Author's Notes: The following fanfic breaks continuity beyond Digimon Adventure 02 episode 8. Please ignore any episodes that follow afterwards.
Warnings: Angst, swear words, implied drug and alcohol abuse, blood, possession, the usual nonsense.
It wasn't often that someone as dignified as Iori moved with a spring in his step, but today there was a definite lightness in the way he walked that was as close as that most serious child ever came to exuberance. The cause of his current mood was expressed in the chiming of a pocketful of yen that hadn't been there yesterday. Not that the money itself was a great thing - only a few hundred yen that his mother had given him for being helpful around the house, not more than would buy him a few candy bars. No, the reason why he was feeling so cheerful was the fact that he'd been given permission to walk alone to the corner store to spend his hard-earned reward.
"Do you really think it's safe for such a young boy to be going out alone?" his mother had asked his grandfather.
"Why not? He goes out with his friends all the time and never gets into trouble," Hida Chikara replied.
"But he's not alone then," she said. "What if something happens to him?"
"Nothing's going to happen to him," Chikara answered. "This is a quiet neighborhood. Besides, Iori's getting old enough to look after himself a bit."
"That's true," Mrs. Hida admitted. She turned to look at her son, who was listening seriously to the conversation, watching them with his steady green gaze. He had such serious eyes for such a young boy; she'd known adults whose expressions weren't half so serious as Iori's. "I suppose you'll be safe enough just going to the store and back. Just don't stay too long, all right?"
"I won't," he promised. "I'll be very careful. Don't worry."
And that was how he came to be trotting up the sidewalk on his own. With his pockets jingling with coins and his partner riding along in his backpack, he felt well-equipped for an enjoyable afternoon. It was a beautiful day, with warm weather and clear skies, and he was enjoying a moment of independence. Not that he had never wandered on his own before, but that was different from actually being given permission. It was nice to be treated as an adult. Looking around, it was hard for him to imagine why his mother had been worried. This was, as his grandfather had said, a quiet neighborhood, neat and clean, full of respectable people. A few of them waved at him as he ambled past their houses, recognizing him as the child of a neighbor, and he greeted them with his usual grave nod, softened with a small smile. After a few minutes, he reached the end of the block and stood at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. With his mind on delights to come, he didn't notice someone had come up behind him until a voice spoke.
"Hey, kid," drawled a voice. "Whatcha got there?"
"Nothing," said Iori defensively, whirling to face the speaker. What he found was an assortment of surly-looking teenagers leering down at him. Closest to him was a heavyset boy with spiky hair and crooked teeth, wearing a silver-studded leather jacket like armor and rubbing his fist into his palm in a way that did not look friendly. Lurking behind him was a slimmer, darker boy in a ragged t-shirt and dark glasses, and next to him, another with a mohawk and an abundance of piercings.
"Nothing?" the jacket-boy asked. "Didn't look like nothing to me. You're carrying money. Fork it over."
Iori quickly weighed his options and decided they weren't good. Thanks to his kendo practice, he was tougher than the average nine-year-old kid, but he knew what the results would be if he picked a quarrel with three older and heavier people while he was unarmed.
"All right, you can have it," he said quickly, holding out his money. The leader snatched it up and made a quick calculation of its worth.
"Not much," he said, narrowing his eyes. "You got anything you're hiding from us, kid?"
"Nothing, really!" Iori insisted.
"He's holdin' out," said the mohawk boy. "Check his backpack!"
"Yeah!" said the t-shirt boy. "What's in the pack, runt?"
"Just homework," said Iori, looking for a place to back away to. He was hemmed in on two sides by thugs and the other two by moving traffic.
"He's lying," the leader spat. "Come on, fork it over, before I get impatient!"
The dark-haired one tried to make a grab for the pack, but Iori squirmed away, wild thoughts about what would happen if these cretins got hold of his Upamon running through his head. The mohawk boy managed to latch onto one of the straps just as the traffic halted, and Iori twisted, pulled, and got free, racing across the street and up an alley. The thugs whooped and gave chase, clomping after him in their heavy boots. Iori was in better shape than they were, used as he was to exercise, and he had a bit of a head start, but it was barely enough to let him hold his own against his longer legged pursuers. Desperate, he charted an erratic course up the streets, darting down alleys and skidding around corners, always with the sound of footfalls ringing in his ears. Half-afraid to even look, he turned his head to see whether they were gaining on him, and - whump! - collided with someone. Dazed, he lost his footing and fell to the pavement, skinning his hands as he slapped the sidewalk. He looked up... and decided he had just fallen out of the frying pan into the fire.
Looming over Iori was one of the most formidable figures he'd ever chanced to meet. It was a man, tall and commanding, wearing a sweeping trench coat of some dark material. His hair was dark, too, long and lank, hanging around a skull-like face with greyish skin and sunken eyes. He looked down at the little boy at his feet with an expression that would have frozen water.
"Why don't you watch where you're going?" he demanded.
"I... they... they're after me..." Iori stammered, panting from his run.
"They? What are you talking about?"
Fortunately for Iori, he didn't have to answer. At that moment, the goons came barging around the corner and found themselves face to face with the dark man. They stopped short, gaping, as his expression went from cold to downright murderous.
"What do you think you're doing?" he asked, his voice slow and deadly. "How dare you torment this poor child? How dare you?"
"Um, um, uh..." the leader stammered. "We weren't doing anything, honest!"
"Yes, you were," said Iori. Whoever this dark man was, he seemed to be on Iori's side, so he thought he'd use his advantage. "You chased me. You stole my money. I want it back."
"We never took nothin'!" the dark haired boy protested, trying for innocence, his face going pale as wax.
"I think you did," said the man coldly. "You will give it back. Now."
"Aw, who needs your stupid milk money, anyway?" muttered the leader. He threw the handful of coins at the ground. "Come on, let's get out of here."
With that, they turned and stalked off. As soon as they were out of sight, there was a clattering sound, as of people trying to beat a hasty retreat while wearing heavy boots. The dark man knelt down and began gathering up the scattered change.
"Are you all right?" he asked. He sounded calm now; his deep voice was so quiet as to be almost inaudible.
"I'm fine," said Iori. "Thank you."
The dark man picked up the last of the coins and turned to offer them to Iori.
"I was tormented often enough when I was a child," he said. "I won't leave anyone else to that fate if I can help it."
Iori accepted his money silently. The man was not so frightening when he was kneeling like that. Iori could actually look into his eyes now. They were dark, dark, dark, as if whole oceans of happiness could be poured into them and never bring them any light.
*He's so sad...* thought Iori, feeling a sudden stab of pity.
"Thank you for your help," he said again, just to fill the silence.
"Think nothing of it," answered the man, getting back to his feet. "You should go home now. Your parents will be worried."
Iori looked around. "Actually... I'm kind of lost. When they chased me, I just ran, and now I don't know how to get back."
The dark man gave him a long, hard stare.
"I suppose you want help getting home, then," he said. "As if I didn't have better things to do. But I suppose you can't have run too far from where you're supposed to be. All right, I'll help you find your way home. What's your name?"
"Hida. Iori Hida."
"Hida?" the man repeated in a near-whisper, as if addressing a ghost. "Not the son of Hiroki Hida?"
"That's right!" said Iori. "Did you know my dad?"
"Know him? We were scarcely ever apart. Just look."
He reached into an inner pocket of his coat and took out a photograph, its edges battered and corners dog-eared from being carried so long. He gently smoothed the creases as best he could and offered it to Iori, who studied it seriously. It had been taken years ago with a personal camera, not of the best quality, so the colors were faded and blurry, with a hint of someone's fingertip at the edge of the frame. Even so, Iori could distinguish two young men, perhaps college aged, smiling and squinting into the sun. One he recognized as a younger version of his father, with his light brown hair and hazel eyes, just like he was in the family album pictures. Standing next to him was an unfamiliar man with glossy dark hair and bright black eyes, his pale skin still showing a flush of laughter through the haze of the faded photograph, and it took a moment for Iori to see the resemblance between that person's smiling face and the thin, tired one of the man who regarded him now.
"This was a long time ago," said Iori, thinking aloud.
"Too long," the man replied, with a sigh. "Much too long... By the way, I haven't introduced myself yet. My name is Mr. Oikawa. Your family hasn't mentioned me, by any chance, have they?"
Iori shook his head.
"I didn't think so," Oikawa answered - a trifle bitterly, Iori thought. "But there was a time when your father and I were like brothers. I never had a truer friend."
"Then you'll help me get home?" Iori prompted.
"Hm? Oh! Of course," he answered. "I know the way. I used to go through your front door more often than I did my own. Follow me."
They went, Oikawa striding confidently along, Iori trailing more uncertainly behind him. If the man hadn't been such a complete stranger, he would have felt moved to try to hold his hand, as he would have with a relative or a teacher - the look he had gotten into his eyes convinced him that this was a person who could use a friend to hold on to, even one so small as a child.
Primarily, though, Iori's thoughts were concerned with the intriguing thought that this man had known his father. Hiroki Hida had died when his son was only three years old, only old enough to remember his father as a sense of security and comfort, someone great and strong who loved him. Then he was gone, leaving the little boy in a confusion as to what could possibly be terrible enough to take him away and why he wouldn't be coming back again. All he had left of his father were some photographs, the recollections of friends and family, and a few images too vague to even be called memories. He had never been able to put it into words, but the idea of this person who was so closely related to him and yet so far away fascinated him, and every connection to his father that he could find was guarded closely as a jewel. Now, out of the blue, just when he needed him, someone had appeared who had apparently been as close to his father as anyone on earth, and he was curious.
The walk was silent for a while, Iori too wrapped up with his own thoughts and with trying to keep up with Oikawa's long strides to make conversation, the older man off in his own world. Under his confident direction, they soon found their way back to the corner where Iori had begun his brief odyssey. Oikawa stopped on the corner and looked down at his charge.
"Can you find your way home from here?" he inquired.
"I can..." said Iori slowly, "but I was wondering... couldn't you come the rest of the way?"
"What for?" was the gruff reply. "You're safe enough. Those thugs won't be back."
"I know," Iori replied. "It's not that. It's just... you were my dad's friend. I never even got to know him. I thought..." He ran out of words, but even what he'd managed to get out seemed to have made an impression.
"Never knew him," he repeated, mostly to himself. "His own son, and he never got to know him... No. I don't belong there anymore. And I have things I need to do."
"Things like what?"
"None of your business. Go on home."
Oikawa turned around and began walking around. Iori simply stood and stared at him, the gimlet look that so often got him what he wanted more effectively than words. The dark man made it only a few feet before he changed his mind and stopped in his tracks.
"Do you really want me to come?" he asked.
"If you don't mind."
He seemed to consider a bit. Then, with the air of someone shouldering a burden, he slowly turned around.
"It's not often someone wants my company. I suppose that's worth something," he said. "All right, I'll see you a little ways more, but I really can't stay long."
They went, this time with Iori leading the way, with Oikawa following like a child being taken to school. The awkward journey with its attendant silence lasted until they arrived at his front door. Iori stared with calm expectation at Oikawa until he reached out to press the doorbell.
"Just a minute!" called a voice from within. Seconds later, Chikara Hida opened the door. His eyebrows rose as he assessed his visitor. "Yukio. This is unexpected."
"It's as much a surprise to me as it is to you," Oikawa replied. "I found something I think belongs to you."
"It seems so," said Chikara, still looking vaguely suspicious. "Would someone explain how this came about?"
"It's okay, Grandpa," said Iori. "I ran into some trouble downtown, and Mr. Oikawa helped me. I asked him to walk me home."
"I've told you not to talk to strangers," said Chikara.
"He's not a stranger, Grandpa. You knew his name," Iori answered innocently.
The old man shook his head. "You're getting entirely too clever. I suppose this is all right, though, Yukio being a friend of the family. Just don't make a habit of it. It's been quite some time, hasn't it, Yukio?"
"I know when not to intrude," Oikawa answered. "I wouldn't have come here at all, but the boy insisted."
"Is that so?" the old man replied, looking down at his grandson quizzically. Iori shrugged.
From the back of the apartment, Mrs. Hida called, "Hello? Is there someone there?"
"It seems we have company," the elder Hida called back.
"Well, don't make him stand there on the doorstep! Invite him in!" she answered. She came out of the kitchen to greet her guest, and stopped short as she saw who their visitor was. "Oh!"
"Chou, you remember Yukio Oikawa, don't you?" Chikara said.
"Of course. Come in, Mr. Oikawa! What brings you here?" Much to his surprise, she took his arm and began leading him into the living room.
"That's really not necessary," he said. "I only meant to return your son home. I really should be going now..."
"Nonsense," she said firmly. "You can't just show up after none of us have seen you for years and disappear without even stopping to talk a while. You're going to stay right here and join us for dinner. Poor man, you look like you haven't had a decent meal in ages," she added, appraising his sunken eyes and gaunt face. Chou Hida was a deeply maternal woman who loved nothing better than to have someone to take care of, and she was not about to let this person get away when he obviously needed some looking after. Succumbing to the inevitable, he allowed himself to be presented with a pair of guest slippers and shrugged awkwardly out of his heavy coat. Pleased with her small victory, Mrs. Hida pointed her guest to the best chair and then fluttered off with a cheery, "I'll just start dinner cooking. Make yourself at home."
"I'm going to put my things away," said Iori, scampering down the hall. Though he would have liked a minute to watch the situation with his visitor developing, he had a more urgent task. He darted to the safety of his room, shut the door firmly behind him, and unzipped his bookbag.
"Whew!" gasped Upamon, bounding out of the pack to bounce on Iori's bed. "I thought you were gonna leave me in there all night!"
"No way would I do that," Iori replied. "I just couldn't let Mr. Oikawa see you... or those thugs."
"You should have let me out," said Upamon. "I'd have shown them a thing or three!"
"If they didn't use you for a soccer ball before you had a chance to evolve," Iori pointed out. "We were better off letting Mr. Oikawa handle it... what do you think of him?"
"I don't know what I think of him," Upamon replied, "because I never got to see him, because I was zipped up inside a backpack."
"But you heard him," said Iori, not to be discouraged. "What did you think?"
"I think he's strange," Upamon answered.
Iori nodded. "He is... but I think that's only because he's so unhappy. I think he needs help... and he really did care about my dad. He still does. I feel like I ought to help him. I think Dad would want me to. I just don't really know how yet."
"You'll find a way," said Upamon confidently. "And you know what else you can do that would be helpful?"
Upamon looked up at his partner with round blue eyes. "Bring me back some of that dinner your mom is making?"
Iori laughed quietly. "I won't forget you. Think you'll be okay by yourself for a while?"
"Sure," said Upamon. He yawned. "It's been a long day. Maybe I'll just take a nap for a while... Just don't forget the food, okay?"
"All right. Sleep tight, Upamon!"
The little Digimon gave a final yawn and settled himself down on Iori's pillow. The boy tugged the blankets up around him, making a little tent, from which the tips of his ears protruded like flower petals.
"Thanks, Iori," he murmured sleepily. There was a tiny chittering noise as he began to snore. Iori smiled, tiptoeing out of the room and shutting the door quietly behind him.
Back in the main part of the apartment, he found his grandfather and Oikawa making polite talk over the coffee table. Oikawa was still looking somewhat uneasy, as if he thought they might have mistaken him for someone else who would be more welcome and was dreading them learning of their mistake. Still, he didn't seem as frightened and frightening than he had earlier. Without the sweeping dark coat, he looked less formidable; he was wearing a bright red shirt beneath it that looked almost festive against the background of the cheery living room, though it didn't do anything to downplay his sickly paleness. Whatever tension had been between him and Chikara when they had met at the doorstep had faded, and now they were chatting about the weather and politics, with occasional digressions about the possibility of dinner being ready soon and the quality of Chou's cooking. Iori watched them a moment before deciding now was not the time to be asking his own questions, so he settled himself unobtrusively in a vacant chair and waited.
Dinner was soon served, and everyone was called to the table. Iori was a bit surprised to see a pot for nabemono set up on the table; it was traditionally more of a winter dish, but it was sociable food, warm and comfortable. The meal was prepared at the table, encouraging the diners to chat with each other while they waited for the food to be ready. He mentally congratulated his mother on a move well made. By the time the meal was served, everyone seemed to have adjusted to their houseguest's presence, including the guest himself.
"Just like old times," Chikara commented. "I don't think I could count the number of times you used to have dinner here just like this. I almost expect Hiroki to come banging in here, giving us some wild excuse about why he's late this time."
"That's exactly what he would do," answered Oikawa, "and he'd be so sincere, we wouldn't have the heart to contradict him. That was the way it always went, wasn't it?"
"Always," Chou agreed. "Oh, he used to make me laugh with his wild tales and his pranks."
"That's true. He could make anyone laugh," Oikawa replied. "I think I've forgotten more about the jokes we pulled in college than I learned in class there."
"I wouldn't be surprised!" said Chou, laughing. "You should tell Iori about the that thing you two did with the speakers in your teacher's office."
"Should I? I haven't thought about that in years," he answered. "Old Professor Kawamura, saying all this computer business was just a fad, telling me it was a waste of time to want to work with them. Hiroki suggested I teach him a thing or two..."
He went on with his story, telling how they had created and recorded an assortment of space invader sounds to play in the offending teacher's office at odd hours. His recreation of the teacher's response was enough to make even Iori laugh, and the rest of the family encouraged him to tell another story. He obliged them, and the story reminded Chou of something else that had happened, and there followed a circle of tale-spinning that went on long after the last of the food had been eaten and the sun had begun to creep toward the horizon. Everyone seemed surprised to realize that evening had come.
"This is what happens when you only intend to stay for a few minutes," said Oikawa, beginning to rise from his chair. "I've taken up too much of your time. I'll be going now."
"You don't have to go," Cho replied. "We've enjoyed your company."
"You're too kind," he answered. "But I should leave anyway. I really only meant to stay a moment. I had told some business associates I would meet with them tonight, and they'll be waiting for me."
"Well, we won't keep you, then," she answered. "Have a good evening Mr. Oikawa."
"I will do my best," he answered, with more courtesy than conviction.
"You'll come back, won't you?" asked Iori hopefully.
Oikawa looked mildly puzzled. "I'm not sure why you would want me to... and I'm not one to intrude."
"There is no intrusion," said Chikara. Oikawa looked at him questioningly, and he added, "No, don't be surprised. I'm willing to admit when I've made mistakes. Your home has always been here, and I would be foolish to continue to deny it. Consider yourself welcome, any time."
"Are you sure?" Oikawa asked.
The old man nodded thoughtfully. "There's been a presence here tonight, something that hasn't been here in quite a long time. It's as if you've brought some part of Hiroki's spirit back with you tonight."
"Hm," said Oikawa. "Well... we'll see. But it is getting late. I have work to do, and I'll bet this young fellow has homework that he should be doing instead of listening to me. Isn't that so?"
"Yes, sir," answered Iori.
"Well, you had better go take care of it. Good night, Iori. Good night, everyone."
He collected his coat and took his leave, and the rest of the family went about the business of cleaning off the dishes. Iori took advantage of their distraction to filch a few leftover food items to carry back to Upamon. The little 'mon was still snoring soundly when he came in, but the scent of food woke him up instantly.
"You're back!" he squealed, bouncing out from under the covers.
"Not so loud," said Iori. "Somebody will hear you. Here."
He handed over a collection of scraps that he'd been able to salvage, and watched with a smile as his partner gratefully gobbled them up. Still, his mind was elsewhere, still mulling over his meeting with the dark man. There was something he didn't know about what had happened tonight, something wrong about the way he'd acted. He had obviously been close to Mr. Hida when they were both young, and he had just as obviously spent many hours here in this house. Why, then, did he act as if he expected to be turned away at any moment? Why did he seem so eager to get away?
*He has problems,* Iori concluded. *I'll figure out why later. But grandpa's right - I really do think he belongs here. Given time, he'll be all right...*
Meanwhile, the man in question was making his way slowly down the sidewalk, as reluctant to leave the building as he had been to enter it. He stopped on a corner, pausing to look back at the cheerfully glowing lights he'd left behind. That place had been home and safety to him once, and now it looked like he might have finally found sanctuary again.
*It went away,* he thought in quiet awe. *For the first time in years, the pain went away. I thought it would never stop hurting.*
He gave the apartment one last look before turning back to the dark streets, which looked gloomy in comparison despite their street lights and lit windows. There was no one on the sidewalk but himself, no one in the street but a few cars that passed before their presence could really be registered. Only the contrast of the scene he'd just left made him think it was lonely; he'd been lonely for years now, so much so that he had ceased to even think about it in those terms. There had never really been anyone in his life but Hiroki, and when Hiroki had left him, he hadn't considered the possibility that there would be anyone else.
*Perhaps I was wrong. They miss him as much as I do... and the poor boy never knew him at all. Maybe I owe it to them to share what I can of his memory... and maybe they can help me, too.*
He continued walking, drifting back into darker parts of the city, returning to his own living space. The apartment he arrived in was unlit, but he didn't bother with turning the lights on. He almost didn't want to see the place he was living anymore, bleak and unkept as it was. Cleaning didn't rank high on his list of priorities; his living room and bedroom were both strewn with heaps of paper, the floors and desktops scattered with computer diskettes. The counter tops in the kitchen were covered with the wrappings of takeout meals. He reflected rather bitterly that Mrs. Hida was right - he hadn't been eating properly, nor had he been getting out enough or sleeping right. He hadn't cared. He hadn't thought anyone else did, either, but if someone who was nearly a complete stranger was worried over him, then maybe-
"Where have you been?" said an icy voice, cutting into his thoughts.
"None of your business," he answered.
"Oh, really?" the voice replied. "As if you had business that didn't concern us."
"How do you know I don't?"
"You never have before."
Oikawa hesitated to answer, staring half-blind into his shadowed room. Gradually, he was able to extrapolate a collection of paler shadows into a pair of living beings. That was all he needed to see of them; they were his creations, creatures he knew nearly as well as himself. The knowledge didn't make him any more comfortable in their presence. If anything, just the realization that something like them could have been his handiwork was disturbing.
"Well, I do starting today," he said. "Or perhaps that's not entirely accurate. I ran into some old friends from before your time, and we stopped to chat."
"Is that a fact?" asked Arukenimon. "These friends of yours are more important than our work?"
"What makes you say that?"
"The fact that you're almost three hours late."
"Three hours lost is no great thing," answered Oikawa.
"Well, it wasn't polite to keep us waiting," said Mummymon, sounding miffed.
"Excuse me if I want to have some time to myself for once," Oikawa snapped. "It isn't as if you two never go anywhere without me."
"If that bothers you," Arukenimon answered, "then quit fooling around and get back to work."
"Fine, fine," he sighed, dropping into a chair and turning on his computer. "And here I thought you were supposed to be answering to me."
"We're here to help you," she answered. "That includes keeping you on track. Or don't you want to finish what you've started?"
"I suppose I don't have a lot of choice," he replied. "All right, then. Let's hear how our young Emperor is doing."
"Not as well as we'd hoped," answered Arukenimon.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Well," said Mummymon, "there's been... a little problem."
Oikawa narrowed his eyes. "Elaborate."
"Some children have gotten into the Digital World," Arukenimon explained. "Digidestined Children. They've found some way to get around the powers of the Control Spires. They're going around destroying them, as if this were some sort of game! It's disgraceful."
"And what is the boy doing about them?"
"Nothing," she muttered. "He's playing with them. Taking their measure, maybe, but definitely not putting out his full effort. I think he's just having fun showing off for them."
