Disclaimer: Sora, her father, Piyomon, and the other Chosen Children do not belong to me. Arthur and the various other spirit-beasties, however, are the products of my own imagination. The author does not claim that any of this actually has anything to do with real Japanese folklore. In fact, it probably doesn't.

Dreams in Gray

By: SilvorMoon

It was three days into summer vacation, and already Sora was beginning to wonder why she had been waiting so impatiently for it to come. Admittedly, it was sort of nice not being trapped in school all day during this warm, sticky weather, but some of her vacation illusions were wearing off. Contrary to her pre-exam daydreams, she was not sunning on a beach somewhere, nor was she relaxing in the park, or even out enjoying herself with her friends. Instead, she was sitting in her room, staring at her computer, reading e-mails from her friends, who were out doing the things she wished she was doing. Taichi wrote that he was having a wonderful time at soccer camp. Mimi was vacationing with her family in the Carribean. Miyako had teamed up with Koushiro and entered a computer competition that would eat up most of their time for the next month. As for Sora, she was sitting in her apartment, wondering what she was going to do with herself.

Her gloomy musings were interrupted by the sound of a doorbell.

"I'll get it!" her mother called.

Sora got up anyway. Seeing who was at the door sounded better than sitting and wishing she were somewhere else. However, she'd barely taken five steps before she heard a squeal of surprise. Sora broke into a dash. Hardly daring to believe her guess, she ran around a corner just in time to see her mother throwing her arms around the man in the doorway.

"Dad!" Sora exclaimed.

Professor Takenouchi grinned at her. "Hello, Sora. Surprised to see me?"

"Am I ever!" she said. She ran to greet him, and he caught her in a bear hug.

"I get such a welcome every time I show up," he commented. "It makes me wonder why I ever leave. Let's have a look at you, Sora... I swear, you get more grown-up every time I see you. Funny thing - I never get any older. How does that work out?"

Sora laughed; she had missed being teased by her father. Her mother said, "Right. You're the only teenager with gray hair I've ever met."

"It turned gray overnight when I had children," he said, running a hand over his head. Sora just gave him a tolerant smile. It was an old joke between them. His hair had been dark when he'd married, but shortly after Sora had been born, it had started to go gray - not overnight, though. Still, he liked to joke about it, and she liked to pretend it annoyed her.

"So, what drags you away from the halls of academia?" Mrs. Takenouchi asked.

"My family, of course," he answered. "My schedule unexpectedly rearranged itself, and I found myself with some spare time, so I just got down here as fast as I could."

"How long are you staying?" asked Sora hopefully. Her father was a part-time professor and full-time researcher, with "part-time" meaning that he only put in a regular teacher's hours. Research took up the rest of his spare time. Sometimes it seemed that he was actually busiest when school wasn't in session, because that was when he took to roaming, looking for new avenues of discovery. He had been to America in search of Bigfoot, to Scotland to see the Loch Ness Monster, and had made trips to Africa and Egypt looking for things Sora couldn't even pronounce. She didn't even bother hoping he might spend the whole summer with them; a month would be taxing the bounds of probability.

"Three days," he said, with a note of regret in his voice. "After that, I have plans to travel. I'm sorry."

Sora tried to make her smile convincing. "It's all right. We understand."

"I wish you had warned me you were coming," said Mrs. Takenouchi. "I hadn't made plans for you to have dinner with us."

"I'll take you out," he said. "It's the least I can do. Anywhere you like - just name it."

"I'll go get ready," said Sora.

She scampered back to her room, struggling with a scramble of emotions. It was always like this when she saw her father. She loved him dearly, and it pained a family-oriented girl like her to know her father always had to be somewhere other than where she was. What hurt her the most was that he didn't always have to be away. He didn't need to be studying ancient legends and primitive customs; he could have gotten by quite nicely just by teaching. He did it because it was what he loved, and while she wasn't sure she wanted to begrudge him something he enjoyed more than anything else in the world, it bothered her that he seemed to love his work more than his family. Nevertheless...

"Hey, Piyo, did you hear that?" she said to her partner. "Dad's home!"

"I heard," Piyomon answered. "Do I know him well enough to go say hello? Do you think he still remembers me?"

Sora managed to laugh at her partner's wide-eyed questions.

"He couldn't possibly have forgotten you," she said. "He took a whole week off of work to come out here and talk to you, remember? I know I said he's scatterbrained, but he's not that forgetful!"

"Good," said Piyomon. "I like him!"

"So do I," said Sora. "And, hey! He said he's taking us to dinner for anything we want."

The young Digimon's eyes lit up. "Yeah, dinner! I knew there was a reason I liked your dad."

Sora laughed, her confusion momentarily forgotten. There was no use in worrying. As long as her father was here, she would enjoy his company as much as she could. She ran a brush through her hair and led her partner off to join the rest of the family.

~*~

By the time they returned home, Sora was in a better state of mind, having resigned herself to a short visit instead of a more preferable arrangement. Dinner had been excellent, and her father had enlivened it by telling them all stories about silly things his students got up to. He scored points in Sora's book by including Piyomon in his discussions, asking her intelligent questions about her impressions of living in the human world. Even now, too many people tended to treat the Digimon like little more than interesting animals.

When they returned to the apartment, it was late, too late to think of doing anything more than unwinding. They sat around the coffee table, sipping hot tea and enjoying the peace and quiet, talking or not talking as it suited them. Sora, watching her parents chatting with each other, gave a wistful sigh.

*I wish it could always be like this,* she thought. *I wish we could be a family, a real family...*

Her mother finished with her drink. Collecting everyone's empty cups, she went to deposit them in the sink. While she was busy rinsing them, Sora's father leaned towards her.

"You know, Sora," he said, "I haven't told your mother yet, but I had an ulterior motive in showing up right now. There's something I wanted to talk to you about."

"There is?" she asked. Her brain went into high gear as she tried to guess what he was talking about. Half of her guessed he simply had thought of some new question or experiment pertaining to the Digital World that he wanted her help on. The other half of her dreaded something unpleasant, like an impending divorce.

"How would you like to spend the summer with me?"

She could feel herself light up. "Would I ever! ...But I thought you were going to be traveling - doing research."

"Oh, I'll be doing that," he said. "It's just that I won't be leaving the country this year, or traveling with a group. I can bring you along with me, if you want."

"I'd love to!" she exclaimed. "Where are we going?"

"To a small town in the mountains. Lately they've been claiming to have sightings of demons, woods-spirits... all kinds of strange things. I'm hoping I'll be able to figure out what they're seeing, if anything. Even if nothing turns up, they've got some shrines and local legends that I'd like to give some attention. I know it's not as exciting as fishing for the Loch Ness Monster, but..."

