Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Digimon. The only characters I own are Armahn and Shaedra.
Watery, pink-tinted sunlight filtered down to cloak the shoulders of the young swordsman, the only person in the garden to see it. It was early in the morning, too early for the light to carry any real warmth. The most it could do was gently push back a few of the paler shadows and separate the thin morning fog from the rest of the darkness. It seemed to particularly like the edge of the swordsman's blade, flickering along its length and making it glow with a light that was almost magical.
Gennai allowed himself a smile as he continued his practice. He had been up before the sun, as usual, and had been working well past dark the night before. The difference today was that, for once, he was not working. There had been a time when he'd been slightly famous for his skill with a blade, but that was long behind him now. Now he was just practicing for the joy of movement, the pride of knowing he hadn't lost his old skills. It would have been more fun if he'd actually had a real opponent to compete against, but still, he couldn't complain. Just having a few spare minutes to spend as he chose was a blessing.
He finished his routine and let himself relax slowly, taking stock of his physical state, evaluating whether or not he still had the energy left to complete another pattern-dance before he began his work again. He hadn't had the time to practice for a while, and he was not completely sure of his endurance. A moment of consideration, combined with the lure of the early morning sunlight and stillness, convinced him it would be no great loss if he stayed a moment longer. He turned to begin a new set of moves, and a small wave of dizziness washed over him.
That gave him pause. Why should he be dizzy? He knew he'd spent too much time working lately - a large and complex system had suffered a malfunction, forcing him to spend the better part of a week making it work again. There hadn't been a lot of time left to do anything but hunch over the heaps of wires and circuitry, but surely he shouldn't be so tired as to feel faint just because he'd gotten out and moved around a bit.
Well, maybe it was just the weather. Even so, he decided that perhaps going back inside would have some advantages, after all. He sheathed the sword and turned to carry it back inside. The motion sent his head spinning again - not badly, just enough to make him feel disoriented and lightheaded for a heartbeat or two. It wasn't even an unpleasant sensation, really, but he was beginning to dislike it. He walked slowly back inside, trying to be careful not to trigger whatever had happened to him again.
*I hope I'm not getting sick,* he thought, with a bit of annoyance. Besides having too much to do to comfortably afford him even a single day off, he disliked the knowledge that he was incapacitated.
Well, it would be easy enough to know for sure. His comrades may have sent him to this world with the idea that he would be taking care of himself, but they hadn't expected him to do without everything. Since he wasn't native to the Digital World, most of its common diseases didn't affect him, but there were still a few left over that could occasionally put him out of commission, making it worthwhile to give him access to decent medical care. He walked slowly through his house toward a little-used room, containing what appeared to be a large computer and a shelf containing several bottles, jars, and other odds and ends. A flip of a switch brought the computer to life. While it was warming up, he inspected the shelves and took down a small sterile blade.
"I hate when I have to do this," he muttered, peeling the blade out of its protective wrapping. "Still, better to know early than to let things go..."
With a grimace, he pricked the tip of one finger and let a drop of blood fall into a small plastic cup. This was carefully placed on a small drawer, like a miniature CD tray, and fed into the machine. Gennai stood back, watching the computer do its work. This computer was programmed to search for any impurities in his bloodstream, from germs to poisons. If there was anything there that shouldn't be, it would identify it. All he had to do was wait for its verdict, and then, if it turned out he was sick, take whatever measures would best see him on the road to wellness.
The computer finished what it was doing and gave a small chirping noise, announcing that the program was complete. A list of findings showed on the screen. Gennai skimmed it. Then he read it more carefully. Once again, wave of dizziness washed over him, and this time, he could have said with certainty that it was not the weather that made him feel suddenly sick.
It was a pleasant day in the Odaiba district, the kind of crisp fall day that invites everyone to get outside and enjoy themselves before winter fully set in. It was also a good day for a soccer game, so a few of the Chosen Children had arranged themselves into ragtag teams, while others gathered around to watch and chat.
Hikari was half-dozing beneath a tree. She was not watching the game - listening was enough to tell her that Daisuke and Ken were jointly running rings around everyone else. Instead, she looked up at the sky, watching the red leaves above her spin gently to the ground. It was soothing, watching the ground be slowly covered, as if the trees were gently tucking in the earth for its long winter sleep. She should not have felt nervous about anything.
"Something is going to happen today," she murmured.
"Hmm?" said Tailmon, the only one who was close enough to hear.
"Something is going to happen," she repeated, this time more firmly. A few of the other nearby children turned to look at her. "I can - I can almost hear it, like something big coming from a long way off."
"What, are we going to have to save the world again?" asked Yamato lazily. On a peaceful day in the park, it was hard to get worked up over anything, even one of Hikari's premonitions.
"I don't think so," she answered slowly, "but something's not right. I think... I think someone we care about is in danger..."
"Who would that be?" asked Koushiro. He sounded more curious than scornful, but then, that was his nature. "Most of our group is right here, and there doesn't seem to be any danger... I guess it could be Mimi... or maybe... part of our families?"
"Or a Digimon," Wormmon suggested. He was watching the game from the safety of the sidelines; just because his partner liked arduous activities like soccer didn't mean Wormmon did.
"Should I be taking this seriously?" Iori asked of no one in particular.
"I would, if I were you," answered Jyou. "If you don't, you'll regret it later. That's how things usually happen."
"Well, I know Hikari's sensitive," said Iori defensively. "I just don't know if I buy that she's... psychic or something."
"I don't know if I do, either," Hikari admitted. "Maybe I'm just imagining things."
"You know you aren't," said Tailmon, flicking her ears in annoyance. "If you feel something's wrong, it's wrong."
Hikari opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by a beeping noise. Automatically, all those who had them reached for their D-Terminals. The soccer ball rolled into a clump of bushes and vanished from sight as the players crowded around each other, trying to read the message that was being broadcasted. It read simply:
Please transprt to Digital World right away. I need to speak to you on a matterof great improtance. - Gennai
The children stared, puzzled.
"Since when does Gennai misspell words?" asked Koushiro.
"Since just now, I guess," Taichi replied, shrugging off the matter. "You've got your computer with you, haven't you?"
"I never leave home without it," Koushiro replied. He retrieved his bag from where he'd left it and fished out his laptop. This particular one was an upgraded model from the one he'd used on his early digital exploration. This one had been designed specifically for the purpose of transporting things to and from the Digital World. No one could forget the trouble caused when random Digimon appeared in the Real World, and he had wanted to make sure any that showed up could be dispatched as quickly as possible. Now he booted it up and ran the transportation program.
"Interesting," he murmured.
"What is?" asked Daisuke, who was craning over his shoulder.
"He's got my program all locked up. We can't go anywhere but where he wants us to go. Gennai sure does stay on top of things!"
"Or he's worried," said Takeru quietly.
"Well, we'll ask him when we get there," said Taichi. "Let's go!"
They went. Credit had to be given to Koushiro - traveling was much easier than it had once been. All it took to reach the Digital World was a flash of light, a moment when gravity seemed to release them for an eyeblink, and suddenly they were standing in Gennai's living room. Seconds later, there was a second flash, and a confused-looking Mimi made her entrance as well. She looked around, opened her mouth as if to ask something, and then saw Gennai and shut it again.
The sage himself was leaning back in an armchair, watching them. He was wearing the form that the youngest Chosen Children knew best, that of a handsome young warrior, rather than the old man's shape he had taken to meet his first students. Somehow, he still managed to look older now than he had then. There was something gaunt about his face, something haunted about his eyes, that made everyone looking at him suddenly feel an internal lurch of worry.
"Gennai, are you okay?" Miyako asked. "You look... pale."
"Sit down and I'll explain," he said quietly.
Puzzled, the children and their Digimon did as they were told, finding places on the sofas and chairs that circled the room, or settling down on the carpet. Hikari, who was sitting closest to him and had the best view, decided that her friend was right - Gennai did look pale. There was a faint sheen of sweat on his face, though the air here was as autumn-crisp as it had been at home. There was a moment of tense silence as everyone settled in and waited to hear why they had been summoned. Gennai didn't look keen to begin.
"Well?" said Taichi, when no one had spoken for a while. "What's up? It's got to be big, if it's got you this rattled. Is there trouble again?"
"It's... not as big as some things you've been through," Gennai replied. "It's just something of a rather more personal nature, for me. I had a bit of a shock this morning... I don't know how to tell you this, but... the odds are good that..." He swallowed hard. "... I'm dying."
There was a general outcry. Daisuke's voice rose above the others: "But you don't look that bad!"
Gennai gave a rather weak smile. "It's not that bad yet. I only started feeling it this morning. It will get worse. That much I can be sure of."
"But what's wrong?" asked Ken. "Are you sick?"
"Yes. It's a disease native to my people that sweeps by every decade or so. We call it the dream fever," he replied.
"If it's that common, there should be a cure," said Koushiro. "Isn't there?"
"Not in this world, or the Real World," Gennai replied. "As I said, the disease is native to my home world, not this one. I never thought I would come in contact with it here, nor did anyone else. Therefore, I don't have the materials to treat it."
"Then how'd you catch it in the first place?" Yamato asked. "I mean, if it doesn't happen here... maybe you've made a mistake. Maybe it's something else."
"There is no mistake," Gennai replied. "As soon as I thought I might have the fever, I searched for its source. The fever is caused by a microbe, rather like a mold, that lurks in dark, damp spaces. I found traces of it in the packaging for parts I was shipped last week, to repair a machine that was broken. I've destroyed the packaging, but the damage has been done. I've already made certain that Digimon are immune to it - the microbe won't feed on pure digital matter - and I believe your systems are sufficiently different from mine that you can't catch it, but as for me..."
"Make them send you the cure," Miyako said. "Whoever's back in your world. You must be able to contact them if they sent you the machine parts."
"I've tried already. I received no answer. If things are bad enough that the disease can be shipped to me here, it must be running rampant there. The odds are, the health officials have their hands full keeping the disease contained there. I doubt they have the time or resources to waste on a single outpost guard who can't spread the disease to anyone else."
"So they're just going to let you die?" Iori yelped. "That - that's unjust!"
"It is necessary," said Gennai. "The greatest need must be attended to first. For all I know, the Gatekeeper himself is dead of it and can't get my message, or he's too sick to deliver it. I may yet survive - even without the medicine I have a nine in ten chance..."
"We'll get it," said Taichi. "If they won't send the cure here, we'll just go there and get it."
"No," Gennai replied. "I forbid you to even think about it. The Nexus World is not meant for humans or Digimon."
"Then what did you call us here for?" Daisuke demanded angrily. "Just so we can sit around twiddling our thumbs while we watch you die?"
"I thought you'd like to be warned instead of just turning around one day and finding I'm not there," Gennai snapped back. "Look. No one has more respect for your courage and intellects than I do, but even a group of children as remarkable as you would be hard-pressed to survive the Nexus World. I was hard-pressed to survive it, and I was born there. It takes most people the first ten years of their lives to learn to navigate their own homes safely. I will not let you go there."
"You're exaggerating," said Miyako flatly.
"I am not. Listen. My world - the Nexus World - it isn't like the world you know. Even this world, as different as it is, still obeys the same rules you're used to, for the most part. Gravity still draws you toward the earth, the sun still rises in the morning and sets at night, inanimate objects keep their same forms. The Nexus World isn't like that. It borders on the edges of many worlds, and lies closest to the Dream World. Any conscious being who enters that world will be subjected to waking dreams any time their attention wanders. Without proper training, it is next to impossible to know whether what you're seeing in front of you is really there. It is possible to wander into a dream world and become so involved in it that you walk out a window, or have yourself killed by an enemy believing it to be a friend, or starve to death without ever knowing you're hungry."
"We've handled dreams before," said Daisuke.
"Not like these," Gennai replied. "The ones you fought in the Dream World were BelialVamdemon's, not your own. These dreams would come from yourself. They will be much more difficult to fight, because they will come naturally from your own minds... all of your minds," he added, with a telling glance at the Digimon. "Even if you managed to survive any length of time there, the odds of your being able to find a cure in time are staggering."
"It doesn't matter," said Hikari. "We should try anyway. You know you really can't stop us. You know we'll figure out a way to do it somehow."
He gave her a long look. He still seemed as if he wanted to argue, but perhaps he was sicker than he looked, because he finally sighed and shook his head.
"You're right about that, anyway," he said.
"Right," said Miyako, "so you'd better stop telling us about how we can't and start thinking of ways we can."
"You," aren't going," he said. "You're entirely too prone to letting your mind wander even in the real world. If someone has to go, it will have to be someone who has a bit more control over themselves."
Miyako colored a bit and subsided.
"That wasn't an insult," he assured. "Actually, it might be wiser if only a few went. If I'm going to be laid up for any amount of time, I'll need help running this place, and if you get in trouble, you'll have someone in reserve to send a rescue." Seeing that she still didn't look entirely comforted, he said, "Actually, I'd prefer you to be here. We'll need your computer skills to keep this place running. You'll be most useful here."
She looked marginally mollified by that. "So, if I can't go, who can?"
"Hm." Gennai closed his eyes a moment, looking thoughtful. "Perhaps... a group of four, and their partners. That will be enough. Too many at once would be awkward... All right. Are you are least listening to me enough to let me say who can go, or are you going to chose among yourselves?"
"We listen to you," said Sora. "We listen when you're being sensible, and not trying to be noble and self-sacrificing instead of letting people help you."
Gennai opened his eyes to look at her.
"Just for that, I'll make you stay here," he said. "All right... Iori."
The youngest of the Chosen Children jumped. He looked at his mentor apprehensively.
"You of all the Chosen have the most disciplined mind," said Gennai. "If anyone can go to the Nexus World and manage, it will be you. I'll trust you to keep everyone in line, understand?"
Iori nodded. "I'll do my best."
"I know you will. And just to be sure... Koushiro, you're going along as well."
"Me, sir?" he asked. "Are you sure? I'll be the first to admit, I do kind of lose track of reality once in a while..."
There was a small, incredulous cough from somewhere in the room. Koushiro looked around and saw nothing but innocent faces. Gennai responded as if he hadn't heard.
"Nevertheless," he said, "you still prefer to know the truth in all situations. You never stop testing and questioning the things going on around you. I doubt even the most beguiling fantasy would hold you for long. Besides, even if the Gatekeeper is unavailable, you should still be able to operate the portal equipment well enough to get your friends home."
Koushiro nodded; that, at least, was something he couldn't argue with.
"Now, let's see, who else can we send..."
Daisuke cleared his throat in what he seemed to think was a non-intrusive sort of way. V- mon copied his example. Everyone turned to look at him, and he looked back with an expression of utter guilelessness in his eyes.
"What?" he said, blinking innocently.
"Daisuke," said Gennai, "you wouldn't happen to want to go to the Nexus World, would you?"
"Well, I wasn't going to say anything, but since you bring it up..."
Gennai shook his head resignedly. "Well, it's no use arguing. Once Daisuke Motomiya makes up his mind... Then again, maybe it's not such a bad idea. He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'impossible'."
"I do to!" said Daisuke indignantly.
"Quiet, Daisuke," Miyako hissed at him. "That was a compliment, not an insult to your vocabulary."
"I was gonna say 'impossible' was a word made up by people too lazy to try anything," Daisuke muttered.
"Good enough," said Gennai. It was uncertain whether he'd heard their whispered conversation or not. "So that's three. We need one more... someone to lead this expedition... Ah! Of course. I know exactly who to choose..."
At these words, Taichi could be seen to stand a bit straighter and run a hand through his hair.
"Miss Hikari Yagami."
Taichi spluttered in surprise. "My sister?"
"Yes," Gennai answered. "Hikari, do me a favor... go to that cabinet over there and look at the back of the top shelf. I think there should be a gray box up there. Get it and take it down."
Puzzled but obedient, Hikari crossed the room to the cabinet he'd indicated. It was an impressive structure, nearly seven feet tall, made of elaborately carved wood painted with subtle designs in black and gold. It was so large that she had to drag over a footstool to be able to reach the top shelf. Pushing back a collection of dusty boxes, tarnished metal devices, and other peculiar odds and ends, she found the box and brought it forth. It was an unprepossessing thing, about the size of a deck of cards and covered with some clothlike material, rather like the kind of boxes jewelry came in. It was oddly heavy for its weight.
"Go on, open it," Gennai urged her. "It's a present... I was planning on giving it to you someday, anyway."
That remark made the rest of the room curious as well, and everyone tried to scoot closer to Hikari so they could watch her open her gift. She gently pried the lid open, making its hinges squeak softly in protest. Inside the box was a wad of something that looked like gray satin, soft and shiny. Unraveling it, she revealed what looked like a crystalline rock fixed to a gold chain. It was uncut, unpolished, still showing faint natural cracks and traces of other minerals running through it. Its basic shape was that of a flattened hexagon, about twice the size of her thumbnail and about a centimeter thick. If she'd seen it in someone's driveway, she might not have given it a second look. Now she lifted it to the light to examine it. As it brushed her fingers, it began to shimmer gently, as if it had tiny blue and pink fireflies inside.
"It's pretty," said Hikari approvingly. "What is it?"
"Well, if any of your friends in the Real World ask about it, it's a natural rock crystal you found while you were on vacation in the mountains," answered Gennai, "but between us here, it's called a Clearstone. It was mine when I was much younger. My people use them to help us distinguish what's real and what isn't. Clearstones are the only materials that can't be effected by the Nexus World's powers. They will always appear exactly as they are, as will anything viewed through such a stone. However, if that were all it did, I could just as easily give it to one of your other friends.
"Hikari, you've probably already noticed that there is something... different about you. You see things that other people don't see. It's been that way for years, hasn't it? And it's gotten stronger the older you get. I'd wager these days, you've started noticing other things. Maybe you've known something about someone just by looking at them. Maybe you've been having hunches. Is this true?"
"Yes," she said slowly. "I had one today. I had a feeling someone important to us was in trouble, and I was right."
Gennai winced, but continued anyway.
"Well... these abilities of yours... you've probably already guessed that you have some of what your world calls psychic ability. Where I come from, we'd call you a Sensitive - someone who is attuned to what's going on around her to a remarkable degree. These crystals have been known to enhance such ability. I had my doubts about giving it to a small child - even such a remarkable child as you - but I think you're old enough to make proper use of it now... and seeing as how I have all the psychic powers of your average mud puddle, I thought you would find it more useful than I do."
"Are you sure?" asked Hikari, eyeing it doubtfully.
"Of course. Go ahead, put it on. Play with it. It can't hurt you or anyone else, and I doubt you can break it unless you purposely hit it with a hammer or something," he said. "Even then, it's nothing rare or powerful, so it's no great loss if you lose it. It will probably do you some good."
Hikari shrugged but offered no objections. She slipped the chain over her neck, and the crystal gave a few small swirls of light, like a cat turning around a few times before going to sleep, and became just an ordinary bit of crystal.
"Well, I suppose that's that, then," said Gennai with a sigh. "I would really prefer you didn't put yourselves through this, but if you insist, I'll give you what advice I can. The first thing you will need to do is find the Gatekeeper, Armahn. He's an old grouch and has been since before any of you were born, but he's one of the few people I know for certain you'll be able to find. At any rate, he should know his way around. Find him and tell him you need the skyflower serum from the... let me think... try the Cenbrodius Center of Healing - they're less likely to ask any questions you won't be able to answer. Don't go blabbing my name around. If anyone asks, just tell them the medicine is for a sick friend, and don't let anyone pressure you into telling anything more."
"Why can't we use your name?" asked Koushiro.
"It's too complicated to explain," Gennai answered evasively. "Anyway, as long as you're there, I'll expect you to be on your absolute best behavior. My people don't take kindly to strangers as a general rule, and they frown on a lot of, er, horseplay. Don't talk too loud. Don't get into anything that's none of your business. Don't try to start conversations with people on the street. Address everyone you meet with respect. Actually, all things considered, I think you might do best to let Iori do most of your talking for you."
"Iori never talks," Daisuke muttered.
"That's what I mean," Gennai answered calmly. "Well... I can't think of much else to tell you. You already know to be careful... and try not to take too long. The time there and the time here doesn't run exactly the same. As best I can remember, it's about double speed in relation to this world. That being the case, I'd say you have... about three days."
"Three days?" Mimi squeaked. "You've only got three days?"
"Six, here. The disease usually runs its course in about a week, for good or ill. If they aren't back with the remedy in six days, they won't arrive in time to do any good. I'll either be on the mend already, or..." He trailed off and shrugged.
"We'll be back in no time," Daisuke asserted.
Gennai gave a weak smile. "I know. If anyone can do it, it's you all."
"Well... I guess we'd better get going," said Hikari, apparently not sure of her role of leader yet. "How do we get there?"
"There's a door... I'll show you." Gennai began to get up, but Sora and Miyako grabbed his arms and pulled him back again.
"You're not going anywhere," said Sora sternly. "You're sick, remember?"
He gave her a sour look, but didn't try to disobey them.
"Oh, all right," he said. "Go through that door there-" he waved at an archway on the far side of the room, "-and then take the fifth door on your left. Follow that hall all the way to the end, take the staircase down three floors. The transporter is behind the blue door. Just turn on the machine and push the button marked with a hexagon. Can you remember all that?"
"Maybe I'd better write it down," said Koushiro.
Gennai repeated the directions, while Koushiro scribbled them down on a stray sheet of notebook paper. Once they were sure they had them right, the little group prepared to leave.
"Don't worry about a thing," said Daisuke. "We'll be back before you know it!"
"Just be careful," Gennai told him.
"Come on, Daisuke," said Hikari. "If we hang around any longer, he'll just think of more reasons why we should stay here."
"Oh. Right." Daisuke picked up his pace to catch up with the others. They rounded a corner and vanished from sight.
Taichi took a deep breath and let it out.
"Well," he said, "I guess that's that taken care of. Now we've got to figure out what we're going to be doing for the next six days."
"There isn't much you can do," said Gennai, closing his eyes and settling back into his chair. "It's not likely you'll be able to keep in touch with them while they're in the Nexus World. You'll just have to wait for them to get back."
Taichi started to say something. Mimi stepped on his foot.
"I guess you're right," she said, a bit more loudly than was necessary. "Come on, let's leave him alone."
"What?" said Taichi, and then, as comprehension dawned, "Oh! Oh, yeah, you're right. Outside."
In various stages of confusion, they filtered out of the room, winding their way to the front door into the garden where their mentor had been practicing a short while earlier. Now they stood in a small bunch amid the ornamental streams and flowering shrubs as they tried to figure out what was going on.
"Would somebody tell me what that performance was all about?" asked Jyou irritably.
"Oh, isn't it obvious?" Mimi asked. "We weren't going to get anything done while he was listening to us. He'd just make everything difficult."
"Right," Sora agreed. "You heard him. He doesn't want to be helped right now."
"Why not?" asked Takeru. "I mean, you heard him - he's going to need all the help he can get!"
"Exactly," said Mimi. "That's why he doesn't want it?"
"I think I speak for all of us," said Taichi, "when I say, 'Huh?'"
"Oh, come on," said Miyako. "He's a big, strong, independent guy who's suddenly helpless. The last thing he wants is all of us hanging around reminding him of it and trying to take care of him. Face it, would you like it if that happened to you?"