"That's not good. We'll have to do something about it," answered Oikawa thoughtfully. "Continue keeping an eye on him, and do what you can to guide him. Regrettable as it is, these interfering children must be eliminated."
The bell rang, signaling the end of school and the beginning of an afternoon of freedom. Most of the students hurried outside as fast as they could, but a handful lingered in the hallways, talking quietly to each other.
"Are we going to the Digital World today?" asked Daisuke hopefully. Lover of challenges, he was coming to enjoy this intense new game.
"I can't," said Miyako. "I promised I'd help my sister tonight; she needs a hand with the sound mixing."
"That's right, your sister helps Yamato's band," answered Takeru. "I heard him mention it once."
"Did he say anything nice?" asked Miyako.
Takeru shrugged. "He said he wished your sister wasn't such good friends with Jun. She thinks it gives her an excuse to hang around."
"Nothing I can do about that," Miyako replied. "I can't pick my own friends, much less my sister's. If I could, do you think I'd have chosen to be friends with him?"
She pointed at Daisuke, who was showing off how he could balance his Digivice on the end of his nose.
"I heard every word you said," he answered, continuing his balancing act, "and I just want you to know I know you don't mean it."
"Who says?" Miyako shot back.
"Me," he answered. "How could anyone not want to be friends with me? I rock!" He flipped the Digivice off his nose and caught it expertly. Hikari laughed.
"You look like a trained seal," she said.
The other Digidestined listened with bemusement as the two of them went into a round of verbal sparring.
"If I didn't know better, I'd swear they liked each other," said Miyako.
"You never know," answered Takeru. "Anyway, what about the rest of us? I know I can't make it to the DigiWorld tonight. My teacher gave a ton of homework, and I'm going to need every minute to get it done."
"I can't go, either," said Iori. "I've already missed practice three days in a row, and my grandfather is going to get suspicious soon."
"Sounds like today is a no-go, then," Takeru summarized. "Okay, I guess we can give the Kaizer a day off. See you all tomorrow!"
The children scattered in all directions. Not surprisingly, Takeru, Miyako, and Iori all ended up walking together.
"You look thoughtful today, Iori," Miyako commented. "What's up? Don't tell me you're that worried about kendo practice."
"No, I'm just thinking about things," answered Iori. "One of my dad's friends came over to visit last night. It was interesting."
"Ah," said Miyako vaguely. "Interesting?"
"That might be the word for it," Iori replied. "He used to be my dad's best friend a long time ago. But something happened to him, something bad. He didn't talk about it, but I could tell. He acted afraid, like he thought we were all out to get him."
"What do you think it was?" asked Takeru, looking slightly worried.
"I don't know," asked Iori, "but I think I know where to find out."
As soon as he arrived at his home, he scampered off to his room to collect his kendo gear and quickly dressed himself for battle. Even so, his grandfather was waiting for him when he arrived in the room where they practiced.
"There you are," he said. "I thought perhaps you might be going out with your friends again today."
"I thought it was time I got back to my practice," answered Iori. "Besides, everyone had other things do. You aren't angry, are you?"
Chikara shook his head. "No, Iori. I'm pleased to see you have such good friends to spend your time with. I think your father would be pleased, too. He was always surrounded by friends when he was alive."
"Like Mr. Oikawa?" Iori prompted.
"Yes," his grandfather answered quietly. "Like Mr. Oikawa."
"Grandpa, can I ask you a question?"
"You can always ask me questions... Answers, however, are not guaranteed."
"Okay." Iori took a breath and blurted out the question that had been bothering him all day. "Why was Mr. Oikawa so nervous around you? Why is he so afraid?"
Chikara sighed. "I was wondering when you would ask that. Well, sit down and see if I can't explain Mr. Oikawa for you."
Iori did as he was told, removing the most cumbersome parts of his armor and settling back against the wall, while his grandfather did the same. The little boy watched his grandfather expectantly.
"Well, then," he said, "let's see how well my old brain remembers our friend Yukio. He was always a little different. I was told he was never popular in school, but somehow, he and Hiroki hit it off. It's a bit strange that the school favorite and the school misfit should become such good friends, but they were inseparable... Yukio worshiped Hiroki. People - jealous people - used to say that was the only reason Hiroki kept him around, but I knew better. Hiroki was the kind of person who recognized when someone was in need, and Yukio needed someone to take care of him more than anyone I'd ever met. I remember the first time I met him..."
His mind wandered back to the day he'd opened the door and found that frail-looking, dark haired child standing on his doorstep, looking up at him with those fear-filled black eyes.
"Who is this?"
"This is Yukio. He needs a place to stay. Can he play over here for a while?"
"Well, I don't know. You have a lot that needs to be done today..."
A small quiet voice, nearly whispering: "Please... I don't want to go home..."
"It took a while to realize what was going on," said Chikara slowly. "He was never one to talk very much, but I'm given to understand he had a very unhappy home life. His parents neglected him... quite possibly beat him. He came here every day to get away from them. This was the only home he had."
"So what happened?" asked Iori.
"I'm afraid... I made something of a mistake," Chikara answered. "I was afraid - not thinking clearly. I could wish I had done otherwise, but at the time, I thought it was my only choice... I'm not sure I should even tell you this. I don't know if you'd believe it."
"I'd believe a lot of things," Iori said, thinking of Upamon hidden away in his room.
"Well, then..." The old man took a long breath. "Their favorite thing to do together was playing video games. They'd spend hours competing against each other. I thought it was all harmless fun, until they started telling me that the games were real..."
"Yes. They claimed there was a whole world beyond the screen, a Digital World, and that there were Digital Monsters that came to play with them." The old man shook his head. "I should have known it was only a harmless fantasy. Instead, I started getting worried. I was afraid to see them taking their games so seriously, losing touch with reality... When they refused to admit the creatures weren't real, I took the games away and forbid Yukio to return here, or to speak to Hiroki anymore. I couldn't keep them from seeing each other at school, but I never let Yukio set foot here again."
"Until last night," Iori finished.
"Until last night," his grandfather repeated. "So you understand, then, why he thought he would be unwelcome?"
"Kind of," said Iori. "He thought you were still angry with him?"
"Partly... Really, I'm surprised he doesn't hate me for what I did to him, denying him the only sanctuary he ever had. Sometimes I think about what it must have been like, losing that..."
"But it doesn't have to be that way anymore, does it?" Iori prompted.
"No," Chikara replied. "I'm glad you found him and brought him home again, Iori. Maybe... maybe there's a chance to make amends for past mistakes, still."
"I hope so," said Iori.
"So do I," his grandfather replied. "And you know... I'm not sure I feel up to giving a lesson today, after all."
"And I'm not sure I'm up to taking it," answered Iori. "I have a lot to think about."
He bid his grandfather goodbye and went to put his things away. He flopped down on his bed and woke up Upamon.
"How was your lesson?" asked the little 'mon, blinking his round blue eyes.
"Educational," Iori said. "Upamon, listen! You're not going to believe this - my dad knew about Digimon! He could have been Digidestined just like me!"
"Really?" asked Upamon, coming awake in an instant. "Where did you find that out?"
"From Grandpa," Iori replied. "And you know what else?"
"No, but you're going to tell me, right?"
Iori nodded. "When he saw the Digimon, one other person was with him. Can you guess who?"
"I bet I can," Upamon answered. "Mr. Oikawa?"
"Right," said Iori. "Which means I've got some thinking to do."
That's what he did, settling himself down comfortably on his bed and staring off into space, trying to work through all his questions.
*I need to know the truth... How do I ask him without letting it slip that I'm Digidestined? I wonder if I can trust him...*
Yukio Oikawa came home from work. Normally this wouldn't have been much of an event - it simply meant that he'd be working in a different location, and on a different sort of job, but the procedure was much the same. He worked all day at a company desk, staring at a computer, and then went home to his own desk and get back to his real mission, his Digital World project. Today, though, there was something different going through his mind. For the first time in ages, something in his home world was occupying his attention.
*I never knew how far off my life had gone until I found something to compare it to,* he reflected.
He unlocked the door to his apartment, revealing a room that was dark even on a sunny afternoon, the shades pulled down tightly. He scowled at the shadows, finding he had a sudden distaste for darkness, and went to flip a seldom-used light switch. He pulled up the shades, letting the brilliant sunlight pour in. Then he looked around, staring at all the ugliness he'd been ignoring for so long.
It was not a pleasant living space. It wouldn't have been pleasant even if it had been clean. There was nothing in the room but the most Spartan of furnishings - no pictures graced the wall, no knickknacks or memorabilia adorned the shelves, nor were there even any curtains on the windows. The room had an uninhabited feel, as if the occupant had moved out and inconsiderately left his trash behind.
*Worse than the home of a dead man. Hiroki's house is more alive, and he's not even there anymore.*
He scowled again, thinking that it was really time he did something about this place. He went to the kitchen and began cleaning out all the wrappers and boxes that were strewn about. He washed the dirty dishes in the sink and threw out the old milk and something in the back of the fridge that was growing blue fuzz. By the time he'd mopped the floors and wiped down the counter tops, he was actually humming a bit. It felt good to actually be doing something constructive, for once. He looked around, admiring his handiwork.
"Not bad, considering I'm out of practice," he mused. "It almost seems a shame to ruin it now. Hm."
He looked around, wondering if he felt up to actually cooking something... and whether or not he had anything to cook. There was a fleeting temptation to order something, but then he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the freshly-washed counter top. He hadn't taken the chance to look closely at his reflection in a long time, and what he saw now didn't impress him much. He couldn't honestly try to pass of the unhealthy greyish cast of his skin as just a trick of the light, or the haunted look in his eyes.
*I look like the walking dead,* he thought. *No wonder people avoid me... I think I'd be afraid to talk to myself, looking like this.*
He looked around his now sparkling-clean kitchen and compared it to the rest of the apartment. He looked back at his reflection.
*A change,* he mused. *It's time to get out of here. I need to make some changes.*
On impulse, he went to find the phone book and looked up a number. Then he dialed the number to the Hida residence, his heart fluttering with a nervousness he hadn't felt in a long time. He'd never liked having to telephone people; he always had the uneasy feeling of invading someone's privacy whenever he used them, so used was he to being pushed away by everyone around him. He almost hoped no one would answer.
Someone did. "Hello?"
Oikawa relaxed; the woman of the house had answered, and it was impossible to be intimidated by Chou Hida.
"Good evening. I hope I'm not disturbing anything. This is Mr. Oikawa calling."
"Oh, hello! I was wondering if we'd hear from you again. How is everything?"
"A bit dreary, really," he answered, with more candor than he'd meant to use. "I was just thinking today how empty this apartment looks with no one here but me, and you all were so kind to me last time I saw you that I thought... maybe... Well, I suppose it would be terribly rude of me to invite myself over, but..."
On the other end of the line, Chou found herself smiling at the childlike pleading in his voice. There was no way she could have refused him.
"Of course you can come over," she said. "You have a standing invitation. We really did enjoy your company, and you know, Iori has been asking about you. I think you made an impression on him."
"Is it too much to hope it's a favorable one?"
"You're too hard on yourself. Actually, I think it would be good for both of you to spend some time with him," she answered.
"Really?" he answered, somewhat taken aback.
"Yes," she answered. "I've been thinking about it. You spend too much time alone doing nothing, and Iori, well... a boy needs a father figure. Chikara does his best, but it's not quite the same."
"Perhaps, but I'm not what you'd call the ideal candidate for the job," said Oikawa, trying to hide his discomfiture. He did have a faint sense of attachment to the boy, solely on the basis that it was Hiroki's child, but that didn't qualify him as a surrogate parent. His experiences with children were limited to having been one himself a long time ago, and even then he hadn't been a very successful one.
"You'll do fine," she said. "Just spend some time talking to him. I'm sure it won't be difficult, once you get to know him."
"Well, I'll think about it," he answered, without much conviction. "But I will take your invitation to dinner."
"Wonderful. I'll see you soon, then."
He hung up the phone with a strange sensation of elation, and he thought vaguely that this must be what it felt like when a teenager first got someone to agree to go on a date with him. Yet another area where he was sadly lacking in experience - why bother asking when he knew the answer would always be "no"? But that was a long time ago, and he did have an agreement tonight, and that was all that really mattered. Keeping that thought as firmly in mind as he could, he went to go see about trying to make himself look halfway presentable. Not that there was a lot he could do on that field. Most of his clothes were very much alike, dull, neutral-colored office clothes that didn't do much for his spectral appearance. He chose the best out of the lot anyway, and then combed out his hair, wishing he dared take the time to wash it out properly - but no; that would take time, and he wouldn't dare keep the family waiting. He was still feeling nervous when he left his apartment and began walking to the Hida's apartment.
His arrival at the front door found him still feeling a trifle awkward, but he didn't have a lot of time to fret over it, because the door was opened for him before he even had a chance to knock. Looking straight ahead showed him no one; he looked a few feet downwards and found a pair of bright green eyes looking back up at him.
"How did you know I was coming?" asked Oikawa, surprised.
"I was watching for you from the window," Iori answered.
"When he was supposed to be doing his homework," added Chikara. "Back to your books, young man!"
"Yes, Grandpa," answered Iori obediently. He trotted back toward the coffee table, where there rested an open book and a scattering of paper and pencils. He didn't look very thrilled with the situation.
"What have you got there?" asked Oikawa, following him into the room.
"Math problems," Iori replied, holing up his book to illustrate. He sighed a little, setting the book down on the table again. "I don't like math problems. This could take a while."
That got a small smile from Oikawa. "You sound exactly like your father when you say that. He was never fond of them himself, as I recall. I was always having to explain to him what X equals and how to find the square root of 235... Would you like me to help you?"
"Would you, please?"
"If I haven't lost my touch."
With some difficulty, he wedged himself into the narrow space between the sofa and the coffee table - plenty of room for a small child but not for a large man - and crouched down next to Iori. He watched as the boy busied himself with rows of fractions and multiplication problems. For a while, they were quiet, and if they spoke, it was only for the man to make a correction or suggestion, or for the boy to ask a question. However, as the session wore on and Iori grew more confident with his work, the two began talking more casually.
"You catch on fast," Oikawa commented. "If your father had caught on so fast, I wouldn't have had to do so much of his homework for him."
Iori looked surprised. "You did my dad's homework?"
A faint trace of a grin. "Only when your grandfather wasn't looking."
"I believe that! Grandpa would skin me alive if he though I was having someone do my work for me. How did you get away with it?"
"We always found ways. Hiroki was never much of a scholar, but he was clever. He could figure things out. He did so much for me, I was proud to have a way to help him in return."
Iori scowled down at the paper he'd been working on, even though he'd already finished the last problem. "I wish he hadn't died. I wish I could have known him. Nobody ever tells me things. They answer me if I ask, but the rest of the time, nobody ever says anything. It's like they think if they don't talk about him, they can pretend he was never here at all... but I don't want him to have never been here. I want to have something to remember about him. Otherwise it will be just like he's disappeared, like he never made any difference at all..."
"Well, if there's anything you want to know, you can always ask me. I suppose I knew him as well as anyone ever did."
"Actually," answered the boy thoughtfully, "I was sort of wondering if you could tell me about yourself."
"Me?" Oikawa asked. "Why? I'm no one important."
"You were Dad's friend. He must have thought you were someone important."
"Hmm," he said. "I suppose that's a point... but there isn't very much to tell, really."
"That's not what it sounded like yesterday, when you were telling stories."
"That was different."
"Different from what?"
"My life... hasn't been a happy one. It's not one I would tell to a child."
Iori was looking at him carefully from the corner of one of his green eyes. "Grandpa already told me some. He said your parents beat you, and that's why you stayed over here so much. Is that true?"
"What are you? A private detective?" he asked, stunned.
"I just like to know the truth about things."
"Well, if that's how you're going to be, I might as well tell it all now," he said, slightly annoyed. "Otherwise you'll find someone to ferret it out from."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to."
"It's all right. I don't blame you for wanting to know. It's just I don't usually have to talk about myself. I never wanted to tell anyone... not even Hiroki... but I think I can trust you."
He took a long breath, thinking back. Was there anything in his past that was suitable to tell a little boy? Maybe.
"I suppose you'd like to know how your father and I first met?" he offered.
"If you don't mind."
"No, I don't mind. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."
One happy memory... one day when things started going right for a change... surely that wouldn't be too painful to tell. But even as he started thinking about it, everything came back to him. With the awkward, stumbling sentences of one unused to telling stories, he began to talk...
Yukio Oikawa was ten years old, and it was roughly accurate to say that he lived in an apartment with his mother and father. That is to say, it was technically accurate - he went about the daily activities of eating and sleeping inside those four walls, and his biological parents were sharing the same space with him, but that as all. He had a roof over his head, but no sense of comfort and shelter. He had adult figures there who noticed him on occasion, but the idea of being loved was a hard one for him to understand. On that particular morning, for example, his father was asleep or comatose on the sofa, a few empty bottles strewn on the floor beside him as he snored, nearly drowning out the noise from the blaring television. His mother was in a better state; she was in one of her housekeeping moods. She picked up a few of the bottles and pitched them into the trash.
"Disgusting," she muttered. "Lazy bum. If he'd get off his fat ass and get some work done for a change, we wouldn't be in this state. Well? What are you looking at?"
The last comment was directed toward her son, who was sitting at the kitchen table, looking at the bowl of something he'd been given. He prodded it with a spoon. The bowl held some cold, lumpy, soggy substance that might have been masquerading as oatmeal. He stirred it, and a little sloshed over the rim of the bowl.
"It's cold," he said. It was - not just lukewarm, but more as if she'd made it by running cold tapwater over a few spoonfuls of instant oatmeal mix.
"Are you complaining?" asked his mother incredulously. "You listen here, you little brat - I work hard to run this household! You have no right to complain about anything! You ought to be thankful I feed you at all!"
"I am thankful, really!" he protested. "It's just... can I please put it in the microwave?"
His mother slapped him. "Shut up! You will eat what you are given and you will like it. Do you understand?"
"I can't hear you!"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry."
"Good. Now, finish your breakfast."
Yukio did what he could to choke down most of the watery glop. As soon as he was finished, he scurried to collect his bags and his homework to go to school.
"You'd better hurry," his mother told him distractedly. She had given up on cleaning for the time being and was parked in front of the television. "If you're late for school and I find out about it, they're going to hear you crying up and down the street by the time I get through with you."
"Yes, ma'am. I won't be late."
"Yeah, well, you'd better not be."
Yukio nodded and hurried out of the house, distantly hearing his mother muttering something about kids today and discipline and learning respect. Then he closed the door to the apartment and walked in silence. Despite the threats, he was not particularly worried. He was never late for classes, no matter what his mother might think of him. Actually, he was a bright child and enjoyed learning, and a few words of praise from a teacher was one of the few things he had to look forward to. School would have been a haven of safety if it hadn't been for the other students.
Part of the idea behind the invention of the school uniform had been to make the students of a school look as alike as possible. However, children were not as unobservant as some adults might think. They noticed when someone came to school in clothes that were dirty and wrinkled. They noticed that the quiet, dark-haired boy in the back row came to school on foot because his parents couldn't afford to buy him a bicycle. They knew he hardly ever brought a lunch with him. It didn't matter that Yukio could run rings around them academically - it only made it worse, because they resented that this awkward misfit could still outshine them. Most of all, though, they knew that if they taunted him, he would get flustered and cry and run away. So they did. Constantly.
On the other end of the social spectrum was Hiroki Hida. He was the kind of character no one could miss, always laughing and joking about something. His easygoing, affable manner earned the friendship of everyone around him, ranging from his classmates (both male and female) on up to his teachers, who could never quite bring themselves to be as angry as they should have been with him over his latest prank. His talent for sports made him a sought after companion - everyone wanted him on their team - and it was fairly well accepted that you must be somebody if Hiroki liked you.
Yukio knew that, in a dim sort of way. He'd heard the name thrown around in conversations, heard some of the more precocious girls whispering the name and giggling, seen people greeting him enthusiastically in the hallways. Yukio didn't like him. He was probably one of the few people in the school who couldn't stand to be around him. It was, in a way, a kind of jealousy - certainly he would have given over anything he owned and then some to have that kind of popularity, even for a day. Mostly, though, it just hurt to know he'd never, ever get that chance, and he didn't like being reminded that someone else had what he couldn't. He avoided Hiroki whenever possible, which wasn't hard. Most people would have been stunned utterly if they thought Hiroki even knew Yukio's name. They were safe from that, though, because Hiroki didn't share any classes with the silent boy, and there was no logical reason why they should ever meet at all.
But Yukio wasn't thinking about any of that on this particular day. He was just trying to muddle through his classes the best he knew how. When the teacher was present, he did his work in silence, never asking questions or offering answers - a couple of words of praise from the teacher were welcome, but not worth the counterbalance of his classmates antagonizing him for knowing something they didn't. When the teacher wasn't present, he took out a book and read, ignoring anything that was going on around him. That was the plan, anyway. It didn't always work. It was hard to concentrate when his stomach was growling, and a bowl of oatmeal-flavored water wasn't very sustaining, especially without lunch. Against his will, the conversations around him made their way to his ears.
"...saw him at the soccer game yesterday, and he was incredible! He scored three goals himself."
"Oooh, Otome thinks Hiroki is incredible! Are you gonna marry him?"
"No! I didn't mean it like that!"
"Yes, you did! You think he's cute! You wanna give him a big kiss!" The girl made smooching noises. Otome flushed a bit, but she wasn't totally lost for answers.
"Oh, yeah?" she answered. "Well, you like Yukio!"
"Ewwwww!" shrieked the other girls, laughing hysterically.
Yukio blushed brightly and tried to hide behind his book. The girls didn't notice, anyway. They were too busy taunting their friend: "Yuck, who would ever like Yukio?"
When the last bell rang, most of the students went on a frantic dive to retrieve their bags and notebooks and make a rush for the door. Yukio moved more slowly. What was the point? He was in no rush to get home, and it was a relief to have a few moments alone. He knew from experience that his parents wouldn't care if he was a little late getting home anyway. He'd been chased a few times before when a few of the school bullies had gotten bored and decided it would be fun to find a human punching bag, and they'd led a foxhunt over several blocks of Tokyo territory before finally getting bored and leaving him to try to find his way home again. The only time he'd ever gotten in trouble for it was the one time he'd gotten so lost that he couldn't find his way home at all and had to be escorted by a policeman. But no one would mind if he just walked a little more slowly than was necessary, so he made his way out of the school at a leisurely stroll. He thought about going to the local bakery. There was a nice woman there who would sometimes find it in her heart to spare a few rolls for "the poor neglected boy" if he acted hungry enough. He thought he could play the part convincingly today. He was so wrapped up in his plans that he walked right past the group of boys huddled by the door without even seeing them... until they spoke.
"Hey, kid," one called, grinning evilly. "Where are you going?"
"Home," Yukio answered, edging toward the door.
"Nah, you don't wanna go there. That's no fun at all," said one of the others, starting to move towards him. "Don't you want to hang out with us a while?"
"I'd rather not," said Yukio. "I've really got to go home or my parents will be angry."
"Aw, poor widdle Yukio, his mommy and daddy are gonna be mad at him," one boy taunted. "Well, how 'bout we walk you home, huh?"
"That's okay, I can make it by myself," Yukio answered, taking the last few steps toward the door. "Thanks anyway. Bye!"
He made a leap for freedom, but someone caught him by the collar and held him back.
"Not so fast," they chortled.