"The only thing you caught when you went fishing for the Monster was a head cold," said Sora. "Legends and woods-spirits suit me just fine." She considered. "I'd rather not see a demon, though, if I can help it."

Her father smiled a bit. "If I see one, I'll warn him to keep well away from you. All right, then. Just give me a chance to talk your mother around, and you can start packing."

"Start packing for what?" asked Mrs. Takenouchi, returning from the kitchen.

"Dad says I can go with him to the mountains this summer," said Sora quickly. "I can, can't I? Please say yes."

Her mother laughed. "Why wouldn't I say yes? I think it's a wonderful idea."

"I thought you might object to leaving her in my doubtful care," said the professor. "That, and I wasn't sure you didn't need her to help run the shop."

"I can look after things well enough for a little while," Mrs. Takenouchi replied. "If worst comes to worst, I can always hire one of her friends for a bit. It's more important that you two spend some time together. A girl ought to have a chance to get to know her father."

"And I don't spend nearly as much time with either of you as I should, I know," answered the professor, bowing his head. "Well, I'll do what I can. If I could just borrow the phone, I'll make some travel arrangements..."

"You can't borrow it," his wife informed him. "It's your phone."

He laughed. "Yes, I've definitely been away too long. Well, then, let me use my phone."

As he wandered off in search of the phone, Sora got up to hug her mother.

"Thanks, Mom! You're the best," she said.

"Thank your father," she said. "If he didn't come up with something like this soon, he would have been in trouble."

"It's too bad you can't come too," said Sora.

"Another time, perhaps. I admit, I'm not enthused about being out in the wilderness. I'm a city girl at heart... You'll have fun, though."

Sora smiled. "I know I will."

With Piyomon in tow, she hurried back to her room. It didn't matter to her that she would have all day tomorrow to get ready; she wanted to start packing now. Then there were people she needed to call, to tell them she was going away for a while. She nearly sang with happiness. The whole summer with her father! That was better than she had hoped for. For that, she would be willing to go through almost anything.

~*~

Time seemed to pass in an eyeblink. Looking back, she could hardly remember the days between her father's suggestion and the morning they packed their things into the back of a rental car and set out for what would be their summer home. She was sure she had done some last- minute packing in there somewhere, and had called every friend she could get hold of to tell them about this amazing stroke of luck, but the details were lost in a wash of excitement. All she knew for certain was that somehow, she had ended up sitting in the passenger seat of a rented blue four-door, leaning out the window as she accepted last-minute goodbyes from her mother. Then the car began pulling away, and she realized she was finally on her journey.

"Sit back and get comfortable," her father told her and Piymon, who was perched in Sora's lap. "It's going to be a long ride, I'm afraid."

"That's all right, I don't mind," answered Sora. "Can we play the radio?"

"Sure. That's what I always do."

Sora turned a knob and began skimming through stations until she found a song she liked. She began to sing along in her gentle voice. "Ne wasurenai de ne blue bird..."

She was surprised to hear her father join in, adding a deeper element to the wistful song. She looked at him, and he grinned.

"Didn't know your old man could sing, is that it?" he asked.

"I just didn't think this was your kind of music," she said.

He laughed. "I have to have noise going on when I'm riding. Sooner or later, I get to know all the songs, whether I like them or not. I like this one, though. In a way, it reminds me of you."

"This is an old song," she said.

"I didn't say I learned them fast," he replied.

She smiled and settled back into her chair. Something told her this was going to be an enjoyable ride.

"So, tell me about where we're going," she said.

"Well... it's a tiny little village, up in the mountains, just like I said. You probably wouldn't have heard of it even if I told you the name of it. It's about as old as the hills themselves, and the people there still cling to a lot of the old ways. Some of the oldest families don't even bother with electricity or running water, but thankfully, we're going to live in slightly better conditions. You might have to make do without an Internet connection for a while, but other than that..."

"That's okay," she said. "My friends know how to get hold of me if something bad comes up."

"Knowing what I know about your friends, I have no doubt that they'd move heaven and earth if they thought you needed their help," her father replied. "Anyway, the main part of the village isn't so bad. They have a few shops, anyway, and a library, and I think a restaurant or two. Hopefully you won't get too bored."

"It's okay. I brought some things to read, and my sketchbook," Sora replied. "And Daisuke loaned me one of those portable video game things. He heard I was going to be living in the middle of nowhere for a while and thought I might need it. He's the kind who gets bored easily, you know."

Her father chuckled. "Yes, I think I remember hearing something along those lines."

The journey continued. After a while, Piyomon got bored of the inactivity and fell asleep, but Sora stayed awake and watched as the miles rolled by. The city they drove through gradually seemed to dwindle, and then vanish altogether, replaced by miles of trees and hilly terrain, interspersed with the occasional village. They passed the time by singing with the radio, or talking, or just watching the scenery. From time to time, they would stop at places along the way, twice for meals, and another stop in between to stretch their legs. Once the professor stopped at a shopping center to let Sora pick out a few movies from a video store so she would have something extra to entertain herself with. While it was nice to take a rest break once in a while, Sora was always eager to push on again, and they never dawdled for very long.

Even so, it was getting late when they finally arrived at their destination. By the light of the setting sun, Sora saw that they were leaving the main road - what little there was of it - and pulling onto a dirt track leading up a tall hill. When they reached the top, Sora was sitting up and staring.

The house was a majestic old relic of days gone by, an old-fashioned structure with a sagging porch and peeling paint. The roof appeared to be green, though it was hard to tell in the fading light, and the walls had been white before time and the elements had weathered them to pale gray. It had two storeys and an attic, enough space to encompass Sora's apartment twice over with room to spare. Tall trees pressed against its back, with saplings and weeds crowding what had once been a lawn.

"It's so much bigger than I expected," she said, duly impressed.

"Is that good or bad?" her father asked.

"It's beautiful," said Sora. Piyomon nodded in awed agreement. "It's like something out of a fairy tale."

Professor Takenouchi grinned. "That was the look I was going for."

He scooped some of their luggage out of the back seat and began hauling it up to the house, and Sora copied his example. She was pleased to see that the house was already comfortably furnished - a bit old and frayed, but still serviceable and not entirely unattractive. Her father dumped all the baggage in the front hall.

"You can look around and see if there are any rooms that suit you," he said. "Usually this place is used as a summer home by one of my colleagues, but they're vacationing in America and he was kind enough to let me keep it warm for him. It should be comfortable enough. He said he'd call and hire someone from the village to straighten it up for us, and it looks like they've done a good job."

