was for but a short while!" Blaine's eyes bulged out of his head at the sight of her stomping away, the cloak in a pile on the ground, and her fists clenched in anger at her sides. He reached down and picked up the cloak then looked over in disbelief at his horse who in return eyed him pleadingly.
"Don't look at me like that Christopher," he whispered. "You know I can't, she doesn't have anything for us, we'd have to feed her, clothe her, and take her to you know who! Who I might mention will not be the happiest to see me, especially since our last visit..."
"Do what you must." The horse responded, but he turned his head away from his master in such a profound way that Blaine rolled his eyes up to the sky and resigned with a loud sigh.
"Fine, but don't you dare complain to me when you have to carry two of us on your back!" And with that he ran after Dakota not knowing that this very decision woudl change both of their lives forever.