Yukio didn't want to hear it. He twisted and somehow yanked free of their grip, and he began to run. That was as good a cue as any for his tormentors, and they charged after him with a chorus of wild war whoops. The boy fled in panic, thinking nothing more of finding someplace that was away and getting there as quickly as possible. He raced down the sidewalk, cut through an alley, and swung around a corner, always with the sounds of pursuit ringing in his ears. Someone threw a rock at him, and it glanced off his shoulder, striking a brief flare of pain. Desperate to elude them, he dashed down another alley, narrower than the first, and found himself looking at a dead end. He turned around to make an escape, but found his way blocked. The alley was too dim for him to see much more than a silhouette, but he could see all he needed to see - a boy in a school uniform staring at him. He tried to edge deeper into a shadow.
Just then, there was a pounding of feet, and the three boys who'd been chasing him earlier clomped up.
"Hey," one of them shouted, "have you seen a wimpy little kid go by?"
"Yeah, he went that way," answered the other boy, pointing further up the road. "You'd better hurry - he was really moving."
"All right! Let's get him!" The footsteps pounded again, and they were gone, leaving only the unidentified boy behind. He stood at the entrance of the alley, peering into its darkness.
"You can come out now," he said. "It's okay. They're gone now."
Yukio said nothing. He was not leaving the safety of the alley for anything, not as long as this unidentified person was there watching him.
"You're going to have to come out, you know," said the boy. "If you don't, they'll realize they've been tricked and come back looking for you."
"No. Those lunkheads are in my class, and I've known balloon animals with more between their ears. I just said that to make you come out."
"Why do you want me to come out?"
"Well, I would kind of like to see who I just rescued," answered the boy. "Come on. You don't think I would hurt you, do you?"
"Come on! I'm harmless... well, mostly," he added with a little laugh.
Maybe it was the laugh that decided him. It wasn't the kind of laugh that sounded dangerous, like the way the thugs laughed. It was light and natural, and put Yukio a little more at ease. He edged out of his hiding place and into the light.
"There, that wasn't so bad," said the boy. He looked at him speculatively. "I think I know you. Your name is Yukio, isn't it?"
Yukio nodded, staring. Now that he was in the light, he could see who had rescued him. "You're Hiroki!"
"Or a reasonable facsimile," he answered, grinning. "Hey, are you okay? They didn't hurt you, did they? You look kinda run down."
Yukio felt run down. All that running on an empty stomach made him feel a little lightheaded. Nevertheless, he answered, "I'm all right."
"You sure? You don't look all right. Don't worry. They'll pay if they did anything to you. I'll track 'em down and punch their noses in. POW!" He punched sharply at the empty air in illustration.
"I'm not hurt," said Yukio. "Well, maybe just a little. Mostly I'm just tired... and hungry."
"Hungry's easy to take care of," Hiroki replied. "Do you want to come to my place? I don't think Mom will mind."
Utter shock. "Are you sure?"
"Sure I'm sure." He walked to the mouth of the alley, wheeling out a bicycle that had been hidden before. "Want a lift? You can ride on the back."
"I'd fall off," said Yukio, bowing his head in shame.
"Well, I've never been on one before."
"Then how do you know you're going to fall off?"
"That's what I thought." Hiroki looked at him thoughtfully, making up his mind. Then he nodded. "You need somebody to take care of you, I think. I'm going to keep an eye on you."
"Because I want to," he said. "Because nobody else needs me. I want to be some good to somebody - why not you?"
Yukio was stunned. "But everyone likes you!"
"So what? They only want me around so I can help their soccer team win, or whatever. They like me, all right, but they don't bother to get to know me. Somebody just decided I was cool, and it sort of spread. Are you going to be different, or are you going to stand there and tell me I'm something special, and you aren't worthy of talking to me?"
Yukio thought about it for a while, trying to work through the equation.
"Well," he said slowly, "if you really think it's okay... are you saying you want us to be friends?"
Hiroki grinned. "Yeah, I guess that's what I just said."
A small smile. "I think I'd like that."
"Good. Now, are you going to ride that bicycle or not? I promise I won't let you fall."
He didn't fall. He sat perfectly still on the back of the bike, doing his best to keep his balance, and they rode smoothly up the road, and it was fun. He entertained a brief fantasy of what it would be like if his father would get a job, like he'd had a long time ago, and his parents had money to buy him a bike. A bright red one, maybe. He wondered what people would do if they saw him and Hiroki riding to school together on their bikes. The fantasy lasted long enough to reach the garage at the base of an apartment complex, and he went to chain his bicycle up. Feeling a bit apprehensive, Yukio followed his new friend up to his apartment. They knocked on the door.
"Who is it?" called a voice from within.
"Hey, Dad, it's me," Hiroki called back. "I brought a friend over!"
The door was opened, and a man peered out. He looked down at Hiroki, and then at the pale, rather bedraggled looking boy standing next to him.
"Who is this?" he asked gruffly.
"This is Yukio. He needs a place to stay. Can he play over here for a while?"
"Well, I don't know. You have a lot that needs to be done today..."
Yukio was only half-listening. He was looking past the doorway and into the living room. It was sunny and brightly lit, every inch of it looking clean and pleasant. There was a faint scent of potpourri on the air. It was all so different from what he was used to he could have cried. For all his fantasizing, he knew what the reality was he was going to go home to: an ugly, dirty apartment with parents who only noticed him when they felt like it. A few words found their way out of his mouth.
"Please... I don't want to go home..."
The man at the door looked at him again, and this time there was a light of kindness behind his eyes.
"All right," he said. "You can stay here a while. Just don't be keeping Hiroki from getting his homework done."
"I won't," he promised.
The promise was sufficient; Mr. Hida stepped aside and let the boys pass by. While Yukio stood in the middle of the room looking around, Hiroki went over to the kitchen area and started looking for food.
"You want a sandwich?" he asked.
"A sandwich. You said you were hungry, right?"
"Oh. Yes, please."
Hiroki rattled around in the kitchen and came back with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"Here," he said, proffering one of them. "Think this will hold you 'till dinner?"
"Um," said Yukio. He wasn't sure how to answer. His mother usually managed to pull of a dinner of some sort, even if it was just ordering pizza, but the question of when and what was uncertain.
"Dinner's usually at six," said Hiroki, in an authoritative tone that said, "and you are going to stay for it."
"That will be fine," he said, and bit into the sandwich, reflecting that he could easily get used to hanging around this place.
And he did. Once he got over the initial shock of finding he was actually welcome somewhere, for once, he was free to enjoy one of the best afternoons of his life, starting with Hiroki taking him out and helping him to learn to ride the bicycle. Even doing his homework had been fun, in its way, because that was one thing he could do well that he could help Hiroki with, and the smile of gratitude he got in return was priceless. When he finally said goodbye, it was with an invitation to come back again soon. He walked home with a new spring in his step, hardly able to believe it had happened.
When he got home, the lights were off in is apartment, but that was nothing unusual. He let himself in and took a look around. As he'd suspected, there was a pizza box on the table with a few uneaten slices congealing in it. He put them on a plate and put them in the fridge for later. Maybe his mother would let him have one for lunch tomorrow. He went to check on his parents. His father was gone - who knew where - and his mother was watching TV with a glazed look in her eyes. He knew it was better not to bother her when she was in that state. It usually came on after she'd been taking her pills - "for my headaches," she told him. He didn't really care, tonight. He took himself to his room, changed into his pajamas, brushed his teeth, settled down in bed, and waited for tomorrow to come.
"So you were friends after that?" asked Iori.
Oikawa nodded. "We were lucky enough the next year to be put in a class together, and we stayed that way through the rest of school. Otherwise, we... wouldn't have been able to see each other as often." He didn't want to talk about why; it had been very hard being turned away. "I helped him keep his grades up, and we managed to get into the same college. I was sorry we had to go separate ways after that, but he'd never been much of a scholar even with my help. He always preferred doing things. I suppose that's why he became a policeman - he always had such a strong sense of what was right and who needed help."
"I guess you wished he could have done something else."
"Yes," he answered quietly. "Many times."
There was a moment of silence, and they let it pass, wrapped up in their own thoughts. Then Mrs. Hida came in.
"Are you two still working on that?" she said. "You're going to have to stop now. Dinner is ready."
"All right!" In an instant, Iori went from his usual serious demeanor to an ordinary little boy, scampering off to the dinner table.
"Wait half a second! I'll be right there," said Oikawa, trying to lever himself up from the floor. He was definitely out of practice; he made a mental note to get more exercise. Whimsically, he thought perhaps he should buy a bicycle, and quickly shoved the idea away as being absurd.
"Do you need a hand?" Chou offered.
She gave it to him, and with her help he was able to pull himself to his feet again.
"Thank you," he said. It took a few seconds for him to release her hand again, and in that tiny instant, unfamiliar alarms were going off in the back of his mind telling him that it was the first time he'd really been touched by a woman and that they were standing rather closer together than they had in previous meetings. He shoved that thought aside roughly, before he could even had a chance to process it properly, and kept it heroically blocked from his mind for the rest of the evening.
Meanwhile, the other woman in his life was perched on the roof. Arukenimon scowled down at the entrance to the building; suspicious by nature, she'd made a point to trail her boss to see what it was that was keeping him out two days in a row. Whatever he was doing, he had no business taking this long with it. She tapped her foot impatiently for a few minutes, staring with increasing annoyance at the darkening sky. At last, her limited supply of patience ran out, and she took out a cell phone and dialed a number.
In the middle of dinner, there came a beeping noise from the vicinity of Oikawa's trench coat pocket, prompting everyone to give him the inquisitive, half-accusing look always given to people whose cellular phones go off at inopportune moments. Embarrassed and annoyed, he got up and went fumbling through his coat pockets until he found the one where his phone was hidden, and answered with a curt, "Hello!"
"So you're still alive," said a cold voice on the other end. "What in blue blazes are you doing in there?"
"I'm having dinner," he answered. "Or I was until someone was rude enough to interrupt me."
"It's rude to break an appointment. Turnabout is fair play," Arukenimon answered.
"Who said we had an appointment? We never had an appointment."
"No, but we do have a job to get done. Are you purposely stalling? Or have you given up?"
"I haven't given up anything. I just... have outside interests."
"Are these outside interests more important than your original goals? Because if they are, I want to hear about it right now. I'm not hanging around waiting for you to decide whether or not you really want to go through with this. Either you get back to work, or I might just decide to leave."
"Fine, fine, just let me finish eating," he said. "Though if you don't quit nagging me, I might decide I can get my work done more easily without you."
"You couldn't get anywhere without me, and you know it."
"At the moment, I happen to like where I am, so I don't particularly care," he snapped. "Now, go away and quit bothering me. I'll catch up to you later."
"Well, fine, then. Be that way," she answered sulkily. "But don't be surprised if I'm not around to catch up to."
"Nothing would please me more. Good night." Irritably, he shut the phone and turned it off.
"Who was that?" asked Chou as he returned to the table.
"A co-worker," he answered, shaking his head a bit in annoyance. "There's a project she's been nagging me to finish up, and I have way too much to do as it is. The minute I start trying to take some time out for myself, she starts bothering me about wasting time... not like I've seen her get anything at all done."
"What sort of project is this?" Chikara wanted to know.
"It's related to computer programming," answered Oikawa vaguely. "More of a pet project than something actually work related. I hired help, and now they don't do anything but annoy me about it."
"If they aren't being any help, you ought to be rid of them," said Chou. "That's a terrible way to treat you."
"I agree wholeheartedly," he said. "If the project weren't so important to me, I think I would have washed my hands of them a long time ago."
He paused a moment, re-evaluating that statement. Did he mean it? More importantly, how close was he to suiting action to words? True, he still wanted to go to the Digital World - there was nothing he wanted more - but the more he felt at home in this world, the lesser the desire became to search for the other one.
*I do want to go to the Digital World,* he thought, *but I can wait a while. It's not the most important thing anymore, or at least not the only thing. I can be content in this world, for a while...*
"I don't like it," said Arukenimon.
"Don't like what?" asked Mummymon. As far as he was concerned, there wasn't much going on not to like. Oikawa had not come home yet, and since their orders had been to wait for him to arrive, it meant there was nothing to do but relax a while. Relaxing was nice - better than hanging around spying on a pretend Emperor and a bunch of annoying children, by a long shot. Then there was the added bonus of being left alone with Arukenimon. Any situation that got him that was one he was in favor of.
"I don't like the way he's been acting lately."
"Who do you think?" she snapped back. "Oikawa's been obsessed with this project from day one. Now all of a sudden, he's going out and socializing and talking about giving up! Something is wrong."
"Maybe he just needs a vacation," said Mummymon. "I could go for a vacation... somewhere nice and quiet and private..."
"Get your mind back on business," Arukenimon snapped. "If you have a mind. This is serious. If he really does give up on this project, what do you think is going to happen to us? We'll be cut off. He won't have any use for us anymore, and we'll get thrown out."
"I don't really care," said her compatriot. "I never liked this job much in the first place."
"Well, I do care," she said. "I'm not about to be thrown out on the street."
"Why not? We can take care of ourselves; it's not like we really need him for anything."
"It's the principle of the thing," said Arukenimon primly. "I won't be treated like anyone's tool. When I leave it's going to be on my terms."
Just then, the apartment door opened, and both monsters turned to watch their associate return. Even in the dim light, Arukenimon saw traces of things she disapproved of: a faint smile, a distant look in his eyes, as if he were too preoccupied with some happy fancy to pay attention to his surroundings.
"What are you mooning over now?" she asked irritably.
"Hm?" he said. "Oh. It's none of your business, as I've told you before."
"I'm getting tired of being told that. Give me a straight answer, Oikawa, or I'll wring one out of you in ways you won't like."
"Don't be threatening me," he said, a dangerous edge coming to his voice. "You are not the one in control here, Arukenimon. I am. Don't forget that."
"You're losing control," she replied. "Running around socializing with humans. Yes, I've seen you! I've been watching you, Oikawa. You seem to have forgotten your lesson. Haven't you said often enough yourself that humans can't be trusted? No one you've ever put any faith into has done anything but let you down. I thought that was why you wanted to go to the Digital World - to get away from those who have done nothing but reject you."
"They aren't all like that," said Oikawa.
"How do you know? How do you know they won't leave you just like everyone else did?"
"Why do you care?" Oikawa snapped. "Just leave me alone! You are my creature, and you will do my bidding, and you will not question me!"
"I am not your slave, Oikawa! I could tear you to shreds if I felt like it."
Very quietly, very dangerously: "I'd like to see you try it."
There was such an edge of malice in the voice, something darker than Arukenimon had ever heard him use before, that she hesitated. In the dark room, she thought she saw a strange light beginning to coalesce around him, a shimmering purple aura. His eyes locked on to hers, and for a split second she thought she caught a glimpse of a flickering red spark somewhere beyond the more mundane blackness.
"You do not know the power I possess," he said. "Test me, and you will deeply regret it."
Arukenimon stared for a moment.
"Who are you?" she said at last.
"I am the Master," he answered, in the voice that was not his own. "I am your creator, and your owner, and if you are wise, you will not interfere with me. Is that understood?"
Arukenimon knew when to give up an argument, she nodded and backed down. Oikawa nodded, and the eerie glow faded away, leaving him looking not frightening at all, only vaguely puzzled.
"What was I just saying?" he asked.
"Nothing of interest," said Arukenimon.
"Ah," he said. "My mind is wandering... perhaps tonight is not such a good night to work."
"What are we supposed to do, then?" she demanded irritably.
"Whatever you want," he answered. "Take the night off. Go amuse yourselves somewhere and leave me alone."
"Sounds like fun to me!" said Mummymon. He shot a hopeful look in Arukenimon's direction, but as usual, she ignored it.
"Fine, then," she said. "Just don't make a habit of this."
"I'll do whatever I please," he said. "Go away and leave me in peace."
Arukenimon didn't reply. She headed for the computer, intending to go to the Digital World and get out of Oikawa's sight so she could do some serious thinking. This situation was getting out of hand, and quite possibly dangerous. She was not in control, and that was intolerable. If things didn't shape up soon, she was going to have to find a way to cut her losses and get out. She had thought up until now that the best way to get out would be to just leave, but after tonight's performance, she couldn't underestimate her employer's abilities anymore. He obviously had something going for him she didn't understand.
*I'll wait and watch, for now,* she decided. *I can afford to wait and see what's going on. But if he doesn't shape up...*
Behind her glasses, her eyes flickered red. If she saw any sign of Oikawa trying to make good his threats, he had just better hope he was ready.
Things had gone well in the Digital World that day. The Digidestined had managed to knock out a number of Control Spires and free some three dozen assorted Digimon from the Emperor's evil clutches. On the whole, Iori felt quite pleased with himself when he arrived at his home. He opened the front door, and was rather surprised to find a familiar purple trench coat hanging on the coat rack. Making a brief search, he found that Oikawa was in the kitchen, sipping on a cup of tea and chatting contentedly with the lady of the house.
"There you are," he said. "We were just starting to wonder when you'd show up."
"I was just out with my friends," he said. He hated having to say things like that, but in its way, it was true: he and his friends had been out - very far out. "What are you doing here? I mean... I wasn't expecting you."
Oikawa looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, I thought I might like to come visit you, but you weren't home, so your mother was kind enough to let me stay for a while."
"Ah," said Iori, trying to process this information. "You came to see me?"
"Does that bother you?" he asked.
"No, it doesn't bother me," Iori answered. "I was just surprised. I'm sorry I kept you waiting."
"That's all right. Boys your age ought to be spending some time with their friends. I'm glad you're having more of an opportunity than I did when I was your age."
Iori wasn't sure what to make of that, so he just nodded.
"I'm going to go put my things away," he said. "Grandpa will be expecting me for kendo practice. Would you like to watch?"
"As long as I can confine my activity to watching," Oikawa answered. "Your grandfather tried to teach me that same art years ago, and I never caught on. I hope you're proving a better pupil than I was."
"I think I do all right," Iori answered, "but I have a lot of learning left to do."
"He is an excellent student," interjected Chikara as he came into the room, "when he is not late for his classes."
Iori bowed his head. "Sorry, Grandpa. I lost track of time."
"I suppose you can be forgiven, provided there is no more dawdling."
"All right! Just let me get ready."
Iori scampered back to his room long enough to release Upamon from the bookbag he was hiding in and to gather up his training gear.
"Don't I get to watch today?" asked Upamon.
"I don't want to take any chances," Iori replied. "Mr. Oikawa knows about Digimon, but he doesn't know about you. I don't know what his reaction would be if he saw you."
"You should tell him," Upamon said. "It would be easier than me having to hide all the time."
"Maybe," said Iori. "But now isn't the time, not in front of Grandpa. He thought the whole thing was a game; he'd flip out if he found out differently now."
"If you think so," Upamon replied.
Iori went to rejoin the group and begin his practice session. True to his word, Oikawa played the part of the silent spectator, standing unobtrusively in a corner and watching. He was impressed by the boy's skill, which was considerable for someone so young. Given a few more years, there wouldn't be many who could compete with him. Remembering how the senior Hida had been disappointed that his son hadn't inherited the talent for kendo, Oikawa was glad he had finally found a worthy pupil.
*Though I think this child could learn anything, if he really wanted to,* he mused. *You just have to look at him to see how determined he is. He has his father's strength, but his personality is so different. Hiroki was never this serious... you would almost think from looking at him that this was not his child, but mine...*
He shook his head; it was a ridiculous notion, and he was a little ashamed of himself for thinking of it. This was Hiroki's son, no matter what he thought of the matter. And why was he even thinking of it at all? He was the last person on Earth suited to be a father to anyone.
*But he is so alone,* said that voice in the back of his mind. *Even my father was around sometimes, but this child...* He took another look, watching the boy continuing his mock-battle, seeing the intensity in his eyes, too serious for such a young face. *He shouldn't have had to grow up so early. I want to do something for him, if I can. He's already done so much for me, maybe without even realizing it.*
Practice went on for several minutes, until finally Chikara proclaimed a halt. Iori lowered his practice sword, setting it aside so he could remove his helmet. After a last exchange of words between the boy and his teacher, Iori was sent to put away his battle gear and get himself cleaned up. Oikawa lingered, taking the example to see the room more closely than he had from his shadowed corner. There was very little to be seen in this room, so it was unsurprising that his attention should be caught by one particular object, a framed photograph taking pride of place on a shelf that seemed to have been put there just for that purpose. He walked closer, looking at that familiar face that smiled back at him.
"Why did you have to go?" he asked quietly. "Wasn't there enough here for you? If anything, I should have been the one who left. There's never been anything good in my life except for you, but you had everything. What made you leave? Even if you couldn't stay for me - even if you wouldn't keep your promise - couldn't you have stayed for your family? Didn't your own son deserve to have you here for him?"
"Did it ever occur to you that perhaps he didn't want to leave?"
Oikawa jumped guiltily; he'd forgotten he wasn't alone in the room.
"No, I see you haven't," said Chikara. "All this time, you've been thinking he just decided to walk off and leave us, haven't you? As if it were his choice."
"It was," said Oikawa. "People who step in front of bullets are asking to die."
"Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes it isn't a choice."
"What are you talking about?"
"You should know as well as anyone that there are situations where we have no choice but to take a particular course of action," answered Chikara. "Sometimes it is because we are pressured from the outside. Sometimes it is because we are guided from the inside."
Oikawa turned away, frustrated. "I don't want to hear your high-minded mysticism. He died when he could have lived, and there's nothing you can say to change that."
"He died to save another's life."
"What difference does that make?"
"All the difference in the world."
"No, it doesn't," Oikawa snapped. "Dying for a good cause is still dying."
"All right, suppose I grant you that," said Chikara. "Tell me, then... what was it that made Hiroki so special? What made him mean so much to you?"
"He was the first person to ever show me any real kindness," answered Oikawa quietly. "He didn't expect anything from me - barely even knew who I was. He just decided he wanted to help me, and he did. There was no one in the world more giving than Hiroki. For someone he cared about, he'd go to the ends of the earth."
Chikara nodded. "He was a generous hearted person. It was why he chose the life he did, to spend it protecting people who needed help. Now, how do you think he would have felt if he saw someone die in front of him, knowing that he could have saved them and yet did nothing? What would that do to him?"
"I... don't know."
"I think you do," answered Chikara gently. "I tell you this: he would have died just as surely from that as he would from the bullet, and far more painfully. Oh, it might not be in the usual way, but on the inside, it would kill him just the same. He never could have stood to have that man's death on his conscience."
Oikawa frowned. "I hadn't looked at it like that."
"No, you didn't."
"So... there really wasn't a choice."
"It could be seen that way," said Chikara. "Not in the sense that he stopped to think about it. He acted on what was most natural and right for him, so in that sense, there was no choice to be made, only action." He paused a moment, watching the other man turn this idea over in his mind. "It happens to all men from time to time, that they put aside all other considerations and choose what is right. That is what separates the men from the beasts and the monsters."
"Perhaps," answered Oikawa, "but what about Iori? Or Chou, or you, or any of us. Was it right to leave us alone?"
"Are you alone?"
"Well... no, but..."
"Neither am I. After all, I have Chou and Iori... and you, too, I should hope. I always thought of you as a second son."
Oikawa didn't quite know what to say. He bowed his head, slightly embarrassed. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me," answered Chikara. "Or rather, you can thank me by making yourself useful. I'm under the impression that a certain young friend of ours has math homework that he'd appreciate some help with, and I'll be the first to admit I'm not up to the job. Perhaps my brain is rusting, but I don't remember things being quite so complicated when I was in school."