Sora nodded and began her exploration. A staircase led her to the second storey of the house, where she guessed the bedrooms must be. She stepped out into a hallway and began peering into doors. The first one she tried led to a bathroom; the next, a linen closet. The door after that led to what she supposed was the master bedroom, with a large double bed and formidable furniture. It was much too grand for her taste, and she would have felt wrong to try to claim the best room for herself. She tried the next door. It had been a nursery once, she guessed by the designs on the walls. She probably could have tolerated living there, but she wanted to see if there was anything better available.

The last door on the hallway opened to a corner bedroom. There were windows on two sides, one giving her a view of the forest, while the other looked back down into the valley. It would show her a lovely view of the sunrise in the morning. The walls were blue, stenciled with a design of clouds and flying birds. She noted a comfortable-looking bed, a vanity table with a mirror, and a writing desk with matching chair. She found herself nodding approval.

"This is nice," said Piyomon. "They could have made it just for you, Sora!"

"It's perfect," Sora agreed. "Let's go tell Dad I've found my room."

Returning to the hallway, she found her father hauling the last of the luggage up the stairs and piling it in the middle of the hall.

"See a room you like?" he asked.

"Yeah, this one will be just fine," she said, gesturing at the room she had just exited. Eying the heavy box her father was wrestling with, she asked, "Do you need a hand with that?"

"No, I've - oof - got it, I think... ack!"

The box slipped from his grasp. It landed on its side and popped open, spilling a pile of battered-looking leather-bound books. Sora stifled the urge to giggle.

"Well, I was going to put it on the floor anyway," said her father. "Well. So. As long as you're here, let's talk about how we're going to work this little vacation. You understand, I hope, that I'm not going to be around all the time. I might spend most of the day out working. I'll tell you where I'm going to be in advance, so you'll know. In the meantime, you'll be expected to take care of yourself."

"I can do that," she said.

"I know you can," he agreed. "Therefore, I'm not going to make a long list of rules. I trust you not to do anything that would get either of us into trouble. However, I am still a protective and slightly superstitious father, and I want to lay down a couple of restrictions, for the sake of your safety and my sanity."

"What has superstition got to do with anything?" Sora wanted to know.

Her father smiled sheepishly. "Well, maybe nothing... but the locals are convinced that something bad is going on around here, and I'd just feel better if I knew you were playing it safe."

She shrugged in confused acquiescence. He continued.

"First... I don't mind you biking down to the village and back while I'm out. Just leave me a note when you're out, in case I come home and don't see you. Stay on the main road. Don't follow anyone into their home, even if they invite you. Don't go telling anyone your name or where you're staying... I think those are pretty basic. Also, you noticed the forest in back?"

She nodded.

"Well, if you go into that forest, you will find approximately a million and eight trees that all look the same. It's a bad place to get lost. Since your mother would be a little upset with me if I were to lose you, I'll ask you to stay out of there. If you feel like you have to explore, stay within sighting distance of the house, and do not go in at night for any reason. Understood?"

"Yes, Dad," she answered. "Don't worry. I'd just as soon not get lost in the woods. I've done it before. It wasn't a lot of fun."

He smiled. "Good. Other than that, you have the run of the house. And now... I don't know about you, but I've had a long day. I'm ready to turn in. Good night, Sora. Good night, Piyomon."

"Good night!" the pair chorused.

Sora dragged her suitcase into her new room. After digging through it to find her nightgown, she found she had only the energy that it took to slip into the gown, crawl into bed, and turn out the bedside lamp. She closed her eyes, listening to the night sounds in the forest. She smiled. It felt so peaceful here, and she had all summer to enjoy it. The thought made her smile.

"Good night, Piyo," she said to the warm bundle of feathers at her side.

Piyomon didn't answer: she had already dropped off to sleep. Sora didn't notice that she hadn't gotten a reply, because she had fallen asleep herself.

~*~

That night, Sora dreamed. In her mind, she walked through the forest beyond the house, with the massive trees looming all around her. A heavy fog had fallen, so thick that she could see only a few yards in any direction, obscuring the tops of the trees. She felt as though she walked in a gray globe. All she could see was the brown leaf cover at her feet, the gray fog, and the gray trunks of trees. The fog softened the earth, making her footsteps silent. Nothing in the forest moved.

Or did it? Vaguely, she thought she saw the fog moving strangely somewhere up ahead. She moved toward it, hoping to see something familiar. As she drew closer, she was able to make out a darker shape against the fog, and she realized it was human.

The fog parted as suddenly as if someone had drawn it back like a curtain, leaving a broad swath of ground that was clear. In the middle of that circle stood a man, if the term could be used loosely. He was shaped like a human, tall and strong, with a regal bearing. He was dressed in pale gray, a gray that gleamed like silver and seemed to shift and swirl like the fog. His clothing was unlike any she'd seen outside of a movie or fairy tale. It amazed her that she could see them so clearly in a dream, where things were supposed to be vague and uncertain. Nevertheless, she could see everything about him with preternatural clarity. He wore knee-high boots of gray suede with the turn-town tops decorated in a scalloped design, trimmed in silver, with silver buckles. Tucked into those were loose breeches. He wore a shirt of gray-white, with full, loose sleeves, and darker gray cuffs. Over that was a darker gray tunic with a silver-trimmed scalloped edge that matched his boots. His hair was gray, as were his eyes, both shining like polished steel. His face was uncertain; she couldn't seem to look at any part of it but those glowing eyes. He wanted to tell her something, but just as he was about to speak...

She woke up. For a moment, she was as disoriented as she would have been if she really had been in a foggy forest, only to turn around and find herself in an unfamiliar room. She looked around, attempting to convince herself that she really had been dreaming.

"I wonder why I dreamed that?" she asked herself. She had always heard that dreams had some kind of meaning, even if it was only her own brain trying to shuffle through the stray thoughts in her head. Perhaps it had only been a reaction to her new surroundings, and her father's warnings about the deep forest where every tree looked the same. Even so, she didn't think she'd ever dreamed so vividly. She swore she still had the metallic taste of fog on her tongue...

Then she rolled over and looked out the window, and she laughed at herself. The ground outside was coated with white mist, twining between the trees like a cat begging for treats. Her laughter awakened Piyomon, who sat up and blinked sleepily.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"Nothing. I just dreamed us up some weather, that's all," Sora replied.

She dressed and groomed herself quickly, and then trotted downstairs to see if anyone else was awake. Her father was at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of oatmeal and flipping through a stack of manuscripts.

"You're going to be angry if you get that oatmeal on your papers," she told him.

He jumped, nearly dumping a spoonful of cereal in his lap. "Sora! You sneaked up on me."

"If I'd made any more noise coming down the stairs, Mom could have heard me back in Tokyo," she told him, smiling. "Is there any more breakfast where that came from?"