"Well, I, uh..." Taichi scuffed his feet.
"Right," said Sora. "He'd rather suffer in private than be embarrassed by us trying to help him. So we're just going to have to help without his permission."
"You know, you might just be right," said Ken. "So, how are we going to help, then?"
"For starters, we can find out more about this bug he's got," said Jyou. "Maybe we can find a way to - I don't know, slow it down a little. At least we can make him more comfortable... and since I am kind of the medical expert in the group..."
"Right," said Taichi. "I appoint you the medial researcher. Go poke around in some of Gennai's books and things, and see what you can find out."
"Gennai said something about keeping the computers running," Miyako volunteered. "He already said he wanted me to do it. He can't change his mind about it now. I'll get him to tell us what to do."
"I'll help," Ken volunteered. "I'm still pretty good with computers. We ought to be able to handle it, between the two of us."
"That'll work," said Taichi. "As for the rest of us, I think we ought to be keeping a close watch on the rest of the Digital World. I mean, Gennai's been its guardian for a long time, and if word gets out that he's in trouble and we're putting all our energy into helping him..."
"There's no telling what kind of things will start stirring up trouble," Yamato finished. "You're right - some of us ought to be patrolling, just in case."
"I think we've got it settled, then," said Taichi. "Should we break the news to Gennai?"
"Let him figure it out," said Sora. "It will give him something to think about."
"Well, let's get it over with, then," said Jyou.
"Aw, don't talk like that, Jyou!" Gomamon piped up. "This is the last place for having a case of the glooms."
"You're right, you're right. Okay," said Jyou, squaring his shoulders as if taking on a heavy burden. "No being gloomy. I will be positive if it kills me!"
His assertion was followed by a ringing silence. A few people laughed nervously. Jyou blinked at them.
"What? What did I say?"
Hikari, Daisuke, Iori, and Koushiro stood in front of the doorway.
"Well, this is definitely it," said Koushiro, mostly to break the nervous silence that had fallen over them. "If I were going to build a door between two worlds, this is probably what it would look like."
Everyone else continued looking up at the door. It was really quite a pretty thing, made of what appeared to be brushed steel, curving up from the floor to form a delicate arch seven feet high, capped at its peak with what appeared to be a crystal similar to the one Hikari wore around her neck, though much larger and more polished. The inside of the archway was lined with something resembling neon tubing, glowing softly blue-white. Its roots were thrust into two metal platforms, which were in turn fixed to banks of computers covered in buttons, dials, and switches of a mystifying nature, enough machinery that the doorway was lifted a yard off the ground, with a short row of steps leading up to it. The air within the arch seemed to shift and warp, like waves of heat rising.
"Where is the button?" asked Iori, peering dubiously at the rows of knobs and keys.
"First we have to turn it on," said Koushiro. "I guess we'll just have to push likely-looking buttons until one works. We can't hurt it while it's turned off, can we?"
A brief search and a few false tries finally revealed a large blue oval, that, when pressed, caused a soft hum to come from within the computers. V-mon, who had found the button and pushed it, jumped backwards in surprise and nearly fell off the platform.
"Nice going," Koushiro congratulated him. "I think these must be the ones we're looking at next. Help me find the hexagon."
Everyone crowded around. Koushiro was bending over a row of dozens of white buttons, each one marked with a different shape and a bit of beautiful but illegible writing. One button, marked with a circle, had seen much use; others looked as if they'd never been touched. They pored over the switches a few moments before the hexagon was located in the upper right corner. Koushiro stared at it a moment before resolutely pressing it.
There was a rush like a high wind, and the light level within the gate increased. The shimmering heat waves turned into multicolored swirls like the surface of a bubble. Everyone stared a moment. Then Hikari took a breath, strode forward, and walked through the light. There was a flash and a noise like a small splash, and she was gone.
She stepped out onto soft grass, and looked around. She was standing in a meadow on the edge of a pine forest. A small brook trickled past her a few feet away. Small flowers bloomed at her feet, casting out sweet scents. The sky overhead was clear and blue, with only a few wispy clouds floating lazily across it. Birds sang somewhere. She caught her breath in wonder...
*If something is too good to be true, it probably is,* said a voice in her mind; it sounded a lot like Tailmon's. Hikari's partner had spent too many years in Vamdemon's service to completely share Hikari's rosy view of the world, and sometimes her view of the world was the more accurate of the two. Thinking of her, Hikari cast around and realized Tailmon was missing. Sensing trouble, Hikari reached for her crystal and peered through it.
The trees, the grass, the stream, and the sky all vanished. Now all Hikari saw were rows of what looked like large cardboard crates. There was stone under her feet, not grass, and there was nothing visible overhead but the metal beams of a tall roof. Looking beside her, she could see the rest of her friends standing stock-still and staring at things only they could see. Experimentally, she put down the crystal and was relieved to see that the scene stayed put; apparently the world would behave as long as she knew exactly what she was supposed to be seeing. She walked closer to her friends to see if she could wake them up as well. Even as she watched, Koushiro's rapt expression turned to confusion, and he reached for something that wasn't there. Apparently he was disappointed; he frowned, closed his eyes tightly, and opened them again. His eyes focused on Hikari.
"That was a bit bizarre," he said.
Next to him, Tentomon seemed to have decided he'd landed on something solid. He stopped flapping his wings and fell down with a bump.
"Ouch," he said. He shook himself. "Hey, where did everything go?"
"Well, that's one way to wake up," said Koushiro with a hint of a smile.
They set about waking the others. Iori came around as soon as Hikari laid a hand on his shoulder, but Armadimon had to be shaken and shouted at for a few minutes before he finally came around, and even then he seemed uncertain and distracted. Waking Tailmon was relatively simple, but apparently whatever her dreams had been, they hadn't been pleasant, and she hung closer to Hikari than usual while the others were being revived. Daisuke and V-mon, on the other hand, seemed to have been enjoying themselves, and were somewhat annoyed at being informed that they were actually standing in a dusty warehouse instead of enjoying whatever was going on in their dreams.
"Anyway," said Daisuke, after he had finished complaining about being awakened, "how do I know you're real? How do I know what I just came from wasn't real and you aren't the dream?"
"If you think like that, we'll never get out of here," said Koushiro in exasperation. He took a deep breath, presumably to start listing off reasons why Daisuke wasn't dreaming, but Hikari stopped him.
"Let me do it," she said. She turned to Daisuke. "Hey, Daisuke, do you know what I think of you?"
He eyed her warily. "What?"
"I think you're the stubbornest, most loud-mouthed, arrogant, brain-dead jerk I've ever met!"
Daisuke cringed. Everyone else stared at her.
"Hikari, what did you say that for?" asked Iori, aghast.
"Actually, I didn't mean a word of it," said Hikari. "Really, Daisuke, I think you're very nice. It's just... if you were dreaming, I wouldn't have said any of that, would I? If this were a dream, I'd probably be telling you how wonderful I think you are. Since I'm not, I must be real. Right?"
"That almost made sense," said Daisuke. "Okay, okay, I believe you're real... So, you didn't really mean any of that stuff you said?"
"Not a word of it," she assured him.
"Just checking," he said. "Just next time, find some other way to convince me, okay?"
She smiled. "Sure."
"So if we're done deciding if we're awake or not?" said Iori.
"I think we are," said Koushiro. "So... now that we're on the same page, I guess we ought to be looking for the Gatekeeper... what was his name again?"
"Armahn," said Iori.
"Right," said Hikari, nodding. "Gennai talked like he'd be somewhere nearby... maybe he's supposed to work in here somewhere?"
Everyone looked around. The warehouse was a massive place, piled with mountains of boxes and crates, and they could see evidence of doors to other wings. Walkways above their heads hinted of even more spaces where a lone Gatekeeper might be hidden. It was all very bleak; other than the piles of crates waiting to be shipped, there didn't seem to be even a stray speck of dust in evidence. The overall impression it gave was an intimidating one, and the idea of exploring it all was not appealing. However, as they stood there staring, they heard a distant rustling sound, as of something moderately heavy being moved. It was exactly the kind of noise that would be made by someone shoving a few crates around.
"Do you hear that?" asked Koushiro.
The others nodded.
"Well, if we all hear it, it's probably real," said Iori.
They set out in the direction of the noise, detouring only to avoid the towering piles of boxes. Eventually, they found signs of life: a man was standing amid a pile of packing crates, busily filling them with bits of machinery and other odds and ends, working with the brisk efficiency of long practice, plus a certain frantic expression that hinted he was working behind schedule. He was so caught up with his work that it was several minutes before he realized several persons and creatures were walking towards him. When he didn't react, the children nudged Iori forwards. He glared at his friends.
"Go on," Daisuke hissed. "Gennai said you were gonna do the talking, remember?"
Iori didn't look like he liked being reminded of this, but he took a breath and stepped forward. When he was standing almost next to the man, he cleared his throat. The man looked up so suddenly he dropped whatever he'd been about to put in his box, and the item fell to the floor with a crunch.
"Now look what you made me do!" he barked. "What are you doing here, anyway? You aren't authorized to be here!"
"I'm sorry, sir," said Iori, bowing politely. "We were just hoping you could tell us where to find Armahn the Gatekeeper."
"You've found him. Congratulations," said the man acerbically "Now, did you have some particular business, or are you going to go away and let me work?"
"Please, sir - we need help, and we were told to talk to you..."
"It's not my job to help people," said Armahn stiffly.
"But this is important!" Iori protested. "We were sent by - by our friend," he said, remembering almost too late that Gennai had told them not to use his name. "He's sick, and the cure can only be found in this world. We have to get the skyflower serum, and we only have three days. You don't have to help us much - just tell us how to get to the Cenbrodius Center of Healing. We'll do the rest."
Armahn looked up from his work and stared at them for a long while. For the first time, the children could clearly see his face. In his clothing and basic build, he bore a passing resemblance to their mentor: he was a lean, strong-looking man, dressed in a long, gray, hooded cloak, tied at the waist with a brown cord. His face, however, could hardly have been more different. He had dark, glinting eyes, the kind that seemed to be taking in every detail of their surroundings, a hooked nose, and a thin, pursed mouth. His brow was furrowed as from much frowning and worrying, and his sunken cheeks were only partly disguised by a short black beard. He didn't look like the kind of man you could go to asking for help. His gaze fell on the Digimon, and his frown deepened.
"Those are Digimon," he said. "You've come from the Digital World, then? You must be the Chosen Children from the Material World. Is that so?"
"Yes, that's right," Iori agreed.
"Then am I right in guessing that Gennai sent you?"
"We volunteered, actually," answered Iori carefully. Until he was sure of why Gennai didn't want his name tossed around, he deemed it wisest not to admit more than he had to.
"You don't seem to trust me," said Armahn. "Let me set your mind at rest. I've known Gennai for years, long before he took up residence in the Digital World. We went to school together. As a matter of fact, we worked together to make the Digivices, Tags, and Crests. I'm quite familiar with you all and your work."
"So you'll help us, then?" asked Iori hopefully.
Armahn thought it over.
"I can't say it will be easy to get hold of the skyflower serum," he said slowly, "and I don't have a lot of time to spare... but if Gennai needs it, I suppose I'll have to help. You say you need to get to the Cenbrodius Center? That's closed this time of night. You won't be able to get in until tomorrow morning. Unless you're willing to go somewhere else, you'll have to wait."
"We'll have to think about it," said Iori.
The group went into a huddle.
"So, what do you think?" asked Daisuke. "I dunno if I like having to wait until tomorrow. That's a whole extra day we'd be keeping him waiting."
"But that's where we were told to go," Iori pointed out. "He wouldn't have told us to go there if he didn't have a good reason."
"He said we'd have the best chance there," Hikari said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't try other places."
"He said they wouldn't ask too many questions," said Koushiro thoughtfully. "He's got some reason for not wanting people to know he's in trouble now. If we go asking every place in the city for medicine, who's to say we might get him in some other kind of trouble?"
"This is Gennai's life we're talking about!" Daisuke objected. "What kind of trouble can he get into that's more important than that?"
"That's why I'm wondering why he's so worried about keeping this a secret," said Koushiro. "Look, Gennai, well... he does some pretty weird things sometimes, but he always has a good idea what's going on, and he's always got a reason for what he does. I say, if he wants us to go to the Cambrodius Center, then that's where we're better off going. We really don't know what we're doing out here. We don't know the rules of the world. He does. I think we ought to trust him."
"You're probably right," said Iori reluctantly. "It isn't like we know where else to go..."
"I don't like it," said Daisuke stubbornly.
"I don't like it either, but I think they're right," said Hikari.
"It shouldn't take that long to go to a hospital," Tailmon pointed out. "We'll get back in time."
"I hope so," she said. "Okay. So what will we do until tomorrow morning?"
Armahn, who had been listening to their conversation, said, "If you wish, I can let you stay in my home for the night. It's not very large, but it would be better than nothing."
"I think we can manage," said Daisuke. "We've had to stay in worse places."
"That's very kind of you," Iori said to Armahn. "We accept."
"Fine. Just wait until I've got these packages cleaned up," he answered.
"We can help," Daisuke offered, and V-mon nodded eagerly.
"I think not," Armahn said. "These are fragile, and they are best handled by one who knows what he is doing."
If the brush-off bothered Daisuke, he didn't show it. When some of the others glanced at him, he just shrugged and said, "Well, Gennai did say he was a grouch."
Armahn finished packing his boxes and stacked them against the wall, marking each one in a graceful, spiraling writing that the children couldn't read and didn't bother trying. This was not so much because they weren't curious or weren't willing to put forth the effort - everyone knew that Koushiro could have happily spent days trying to translate the unfamiliar letters. It was just that Armahn didn't seem to think what he was doing was any of their business, and conducted his work as if he thought they were spies sent to watch him. He went through a lengthy process of opening packages, inspecting their contents, and moving some of them to other boxes, which he would then mark and shove away. They watched as things that appeared to be tools, clothing, food, medicine, and almost everything else a person could need was crated and sorted. When at last he was finished marking the last crate, he turned silently to the children and began walking away. Not knowing what else to do, they followed.
"Get ready," Hikari whispered to the others.
"Ready for what?" Daisuke replied.
"Outside," she said. "Remember, the outside world will look like whatever we're expecting most. If we aren't careful, we could get lost before we ever make it to Armahn's house."
"I think you're right," said Koushiro, eyeing the man with faint distrust. "Somehow, he doesn't give me the impression of someone who would go out of his way to look for us if we got lost."
"Maybe we ought to hold hands?" Daisuke suggested hopefully.
Hikari gave him a look, and he met it with an expression of total innocence. She sighed.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt," she said, "and it might help. All right."
She took one of Tailmon's paws in one hand and grabbed Iori's with the other. He looked surprised for a moment, then almost smiled. He rested his free hand on Armadimon's shell. Koushiro did likewise, while Tentomon perched on his shoulder. Daisuke, bowing to the inevitable, took hold of Tailmon's free paw with one hand and V-mon's with the other. Both boy and Digimon looked positively sulky.
It took a long walk to make it out of the warehouse. Armahn didn't seem to be in any special hurry, and it took time for the chain of humans and Digimon to learn to walk without tripping over each other. The warehouse seemed to stretch on forever, a vast mountain range of crates, machines, and loading docks. From time to time, they would catch glimpses of open doors leading to rooms like they one they had left not long ago, with glowing arched doors leading to... who knew? Once they even saw a pair of white-robed men (or were they women? It was hard to tell through the hoods and cloaks) stepping through one and vanishing. There were a few other workers drifting around, dressed as Armahn was in gray and brown, but they moved silently without speaking and without looking at their otherworldly visitors, and seemed to fade into the shadows as long as no one looked directly at them.
At last, they reached a large, square door that seemed to be the main exit, judging mainly by the fact that there were more people moving in and out here than they had seen anywhere else. Hikari had Tailmon release her hand and grip the hem of her shirt instead, freeing Hikari to raise her crystal to her eye. She peered through it, eager for her first glimpse of the mysterious Nexus World.
She knew right away that she was seeing what was really there. Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that Gennai's home world looked like this. Actually, such a thing would have been technically impossible - only the tamest, most boring dream could have come up to this standard. She was looking out on a street of smooth gray pavement, like concrete, lined with boxy white buildings of fairly regular sizes and shapes, each one set with rectangular windows at regular intervals. That was it. There was no ornamentation, no street lamps, not even any signs or advertisements - only discreet labels carved into the stone above each door. The sky was a uniform foggy gray, and a mist hung over everything, making the world seem even duller and grayer than it already was.
"This is it?" Daisuke muttered, clearly disappointed. "This is Gennai's home?"
"Shh!" said Iori. "It's not polite to criticize other people's dimensions."
"This is boring," V-mon muttered.
Hikari didn't say anything, but she couldn't help feeling a little let down, all the same. It just didn't seem right, somehow. Oh, she supposed she couldn't understand the practicality of it all - why make anything unnecessarily detailed in a world like this? A little mental effort could make any building appear any way the viewer liked, and it was possible that anything too fancy would be harder to discern from a dream. It was probably best to keep everything simple. That much made sense. Her real complaint was something uncannily similar to Daisuke's - the reaction that this couldn't possibly be the world Gennai had grown up in. He just didn't seem to fit. He always seemed so eccentric, even playful. He would have stood out here like a clown at a funeral.
*No wonder he'd rather stay in the Digital World! I'll bet he left as soon as he could!*
Finally, just to rid herself of the uneasy feeling she got looking at the blank buildings, she concentrated on watching the people. There weren't very many of them, not compared to what downtown Tokyo looked like, but there were enough that the group was never alone in the streets. Hikari watched them, noting men and women, young and old, and guessing at who was rich or poor. The most common costume she saw was an ensemble consisting of a long tunic or jacket of some sort with a high collar, worn over loose pants. This outfit seemed to be favored by men and women alike, though the clothing the men wore seemed to have less decoration, while the women brightened theirs with fringes or ribbons or brightly colored buttons. Children wore only a long tunic that covered them from neck to ankles. A few wore robes like Armahn's or Gennai's, mostly gray or brown, with the occasional beige. Only once did she see another in a white robe, and when he passed, people moved to make way respectfully. Hikari filed these observations away for future reference. In a world where good manners seemed to be so important, it would be useful to know people's ranks.
She had hoped that what they had been walking through had simply been a run-down section of town - an industrial area, perhaps - but her hopes proved unfounded. The place Armahn led them to was, if anything, worse than the warehouse area. The buildings were smaller, for one thing, and what little daylight there was seemed to be fading, turning the world from gray and white to gray and black. It was harder to keep the dreams at bay when the shadows were closing around, and the children and their partners all twitched from time to time as they found themselves turning to look at things that weren't there. Armahn didn't seem to be bothered by them, leading them silently toward one of the smallest buildings and ushering them inside.
It was better inside. It was still dark, but the illusions seemed less inclined to show themselves in a confined space than they had been when they had been outside, with lots of bottomless shadows to hide in. In the dim light, the group could make out the inside of what looked like a kitchen, complete with a heavy round table in the middle of the room and a bulbous contraption that was probably a stove pushed against one wall. Armahn reached up and did something to a nest of wire, glass, and metal plates that was hanging from the ceiling, and the room was flooded with golden light. Now they could make out other details: a floor covered in multicolored tiles, many of them chipped, and faded stenciling on the walls.
"It isn't much," said Armahn. "I am not... I have never married, and my work keeps me too busy to spend much time here. You will find it rather barren, I'm afraid. Still, it is what I have to offer. I hope you'll be able to make yourselves comfortable for the night."
"I'm sure we will be," answered Iori courteously.
"Is there something I could get for you? Are any of you hungry?" Armahn asked.
None of them were. The day was growing late, and they were somewhat worn from their long day and dispirited by its events. They craved sleep. Armahn showed them to what might have once been an almost tolerable sitting room, long ago. Now it was faded and worn, its furniture threadbare, its tables and shelves devoid of decoration but covered in dust. The children and their partners settled down for what promised to be a long and cheerless night.
"Are we really going to be able to sleep here?" Tentomon complained. "This place isn't what I'd call hospitable."
"I can sleep anywhere," said Armadimon.
"I know you can," said Daisuke, "but what about the rest of us? Sleeping in a place like this is liable to give anyone nightmares."
"A good point," said Koushiro. "In this world, nightmares are liable to be a very bad thing. I think we ought to take turns standing watch. Otherwise, there's no telling if we'll ever wake up."
"Good idea," Hikari agreed. "I'll take first watch. I'm not really tired, and the crystal will keep me from wandering off in a daze."
The others agreed with this idea, and Tailmon said she'd sit up to keep her partner company. They all settled down, six of them to their rest and two to watch. Armahn had turned out the light in the kitchen. A few minutes later, Hikari heard him open and close the front door, and heard the crunch of his footsteps as he plodded off into the night. Where was he going, she wondered? Back to work? Perhaps to look for medicine for Gennai? Or did he have some other destination in mind? It would be very nice if they woke up tomorrow morning and found the medicine waiting for them, better than Christmas...
For a moment her mind was dazzled by an image of a Christmas tree - plastic, of course, but resplendent with tinsel and ornaments and lights - with a heap of presents piled beneath it. Her brother always got so excited about Christmas, not just because of the presents and the food, but because it was one of the few times when something truly magical happened, right in his own home...
Something brighter than the Christmas tree drew Hikari's attention, and she looked down at her crystal. When she looked up again, the scene was gone, and she sighed.
*That was close,* she thought. If she hadn't been carrying the crystal, who knew how long it would have taken her to come around? Late at night, when she was tired, it was easy to let her mind wander. She was beginning to see why Gennai said this place was too dangerous for someone without any preparation or training. She glanced over at Tailmon and saw that she was shivering, staring fixedly at some point above her head and trying to back away. Gently, Hikari touched her partner's shoulder and almost got a set of claws shoved into her arm. She pulled back quickly and held the crystal in front of Tailmon's eyes, and the Digimon gradually relaxed.
"Are you okay now?" Hikari asked her.
Tailmon lowered her eyes. "I thought I was back in Vamdemon's dungeons again. It's just so dark and dusty here..."
"Let's explore a little," Hikari suggested. "Maybe if we concentrate on looking at what's real, we won't start dreaming again."
Paw in hand, they began walking around the little house. It really was small, hardly more than four rooms, with stairs leading down to a basement and a folding ladder leading to an attic. Other than that, there was just this dusty sitting room, a barren kitchen, a bathroom devoid of personal items, and a bedroom that looked barely slept in. Hikari felt amazed, and faintly puzzled. How could anyone live like this? To her sensitive nature, something about the place radiated a deep sense of loneliness and loss. She felt sorry for Armahn; there were no happy memories in this place.
"This is depressing," said Tailmon, summing up Hikari's thoughts nicely.
"I know what you mean," the girl agreed. "Let's wake one of the others. I'm ready to get some sleep. Maybe one of us can dream up something better than this."
After some consideration of pros, cons, and the political and social situation, Hikari chose to wake Koushiro and passed him the crystal to keep him safe through the night. Then she and Tailmon curled up on the softest patch of rug they could find and closed their eyes, and dreams took them almost at once.