"I don't think there's anything wrong with your mind; you've certainly out-thought me already," Oikawa replied, "but I might be up to managing third-grade mathematics."
He began walking towards the door. Chikara remained where he was, looking contemplatively at the picture, and Oikawa was struck all over again by the realization that he really wasn't the only one, after all.
"Mr. Hida?" he said.
"Hm?" answered the old man, not looking up.
"You know about my parents, don't you?"
"I've inferred a bit, I think."
"Well... they were never really family to me. The closest person I ever had to a father was you. And I'm glad I can say that."
Chikara didn't answer for a moment. His head was bowed, his eyes closed.
"I wasn't nearly what I should have been," he said. "I turned you away when you needed shelter; there is no excuse for that."
"I'm here now."
"Yes." Chikara opened his eyes, looking up to smile slightly. "I think we are all glad to be able to say that."
Oikawa didn't answer; there was a tightness in his throat that warned him from trying. Instead he bowed slightly and slipped out the door, leaving the old man alone. Chikara turned back to the picture.
"I remember when he was a little boy," he said pensively. "A little boy who no one would give the time of day, and you brought him here and made him part of our lives. And now... now he's back to return your gift." He smiled a little. "You always were full of surprises, Hiroki. I thank you for this one."
The picture didn't answer, of course. It just went on smiling, and the candles that burned on either side cast dancing lights that mimicked the dancing light that had always been in the man's eyes. One could almost hear it answering, "Don't thank me. I had to do it, because it was right." Chikara let his smile widen a bit.
"Yes, you don't have to gloat," he said. "Good night, Hiroki."
With that, he blew out the candles and, still smiling, left the room.
Mr. Ichijouji was in a hurry. As usual, his superiors wanted everything done immediately, and he couldn't get half of it done if people from other departments couldn't deliver their share of the work. He sighed, staring at his computer as it blinked a message at him to tell him the database network was down for the umpteenth time this month. That was the way it went around here; nothing ever seemed to work when he needed it to, employees included.
But even as he was thinking that, a pile of papers were pushed into his field of vision, and he looked up to see one of his co-workers looking down at him.
"I've finished the reports you asked for, Mr. Ichijouji," said Oikawa.
"Oh, really? That is good news; I wasn't expecting them this fast," answered Mr. Ichijouji.
"It seems I've been getting things done a bit more quickly these days," answered the other man. "I find I have more energy lately."
Mr. Ichijouji nodded a bit. Ordinarily, he and Oikawa had very little in the way of casual conversation - in fact, they seldom spoke to each other at all unless it was about work. He had never been able to put his finger on exactly what it was, but there had always been something about Oikawa that made Mr. Ichijouji nervous. Looking at him today, though, he had to admit whatever it was no longer seemed to be in residence. The grey pallor in his skin had been replaced by a more healthy tone. His dark eyes had a light in them now that hadn't been there before, and his voice and movements really did seem to have more energy in them. Even his long black hair seemed to hang less lankly.
"You are looking well," Mr. Ichijouji found himself saying. "What have you been doing lately? Whatever it is, it must agree with you."
"I suppose I have been taking better care of myself lately," answered Oikawa. "I think the great difference is that for once, I have someone who cares whether I take care of myself or not." A softening came over his features, his eyes taking on a faraway look and a small smile forming.
"Is that so? I believe it; looking at your expression, I'd have to guess there's a woman in your life."
"I wouldn't say that," answered Oikawa quickly, belying himself by blushing brightly; it looked almost painful against his fair skin. "It's more complex than that. It's more like... taking care of a friend. And she has a son who has lost his father... I look after him."
"Well, whatever it is, I'm glad you're happy," said Mr. Ichijouji. "Me, I'd be happy if I could just get some of this work done. I'm going to have to take some of it home with me, I think, but having these figures here early will be a huge help. How close are you to getting the rest of your end done?"
"Nearly; I don't think I can finish today, but if I take it home and work on it tonight, I can probably have them done by this evening," said Oikawa thoughtfully. "If you're really in a hurry, I might be able to drop them by your apartment later tonight."
"Could you? I'd be indebted to you if you would," answered Mr. Ichijouji gratefully. "That might be just what I need to get done soon enough that I won't get in trouble with the boss."
"In that case, you'll have them this evening," Oikawa replied. He bowed slightly, preparing to take his leave, but a thought seemed to strike him, and he paused and turned around again. "By the way, how is your son doing these days?"
"Ken? Oh, he's doing wonderfully. Why do you ask?"
"I just wondered," answered Oikawa casually. "Suddenly being entrusted with the care of a child has made me pay more attention to the doings of children, I suppose. I don't think I've seen your boy since, well... quite some time, but he struck me as a sensitive child. I was just wondering how he deals with all the media attention he gets these days. It must be stressful for him."
"You don't have to worry about that," answered Mr. Ichijouji. "Ken's taken to it all remarkably well. I don't think I've ever seen him lose his cool; he's the most self-confident boy I've ever seen."
"I see," said Oikawa, nodding thoughtfully. "Well, I'm glad to hear that. It just seems like such a hard life for someone so young, to spend so little time among his peers and to have to live up to so much. It's good to hear he's coping well."
With that, he turned and began walking away again. Mr. Ichijouji was silent, wondering, *What was that all about?*
Of course, if he'd known what it was all about, he would have been very surprised, and quite possibly never would have agreed to let Oikawa anywhere within miles of his home. It was rather sad, too, Oikawa reflected. Perhaps he had made a few mistakes in the past, but that time was coming to an end.
*I can't go on living two lives at once,* he told himself sternly. *I have to put an end to one or the other, and I know which one I want to chose. And I can start by undoing what's been done to the Ichijouji boy. He doesn't deserve to go on living two lives, either.*
But those gloomy thoughts could be pursued later; he had other more pressing matters to attend to, starting with finishing his work. If he was going to be completing his objective, he was going to have to finish those reports today, and that meant he'd have to hurry. For the next few hours, he kept his attention fixed rigidly on the project at hand, not allowing himself to think about anything but getting the rows of facts and numbers in order. By the time quitting time rolled around, he had nearly finished. He felt proud of himself; he wasn't sure he could have done so well a few months ago. For a moment, he even considered staying behind to try to finish it all, but he decided it would wait. After all, he had a family waiting for him now. The thought made him smile. He saved his work, collected his things, and left the office.
Normally, he would have walked home from work, if the time when he had been obsessed with his Digital World project could be considered "normal." These days, he preferred to walk. In the traffic-choked city, walking was probably faster than driving a car through rush hour, anyway, and he felt like the exercise probably did him good. Also, it made stopping along the way a lot easier; today he made a couple of short detours into a pair of shops, so that when he arrived at the Hidas' doorstep, he was carrying some extra objects along with his usual briefcase. He straightened his tie and tried to smooth his hair a bit before knocking.
"Just a minute!" called Mrs. Hida. She came to open the door. "Oh, there you are! I was starting to think you might not be coming today."
"I was just running a few errands," he answered. "Here - something to brighten up your home."
He presented her with a bouquet of flowers, and her face lit up with pleased surprise.
"Oh, how lovely!" she exclaimed, accepting the gift. "And they smell so good, too. I'll put them right over here where everyone can see them." She searched out a vase and set the flowers on the kitchen table. "Thank you very much. It was sweet of you to think of me." She smiled warmly at him, and he smiled back.
"No trouble at all," he answered.
By the time Iori arrived home from school, his mother and Oikawa were both sitting at the table, sipping tea and chatting. He wasn't surprised at all; over the last few weeks, it had become something of a custom for the two of them to spend the afternoons this way. Iori had gotten so used to the man's presence that the house would have felt empty if he'd come home and Oikawa hadn't been there.
"I'm home!" he called. "Hi, Mom. Hi, Mr. Oikawa."
"Hello, dear," his mother replied. "You're home a bit early today, aren't you?"
"Well, Miyako had computer club, and Takeru has a cold and stayed home sick, so it was just me, Daisuke, and Hikari. And Daisuke was more interested in Hikari than me, so I came home."
"I see," said Oikawa. "I hope your friend feels better soon. How was school? Did you learn anything?"
"Our test papers came back," the boy offered. "For that test in long division we had last week." His serious face brightened with a smile. "I got everything right. My teacher said I've improved a lot."
"That's good to hear. I'm very proud of you," answered Oikawa. "You deserve a treat for that... and it just so happens I've brought something with me today."
"Really?" asked Iori, as interested as any small boy at the prospect of a surprise present. "What is it?"
"Why don't you go look and find out? It's over there next to my briefcase."
Iori scrambled off to look. He found the briefcase sitting next to the coat rack, and next to the briefcase was a large, flat package wrapped in green paper. He carried it back into the kitchen where everyone could see him unwrap it. Carefully, he began pulling up the taped edges.
"You don't have to save the paper, you know," said Oikawa. "The only reason I had it wrapped was so you could have the fun of unwrapping it."
Iori looked up, surprised. He looked back at the package. With a shrug and a small laugh, he tore the paper to long shreds letting them fall to the floor where, unseen, Upamon was hiding under the table and getting bits of wrapping paper tangled on his ears. When he was done, he was looking at a broad, flat box, which according to the picture on the front, contained a chess set. He looked more closely. He already had a set of his own, with cheap plastic pieces and a flimsy cardboard base. He seldom used it; few of his friends knew how to play or cared to learn, and he himself had been a bit frustrated by hollow plastic chessmen that fell over at the slightest provocation. This new set, though, appeared to be far better quality.
"Do you like it?" asked Oikawa, unsure how to construe the boy's silence.
Iori beamed. "It's beautiful."
"I'm glad to hear you say so," Oikawa replied, smiling back warmly. "I was under the impression that you played, so I thought you might enjoy it."
"I don't play very well," said Iori modestly. "I don't get many chances to practice."
"That's all right - I don't play at all. Always wanted to learn, though. Perhaps you'd be willing to teach me?"
"I'd like that," Iori said. "Is it all right, Mom?"
"That will be fine. Just don't forget to do your homework after dinner," she said.
"Thanks, Mom!" answered Iori. "I'll go set it up."
He scurried off to the living room and began unpacking his new treasure on the coffee table. The adults stood back and watched him as he lifted out each piece one at a time, admiring their graceful design and detail for a moment before setting them reverently on the board, placing them neatly in the centers of the squares.
"That was a good gift you gave him," said Chou. "I'm a bit surprised, to tell the truth. It's a rather expensive thing to give to someone so young."
"It's not so great a thing. I would have spent more on one of those flashy new video games. I thought this would suit him better. He has the maturity to take care of it and the intellect to enjoy it," answered Oikawa. "He's a wonderful child. It makes me realize what I missed, never having a family."
"He is a good boy. I don't know what I'd do without him," she said. She laughed a little, sounding oddly sad. "That sounds strange to say, doesn't it? But I've never really been happy living alone; it makes me feel so useless living just for myself. There was never really anything else I wanted to do but be married and raise a family. I was so happy with Hiroki, and when he died..." She choked a little.
"It hurts, doesn't it?" said Oikawa softly.
"Yes," she answered. "It does hurt. I try to pretend it doesn't, but... It really wasn't so long ago that he left. Sometimes, at night, when I'm half asleep, I'll hear someone coming up the hall outside, and I'll think it's Hiroki coming home from work, and when I remember that it isn't..." She sighed and shook her head. "You think I sound silly, don't you? I probably do, still living in the past."
"No. I don't think you sound silly at all," he said. "I know what it's like to be lonely."
"Lonely?" she repeated. "You're right. It is lonely. I knew after Hiroki died, I had to hold myself together because Iori needed me, and he is such a comfort. This is a good life, and I am happy here, but sometimes I just wish..." She trailed off again, spreading her hands helplessly. He reached out and took them, enfolding her hands in his.
"It's all right," he said. "It's going to be all right."
"I know." She smiled weakly. "Thank you... thank you for caring. You are so kind, to all of us."
"No less than you've done for me."
She looked up, letting her eyes meet his. For a moment, it was very quiet.
"Mr. Oikawa! I'm ready!" called a voice in the next room.
"I'll be right there," Oikawa called back. He turned back to Chou, smiling wryly. "Well, duty calls."
"I understand," she answered. "Go on; I'll be fine."
He went to join Iori at the table, sitting down gratefully. He hadn't realized until that point just how weak in the knees the conversation was making him. Who would have imagined that he would be giving comfort to anyone? He had always been the one who needed to be comforted and protected; he hadn't known he had any comfort to give. Besides, that was Hiroki's wife he was talking to! He didn't have any right to be having feelings for her... but... if she really was lonely... No, it was all far too complicated for him to want to think about right now, and he was perfectly happy to put his mind to memorizing the chess pieces Iori was showing him. It was a good safe thing to think about.
Not only that, but it turned out to be fun. Once he got the hang of the game, he found it an interesting challenge, and Iori was a reasonably good match for him. They chatted idly as they played, with Iori telling him about the book he was reading in school and a soccer game he'd seen and the eccentricities of his friends.
"...Miyako was being really funny yesterday," he was saying. "She got a note from one of the boys in her class saying he liked her, and she was walking on air all day long. It turned out Daisuke sent the note just to tease her, and when she found out, she was just about ready to kill him, because she'd been flirting with the other guy the whole time thinking he liked her. But it turned out he really did like her anyway and was just too scared to say anything, so then Miyako was glad Daisuke wrote the note after all."
Oikawa chuckled a bit, as much at the torrent of words as the events they described. He wasn't used to Iori being quite so talkative. "Your friend Daisuke sounds like quite the character."
"He is. You never know what he's going to do next."
"All of your friends sound likeable. I would like to meet them someday."
"Would you?" asked Iori. "I suppose I could invite them over sometime, so I could introduce them to you. I sort of wanted them to meet you, anyway. I keep telling them about you, and they're sort of curious."
"Are they really? I hope your reports have been favorable."
Iori checked Oikawa's expression, making sure he was at least mostly joking.
"You're always so hard on yourself," he said. "What's so bad about you that makes you think no one should ever like you?"
"What makes you say I think that?"
"Because you do," said Iori with certainty. "Every time someone says anything good about you, you find some way to deflect it and tell us all how you don't deserve it."
"Maybe I just don't feel very deserving. It isn't often that people tell me otherwise."
"We tell you."
"That's true. All of you are very kind to me."
"You're kind to us," said Iori. "We all like you. Don't you know that?"
"I... I suppose I'm learning," Oikawa replied. "It's not as easy to learn as you might think."
"Well, I like you," said Iori. "I'm glad you're here. It gives me a break from having to take care of Mom."
Oikawa stared, then laughed. "Now you're kidding me."
"I am, a little," answered Iori, eyes sparkling behind that serious mask. "And you know what else?"
"Checkmate. I win."
Oikawa glanced down. "So you have! I suppose I should have expected that, this being my first time... but I'm not going to be telling anyone I was beaten at games of strategy by a nine year old boy."
"Would you like to play again?" Iori offered.
"I wish I could," answered Oikawa, glancing at his watch, "but I'm afraid I don't have time tonight. I promised someone I'd deliver a report to him tonight, and I haven't finished it yet. Think of it as me having homework tonight."
"I guess me helping is out of the question, huh?" asked Iori.
"I'm afraid so," Oikawa replied. "Don't worry. We'll play tomorrow."
"All right," said Iori. "Thank you very much for the present. It's great."
"You're very welcome, Iori, and I'm glad you like it."
As he said his goodbyes, the images he was left with were of Iori carefully putting the chessmen away, settling them one by one into their niches in the box, and of Chou working in the kitchen, pausing from time to time to admire the flowers that stood on the table. He walked home mulling over the picture in his mind.
He arrived home to find a much less pleasant location waiting for him, in the form of a darkened apartment. However, it was somewhat less unpleasant than it had been a few days ago; the rooms had been thoroughly cleaned and straightened. They weren't as cheerful as the Hida's home, but they were more liveable than they had been. Unfortunately, they were marred by a pair of presences who were currently not welcome. Arukenimon stood by the window, looking thoughtful. Mummymon was playing solitaire on Oikawa's computer.
"Get away from that," said Oikawa, shoving the intruder out of the way. "Haven't I told you never to mess with this?"
Mummymon picked himself up off the carpet. "But I was bored."
"Well, I need that now. There's work to do," Oikawa replied. He put down his things and began searching for his disk.
"So, have you finally come to your senses, then?" asked Arukenimon.
"Indeed I have. Though perhaps not in the way you think." He found the disk he'd saved his work on and put it in the drive.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked suspiciously.
"I've made up my mind," he said. "The project as we know it has come to a close."
She was quiet a moment. "Say that again. Carefully. Make sure I understand what you're saying."
"You understand me correctly. I said the project is off. Closed. Finished," said Oikawa.
"So you're giving up?"
"Perhaps," he replied. "For now, anyway. It's not worth the price."
"Price? What price?" asked Arukenimon scornfully. "That you should be asked to devote a few hours of your time?"
"It's more than that. If it was only the price I'm being asked to pay, maybe I'd be willing to go through with it, but I'm not the only one. What about the children involved? They are innocent; they don't have anything to do with this, and they're being put in danger. I will not have their lives taken because of me."
"Why not? Why does it matter to you?" asked Arukenimon. "They aren't yours."
"They're someone's. I'm not going to bring that kind of pain down on anyone. Anyone. Whether you think it should matter to me or not, it does. So there."
"And what about us?" asked Arukenimon. "Are we just supposed to smile and nod and go along with this insanity?"
"You can do whatever you want," Oikawa replied. "Stay in this world or go to the Digital World. I don't care. Just leave me alone."
"I see," she said. "I thought it might come to this. Very well, Oikawa, we will go. But don't think you'll be forgotten. The past has a way of coming back to haunt people."
"This isn't over. Whether you like it or not, this project of yours has gotten bigger than you can control. It will go on, no matter what you do."
"I can stop it. I will."
"We'll see about that, won't we?"
She walked slowly towards the computer, looking down at him.
"Don't think I won't be back," she said, and she vanished in a swirl of light. Oikawa sighed, then turned to stare at the remaining creature.
"What about you?" he said. "Are you going to spit venom at me too? Any threats you'd like to make?"
"No, not really..." Mummymon replied.
"Well, that's something," Oikawa replied.
"I don't even know what's going on."
"I believe I've injured her pride a bit," said Oikawa. "Hopefully she'll get over it. I don't like to think what she can do when she gets angry... but she's right. I can't control her. You'll keep an eye on her, won't you? Keep her out of trouble, if you can."
"I can try," said Mummymon, "but she doesn't listen to me very often."
"Well, do your best," Oikawa replied. He sighed a bit. "You were never that interested in this job to begin with, were you? You always had other priorities."
"Well, good luck. You had better go, now, before your partner gets annoyed with you."
"Yes, sir." Mummymon went back to the computer, preparing to make his exit. "Goodbye."
Then he was gone, and Oikawa was alone in the room.
"Well, that's one problem down," he said. "But still, one problem left. At least one. I suppose I'd best get started."
With that, he started his program and went to work.
Ken was bored. His homework had taken less than an hour to finish, so simple had it been, and he was already ahead on his reading by several chapters. Perhaps his teachers thought he should appreciate the fact that he'd been given so little to do, but he would have said otherwise, if he could. He couldn't get away with leaving the apartment in the evening when his parents were home, especially not after the sun had gone down and it was dark and "unsafe" outside, so going to the Digital World was out of the question. That grated on him; between school and having to dodge his parents, he got only a few precious hours every day to get anything done. The rest of the time he had to stay at home or at school and keep up his perfect person act. At least having homework would give him something to do with his time.
Even while he was sitting in his room, brooding about this problem and wondering whether he risked sneaking out for just a few minutes, his attention was caught by the sound of someone knocking on the door.
*A visitor? At this time of night?* he thought. *How strange. I wonder if it's anyone interesting?*
He doubted it would be, but a moment of consideration made him decide that even just seeing a different face right now might provide some distraction, if nothing else. He crept out of his room to have a look.
"There you are!" his father was saying as he opened the front door. "I was starting to wonder if you were coming after all."
"Things took a little longer than I thought they would," answered the man at the door. Ken noted that he was a pale-skinned, dark eyed man with a quiet mein about him, but there was some other indefinable air about him that gave Ken a chill. He couldn't guess why; there was nothing startling in his appearance at all, and Ken couldn't remember having ever met him before.
"That's all right. I'm extremely grateful for the help," Mr. Ichijouji was saying. "This is going to do me so much good. Would you like to come in? It seems a shame to have you come all the way out here just to have you drop off the papers and leave."
"Now that you mention it, I think I would like something to drink. Could I bother you for a cup of tea?"
"No problem at all. This will just take a moment. Please, have a seat."
"Thank you." The stranger sat down. Ken continued to stand and watch.
"Papa, who is this?" he asked.
"Oh, Ken! I didn't see you over there," Mr. Ichijouji replied. "This is Mr. Oikawa - he's one of my co-workers. Mr. Oikawa, you probably remember my son Ken."
"Remember?" Ken repeated. "Have we met?"
"Briefly," said Oikawa. "I was at your brother's funeral, though I'm not surprised you don't remember me."
"Ah," said Ken. The funeral... thinking back, he thought he could bring up a vague image of a dark, unfamiliar man watching from the edges of the crowd. Perhaps it was a memory, or only his imagination, but he felt sure for an instant that they had looked at each other, and he had been suddenly afraid. Why was he afraid? Ken was never afraid of anyone or anything; horrible monsters cringed in his presence, so why should he be afraid of one quiet-looking middle-aged man?
"Can I get you anything while I'm in the kitchen?" asked Mr. Motomiya, going to look for teacups.
"I'd like a drink too, please," he answered. More quietly, he said to Oikawa, "and I want to talk to you."
"I'd like to have a few words with you myself," answered Oikawa. "Have a seat, Ken."
Ken sat, taking the chair opposite from Oikawa.
"All right," said the boy. "I'm listening. What do you want to say?"
"Since there is a shortage of time, I'll go right to the point," Oikawa replied. "Your reign as Emperor is over."
Ken goggled. "What... how... how did you know?"
"I know everything about you, Digimon Emperor. I discovered the Digital World before you had even been thought of. I sent the letter that directed you to go there. I've watched you as you've built your empire, and have guided you from the shadows."
"If it's impossible, then how do I know?" asked Oikawa. He waited a moment to see if Ken would reply. When he didn't, he continued, "You are everything you are now because I have been helping you. That is over now. Your empire is about to fall. I am taking back what I have given you. From this point on, you will be what you were meant to be: a normal child, nothing more or less."
"I don't want to be normal!" Ken protested.
"You will get used to it. You'll probably even be grateful for this later," Oikawa replied. "Hold still, now. I'm afraid this is going to hurt a bit."
The next thing Ken knew, a strong hand had taken hold of his collar, while the other hand took a small black device from a coat pocket and pressed it to the back of his neck. He felt a quick stinging sensation as if he'd been pricked by a thin needle. A heat began to spread out from it, slowly invading his mind, making him dizzy and confused. He tried feebly to escape, to fight back, but it was too late. He quietly passed out, and Oikawa let him slump gently back into the chair, quickly hiding away the device.
"Mr. Ichijouji, come quick!" he shouted.
The man of the house hurried into the room. "What's wrong? ... Ken! What happened?"
"I'm not sure. One minute he was fine, and then he started to complaining of a headache, and this happened."
There followed a brief moment of panic while the concerned father tried to get some reaction out of his son. However, a few seconds later, Ken came around again, wincing a bit.