"In a box in the cabinet next to the phone," he told her. "It's instant. Just put it in a bowl with some water and throw it in the microwave."

Sora laughed. "I should have known you'd be trying to live on microwaveables. I'll have to go into down and find some real food later... after this fog clears up, anyway. Where did it all come from?"

"It's common around here," he said. "We'll probably have some most mornings, but it clears up quickly enough once the sun rises."

"Good," she said.

"What? Don't you like it? I always thought it was sort of pretty," her father said. "Sort of mysterious, you know."

"I'm not wild about mysteries. I like things out where I can see them," Sora replied, as she went off in search of the oatmeal packets. "I agree it's pretty, though. I just meant, I'd like it to clear up so I can go to the village."

"I'll leave you some shopping money," her father promised, "provided you agree not to spend all of it on groceries, and whatever else you decide you need. I brought you out here to enjoy yourself a little, you know."

"All right," she said. "I'll buy a candy bar while I'm down there."

Her father laughed. "Buy me one, too."

When her food, such as it was, had finished warming, she carried it back to the table, and then went to fix a meal for her partner. Piyomon claimed not to like oatmeal - it tended to stick to her beak - so Sora sliced fresh fruit and put it in a dish for her. The two of them seated themselves at the table. Professor Takenouchi was still poring over his papers.

"So, what are you going to do today?" Sora asked him.

"Hm," he said, drawing his mind from his papers. "There's a shrine just over the mountain. I'm going to talk to the people who run it. Normally, they don't care for us scientists, but I've managed to persuade them to talk to me a bit. It's a very rare chance - I'm lucky to have it."

"Ah," she said. "When will you be back?"

"Well before nightfall," he promised. "I'll try to get back in time for dinner. Then we'll have some time to spend together, don't worry."

She nodded agreeably; it was, after all, more than what she usually got.

"I'll take care of the dishes," she said. "You go get your things together, or you'll be late to talk to your monks, or priests, or whoever they are."

He grinned. "I won't be late. They told me time is just a figment of our imaginations, anyway. And if you waste your vacation doing chores, I'll - I'll shut you in the attic with the soot sprites!"

She laughed. "This isn't Tonari no Totoro, Dad."

"Why not? It might be," he said. "If you see any Totoros, tell them to hang around until I get back. And now I'm on my way. Bye, Sora. If you run into any trouble, anything at all, I'll have my cell phone with me, so you can call if you need me. Have a good day."

"You, too, Dad."

She watched him head out the front door, and a moment later, she heard the mutter of the car starting and rolling down the rocky driveway, and she lifted a corner of the kitchen curtain just in time to see him roll out of sight. For a moment, she felt a twinge of loneliness - partly the result of finding herself alone in a big, unfamiliar house, mixed with the older feeling of never having her father around. She brushed the thought away - her father would be back soon enough - and busied herself with washing the breakfast dishes. Even though she had promised her father she wouldn't spend the whole time doing chores, she needed something physical to do until she'd brought that homesick feeling to bay.

A few minutes later, the dishes were sparkling clean and had been returned to their cupboards and cabinets. Sora tossed the dishrag over the side of the sink and went to search for other forms of amusement. She decided to begin by exploring her temporary new home a bit more thoroughly. She had seen almost nothing of it the night before, and now she and her partner set about searching it from top to bottom. It had obviously been here a long time, judging by its worn floorboards and creaking boards, but it had been well cared for. There was evidence of fresh paint in some of the rooms, and the furniture was a jumble of threadbare but still serviceable items mixed with newer, more stylish pieces. There was evidence that children had been here recently: Piyomon found a child's rag doll fallen behind a chair. Searching the attic, they found (along with a great deal of dust) some boxes of sporting equipment, a crate of old books, and some odds and ends she didn't recognize but assumed that they belonged to her father's friend. She knew her own father had a habit of collecting peculiar artifacts; it shouldn't have been any surprise that his friends did the same. Climbing down the stairs and shaking the cobwebs from her hair, she noticed a porch in the back of the house, complete with a wind chime hanging within sight of the window. There was a breeze blowing briskly, and its sound was audible even inside. It was a pleasant touch, and made her smile.

"I think we'll do all right here," she said. "It could use some fixing up, but..."

"It could use something to eat," said Piyomon, who was mournfully inspecting the contents of the cabinets. The professor seemed to have brought along only what he would have considered the bare essentials, and there was only enough there to last a day or two, at best.

"We'll go shopping," Sora decided. "I'd like to go and explore the village, anyway, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah!" said Piyomon, ever cheerful.

So they went. Sora had brought her bicycle, strapped to the roof of the rental car, and now she put it to good use. The trail down from the house was largely mud, and rutted by rainfall and lack of upkeep, but she was still able to make good time as she rolled down the hill. It was nice here, watching the trees race by as she passed them, and the golden spears of sunlight that slanted through their branches gave the world a fairy-tale feel. Despite the fact that it was summer, the mountain air was cool, and she was glad she'd opted to wear a light jacket. She found herself tempted to just bike up and down the trail for a while.

At length, they came to the town, and Sora paused a moment on the side of the road to evaluate it. She could see most of it from here - a strip of shops, tiny restaurants, and other buildings lined up along the side of the road, with a few small houses near the edges, and a few winding trails that led to other half-seen buildings among the trees. There were few automobiles, just people milling around doing their grocery shopping, picking up mail, and visiting their neighbors. The trail she was on now intercepted the main street at a point she couldn't see, concealed among the buildings.

"I think we could explore this whole place in a day, and have time left over for lunch," Sora said. "This wouldn't even make a whole district, back home."

"Is that good or bad?" asked Piyomon.

Sora shrugged. "It's different, anyway. Right now, I think it will do just fine as long as we can find the local grocery store. Come on! Race you down the hill!"

She kicked her bike into motion again and started coasting down the hill, while Piyomon gave a chirp and fluttered after her as fast as her wings could carry her, calling for Sora to wait for her. By the time they had reached the edges of town, Sora was ahead by a few yards and Piyomon was panting for air.

"That's not fair," she complained. "I had to fly, and you didn't have to do anything."

"Sorry," said Sora, giggling a bit. "Here, you can ride on the handlebars while you catch your breath."

"Good! I like to ride," said Piyomon cheerfully. She settled herself into place, and Sora waited patiently while she got herself comfortable.