Gennai was somewhat dismayed to find his house taken over. Over the last few years, he'd gotten used to his role in this world - as something of a legend, mystical and eccentric, appearing when he felt like showing up and vanishing into the background as mysteriously as he'd arrived. He wasn't sure he liked having his students move in and take charge, but that was exactly what seemed to be happening, and he was unfortunately in no shape to do anything about it.
At the moment, Jyou was poring over the pages of a large book on medicine that he'd borrowed from Gennai's library. It was, he thought, a good thing that it was he who was doing the research and not Koushiro; it would have been difficult work keeping his friend from wanting a look at every tome in the library. Jyou, on the other hand, had already decided that this book was all he needed to look at, and if he had his way, he wouldn't even be reading this.
Taichi came into the room. He had gotten over his shock at seeing his little sister appointed to a position of authority, and was adapting very well to the situation - after all, she was doing her leading somewhere else, leaving him free to claim the position of local authority.
"Got anything yet, Jyou?" he asked.
"A bit," answered Jyou. "Have a look, if you want."
Taichi came over and peered over his friend's shoulder. The book was an old-looking thing, its words spread out in a strange typeface that was attractive to the eye, but he could make nothing of it.
"How can you even read this mess?" he asked. "I don't even know what language that is."
"It's not so bad, once you get the hang of it. See, it's just a weird-looking style of writing. There are one or two words I can't make out, but I can get the gist of it, and it's not that good."
"Well, let's have the bad news. What does it say?"
"Okay... this basically lists the symptoms of the dream fever, and its progression. It starts with a sense of dizziness and a mild fever. A day or so after that, a dry cough sets in. That gets progressively worse, and the fever starts rising. The patient goes through a period of sweating and chills for a while. After that, the fever and cough drop off, but a kind of delirium takes over. The patient starts hallucinating - that's why they call it the dream fever. After that... they get over it completely and get better, or they get over it completely and they don't get better. From what I can gather, it's not the microbe itself that causes the trouble. They secrete some kind of chemical that's poisonous to him. It's all a matter of whether or not he can stand the poison."
"Is there anything we can do for him, then?" Taichi asked.
"Without the medicine? Not a lot," said Jyou. "Mostly what it comes down to is whether or not he can fight off the infection faster than it can put out enough poison to do real damage. The thing is, though... he's not exactly human. I'm not one-hundred-percent sure how his physiology works. I hate to do too much and wind up hurting more than helping."
"Well, you're doing fine so far," Taichi assured him. "Just... you know, keep reading. Just in case."
Jyou shrugged and looked a bit sheepish, as if sorry he couldn't bring himself to be more definite. "I am pretty sure he ought to be resting. And something for him to drink wouldn't hurt, either."
"Gotcha. I'll tell the girls," said Taichi. "If they're lucky, maybe they can get him to listen."
Jyou nodded and went back to his book, completely bent on his work.
Continuing on his tour of duty, Taichi returned to the sitting room where he had last seen his mentor. The group suffered from a group feeling that, as one who was deathly ill, Gennai ought to be lying down. He had disagreed - he felt fine, he said, other than a bit of dizziness - and he saw no reason why he couldn't stay in his living room and watch the action, as long as he wasn't moving around too much. They had the feeling he was a bit embarrassed about the possibility of having to be helped to his room by the young people who were supposed to be his students, so they let him have his way.
On his way into the room, Taichi almost ran into Sora, who had been hurrying in the other direction.
"Oops!" she said. "Sorry, Taichi. I wasn't looking where I was going."
"That's okay," he said. "How's your patient?"
Sora made a wry face. "Impatient. He doesn't want to be helped, and he's making sure we know it. Not that he's being rude, but..."
"That's why you're looking after him and not us guys," said Taichi.
Mimi appeared to join the conversation. "That's not very PC, is it? Making us girls be nurses while you guys do all the other work."
"Hey, that's not true! Miyako's a girl, and she's down there doing all the computer stuff," said Taichi, holding up his hands in protest. "Besides... it's one thing for him a guy to let a girl take care of him, and another thing to let a guy take care of him. I know it's dumb, but that's just the way it works. If it was me or Yamato trying to take care of him, he'd throw a fit."
"And that's the last thing we need him doing," said Sora, nodding in reluctant acceptance. "I just wish I knew what I was doing. I've looked after my dad before, when he was down with the flu, but this is something different."
"Well, Doctor Jyou says for now, just stick with the usual sickbed routine - lots of rest and orange juice and all that stuff," Taichi replied.
"I don't think there's any orange juice around here," said Mimi.
"You know what I mean!"
"We'll find something," said Sora reassuringly. "How about I go look for something he can drink, and you can try to keep him calm?"
"Would you do it?" asked Mimi. "You're better at it than I am."
"All right. Just as long as it gets done."
"I'm outta my league," said Taichi. "I'm going to go check up on Ken and Miyako, and then I'll be back. Good luck, you two!"
It was a bit of a walk to his next destination. His only previous experience with Gennai's house had been a good five years ago, at least. He'd had quite a bit on his mind at the time, too much to pay a lot of attention to the layout, and his explorations had been limited to the few rooms Gennai had shown them. Now he and the rest of his friends were trying to learn their way around, with limited degrees of success. The place where their mentor lived seemed to have been put together more with imagination than by the laws of physics. The wings of the building twisted off in all directions, forming a mazy mess of hallways that turned at odd angles. Flights of stairs had been added in places that sometimes led up just to go back down again, or stopped at what appeared to be dead ends. Several floors were underground, accessible only by a particular elevator or hidden staircase. Taichi was already swearing that there were some doors that didn't always lead to the same place. Nevertheless, he eventually made it to the computer room where Miyako and Ken were taking stock of the situation.
"Are you two getting along okay?" Taichi said, putting his head through the door.
Miyako, her head halfway inside a complex-looking computer console, jumped. Her head struck the casing of the computer, and she swore her annoyance.
"Don't sneak up on me like that!" she scolded.
"I wasn't sneaking!" said Taichi.
"Um. I guess it's okay," Miyako replied, rubbing at her bruised skull. "I guess I'm just edgy."
"So, what are things like in here?" asked Taichi, stepping through the door and strolling around. "Man, this is a weird-looking place. Looks just like a science-fiction movie."
"I'm not that thrilled about it, myself," said Ken gravely. "It reminds me of someplace I've been before."
"It's only for a little while," Taichi assured him. "So what are you two doing, anyway?"
Ken brandished a clipboard, bearing several sheets of blue paper covered in Gennai's distinct curlicued handwriting. "Maintenance, mostly. He gave us a list of things that have to be checked on every so often - records of activity in the Digital World, assorted networks, interactions with the Real World and a few others - just about everything that's going on. If you know what you're doing, it's not so bad, but there's so much of it! This is going to be an around-the-clock operation."
"It would be better if I could get this thing to work," said Miyako from the depths of the computer. "He would have to get sick in the middle of making repairs. I'd like to meet the guy who designed this hunk of junk and have a few words with him."
"So have you got everything covered?" Taichi asked. "Are you going to need any help?"
Ken said, "Thanks, but-" and made it no further than that before there was an electrical buzz, a clunk, and a squeal. This was followed by a torrent of furious words; Miyako seemed to have shocked herself on something, and was now demonstrating her vocabulary on the offending machine. Ken gave a shrug and an embarrassed sort of smile.
"Don't tell me," said Taichi. "It would be better if we all stayed out of the way."
"This really is kind of a job for the experts," Ken replied. "It's a pity Koushiro isn't here. He knows more about the nature of the Digital World than I ever did... but we'll manage somehow."
"He'll be back before you know it," said Taichi. "In the meantime, do the best you can."
The muffled voice inside the computer said, "I will get this pile of scrap metal working if it kills me!"
"You're right," said Ken. "We'll manage."
Satisfied that things were being well taken care of on the technological front, Taichi returned to the upper floor of the house, passing through the living room on his way out the main door. He had already promised himself that he was not going to spend the entire time worrying and fretting, that he was going to keep it fixed firmly in his mind that the others would come back with the medicine and that Gennai would get better. Even so, he couldn't help taking a reassuring glance at his mentor as he passed by. He was still sitting up in his chair, looking awake and alert and not particularly sick at all. He was talking to Mimi about something-or-other and sipping tea, as if this whole situation was nothing more than a social visit. Taichi found it hard to believe that he was really sick at all. If someone had come in at that moment and told him that the diagnosis was nothing more than a computer malfunction, that everything was fine and they could all go home, it would have been so easy to laugh at their momentary panic and forget all about it. He would have liked to think that this situation was the making of a joke. And yet... the hand that held the teacup had a slight tremor to it, and his voice sounded ever-so-faintly hoarse. Taichi shook his head.
*This is no laughing matter,* he told himself, and stepped resolutely outside to see how the rest of the group was doing.
The rest of the group consisted mainly of Yamato, Takeru, and an assortment of Digimon. Part of the purpose of Gennai's marvelous computers was to keep a watch for trouble spots - where a wicked Digmion might be planning to do a bit of conquering, where a human was getting a little too curious about the workings of the Digital World, where another dimension showed signs of encroaching on this one - but until they had been mended by Miyako's ministrations, nobody was ready to put their total trust in them. To that end, every Digimon who could be spared was being sent out on patrol. This number included the eight partnered Digimon, along with a MechaNorimon they'd found hanging around who seemed to be a particular friend of Gennai's. The mechanical Digimon had been deeply concerned to learn that his friend was sick, and had volunteered to do everything in his power to be helpful. Supervising this slightly chaotic operation were the two blonde-haired brothers, both of them hunched over a map that they'd spread out on the floor of Gennai's front porch.
"...Stingmon is probably the fastest flyer, so he can cover a slightly larger area than the others..."
"Yeah, but he wants to come back and help Ken sometimes, too, so we shouldn't put him too far away. Let's let him have this area and put Angemon over there."
"Are you sure you're comfortable with that? I know how you feel about being separated from him."
"I don't like it much, but I can stand it for a little while. This is only temporary, right?"
"I'll tell you what - let's send the MechaNorimon over there. I'll bet he can move pretty fast with those rocket boosters."
"Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting about him. That's a good idea."
"Hey, guys, how's it going?" Taichi said, joining the huddle.
"Just getting organized," said Yamato, sitting up and stretching a bit. "We're trying to see how we can spread our resources out to the best advantage."
Takeru nodded. "The basic idea is not so much going to look for trouble as it is to make ourselves nice and visible, so everyone knows we're watching, so maybe they'll think twice before they start making trouble."
"That's not a bad idea," said Taichi. "So, where did you send Greymon?"
"Don't worry, he hasn't gone far," Yamato reassured him. "He's not as fast as some of the ones with wings, so we kept him close to home base in case there's an emergency."
"How about some of the other kids?" said Taichi. "You know, like Michael and Catherine and all the rest. Couldn't they help out?"
"Well, it's like this," said Yamato. "We want to make ourselves visible, but not so visible that people start thinking something is wrong."
"That's a good idea, though," said Takeru, jotting it down in his notepad. "We ought to at least call some of them and let them know what's going on. They can be on call in case there's a real problem."
"I'll tell Miyako and Ken about it," said Taichi. "Once they get what they're doing straightened out, anyway."
The boys spent a while longer poring over the map, discussing where it was most vital to have someone stationed and who it would be best to send to what part of the world. Eventually, the three of them were able to come to a workable conclusion, and the map was marked off and hung up on the wall, so that any Digimon who was uncertain of his task or any human who wanted to know where his partner was could find out at a glance. Another brief discussion led them to decide that the best thing they could do in the interim was to join their partners in patrolling for trouble spots. They told the other Chosen where they were going, and then set out on their self-appointed missions.
Reunited with Greymon, Taichi rode through the digital jungle in silence, thinking hard. He didn't care one bit for this situation. He had been in life-and-death predicaments before, but it was usually against an enemy he could see and fight. This new enemy was invisible, and insidious. It could take away the life of a friend slowly, painfully, almost imperceptibly, and there was very little Taichi could do about it. Still, he could remind himself that he had done everything he possibly could, that everything that could be organized was organized, and that everyone was doing whatever was in their power to do. All that was left for him now was to wait and see what would happen.
He thought of how little he had actually been able to do so far, and the knowledge was not the least bit comforting.
Hikari dreamed. In her dream, she could see Gennai as a young man. He was wearing gray robes tied with a brown cord. He had tried to push the cowl up to hide his face, but the people surrounding him would not allow it, and rough hands jerked it back, gripping his already disheveled hair and forcing him to face the crowds. There were people all around him, some lining the streets and shouting at him, some following close by him, preventing him from escaping. His hands were chained.
The guards led him up a flight of stairs and into a large, prison-like building, ushering him down a long hall and into some kind of courtroom. A number of men and women in white robes with gold trim, the kind she was used to seeing Gennai wear, sat on the benches that lined its walls. One man sat at a table at the center of the room. He was dressed in pure, unadorned white, and wore a long beard. Only his eyes were dark, naturally black and now shadowed by... something. Sadness? Disappointment? Anger? Fear? She could not tell; the room was dark, and in the shadows his face was unreadable.
Hikari watched as the man who would someday lead her and her friends to save two worlds and more was dragged by his guards to a seat at the other end of the table. What was going on here, she wondered? What could he possibly have done to warrant treatment like this? He was a good man, a hero, not someone to be treated like a criminal. Yet, here he was, with his hands chained behind his back, pleading with the old man for mercy. She could not hear every word that passed between them, but it was clear from the look on his face that he was frightened.
The angle of the dream tilted. Now she was watching the scene from somewhere over the bearded man's shoulder. She could see Gennai more clearly from this angle, and she noted the desperation in his eyes as he pled his case. Then her eyes were drawn to the far corners of the room, where numerous other people were gathered. Their robes were beige or brown; they were apparently not ranked high enough to sit with the rest of the court, if that was what this was. One of them stood out particularly, a pretty young woman in beige robes who was watching the trial with a particular look of intensity. Everyone else around her was looking grim and grave, or else had the viciously eager expressions of people enjoying watching someone else getting in trouble. Only this girl out of all of them looked concerned for Gennai's fate; she was biting her lip in a way that suggested she was trying not to cry. In Hikari's dream, the woman glowed as if a spotlight was shining on her.
Suddenly, everything began shaking. The dream broke up, and Hikari opened her eyes to see Daisuke looking down at her.
"Morning," he informed her. "You overslept."
"Sorry," she said, sitting up and yawning. "I had a dream."
"I think we all did," said Koushiro. "It must be something about the nature of this place. I spent all night thinking I was on a spaceship to Jupiter. I've never had a dream so realistic..."
"I was at a championship soccer match," said Daisuke.
"Is that all you think about?" Iori asked him.
"Hey, I think about lots of things! That's just what I dreamed about, that's all. What did you dream about?"
Iori's normally serious expression turned a few degrees more thoughtful. "I dreamed Mr. Oikawa was still alive. He was taking me to the park to show me where he and my dad used to play."
"That's kinda spooky," said Daisuke. "Hey, V-mon, did you have any dreams? Do Digimon dream?"
"Sure they do!" said V-mon. "I dreamed I was in a candy store!"
A few people laughed a little. It was easy to imagine what a Digimon would do inside a dream candy store.
"What's so funny?" V-mon asked. "Dream candy's almost better than real candy. You can eat all you want, and you never get a stomachache."
"How come he gets all the good dreams?" Armadimon complained.
"I dreamed I was a cat," said Tailmon.
"You are a cat," Daisuke said.
"I meant a real cat. You know, the everyday kind that eats cat food and catches mice and can't talk," Tailmon elaborated.
"That doesn't sound like much fun to me," Tentomon observed. "I dreamed I was in a library."
"What were you doing in there?" asked V-mon, who didn't have a high opinion of libraries.
"I don't know. Probably looking for Koushiro."
"Hey, Hikari, didn't you dream anything?" Daisuke asked.
"I did," she said slowly, "and my dream was real."
"I think all our dreams were highly realistic," said Koushiro.
"No, no, I mean it was real," Hikari said. "I was dreaming about something that really happened. Something that happened to Gennai a long time ago."
"You can't know that for sure, Hikari," said Koushiro reasonably. "I mean, he's on all our minds right now, so it's only natural in a place like this that-"
"It was real," Hikari insisted. "I know it was real. It was the exact same feeling I get when I have my hunches, and Gennai said I should pay attention to those. He said this crystal he gave me would make me more likely to have one, and I did."
"Well, what did you see?" asked Iori.
"I saw... I think it was like a court trial, or something like that. Gennai was in bad trouble for something. They had him chained up and surrounded by guards and everything."
"What did they do that?" asked Koushiro. "Did you hear them say what he did?"
Hikari shook her head. "No, but it must have been something serious. They were acting like...Well, if I didn't know better..."
"Well?" asked Iori.
"They were acting like they thought... like they thought he might have killed someone."
"That's crazy," said Daisuke bluntly. "Gennai's not that kind of guy. He wouldn't do anything like that!"
"We don't know that for sure."
Everyone turned and glared at Koushiro, who looked blankly offended.
"You don't really think Gennai's a murderer, do you?" asked Daisuke.
"Of course not," said Koushiro, appearing shocked at the idea. "I've probably spent more time talking to him than any of us. I don't believe Gennai would hurt someone who was innocent of any wrongdoing. However..." He bore the renewed suspicious stares of his friends with cool confidence, "...however, we don't know the first thing about his past, other than that he helped make the Tags, Crests, and Digivices. We don't know how he got to that point, or what kind of social situation he came from. He could be some kind of renegade, for all we know."
"Hey, d'you think maybe this is why he didn't want us using his name?" asked Daisuke. "I know if I was on the run from the law, I wouldn't go blabbing my name around."
"Or maybe he has enemies here he doesn't want to know he's sick," said Iori slowly.
"Hmm..." said Koushiro, staring off into space. "You're right. That's a definite possibility..."
"So how do we find out if it's true or not?" asked Daisuke. "I mean, I trust Hikari and all, but... there's only so far you can go on a dream."
"If only we could find the girl," said Hikari.
"Girl? What girl?" asked Armadimon. "I thought we were talking about Gennai."
"There was a girl in my dream," Hikari explained. "A young woman. She was watching the trial. She looked worried about Gennai. If we could find her, I'll bet she could tell us a lot of things we don't know about him."
"Is it really important, though?" Iori asked. "I mean... Gennai's past is his business. We didn't come here to dig up his past, especially things he wants to keep secret. We only came here to get the medicine."
"Well, we have nothing better to do right now," said Daisuke. "Mister Sunshine went back to work and left us to sit around and twiddle our thumbs. At least he left us something to eat. I'm getting hungry."
"I'm getting curious about this trial thing, myself," Koushiro said.
"Oh, boy. Here we go again," Tentomon muttered.
"Don't complain. I just had a very strange idea, and I want to check it out," answered Koushiro. "It won't take long, I don't think. Not for what I've got in mind."
"You aren't planning on going out alone, are you?" asked Iori. "That could be dangerous. You don't even know your way around."
"I won't have to go far. Just... let me take a walk around the block, to clear my mind," said Koushiro. "I'll come right back."
"What about breakfast?" asked Tentomon in a disappointed tone. "Can't it wait?"
"Breakfast can wait," Koushiro replied. "This is important."
With a reluctant Digimon in tow, Koushiro headed out the door and into the street. The others watched him go with varying degrees of concern.
"That guy gets really weird when he gets an idea in his head," Daisuke commented. "I wonder what's on his mind?"
"I'm sure he'll tell us, when he's ready," Hikari replied.
Iori frowned a little. "Considering that we only have two days left here, he had better be ready soon."
Meanwhile, Koushiro was walking outside, thinking. To an outside observer, it would appear that he was just a tourist, interested only in taking in the local color, what there was of it. He had hoped vaguely that last night had simply been an aberration, and that the world wasn't so foggy and colorless all the time, but if it couldn't look cheerful in the full light of morning, he doubted it ever would. Still, it was the people he was interested in watching, now, and they, at least, looked happy. He watched with great interest as a young mother led two children in bright colored clothes up the street. Vendors with pushcarts hawked their wares to passers-by. A few shops were opening their doors for business, and the market owners were arranging their wares in windows or booths along the side of the road, hoping to attract a few early-rising customers. Young people chatted with friends and flirted with the opposite sex. Friends greeted each other in the streets. When the noble people in white robes passed by, people made way with respect that was clear on their faces. From time to time, one would call out, and the white-robes would stop to converse, their faces serious and attentive.
*Well, this is cheerful,* Koushiro thought. *A good world. Parents aren't afraid to bring their children into the open. People are socializing. Things are being sold. People respect the local authorities. Hmm...*
For some reason, these signs of prosperity seemed to worry him. He furrowed his brow in thought, staring down at his feet and paying no attention to the scenery. Busy as he was with his worries, he had completely forgotten what happened in that world to careless people who let themselves become lost in thought.
Hikari was sick, and Taichi was worried. She had the dream fever, and he knew he had to get the medicine for her in three days or she would die. That bothered him, because he seemed to be standing in Gennai's living room, and he knew he had to be somewhere else to get the medicine. He turned around, looking for the way out, and found Hikari tucked into a hospital bed, peering out at him with sad eyes.
"I'm sorry, Taichi," she said. "I'm sorry I'm too late. I didn't mean to be."
Taichi started to reach for her, to reassure her, and he felt her crumble to dust beneath his hands...
He sat up in a cold sweat, gasping for air. He was still clutching the crumpled fringe of a rug in his hand. Next to him, Agumon was still snoring peacefully. Other members of the group were scattered around the room, getting what sleep they could on carpets or chairs or sofas. Moving very quietly to avoid waking someone, and very carefully to avoid tripping over someone, he inched his way out of the room.
Now that he was awake and moving, the horror of the dream lost some of its hold on him, but he still felt somewhat uneasy. The image of seeing his sister disintegrating at his touch was a frightening one, one that had haunted him in some form or another for years. He had a certain paranoid fear of losing people to sickness. Now, added to his worries about Gennai were worries for his sister. She had only been gone for a few hours, but that would translate to a day or more in the Nexus World. What was taking her so long? Had she run into trouble finding the medicine? Or had something unpleasant befallen the group there?
To ease his mental discomfort, or at least give it something solid to focus on, he decided to go see how Gennai was doing. When night had fallen, the group had finally persuaded him to leave his chair and sleep in his own bed. He had been so dizzy that he'd needed to lean on Taichi and Yamato's shoulders if he wanted to go more than a few paces without staggering. The only good thing about this development was that he had finally given up on insisting that he didn't feel that bad. Now Taichi peered through his bedroom door to see how he was doing.
He seemed to be sleeping comfortably; at least, he wasn't showing any of the further symptoms that Jyou had mentioned, which meant the dangerous stages of the disease hadn't set in yet. That was a small relief, and Taichi relaxed a bit. It was only after he had reassured himself that Gennai was really all right that he took time to evaluate the other occupants of the room.
There was a unanimous, unspoken agreement that until they were sure he was on the mend, Gennai should not be left alone for very long, so someone had to sit up with him while he was sleeping. Sora, with her maternal mind-set, had been the first to volunteer. She was situated in a comfortable chair that the group had dragged in from the living room - comfortable enough that sitting in it all night wouldn't be a punishment, but not so comfortable that she would be likely to fall asleep in it. Now she was sitting in it with her eyes-half open, staring out at nothing in particular. Piyomon was settled in her lap, sound asleep.