"Hurts," he complained.
"Son, are you all right?" asked Mr. Ichijouji worriedly.
"I don't know... My head hurts."
"Do you need to lie down?"
"Yeah, I think so..."
"I think I had better go home," said Oikawa. "I'm sorry this had to happen. I hope he feels better soon."
"Thank you," Mr. Ichijouji replied. "I wish I knew what was going on. Maybe you were right about pushing him too hard."
"It's possible. Perhaps letting him rest a few days would be helpful," Oikawa replied. "Good night."
He drifted away, a dark and silent shadow that was easily ignored by the worried Mr. Ichijouji. Ken, though, got a blurry look as he disappeared.
*Who was that?* he wondered vaguely. *I think I've seen him before somewhere, a long time ago. I wonder why I don't remember? I feel so strange. I'm so tired and sleepy... everything is spinning around. Make it all go away; I want to sleep...*
He closed his eyes, letting the blurry, dizzy world fade into a comforting darkness, and he dropped into unconsciousness again. He did not notice as his father carried him to his room and tucked him into bed. For now, he was willing to drift and dream, but when he woke up, he would go looking for answers.
Oikawa returned home feeling reasonably pleased with his day's work.
*Ken will be all right now,* he told himself. *Without the power of the Dark Spores, he won't be able to keep on being the Emperor even if he wants to, and he shouldn't even want to anymore. He can have a normal life, for once.*
True, it would probably take a while for Ken to readjust to the situation. Oikawa wished he'd had more time to sit down and explain to Ken exactly what he was doing, but there just hadn't been possible while his parents were still so close by. Well, perhaps he'd have the chance once Ken recovered a bit; having the Spores removed was a strain on the boy, but there was no way around that, either. He'd need a few days to rest and recover, and then maybe there would be time to really talk to him. He would be more receptive to new ideas without the Spores' influence, anyway. Right now, everything was all right, better than it had been in a long time, and Oikawa was feeling fairly content with his lot.
He was also hungry. After all, he'd put in a long day's work, and he'd foregone the usual dinner with the Hidas in favor of staying home to finish the promised report, and now he was thinking it would be a good idea to track down something edible. He went to investigate the refrigerator in search of a meal he could prepare quickly. His culinary skills weren't the greatest, but he'd been living on his own long enough that he had learned how to prepare a few things and make them taste reasonably good. He found some rice and vegetables and chicken and decided he could make something out of that, so he took some carrots out of one of the fridge compartment and went to get a knife to slice them.
He was just setting the vegetables on the cutting board when something happened. His entire body froze up like a statue, leaving him standing there with his hand half raised, feeling as if his blood had turned to ice. Panic flared; what was going on?
Are you frightened, Oikawa?
"Who said that?" he replied. He was surprised and a little relieved that he could at least still talk.
Have you forgotten me already? Your memory is very short... but I shouldn't be surprised. You certainly seem to have forgotten our bargain.
Yes. The night the sky opened, and the world saw what you thought only you knew of until then. You promised you would do my bidding if I helped you get to the Digital World.
Oikawa was feeling a sinking sensation; he did remember now. He'd almost thought the voice he'd heard had been a dream, some strange mix of nightmare and wishful thinking.
I see. You did forget, said the voice in his mind. How much of a reminder do you need before you'll fulfill your bargain?
"I don't want to do this anymore," said Oikawa. "Just leave me alone."
You've given up, then? All your years of planning, and you're just giving up?
"I'm not going if it means I have to put the lives of innocent children at risk to do it. I'll find some other way... or I'll stay here. I'm happy here. I don't need to leave."
Ah, I see, said the voice coolly. You're happy here. You've found people you care about, have you? Pity if something happened to them...
"You won't hurt them," said Oikawa. "What can you do? Nothing but a voice..."
Oh, I can't hurt them, can I?
The hand gripping the knife moved on its own, and Oikawa watched in horror as it began poising itself over his other hand, which rested perfectly still on the cutting board. He struggled, but he couldn't so much as lift a finger. The knife went down, and just as it did, he managed to regain enough control to pull the other hand away. Even so, the tip of the knife scored a long mark across the back of his hand. The knife itself drove deep into the cutting board, putting a crack down the center. Oikawa stood there, panting a bit from the effort, his injured hand dripping blood on the tiled floor.
Stubborn, aren't you? said the voice; it sounded annoyed.
"What was the point of that?" asked Oikawa.
That was a lesson for you. You say you have people you care about. How would you like to see them die by your own hand?
There was a moment of silence. "You couldn't really do it. If you could really control me, you would have stopped me from removing the Dark Spores."
Hesitation. Then, with an edge of anger, the voice said, I can do enough. My power is limited by day, but who knows what you might do under cover of darkness? All it would take is one time when you aren't completely paying attention... You resisted me just now because I've let you keep part of your mind, enough to know that I am here, but I've used you before without you even knowing. I could make you go hunt down that child of yours and kill him, and you would never know until the next morning when you awoke to find his blood on your hands. Do you want proof of that?
Are you sure? Or will you continue to resist?
"What must I do?"
Continue with your plan. Open the door.
"And if I promise to do this, you promise you won't hurt the boy?"
He will be safe as long as you do what I say.
Oikawa sighed deeply. "All right, then."
Fine. Do not forget.
The presence vanished, and all of Oikawa's muscles relaxed again. The knife slipped from his grip and clattered to the floor. He checked his injured hand. It was cut from wrist to just past the knuckle, slicing through the thin skin between two fingers. Thankfully, it was only a shallow cut, but it was bleeding profusely, leaving a small red puddle on the floor. He went to find something to wrap it up with. That was as far as his mental energy lasted; he staggered back into the living room and collapsed onto the sofa, feeling weak in every limb.
*And everything was going so well,* he thought despairingly. *Now what do I do?*
He gawped. "You really mean that, don't you?"
"Oh, you just now figured it out?" she retorted.
"But... but I loved you..."
"What makes you think I care?"
He didn't answer. The silence bothered her, and she turned to look at him. He was staring at her with an expression she'd never seen him wear before, one of dawning understanding and horror. She felt uneasy. She was accustomed to Mummymon agreeing with everything she said, taking insults without noticing them, but now she had the sudden uncomfortable feeling that she had pushed him too far.
"Well?" she said, a trifle unnerved. "What are you staring at?"
"Nothing," he said. "Just... go away. Get out of my sight."
He ran past her, shoving her out of his way as he vanished into the shadows, and she was too puzzled and surprised to act. He sounded like he was crying. For a moment, that uneasy feeling washed over her again. She wondered if she shouldn't have said that, after all.
"He'll get over it," she muttered. "And why do I care, anyway? I don't care. Let him go throw himself off a cliff; it's all the same to me."
And she stormed off looking for a port to reenter the material world, preparing to track down Oikawa and teach him a thing or two - probably in a painful fashion, because she was suddenly in a very bad mood.
The old chess set went into the trash can with a satisfying clatter. Iori was not sorry to see it go - there had been nothing of value to it, just a few flimsy bits of plastic and cardboard masquerading as something good. The new set, however, deserved a bit more reverence. He spent a few moments clearing off a space on his bookshelf so he could have it within easy reach.
"You really like that thing, don't you?" Upamon commented, from his perch on Iori's desk.
"It's not so much that I like it," answered Iori. "It is nice, but that's not what makes it special. It's special because he gave it to me. It shows he cares enough about me to want to do something nice for me. He really thought about what would be most likely to make me happy."
"He's nice," Upamon opined. "I just wish I didn't have to hide every time he shows up!"
"I've been thinking about that, too," Iori replied. He came and sat down at his desk chair. "I think it's about time I told him."
"About everything," Iori replied. "You, the Digital World, the Digidestined, Ken..."
"Are you sure it's safe?" asked Upamon. "You know how grownups are - they flip out when they see something weird. Like your grandpa did."
"Mr. Oikawa wouldn't do that," said Iori. "He already knows about Digimon."
"That was a long time ago," Upamon said.
"I wouldn't forget you no matter how long ago it had been. I don't think the Digital World is like that - you just can't forget it once you've seen it," the boy answered thoughtfully. "He'll remember. And he deserves it. He's done so much for us."
"Yes. Haven't you noticed? It seems like everyone's been happier since he came here. Mom and Grandpa can't be lonely when he's here. And... I don't know. When Dad died, I felt like I had to do something to keep everyone from being unhappy. I always wanted to be taking care of mom, so she wouldn't be sad. It's just easier for me to have fun when I know there's someone else here to take care of everything. He's given us so much. I want to give something back, and the best thing I can do for him is let him finally see the Digital World."
"That was a nice speech," said Upamon. "I'd applaud, if I had hands."
Iori smiled a little. "So, do you agree with me, then?"
"Sure," Upamon answered. "At least I won't have to hide under tables so much."
"That's my Digimon - always practical," said Iori. "Tomorrow, then?"
"Tomorrow's good. But don't you think you'd better ask the others first?"
"Oh, yeah. I almost forgot," said Iori. "I'll talk to them at school. I'm sure they'll understand."
"Prob'ly," Upamon agreed. He yawned, and Iori cast a glance at his clock.
"It's getting late," he said. "If I stay up much longer, it's going to be tomorrow. Guess we'd better get some sleep. We've got a big day coming up."
He changed quickly into his pajamas and settled down into bed with Upamon tucked in cozily next to him. He closed his eyes gratefully; today had already been a long day, and there was a lot to look forward to on the next.
*Right after school,* he thought sleeplily. *I'll tell him as soon as I get home, and maybe we can go to the Digital World...*
His mind drifted, as he pictured all the things he wanted to show his friend. Somewhere in the maze of imaginings, he fell asleep.
It was very important to Arukenimon that Oikawa be asleep. She considered herself to be a match, physically and mentally, to any human alive, but that didn't mean she was about to take chances, not tonight. If she thought Oikawa was someone she could afford to take chances with, she wouldn't be doing this in the first place. It was most logical that she should complete her mission while he was asleep and unawares.
Therefore, she was unpleasantly surprised to arrive in his apartment to find all the lights on. She looked around, startled. What was going on? It was almost three in the morning; she had never known him to stay up that late for anything, particularly since he had started in on his agreeable streak and had really started caring whether he got to work on time or not. She was further dismayed to see that her target was not in bed sleeping like he ought to be, but sprawled out on the sofa, where he could easily have seen her if he happened to glance in her direction.
She almost panicked, but relaxed once she realized that he was not going to do any such thing. He appeared to be asleep, though why he should be sleeping there when he had a perfectly good bed only a few yards away was anyone's guess. Cautiously, she moved closer for a better look. He definitely hadn't been intending to sleep there; he hadn't even taken off his necktie. Perhaps he'd gotten himself drunk and collapsed there? It had happened before, on one or two occasions when he'd allowed himself to get discouraged. But that didn't make sense, either. He'd been almost relentlessly cheerful lately, in comparison to the way she was used to him acting. Perhaps he'd simply started thinking about something and dozed off where he lay. Oh, well, no matter. She could kill him as easily here as anywhere else. She crept a little closer, until she was standing over him, close enough that she would be able to see the fall of his last breath, when...
The man was awake in a flash, turning on her and seizing her wrist with a feral snarl, eyes blazing red.
"So," he hissed, "you thought you would test me, did you?"
"I - I - I..." she stammered, trying to pull away. He kept his hold on her in a grip so tight it was painful. If it grew any tighter, she was sure her bones would shatter.
"I warned you," he said. "I told you I could make you regret it if you challenged me."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, trying to sound defiant. She wasn't sure she succeeded.
"I'm going to teach you some obedience," he answered. "Maybe the lesson will stick a little better if I make sure you can feel it." The grip on her wrist tightened, and she hissed in pain.
"You're going to kill me," she said flatly.
"No," he said. "I am not going to kill you. Not yet. If you decide to straighten up and behave yourself instead of plotting behind my back, I might just let you live a while."
"I'm not doing anything for you," she said.
"You are not in any position to make threats," he answered.
Arukenimon made a swift evaluation and decided he was right; she had her pride, but it took second place to survival instinct. She gave a sigh of defeat.
"Fine, then," she said. "Let's hear what's on your mind. Who are you really, and what are you all about?"
"I don't believe I owe you any explanations," he answered, "but if it will make you stop complaining... I am called Vamdemon, lord of the undead. I came to this world to conquer it, but I was thwarted by those Digidestined brats and their little Digimon pets. Now I live only as a spirit."
"You don't look much like a spirit to me."
"This?" He looked at his hands with a scowl. "This pitifully inadequate body is exactly what you always thought it was - the shell of a pathetic man mired so deeply in past tragedy that he didn't have the strength to even try to resist the powers of darkness. He agreed to host me if I would help him find a way to reach the Digital World. Once I am there, I will be able to resume my true form. Then I will see to getting my revenge on the ones who did to this to me." An expression of raw hatred flashed across his face, something so dark that even Arukenimon would have shied away if he didn't still have her caught in that unbreakable grip.
"So what am I supposed to do?" she asked.
"Since you are so graciously offering... I wish you to run me an errand," he replied. "To retain my powers, I must be living within a willing human host. As you have noticed, this host is becoming more reluctant to do my bidding. I will not be able to control him for very much longer. I desire a new host."
"And what if I don't?" she answered defiantly. "What if I just go back to the Digital World and wait for you to lose all your strength? Then what?"
"Then you would be alone in the Digital World without plan or purpose," he replied. "Help me return to my empire, and I'll see to it you are justly rewarded. Refuse, and I might as well kill you now. Surely you can see the advantages in cooperating."
Arukenimon nodded; her hand was going numb, and she was willing at this point to agree to a lot just to get him to let go. "So, do I just go and snatch someone off the street, or what?"
"No, I have a particular target in mind. Someone who will be much easier to manipulate than our friend here. You might even find this amusing."
He told her. She smiled.
"I have to admit, I like the way you think," she replied. "Fine. I'll help you out, but don't forget my reward."
"I won't. Don't forget your place," he replied. He released his grip on her, and she backed away quickly, rubbing at her wrist. Peeling back her glove, she could see red marks across her fair skin, rows of crescents where his fingernails had pressed.
"I don't think I will," she said wryly. "All right. You'll have your host."
"Very well. But don't think I won't find out if you betray me," he replied. "Now, get out of here. I don't want to see you again until you've fulfilled your mission, understood?"
"Fine." He leaned back, closed his eyes, and to all appearances, went back to sleep. Arukenimon stared at him a moment, considering. She looked back at the marks on her arm and decided not to risk anything funny.
"Out of the frying pan..." she muttered glumly. Then, with a resigned sigh and a swirl of digital sparks, she retreated to the Digital World to wait.
Light on his eyelids. Headache. Hungry, thirsty... headache. Light getting brighter - didn't do much for his headache.
*Morning?* thought the boy blurrily. *Must be morning. I want to go back to sleep... Who am I? I'm pretty sure I knew yesterday.*
He rolled over and stretched, trying to work out the stiffness in his muscles. He felt vaguely achy all over, as if he was sick with a fever. Maybe that was why he felt so vague and dreamy; had he been sick?
*I had a dream. I dreamed I was an Emperor. I was powerful...*
He sat up and looked around, and the gears in his head slowly started to turn again. He knew this place; it was his own room, the place where he'd grown up. He lived here with his parents and... he shied away from that memory; he would gladly not-remember as long as he could.
"Hello?" he called experimentally. "Where is everyone?"
There was an exclamation from somewhere in the house, and his mother came in.
"You're awake!" she exclaimed. "Oh, thank goodness; I was starting to worry."
"Did I oversleep?" he asked.
"You've been sick," she informed him. "Do you remember? You had some kind of attack last night, so we decided it would be better if you stayed home today."
"Oh," he said. "What kind of attack?"
"We aren't exactly sure," she said, looking guilty. "You were complaining of a headache, and then you passed out."
"I still have a headache," he said. "And I'm hungry. Can I have something to eat, please?"
"Of course, honey. Would you like something for your headache?"
"All right. I'll have it ready in a minute," his mother replied.
She hurried out of the room, eager to obey her precious son's bidding. Something about that thought felt familiar to Ken, but he couldn't quite nail the image down. He gave it up after a moment of trying and getting nothing more than further pains in his head. He rubbed at the pains, trying to ease some of them away, and encountered a sore spot on the back of his neck, slightly swollen, as if he'd been stung. That didn't quite work out with what he'd told about being sick. He wondered why he felt like that should be important.
By the time his mother had returned, Ken was fully dressed and groomed, and was sitting at his desk staring thoughtfully at the computer.
"Up already?" she asked. "Are you sure you feel up to it? I don't want you to strain yourself..."
"I'll be all right," Ken replied, "especially once my head quits hurting." He cast another glance at his computer, as if he thought he could read something from its blank screen. "I'm having trouble remembering what happened yesterday... Did someone come to visit? I keep thinking someone was here, but it might have been a dream."
"Mr. Oikawa came by last night to deliver some papers to your father," Mrs. Ichijouji said. "He was talking to you when you passed out."
"That's what I thought," said Ken slowly. "At least now I know I wasn't dreaming."
"You must still be a little disoriented. I hope there's nothing seriously wrong... Maybe we ought to take you to a doctor."
"I don't think I need a doctor," Ken answered. "I feel fine, really. I think I just need a little rest."
"If you say so," his mother replied. "Poor dear, you really have been working hard, what with your schoolwork and sports and everything... You're always so busy working on your homework, we hardly even get to see you when you're home. You probably do need a day off."
"That's probably what it is," Ken agreed, glad she'd provided an explanation for him. He'd been trying to fabricate a decent one for himself, but his head still felt like it was full of cotton, and it was hard to string two thoughts together intelligently. "I think after I have my breakfast, I might just lie down and go back to sleep again. Would you mind very much if I asked to be left alone for a while?"
"Of course, not, Ken. You rest and get well," his mother answered. "If you need anything, just call me, all right?"
"I will. Thank you," he answered.
His mother went away again, and Ken turned his attention to his mother's offerings. She'd brought headache medicine, which was the first thing that interested him, and he wasted no time in swallowing the pills. While he was waiting for them to take effect, he began thoughtfully nibbling on a piece of toast. He felt so strange this morning. Even after he'd gotten up and started to move around, he still felt strangely stiff and clumsy, and a bit light-headed. He wondered if he really should have asked to go to the doctor's office, after all.
*This is wrong,* he decided. *I'm not supposed to be like this. I'm Ken Ichijouji, the genius. I'm a soccer champion and a blackbelt, but suddenly I feel like I can't move without tripping over my own two feet! What happened? Something must have happened, but nobody knows what it is.*
Then he corrected himself. There was someone who had to know what had happened to him, the last person who had talked to him. He had been there; shouldn't he have seen what had happened?
*I was afraid of him,* Ken remembered. *From the minute I heard him talking outside my room, I was afraid of him. I knew he was going to make something bad happen. All right, what did he do?*
He frowned, trying to remember. He had been sitting in his room, wishing something interesting would happen, and a stranger had arrived. They had talked for a while, and Ken was sure he remembered being angry at him, angry and frightened...
Your reign as Emperor is over.
The memory struck Ken so suddenly that he jumped; it was almost like he'd heard the words spoken to him again, in that deep, echoing voice. It was hard not to believe they really were an intonation of doom, and that Ken would never again have the power he'd once owned.
"But it can't be," Ken told himself. "I mean, things like that just don't happen. It's not possible for him to just wave his hand and make me into something else. If I'm a genius, I'm always going to be a genius... except... why does my head hurt so much, anyway?"
Experimentally, he got up and opened one of his textbooks, a thick volume on advanced mathematics, and flipped to a random page. Displayed before him were rows of complex equations, full of x's and y's and arcane-looking symbols. He'd been doing very much the same kinds of equations on the previous night, putting little more thought into them than most normal children usually put into simple arithmetic. Last night, it had all been effortless, with him jotting down one answer after another with little more time in between than a few seconds to read over the problems. Now he picked one and began trying to work it out.
His brain balked. He stared at the problem, trying to force the numbers to process, but nothing happened. He knew all the formulas he was supposed to have memorized, he knew the basic principles that were supposed to be involved, but the minute he began trying to synthesize them together... He could do it, but it was hard now. He got halfway through the equation before giving up in frustration.
*He really did it,* he thought, numb with shock. *I don't know how he did it, but he did it! He said he was going to turn me into an ordinary child... It's all over. I can't be the Emperor anymore if I can't even do an algebra equation! I won't be a celebrity anymore... I won't be anything anymore... I'm just like everyone else...*
"No," he said aloud. "I refuse to accept this! I'm still the Emperor, no matter what he does to me! Him or anyone else!"
With that, he seized his Digivice and held it up to the computer screen, opening the door to the Digital World.
He reappeared in his control room. He felt better instantly, calmed by the dark shadows and safe, predictable computers. Some dark corner of his mind had been gibbering that maybe now that his power had been broken, the base would have dissolved along with his mental abilities. Now he felt reassured; as long as he had his armies under control, he had something. He was still a force to be reckoned with.
Those thoughts lasted as long as it took to realize that something was missing. He looked down at his hands, trying to force himself to remember just what it was that he didn't have that he should. All five fingers were there, so what was missing? Gloves! That was it; he wasn't wearing gloves. Looking around some more, he also realized that all the colors were wrong, and it occurred to him that they were wrong because he wasn't used to looking at the Digital World without his rose-colored glasses. He was here, but the costume he usually wore was not. All he was wearing were his usual plain clothes, and there was nothing imperial at all about that. He looked at his reflection in an unused screen and felt a sinking sensation come over him; he didn't even look like an Emperor anymore. He looked like a pale, frightened boy, and his subjects wouldn't even recognize him.
Well, most of them wouldn't recognize him. Even as he was thinking that gloomy thought, a movement caught his eye, and he looked up to see Wormmon crawling idly by. The little caterpillar knew it was a school day, and therefore hadn't been expecting to see his master arrive until sometime that afternoon. Now, as he passed by the throne room, his attention was caught by an unexpected shape. He looked up, blinked, and did a double-take.
"Ken!" he cried jubilantly.
Ken was amazed to see the caterpillar scramble across the room in a blur of green and pounce on him, latching on to him with all ten legs in an enthusiastic hug. "You're back!"
"What are you talking about?" asked Ken, stunned. He wondered if someone had been messing with Wormmon's brain as well as his own; he couldn't remember the bug ever acting like this before. Then again, some of his early memories of Wormmon were a little blurry. "I haven't been gone all that long, have I? I was just here yesterday."
Wormmon eased his embrace enough so that he could look up at Ken, his blue eyes wide and - what? Hopeful? Pleading? Ken felt a funny little stab of pity, and was puzzled by it. Normally Wormmon's presence irked him, but he didn't feel that way now, just confused.
"It is you, isn't it?" asked Wormmon.
"Of course it's me! Who else would I be?"
Wormmon gave a shudder. "The Emperor."
"But... I am the Emperor!" Ken protested. "I mean, we're the same person! There's no difference between him and me."
"Yes there is," said Wormmon. "Don't you know?"
"I don't understand," said Ken.
Wormmon nodded. "That's part of it."
Ken scowled. "You aren't making any sense. If you know what's going on, tell me. Nothing makes any sense today, and I want answers!"
"I'm sorry, Ken," said Wormmon. "I really am... I didn't realize it would be this hard on you. I've just been waiting so long for you to come back..."
"There you go again, saying I've come back. I haven't come back, because I haven't been anywhere. I'm still the same person I always was."
"No, you're not," Wormmon replied. "Just look at yourself."
"What? This isn't me," said Ken. "Just because my clothes are different doesn't mean anything else has changed."