It was then that it occurred to Sora that some of the people on their way in and out of town were staring at them, especially at Piyomon. Some were openly gawking at the sight of a large, pink, talking bird. Sora sighed. Over the last few months, she'd gotten more used to her status as local celebrity than she usually realized or thought about, but things like this brought the fact home. Back in Tokyo, people had largely taken to the idea of Digimon. Sora and her friends were greeted familiarly on the streets by strangers, and the former Dark Spore children were the envy of their classmates. Everything from clothing to candy had appeared in Digimon motifs, and there were scattered reports that new people were already encountering Digimon and forming partnerships. It was easy to forget that something that was so popular and famous back home might be completely unheard of in a place where few people even watched television. Even if they'd heard of Digimon, how could they be expected to believe in them?

"Don't be scared," said Sora in her most soothing tones. "She's just a Digimon. She's not dangerous, really."

"That bird was talking," said one of the villagers. "It was really talking to you, wasn't it?"

"Piyomon's not an it, she's a she," said Sora. "And yes, she can talk. She can do just about anything a human can, really. She just looks like a bird, that's all."

"It's uncanny, that's what it is," said a woman, giving Piyomon a superstitious - and suspicious - glare. "Talking animals..."

"She's not an animal," Sora began, and then gave up. She decided to change her tactics a bit. "Look, I'm from Tokyo. Things like this are all the rage in the city. Lots of people have them."

"Oh," said the man who had first spoken. "A city thing."

"The things they won't get up to in the city," said an old woman, shaking her head.

The gathering slowly dispersed, with only a few backwards glances at Piyomon, who regarded them with her wide-eyed, innocent gaze.

"What was wrong with them?" she asked.

"They just aren't used to Digimon, I guess," Sora replied. "Probably not much has changed in this place for years. We'll have to watch our steps. I don't know much about small towns. I'd hate to do something stupid and get in trouble. Don't worry; they'll get used to you after a while."

"I don't know," said Piyomon, ruffling her feathers uneasily. "This isn't a Digimon sort of place."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Sora curiously.

"I'm not sure," said Piyomon, "but I can feel it. It's in the air, and the trees, and the ground. Can't you feel it, too?"

Sora hesitated, trying to pin down what Piyomon was talking about. She gazed around her, beyond the town and into the sky, the trees, the mountains. She felt the cool breeze against her skin, and the coolness that touched her was that of deep shadows and cold stone and still water. There were still places not that far from here where it was possible humans had never set foot, where the dance of nature had been going through its same slow steps for eons without ever being disturbed. For a moment even the very air felt heavy with a sense of oldness.

"You're right," said Sora, trying to shake off a sense of uneasiness. "I think it will be a long time before any Digimon settle down here. You're just too... new."

*Maybe that's why Digimon started showing up in places like Tokyo and New York first,* she mused, as she began pedaling slowly into town. *Not just because of all the computers and things there, but because things are always moving and changing there. Or maybe it's just that here, everything is still so close to nature, they're just not ready for something as technological as computerized life forms...*

She had an urge to finish her shopping quickly and head back home. After all, she had all summer to explore this place; why rush it? She found a boy of close to her own age who was listening to a portable CD player and chose him to ask where she might find the local market. He proved friendly enough, and more curious than intimidated when it came to Piyomon, and he was able to give her directions to a small store where she could buy produce and canned goods. He proved friendly enough that she lingered to chat with him a while, and when she left, it was with an invitation to come and play soccer with him and some of his friends sometime.

Finding someone friendly here put her in a better mood, and she hummed to herself as she filled a shopping bag with edibles. There were still people in this community who grew their own vegetables, and she found a lovely selection of summer squashes and ripe, red tomatoes. She also found a homemade chocolate cake for sale that she couldn't pass up. She filled the rest of her bag with other odds and ends, and probably would have taken more if she'd had better transportation available. As it was, she knew she could only buy what she was willing to carry back up the mountain on her bicycle, and made her choices accordingly. When the bag was full, she paid for all of it, and was pleased to find that it came to somewhat less than it would have been in a supermarket back home. Feeling pleased with herself, she piled everything into a basket on the back of her bike (which she had thoughtfully bought and attached for purposes of this vacation) and prepared to head home again.

That was where she ran into trouble. It had been easy enough to find her way into town - after all, there was only one road to follow - but finding her way out was somewhat trickier. She didn't know her way around, and there were several small dirt tracks leading back out of the village in the same general direction the house was. She could not remember which was the one she had followed to get here.

"Well, now what do we do?" she asked Piyomon.

"Try one?" the bird asked. "If it goes the wrong way, we can always back up and try again."

"That's true," Sora agreed. "We have lots of time. It's not even lunchtime yet, so we've got all day to poke around if we need it. I don't think we can get that lost in a tiny little place like this."

With that thought fixed firmly in mind, she picked a road that looked promising and started out. After all, she had once managed to blunder into a whole other dimension and she'd found her way out again eventually; she ought to be able to find her way out of a mountain village.

Once she was on the road, she felt almost certain that she was on the right track. It looked much the way she remembered coming in had been like, with the tall, stately trees, jewel-green moss, and shafts of golden sunlight. A few birds flittered overhead, and Piyomon listened to them and occasionally chirped back politely. She had told Sora once that for the most part, she could get the gist of what birds were saying to each other, but they had such limited interests that she seldom found it worth her while to pay attention to them. As for Sora, she simply concentrated on keeping her eyes on the road, making sure there were no other turnoffs where she could get confused if she had to backtrack.

After about fifteen minutes, backtracking began to look like a good idea. The trees were growing darker and denser, blotting out most of the sunlight even though it was mid-afternoon. They seemed much older than the ones she'd been passing previously. Most of these were too broad for her to have encircled with her arms, and some were twice that span or more. Their limbs were twisted and gnarled like arthritic fingers, bent into contortions that looked somehow unpleasant, even menacing. The air was almost cold here, and the only sounds to be heard were the croaks of crows and the soft sighing of the wind.

"I think we're in the wrong place," said Sora, scanning the area. The ground was nearly flat here, and she was sure the trip to the village had been entirely sloped. She couldn't see beyond the trees enough to see her house or even the village. "We'd better turn back."

Piyomon nodded. "These crows don't like us, I think. They're telling us to go away."

Sora looked up at the black birds, who looked back down at her and cawed raspily.

"Same to you," she told them, and wheeled her bike around and began the trip back down to the village. She pedaled rather faster than she would have ordinarily, and told herself she just didn't want to waste any more time.

She hadn't gone far when she came to a fork in the road. She stopped and stared. She had been absolutely sure that there had been no fork when she had last come this way, but now it was plainly divided. Staring hard, she thought she could see the cause of the problem, where bushes and shrubs had grown up between the two paths so that one was partly obscured to a viewer who was coming from the opposite direction and didn't know what they were looking for. She got off her bike and tried walking experimentally down each road. They both looked the same.