"Hey," said Tai softly. "Are you okay?"
"Hm? Oh, hi, Taichi," said Sora. "I'm okay. Just really tired. I'm not used to pulling all- nighters. What are you doing up so early?"
"Oh, well, I, uh..." Taichi shrugged, feeling a bit embarrassed. "I had a dream and it woke me up, and I didn't feel like going back to sleep again. That's all. So I thought I'd come and see how you were doing. So, how are you doing? How's he doing?"
"As well as can be expected. He fell asleep almost as soon as we turned out the lights. I hope that's good," said Sora. "You aren't the only one who had bad dreams, though. He talked in his sleep half the night. Maybe that's why I'm feeling so down right now - it's a little creepy, being in the dark in a room with someone who's talking to people who aren't there."
"I'll bet," said Taichi with a shudder. Then, overcome by curiosity, he asked the natural question: "Who was he talking to?"
"I don't know. He just kept saying it wasn't his fault - whatever that means. He said somebody was lying... and that he was telling the truth this time... and he mentioned somebody named Shaedra once or twice."
"Shaedra... that sounds like a girl's name," Taichi mused.
Sora smiled a little. "Do you suppose he has a romantic past?"
"I don't know, and I don't know if I want to know," said Taichi. He was thoughtful a moment. "You know... we really don't know anything about him. Not a thing. He never told us much about where he came from, or how he grew up, or who his friends were... It's like he just sprang up out of nowhere."
"Well, we don't get to talk to him that much," said Sora. "Only when something really important comes up. The rest of the time, he's always off somewhere else."
Taichi looked thoughtful. "There used to be others like him, remember? There were a bunch of others helping make the Digivices and all that, and then Piemon and his army came and attacked... Maybe they're all dead. All his friends, I mean."
"He must be awfully lonely," said Sora, looking at him pityingly. "I hope he gets better, don't you?"
There was something in her voice that said she was talking about more than just physical health. Taichi nodded.
"Yeah," he said. "Me too."
There was a moment of moody silence that was broken only when Sora began to yawn.
"Excuse me," she said. "I really need to sleep..."
"I'll go wake Mimi up, if you want," Taichi volunteered. "Let her deal with things for a while."
"That sounds like a good idea," said Sora. "I can't stay awake any longer."
He walked her back to the room where all the others were sleeping, and they were able to prod Mimi awake. She complained a bit at having to get up at the crack of dawn, but when the disturbance started waking everyone else as well, she finally gave up the fight and went to take up her post. The others started milling around, yawning and stretching and working the kinks out of muscles that had been stiffened by sleeping in odd positions on uncomfortable pieces of furniture.
"Is it breakfast time yet?" Gomamon asked.
"I don't know," said Jyou. "Is there anything in here fit for human consumption?"
"I know where the kitchen is," said Miyako. "I found it by accident while I was looking for spare parts."
"Can you find it again?" Takeru wanted to know. "We've got a long day ahead of us. No point in going hungry!"
Miyako could indeed find the kitchen again, so they trooped off to see if there was anything they could all eat. There had been vague worries that as a man living alone, Gennai might not have stocked up but so much in the way of supplies, but this proved not to be the case. A thorough exploration proved that there was enough laid by to keep him for months, and certainly enough to feed a collection of humans and small Digimon for a few days. He might have some explaining to do later about why his supplies had run out so fast, but that was something to worry about later. For now, though, the group concentrated on picking out what could be prepared most easily and tucking in voraciously. All of them had worked their hardest the day before, and they hadn't gotten around to organizing a dinner for themselves, so everyone was hungry. The only ones who abstained were Mimi, dutifully keeping her vigil, and Sora, who was sound asleep on a sofa, oblivious to all around.
Sometime after the meal had started winding down, Mimi appeared to report that Gennai was awake, and that furthermore, she was hungry and nobody had bothered to tell her they were eating. While some of them stayed busy apologizing, Miyako gathered up a tray of fruit and tea to bring to their mentor for breakfast. She found him sitting up in bed, acting more as if he were relaxing at a resort than anything else. He flashed her the devil-may-care smile she remembered from their first meeting.
"Hello," he greeted. "Is everyone having fun without me?"
"Never mind us," she said. "How are you doing?"
He shrugged a bit. "Well enough, all things considered. I'm not in the danger stages yet, if that's what you mean. As long as I can still carry on a sensible conversation, I'm all right."
"Have you ever been able to do that?" she asked.
"That isn't nice. I deserve more respect than that," he said.
Miyako didn't respond to that. She knew she probably ought to be a bit more respectful, but it was hard to keep his rank and situation fixed firmly in mind when he was doing such a good job acting as if nothing was wrong. To cover her momentary discomfiture, she said, "I brought breakfast."
"That was good of you. Just set it over there somewhere," he replied, waving vaguely at an end table.
"Aren't you going to eat it?"
"Well, thank you, but... I'm not very hungry right now."
"You ought to at least drink your drink," she told him. Something in her tone didn't leave much room for argument. He met her gaze a moment and decided he didn't have the energy to fight.
"All right. Only for you," he said.
She gave a small smile of victory and passed the cup to him. He fumbled and nearly dropped it, and she had to move quickly to help him catch it. The end result was that she ended up with both her hands wrapped around his, and some tea sloshed out of the cup to trickle through their fingers and drip on the bedspread.
"Oops," she said.
"That's all right. It was my fault," he said. "You didn't scald yourself, did you?"
"No, I'm all right," she said. She looked down, realized she was still holding his hand, and quickly released it, fighting back a blush.
"Nobody told me you were coming. I thought you were downstairs in the computer lab," said Gennai conversationally. "Sorry I left things in such a mess down there. If I'd known you were coming, I'd have been more careful not to break it."
"We've almost got that straightened out," said Miyako. "We should have everything more or less up and running before the day's over. I'm only here now because Mimi's having breakfast and Sora's still zonked from staying up all night."
Gennai sat back with a sigh and closed his eyes. "I still wish you all weren't doing this."
"Well, what do you want us to do?" asked Miyako. "We certainly aren't going to sit around and do nothing."
"Still, to be working yourselves to exhaustion..."
"If that's what it takes, that's what we'll do," Miyako said. "Besides, we're doing just fine. Taichi's keeping us all organized. Everything's getting done, and nobody's stuck doing all of it. Besides, it won't be for very long... because you're going to be better soon, right?"
"Don't worry about it," he said bracingly. "I have faith in your friends. They'll be back before you know it, and once I have the medicine, I'll be back on my feet in no time. Good thing, too. Do you have any idea how boring this is?"
"You're being very silly," she told him. "You ought to be taking this more seriously."
"I've had my fill of being serious, thank you," he answered. "I'm just trying to keep a positive face on things. Don't you worry about me. I've come out of tougher situations than this."
"I'll try not to worry too much," she told him. "Eat your breakfast. You need your strength."
"I know, I know."
"I'm going to come back here later and make sure you're behaving."
He flashed another smile. "I'll look forward to it."
She left the room feeling faintly - and not unpleasantly - unsettled. That tended to happen when she spent any amount of time around handsome and charming young men, and Gennai fell more or less in that category. Actually, there was no telling how old he was, but at the moment, he looked like he was in his late twenties. That was young enough to draw her attention.
*Oh, what am I thinking?* she told herself. *He's way out of my league. I'm not even sure he's even human. Doesn't hurt to look, though, I guess...*
She returned to the kitchen to see what the others were doing. Most of them had already finished eating and had set out on their own errands. The only ones left at the moment were Jyou, ignoring a half-eaten meal as he pored over the pages of a reference book, Mimi, Ken, Wormmon, and Hawkmon.
"Okay, Mimi, it's your turn," Miyako said. "Unless you'd rather help us fight these computers..."
"No thanks!" said Mimi. "I leave that to you technical types."
She got up and began walking out of the room.
"I'll be with you in a minute," said Jyou vaguely. "I think I might be on to something."
"Okay. See you then!" Mimi replied.
"I guess we ought to get to work, too," said Ken, rising from his chair. "I'll meet you in the computer room after you send Hawkmon off."
"Isn't Wormmon going to fly his route today?" Miyako asked.
"He's going to be helping us for a while," Ken replied. "After following me around all these years, he knows almost as much about computers as I do, and he can get to places we can't."
"Not a bad idea," said Miyako, thinking of the work left undone. She had avoided some of the final tuneups just because the areas in question were so hard to reach, and having Wormmon around would solve her problems nicely. "Too bad Hawkmon's no good with computers. I couldn't even teach him how to use the keyboard."
"That's not my fault," said Hawkmon. "My feathers just aren't meant for typing. I'm perfectly content to be out flying."
"Well, we'll just step outside so you can evolve without breaking the furniture," Miyako replied.
She paused as she passed through the living room. Sora was still sleeping on the sofa, her attitude one of utter exhaustion. Piyomon was perched on the sofa's back, dozing after her long night. Miyako stepped closer to have a better look. Her friend's face seemed pale, and there was an unhealthy shading around her eyes.
"She doesn't look so good," said Miyako, concerned.
Ken came to stand next to her. "She's probably just exhausted from sitting up all night. The way I hear it, she's a believer in early to bed, early to rise."
"Yeah, that's probably it," Miyako said. She reached out a hand to brush a stray strand of hair away from Sora's face - and pulled it back with a jerk. "Yow!"
"What?" asked Ken.
"She's burning up!"
Ken put one of his slender hands to Sora's forehead and frowned. "You're right, she does feel feverish. We ought to tell somebody. Wormmon, stay here and keep an eye on her. I'm going to get Jyou. Miyako, would you send Hawkmon to tell the others what's going on?"
"Right," she agreed, feeling mildly impressed in spite of everything. Despite Ken's normally gentle demeanor, it seemed he still knew how to give orders. She hurried outside to fulfil her duty.
Jyou was brought forth, looking somewhat harried but not particularly worried.
"I'm not going to need an internship to become a doctor," he was muttering to himself. "I'm getting mine now. What's up?"
"We think Sora might have picked up a bug," answered Ken. "I was hoping you could confirm it one way or another."
"Well, you know I'm not a doctor yet," said Jyou, "but I can give you my educated opinion."
"Should I wake her up?" asked Wormmon.
"No, let her sleep. She probably needs it, and I can give her a checkup just as well when she's asleep," said Jyou. "Maybe better. The last thing I need is another patient telling me she's not really that sick. Hang on a minute. There are some medical supplies around here somewhere; I nagged Gennai into telling me where they were..."
He disappeared for a few minutes, returning a moment later carrying a handful of odds and ends. One of them was a kind of strip thermometer, a relative of the old fashioned liquid-crystal thermometers that would change color when pressed to a patient's feverish skin. Jyou placed it on Sora's forehead and watched as a row of colored lines phased into visibility and vanished again. Finally, one of them stopped and stayed.
"A hundred and one," Jyou announced. "Not so good."
"I was afraid of that," said Ken. "Do you think she's got what Gennai's got?"
"Too early to tell," said Jyou.
He picked up a stethoscope and put it on, pressing the apparatus to her chest and listening a moment. He moved it and listened again.
"Hmm," he said.
"Well?" asked Ken anxiously.
"Not so good," Jyou replied. "Not that I'm sure yet, but..."
"What's he talking about?" asked Wormmon.
"Well, the thing is... it sounds to me like there's a little irritation in her lungs," said Jyou slowly, "and the first symptoms of the dream fever are weakness, fever, and a cough."
"So you think she has it?" Ken asked, eyes wide.
Jyou held up his hands. "I don't think anything yet! I'm just letting you know how things stand. It's possible she's got it, but it's possible she's got a zillion other things, too. I'm going to need to run some tests to make sure."
Ken hung his head. "Gennai said it couldn't be passed to humans."
"So maybe it can't," said Wormmon bracingly. "Maybe she's just got a cold."
"Yeah," said Ken. "Yeah, maybe that's what she's got..."
There was a loud bang. Taichi had arrived, with Yamato, Takeru, Miyako, and their Digimon in tow. At the sound of the noise, Sora sat up with a start and Piyomon gave a shriek of alarm. Jyou covered his ears.
"Watch it, would you?" he said. "There are sick people in this house!"
"That's what I heard," said Taichi with a sour look. "What's all this about Sora being sick?"
"I don't know," said Sora, blinking sleepily. "I only just heard about it myself. What's going on?"
"All I know is, Miyako came zooming up on Aquilamon, shouting at the top of her lungs about how we needed to come back on the double," said Takeru. "I know better to argue with her when she's in that kind of mood."
"Ken said bring you guys in, so I brought you," said Miyako.
Everyone looked at Ken. Ken, finding himself in an unwanted spotlight, looked at Jyou. Jyou sighed.
"There's no need to panic," he said tiredly. "All we know for sure right now is that Sora seems to have picked up some kind of a bug. There's no indication that it's serious... except..."
"Except what?" asked Yamato.
Jyou's shoulders slumped. "Except that her symptoms are very similar to the early stages of the dream fever."
Taichi glared at Sora. "You didn't tell me you were feeling bad when I talked to you this morning."
"Well, I guess I wasn't feeling my best," she said, looking sheepish, "but I didn't want to worry anybody."
"You didn't - you didn't want to - Sora, how could you...?" Taichi appeared to be shocked beyond any possibility of coherency.
"You were all so worried about Gennai already," she said. "Just because I'm feeling a little run down is no reason to..." She broke off as she started to cough.
"Sora," said Ken gently, "look at it this way: if you really are sick, do you want to pass it along to Gennai along with whatever else he's got? Or spread it among us so we all get sick?"
She blushed. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, now you have," said Jyou briskly. "In the meantime, I want to find out exactly what you've got before we all get excited over nothing. Hold out your hand for a minute."
Looking a bit bewildered, Sora did as she was told.
"Now, close your eyes and recite all of Agumon's evolutions backwards," Jyou instructed.
"Because I want to see if you can do it, that's why."
Sora looked suspicious, but she obeyed. "Okay, let's see... War Greymon, Metal Greymon, Greymon, Agumon... Ouch!"
She opened her eyes in time to see a drop of blood being transferred from her finger to a glass slide.
"I hate doing this," said Jyou to no one in paricular. His face was pulled into a grimace of distaste, but he completed his task, covered the slide, and began climbing to his feet. "I'll be back in a few minutes with the results. Keep your fingers crossed."
He strode from the room. The others watched him with various expressions of apprehension.
"Well, now what do we do?" asked Takeru.
"I don't know," Taichi said. "I don't want to think about it."
Sora coughed again and tried to stifle it. She looked back at Taichi, hesitantly, as if she expected him to bite.
"I'm sorry I got sick," she said. "I didn't do it on purpose."
Taichi met her gaze for a moment, and then looked away.
"If there's nothing I can do, I'm going back on patrol," he said. "Come on, Agumon."
And, much to everyone's surprise, he turned around and marched out the door, dragging an uncomprehending Agumon behind him.
"What did I say?" asked Sora, bewildered.
"He's okay," said Yamato. "I think you just reminded him of something he'd rather forget."
Sora looked puzzled. "Hm?"
"Hikari," said Yamato. "He's been talking about her a lot while we're on patrols. Remember, she got sick like this once, and almost died, and he's never completely forgiven himself for it. Having all this happen now... it's really getting to him."
"I see," she said.
There was a moment of quiet that seem to have descended as soon as Yamato had mentioned Hikari's name, and was only choosing this time to make itself fully recognized. Everyone seemed to be wondering the same thing: Where was she, and why hadn't she and the others come back?
Koushiro thought he was in school. He was sitting in his preferred place, a few seats away from the front - close enough that he could easily see and hear everything that was going on, not so much that he looked like he was trying to draw attention to himself. He had learned well enough several years ago that "teacher's pet" was not necessarily an enviable position. Now he leaned forward in his desk and tried to pay attention while the World History teacher began writing on the board.
"We're learning about plagues today," she was saying. "Who can name a famous plague?"
Hands went up around the room, and the teacher called on a girl in the middle of the room, who responded, "The Black Plague."
"Very good," said the teacher, writing The Black Plague across the board. "Can somebody tell me where the Black Plague occurred?"
"In England," said another student.
"You're supposed to raise your hand before you speak," the teacher chided. "Can anyone else tell me where it happened."
Someone else raised their hand, and the teacher called on him and listened as he gave the answer he'd already heard his friend give. A few people sniggered at the unfortunate person who had spoken out of turn.
*He reminds me a little of Daisuke,* thought Koushiro in amusement. Then he looked and realized it was Daisuke. He wondered what a boy two years his junior was doing in the same class with him, but he found himself shrugging the thought off as not being very important. He had a funny feeling that he was supposed to be somewhere with Daisuke, Hikari, and Iori... and sure enough, as he looked around, he could see them sitting in desks nearby. Hikari leaned over to whisper to him.
"Pay attention," she said. "This is a very important lesson."
Koushiro nodded and went back to listening to the teacher. She was now in the process of telling the class how the Black Plague had arrived in the country and the effect it had on the people of England. It was a bit depressing, really, listening to how so many people had died, how so much learning and culture had been lost in the wake of the disaster, what lengths people had gone to in trying to save themselves...
Suddenly, much to Koushiro's surprise, a woman walked into the classroom. He could tell she was female by her general shape, but the details of her appearance were hid by a hooded cloak - a white one with a gold fringe that marked her as a person of high rank in the Nexus World. While Koushiro was still struggling with the strangeness of seeing someone like her in a schoolroom, the woman walked over to him and looked at him. He could see her eyes sparkling somewhere within the depths of her hood. There was something strangely fascinating about them.
"I think," she said quietly, "it is time for you to wake up now."
"Huh?" he said, in a rare moment of incomprehension. He looked around. Somehow, he had gone from being in a classroom in his school to a clean white street in...
*The Nexus World,* he realized. *I've been dreaming.*
He looked around in search of Tentomon, and was surprised to see him hovering over the shoulder of the mysterious woman, looking perfectly content to be there and rather relieved to see that his partner was functioning normally again.
"Don't worry," said the woman. "You're all right now. I can help you keep the dreams at bay... and it's a good thing, too. You were causing a bit of a disturbance. We aren't used to seeing your kind here."
"What's going on?" asked Koushiro. "How did I get out here? And who are you?"
"I have a few questions I would like to ask you as well," said the woman, with a hint of a smile in her voice. "Would you like to step inside with me for a moment? The streets are not the best place for me to talk."
Koushiro considered and decided that following this odd woman was probably his best bet. She seemed friendly enough - certainly friendlier than Armahn had been, anyway. The fact remained, too, that he had no idea how to get back to where he'd started his walk. This area of the city didn't look at all familiar; the buildings were still white and square, but there were subtle bits of trim here and there, and some of the windows had graceful arches instead of simple square frames. The street was paved in something brilliantly white, and he wondered fleetingly how they kept it clean. Any attempt to leave would have to involve the help of an outsider, and he thought he was safest with someone who had already helped him once.
The mysterious woman led him down an alley and through a side door in one of the large buildings. They moved swiftly down a hallway, up a staircase, and finally wound their way into what looked like a small office. It was a rather cramped space, but it was comfortably furnished, with a desk of pale golden wood and a few chairs with padded seats, and carpeting of warm brown on the floor. The walls were filled with books and scrolls, as well as an assortment of silver and brass instruments that Koushiro couldn't identify. The desk was strewn with papers, but there was also a stone vessel full of pens, an inkwell shaped like a flower, an unlit candle, some sealing wax, and - oddly enough - a collection of crystals in various sizes and colors. The woman sat down at the desk with a small sigh and pushed her hood back.
It wasn't every day that Koushiro was taken aback by the sight of a woman. He had a teenaged boy's usual appreciation for the female figure, but he was enough of an idealist - that is, concerned with ideas more than a material presence - that he usually had to know and like a girl before he would give her more than a passing glance of admiration. Now he sat up and stared. It wasn't just that she was uncommonly pretty, though she was. She had a pale heart-shaped face, a spill of wavy golden hair, a pert nose, and a sweet smile with a dimple on one side. What caught his attention, though, were her eyes. They were a soft shade of brown - ordinary enough, really - but they seemed to shine with something he'd never seen in a human before. He got the impression that this woman knew more than anyone he'd ever met or heard of, knew things he could never imagine and could never learn if he studied for a thousand years. Something in him recognized her as both a kindred spirit and his superior.
"Who are you?" he asked again. The first time it had simply been a matter of social curiosity. Now the question could have just as well been, "What are you?"
"Well, now... I don't ordinarily go around giving my true name to strangers," she answered. "At the moment, I'm curious about you, or I wouldn't have brought you here. I think that, as a stranger here, you ought to be the one to identify yourself first, before I tell you anything."
"All right. My name is Koushiro Izumi. My friend there is called Tentomon. We're visitors here. We're not looking for any trouble. We only came here as a favor to a friend. As soon as we've got what we came here for, we'll be leaving."
"I see," she said, nodding her head slowly as she cycled through the information. "You are, then, a visitor from the Material World - what is mistakenly referred to as the Real World. One of the Chosen Children who defended the Digital World."
"You know about that?" asked Koushiro. "Were you one of the ones who...?"
"I was not involved in the project," she said. "I heard about it, though. Towards the end of things, it got to be a topic of much discussion." As an afterthought, she added, "Not everyone here thought you could do it. Most of them didn't, in fact, but I always had complete faith."
"What do you mean, they didn't think we could do it?" asked Tentomon, apparently offended.
"Not you, exactly," she said vaguely. She trailed off, looking off into space, apparently thinking very hard. At last, she said, as if finishing up a sentence she had started earlier, "What I can't understand is what you're doing here now."
"I told you, we came as a favor to a friend," said Koushiro carefully. He didn't see how he was going to explain everything to this woman without mentioning Gennai's name, but he'd been told not to say anything...
"Did Gennai send you here?" she asked sharply.
Koushiro cringed. Well, no use worrying about it now.
"Yes," he said.
The woman shook her head. "That fool. He knows better than that! I would have thought he'd have grown up by now..."
"What's wrong?" asked Koushiro. "What's wrong with us being here? I mean, I know the dreams are dangerous, but..."
"It's not you," she said. "It's him. Oh, I am going to kill Gennai if I ever get my hands on him again..."
"If I don't get this mess straightened out soon, you might not have to," said Koushiro sharply.
The woman looked at him sharply. "What do you mean?"
"I'm sorry," he said, "but Gennai told me not to talk too much about what I'm doing here. He seemed to think it would cause trouble, and the way you're acting now makes me think he was right. I don't think I can say too much to you until I understand what you're so upset about... and why Gennai thought it was so important for me to keep a secret."
"I see," the woman replied. "Well. Perhaps he's learned a little caution, after all. Well, settle down and let's see if I can't explain our friend Gennai for you..."
The situation at Gennai's house was a tense one. Sora, having been banned from going anywhere near Gennai or from doing anything that might aggravate her symptoms, was hiding in the sitting room and sulking. Piyomon had refused to go out on patrols until she could be assured that her partner would be all right, so the rest of the Digimon were stretched thin trying to cover her area as well as her own and Wormmon's. The little caterpillar was dutifully trying to help Ken and Miyako man the computers, but Miyako was in a temper and snapping at everything and everyone, making Ken cringe and Wormmon cower. Mimi was distressed - she was now left with the task of tending to Gennai completely on her own, and he was showing signs of deterioration. He had started coughing, a dry hacking that nothing seemed to help. Jyou had shut himself into a room and was refusing to come out.