"Maybe not in your world," Wormmon replied. "It's different, here in the Digital World. What's only a dream in your world might be real here. The Emperor's costume didn't exist until the Emperor did. Now it's gone, so you must be Ken again. You are, aren't you?"
"You're talking in circles!" Ken exclaimed.
"I'm sorry; I'll try again. A long time ago, when you were just a little child, you used to be my friend. You'd come here every chance you got to play with me. Then something happened, and you went away from me for a while, and when you came back... I barely recognized you anymore. That was when you started dressing and acting like the Emperor. Everything you used to care about was forgotten; all you cared about was trying to conquer the Digital World. Not even I mattered, after that... But that's over now, isn't it? I mean, are you back now? I've been waiting so long for you to come back to me, Ken."
"Waiting... for me?" he repeated slowly. "Why would you want me to go back to this? I can't do anything like this. The Emperor was so powerful..."
"That doesn't matter to me, Ken," Wormmon replied. "I just wanted you to be my friend. Oh, I've been so lonely without you, Ken..."
He pressed against Ken's leg, hugging him again. Ken was stunned to see tears streaming down the 'mon's face.
"Wormmon..." he said. "Oh, come on, Wormmon, quit that! You don't have to cry all over me."
"He is making an idiot of himself, isn't he?" said a voice.
They both jumped. Standing in the doorway was someone who had not been there before, a woman with long silvery hair and a red dress. She was glaring at Wormmon with an expression of extreme distaste, so much that Ken almost felt moved to defend the little bug.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"My name is Arukenimon," she answered. "I want to talk to you."
"Someone wanted to talk to me last night, and look at the mess I'm in now."
"I'm aware of the mess you're in now. That's why I'm here," she answered smoothly. "I know exactly what's been done to you, why it was done, and how to undo it. That sounds like something you'd want to know, doesn't it?"
"How would you know anything?" Ken shot back.
"Because I pay attention. Yesterday, you had everything. Today, you hardly know up from down, and it's all because of that Oikawa."
Ken's head snapped up. "You know about him?"
"Of course. We've been working together for a long time. He gave you the power that allowed you to nearly rule the world. Now he's changed his mind and decided you are no longer a fit ruler of this world, so he's taken the power away again, keeping it for himself."
"How could he do such a thing?" asked Ken. "It doesn't sound possible."
"The whole Digital World doesn't sound possible," Arukenimon replied. "That isn't what's important. What he did doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not you want to undo it."
"Don't listen to her, Ken," Wormmon pleaded. "She's not offering you anything good."
"I'm offering him everything," said Arukenimon. "Ken, listen. Right now, you are nothing. You'll lose the respect of the whole world if you stay the way you are. Your parents will be disappointed in you. You remember what that's like, don't you? Don't you remember the way things were before you became the Emperor? Everyone ignored you."
"I didn't ignore him," said Wormmon fiercely.
"So. Out of the entirety of two worlds, the only one who cared about you was a crawly little larva," said Arukenimon. "What a wonderful record."
"And you can make it change?" asked Ken.
"Of course," she answered, smiling. "I can give you back everything you had and more. You were only given a fraction of what you could have had, you know. I can take you straight to the source of the power. Tap into it, and you'll be capable of things you never even dreamed you could do."
"Ken, don't," Wormmon begged. "She's trying to trick you. Even if she could give you what she's promising, it's not worth it. Don't go away and leave me again."
"I'll come back," Ken promised. "I just don't want to lose everything again. I need this."
"That's the spirit," said Arukenimon. "If you really want to be your old self again, meet me at this address tonight, as soon as the sun has completely set. I'll be waiting for you."
She slipped a scrap of paper out of her glove and handed it to Ken, who took it and read it. He nodded.
"I'll be there," he said.
"Excellent," she replied. "You won't be disappointed."
With that, she turned and retreated into the shadows.
"You aren't really going to go, are you?" asked Wormmon plaintively.
"Why shouldn't I?" asked Ken, feeling slightly annoyed.
"She can't be trusted. You don't even know who she is, Ken. She could be planning to hurt you."
"If she wanted to hurt me, she would have done it while she was here," Ken replied. "Don't worry about it, Wormmon. I'll tell you what, why don't you come with me?"
"What?" said Wormmon, stunned. "You mean, into the real world?"
"Why not?" asked Ken.
"Well, you never brought me there before," Wormmon replied.
"Now I am,"said Ken. "If you're that worried about me, you can come along and watch."
Worrmon sighed. "I wish you wouldn't go at all."
"I am going, so stop complaining about it. Are you coming or not?"
"I'm coming," said Wormmon decisively.
"Fine," Ken replied. "We can go now. I'd better be heading back before Mama starts wondering about me. Hang on."
Carefully, he picked up the caterpillar and cradled him against his chest. With his free hand, he held up the Digivice and sent himself back to his room, to rest, to think, and to wait for evening.
"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"
Oikawa got a rude awakening, much earlier than he would have preferred, as someone shook him roughly and shouted in his ear. He sat up with a start, flailing vaguely against the assault.
"What - what - what?" he spluttered.
"Oh, you're alive!" said the shouter, sounding deeply relieved.
Oikawa blinked, trying to get his bearings. Why, he wondered, was he lying on the sofa, and why was Mummymon kneeling next to him on the floor trying to wake him up? A pain in his hand brought him back to the present, as he remembered his ordeal with the demon and the kitchen knife, and earlier, his debate with Arukenimon.
"What do you mean, I'm alive?" he muttered with early-morning grumpiness. "Of course I'm alive! I was only sleeping, you-"
He stopped short before affixing the final insult, as he got a good look at Mummymon's face. The undead Digimon never looked precisely healthy, not by human standards, but now he was looking downright dreadful. Everything about him, from the desperate look on his face from the exhausted slump to his shoulders, pointed to something being very wrong.
"What happened?" he asked sharply.
Mummymon took a breath and opened his mouth to say something, but he choked on the words. Instead of replying, he broke down and bawled, burying his face in the sofa cushions and shaking. Oikawa stared.
"Get a hold of yourself!" he said, putting a hand on the 'mon's shoulder. "Come on, snap out of it. It can't be that bad."
The 'mon shook his head, still crying too hard to answer. He sniffled a little, trying to get a grip on himself.
"What happened?" Oikawa repeated, this time more gently. "Come on. You can tell me."
"I thought you were dead," he said shakily. "I thought you were dead. It would have been my fault if you had. I didn't want to kill you, really! I didn't want it to happen. I'm sorry..." He broke down into tears again.
"This is more serious than I thought," said Oikawa. "Look, just calm down! I'm not dead, all right? Everything is fine, so you can stop crying already."
Mummymon shook his head again. "That... that's not it..."
Oikawa just stared at him. This was something he was not prepared to deal with; he was used to Mummymon blithely going along with everything that happened with the same amiable grin. For him to be breaking down like this, something really dreadful must have happened. He felt the weight of pity fall over him. This strange, misshapen creature was still his creation, brought forth from his own genetic code, a weird sort of child. He couldn't help but feel sorry for this pitiful being that was clearly in such deep pain.
"Can I get you something?" he said at last.
The 'mon sniffled. "Maybe... a drink of water?"
Oikawa got up and went looking for a glass. When he returned with the drink, Mummymon had pulled himself together somewhat, and was now sitting in a silent daze, staring at nothing. He took the glass without bothering to look up and drank it quickly. When he was finished, he set down the glass with a long sigh, hanging his head as if even that simple action had exhausted him.
"Better now?" Oikawa inquired gently.
"A little," the 'mon answered weakly. "I'm so confused, I don't know what I'm doing anymore."
"Can you talk about it now?"
"I can try," he said. "It's about Arukenimon. We had... an argument. She was so angry at you... She's afraid. I don't know why. She thinks you're dangerous. She said she was going to kill you so you wouldn't be able to do anything. She said I had to come, too." He looked up, an expression of pleading in his single eye. "I didn't want you to be killed."
"I know you didn't," Oikawa replied.
Mummymon dropped his gaze again. "I didn't want to let her kill you. I tried to stop her, but she wouldn't listen to me. She said... she said she'd kill anyone who ever got in her way, even me." He was quiet a while. Then: "She hates me, doesn't she?"
Oikawa was not sure what to say.
"She hates me," Mummymon repeated, more positively. "She hates everyone but herself, and I never saw it... She was never what I thought she was, was she?"
"No," answered Oikawa, very quietly. "She probably wasn't."
Mummymon didn't seem to hear him. "If she had killed you, it would have been my fault. You told me to watch her, and I didn't want to let her kill you, but I didn't stop her. I couldn't. I can't hurt her, even if she does hate me... I'm so confused. Nothing makes sense."
Oikawa sighed heavily. "Here's another fine mess I've created. I blame myself for this."
"You? What did you do?"
"I brought about the cause of all this trouble in the first place," Oikawa replied. "I created you - both of you."
"The demon wanted servants," said Oikawa. "Creatures that could pass back and forth between this world and the Digital World, beings with attributes of both humans and Digimon. Two drops of my own blood were transformed to digital matter and used as the foundation for building the two of you. I'm responsible for both of you - you wouldn't even be here if it weren't for me." He shook his head. "I should have thought more carefully. What did I think I was doing, bringing anything in the world with no purpose but for it to live a life of destruction? So now two more people have to suffer because of me..." He pressed his face into his hand. "Where is this going to end? What do I have to do to make it stop?"
There wasn't any answer for that, and even if there had been one, Mummymon wasn't the person who would have known how to give it. He actually managed to shake off some of his own self-pity long enough to feel a bit sorry for his master.
"What are we going to do now?" he asked.
Oikawa glanced at his watch. "Well, I have to go to work in a few minutes. I don't think my employers would be very accepting if I said I needed to take a day off because there's a monster out to get me. You can stay here, for now, if you want. Stay quiet, stay out of sight... and get some rest. You look exhausted."
"I haven't slept all night. I was worried..."
"Worrying won't do anyone any good. Sleep."
Mummymon nodded obediently and settled himself on the abandoned sofa. He pulled his hat down over his one eye, and within moments, was sound asleep.
*Though I wouldn't want to know what kind of nightmares he's liable to have,* thought Oikawa grimly. *What did he do to deserve any of this? He never did anything but what he was told to do, because he didn't know any better. One time he finds it in his heart to make a decent gesture, and he loses everything he cares about for it... I never should have sent her away. These misbegotten creatures are my responsibility, and I tossed them out the door like so much trash. Yukio Oikawa, you deserve anything you get.*
But there was nothing he could do about the situation now. With Arukenimon who-knew- where and doing who-knew-what, there was really no preparation he could make. All he could do for now was look after the one creature that had come back into his care, and worry about the other if she decided to make another appearance... that, and go to work. He changed out of his sleep-rumpled clothes and into something more presentable, fixed a quick breakfast, and hurried out of the apartment.
*Might as well not worry about trouble,* he thought grimly. *At the rate things seem to be happening to me, I don't need to worry. No point in worrying about anything that's bound to happen anyway.*
"Hey, guys, wait up!"
Daisuke, Takeru, Miyako, and Hikari stopped their conversation as they heard the sound of their youngest teammate hurrying up the hallway. He sounded unusually excited, an occurrence that made them decide anything they were talking about was bound to be less interesting than whatever he had on his mind. They turned to wait for Iori as he came panting to a halt in front of them.
"Hey, Iori, what's the rush?" asked Miyako.
"I've got a question," he answered, still a bit breathless from his dash.
"You always have a question," Daisuke said. "What's so special about this one?"
"It's about the Digital World," said Iori, "and... some other things. It's complicated. Can we go somewhere where we can talk?"
"Sure," Hikari agreed. "We need to go to the lab anyway. Nobody will bother us there."
They relocated to their favored meeting room. A few of them went back to their usual bantering and chatting, but Hikari noticed that Iori was being even more quiet and thoughtful than usual, looking as nervous as she'd ever seen that self-contained boy appear. When they reached their destination, the group settled into desk chairs, waiting for Iori to ask his burning question. Iori opted to remain standing, putting him a bit closer to eye level with the rest of the group.
"So, what's this all about?" asked Takeru, when Iori didn't show any signs of beginning.
"Well... you've all heard me talking about Mr. Oikawa, right?" he asked.
The others nodded. Ever since Iori had first told them about his father's old friend, the man's name was coming up more and more often in the boy's conversations. Nobody had any doubts that Mr. Oikawa was an important part of Iori's life.
"Well, there's something I haven't told you yet," Iori continued. "He knows about the Digital World."
"What?" Miyako yelped.
"You told him?" asked Daisuke.
"No!" said Iori. "I haven't told him anything, yet. He knows. At least, I think he does. I'm pretty sure."
"Okay, I think we need an explanation of this one," said Takeru. "He knows, but you didn't tell him. How does he know, then?"
"I'm a little fuzzy on that one," Iori admitted. "I can't ask him without letting on that I know about the Digital World, too. What I do know, I sort of found out by accident while I was talking to Grandpa. He told me that when Dad and Mr. Oikawa were kids, they used to play video games together. After a while, they started talking about seeing another world there, and little animals that would talk to them. They called it the Digital World, and the creatures were Digital Monsters. Grandpa didn't believe them - he thought they were making it all up - and he tried to make them stop playing together. Mr. Oikawa never talks about it, but... I don't think he's forgotten."
"Are you sure?" asked Takeru. "That would have been a long time ago. He might have forgotten. He might even think now that it was all just a big dream - if it ever really happened in the first place. It could have been a game, you know. Digital World and Digital Monsters aren't that hard of names to come up with. It could be a big coincidence, for all you know."
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Iori replied. "I've been watching him carefully, and listening. He told me he's been studying computers all his life. He has this secret project he keeps mentioning, something he goes home and works on at night, and he won't tell anyone what it's all about except that it has something to do with a computer program. I think he's still trying to get in touch with the Digital World, trying to find a way in. And even if Takeru is right, and this is all a coincidence, I still want to tell him. He's my friend. I trust him. I think he deserves to know."
"Are you sure you need to be telling an outsider about the Digital World?" asked Miyako. "I don't know how well a grownup would take it."
"Actually," said Hikari, "most of them seem to take it pretty well."
"Huh?" said Daisuke. "Who knows?"
"The families of all us original kids," Hikari replied. "During the battle with Vamdemon, they all kind of had to deal with Digimon whether they were ready for it or not. I think Sora's dad even researches them as a hobby now."
"That's right," said Takeru. "I'm so used to Mom seeing Patamon around, I don't even think about it much anymore."
"You mean, all this time I've been trying to keep Poromon a secret from my family, and I could have just told them?" asked Miyako, outraged. "Why didn't anybody tell me?"
"Why are you so upset?" Poromon asked. "I'm the one who keeps getting shoved under your bed anytime someone comes into the room."
"Well, it all kind of comes down to a question of how much you think your family can handle," said Takeru. "If you really think your parents are ready for talking pink birds, that's between you and Poromon whether you want to take the risk... and I guess it's really down to Iori's judgement whether or not Oikawa should know anything about us. And since Iori's the most trustworthy kid I know, I think we can probably accept his judgement. If you want to tell Mr. Oikawa about the Digital World, you've got my vote of confidence. But one thing," he added, before Iori could speak to thank him. "Telling him is one thing. If you want him to know about Upamon and you being a Digidestined, that's your business. But the Digital World is a lot bigger than that. You've got to promise that if you do tell him, you won't actually bring him to the Digital World until the rest of us have agreed this guy is worth trusting."
Iori felt dismayed. "But... but I wanted him to see it!"
"He can wait a little while," said Miyako. "we haven't even met this guy yet. You might trust him, but we don't know the first thing about him yet. We have to be really, really careful who we let into the Digital World. Look at Ken! He acts all perfect while he's here in the real world, but let him into the Digital World and he turns into a monster. I don't like to say things like this about your friends, Iori, but nobody can know everything about anyone. There might be things about him you don't know yet."
"He is trustworthy," said Iori. "I know he wouldn't do anything to hurt the Digital World... but if that's the way you feel, I'll abide by your decision. Can I ask if he can come meet you some other time?"
"Sure," said Takeru. "Tomorrow sometime, maybe? We'll have to be careful; if he does turn out to be someone we can trust, we'd better bring him to a Spire-free area. The last thing we need is innocent people getting hurt. Hey, Miyako, check the map and see if you can find any likely spots."
"I'm on it!" Miyako replied. She sat down at a computer and began revving up the Digital World entry program. The map appeared, and Miyako made a quick inspection. Her face creased in puzzlement. "Well, that's funny."
"What is?" asked Daisuke, crowding closer to see. "What's Ken done this time?"
"Nothing. That's what's so weird," Miyako answered. "Usually Ken finds something new to throw at us, but today... everything's exactly like we left it yesterday. No new Spires, no new anything."
Daisuke shrugged. "Guess he's taking a day off. Maybe he's got the flu or something."
"If he's doing nothing, then can I take the day off, too?" asked Iori. "I want to go ahead and talk to Mr. Oikawa, before I lose my nerve."
"Fine," said Takeru. "We can blow up Spires without your help for one afternoon. Just don't think you can get away with this every day," he added with a friendly wink.
Iori smiled. "Thanks, Takeru. I'll be back on the job tomorrow, I promise."
"When Iori makes a promise, it's for real!" said Daisuke. "Come on! I wanna go get some Spire-busting done while ol' Ken isn't around to mess things up. Let's give him something to come home to!"
"You got it!" said Miyako. "Digi-port, open!"
There was a flash of light, and Iori blinked as his friends disappeared, leaving him alone in the computer room.
"Well, that's that," he said, shrugging and heading for the door. "But I wish they'd trust me a little more. Mr. Oikawa's not going to do anything to hurt the Digital World. He wouldn't hide things like that from me..."
As of late, Oikawa had found his job more agreeable than it had been in the past. Today, however, he had found himself impatient to get out. There was just so much he had to get accomplished all of a sudden, and he hardly knew which way to turn first. He left the office at a slow, thoughtful pace. Should he go home, he wondered? He was rather concerned about what poor Mummymon would be doing back there; he wasn't quite sure he trusted the creature's ability to stay out of trouble. However, a glance at the sky told him that he didn't have a lot of daylight hours to waste. Winter was fast approaching, and the days were getting shorter. It would be sunset before he knew it, and with the darkness would come the demon...
*I won't waste time, then,* he decided. *The Hidas will miss me if I don't show up without telling them, but I won't put them in danger. I'll just have my visit and keep a careful eye on the sun. I'll leave as soon as it starts to set.*
With that settled in his mind, he picked up his pace, striding quickly in the direction of their apartment. When he got there, he was surprised to see Iori there ahead of him, looking a bit breathless.
"Someone in a hurry today?" Oikawa asked.
"Oh!" Iori exclaimed. "I didn't hear you coming."
"That's quite all right," answered Oikawa. "I wasn't expecting to see you here so early, anyway." Iori was looking at him thoughtfully. "You hurt yourself." "Hm? Oh, this," he said, looking down at his bandaged hand. "It's nothing. I was making dinner last night and had a little accident with a kitchen knife. So...What brings you home so early? Aren't you usually out playing with your friends this time of day?"
"I decided to sit today out," Iori replied. "Actually, I had something I wanted to talk to you about."
"Really? What kind of thing?"
"Well... I'd kind of rather talk about it inside," answered Iori.
At that moment, Mrs. Hida, hearing voices on her doorstep, came to see who was there.
"What are you two doing out here?" she asked.
"Just having a little conversation," Oikawa replied, "but I think we can safely adjourn it. How are you this evening?"
"Oh, just fine," she answered. "And what about you? You're looking particularly well today. Are those clothes new?"
"Actually, yes," said Oikawa, bowing his head modestly at the compliment. "I thought it was about time I'd replaced my old ones; half of them were nearly worn out."
"You have good taste. That color suits you," she answered, giving him a thoughtful look. "You know, it's amazing just how much you've changed since you first came here. I hardly recognize you anymore. You're a whole new person."
"I feel that way, sometimes. I suppose all I need to do now is get a haircut," he answered, self-consciously running a hand through his long hair.
"Oh, I don't know. Let me see, here..."
Mrs. Hida reached to pull the dark strands away from his face. Having her running her fingers through his hair set off that odd sensation again, one that was becoming more common when she was around, increasingly less alarming and more enjoyable. She gave him an evaluating look, and then let his hair fall back in place again.
"I sort of like it like this," she said. "It suits you."
"Well, perhaps for you, I won't cut it," he answered.
"Ahem," said Iori. The adults jumped and looked sheepish.
"Sorry, didn't mean to ignore you," said Oikawa. "Was there something you wanted to say?"
"I wanted to talk to you," Iori replied. "Privately, if you don't mind. It's important."
"Very well, then," Oikawa said. "Do you think the practice room is private enough?"
Iori considered that one, and nodded. "That will be fine."
They relocated, informing Mrs. Hida that they were not to be bothered for a while. Once safely alone, Iori settled down against a wall, resting his backpack on his lap. Oikawa sat down a few feet away and waited. Iori seemed to be having a hard time getting started.
"Is it that difficult?" Oikawa asked at last.
"I don't know where to begin," the boy confessed. "I don't want you to think I've been prying. I just found out some things about you, sort of by accident."
"What did you find?"
Iori took a deep breath. "I found out why Grandpa didn't want you talking to my dad anymore. You know, with the video games."
"Ah," he answered, looking distant.
"He said you claimed you saw another world, and other creatures. Digital Monsters, you called them."
"He told you that? He has a good memory," Oikawa replied. "I would have thought he'd forgotten the details about that. I suppose he really must have felt bad about it." He sighed a bit. "I suppose, objectively, I can't blame him for not believing us. I suppose think I'm a little crazy, dreaming up a story like that."
"No, I don't think you're crazy," Iori replied. "I believe you."
Oikawa was stunned. "What?"
"I believe you. I believe in the Digital World, and the Digimon," said Iori. "I believe you really did see them."
"Well... it's good of you to put so much trust in me, but..."
"I believe you because I've seen them," Iori interrupted.
"You... you have?"
"Yes. I've seen them, and I've been to the Digital World," said Iori. "That's where my friends and I go in the afternoons - to the Digital World."
"You can go there?" repeated Oikawa in a near-whisper. Suddenly his heartbeat felt to be about three times what it should be. "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
"Never," answered Iori. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. You've got to understand, the Digital World is so important to us. We wanted to keep it a secret until we were really sure we could trust you... but I thought you would want to know."
"All these years," Oikawa said quietly. "Ever since your father and I were children, we dreamed of finding a way into the Digital World. It was the thing that held us together. We promised each other that someday we would make it in, and explore it together. He died before we could make it happen, but..."
"You're still looking for the way in, aren't you?" asked Iori. "That's what the project is that you were talking about, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Oikawa. "I never gave up. I thought that even if Hiroki was gone, the least I could do was finish what we started together... but you've finished it for him, haven't you? You found the way in."
"Well, it was my friends who showed me first," answered Iori. "I'm still very new at this."
Oikawa shook his head, overcome by wonderment. "I just can't believe it. It doesn't seem possible... It all fits together too neatly."
"It's destiny," said Iori positively. Then, with one of his rare smiles, he said, "Mr. Oikawa, would you like meet a Digimon?"
"Would I? I can't think of many things I'd like more."
"Good. Because I have one that wants to meet you," Iori answered. "Come on out, Upamon."
Iori's backpack twitched, and a little yellow creature hopped out. It had a pair of shiny blue button-like eyes, a wide mouth, winglike ears, and not much else. It blinked a little at the changing light.