"Well, now what do we do?" she said, trying to keep worry out of her voice. She wasn't panicked yet, but she was concerned. Logic told her that she hadn't been traveling for more than a few minutes, so she ought to be able to figure out if she was on the wrong path if she traveled a short way and didn't come back to the village. Still, the idea that there might be more hidden paths to confuse her was not a reassuring one. She didn't want to spend all day wandering around on a mountain!

"Maybe I could fly up and see where we are?" Piyomon suggested.

Sora nodded. "Good idea. You ought to be able to see the village no matter where we are."

Piyomon chirped agreement and took off with a flurry of wings. A few minutes later, she flapped back down again.

"It's all trees!" she said.

"What?" asked Sora.

"It's all trees! No matter where I look, I can't see the house or the village or anything!"

"That's weird," said Sora. "I know we haven't come that far..."

"Is something wrong, dear?"

Sora looked up, startled. Standing partway down one of the paths was an old woman. She had long hair that was nearly white with age and a smiling, wrinkled face. She was bent with age but still had an air of energy about her. When she saw that Sora had noticed her, she began walking slowly forward with the aid of a gnarled stick.

"Sorry if I startled you, dear," she said. "I couldn't help but notice that you looked a little lost. Did you get on the wrong path? It's not hard to do in these mountains."

"Yes, I did," said Sora.

"I thought so. You're new around here, aren't you? Of course you are," said the old woman, nodding knowledgeably. "I know everyone in the village by now. I should, as long as I've lived on this mountain. Anyway, I'd remember that red hair. Where do you come from?"

"I'm from the city," said Sora. "I was here on vacation, and I got lost trying to get home. Please, can you tell me how to get back to the village?"

"Oh, I could," she said, "but a girl shouldn't be walking alone on these twisty paths. It's too easy to get lost. Things start looking like paths when they aren't, and the next thing you know, you're too far off-track to ever find your way back. There are wild animals out here, too. You should have company with you. I'd walk you back to town myself, but my old bones aren't up to making such a trip anymore. Is there someone in the village you could call? If nothing else, the grocer's boy knows the way up to my home - he delivers my groceries once a week. You could use my telephone, if you like."

"Thank you. That would be a big help," said Sora gratefully. She was thankful she had her father's cell phone written down. She could call him and let him know what had happened, and he could come get her, or send someone. In the meantime, this old woman seemed perfectly friendly and willing to look after her. If she was anything like many of the elderly people Sora knew, she was probably eager for any kind of company in this secluded place, and happy to have someone to talk to.

"No trouble at all, dear," said the old woman. "Just follow me."

They walked up the hill, Sora wheeling her bike, the old woman making surprisingly good time as she hobbled along on her cane. As they rounded a bend in the path, Sora could see a ramshackle hut standing in a small clearing, with a few chickens scratching around in the dirt outside. Five large black dogs sprawled in the yard or on the porch, raising their heads when they heard footsteps, then lowering them as they recognized their owner. The house itself seemed to have been made of the same trees as those that stood around them, perhaps felled on that very spot. Sora never could have seen it from the path, not with the way it blended into the scenery.

"It isn't much, but it's home," said the old woman. "Don't mind the dogs - they won't bite if you don't pester them. Just come right inside."

Sora nodded, carefully skirting the sleeping animals, and began climbing the short flight of creaky wooden steps leading up to the porch. However, no sooner had she set her foot on the first step, when...

...Stay on the main road. Don't follow anyone into their home, even if they invite you...

The memory of her father's words was so vivid that it was as if they'd been spoken into her ear. She actually jumped, and looked around as if expecting to find her father standing somewhere nearby.

"What is it?" asked the old woman. "You look as if something has startled you."

"It's nothing," said Sora. "I just... thought I heard something, but I think I was just imagining things."

"That can happen, when we're in the deep woods," said the old woman, nodding her understanding. "Especially if you're not used to forest noises. I'll wager a city girl like you hasn't spent much time in the woods, have you? Well, you'll feel better once you have four walls around you."

Sora nodded, trying not to feel guilty or foolish, but thinking of her father's warning made her uncomfortable. She told herself that she hadn't meant to wander off the path; she had just gotten lost by accident, and her father wouldn't scold her for doing whatever it took to get un-lost. As for going into the house, well...

*I need help right now. This old woman isn't going to do me any harm... but...*

She was brought out of her thoughts by the feeling of something tugging on her jeans. She looked down to see Piyomon gazing up at her worriedly. Sora took a quick glance at the old woman; she had thus far been ignoring Piyomon, perhaps mistaking her for just a large toy, as others sometimes did. Sora wasn't ready to let on to a stranger that Piyomon was anything more, no matter how nice this woman seemed. Luckily, the woman was busy undoing the latch on her door and wasn't looking at Sora or her partner.

"What is it?" Sora asked. "Can't it wait?"

"Sora," said Piyomon, "where are the phone lines?"

Sora blinked. Trust a bird to notice telephone wires! Now that she looked up, she could see no sign of phone lines, power lines, or anything else that would connect this place with the rest of the world.

"Where are the phone lines?" she repeated aloud.

"Hm?" said the old woman.

"How am I going to use a phone if you don't have any phone lines?" asked Sora. "I don't even see any electric lines."

"Don't you worry about that, dear. I promise everything will work just fine," said the woman, but Sora thought she didn't sound as confident as she had before.

"Thank you anyway," said Sora, "but I think I want to try to find my own way home."

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," said the woman. "You might never make it back."

"I'll take my chances," said Sora. "Come on, Piyo."

She swiftly mounted her bike and began pedaling away from the house as fast as she could go. It would have made for a dramatic gesture of defiance if she had been in better circumstances. As it was, she'd forgotten about the dogs. As soon as she started moving, their heads went up, and they began to growl. The next thing she knew, she was pedaling for her life as a pack of fierce black dogs ran beside her, baying and snapping at her. Was it her imagination, or did she hear the old woman shouting at them, urging them on? Or was she trying to call them off? Either way, the dogs remained intent on their target, and no matter how fast she pedaled, she couldn't seem to put any distance between them.

"Leave her alone!" Piyomon shouted. "I'm warning you! Magical Fire!"

She flapped her wings and stirred up a spiral of green fire, launching it at the dogs. It struck them, burst into a flare of smoke and flame...

...and the dogs continued, completely undaunted.

"Impossible!" Sora exclaimed.

That was all the reaction she had time for. One of the dogs, maddened by the attack, made a lunge at her and managed to sink his teeth into her calf. She shrieked, and the bike went out of control as the dog pulled her down. Instantly, the other dogs were on her, and she screamed and tried to cover her face with her hands. They snarled as they jockeyed for a position over her, snapping and drooling. She thought she heard Piyomon fire off another attack, but it didn't seem to bother the dogs any more than a strong breeze would have. One of them gripped her arm in his teeth and began pulling at it with incredible strength, and she felt herself being dragged up the path the way they had come...