By dinnertime that evening, it was beginning to look as if things were reaching a danger point. The patrols had returned tired and grouchy, having spent most of their afternoon dealing with a pack of ice-loving Hyougamon who had chosen that day to descend upon a local fishing pond and turned it into a skating rink, and had been reluctant to let anyone convince them that they should not start turning everyone else who got near it into popsicles. It had taken a great deal of persuasion (not to mention several of MetalGreymon's fireballs) to finally convince them to take their games somewhere else.
"Whoosh!" said Takeru, dropping into a chair and brushing the last of the snow off his shirt. "I sure hope we don't have to do that again."
"Me too," answered Patamon. "My ears are frozen."
"We could have used some help," said Yamato. "Did anyone get a count of how many of those things there were?"
"More than twenty," Taichi sighed. "Of course, they would show up when we're two Digimon down."
"Sora needed me," said Piyomon.
"We're not accusing you," said Takeru.
"No, I'm just saying that everything is going wrong today," said Taichi, "and I wouldn't be surprised if it started to get worse."
"Don't start talking like that again," Yamato said.
"Yeah, take it easy," Agumon said.
"You're not the only ones with problems," said Mimi. "I'm not exactly having fun trying to take care of everything all by myself. Nobody's helping me do anything."
"Do you want me to stay and help tomorrow?" Palmon asked.
"No," said Taichi. "We can't lose another Digimon."
"Who are you to tell Palmon what to do?" Mimi demanded.
"I'm not telling, I'm just saying-"
"Would you stop?" asked Yamato. "Just because we're all in a bad mood..."
Ken was watching the situation with a faint tinge of alarm. He wasn't used to seeing the group snapping at each other like this. They might have the occasional spat, but this was looking like it was going to go beyond those boundaries. He looked for a subject that might distract them.
"Is anyone else hungry?" he asked.
"Yeah, I am," said Takeru, who seemed to have been thinking along the same lines as Ken. "Let's see if we can find something to cook."
Mimi looked sulky. "I don't want to. I made lunch for everyone else. I shouldn't have to make dinner, too."
"Hey, at least you got lunch," said Taichi. "We were busy fighting."
"Well, what I'm doing is work, too!"
"I never said it wasn't!"
"You meant it!" Mimi retorted. "I'd like to see how you feel having to spend all day looking after someone who's... who's going to..."
"He's not going to die," said Takeru.
Mimi started to cry. Taichi glared.
"What did you have to do that for?" he said.
"I didn't think it would make her do that!" Takeru protested. "And you shouted at her first and got her all upset. Take it easy, Mimi, it's okay..."
He put a friendly arm around her and let her brace herself against him while she pulled herself together. She sniffled and hiccuped a bit.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry for crying, I'm sorry I yelled, I'm just all messed up today, I'm... I'm scared."
"We're all a little scared," said Takeru. "This is rough on all of us, and nobody meant to upset you."
"I know," she said. "It's just... I'm afraid of people dying. We've lost others, like Wizarmon... and Leomon and Chuumon... I was right there when they died... And now I'm so worried about Gennai and Sora... I start thinking, what if I'm the next one to catch it? And then I want to run away, and I feel guilty, because I can't just leave my friends..."
She broke into tears again. Everyone looked a bit startled, and Taichi looked patently guilty.
"I'm sorry, Mimi," he said. "I'm really, really sorry I made you upset. I guess... I'm just snapping a lot because I'm scared too. I guess I'm just as scared as you are."
"Thanks, Taichi," she said, sniffling again. "I feel better now."
"You don't have to worry." That, unexpectedly, was Sora, who had been silent thus far. She sounded a bit croaky from her cough but still managing to be reassuring at the same time. "I know I'm going to be just fine, and so will Gennai. As soon as Hikari and the others come back, we'll have nothing else to worry about."
Mimi managed to smile gratefully. There was a moment of silence, that was broken by the sound of footsteps coming up the hall. All heads turned as Jyou came bursting into the room.
"Hey, man, what's the hurry?" said Yamato.
"I just got done working through the results of Sora's blood tests," said Jyou. "It's taken me all afternoon just to get the thing to give me the correct readings for a human instead of a... a... whatever Gennai is."
"Well, don't keep us in suspense!" said Takeru. "What's she got?"
"She's got a strain of some kind of rotovirus," said Jyou.
There were blank looks.
"She's got a what?" asked Taichi.
"She's got a cold," Jyou clarified. "Give her a few days, and I promise she'll be good as new."
The news was greeted by cheers; Jyou said later he'd never seen anyone so glad to hear their friend was sick. Sora looked mildly affronted by all the excitement.
"I told you I wasn't that sick," she said. "It was the rest of you who were worried."
"So now what do we do?" asked Yamato. "I mean, it's great that Sora's not in trouble but..."
"But she's not going to be doing anyone any good for a while," Taichi finished. "Somebody's going to have to take over for her."
"I'll do it!" said Miyako, a little too quickly. People stared at her.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Hawkmon asked. "I thought you were supposed to be helping Ken with the computers."
"I've been finishing fixing the hardware issues," said Miyako. "All that's left now is the software stuff, and Ken's better at that than I am, anyway. He can manage, especially with Wormmon helping him."
"I can help if he needs an extra pair of hands," Jyou volunteered. "I know a little about computers from hanging out with Koushiro. I can help if Ken tells me what to do. All I'm doing right now is just sitting around reading books, anyway."
"It's okay with me if it's okay with you," Ken replied.
"Great," said Taichi. "Well, as long as we're all agreed... how about dinner, huh?"
Miyako hesitated outside the closed door to Gennai's room. She didn't know why she was feeling nervous; after all, she'd been in there before, and no one had batted an eye over it. Maybe it was because things were so much quieter now. Most of those who had been out patrolling had already gone to sleep, completely exhausted. Likewise, Mimi was taking a well-earned rest. A complaining Sora had been sent home to recover from her cold, taking Piyomon with her. Ken, Jyou, and their partners were in the computer room, getting Jyou familiar with its layout. Even Hawkmon was too tired from his long fight to accompany her. There was no one around but her, and Miyako could hear nothing but her own breathing.
*What are you worried about?* she asked herself, irritated. *Just go on in already!*
Steeling herself, she pushed the door open and glided in.
"Hi," she said. "I brought you some dinner."
"Thank you," said Gennai. "Are you standing in for Mimi, then? I don't think she's enjoying her role as nursemaid, if you ask me."
"She's just worried about you. We all are," Miyako replied.
She took a moment to eye him critically. The lights had been turned down low, which helped to disguise the signs of tiredness on his face, but he was lying down instead of sitting up as he'd been before.
"Why is it so dark in here?" she asked.
"Oh, well... the lights were giving me a headache," he admitted. He smiled a bit. "Besides, I don't look like nearly such a mess with the lights out."
She laughed in spite of herself. "You're so vain!"
"Dreadfully," he agreed. "I'm so glad you weren't around when I was playing the old man part. It just wasn't my style at all."
"You're not nearly that mature," she said.
"You have no respect for my achievements," he said. "You can't possibly have known me long enough to know that's true."
"I can't believe you're being this silly in a situation like this," she said.
"It's better than being gloomy," he responded, and broke into a bout of coughing. He sank back against his pillow with a wince.
"Are you all right?" Miyako asked.
"Fine, fine," he said. "I'm not going to drop dead just yet, if that's what you're thinking... Is that tea? I could use some."
"This is your dinner and you had better eat it," she informed him, setting the tray down in front of him.
"All right, all right, I'm not arguing," he said.
He began to sip at the drink and pick at his meal. Miyako sat and fidgeted, unsure of what exactly she was supposed to be doing. She wondered if he was up to any kind of conversation, and whether he'd welcome the distraction, or if he would rather be left alone. She wondered if this had really been a good idea.
"So... what's this world of yours like? The one you lived in before you came here." she asked at last.
"Well, it's..." He paused, collecting his words. "It's not like this at all. Aside from the thing where you disappear into a dream every time you let your mind wander too far, there's not much interesting about it."
"You grew up there. You're interesting."
"I don't live there anymore," he pointed out. "I'm a throwback, really. My people had to spend most of their history learning how to cope with a world that isn't always what it seems to be. Most of us are a fairly staid and sensible people... and the higher up the ladder you were, the more you were expected to behave."
"I hope they didn't try to put you too close to the top," she said.
He grimaced. "That's the cosmic joke. I was slated from birth to be a Sage. We don't exactly have nobility as you know it, where I come from, but if we did, I'd be in it."
"Somehow... that doesn't sound so good," said Miyako.
"Not a bit. You can imagine I was considered a bit of a troublemaker... Fortunately I was a talented troublemaker, or I would have been thrown out of school," he said. He smiled a little. "I wasn't so restrained then as I am now."
"I'll bet you were a regular little terror," she said.
"That's one way to put it," he said. "Oh, well. It's all ancient history now... well, not that ancient, but... I had a few good friends in my own world, but, I never really fit in. I'm happier here. I'm proud to be working with you all, and doing something useful..." He broke off into a fit of coughing. Miyako leaned forward anxiously, but he waved her away.
"It's nothing," he said hoarsely. "I just need a second to catch my breath..."
She waited patiently while he recovered himself and took a few more sips from his drink. When he seemed to have recovered, she said, "Don't you ever want to go back for a little while, though? Just to visit some of your old friends?"
He hesitated a moment before answering, "I don't deny that I'd like to see some of them again... but that would be a matter greater than just dropping by for a visit. Most of them are dead."
Miyako was stunned for a moment. Then she blushed furiously and started to babble.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean - Oh, I really put my foot in my mouth this time - and I knew the others said - but I didn't make the connection - I am so sorry..."
"Easy, easy," he said. "I'm not upset with you, so don't start crying or anything. It'll spoil the nice talk we've been having."
She looked sheepish. "Sorry."
"That'll all right. I didn't expect you to know... and I've had plenty of time to get used to the idea." He sighed. "I've never really had anyone to talk to about it before. I always felt like you all had your own troubles to deal with... Of course, some of you found out anyway, but..."
"If there's anything you want to talk about, I'll listen," she said.
"Hm... Well... if you're really interested... I guess it would pass the time, anyway." He stared off into space, collecting his thoughts. "It seems strange to think I was so excited about it all... I suppose I should start off by saying something about the work of the Sages. My world is positioned at the corner of many different worlds. That's why we came to call our world the Nexus World, the place where the worlds join. Finding ourselves ideally placed as we were to travel between worlds, we appointed ourselves guardians, eternally watching for trouble and giving what help we could." He chuckled softly. "Sometimes I wonder if we're really as heroic as we think we are, or just arrogant.
"I had just recently finished my schooling at the time. The schools where I come from don't necessarily work the way yours do. You graduate when you've completed your program of studies. Some people finish in five years; some need fifteen or twenty to learn it all. I have to confess in all modesty that I was considered a bit of a prodigy. I'd finished my education in record time, and you can imagine I thought I was something special.
"I suppose I would have been better off if my teachers didn't think I was something special, too. When this Digital World project came up, they invited me to come along as an assistant. I was supposed to observe them all in action, to gain a bit of knowledge and experience, and run any odd jobs and menial chores. I thought it was all a big game at the time. I didn't fully realize how serious it was until..."
He trailed off. Miyako waited silently, watching his eyes turn distant again. A trace of pain had come over his features that didn't have anything to do with sickness.
"I was guarding the gate that day. I had never thought it was important work - who would dare storm a castle where a group of elite like us were working. Then Piemon showed up, and I found out how wrong I was... I tried to sound an alarm. I tried to do something to hold them off, but what could one young man do against hundreds? I remember someone shouted at me to get out of the way, but I wasn't listening. I crept inside, trailing Piemon. I must have been crazy, chasing after him... but I had always been a fair hand with a blade, and I had some wild notion of - I don't know, challenging him to a duel or something, I suppose. It didn't work out very well, though. He was amused by it. He laughed at me. The way he said my name with such complete derision... for the first time in my life, I stopped seeing myself as a young hero and realized I was just a jumped-up student who didn't know the first thing about anything important..."
He sighed deeply. "I was one of the few who made it out alive. Thirty-three of us went into that building. Only four came out. Never before or since have I felt like such a complete failure."
"But you weren't a failure!" Miyako protested. "They told me - you saved the eggs and the Digivices and all. You made it possible for us to win!"
It took a moment for him to respond. The oddest expression had crept over his countenance.
"Funny you should mention that," he said.
"This is boring!" V-mon complained.
"Yeah, ditto," said Daisuke. "There's nothing to do around here."
He, Hikari, and Iori were still hanging around Armahn's house, waiting patiently for someone - anyone - to arrive.
"I'm starting to get worried," said Iori. "Shouldn't Koushiro be back by now? He's been gone more than half an hour."
"He's probably just started daydreaming and wandered off," said Daisuke, and immediately clapped his hands over his mouth as if trying to take back what he'd said. The other two glared at him.
"That's what I'm worried about," said Hikari. "Do you think we ought to go looking for him?"
"I think somebody should," said Iori slowly. "We can't just leave him out there. Who knows what could happen to him?"
"What if that Armahn fella shows up?" asked Armadimon. "Won't he get kinda suspicious if we start disappearing?"
"Maybe he won't come back until this evening," Tailmon suggested hopefully. "He was out most of the night last night."
"We don't have much other choice," said Hikari. "I'm starting to get a feeling Koushiro might be in trouble."
"How big?" asked Daisuke.
She looked thoughtful. "Not very. But I think we should check on him anyway."
"You should do it," said Iori. "You'll be the safest of all of us. You've got the crystal."
"I suppose you're right," said Hikari, not sounding completely willing. "Will you two be all right on your own for a while?"
"Sure, we'll be fine, don't worry," said Daisuke. "How much trouble can we get into just hanging around a house?"
"Well, I suppose there's that," she said. "All right. Take care of yourselves... and I'd feel better if you didn't tell anyone where we've gone."
"Can do," said Daisuke. "You be careful too, okay?"
She smiled a little. "Of course I will. Come on, Tailmon. I'm going to need your help to track Koushiro down. By this time, he could be anywhere."
Tailmon nodded and jumped down from the chair she'd been perched on to trot after her partner. The two of them slipped out the front door and out into the street. Daisuke watched them from a window until they had rounded a corner and vanished from sight. He sank back into the chair Tailmon had vacated.
"Well, now it's going to be twice as boring," Daisuke muttered. There was a certain amount of excitement that stemmed just from being in close quarters with the girl he was smitten with, and now that she was gone, he didn't even have that distraction to entertain him. "Now what are we going to do?"
"I suppose sitting quietly and waiting for them to come back is out of the question?" Iori said.
"Yep," said Daisuke. "I'm tired of sitting around doing nothing. I'm going to look around."
"What's to look at?" Iori asked. Nevertheless, his patience must have been running a bit shorter than he'd let on, because when Daisuke left the room, he got up and followed him.
Their exploration of the house went very much like the one Hikari had conducted the previous night, though they had no way of knowing that. The living room they were already familiar with - in fact, knew it better than they really cared to after spending the night in its dull and dusty ambiance. The kitchen was depressingly empty, containing only basic furniture and no decorations - only a few dirty dishes in the sink, most of which had been left by the children and their partners when they'd made breakfast. Daisuke amused himself for a while by poking his nose into cupboards, but was disappointed to find that most of them were empty. All he could find were a few plates and the local approximations of silverware, along with a few cups and mugs. Something like a refrigerator held several unidentified food items, a few of which they had already sampled earlier. They had deemed the meal adequate for assuaging hunger, but nothing anyone would want to eat for fun. Disappointed, Daisuke turned head for what he guessed was Armahn's bedroom, but Iori held him back.
"Don't go in there," he said. "It's not polite to snoop in other people's rooms."
"Big deal," said Daisuke. "He'll never know I was there."
"He will too. You'll move something or knock something over."
"No I won't. I'll be very caref-aah!"
In turning towards Armahn's door, Daisuke's foot had caught on an irregularity in the floor, and he had stumbled. He crashed headfirst into the door and curled up into a ball, yelping in pain.
"Geez, that smarts!" he said, rubbing his bruised forehead. "That's gonna leave a bruise."
"I told you not to try to go in there," said Iori primly.
V-mon was inspecting the patch of floor Daisuke had tripped over. "Hey, you guys, look what Daisuke's foot found!"
Armadimon shuffled over to have a look at what he was pointing at. The floor was made up of irregularly shaped flagstones, but this one was larger than the others. A closer look revealed a small notch in it, suitable for gripping.
"Looks like a trapdoor," he commented.
"Really? Cool!" said Daisuke, injuries forgotten. "Let's open it up!"
"It's probably just a boiler room or something," said Iori.
"Yeah, but even that has to be more interesting than whatever's up here," said Daisuke. "Come on, just one quick look."
"Oh, all right," said Iori, "but make it quick."
Daisuke grabbed the notch and pulled. Much to his surprise, the door swung open easily - it was lighter than it looked. Beneath it was a ladder leading downwards into a square of pitch-black darkness. Everyone crowded around to peer into it.
"I changed my mind," said V-mon. "I don't think I wanna go down there. I'll bet there's spiders down there."
"I doubt it," said Iori factually. "I'm not even sure spiders exist in this world."
"I don't want to climb down there," said Armadimon. "I wasn't built for climbing ladders."
"I guess it is a little dark down there," Daisuke admitted. "We wouldn't be able to see our hands in front of our faces. Maybe we'll save it for later, huh?"
"Good idea," said Iori with something that sounded like relief.
They swung the trapdoor shut and let it fall with a gentle thud. Reluctantly, Daisuke abandoned his discovery and went back to prowling restlessly. He was just inspecting the bathroom fixtures and wondering how you ever got any water out of them, when he was alerted to the sound of a door swinging open and shut.
"Hello?" called Armahn. "Are you still here?"
"I'm in the bathroom!" Daisuke called back.
As he'd expected, he met with no questions. He had learned from previous experience that saying he'd been in the bathroom was one excuse people always accepted without question, and the longer he had been missing, the less likely they were to ask questions.
The two boys and their partners returned to the sitting room to find Armahn standing and looking impatient. When they walked in, he fixed them with a sharp glare.
"Where are the rest of you?" he asked.
Iori frowned, trying to come up with an excuse for their absence, but instant fibs weren't his specialty. Luckily, it was one of Daisuke's.
"They went back to see Gennai," he said.
Armahn looked surprised. "They did?"
"That's right," said Iori, nodding solemnly as if that was what he'd wanted to say all along.
"They were worried about him," Daisuke elaborated, "you know, with him being sick and all, so they decided to just drop in for a few minutes just to see how he was doing, but they left a while ago so they should be back any time."
"I see," said Armahn. "If I had seen them at the juncture, I would have spoken to them."
"Oh, they didn't go that way," said Daisuke brightly.
"Nah," he said, as if he thought Armahn were a bit dim. "You don't think Gennai would send a bunch of kids like us to a place like this without giving us a way to get home in a hurry, do you?"
"I suppose there's that," said Armahn. "I'm not sure how he'd arrange it, but I have to admit, he was always clever where those kinds of things were concerned..."
"Don't ask me to explain it," said Daisuke with a shrug. "I never was much good at that kind of stuff, and Gennai wasn't in much of a shape to explain it when I left."
"Yes... speaking of which, I have good news for you," said Armahn. "I dropped by the medical center on my way to work today and put in a request for the skyflower serum. It will be ready for you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Iori repeated. "That's cutting it close..."
It was Armahn's turn to shrug. "I'm sorry, but that's the best I can do. Skyflower serum takes time to distill, and it is in high demand."
"Well, then I guess tomorrow will have to be good enough," said Daisuke, trying to reconcile himself to spending another day in this dreary place. "But let's try to get it early!"
"You'll have it as soon as possible," Armahn assured him.
"Well, I guess we'll just have to wait for tomorrow," said Iori philosophically. "Thank you for all your help, sir."
"It's the least I can do for an old comrade," answered Armahn. "Do you think either of your friends will be home for a midday meal? I had meant to make lunch while I was here."
"I'm sure they'll turn up sooner or later," Daisuke answered, remembering that breakfast had been rather unsatisfactory, and that he was now hungry again.
"Very well, then. One moment."
Armahn vanished into the kitchen. Iori, not nearly as interested in lunch as he was in worrying about whether tomorrow would be soon enough to receive the skyflower serum and wondering where his friends had gone, listened with half an ear as his footsteps faded away. He did, however, hear and note the ringing silence that followed.
"Have any of you been in the basement?" Armahn asked.
"No," said Iori, trying to sound surprised at the very idea. He shot Daisuke a glare, who only shrugged and pantomimed a "How was I supposed to know?" gesture.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," said Iori. "We didn't even know there was a basement."
"I have to wonder, because the door seems to have been opened."
Iori dared to walk into the kitchen. Sure enough, he could see that the slate had not completely settled back in place when they had dropped it, leaving a half-centimeter projection on one end.
"Oh, that must have been when I tripped over it," said Daisuke, coming in to have a look. "My foot caught on the handle there, and I fell. Gonged my head pretty hard too, look."
He pointed to the purpling bruise on his forehead as proof. Armahn gave him a hard look, but apparently couldn't think of any way or reason for the boys to be lying.
"Very well," he said. "Just let me say that I don't want anyone going down there. It isn't a safe place for children. Furthermore, I would like to remind you that you are guests in my home, and it behooves you to behave yourselves. I will make allowances for you youth, and the fact that you are outworlders, but I have very little patience with people who pry into things that are nothing of your business.
Iori remembered Gennai's warning about how his people had little tolerance for bad behavior and bowed his head in apology.
"I'm sorry," he said. "We didn't mean to pry. Daisuke just gets restless when he has to stay indoors for too long, and it's not safe to go outside..."
"I see," said Armahn. "I suppose it must be difficult for children to be trapped in such a small space... I will have to see if I can find some means for you to entertain yourselves during your stay here."
His bout of annoyance seemed to have passed. He set about preparing a simple meal and setting the table for the five of them. The boys did their best to stay out of the way, both of them feeling a bit chagrined after the lecture about prying. When the meal was finally served, they sat down quietly and ate with rather less gusto than they might have under other circumstances.
"I am sorry to serve you such poor fare," said Armahn, "but I seldom entertain guests, and I'm not certain of what would be best to give you. I would hate to give you something that would disagree with you."
"This is fine," said Iori, nibbling at his food. He wasn't sure exactly what it was, other than it looked and felt like a bar of soap and tasted like some kind of mild cheese, and appeared to be the local staple food. It didn't have a lot of flavor, but it was reasonably filling. It also required a lot of chewing, which had the advantage of keeping Daisuke quiet while he ate it.
They kept the conversation to polite lines, chatting about the days when Armahn and Gennai had known each other in school, and some of the mischief Gennai had gotten into. Iori had rather gotten used to Gennai as being someone rather wise and powerful, if a bit eccentric, and he was mildly shocked to hear about him being dragged before the authorities for trying to sneak into the girls' dormitory. Daisuke seemed rather impressed.