"Hi there!" he said, turning to look at Oikawa.
"Mr. Oikawa, I'd like you to meet my Digimon partner, Upamon," Iori said. "Upamon, meet Mr. Oikawa."
"Pleased to meet you!" Upamon said, hopping up to greet him.
"It's really real," said Oikawa faintly. "A genuine Digimon..."
"Sure am," Upamon replied. "Boy, am I glad I don't have to hide from you anymore. I get really tired of being cooped up."
"I'll bet you do," the man replied, still sounding a bit breathless. "How long has he been here?"
"As long as you've known me," Iori replied. "I had him in my pack the day we met. He's usually hanging around somewhere nearby, wherever I am. I even hide him in my desk at school. What do you think?"
"I think he's wonderful," Oikawa answered. He put out a hand to touch him, and then stopped himself. "Can I?"
"I don't mind," said Upamon, hopping closer to the half-extended hand.
Oikawa carefully reached out to him, and Upamon gave a half-turn, the better for the human to scratch behind his ears. Oikawa read the gesture and responded accordingly, and the little Digimon closed his eyes and sighed happily.
"I like this guy," he said.
Iori laughed a little; from the look on Oikawa's face, the feeling was mutual. He didn't think he'd ever seen such an expression of childlike delight on anyone before, much less this usually somber man.
"I'm glad you two like each other," he said. "It will make my life easier, that's for sure."
"So, your other friends... they all have Digimon, too?" asked Oikawa. "Like this one?"
"Not exactly like this one," Iori replied. "Each of us has something different. It's what makes us such a good team."
"I would like very much to meet them, if they're willing."
"They want to meet you, too," said Iori. "I told them I was going to tell you today about the Digimon. I wanted to take you into the Digital World today, too, but they said they didn't want anyone coming in unless we all agreed to it. They want you to come meet them tomorrow, so they can decide... but I know they'll say yes! I'm sure once they realize how important it is to you, they'll let you in, and then we can explore the Digital World together."
Oikawa looked up at him, and the boy was amazed to see tears standing in his eyes.
"That would be a dream come true," he said softly.
Iori smiled at him. "It will happen. You'll see."
"I hope so," Oikawa replied. "Could you tell me what it's like? The Digital World, I mean. If I can't get to go there today, I'd at least like to know..."
So Iori told him, describing in all the detail he could the wonderful world he protected and all the things he'd seen there. Oikawa listened, enthralled. He forgot about the passing of time, and when a brief wave of dizziness passed over him, he thought it was only the excitement taking its toll on him. He'd forgotten for the moment that there was anything in the world more important than hearing about the world he'd always longed to visit, and didn't even notice when the sun dropped inexorably below the horizon.
There had been some difficulty in escaping the Ichijouji residence. Ken had been certain that his parents would never allow him to go wandering around after dark, especially as sick as he supposedly was. In the end, he'd had to sneak out, moving as silently as he could and looking over his shoulder the whole time in case his parents should glance his way. He felt unbearably nervous, and he hated it. He hadn't been nervous since he'd begun his reign as emperor, and he didn't like starting again now. His one comfort was Wormmon perched on his shoulder, doing his best to offer silent support.
So now, here he was, standing on a street corner and watching the sun slip ever closer to the horizon.
"Are you still sure you want to go through with this?" asked Wormmon nervously.
"Of course I'm sure," said Ken, trying to sound positive. "I have to at least hear her out and find out if this is for real. If I don't like how her deal sounds, I'll leave."
"You've come this far," Wormmon said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You wouldn't have gone this far for something you didn't believe in."
"Humph. I'm just curious, that's all."
"You want the power back, don't you?"
"I can see it in your eyes. You're afraid of being left helpless without them. Ken, you shouldn't be afraid. The Emperor had power that nobody should be allowed to have. You're better off without that kind of power."
"So you say," answered Ken. "I'm not used to getting by without them, though. What am I supposed to do?"
"Whatever everyone else does," Wormmon answered. "What you did before. I'll help you."
"I'm sure," said Ken, a little sarcastically.
At that moment, there was a sound of slow footsteps, and Arukenimon came gliding around a corner and into view.
"There you are," she said. "Right on time. A little early, in fact. How nice."
"Can we hurry and get this over with?" said Ken irritably. He tried to keep his hands from shaking.
"No, we can't hurry," answered Arukenimon. "Nothing can be done before sunset."
"We can talk, can't we?" Ken replied.
"What is there to talk about? I have something you need. What could be simpler?"
"I'm not all that sure I want it," Ken replied. "There has to be a catch somewhere."
"Clever boy. Of course there's a catch; there's a price to pay for everything," she answered smoothly. "However, it's not one I think you'll be unwilling to pay. I simply need you to do a little favor for a friend of mine."
"Favor? What kind of favor?"
"He is a spirit," answered Arukenimon slowly. "Very powerful, but he cannot survive in this world very long without a human host. He is willing to share his power with you. The Spores that made you the Emperor were only a fraction of his true powers; now he is willing to make you his host, and share the full extent of them with you."
"So... let me get this straight," said Ken slowly. "You want me to host a spirit inside me, and in return...?"
"You will become greater than you have ever been before. Superhuman."
"If I agree, what will it do to me?" he asked. "Will it hurt me? Change my personality? What will it do to me, having this spirit inside?"
Arukenimon smiled. "Oh, I don't think you'll notice."
Wormmon whispered frantically in Ken's ear, "Ken, I don't think-"
"I'll do it," said Ken firmly.
The sun had set, and suddenly, darkness was upon him. He was drowning in shadows, like hot smoke that got in his lungs and choked him, and he was spinning dizzily. The smoke and fire was getting into his blood, filling him with a blazing heat. For a moment, he thought he was going to die, to burn up in this black fire. The flames coursed through him, making every nerve tingle. He didn't think he should be able to take it; his body had to break under that kind of strain. However, that feeling quickly passed as he realized that he could take it. This wasn't so bad - it was wonderful, euphoric. He'd never felt so wide-awake and alive, so completely capable. He thought he could run forever, outspeed the wind. As a matter of fact, it was hard to stop himself from trying, so energized did he feel. He laughed aloud, unable to contain his elation.
"How do you like it?" asked Arukenimon. "Is it what you wanted?"
"Perfect," he whispered. "This is perfect! I can do anything now!"
"I don't like this," Wormmon whimpered. "I don't like this at all..."
"Oh, bug off," said Ken, swatting him away. Wormmon tumbled to the ground, bouncing painfully on the pavement. "I don't need you; I'm fine on my own."
Wormmon cringed, not just because of the words or the disgusted tone they were spoken in, but because Ken's eyes were blazing crimson, his expression fixed in an insane grin. The boy made a brushing gesture, and blue sparks seemed to coalesce around him, solidifying into the imperial garb he'd worn as the Emperor. Wormmon stared, thinking, *That's... not possible...*
"Much better," Ken hissed, looking down at his gloved hands. "This is what I was always meant to be... unstoppable."
Cackling wildly, he sprinted up the street, his cloak streaming back behind him. He neared a building and jumped straight up, landing lightly on the roof. Wormmon continued to stare, saucer-eyed, as Ken whooped and laughed into the night.
"What did you do to him?" asked Wormmon.
"Me?" she answered innocently. "I didn't do anything. He chose that himself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting to keep, and certainly don't have time to talk to pathetic creatures like you."
She turned on her heel and stalked away, leaving Wormmon sitting alone on a bit of unfamiliar pavement to ponder his fate. He only pondered a moment, though; he knew his duty. With a wistful sigh, he scampered off to try to catch up with his master.
There was a knock on the door. Oikawa jumped; he'd forgotten there was anyone else around.
"Is everything all right in there?" asked Mrs. Hida.
"Everything is fine," he replied.
"Good. I just thought I'd check. You've been in there a while, and I was a little worried..."
"Have we been here this long?" he wondered. He glanced at his watch. "Goodness, so we have. I'd lost track of time. Looks like we'll have to continue this some other time, Iori."
"Tomorrow," said Iori. "Tomorrow you can see the real thing."
"I'll be looking forward to it," he answered. Oikawa got up to open the door and was met by Mrs. Hida.
"There you are," she said. "What on earth have you been doing in there?"
"We just started talking and lost track of time," said Iori.
"Really? What were you talking about?"
"It's a bit of a private matter," said Oikawa. "Between the two of us... Do you plan to tell them, Iori?"
Iori gave the matter due consideration. "I think I will... maybe after dinner?"
"Good idea. It's already on the table," said Mrs. Hida. "You are staying, aren't you, Mr. Oikawa?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Hida, but I'm afraid I can't," he replied. "I didn't mean to even stay this long. I have an important matter waiting for me back home, and it can't be ignored any longer."
"I see," she answered, sounding disappointed. "Another time, then?"
"You know I wouldn't leave if it wasn't important," said Oikawa. "I'll be back tomorrow night, I promise."
She smiled. "That's good. You know we miss you when you're not around."
"Believe me, if I could, I would spend all my time here," Oikawa replied. "Unfortunately, I have a friend depending on me at the moment, and I can't leave him hanging any more. Good night, Mrs. Hida. Good night, Iori."
He left the apartment and began walking home feeling for the most part that the world was a wonderful place to be. The last piece had fallen into place - never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined that the little boy he'd rescued would turn out to be the key to achieving his dream. He had met a Digimon - a genuine Digimon, not one of his own imitations - and tomorrow... tomorrow it would happen. After all these years of waiting, he was going to the Digital World! It was the answer to his prayers: not just to be able to go there, but to get there without anyone having to be hurt. He really hadn't wanted to hurt the Digidestined children...
Reality hit him like a thunderbolt. Before, he had been too enthralled by what he was seeing and hearing to think deeply about the implications. Now he realized the truth: if Iori was one of the Digidestined, then it meant that he was one of the children he'd been trying to kill! A sick sensation swept over him, forcing him to lean against a wall as he was rocked with a wave of revulsion.
*It almost happened,* he realized. *He could have died, and it would have been my fault. I almost killed him, Hiroki's son, my child... You knew it, didn't you, Vamdemon? You were laughing the whole time, weren't you. You knew I loved that boy like a son, and you knew you were tricking me into killing him...*
He stopped in mid-thought. Vamdemon... sunset... It was after sunset, and the demon was being suspiciously quiet. Was he still here, silently gloating, or...?
"All right, demon," he growled. "Where are you? Come out and show yourself!"
As if in answer, he caught a distant laugh riding on the evening wind. Oikawa looked up, startled. That was not Vamdemon's voice, but it was terribly familiar. Part of his brain started jumping around telling the other parts they had better get with the program and remember what they were hearing, because it didn't sound good.
Just then, there was a rush, and something impossible happened. A human boy dropped down from the top of a building and landed lightly on his feet, crouching for a moment like a beast before straightening. His eyes glowed redly in the dark.
"You again," he hissed. "I thought it was you."
"Ken?" Oikawa exclaimed, thunderstruck. "But... but how? What's going on?"
Ken began advancing slowly on him, his footfalls eerily silent.
"You wanted to take my power away from me, didn't you?" he said, his voice low and deadly. "You wanted it all for yourself..."
"No, Ken, it wasn't like that!"
"Don't lie to me. I know all about you. You tried to take what is rightfully mine, and now you are going to be punished."
Oikawa didn't reply. He couldn't, because at that moment Ken had rammed his fist into Oikawa's stomach. No frail little boy should have had the strength to do any lasting harm to a man twice his height and weight, but Oikawa found himself being driven backwards, choking for air as his diaphragm seized up. He staggered and slumped against a wall, struggling to breathe. Ken grinned wickedly, cupping his hands in front of him. Lights formed between his palms, and with a final cry, he threw them across the alley and let them slam into his enemy. Oikawa was instantly overcome with burning pains, and he cried out in agony. Ken stared, looking from his hands to his target and back again.
"Did I do that?" he asked aloud. He threw back his head and laughed maniacally. "This is getting better all the time! I want a better target than you. Lie here and die, thief - it's all you deserve."
Oikawa struggled to say something, but his injuries were too much for him. He slumped to the ground with a groan. The world was going dark, but he could hear distant echoes of the emperor laughing, and the occasional boom of an explosion.
*Got to warn someone...* thought Oikawa desperately. *I have to...*
He couldn't. The pain and shock was too much for him, and he slumped quietly into unconsciousness.
Sometime later, he awoke to the peculiar sensation of being tickled. Disoriented, he tried to move, and immediately regretted it as suppressed pain flared up again. He winced.
"Are you all right?" asked a little voice in his ear.
Startled, he turned to see, of all strange things, a large green caterpillar sitting on his shoulder.
"I'm fine," he managed, carefully pushing himself upright. That was more or less true; he felt bruised and battered all over, but nothing seemed to be seriously damaged. "Where did Ken go?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that," said the caterpillar.
Oikawa turned to look at him, trying to get his thoughts in order. "You're a Digimon... You must be Ken's partner. Wormmon, isn't it?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"I know a lot of things," answered Oikawa vaguely. "Unfortunately, they aren't doing me much good... or anyone else for that matter."
"Do you know what happened to Ken?" Wormmon asked.
"I have a pretty good idea," the man replied. "The demon's gotten tired of me... He's gone looking for a more willing servant." He sighed and began searching his coat pockets. "Precious little the two of us can do about it. We're going to have to call for help."
Wormmon blinked; this human was turning out to be a lot more confusing than he'd expected him to be. Then again, most of his knowledge about humans came from Ken, who was usually a little confusing anyway. He decided to just be thankful this stranger seemed to be willing to help him.
"Who are we going to call?" he asked.
"The Digidestined. Who else?"
Oikawa found his cell phone and punched in a familiar number. After a few rings, the telephone was answered by Chikara Hida.
"Good evening. Hida residence."
"Yes, good evening, this is Mr. Oikawa."
"Ah, hello! Did you forget something?"
"As a matter of fact, I did," answered Oikawa, grateful to have been provided with a reason for calling. "Could I speak to Iori please? It's rather important."
"I'll get him. One moment." There was a sound of the phone being put down, and then a long silence. Oikawa tried not to fidget. After a few moments, a child's voice spoke.
"Mr. Oikawa?" he said uncertainly.
"Yes. Iori, there's something going on down here you need to know," said Oikawa. "I'm not sure how to explain this, but... the Digimon Emperor is on a rampage here in the real world."
"The... what?" Iori yelped. He was stunned; he'd never even mentioned the Digimon Emperor, thinking it was something his friend would rather not hear about. "But - but how do you know? I never told you!"
"There are things I never told you, either," Oikawa replied. "I promise I will explain it all as soon as possible. "Right now, the important thing is that someone finds Ken and stops him before he hurts someone, or himself. He already attacked me and left me for dead, and he said he was going to look for more interesting targets - whatever that means."
Iori mulled this information over, but quickly decided that it was going to take more thinking than he had time for to get it to all make sense. He settled for asking, "Where are you now?"
Oikawa gave his location, and Iori jotted it down.
"Got it," he said. "I'm on my way. I'll call the others and meet you there."
Without even bothering to say goodbye, he hung up the receiver. Oikawa put his own phone away.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Wormmon.
"Now," Oikawa answered. "We wait. There isn't much else we can do."
He tried to settle himself more comfortably against the cold wall, grateful for his customary heavy coat. Not only was it keeping him partially warm, but it seemed to have taken some of the blast that was aimed at him. The whole front of it was scorched, but he didn't feel any worse than bruised. He would probably be terribly sore tomorrow, but it could have been a lot worse.
It appeared Iori's organizational skills were good, because it was only a few minutes before he heard the sound of pounding footsteps, and five children with assorted animals came dashing and bounding into the alley. He noticed vaguely that Upamon seemed to be missing, and that Iori was instead accompanied by what appeared to be a large yellow armadillo. The others were being followed by such oddities as a flying hamster, a cat in gloves, an eagle in a headband, and a small blue dragon.
*Evolution,* he thought vaguely. Ordinarily he would have been fascinated, but now didn't seem to be the time for questions... at least, not the time for him to be asking them, anyway. There seemed to be quite a few for him to answer, though.
"Mr. Oikawa!" Iori shouted, dashing to his side. "Are you all right?"
"I'll live," he answered tersely. "I'm not the one you need to be worrying about."
"All right," said a blonde-haired boy. "What's all this about the Digimon Emperor? You say he's here? I didn't even think that was possible."
"Well, something musta happened," said a boy wearing goggles. "This guy looks kinda roughed up."
"I have a lot of explaining to do, it seems," said Oikawa grimly. "Yes, Ken has found a way to bring his persona of the Digimon Emperor into the real world, but there's more going on than that."
"Back up!" said a purple-haired girl in glasses. "Just hold up one second! How do you know so much about Ken and the Emperor and all that? And what are you doing with his Digimon?"
"Consider me looking after him until Ken comes back to his senses," Oikawa answered.
"And the rest of it?" Iori prompted.
Oikawa looked at the boy and was met by the full intensity of those stern green eyes. He sighed deeply.
"I suppose I owe it to you all to tell you," he said. "So much of what has happened has been my fault. Most of it - probably all of it never would have happened if it weren't for me." He closed his eyes, bowing his head in shame. "I didn't want to tell you, Iori. I was afraid of losing your trust. I thought I could make it all go away, and you would never have to know. Instead, I seem to have made it worse."
"I would like an explanation, please," said Iori quietly.
"All right," he answered. He took a deep breath. "All right. I'll tell it from the beginning. You know already that your father and I learned of the Digital World when we were children, and we made a pledge that someday we would find a way into it. I told you, too, that even after Hiroki died, I continued searching. What I didn't tell you was that I had help. I suppose some of you still remember the Highton View Terrace incident."
"I remember something about that, yes," said the girl with the cat Digimon dryly.
"Ahem. Yes. That night was a difficult one for me. That was the night everyone could see the Digital World. It was so close, and yet I still couldn't reach it... It hurt me so much to see others going where I longed to go and couldn't. That was when I heard the voice. A voice spoke to me, promising that if I would help it, it would teach me what I needed to know. I agreed. I had no idea what I was agreeing to at the time... I admit, I probably wouldn't have even cared, at that point. I thought life had nothing left to offer me; nothing mattered anymore. I didn't care who got hurt or even if I destroyed myself. I think I knew, deep down, that even if I did achieve my goal, it would mean nothing if I was still alone. Thus I succumbed to the powers of darkness."
"What was the voice?" asked the blonde boy.
"A demon," answered Oikawa. "He called himself Vamdemon."
There were gasps and mutters from the children; the cat Digimon gave a hiss of distaste.
"So you've been harboring Vamdemon?" asked the girl with the cat. "He must have been trying to use you to help him get back to the Digital World... if he could make it back there, he would be able to regenerate."
Oikawa shrugged. "I don't know. He never told me what he wanted. I didn't care. He told me other things, though, like how to create the Dark Spores."
"Dark Spores?" repeated the girl in glasses.
"Seeds of darkness," Oikawa answered. "Darkness and dark power. They feed off of human suffering and anger - all the worst emotions of our kind. Planted inside a human being, they will give that person incredible strength, reflexes, and intelligence. However, as they grow, they slowly take over their host, turning them into a cold, cruel monster."
"So, you're trying to tell us you made Ken the Emperor?" asked the boy in goggles. "Man! And all this time I thought he was just being a jerk."
"I'm afraid I have to take the blame for that," Oikawa replied. "I have it on good authority that he was nothing more than a quiet, gentle boy before we had the misfortune to meet. I found him at his brother's funeral, looking so lost and frightened... He had been there when his brother died, and believed it was his fault. I knew that pain and guilt would make him the perfect host for the Dark Spores."
"And what good was that supposed to do?" asked the purple-haired girl. "I thought you wanted to get into the Digital World, not go around creating evil geniuses."
"He had his uses. He created the Spires for us. The Control Spires blocked the energy flow of the Digital World. The more he put in place, the more the world's defenses were weakened and the more easily we could crack through them. That was the theory, anyway. But if that didn't work, there was a backup plan. The Spores themselves are powerful, and would have been growing more so the longer they fed off of him. In the event that he had been defeated and the Spires made defunct, our plan was to harvest the Spores and use their power to open a gate."
"I suppose your plan has gone wrong," said the blonde boy, glaring fiercely at him.
"No!" said Oikawa. "The plan did not go wrong. Something entirely different happened. I gave up."
"Sure," said the girl in glasses. "That's why we've been fighting with Ken for I don't know how many months now. Probably why he's running around loose down here... or so you say. I haven't seen him yet."
"I think you ought to let Mr. Oikawa finish talking before you pass judgement," a quiet voice said.
"Thank you, Iori," said Oikawa. "It took me a long time to realize how far wrong I'd gone, and how to get back. It isn't an easy thing, changing your life. I barely knew it was happening at first... He started it," he added, nodding to Iori. "He was the one who invited me into his home and reintroduced me to a life I thought I'd lost forever. He was the one who made me think that maybe there was something worth living for, after all. I began to think about what I was doing and realizing that I really didn't want to see anyone hurt. It didn't matter anymore if I couldn't get to the Digital World if I had something that mattered to me in this world. So just yesterday, I went to Ken's home and removed the Dark Spores."
"That would explain why he didn't show up today," said the quieter girl thoughtfully.
"But it doesn't explain why he says the Emperor is still running around," said the boy in goggles, looking suspicious.
"He doesn't have the Spores anymore," said Oikawa. "He has something much worse. You see, the demon knew I was hesitating. I believe he, like the Dark Spores themselves, feeds off pain and despair. When he found me, I was a perfect source of such things. Once I started getting myself under control again, he began losing his source of power. I believe he's left me in search of a more amicable host."
"You mean..." The blonde boy looked stunned. "You mean Vamdemon is inside Ken right now, and they're running around blowing things up?"
"Well, this wasn't done by an ordinary human being," said Oikawa, brushing at his ruined coat. A few charred threads fell away.
"Um," said the boy. "That's a point."
"There's something not right about him," said Wormmon, entering the conversation for the first time. "His eyes were glowing."
"Yep, that definitely counts as weird," the boy with goggles said. "So, what do you say, guys? Think we'd better hunt him and that vampire-dude down before they blow up a skyscraper or something?"
"That depends on whether we believe this guy or not," said the blonde boy.
"I believe him," said Iori.
"Well, of course you believe him," said the girl in glasses. "You like him."
"I believe him because I don't see any reason for him to be lying," answered Iori. "I have seen a change in him since I met him; he isn't what he was before. He wouldn't be telling us all this now if he didn't want to be truthful with us. If he just wanted us to trust him, he wouldn't say anything to make us suspicious. And he wouldn't attack himself - someone must have done this to him. And you're right, Miyako. I do believe Mr. Oikawa because he is my friend. Even if he has made some mistakes, he's still my friend."
Oikawa bowed his head, blinking as if to hold back tears. "Thank you, Iori. Thank you very much."
"I think Iori's probably right," said the quiet girl. "Mr. Oikawa wouldn't be the first good person to fall for Vamdemon's lies... and I know people like that can still turn out right. Mr. Oikawa, I'm Hikari Yagami. I'm glad you're willing to help us now."
"Eh, we all make mistakes," said the boy in goggles. "Not that that wasn't a really big mistake, but... Hey, we'll handle it! I'm Daisuke Motomiya. I'm the leader!"
"No, you're not," said the blonde boy. "This is a team effort. Anyway, I'm Takeru Takaishi. Nice to meet you."
"And I'm Miyako Inoue," the girl in glasses finished. "There. Now we're all introduced. Can we go look for Ken now?"