*They're going to bring me home and eat me!* she thought wildly.

Fear gave her new strength. She managed to rip herself free, leaving most of one sleeve and a bit of her own blood behind, and she grabbed her bike in both hands, swinging it around clumsily as her injured arm burned with pain. Surprise as much as anything else drove the dogs back a few paces, and Sora was able to clumsily remount her bike and start moving again. The dogs tried to follow her, but the trail had started to slope again, and she was rapidly picking up speed, rolling recklessly over the rutted and bumpy trail. With gravity on her side, she was able to do what she couldn't on flat land and finally outdistance the dogs. At last, they gave up the chase and simply stood and barked at her, roaring as if they wanted her to know what they would do to her if they ever caught her again.

When they were far enough away that they could no longer hear even an echo of a barking dog, Sora stopped her bike and collapsed beneath a tree to catch her breath and assess her injuries. She was bleeding rather badly from her bitten arm, but it didn't look as bad as she had imagined - for a wild moment she'd been sure most of it had been torn off. Her leg was likewise showing signs of being punctured by sharp canine teeth, but her jeans had taken most of the damage and there were only small points of blood to show where she'd been bitten. The whole of it hurt like crazy, but it could have been a lot worse.

"That was scary," she said shakily.

"It really was," Piyomon agreed. "I thought they were going to eat you!"

"I thought they were, too," said Sora. "For a minute I thought I'd never get away."

Piyomon hung her head. "I tried to fight them off, but it didn't work. My attack didn't do anything."

"I know," said Sora, frowning. "That's weird. Even a little Digimon ought to be able to fight off a dog - even a big mean one. Was there something strange about the dogs, or was it something about you?"

"I don't know," said Piyomon. She looked around. The forest here looked more like she thought it was supposed to; there was no more sign of the dark, twisted woods. "But I think there's something around here that isn't good for Digimon."

"I hope you don't get sick," said Sora, worry for herself instantly replaced by worry for her partner.

"I don't think it's like that," Piyomon replied, after a moment of consideration. "But I think we should go home anyway."

Sora nodded. Having collected herself, she got up again and began limping down the path, opting to walk and use the bike as a crutch rather than try to ride any further. Within a few minutes, they were back within sighting distance of the town. They walked through a narrow passage between a bakery and someone's house and found themselves back on the main street.

"Hey, kid," said a man passing by. "What happened to you?"

"I - I got on the wrong side of some dogs," she said. She didn't feel like trying to recount the whole story. Fortunately, the man nodded in understanding.

"There are some bad ones around here," he said. "You should know better than to mess with people's guard dogs."

"I know better now," she said. "Right now, I just want to go home and get cleaned up."

"Do you want a lift? I have a truck. We can throw your bike in the back," the man offered.

"No, thank you," said Sora. "I'll call my dad and let him pick me up. Do you know where there's a public phone?"

The man gave her a point in the direction of a small restaurant and told her they would let her use theirs. She thanked him gratefully and limped up the street. Now that the shock was wearing off, she was starting to feel sore.

The people at the restaurant were gratifyingly sympathetic. The proprietor, a motherly dumpling of a woman, took one look at the state of Sora's arm and went into a flurry of concern. She ushered Sora into a back room, chattering the whole time about careless people who let their animals run wild, and pointed her to the telephone. While Sora was dialing the number and praying that her father's phone would be able to get a signal wherever he was, she listened vaguely as the woman issued orders to a fleet of children, telling them to bring bandages and ointment and food for "the poor little thing." Much to her relief, she heard the phone ringing, and her father's reassuring voice answered.

"Sora," he said. "I didn't expect you to call."

"I got into trouble," she said. She briefly explained her odyssey in the mountains. Her father said little until she'd finished.

"Hm," he said. "I won't scold you, because it's obvious to me that you did the best you could under the circumstances, but next time... don't guess, ask directions."

"You told me not to tell anyone where I lived," she said. "How can I ask directions if I can't tell them where I'm going?"

"Oh. Good point." She could almost hear her father blushing. "Well, for future reference, the road you want is the one that goes between the butcher's shop and the general store. The others just lead out to farmhouses, or they meander off into the mountains and disappear, for all I know."

"The butcher's and the general store," she repeated. "All right. I'll remember that next time... which should be in about five minutes. I'm ready to go home."

"Stay where you are," he told her. "I'm on my way home, anyway. I'll pick you up."

"You're coming home already?" she asked, surprised. She knew he'd been gone a few hours, by now, but it was only early afternoon, and she hadn't expected him to return until evening.

"I've done all I can do here for one day. I'm already on the road now. Stay where you are. Have some lunch. I should be there in about an hour."

"All right. I'll see you soon, then. Thanks, Dad."

"Any time, Sora. Take care of yourself."

"You too. Drive safe. Don't get lost," she added, as a feeble joke.

By the time she'd said goodbye, one of the restaurant woman's daughters had appeared at her elbow, carefully holding a tray with both hands. The girl was only about six years old, and the tray was almost too big for her. It contained a large bowl of soup, several rice-cakes, and a plate of fish, along with a steaming cup of tea surrounded by a small puddle where it had sloshed. Sora rescued the girl by taking the tray out of her unsteady and setting it on the desk where she'd been sitting.

"Thank you very much," she told the little girl.

The little girl bowed politely and scampered out of the room.

Finding herself alone, she set about eating the food she'd been brought. Fighting off the dogs and hiking up and down mountains had taken more out of her than she'd expected, and she realized she was starving. Even so, the woman had given her enough food to feed her not only lunch, but dinner and another lunch after that as well. Fortunately, once Piyomon was added into the equation, everything added up fairly well. Sora gave all the rice cakes to Piyomon and ate the rest herself. Everything tasted wonderful - she'd been in upscale restaurants in Tokyo where the food hadn't been as good. When she'd had all she wanted, she gathered up the leftovers and carried the tray back to her hostess.

"Are you feeling better now?" asked the woman. "Here, let me have a look at your arm... Ooh, that's a nasty bite you've got. Here, let's get you washed off, I should have done that right away... Takeo, where are those bandages I asked you to bring? Hanami, run and get the ointment, like a good girl..."

Sora submitted to having her arm washed and bandaged. Just as they were finished bandaging her leg, a bell chimed over the door, and her father walked in. His normally pale complexion was nearly white with worry.

"Sora!" he said. "Well, you look like you're still in one piece. I was worried about you, Sora."