After lunch, Armahn cleared off the plates, and then excused himself, saying he was needed back at work. He walked out without even a goodbye. Daisuke watched him with an expression of vague distrust.
"He sure does work a lot," he said.
Iori looked around at the squalid furnishings in the tiny room. "Maybe he has to. It doesn't look like Gatekeepers make a lot of money, does it?"
"Nah, I guess not," said Daisuke. "So, now that he's gone, how about we have a look in that basement now?"
"What? Are you out of your mind?" asked Iori. "After what he just said..."
"There's a reason why he doesn't want us down there," said Daisuke. "I want to know what it is."
"It's none of our business," said Iori. "What are you thinking? That he's got some kind of mad scientist's lab down there? Get real."
"Then why does he want us to stay out?" Daisuke persisted.
"Because these are people who value their privacy. Besides, it's probably not safe down there," said Iori.
"I want to look anyway," said Daisuke, looking stubborn.
"Me too," said V-mon. There was nothing that made him want to do things like being told not to do them.
"Well, if you insist, will you at least wait until the others get back?" asked Iori. "If they agree to it, I'll be outvoted."
"Hm..." said Daisuke, thinking hard. "I guess I can wait."
"Good," Iori said. Privately, he expected that this would be the end of the problem. Iori had high regard for Koushiro and Hikari's good sense. He doubted they would let Daisuke do anything stupid, and Daisuke was more likely to listen to Hikari than he was to Iori.
"I just hope they get back soon," said Daisuke. "Where the heck are they, anyway? I expected them to be back by now. Hey, maybe we ought to mount a rescue mission!"
"Sit down," said Iori tiredly. "We can't just go running off. We have to stay here and wait until they come back, or they'll never find us."
"You're no fun," Daisuke grumped.
"I'm not here to be fun. I'm here, among other things, to keep you in line."
Daisuke sighed. "I wish Gennai had sent Miyako instead of you."
Iori started to say there was a reason why Gennai hadn't sent her, but he gave it up as a futile attempt. There was just no arguing with Daisuke, sometimes, when he got an idea in his head. He could only wait and hope that Hikari and Koushiro returned soon.
Koushiro leaned forward in his chair, hardly aware that he was holding his breath in anticipation. A feeling was creeping over him that he was about to get some answers for the questions that had begun plaguing him, that this mysterious woman was about to tell him everything he needed to know. He waited patiently to hear what she was about to say.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.
Koushiro deflated. "Umm... What?"
"I was just thinking that I haven't had lunch yet," the woman said. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get something to eat before I do anything else."
Koushiro had a vague feeling that she was putting off an unpleasant subject, but he also realized that he was hungry, and that he hadn't even had breakfast, much less lunch.
"Yes, I'm hungry," he said. "I'll bet Tentomon is, too."
"Well, I wasn't going to complain or anything, but..." Tentomon said.
The woman laughed a little. "All right. Wait a moment, and I'll be right back."
She rose gracefully and exited the room. Koushiro waited, trying not to fidget and trying not to be too tempted to get up and start trying to read some of the things on her shelves. After what seemed like an eternity, the woman returned bearing a silver tray with a surprisingly ordinary-looking tea set on it. She poured Koushiro a cup of some pinkish liquid, which he sampled tentatively and found to be surprisingly good, and offered him a plate of some kind of dumplings with fruit-like flavors. She took a long drink from her teacup.
"That's better," she said. "You have no idea how much it rattled me, when I realized who you must be. It's been years since I've had word from Gennai. I was starting to wonder if something had happened to him... Has something happened to him?"
Koushiro gave the most truthful answer he could think of. "Not yet."
"That's a relief," she said. "He always was the kind for getting into trouble... There were others who said he was too rebellious to ever be called a true Sage, but I always thought he would make it someday..."
"You two... were friends, then?" asked Koushiro cautiously.
"Yes, we were very close, a long time ago," she replied. "I suppose I'm one of the few people left who has any fondness for him..."
Koushiro remembered Hikari talking about her dream. "...They were acting like they thought... like they thought he might have killed someone."
"Did he do something wrong?" he asked. "Is that why he doesn't want any of us to mention him? But... if he did something wrong, why are they still sending him supplies and things?"
The woman smiled, apparently amused by his quest for knowledge. "Well... whether or not he did anything is a controversial question. You see... I suppose you recall his involvement in the creation of your Tags and Crests and Digivices?"
Koushiro nodded. "I know a little about that, yes."
"Well... at the time of Piemon's attack, Gennai was assigned to stand guard duty," she said. "He was watching the main gate when the armies attacked. He told me afterwards - the times we managed to talk to each other - that he'd done everything he could to protect them, and I believe him. He may have been a troublemaker at school, but he never backed down from a fight, no matter what the odds, when it came to defending someone who needed it. He never would have let them past unless he had no other choice."
Koushiro nodded, wondering why she was pleading her case before him like this. He wasn't the one who was accusing Gennai of anything! He wondered vaguely just how long this woman had been waiting to find someone who would listen to her side of the story.
"Well... you know, I suppose, that things went badly that day. Almost the entire team died that day. Only Gennai and a few others survived. For a group of people who pride themselves for their wisdom, their magic, and their defensive abilities, it was an unprecedented loss, and a terrible blow. I remember how everyone talked about it - they gossiped for days about how such a thing could have happened. I suppose it was inevitable that some rumors could have gotten started."
Sensing they were about to get to the heart of this dialogue, Koushiro asked, "What kind of rumors?"
"Well... after a while, whispers started surfacing that Gennai had not been monitoring the situation closely enough - that he had been playing around somewhere instead of watching the gate as he was supposed to. He did have that kind of reputation, and everyone knew it... but he was devoted to the Digital World project! He was so proud to be a part of it, I know he would never have made a lapse like that."
"He didn't," said Koushiro. "He was there fighting! He fought Piemon and saved the eggs..."
"That was taken into account," the woman replied, "but still, when there was even a suspicion that he could have been at fault for the loss of more than two dozen lives... there was no way a disciplinary hearing could be avoided. You have to understand, we had never had a shock like this before; the people were clamoring for blame to be placed somewhere. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find an unbiased jury. I tried to help him. I asked to be brought forth as a character witness, but they wouldn't let me. They said I was biased - that I had my reasons for wanting his named cleared - well, somehow it had gotten out that he'd asked leave to court me..." She blushed slightly. "I was told my presence might do more harm than good. I was forced to stand by as an observer only. It was... very painful for me to watch."
Koushiro was dumbfounded. "You don't mean to say that they convicted him for...?"
"Oh, no, not a conviction," she said. "They were not so unfair as that. There was no proof that he had done anything wrong at all either way, and the fact that he clearly did all he could to salvage the situation counted in his favor. He was released, but the damage had been done. Gossip and lies are as vile as any poison ever brewed, and sometimes just as deadly. There were too many people here who were convinced that their sons and brothers and fathers and husbands would still live today if it hadn't been for Gennai's lapses. There was no life for him here. He asked to be transferred back to the Digital World, to keep watch over it and do what he could to carry on, and they were only too happy to let him go."
"I find it hard to believe that they would entrust a whole world to a man they'd just accused of being fatally careless," said Koushiro.
The woman's expression was wry. "On the contrary, I think they were happy to let him go back to the Digital World. They thought he was only fit for it, in a way of speaking. The Digital World had come to represent failure to us - an abysmal mistake, too far gone to be worth trying to save. Even those who survived Piemon's raid were touched by its stigma; all of them were demoted to the level of Novice, and Gennai was relieved of his titles entirely."
"Novice?" asked Koushiro.
"The lowest title in our society. You begin as a Novice, then progress to Acolyte, Master, and finally Sage. All those who had been on the project were Sages, and losing their rank was a terrible setback."
"I see. Please, continue. So, Gennai hasn't got his titles anymore? No wonder he doesn't want to come back here - he's an outcast."
"It's rather more complicated than that," the woman replied.
"Well, after Gennai left this world, he became completely devoted to preserving his new home. I think he was determined to make up for the loss of his friends and the failure of his project. He kept a careful guard over the eggs until the time came for the Digimon to join their partners. He monitored the movements of evil Digimon. He protected the Digital World from the interference of outsiders. And he guided you and your friends through your journeys in the Digital World. And in the end, you - and he - did the last thing any of us ever imagined: you succeeded. Suddenly Gennai was no longer an outcast, but a hero, and one who had obviously had a number of unfair accusations leveled against him. What could we do? We restored him to his full rank, gave him a formal apology, and hailed him as a hero. And thus he encountered a new set of problems."
"Let me guess," said Koushiro. "I'll get jealousy was one of them."
"Too true," the woman replied. "Besides all the old suspicion, he now had the resentment of those who felt he had been forgiven too easily, and envy from those who wished they could do what he had done. It was too much for most people to see the outcast they had reviled doing more than anyone ever could."
"A lot of people must have hated him for living and being so successful when their friends and relatives had all died trying to do what he did," said Koushiro, catching on.
"Yes. And then he followed up by helping you again, this time to defeat BelialVamdemon. It was a bit much for most people. He is free to come here any time he chooses, but I believe he has chosen the best course when he opted to remain in the Digital World. He's something of a persona non grata these days."
"You speak Latin?" said Koushiro, momentarily surprised.
"I speak languages you've never heard of," she answered, with a hint of a smile.
"Well, anyway... you've answered a lot of questions for me," Koushiro said. "Things are a lot clearer now. Just one more thing... whatever happened to the ones who survived? Did any of them ever get their titles and things back?"
"Some of them managed minor comebacks, though none of them ever achieved the same notoriety our friend Gennai did. One of them is working as a Healer in a local hospital now. One of them was put to work monitoring the network of inter-world portals. One of them got Gennai's old job with the local lawkeepers and is doing very well. One of them gave up and dropped out of the program entirely; he was never quite the same after his brother died."
"I see. Thank you," Koushiro replied. "You've been a big help... I guess I'd better get going now. I've been gone a lot longer than I intended to."
"Will you be able to find your way back?" the woman asked. "When I found you, you were wandering around in a dream, and I doubt you know your way around the city."
"I'd be grateful if you could give me a point in the right direction," he admitted. "You wouldn't, by any chance, know a guy named Armahn, would you?"
"Everyone knows Armahn, for better or for worse," she said. "In my case, for the better. He's not the best company in the world, but he's willing to pass letters back and forth between Gennai and me. Since that's the only way I'm able to communicate with him these days, his help is much appreciated."
"Yeah, he seems like a pretty decent guy," Koushiro agreed. "He's letting my friends and me stay with him while we accomplish our business here."
"Well, I wish you the best of luck," the woman replied. "And when you see Gennai next... tell him Shaedra sends her best wishes."
"I'll do that," Koushiro promised.
After getting directions from Shaedra, Koushiro stepped out into the pale white streets again, with Tentomon buzzing softly over his shoulder.
"Well, that was enlightening," said Koushiro.
"I suppose," Tentomon answered doubtfully. "If you're interested in Gennai's ancient history, I guess it was very educational."
"It was more than that," Koushiro replied.
"Really? Are you going to tell me about it, or should I just guess?"
"Umm... Actually, I'd feel better if I kept my thoughts to myself," Koushiro replied. "I'd hate to be premature about things."
"I hate it when you get like this," Tentomon complained. "You know, it's really not fun trying to guess what you're thinking all the time."
"You want to know the truth?" Koushiro replied. "Knowing what I'm thinking isn't exactly a picnic, either."
Their discussion was interrupted by a distant voice shouting. The two of them turned to see Hikari and Tailmon come dashing up the street. A few other people stopped what they were doing to see the strange girl and stranger animal that were disturbing their peace.
"There you two are," said Hikari, when she was within speaking distance. "Where have you been? We were worried about you."
"Sorry," Koushiro replied, looking chagrined. "I got wrapped up in something. You'll never guess who I ran into - Gennai's old girlfriend!"
Hikari blinked. "Gee. I never even knew he had one of those."
"Well, apparently he does... or he did. I don't get the impression they've seen each other for a long time," Koushiro replied. "She told me a few things about his past - filled in a few blanks. At least now we know why he didn't want us to start using his name."
"You found out what he did?" asked Hikari, impressed in spite of herself. "What was it?"
"Well, the short version is that he was a little too successful for his own good," Koushiro replied. "See, it happened kind of like this..."
"...and that's how it happened," Gennai finished.
"That's really kind of sad," said Miyako. "You go through all that work, and they kick you out..."
"Not so much kicked out as made to feel unwelcome," he said. "And it's really all right. I'm more at home here than I ever was in the Nexus World. Besides, if I had stayed there, I never would have met any of you. I would have counted it a very great loss, never to have met you."
For a few seconds, she was stunned. Hesitantly, she asked, "Do you mean...?"
But she received no answer. Tired out by his recitation, Gennai had fallen asleep. She hesitated a moment, then gently set his meal tray aside and pulled his blankets more comfortably around him. Then she settled down in her chair, watching and thinking. In time, she, too, fell asleep. She dreamed vaguely of a world defended by swordsmen, and she smiled in her sleep.
She was awakened somewhat rudely - she thought - by Mimi the next morning.
"Your breakfast is ready," Mimi said. "Aren't you going to wake up?"
"Mm?" said Miyako sleepily. She sat up, blinking and rubbing at her eyes. "Wha's going on?"
"It's morning. You've overslept," said Mimi. "Your breakfast is waiting, and so is Hawkmon."
"What about..." said Miyako.
"Don't worry," Mimi assured her. "I can look after him for a while. I've been doing it for the last couple of days, you know."
"Oh," said Miyako. She gave it up and wandered off to breakfast.
She arrived at the kitchen table to find that most of the others were finishing up. She grabbed a roll and started smearing jelly on it, listening in to the conversations going on around her.
"So how's Gennai doing?" Takeru asked.
"Well, he seemed okay last night," she said through a mouthful of bread. She swallowed and continued, "We had a nice talk before he fell asleep."
"As long as he's capable of carrying on a conversation, we're in the clear," said Jyou. "Things are only really dangerous after the hallucination stage."
"Well, he wasn't hallucinating yesterday," said Miyako. "Except for the cough, you'd never know anything was wrong with him."
"He'll make it," said Taichi positively. "He's a fighter, like us... Wish Hikari and the others would get back, though. I expected them to be here by now."
"They'll be here. They've still got a few more days," said Ken soothingly. "Come on, she's got Daisuke with her. He'd never let harm get within a mile of Hikari if he could help it... and Koushiro and Iori will keep Daisuke in line," he added as an afterthought.
"Do you need any help with the computers today, Ken?" asked Miyako. "I kind of fell asleep while I was on duty, so I'm wide awake now."
"I think between me, Jyou, and Wormmon, we're going to have it covered," Ken replied. "Add anyone else, and there won't be room in there to turn around."
"Why don't you come on patrols with us?" Yamato asked. "We could always use an extra pair of hands."
"Fine with me," said Miyako. "What do you say, Hawkmon? Feel like bringing me along today?"
"You know I'm always glad to have you around," said Hawkmon courteously.
"Well, that settles it, then," said Takeru. "Glad to have you aboard, Miyako."
When they had finished eating, they stepped outside into the bright morning sunshine. Miyako turned her face to the light, feeling a sense of relief to be outdoors in the fresh air. It occurred to her that she hadn't been outside for more than a minute or two since she had first learned of Gennai's illness. It would be good for her to be outside and stretch her legs a bit.
"Ready to fly, Hawkmon?" she asked. "Okay, let's do it!"
There was a flash of reddish light as Hawkmon evolved into Horusmon. Previous to this, he had used his natural evolution, but when he was carrying a passenger, it was more comfortable for the both of them to evolve with the Digimental of Love. Miyako mounted up, while the rest of the group did the same.
"Okay, Miyako," Taichi called. "Horusmon should know his area pretty well by now, so you don't have to worry about guiding him. Just keep an eye out for trouble and give us a call if you find any!"
"Can do!" she called back brightly.
"Right, then! See you later!"
The boys scattered, and Miyako and her partner soared off into the sky. She smiled. Being trapped inside wasn't her thing; she wasn't exactly the athlete that Daisuke or Taichi was, but she liked being outside, feeling the wind tossing her hair. Even more than that, she loved flying. High above the earth, troubles seemed smaller.
"Boy, it's nice to be up here," she said to Horusmon, who she knew would be listening. He always listened to whatever she had to say - a blessing to a girl who liked to talk.
"I hope you aren't working yourself too hard in there," he replied.
"Not too hard," she said. "Actually, I think it'll be a relief to be looking after Gennai instead of being down there working on those obstinate computers. He's a lot less obstinate... and easier on the eyes."
"Hm," said Horusmon thoughtfully.
"We had a nice long talk last night before he went to sleep," she continued blithely. "He's really nice, but he's had a rough life. I feel kind of sorry for him. He's probably really lonely, out here by himself... and all the people back home don't like him, and the only company he's got out here are Digimon. Maybe when this is all over with, we'll have to make plans to come back and visit."
"That would be the polite thing to do," said her partner vaguely.
She continued to chatter, and Horusmon continued to listen, as was his duty as a partnered Digimon and a friend. Most of the time, he didn't mind the obligation at all. Today, though, it was only adding to an already long list of worries.
Iori had his nose almost pressed to the window next to Armahn's front door. He was trying not to give the impression that he was over-anxious for the other two members of their party to return. Nearby, Armadimon was curled up in a chair, watching his partner with an expression of faint unhappiness - not because of anything Iori was doing, but because he had hoped to take a snooze while nobody else was doing anything important, but it was proving to be impossible to get a decent nap going while Daisuke was in a restless mood.
"I'm bored!" the older boy complained. "When are they going to get here?"
Iori remained silent. Since Daisuke had already asked a variation of the same question several times now, the younger boy had had ample opportunity to learn that Daisuke didn't really want an answer. He had simply been cooped up in a small area for too long, and was furthermore worried about his friends and what might be going on in his absence, and he had to do or say something to release that pent-up energy. Since the other alternatives probably would have wound up involving property damage sooner or later, Iori had made up his mind to go ahead and let him complain.
"I'm bored, too," said V-mon. "Do you think they're in trouble? Do you think we should go look for them?"
"We'd get lost, too," said Iori practically.
"Even getting stuck in one of those stupid daydreams would be better than this," Daisuke grumped. "At least it would be interesting."
V-mon, tired of conversation, began prowling. He climbed up a rickety bookshelf, moved quickly to avoid knocking over a very battered-looking old book, and then continued scaling until he had reached a point somewhere near the low ceiling. There he discovered a miniature window, probably more for ventilation than anything else. Since it was there, he opened it and stuck his head out.
"Hey, V-mon, see anything up there?" Daisuke called, moderately interested by the spectacle.
"Yeah!" the little dragon replied. "Looks like somebody's coming up the street... Yeah, I think it's them!"
"All right! Finally!" said Daisuke with relief in his voice. "Let's go out and meet them!"
"You can meet them when they get to the door," said Iori. "You are not going out."
"You're no fun," Daisuke grumped.
In due time, Koushiro, Hikari, and their partners arrived, none of them looking any worse off for their little journey.
"Hi, guys, we're home!" called Koushiro cheerfully. "Anything happen while we were gone?"
"Not a lot," said Iori. "Where have you been?"
"Just taking a walk," Koushiro answered with a shrug.
"Actually he started daydreaming and got lost," said Tentomon irritably, "and he'd probably still be lost if that woman hadn't found him and rescued him."
"Er, yes," said Koushiro, coloring a bit, "but the point is, we're all okay now. I ran into an old friend of Gennai's, and we had a nice talk. Don't worry," he added, catching Iori's inquisitive look, "I didn't let her know Gennai is sick. Actually, I think she knows more about the situation around here than the eight of us put together, so I couldn't have let much slip if I tried. One thing was pretty clear: she's as concerned for his welfare as we are. I think we can trust her."
Iori looked reassured. "Well, as long as you were careful, I guess it's all right."
"Don't worry about a thing," said Koushiro.
"Hey, Koushiro, guess what?" said Daisuke. "While you were gone, we found out there's a hidden room under the house!"
"There is?" asked Hikari, curious.
"Actually it's a basement," said Iori. "Daisuke's going crazy because Armahn told us to stay out, so of course now Daisuke thinks there's got to be something down there he's not supposed to look at. I told him not to try it until you two got home. I was hoping you could talk him out of it."
"Why would you want to go poking around in someone else's basement?" asked Hikari, looking mildly amazed. "There's never anything in basements but old junk and dust."
"Well, sometimes old junk is interesting," said Daisuke sheepishly.
"Actually, I wouldn't mind having a look myself," said Koushiro.
Iori and Hikari gave him identical looks of amazement. He shrugged.
"It couldn't hurt," he said. "I mean, as long as we don't break anything or mess anything up..."
"If Daisuke goes down there, he'll find a way to break something," said Iori.
"Hey, are you saying I'm a klutz?" said Daisuke.
"No," Iori replied. "You're just... energetic. You have a hard time being still and quiet. You won't be able to resist getting into something."
Daisuke looked like he wanted to argue, but he changed his mind. He sighed. "I guess you're right. That does kind of sound like me. Okay, how 'bout this? How about we send Koushiro down, and he can tell us what's down there?"
"Um," said Iori.
"Let him do it," Hikari suggested, "if it will keep Daisuke happy."
"Oh, all right," said Iori. "I just hope we don't get caught."
"I know how to fix that," said Hikari. "Daisuke, do us a favor - go outside and sit on the steps and watch out for Armahn. If you see him coming, make some noise. Don't say he's coming - that will look like we're up to something. Just... start telling jokes or sing the school fight song or something."
"Can do!" said Daisuke and V-mon together. They headed for the door, eager to be out of the suffocating environment of the tiny house.
Free to indulge his legendary curiosity, Koushiro followed Iori into the kitchen and examined the trapdoor. Iori found a small lamp hanging on the wall and handed it to him. Something glowed softly inside, something that looked more like starlight than flame, putting out just enough light that Koushiro would be able to see by it.
"I'll be back in a minute," he said.
Carefully, he crept down the rickety ladder, moving slowly due to the fact that he could only use one hand; the other was holding the lamp. Ten feet down, he touched an earthen floor with his foot and collected himself. The dim light he was carrying was just enough to show him the outlines of a large room, about the same size as the four upstairs floors put together, with thick stone columns forming supports here and there. The center of the room was taken up by a large stove or boiler of some sort, standing dark and unattended in the warm weather. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be anything else of interest. Edging his way around the perimeter of the room, he found a much used table, covered in scuffs, burns, and stains, with an added layer of dust. Next to it was an equally dilapidated shelf full of glassware and other odds and ends; most were empty, some broken, and all dusty. One corner of the room was piled with broken furniture and machinery of the sort that seemed to be waiting for someone to have the time or inclination to repair it. In a heap next to the furnace were a collection of wooden packing crates similar to what they had seen Armahn working with when they'd first met him; he appeared to have claimed a few that were no longer in use for firewood. Koushiro prowled around, looking for anything he might have missed, when his attention was caught by a peculiar sound.
"Brush your teeth with Ultra-White! Gets your choppers super-bright!"
Koushiro had to stifle an urge to laugh, despite the seriousness of the situation: Daisuke and V- mon were singing jingles for toothpaste in slightly off-key two-part harmony. Taking that as his cue, he scampered up the ladder as fast as he could, shoved the trapdoor shut, and hung the lamp back on his hook.
"...gives your teeth a pearly glow..." sang Daisuke and V-mon; they sounded as if they were enjoying themselves. They were just beginning to blast out the last couplet when a they were interrupted by a gruff and completely unmusical voice.
"What is all this nonsense?" Armahn demanded.
"Sorry. Haven't you ever got a song stuck in your head before?" Koushiro could just imagine Daisuke's ingratiating grin and the scowl on Armahn's face. Koushiro did a bit of grinning himsef as he dusted off his clothes; you could always count on Daisuke to make the most bizarre excuses seem perfectly natural!
A few moments later, Armahn stepped into his living room, berating Daisuke and V-mon for their unseemly behavior. He arrived to find Koushiro and Iori sprawled on the carpet playing hangman on a scrap of paper, while Hikari and the Digimon hung around and kibitzed. Armahn stopped ranting to look at them.
"Hello. When did you get back?" he said, surprised.
"Just a few minutes ago," answered Hikari.
"Ah," said Armahn. "I expected you to stay longer, somehow. How is Gennai doing?"
Behind him, Daisuke was making frantic gestures. Koushiro got the gist of what he was trying to communicate and took the hint.
"Not so good," he said with a convincing sigh. "He barely knew who I was. It was pretty depressing, really."
"Ah. I'm sorry to hear that," said Armahn, hanging his head. "Still, we shouldn't lose hope. The medicine is nearly ready... I'm sure your friends have told you already."
"Yes, they told us as soon as we got home," said Hikari, catching on. "We're very relieved."
"You have nothing to worry about," said Armahn. "By tomorrow morning, you'll have your medicine, and it will be only a matter of time before Gennai is well again... and I will no longer have to deal with any of your disturbances," he added, giving Daisuke a sharp glance. Daisuke and V-mon grinned sheepishly.
"Believe me, it will be a relief to go home again," said Koushiro.
"Well, I just came home to make sure you were staying out of trouble," said Armahn. "I'm on my break now, and there is little of interest to do at the station."
"If I worked in a place like that, I'd be glad to get out of it, too," said Daisuke. "Bet it's tough work shoving those boxes around all day."
Koushiro and Iori both glared at Daisuke, but Daisuke was looking the wrong way and didn't see them.
Armahn stiffened a little but said, "Thankfully, my work requires little of such menial labor. My primary duties are simply to monitor the ports and make sure nothing unauthorized gets in or out... one reason why I was so surprised to hear that the two of you had returned to the Digital World without my knowing."
Daisuke looked a little guilty, but Koushiro only said, "Gennai made arrangements for our transportation. I'd be happy to explain them to you, if you have a little spare time."
"Not right now," said Armahn. "Perhaps this evening, if I'm free. Well, as long as you four are here..."
"Eight," said Daisuke.
"There are eight of us," Daisuke said. "Four kids, four Digimon. That makes eight."
"Ehm, yes. As I was saying, as long as you are here, I thought you might like something with which to amuse yourselves. I was able to acquire these..."
He reached into a hidden pocket in his robes and took out four squareish objects, each roughly the size of a deck of cards. They appeared to be made of clear glass, and colorful metallic-looking substances were sliding around inside. When they tilted the boxes around, the patterns changed colors and rearranged themselves, forming pictures of dragons, or birds, or waterfalls.
"They are perhaps a bit juvenile for you," said Armahn. "We give them to small children to amuse them when they need to be kept quiet for long periods of time. I thought they might help keep you from growing too restless."
"Thank you," said Iori courteously. Perhaps he was smarting more from Armahn's overlooking the Digimon than he wanted to let on, because instead of keeping his box, he passed it to Armadimon, who accepted it curiously.
"You have no need to return them when you leave," said Armahn. "I have no need of them, and they are inexpensive and easily attained. Consider them a souvenir of your visit."
Hikari nodded. She had studied the box for a bit, but the shifting colors and patterns made her feel slightly disoriented. Still, it seemed impolite to complain about a gift.
"Well, if you all are comfortable... I only wanted to give you your gifts, and to tell you that I may be returning home late tonight. I would feel better if you didn't wait up for me."
"All right," said Koushiro idly. He was holding his box but not moving it; there seemed to be other things on his mind.
"Perhaps I will pick up some picture-boxes for you partners," said Armahn, watching Tailmon paw inquisitively at her partner's new toy. "I will see you tomorrow. Goodbye."
He turned and marched out of the room. Iori went to peer out the window until the man had vanished.
"Well, now that he's gone, we can talk," said Koushiro. "Daisuke, put that thing down."
Daisuke and V-mon were staring at the picture-box with enraptured expressions, watching the colored substances inside twist and sparkle. They appeared to be paying no attention whatsoever to anything else going on around them. When Daisuke didn't react to Koushiro's annoyed comment, Koushiro reached out and snatched it from his hands.
"That thing's pretty cool," said Daisuke, apparently not bothered by the interruption. "Aren't you going to look at yours?"
"Later," said Koushiro tersely. "Aren't you going to ask what was in the basement?"
"Oh, yeah! I forgot about that in all the commotion," said Daisuke. "What was down there? Anything good?"
"Junk," said Koushiro. "Lots of junk. Broken stuff. Old boxes. That kind of thing."
"That's dumb," said Daisuke disapprovingly. "Why wouldn't we be allowed to look at that? It wouldn't matter if we broke it if its already broken, would it?"
"Well, there was some glass down there," said Koushiro. "Not all of it was broken... I suppose we could have hurt ourselves messing with it."
"Yeah, if we were about three years old," Daisuke grumped. "What a ripoff! I had to sing those stupid commercials for nothing. Now they'll be stuck in my head all day."
"Don't worry," said Koushiro. "I think I might have learned more than it sounds like I did."
"There he goes again!" Tentomon muttered. "He's acting like he knows something, and he won't tell me what!"
"I don't think I know anything," said Koushiro. "I've just got a suspicion. Between some of Armahn's offhand comments and what I learned from Shaedra..."
"Who's Shaedra?" Daisuke interrupted.
"Gennai's old girlfriend. Listen, I've got an inkling there's something bigger going on here than just Gennai's getting sick."
"What do you think it is?" asked Hikari, wide-eyed.
"A plot. Possibly a conspiracy," Koushiro replied. "Just let me fill the guys in on what they missed..."
He began to tell the story that Shaedra had told him about the supposed failure of the Digital World project and Gennai's subsequent relocation. The other Chosen Children hung on to his every word. Meanwhile, Armadimon fell asleep.
The group who had been standing guard over the Digital World had fallen into their routine. During the daylight hours, Ken and Jyou, sometimes assisted by Wormmon, monitored the computers and reported any abnormalities to their friends. Taichi, Yamato, Takeru, and Miyako patrolled the Digital World for trouble. Mimi guarded their mentor by day, and Miyako sat with him from the moment she returned home from patrolling until Mimi woke her again the next morning. There were only slight variations in their daily patterns. Once, Sora called them to check on the status of things, and to assure them all that her cold was getting better and that she hoped to rejoin them soon. One day at lunch, Jyou was perusing a book and stumbled across a reference to a medicine that might help to slow the fever's progress, or at least control some of its symptoms, and he had spent the better part of the afternoon searching the storeroom before triumphantly returning with it. It did seem to help matters for a while; his cough subsided and his fever dropped considerably, and he seemed to have more energy. For a while, there was an atmosphere of wary hope, an unspoken but real thought that maybe Gennai would beat the odds and survive even without the antidote.
Then one evening, the patrol group returned for dinner, tired and dusty but victorious. They had run into some trouble with a tribe of Rockmon, who had fortunately been more irritable than they were intelligent, and the group had been able to trounce them handily. That, coupled with their good feelings about Gennai's recovery, put them in a jubilant mood. They were clustered on the front porch, rehashing their battle while their Digimon devolved, when they were surprised to see a rather flustered Mimi come rushing out of the house.
"Guys, guys, you have to come!" she squeaked, an edge of panic in her voice.
"What's wrong?" Taichi asked.
"Just come and see," said Mimi, and she scampered back into the house. Exchanging grave looks, the others followed.
They found the rest of their crew standing around Gennai's bed. He was lying there, but not quietly; his eyes were closed tightly, and his face shone with sweat. He was talking to himself in a hoarse voice... to himself, or someone only he could hear. The others stood in dead silence, staring.
"How long has he been like this?" asked Miyako.
"Since sometime after lunch," Mimi answered. She was trembling slightly, and Palmon twined a vine around her in an effort to comfort her. "He said he was tired and needed a nap... I thought he seemed kind of out of it, but I thought it was just because he was sleepy... but then he started acting like this, and I can't wake him up!"
The other Chosen looked at each other and their partners. Nobody wanted to say anything.
"It's the last stage of the disease," said Jyou grimly. "The last stage where it's treatable, anyway. If the others don't get back today or sometime tomorrow..."
"Then they've got today and tomorrow," said Taichi forcefully. "They'll make it. They have to make it."
"There's nothing we can accomplish by standing around staring," said Yamato. "We might as well go on about our business... We should probably start making dinner."
Miyako shook her head. "I'm not hungry. I want to stay here and help. Maybe there's something I can do... I can at least... keep him company."
"There isn't much," said Jyou. "He's in his own world now, Miyako. He's not even going to know you're here."
Miyako looked slightly crushed. Mimi gave Jyou a glare and put a hand on Miyako's shoulder.
"You can help me," she said. "I could use some company."
Miyako nodded. The others filed out of the room.
"Maybe Miyako's got the right idea," said Takeru. "I don't think any of us are going to want to eat dinner tonight."
"And things had been doing so well up until now," said Taichi dejectedly.
"I'm starting to get a little worried," said Takeru. "I mean, I know that's not my job or anything, but we really are running out of time. You heard what Jyou said. Wherever Hikari and the others are, they've only got a few hours left to get that medicine and get back here."
"That's not all I'm worried about."
Everyone turned and looked. None of them had expected Hawkmon to speak.
"What are you worried about?" asked Ken, vaguely surprised.
"Isn't it obvious?" asked Hawkmon. "I'm worried about Miyako."
"What's wrong with her?" asked Taichi. "You don't think she's going to get sick too, do you?"
"No... not in the way you mean," Hawkmon replied. "It's just that... well... don't you think she's taking this a little too seriously?"
"This is a life-and-death situation," said Yamato. "How much more serious can it get?"
"Well, you know how she is," Hawkmon answered with an embarrassed shrug. "It's, well... She tells me about things when we're alone on patrols, and lately all she's been able to talk about is him. He's been filling her head with these stories about his swashbuckling youth, and she's been taking in every word. She's got this idea of some kind of tragic hero, and add to that the fact that she's been taking care of him..."
"Florence Nightingale syndrome," said Takeru, catching on.
"I don't get it," said Taichi, who after all didn't spend a great deal of time with Miyako.
"I hate to say it," said Hawkmon. "But knowing her nature, I have no choice but to conclude that she's become somewhat... infatuated."
"Oh, geez," said Takeru.
"Well, that makes life complicated, doesn't it?" said Jyou with a grimace. "Just what we needed."
"Well, it's not like her crushes ever last long," said Takeru, and then made a face. "Something about that doesn't sound appropriate in this situation."
"Well, there's not much we can do about it now," said Ken factually. "Nothing except be supportive, and do what we can for Gennai."
"True," said Hawkmon. "Still... Either way, it's going to be hard on her, isn't it?"
"Yeah... I guess they're not the most appropriate match, are they?" said Yamato. "He's not even exactly human... and no telling exactly how old he is..."
"And there's Shaedra," said Taichi.
Everyone looked at him.
"Who or what is Shaedra?" Takeru asked.
"I dunno," said Taichi. "Sora said she heard Gennai talking about whoever-it-is in his sleep. We thought it might be an old flame or something."
"Great," said Jyou. "Let's do everybody a favor and not bring any of this up in front of Miyako?"
"She'll deny it all anyway," said Hawkmon with a shrug. "I doubt she's even admitted anything to herself."
"We should have known better," Takeru sighed. "Never leave Miyako alone in a room with a good-looking guy! ... I shouldn't be making fun. This whole situation has been one big mess from start to finish."
"It's not finished yet," said Taichi grimly. "We've got a few more days before that happens. I don't know about you guys, but I'm ready to get cleaned up and get some rest. I've got dibs on the bath."
"Okay, but I get it next," said Yamato with the faintest ghost of a smile.
The group scattered, some in search of a hot bath, others thinking of nothing more than lying down and looking to escape their troubles in dreams. In the room where Miyako and Mimi were keeping vigil, they heard people moving up and down the halls and realized what the sounds meant.
"Sounds like the others are going to sleep," said Miyako. "You can leave now, if you want."
"Are you sure?" asked Mimi. "I know I wouldn't want to be left alone all night when he's like this..."
"If I get lonely, I'll ask Hawkmon to keep me company," Miyako assured her friend. "Go on, get some sleep. You look exhausted."
Mimi nodded; she was mentally and emotionally drained, and she was feeling it. Even just thinking about it made her yawn.
"I guess you're right," she said. "I could use a break. Call if you need anything... or if anything happens..."
"Don't worry, I will," Miyako assured her.
An exhausted Mimi was led out of the room by her attentive partner, and Miyako found herself left in a dim and not-quite-silent room. It was a strange feeling, being left with someone who was physically present but mentally in some other world of his own making. Gennai was still sleeping, or in a state very like sleep, but he was whispering to some presence that only he could sense. It was only a whisper, but in the quiet room, she could hear clearly what he was saying.
"...Don't tell them what happened," he begged some invisible person. "Tell them it was an accident. They'll believe you sooner than they'll believe me..."
"I wish you'd wake up," said Miyako. "Don't you know you're only dreaming?"
"...I've already been late with my classwork twice this week. They don't want to hear any more excuses from me. You can talk them around..."
*He thinks he's back in school!* she realized.
"Come on," she scolded. "Everything you're seeing... it happened years ago, if it happened at all. If you'd just wake up..."
But it was no use. Whatever dream world he was trapped in, she was unable to penetrate it. He wasn't hearing a word she said. Miyako sank back in her chair with a sigh of resignation.
*Aren't we a pair?* she mused. *Looks like I'm not the only one who lives her life in a dream world...*
She shook her head at her own silliness. She had to admit, if only to herself, that she'd been nurturing a crush on her mentor. Why not? She'd done similar things a million times before, sighing over distant, unattainable figures - movie stars, rock idols, sports figures. It was harmless fun, just another form of entertainment. It was a safe way to fall in love, because she couldn't lose what she'd never really had. But this was different. She should have realized it was different from the start. Gennai might be an utterly impossible prospect, but he was also present and accessible in a way none of her other crushes were... and she could lose him. He could pass away right here, even while they were within touching distance. She had the nasty feeling she was about to get her heart broken in a way it never had been before.
*If only I could do something to help him,* she thought, watching him as he continued his dream-argument. He was becoming visibly distressed, as whoever he thought he was arguing with continued to disagree with him. *If only there was a way to get into whatever dream world he's in... Well, why not? Only way I'm going to be with him is in my dreams, anyway...*
"Oh, all right," she said loudly, in the tired tones of one who is fed up with arguing. "I'll talk to your teachers for you if you'll just stop pestering me."
Much to her amazement, he slumped back against his pillows and relaxed.
"I knew you'd see reason sooner or later," he said.
"You mean you knew I'd get tired of listening to you," she said.
He actually laughed, and Miyako sighed with relief.
*It worked!* she thought jubilantly. *He thinks I'm part of his dream... Now if I can just keep him talking to me...*
"Anyway, let's not worry about that," she said. "I don't hang around with you just to listen to you talk about homework. Let's talk about something cheerful, for a change."
"Anyone who spent any time trying to get a scholarly discussion out of me would be sadly disappointed," he said.
He began a rambling discussion of a swordplay competition he'd recently entered, and Miyako listened, asking questions, paying compliments, trying to keep him focused on some positive direction, guiding him away from nightmares. She didn't think she'd ever payed such serious attention to any other conversation she'd ever had. Somehow, she felt that as long as he was talking to her, as long as he was relaxed and happy, nothing bad would happen to him. All she had to do was keep him talking...
It was very quiet. Hikari could not understand what had awakened her. There was not so much as a street light shining through the window to bother her, and Armahn's house was silent except for the deep breathing of her sleeping friends, and an occasional rustle as one of them twitched in his sleep. Tailmon was purring softly; Daisuke rolled over and muttered something about baseball cards. It was deeply peaceful, and yet Hikari felt wide awake.
*Was I dreaming something?* she wondered.
On a brief reflection, she thought she might have been. She still had the vague images of things she didn't quite understand flitting through her mind. She remembered seeing her friends doing... something. Or several somethings, she decided, as she began sorting through her impressions. Taichi had been riding Greymon and looking grim. Jyou and Ken had been hunched over some computers while Wormmon read things off a paper. Mimi had been sitting on a sofa, looking frazzled and quite unlike her usual cheery self. Miyako had been upset about something; there were tears on her cheeks, though Hikari had been unable to see any immediate cause for her to be upset. She had been concerned to see her friends looking so unhappy, but that had not been what had woken her. She was sure there had been one more image...
And then it came to her. As clearly as if she was just now seeing it happen through the open living room window, she saw an image of Armahn carrying a sack. There was nothing disturbing about the picture at all - just a man stepping out into an alley to put out the trash - but something about it had shocked her awake. She did not know why, but she suddenly had a very bad feeling, a feeling that if what she had seen were allowed to come to pass, it would mean bad things, indefinable but awful. She sat up and looked around. She went to peer out the window. The streets were dark and empty; there was a deep stillness over everything that made Hikari feel it must be very early in the morning.
While she was sitting and wondering what to do next, she heard a soft bump. She caught her breath, trying frantically to identify the sound. For a moment, all she could dredge up was a faint sense that she'd heard it before. Then she realized it was the sound of the trapdoor closing, the trapdoor in the kitchen that led to Armahn's basement. For a wild moment, she thought that Daisuke must have gotten up to sneak downstairs and have a look for himself, and she had to turn and look to remind herself that all of her companions were still sleeping soundly nearby. So, if it wasn't them...
An impulse sent her to Koushiro's side, and she nudged him awake.
"What is it?" he asked. Even at three in the morning, he sounded more curious than annoyed.
"I'm not sure, but I think Armahn's doing something in the basement," Hikari said.
Koushiro sat up at once, instantly alert. "He's gone down there? Are you sure?"
"Someone did," said Hikari. "Why? Is it important?"
"If it isn't, then I'm wrong about a whole lot of things," Koushiro said. "Do me a favor? Wake the others up - quietly." He got up and wandered off.
"Where are you going?" Hikari asked.
"I'm going to stand on that trapdoor," he replied. "If I'm wrong, I'm going to owe him an apology... but if I'm right, he's got a lot of explaining to do."
When Hawkmon went to check on Miyako the next morning, he found her slumped in her chair in an attitude that didn't suggest sleepiness so much as utter exhaustion. She had stayed up most of the night, talking Gennai through his nightmares, and she was now hoarse and weary. She woke up long enough to have a sip of juice and piece of toast with the others, and then curled up and went right back to sleep again. Nobody even tried to suggest she should be asked to do anything more.
At least, not until later. Hawkmon, who had been standing guard over his sleeping partner, was jolted out of his thoughts by a hoarse male shout of panic. There were sounds of commotion down the hall. Miyako raised her head groggily as Mimi came running into the room.
"What's going on?" asked Miyako.
"We've got a problem," Mimi replied. "Something has got him all upset, and I can't calm him down! I don't know what else to do for him..."
"Let me give it a try," said Miyako.
She got up and followed Mimi down the hall. Even outside Gennai's room, she could hear him shouting. Looking inside, she could see that he was thrashing vaguely, seeming to be trying to ward off an attacker. He had managed to partially throw his blankets off, and she could see that his face, shirt, and hair were all drenched with sweat.
"Leave me alone," he begged. "I didn't do anything. Just leave me alone..."
Miyako went to his side, watching him worriedly, trying to figure out what best to do.
"You heard him - leave him alone!" she ordered. "He hasn't done anything to you! Just go away!"
For a moment, he seemed uncertain. Then, gradually, he began to relax. Mimi stared at Miyako in amazement.
"I don't believe that worked," she said.
"I'm not really sure how it works," Miyako answered with a shrug. "He won't notice what's real, but if you act like you're part of his dreams, he'll listen."
"That's kind of weird," said Mimi, "but I guess if it works..."
"It is a little weird, but it's not bad once you get the hang of it," said Miyako. "I had to keep it up all last night."
"No wonder you were so worn out," Mimi replied.
"Are you going to be okay for now?" asked Miyako.
"I don't know. You're better at this than I am," said Mimi. "I'm trying really hard, but this taking care of people business just isn't my thing."
"It's not really mine, either," Miyako admitted.
"Sure it is," said Mimi. "You're doing a wonderful job. I've never seen you be so patient."
"I can be patient, when I know it's needed. I don't necessarily like it, but..." She shrugged. "I'll tell you what - it's almost lunch time. Why don't you take a break and collect yourself, and I'll watch him a while for you?"
"Would you? I'd be really grateful," Mimi replied. "I'll feel better if I have a minute to unwind."
"Take your time," said Miyako.
Mimi left. Hawkmon hovered near the doorway, uncertain.
"Are you sure this is what you want to do?" he asked. "After you were up all night..."
"I'm not that tired. And it's just for a couple of minutes," said Miyako, falsely bright. Hawkmon regarded her worriedly.
"Miyako, my dear," he said gently, "I do know what's going on."
Miyako cringed a little. "Was it that obvious?"
"To me, it was," he replied. "And I'm fairly certain the others know."
"I feel so stupid," she muttered. "Bad enough to be in a situation like this... now everyone else is going to think I'm crazy, too..."
"They don't think you're crazy," said Hawkmon. "You know they don't. But they're worried about you. So am I. I don't want to see you get hurt."
"If it comes to that, I don't really want to see me get hurt," she said. "I have no idea how this is going to end up. I mean... I hardly know him, and I know he's way out of my league... I don't think I'm really in love yet, if that's what you're thinking, but... I like him. I feel sorry for him. I want to help him, if I can. I'm starting to feel like I have a... a responsibility."
"It's not just up to you to make sure he survives."
"I know that, but I have to do everything I can, don't I?"
Hawkmon sighed. "I don't know what to say to you. I just hope for your sake that all this can end happily."
She gave him a weak smile. "I'll get over it. I always do. You'll see."
"I know," he said.
He slipped quietly out of the room, leaving his partner alone with her thoughts. For a while, all was peaceful except for the whispers of her patient. That was fine by her. She needed to do some serious thinking.
*Hawkmon's right,* she thought. *I have gotten myself into a mess. Falling in love is supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to hurt like this...*
Nearby, Gennai seemed to be picking up on her distress. He was thrashing again, calling out in a voice that was already worn and cracked. She leaned closer to hear what he was saying.
"...I didn't do it," he whispered. "I swear, it wasn't my fault. I did everything I could, why aren't you listening to me... Tell them I didn't do it... Shaedra, tell them I didn't do it..."