"I told you I was all right," she said, getting up and gingerly testing her sore leg. It felt much less painful with the bandage on it, but it still throbbed and ached.

"You'd have told me you were all right if you'd had your leg chewed off," he said. "You wouldn't have wanted to worry."

"And you went and did it anyway," she said. "Well, I'm fine now. These people took good care of me."

Professor Takenouchi bowed politely to the restaurant woman. "Thank you for looking after my daughter. I'm very grateful to you all."

"We were glad to do it," the woman answered. "Poor little thing, I couldn't have done any differently. Come back again when she's feeling better, and we'll give you the best dinner in town. I don't want you to go away thinking we're all like the careless wretch who let their dogs attack this poor girl."

The professor nodded and guided Sora out of the restaurant. Looking over her shoulder, Sora could see the faces of all the children - she counted at least five - peering out the windows at her as she climbed into the car. As the motor started and they began rolling back up the hill toward the house, she heaved a sigh of relief.

"Now," he said, "tell me again how all this happened. You say you got lost coming out of town?"

Sora nodded. "That's right. I couldn't figure out which road I'd come in by, and I picked the wrong one... and then there was a fork in the road, and I didn't know which one to use."

"Sounds... confusing," said her father vaguely. "And then you met an old woman. Did she give a name?"

"No, come to think of it, she didn't. Why? Is it important?"

"Not really. Most of the people in town know each other by name; I thought perhaps I might ask and see if she's caused this kind of trouble before. Just idle curiosity, I suppose."

Sora nodded; her father had enough of that for a whole team of researchers.

"She said she'd let me call you on her phone so you could come get me, but Piyomon noticed there weren't any phone lines. I thought that was weird. I guess maybe she could have had a cell phone like yours, though..."

"It's possible," said her father. "Or there could have been lines you couldn't see them. Why would Piyomon notice there weren't any, anyway?"

"She's a bird," said Sora with a shrug. "She likes to sit on them, just like any other bird."

"They feel nice," Piyomon put in.

The professor nodded. "I'd imagine that there's enough digital information passing through phone lines for them to seem quite attractive to a Digimon. I should research that and see if there are any similar preferences among other Digimon species... Ehm. I'm off the subject, aren't I? Where were we?"

"With the woman and the dogs," Piyomon prompted.

"Oh. Right. Well, for future information, never run from a guard dog. It makes you think you're up to something, and then they're more likely to attack. Keep your eyes on them and walk away slowly. There are a lot of farmers around here who keeps guard dogs, and some of them can be fierce... I didn't do a good job preparing you for this, did I? I'm so used to you being able to take care of yourself..."

"It's all right," said Sora. "I should have known better, anyway." Now that she was safe with her father, her feeling that there had been something uncanny about the old woman and her dogs was beginning to seem silly. Of course a woman living all alone on a mountain would want guard dogs, and they probably weren't used to strangers. Looking back on the episode, she supposed it would have been a wonder if she hadn't done something to annoy them - after all, she wasn't very well-versed in canine behavior. She'd never had much more to do with dogs than playing with puppies at a pet store.

"It's still strange, though..." she murmured.

"What is?" her father asked.

"The way Piyomon's attacks didn't affect them," Sora said. "They were just animals. She should have been able to fight them off, but nothing worked."

"I really tried," said Piyomon sadly. "I didn't mean to let Sora get hurt."

"I know you didn't," said the professor. "I wouldn't worry about it too much."

"Piyomon says she thinks there's something here that doesn't agree with Digimon," Sora volunteered. "Do you think that could be it? What do you think it is?"

"I don't know. I'd have to think about it," he answered. "I wouldn't worry about it, if I were you."

"But what if it happens again?"

"Don't worry about it," he repeated. "Just be careful who you talk to... and don't bother any more dogs."

It took less time to get home by car than it had to go to town by bicycle. The professor unhooked Sora's bike from the roof of the car and propped it next to the front steps while Sora tried to extricate herself from the car. Her bites were aching almost overwhelmingly, despite the bandages and ointment they'd been covered with, and the rest of her felt as battered as if she'd been beaten with large sticks. She was grateful to have her father's arm to lean on as they climbed the front steps. She collapsed in an easy chair in the living room, and her father knelt on the floor next to her.

"Let's have a look at you," he said, indicating her bandages.

"The lady already washed them," said Sora sleepily. Whether it was the excitement of the day, blood loss, or just relief at being back home, she felt she was about to doze off where she sat.

"I just want to double-check. Humor me."

Sora saw no need to protest. He gently undid her bandages, taking care not to do anything that would make her hurt more than she already did. He looked over her injuries, clicking his tongue. They looked ugly and swollen despite the care given to them.

"These are going to need a little extra care," he said. "I'm going to get some medicine. Lucky I had the foresight to bring a first-aid kit."

He walked upstairs, and Sora listened dreamily as he bumped around, opening boxes by the sound of things. Then there was a moment of silence. He reappeared finally, carrying a washcloth soaked in something powerfully scented. Sora wrinkled her nose a little; the smell wasn't really bad, but it was strong.

"I'm no doctor," he said conversationally, "but I manage to batter and bruise myself often enough to know what works and what doesn't. I think this stuff would cure the bubonic plague if you could convince yourself to swallow it."

"It smells like it ought to work," said Sora.

Her father laughed and began gently daubing the liquid onto her aching arm. Whatever the stuff was, it seemed worth her father's endorsement. Almost as soon as it touched her skin, the ache began to subside, and she could have sworn the swelling was going down as she watched. Certainly she felt a lot better by the time he was tying her bandages up; the throbbing that had plagued her finally eased.

"How's that?" he asked.

"Big improvement," she said. "Thanks, Dad."

"You're very welcome. Now, repay the favor, and don't do that again."

"I won't," she promised.

"Good. Well, now that I'm here, and I don't have anything else to do... what should we do?"

"Nothing strenuous," said Sora. Despite the improvement in her condition, she still felt disinclined to move. "Can we watch one of those movies we bought?"

"Of course we can. Which one?"

"Both!" said Piyomon.

Professor Takenouchi laughed. "Good choice. All right, which one first?"

They finally managed to choose one and slip it into the VCR, and they all settled down to watch the movie... or at least, make a pretense of watching the movie. The professor had his eyes more-or- less fixed on the screen, but he'd also pulled out a yellow pad of paper and was occasionally jotting things onto it, and his expression was preoccupied. As for Sora, she was still running over the incident with the dogs in her mind. On the surface, it was all perfectly reasonable: She'd gotten herself lost, a nice old lady had tried to help her, but Sora had made the mistake of annoying her guard dogs, and the woman had been unable to call them off. It all made perfect sense...

If only it would stop bothering her.

To Be Continued...