Miyako cringed a little, but she decided this was no time to start getting jealous.
"It's all right," she said. "It's all right, I'm here. I'll tell them everything. I'll make them listen."
"Yes," she said. "It's me. Shaedra. It's going to be all right now."
"I know," he said. "You always make everything all right..."
"Well, it's going to be okay. You just relax. I'll take care of everything."
"I thought you were gone. I thought I wasn't ever going to see you again..."
Miyako felt a momentary qualm; she wasn't sure she liked the direction this dream was taking... but if she rejected him, he'd be upset, and she couldn't afford to do that...
"Well, I'm right here. I'm not going to leave you. No matter what, I'll be right here with you."
"I won't, don't worry."
He moved a hand vaguely, reaching for someone who wasn't there. Miyako slipped her hands around his, trying to calm him, and found herself being pulled towards him.
*The only way I can be with him is in a dream...*
She found that she was kissing him. She was kissing him, and it was all wrong, because he was kissing someone else, in some other time and place, and he didn't even know she was alive.
She pulled away, breathing a bit fast. He didn't seem to realize that anything out of the ordinary had happened; he seemed to have finally settled into a peaceful sleep.
*This is wrong,* she thought, a bit wildly. *All wrong, all wrong, all wrong...*
Mimi returned. "Miyako, are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Oh, um... I'm just a little tired. It crept up on me all at once," she said. "I'm going to go back to sleep now. Bye!"
She scampered off, leaving Mimi standing and feeling confused. She returned to her post at Gennai's side, wondering just what could have happened to have rattled her friend so badly. She glanced down at her charge and was shocked to see something red at the corner of his mouth. For a split second, she thought it was blood, but then realization of more than one kind sunk in as she realized it was lipstick.
Armahn moved very slowly and silently through the room, stepping carefully to avoid making even the least amount of noise. Had the room's occupants been sleeping, as they appeared to be, they never would have realized he was there. However, they were all wide awake behind their closed eyes, and they could sense his presence. Hikari opened one eye a slit, invisible beneath her long eyelashes, to watch his progress. He was, as she had suspected he would be, carrying a sack, which appeared to be at least partially filled with old clothes. There wasn't anything particularly suspicious about that - even his silent sneaking could easily be chalked up to not wanting to disturb a guest - but to her sensitive nature, he had the unmistakable air of someone who was up to no good. She pretended to turn over in her sleep, casually nudging Armadimon with her foot. He gave a loud fake snore and stretched out, and his tail landed in exactly the right place to catch an unwary foot. Armahn tripped and dropped his bag, and it landed with a soft clunk.
"What was that?" said Iori.
Koushiro sat up and had a look around. "It's Armahn. What are you doing bumping around in the middle of the night?"
"Forgive me for disturbing you," he said. "My work keeps me out at all hours, sometimes. I had hoped not to wake you."
"That's all right," said Daisuke. "I'm used to staying up half the night, anyway. What's in the bag? You playing Santa Claus or something?"
Armahn looked momentarily nonplused; apparently he had no idea who or what Santa Claus might be.
"I'm only taking out some trash. Nothing to worry yourselves about," he said.
"Funny thing to be doing in the middle of the night," Iori replied.
Armahn looked annoyed; his lips were pressed tightly together.
"You have seen for yourselves that I am seldom home during the day," he replied. "I have to accomplish my domestic chores when I can."
"Well, now that we're awake," said Koushiro, "we might as well give you a hand. Judging by the time, it'll be morning soon. No point in going back to sleep."
"I assure, that's not necessary."
"Oh, but we want to help," Daisuke said. "You've been real nice about letting us live in your house and all. We want to return the favor. Isn't that right, guys?"
Everyone nodded. Armahn met their looks suspiciously.
"What are you all playing at?" he asked. "I am a very busy man. I don't have time for your games."
"We're not playing games," said Koushiro. "Actually, I think you're the one playing games. I want some straight answers, and I'm warning you, I'm very good at figuring out answers, so I think you had better tell me the truth."
Armahn narrowed his eyes. "What kind of questions?"
"Questions like this one," Koushiro said. "Who poisoned Gennai?"
There was a moment of dead silence. Everyone stared at Koushiro, who was very calmly watching Armahn. The older man was looking slightly stunned.
"Why do you... where in the world did you get such an outlandish notion?" he asked.
"He couldn't have gotten sick by accident," said Koushiro. "The dream fever isn't native to the Digital World. It had to have been passed to him from this world."
"So it could have. The disease goes around all the time."
"But it's not going around now. I got a good look at this city. Everyone here is happy and relaxed. Business is booming. If there was a deadly plague going around, it would be taking its toll on society."
"It could have come over with any of his supplies," said Armahn. "Such things happen. An unfortunate accident, but-"
"He told me the disease comes from a kind of mold," Koushiro said. "That kind of thing tends to grow in damp, dirty places. I saw that warehouse of yours. It was spotless. You could eat off the floor in there. Where would a mold come from?"
"I have no idea!" Armahn snapped.
"I think you do," said Koushiro. "As a matter of fact, I'm sure you do. Did you find it for yourself, or did you have a helper in the hospitals get it for you?"
"What?" It wasn't just Armahn who cried out in surprise; several of those present seemed shocked by Koushiro's cool accusation. The boy gave a causal shrug.
"I thought it was a possibility," he said. "Shaedra told me that one of the survivors of the Digital World project was working at a hospital; they seemed like a logical choice for an accomplice. I imagine you all would like a chance to get even with your old friend, wouldn't you?"
"When did you talk to Shaedra?" asked Armahn sharply. "You... you didn't really go back... I knew there was something wrong with your story about going back to visit him..."
"You're not the only one who knows how to tell a lie," said Hikari coldly.
"I'm not the one telling lies. You're the one making unfounded accusations," he snapped. "I have nothing to do with Gennai's illness."
"He said you were the one who delivered his supplies," said Koushiro. "You were in a perfect position to slip him something dangerous."
"That's right," said Koushiro. "So are the old crates down in your basement. They look just like the ones used in the warehouse. It would be so easy to treat one with the disease and smuggle it in."
"Those are firewood," Armahn said. "All the warehouse workers scrounge for leftover boxes. No one would ever see anything suspicious about my having a few."
"But you're not a warehouse worker, are you?" asked Koushiro. "You're a Gatekeeper. Your job is to monitor people going in and out of the gates. You told me yourself that your work involves very little menial labor... though I suppose you might have magnanimously offered to act as the go between for an unpopular old friend that no one else wanted to bother with... Then again, when we first got here, we saw you filling up a pile of crates while there was no one else around to watch you. You were packing up all kinds of things - clothes, tools, even furniture. It looked like just the kind of thing someone might pack up if he thought he would be going on a long journey very soon. You've got to admit, this house looks pretty bare. You've been preparing for this a long time, haven't you?"
Armahn's face contorted. "You think you're very clever, don't you? Well, you'll never pin anything on me. You have no proof that I've done anything."
"Oh, yeah?" said Daisuke. "Well, how about this?"
He reached into a pocket and took out a glass vial full of something powdery and greenish. Armahn's face paled.
"Where did you get that?" he asked.
"Koushiro gave it to me," said Daisuke, shrugging. "He said he found it in your basement."
"I told you not to go down there!" Armahn bellowed.
Koushiro shrugged. "My curiosity got the better of me. It's a character fault. I couldn't help but notice you had this bottle corked sealed up with wax. Maybe you could tell me why you're so anxious not to let out whatever is in it."
For a moment, Armahn looked dumbfounded. Then his face took on a very nasty sneer.
"All right," he said. "All right. I bow to your powers of inference. Yes, I sent that young upstart the dream fever. It's only as much as he deserves. Twenty-nine people who should be alive today - people he called his friends and his teachers - are dead because of his incompetence, and what does he get for it? Nothing. The coward hid himself away in another world, and he sits there hoarding glory and polishing his oversized ego while the rest of us toil in ignominy. It's time someone else had a chance to redeem themselves."
"And you thought you might be the one who would step in to fill his place," said Koushiro quietly.
"Yes, or failing that, slip away during the commotion and escape," said Armah. "In this world, there is no direction I can go but down. I have no chance of earning redemption when all I'm allowed to do is act as a doorman! All I want is a chance to improve my lot in life. I deserve that much."
"Not at the cost of another man's life," said Iori quietly.
"He deserves what he's getting."
"It's not your place to decide who lives and who dies," Iori snapped.
"And it's not your place to decide my guilt or innocence," said Armahn. "It is for the Master Sages to decide... and they won't. Do you know why? Because there isn't time. You could go to them and talk, but while you did, your friend will die. Even if you were able to get hold of the antidote somewhere and return to him right now, by the time you come back, I'll already be gone."
"Yes, you made sure of that," said Koushiro. "It was remarkably generous of you to take us in, keep us safe and out of the way... You just wanted us under your thumb so we couldn't go searching for an antidote ourselves. Well, it didn't work. I know a way to make sure we get the antidote and see that you're punished."
"And how are you going to do that?" asked Armahn. He was trying to sound haughty, but he wasn't quite managing. It was clear he was more than a little worried about Koushiro's ability to out- think him.
"Elementary. You're going to give us the antidote, right now."
Armahn hesitated. "I don't have it."
"I think you do," Koushiro replied. "You wouldn't keep a bottled disease in your house unless you had the cure for it somewhere close at hand. Give it up."
Armahn looked tense for a moment, weighing his options as if considering fleeing or fighting. Tailmon hissed softly, showing her claws. Tentomon let off a few warning bursts of electricity. Armahn recognized that he was surrounded and sighed. Reaching into his sack, he pulled out a fat oval bottle of bluish fluid. Koushiro accepted it and passed it to Daisuke.
"All right," said Armahn. "You've got your medicine. Now what are you going to do to me? Chain me up until you have a chance to get back? Try to lock me in the basement?"
"No. People like you don't deserve that kind of treatment," said Iori. "We have a better idea for you. Daisuke... Get him."
Armahn whirled to face Daisuke, braced as if ready for an attack. He found Daisuke standing in a position that would have done credit to a professional baseball player. He wound up and threw the vial of mold directly at Armahn's face, and the cap burst off. Armahn gasped in pain and surprise, and immediately got his mouth and nose full of acrid-smelling dust. He coughed, choked, and wheezed, trying to rid himself of the foul stuff, but it was too late. While he was thus occupied, Daisuke turned and sprinted out the door, bearing the antidote with him.
"You... you've killed me," Armahn gasped.
"No, I don't think so," said Koushiro. "I'd imagine that if you hurry, you ought to be able to get to a hospital in time. You're just going to have a lot of explaining to do when you get there. And considering the fact that time seems to run faster in the Digital World than it does here, Gennai should be well and ready to give testimony by the time you're cured, so I would be careful what you say if I were you." He turned his back on Armahn and began heading for the door. "Come on, guys. We have better things to do than to talk to scum like this."
"Right," the others agreed, and followed him out into the coolness of the starlit street.
They found Daisuke waiting for them on a street corner, still clutching the precious bottle with both hands. They all paused to catch their breaths and collect their wits.
"Nice throw, Daisuke," said Hikari.
He grinned. "Thanks. You know, soccer's not much of a challenge these days... Maybe I ought to take up baseball!"
"Play games later," said Koushiro. "We've got to get to the warehouse and get home fast."
"We can do fast," said V-mon. "Does anybody know where it is?"
"Not a clue," Koushiro admitted.
"We ought to be able to see it from the air," Tentomon suggested.
"Good idea," said Iori. "I wonder if anyone around here has ever seen a Digimon evolve before?"
"If they don't, they're about to," Daisuke replied.
Moments later, any early risers in the city could have looked out their windows to see an unusual sight. A sleek blue creature in black armor was loping down the streets, followed by what appeared to be a large yellow insect. High in the sky, a monstrous bug and a lovely angelic being were flying circles, sizing up the terrain.
"Do you see anything?" Koushiro called.
Hikari looked around. In the semidarkness, everything looked alike to her. Remembering the crystal that hung around her neck and deciding it couldn't do any harm, she raised it to her eye. Seen through it's crystalline facets, the city seemed to take on a glow. One structure in particular stood out.
"What's that over there?" she asked. "That big flat building with the gray roof."
Kabuterimon flew a short distance in the direction Hikari was pointing, so his partner could get a better look.
"I think that's it! Nice spotting, Hikari," Koushiro replied. "Okay, guys, follow us!"
Kabuterimon shot forward like a multi-legged rocket, while Angewomon gave her pearly wings a flap and soared effortlessly behind him. On the ground, the remaining two boys easily kept pace, with Digmon drilling through walls and fences and Lighdramon following easily behind. Within moments, they had reached the warehouse - in some cases, by crashing through the roof, and in others, by barging through a large hole in the wall.
"Somebody really isn't going to like us for this," said Iori.
"Worry about that later," said Koushiro. "We're running out of time. We've got to find a portal home, and fast."
"It's not going to be in here," said Hikari, looking around at the vast empty storeroom. "Let's try in one of those side rooms."
They looked. One room contained more packages, wrapped in plastic-like material. Another proved to be a cleaning closet, well-stocked. One was an empty hallway leading to what appeared to be offices. Finally, they found a room where one of the glowing arches had been set up. Daisuke found the switch and turned it on.
"Okay, which button do we push to get back to the Digital World?" he asked.
"I don't know!" said Koushiro. He grimaced. "I think Gennai was counting on us having Armahn's help, or somebody's, to get home."
"Well, we don't have time to wait for someone to show up," said Daisuke. "We've got to get back home now."
Koushiro stared at the array of buttons. They were all labeled in some mysterious curlicued writing that he couldn't decipher. Each button was marked with a geometric symbol.
"Hmm..." he said. "I remember this button with a circle was just about worn down, back on Gennai's machine. I'll bet that's the one that leads back to the Real World. If we can get there, I know we can get back to the Digital World."
"That'll take too long!" Daisuke complained.
"It's better than just randomly hitting buttons and hoping one works," said Koushiro. "It's our only choice!"
"Then let's do it," said Hikari.
"All right. Here goes nothing!"
Koushiro jammed his thumb down on the button. The gate came alive with a whirl of colors. Gripping each other's hands, paws, or tails, the children and their partners stepped through the gate and vanished.
No one was saying anything. All activity at Gennai's house had ground to a halt, with the original air of frantic activity having ground down to a hospital waiting room silence. Gennai's condition had taken a turn for the worse, and no one wanted to leave the house. Despite the fact that there was little anyone could do to help him, they still felt the need to be close at hand for whatever the outcome was going to be.
"They can still make it," said Taichi. "There's still time, isn't there?"
"Maybe," said Jyou. "It's hard to tell, at this point."
"Well, that's really encouraging," Yamato snapped.
"Hey, I'm just trying to be realistic!" said Jyou.
What could have been an argument was headed off by the sound of pounding footsteps. Everyone tensed, anticipating the worst...
Daisuke burst into the room.
"Did we make it? Are we too late?" he asked.
"You're back!" Taichi shouted, watching as the others filed in. "What took you so long?"
"We wound up having to come back through some office building in California," Daisuke panted. "Just about scared the daylights out of some lady vacuuming the carpets."
"Sorry we're late," Koushiro panted. "It's been complicated - I'll explain it all later. Where's Gennai? Is he...?"
"Still hanging in there," said Jyou. "For how much longer, we don't know... Did you bring the medicine?"
"Got it right here," Daisuke replied, holding up the bottle.
"Good," said Jyou. "Let me get a needle... You'd better go to Gennai's room and let the girls know you're here."
"Right," said Daisuke, and hurried up the hall.
The others followed at a slightly slower pace. They found Gennai lying very still and quiet, with Miyako and Mimi keeping watch over him. At least, Miyako seemed to be keeping watch; she had the look of someone who had not slept properly in a few days. Mimi was hovering over her, hand on her shoulder. Their Digimon partners were hovering over them anxiously.
"We got it," said Daisuke. "We got the medicine. Jyou's getting ready to give it to him right now."
"Oh, thank goodness," Mimi sighed.
Miyako nodded, looking as if she might cry if she tried to speak.
A moment later, Jyou returned bearing a small tray with a collection of syringes, disinfectant, and cotton balls. He took the bottle of skyflower serum from Daisuke and began filling one of the syringes.
"According to the books," said Jyou, "he's going to need a shot of this stuff every half-hour until he starts showing improvement. Considering how far gone he is, it might take a while for this to start working, so don't expect any miracles."
"Just quit talking and give him the medicine," said Daisuke impatiently.
Jyou nodded. He pushed back the sleeve of Gennai's robe and the tight black shirt beneath it until he had clear access to a vein. He swabbed the spot off with the antiseptic and carefully injected a measure of clear blue liquid into his patient's arm. He sighed.
"Well, that's all we can do," he said. "Now we wait."
And so they waited. A half-hour later, Jyou returned to give his patient a second dose of medicine. A third injection was administered with no signs of improvement. The whole group sat silently in the living room, waiting and hoping, or else walked around on tiptoe as if making too much noise could somehow influence the outcome of the situation. At dinnertime that evening, Jyou returned to Gennai's room to give him his next dose of medicine.
"There isn't a whole lot left," said Miyako anxiously. She had not yet given up on her vigil, and had spent the afternoon hovering, watching for any sign that Gennai might be waking up. "What happens if we run out?"
"Then he'll just have to make do with what we've got," answered Jyou with a shrug. "Don't worry. I think we still have enough to last a few more hours. He's got a fighting chance."
He delivered the latest dose and walked out of the room. Miyako continued to wait, watching the sun outside the window as it set, turning the sky pink and gold. With its light coloring Gennai's face, it was hard to see his sickly pallor. He looked like he was only sleeping. She found she didn't want the sun to finish setting.
"Why can't you wake up?" she asked him. "All of us have spent all this time worrying about you, and all you have to do is just open your eyes and let us know you're okay."
He didn't react. Miayko sighed. Outside the room, she could hear the clatter of dishes as the others set the table for their evening meal. She supposed she ought to go and help them, but her heart wasn't really in it. With a sigh, she got up and began to leave the room.
Gennai mumbled something.
She stopped in her tracks. "What?"
"I don' wanna wake up," he said vaguely. "It's too early."
"You... can hear me?" she asked breathlessly.
"Of course I hear you," said Gennai. "I just don't want to wake up... I don't feel so good."
"Guys!" she shouted. "Guys, guys, guysguysguys, come quick, come quick!"
"Ow. That's too loud," Gennai complained, wincing. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. "The sun's in the wrong place."
Miyako gave a hysterical giggle. "The sun's in the right place. It's the wrong time of day."
"Oh," he said vaguely. "That makes sense."
There was a scramble around the door of the room as curious people came to see what was going on. The sight of their mentor sitting up and looking around set them all shouting in surprise and relief.
"Take it easy!" said Gennai. "What's all the fuss about, anyway? What are you all doing here?"
"I think he's still a little groggy," said Jyou. He was uncharacteristically grinning. "He should get over it in a little while, though. Hey, Gennai, you gave us all a real scare, you know that?"
"I did?" he said. He looked thoughtful. "Now that you mention it, I'm not really feeling my best."
"You've been sick," Mimi informed him. "The dream fever, remember?"
"Dream fever? ... Yes, now that you mention it..." He trailed off and shook his head. "So... you found the medicine, then?"
"You better believe it!" said Daisuke.
"You wouldn't believe what we had to go through to get it, either," Koushiro added.
"I'll be very interested in hearing that," said Gennai, already sounding more like his usual self. "As soon as I get over this headache."
"That's right, take it easy," Jyou told him. "It was touch and go there, for a while... but I think you're going to be okay now."
"I'll be fine," he said. "I want to thank all of you for your help. I'm sure this must have been difficult for you. I owe you my life."
"Hey, it's only fair," said Taichi brightly. "You've bailed us out a time or two. Just don't do this again, okay?"
"It's a deal," Gennai replied.
"So, you're feeling better now?" asked Hikari.
"Much better," he assured her. "And hungry. How long have I been out?"
"Too long," said Mimi. "Don't worry, dinner's cooking. We'll bring you something."
"Dinner!" Yamato exclaimed suddenly. "I left it on the oven!" He hurried off before his meal could burn, and the others, feeling much relieved, began laughing.
"I guess we'd better help Yamato out," said Takeru. "We'll be back in a minute. Glad you're back with us, Gennai."
"No more than I am," he said.
The group began filing out of the room. Soon only Miyako was left, lingering in the doorway. She was aware that she was being watched, and she turned back to find a pair of disconcertingly blue eyes fixed on her.
"Ahem," he said, a bit uncomfortably. "I, ah... wanted to thank you. I mean... I was under the impression that you volunteered to look after me during all this. More than the others did, I mean."
"It wasn't so bad," she said.
"It doesn't look that way to me. You look worn to a frazzle."
"Well, it was harder near the end... I mean, when you started hallucinating."
"Yes. I'm wondering about that," he said. "I had this disease once before, when I was a child. I remember it only as a string of nightmares. But for some reason, I can't remember having any this time. All my dreams were more or less pleasant ones."
"I was talking to you," she said. She was uncomfortably aware that she was blushing. "I mean... it was like, if I talked to you like I was part of the dream, you'd listen, and I could keep you from getting upset... so I did."
"I see. Well, thank you. I hope it wasn't too strenuous for you."
"It was very strange," she said. "By the way... who is Shaedra?"
It was his turn to blush. "Well... she was kind of the girl next door when I was growing up. She was always bailing me out of scrapes in school. To be painfully honest... I proposed to her once, but she turned me down flat. I suppose it was just as well... it probably wouldn't have worked out."
"Oh," she said.
"Why do you ask? I suppose I must have mentioned her at some point?"
"Yes... Actually, I think that's who you thought I was, when you were dreaming."
She lowered her eyes. "You thought I was her, and you kissed me."
"Oh, no." He grimaced. "I'm terribly sorry about that. You have to understand, I wasn't quite in my right mind. I hope you weren't, er, offended."
"It was terrible," she said. "Absolutely awful."
He blushed. "I apologize. You can be assured, it won't happen again."
"I knew that. That's why it was so bad."
He blinked. "I don't follow."
"I mean, it would have bothered me a lot less if it was me being kissed and not her," she said, her voice barely audible.
"All right, now I think I'm getting the idea," he said. "I suppose you're aware that if we're both being realistic, you haven't got a chance?"
"Yes, I know," she said. "They all told me that. I'm just really stupid about some things."
"I know what you mean," he said. "I'm the same way, really. They said I didn't have a chance, here. They said the whole Digital World didn't have a chance. I was stupid enough to try it anyway... and look at the mess it's in now."
She laughed, a little hysterically, and he flashed her his teasing grin. Impulsively, she went and hugged him.
"You're crazy," she said. "You and me both. This stupid bug drove us right out of our minds."
"Not likely. They told me I was crazy all along," he replied.
"Can I... come back and visit sometimes?" she asked shyly.
"Any time you want," he said.
She smiled, sighed, and rested her head more comfortably against his shoulder. It took him a moment to realize that strain and exhaustion had finally taken their toll on her: she had fallen asleep. He carefully disentangled himself from her embrace and eased her back into her chair. She was still smiling in her sleep, lost in some pleasant dream. He smiled and leaned back against his pillows, closing his eyes and thinking how good it was to be alive.