"Good idea," said Takeru. "Though I'm not really sure how we're going to find him. We've stood here talking so long, he could have gone anywhere - even back to the Digital World."
"I hope not," said Oikawa. "He's got to be kept out at all costs. Once he gets there, Vamdemon will have no more need of him. He'll be free to reconstitute himself, and then..."
"I don't even want to think about it," said Hikari with a shudder.
"You're going to have to be very careful," Oikawa warned them. "At the moment, I don't think Ken is even completely human anymore. He's incredibly dangerous... and not quite sane, I don't think. Ken was powerful to begin with, just by virtue of being a Digidestined. I'm not sure what having the demon inside will do to him."
"So what do we do?" asked Miyako.
"Your best bet is just to find him and keep him busy. Vamdemon loses power as the sun rises; you'll be more able to get him under control then."
"Great," said Takeru, looking grim. "Sounds like we've got a long, hard night ahead of us, folks."
"Aw, man," Daisuke muttered. "I didn't even get my afternoon nap... Huh?" He looked up suddenly, as if a noise had caught his attention. "What was that?"
"What was what?" asked Miyako. "I didn't hear anything."
"I didn't hear it, I saw it," Daisuke replied. "Something moving... up there!"
He pointed to the rooftops above them, and everyone looked. The sky was pitch black, with only a few tiny stars peeking through. There was no sign of anything moving.
"You're imagining things," Miyako scoffed.
"I don't think so," said Oikawa, frowning up at the sky. "Watch yourselves."
Slightly unnerved, the group began instinctively began shuffling closer together, nervously looking at the sky. Something did seem to be moving up there, faintly outlined by the streetlights, making the stars blink in and out as it passed by. Suddenly, it leaped, dropping several stories toward the ground, and Miyako shrieked and covered her eyes, certain whoever it was would splatter at the bottom of the drop. However, he landed lightly on his feet, his robe settling around him like folding wings. Ken leered at them all through his weirdly glowing eyes.
"I thought I sensed you here," he said. "I could almost smell you... So, you're ganging up on me now? As if that would help!"
"Hey, just take it easy, Ken," said Daisuke soothingly. "We aren't looking for trouble, really!"
"Oh, aren't you?" Ken said, laughing derisively. "You were looking the trouble the instant you set foot in my domain. Especially you! Making a fool of me in public. I didn't make you suffer nearly enough for that..." He looked up, as if just then noticing the rest of them. He spotted Oikawa and narrowed his eyes. "And you're still alive? I must remedy that. All of you will die tonight."
"No, Master, please don't," Wormmon begged. "You're not thinking straight - this isn't what you really want."
"Shut up!" Ken snapped. "Sticking up for these worthless peons! You've been on their side all this time, haven't you? You never wanted me to take over - you're just like everyone else, trying to keep me down! Well, I have news for you! No one will ever hold me back again. I can do anything now." He laughed, curling his hands in front of him like claws. "It's better this way - better that I destroy you here and now. I don't need slaves anymore - I can rip you apart with my own bare hands!"
"No!" Oikawa shouted.
Ken sprang, leaping like an animal into their midst - but surprisingly, Oikawa was quicker. He threw himself between the emperor and the children and took the first hit. It was enough to throw him back against the wall, and there was a cracking noise. The children scattered, but the Digimon stood their ground.
"You can't do that to him!" Armadimon exclaimed. "Iori, help me!"
Without knowing what he was doing, Iori reached for his Digivice and held it up. It started glowing brilliantly as he touched it, and Ken cringed away from the light. Armadimon, though, was drawn to it, and it to him, surrounding him in a glowing nimbus.
"That's more like it!" he said. "Armadimon, Digivolve to... Ankylomon!"
There were yelps of surprise. The road now seemed to be blocked off by a huge yellow dinosaur with a spiked shell and a heavy, club-tipped tail.
"Whoa!" said Miyako. "Did I know he could do that?"
"I guess it's because we're in the real world," said Takeru. "There aren't any Spires to keep our Digimon from evolving!"
"Awesome!" said Daisuke. "Let me try next!"
"But Daisuke, we're not supposed to be trying to kill him," said Hikari. "We're just supposed to be keeping him busy!"
"Well, our Digimon will be less likely to be hurt if they're at the Champion level!" Daisuke replied. "Come on, V-mon! Show me what you've got!"
He held up his Digivice, making it shoot a beam of blue light at V-mon.
"All right, this is cool!" V-mon cheered. "V-mon, digivolve to... XV-mon!"
"Do you want to try, too, Miyako?" asked Hawkmon.
"You bet! I'm not letting the guys have all the fun," Miyako replied. She held up her D-3, letting it shine red. "Go for it, Hawkmon!"
"Hawkmon, digivolve to... Aquilamon!"
"I'm impressed," said Takeru, looking at the three giant beasts that were now looming over him. "How about you, Patamon? Feel up to it!"
"You bet! Being Angemon is fun!"
Takeru laughed in spite of himself. "All right, then! Show Ken what you're really all about!"
"You got it, Takeru! Patamon, digivolve to... Angemon!"
Throughout the transformations, Ken did nothing but stand and watch, grinning broadly. Even now, when he had assorted deadly creatures looking down at him, he seemed to be merely amused.
"Champions? Champions? Is that the best you can do?" he sneered. He beckoned to them casually. "Bring it on. Let's see what you've got!"
"You got it!" XV-mon shouted back. "Let's see how you deal with this! V Laser!"
He fired a blast of energy at Ken, who leaped gracefully out of the way. The blast hit a patch of pavement and turned it into a smoking pothole. The emperor twisted in midair and performed a swift motion with his hands. Suddenly he was holding a whip - not the one he usually carried, but one that glowed as red as his eyes. It flashed across the air in a crimson blur, striking XV-mon and nearly throwing him off his feet. XV-mon struggled to recover himself while Ken dropped to earth again, laughing.
"What the heck?" Takeru exclaimed.
"That's Vamdemon's attack!" said Hikari. "Okay, I'm starting to not like this now. If Ken can do even half of what Vamdemon could do..."
"We can still kick his rear," Daisuke completed. "Come on, XV-mon, pull yourself together and fight back!"
"Daisuke, don't be crazy!" Takeru said. "Vamdemon was an Ultimate, one of the nastiest ones we ever met. It took a whole slew of other Ultimates to take him down the first time. Five Champions aren't going to do it now!"
"I won't accept that!" said Iori. "We aren't going to lose now! Ankylomon!"
Ankylomon didn't bother with wasting words. He swung his tail-hammer at the Emperor, trying to make him back off. Instead, Ken caught it, blocking the blow as if it weighed hardly anything. Before Ankylomon could react, he found himself being pulled off his feet and thrown into the side of a building. All around, lights were starting to come on as people realized something exceptional was going on outside. There were distant noises of people screaming. Ken produced his light-whip again, forcing the Digimon to scatter out of his way; Aquilamon had to lift Miyako off the ground by her collar to get her clear of its path. Angemon threw bolts of glowing light down at Ken, who only dodged them with incredible speed and retaliated with balls of crimson light. Angemon dodged, but not fast enough; one energy ball clipped one of his wings and made him fall. Aquilamon made a desperate dive attack, trying to force the Emperor down, only to find himself wrapped by the whip and slammed into the pavement.
"Stop it! Stop hurting them!" Gatomon cried, rage blazing in her eyes. She leaped at Ken, moving like a bolt of white lightning. Even his superhuman reflexes weren't enough to save him from being clawed across one arm, and he hissed in pain.
"How dare you?" he snarled, his voice low and dangerous. It didn't sound like his own voice anymore; but someone so much older and more deadly. "How dare you face me again, you treacherous little wretch? Are you happy, playing house pet to some silly little human girl?"
"I'm a lot happier with her than I was with you, Vamdemon!" she shouted defiantly.
"Is that so? How happy would you be if I sent you to join your old friend Wizardmon?" he retorted. "Yes, I still remember the day he died. He was such a fool. His death was too quick and easy; for betrayal like that, I should have drawn it out."
"Monster!" Gatomon shrieked. "Don't you dare talk about him like that!"
She flung herself at him in a blind rage. The demon-Ken smirked, throwing back his cloak, and streams of shrieking bats flew out at her. She cried out as she felt them biting at her with their sharp fangs, and she slashed desperately, trying to defend herself. The effort was too much for her; she dropped to the ground in a motionless heap of fur. Ken laughed, his voice oscillating from his own to the demon's and back again.
"Too easy," he hissed. "All of you at once weren't a challenge. More... I need more."
He turned, holding up the dark Digivice and letting it throw out a beam of deep indigo light. It seemed to focus itself into a cloud of sparks, which slowly shaped themselves into a glowing portal.
"If you want to follow me, I'll be in the Digital World!" he shouted. He sprang through the portal and vanished.
Takeru stared, his face glazed with shock. "I didn't think he was allowed to do that."
"Master!" Wormmon shouted. "Ken, don't go in there! Come back!" He scrambled towards the light and leaped through after his partner.
"We've got to go after him!" Daisuke shouted. "Come on, XV-mon!"
"Right behind you, Daisuke!" the dragon replied.
"I have a bad feeling about this," said Takeru, following resolutely behind his friend.
One by one, the other Digidestined and their partners jumped through the glowing hole. Soon, only Iori was left lingering, looking at Oikawa, who was still slumped on the ground.
"Don't just stand there," said Oikawa. "Get going!"
"Don't worry about me! I'll be fine," he answered. "Save the world and worry about me later. Just go!"
"I'll come back," he said. Then, he too was gone. The portal shrunk behind him and closed.
Breathing heavily, Oikawa hauled himself to his feet. There was a stabbing pain in his side; he thought he might have cracked a rib or two, but now was not the time to worry about it.
*They are in danger for real, now,* he thought. *There's got to be a way for me to help... Iori's family - they'll need to know. It's time I confessed to them, too.*
Moving at a slow, careful hobble, clutching at the ache in his side, he started towards the Hida's apartment.
The Hidas were nervous. They had every right to be, after all. One minute, Iori had been quietly doing his homework. Then he'd gotten a telephone call from Mr. Oikawa, and suddenly he had grabbed his pack and gone running out of the apartment without even an explanation as to where he had gone. Neither of them had ever seen a display like that out of the normally calm child, and they were unsure what to make of it. Therefore, when they heard an impatient knocking on the front door, both of them jumped to answer it. It was just as well; as soon as they opened the door, Oikawa nearly fell in, and they both had to move quickly to catch him.
"Mr. Oikawa!" Mrs. Hida exclaimed. "What on earth happened?"
"Attacked," he said hoarsely. "Please... can I sit down?"
They helped him make his way to a kitchen chair, where he collapsed and tried to catch his breath.
"Thank you," he said. "It's been a difficult night."
"Where is Iori?" asked Chikara sharply. "Wasn't he supposed to be with you?"
"He was all right last I saw him," answered Oikawa. "Where he is... that's going to be difficult to explain."
"Could someone please tell me what is going on?" asked Mrs. Hida faintly.
"I can try," said Oikawa. "I don't think you're going to believe it... but you ought to know..."
"Could I hazard a guess?" asked Chikara slowly.
"Does this have something to do with the Digital World?"
Oikawa nodded. "I didn't want to say it myself. I didn't think you'd believe me... You do believe me, don't you?"
"I've had my suspicions for a while," Chikara replied. "Probably longer than you would think. I wouldn't have thought anything of Hiroki spinning wild tales, but you were always an honest child... I had to wonder why you would insist on something so unbelievable unless it were true. I always wondered if I had made a mistake. Then, when Iori started showing an interest in the story, it all came back to me. So... there really is a Digital World, then?"
"And that's where Iori is right now?"
"I believe so."
"And what happened to you? Where did you get mixed up in this?"
"It's a long story," said Oikawa. "What's important now is this: Iori and his friends have gone to the Digital World in pursuit of a demon creature called Vamdemon. It has taken possession of a young boy, and they're trying to save them."
"Is Iori in danger?" asked Mrs. Hida querulously.
"I'm afraid that's a definite possibility."
"Oh, no..." She covered her face with her hands. Oikawa got up to try to comfort her, ignoring the fact that it set off the pain in his side to do so.
"Don't worry," he said soothingly. "Iori is strong. He can take care of himself... and he has his friends protecting him. And his Digimon partner. I haven't seen much of the Digimon yet, but I've seen enough to know they're all fierce fighters. They'll do anything they can to keep those children safe."
"This is so confusing," she said. "I can't believe I'm listening to you two talking about monsters and other worlds... How am I supposed to believe this? What am I supposed to do?"
"I'm not sure any of us know what to do in a situation like this," Chikara answered. "All we can do now is trust in Iori and his friends."
She shook her head hopelessly. "There has to be something..."
"I agree," said Oikawa. "There should be something. If only there was a way to get to him, I might be able to help."
"How did the children get in?" asked Chikara.
"Through a Digital Gate," Oikawa replied. "Something I've never really had any success with... though... I haven't been actively trying for a long time. Hm."
"You mean, you know how to open a gate to... this other place?" asked Mrs. Hida.
"In theory," he answered, frowning as he thought. "I might be able to do it, if I had a strong enough power source, and if it was in the right place... Unfortunately, the only place I know of suitable for opening such a gate is miles from here."
"What are these places you're talking about?" asked Chikara. "How would you recognize one?"
"That's just the problem. I couldn't," said Oikawa. "They would appear just like any other place. The only difference is that the barrier between this world and the Digital World is thinner there, easier to break through..."
Suddenly, a lightbulb went off in his head, and he sat up with a start.
"What?" asked Mrs. Hida.
"I know where one is," he said.
"In there," Oikawa replied, pointing. They looked in the direction he was indicating. Some feet away, they could see the door to Iori's room, still ajar from when he'd made his speedy exit.
"Are you sure?" asked Mrs. Hida.
"Of course I'm sure," said Oikawa. "I saw it with my own eyes, back when I was a boy. Hiroki and I used to play in that very room. That's where we first saw the Digimon... No wonder Iori was chosen; he's been living on top of a Digital Gateway all this time. It must be practically in his blood."
"So you think you can open a Gate right here?" asked Chikara.
"It's possible," Oikawa answered. "But I'll need the right equipment - my laptop... and some other things... which are unfortunately still in my apartment."
"How are you going to get there? You can barely even walk," Mrs. Hida said.
"No, but I may not need to," he answered. "Could someone get me a phone, please?"
He was presented with a cordless phone, and he dialed his home phone number. Hopefully Mummymon would have the sense to answer. He could pick up the laptop and the storage unit for the Dark Spores and carry them across the network in the blink of an eye. However, the phone rang and rang without being answered.
*Where is he?* Oikawa wondered. *I hope nothing has happened. If he's done something desperate...*
He pushed that thought out of his mind; his primary concern now was keeping Iori and the other children safe, if he could.
"There's no one home," he said, hanging up the phone.
"Should there have been?" asked Chikara. "I was under the impression you lived alone."
"I do," Oikawa answered, "but I have... had... assistants, two half-Digimon who used to help me on the project. You've heard me mentioning them before. One of them was supposed to be there, but now he's gone. I'm a bit worried... Well, never mind that. I need those materials. I'll have to go back and get them myself."
"You aren't walking all that way," said Mrs. Hida sternly.
"I have to. I'm the only one who knows what to look for or where to find it," he replied. "Not only that, but... my cohorts are not the safest of creatures, and one or both of the could be in my home now, for all I know. You wouldn't be safe around them. It has to be me who goes. I can manage."
He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring both the pain and the disapproving look he got.
"I'll be back soon," he replied. "Don't worry."
As quickly as he could manage, he hurried out the door.
It was night in the Digital World, a perfect black night spangled with thousands of silvery stars. Unfortunately, nobody was in any state to appreciate it. Ken shot through the opening at full throttle, his cloak streaming out behind him. For a while, he just ran for the fun of running, of being able to move with the wind, out here in all this beautiful darkness without so much as a street light to bother him. However, it was going to get boring soon, if someone didn't show up to challenge him...
"What are you doing out here?" demanded an imperious voice.
Ken skidded to a halt, looking for the source of the sound. His eyes narrowed as he spotted the lady in red who stood glaring at him a short distance away.
"Oh, it's you," he said dismissively. "What are you doing here?"
"Keeping an eye on you," she replied. "You are not behaving at all the way I'd hoped. I thought you were supposed to be destroying the Digidestined, and here I find you playing games. How disgraceful. If I didn't know why the Master chose you..."
"Master?" said Ken. He gave a derisive sniff. "How dare you. I am the only master here."
"Oh, really? Have you forgotten your bargain already?" she replied. "Or do you not understand that your power is not your own?"
"What are you talking about?" Ken answered. "Of course my..."
That was as far as he got. A sudden glazed expression came over him, and he choked, finding it difficult to breathe. His hands made vague clutching motions, grasping at the empty air as if searching for something to hold on to, but to no avail. His knees buckled, and he dropped to the ground. He was vaguely able to process the fact that he was kneeling on the cold earth, with Arukenimon smirking down at him. Then he collapsed altogether, unable to hold himself up any longer. He gave a drawn out shudder, and something began rising off of him like steam. It coalesced into a shadow darker than the night's blackness, a shadow that grew steadily more solid until it was identifiable as a humanoid shape, though still distinctly inhuman. A faint nimbus of purplish light hovered around his outlines, giving him a ghostly appearance, but he could not have been a ghost, as he took a long breath of night air and let it out again in a sigh.
"Finally," he said. "I have returned."
"So I see," said Arukenimon flatly. She was evaluating this newcomer. He was not quite what she had expected. She hadn't been thinking he would be anything so human in appearance, yet here he was, distinguishable only from a human man in the subtlest of ways - slight differences in height and proportions, a strange greyish cast to his skin, the pointed shape of his ears, and the fangs that glittered as he spoke. "You are Vamdemon, lord of the undead?"
"Almost," he said. He was staring down at his hands, looking faintly bothered. "This is not good enough. For all that was done to him, there was still too much goodness in the boy's soul to nourish me properly. I still need more..."
"Is that so?" asked Arukenimon. "That's not how you talked last time we met. You said you would have this world under your control in no time, and look at you! You're practically a ghost!"
He glared at her, and she felt the icy force of his gaze hit her like a slap. "I would not speak in that tone of voice if I were you."
"Oh?" she said. "I think you owe me a little politeness yourself. After all, I brought you the boy. I did help you get here."
"Ah, yes, so you did," he answered. She stared at him suspiciously; his tone had gone from threatening to jovial far too swiftly. "I believe we agreed that you would be rewarded for helping me. Is that not so?"
"That's right," she said. "I suppose you're going to tell me I have to wait until after you finish taking over, hm?"
"Oh, no, I don't think so," he answered smoothly. "As a matter of fact, I think I can arrange for you to receive your just reward right now."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. You see... there are several roads to power. One is to leech the powers of darkness from unsuspecting humans like this pathetic creature," answered Vamdemon, shooting a glare at Ken's unmoving form. "Another is to take their life's blood from them. I shall see to that shortly. Yet another is to take the powers of another Digimon as my own. That is the rule of this world - energy can always be drawn by those who have the ability, and given by those who have the desire. You, my dear lady, have all the powers of an Ultimate Digimon, and the blood of a human in your veins. That makes you an ideal candidate to help me regain my strength."
He was advancing on her now, and she started looking around for a place to retreat. "You... you don't mean..."
"You are going to help me rule both worlds," he said silkily. "There can be no greater reward than that. Think on that while you're dying."
His hand lashed out faster than the eye could follow and caught her by the wrist. He didn't feel ghostly at all; he still had that same bone-crushing grip she remembered so well. Now she fought with all her strength to escape, but she couldn't move any more than she could have if her hand had been sealed in concrete. He pulled her closer to him, and she struggled frantically to get away. A wrench of his hand made something snap, and she gasped in shock as screaming pains ran up her arm.
"Hold still," he said. She felt his icy breath brushing her throat. "It will all be over in a moment."
She froze, beyond panicking, locked into a helpless state of knowing she was about to die, that there was nothing left she could do to save herself and that no one was going to save her. There was only one person in the world who would have ever stood up for her, and she had already made sure he would never want anything to do with her again...
The quiet of the night was split by a cracking sound, and Arukenimon felt her captor flinch as something snapped across his face like a whip, momentarily stunning him. At the same time, another streamer of fabric wrapped around one of his arms, jerking hard enough that his grip was loosened.
"Arukenimon, move!" a voice ordered. "I'll keep him busy!"
She moved. She wrestled wildly and managed to wrench free of Vamdemon's grip, running as fast as she could into she shadows, her breath coming in sharp gasps as every step sent shooting pains through her broken arm. She made it as far as the dubious shelter of some trees before looking back to check on the situation. Vamdemon was rubbing at an angry red mark left by the whiplash, one arm still bound by a strip of cloth. Holding on to the other end was a lanky, bandage-wrapped figure who was glaring menacingly at Vamdemon through a single golden eye.
"So," said Vamdemon. He jerked his arm, and the bandage snapped and disintegrated. "You've decided to turn traitor, have you?"
Mummymon shook his head. "I'm no traitor. I'm loyal to the same people I've always been loyal to."
"Not a traitor?" repeated Vamdemon, sounding amused. "Do you know what I did to the last person who said that to me?"
"I don't care. You hurt my Arukenimon, and I won't stand for that."
Vamdemon laughed. "Oh, this is just too droll - he thinks he's going to fight me. Going to challenge me over your fair lady, Mummymon? Don't make me laugh. You were always pathetic, do you know that? From the day you were created, I knew you were going to turn out wrong. All those simpering ideals of love and loyalty... you never could be convinced to be completely evil. I suppose that's what comes of using flawed materials; Oikawa himself had the same weaknesses. Well, you see now who has come out the winner, don't you? Your master tried to cross me; now he lies beaten and dying in an alley. As for your beloved - you know what this little stunt is going to do, don't you? Nothing. Even if you defeat me, you'll still lose. She'll never love you, Mummymon. She doesn't know the meaning of the word. Even if you save her a thousand times over, she'll never love you. How could she? A weak, pathetic creature like you... it's no wonder she despises you."
"I don't care," said Mummymon softly. "I don't care if she loves me or not. I still love her, and I am going to protect her from you if it's the last thing I ever do!"
"So be it," Vamdemon replied. "I'll destroy you and steal your powers as well. Begin!"
With a flick of his wrists, he produced a pair of glowing red energy whips, and Mummymon hefted his gun and fired. Arukenimon stared as the two of them began their battle in a blaze of red and white lights.
*What in the world is he doing?* she wondered. *Why doesn't he get out of here? He's going to get himself killed. Doesn't the fool realize that?*
She looked at him. Somehow, not even she could believe he looked foolish now; he looked nothing but coldly furious and grimly determined. She couldn't put her finger on what it was, but something seemed to have changed about him since the last time she'd seen him; some shade of innocence or ignorance had been torn away, somehow leaving him seeming stronger and wiser. But not happy. Definitely not happy; she could still see that look of hurt she'd glimpsed in his eye when she'd spoken to him last. It dawned on her that he believed what the vampire lord had said, that he knew she would never love him. She knew, too, with sudden chilling certainty, that he knew he wasn't going to win the fight.
*He's going to die,* she realized. *He's going to die now because he'd rather I live without him than he live without me.*
An explosion rocked the ground, and she was momentarily dazzled by searing white lights. When they had cleared, she squinted through the smoke to see Mummymon slumped against a tree, dazed or unconscious. Vamdemon smirked down at him.
"So much for true love," he said. His cloak wasn't even ruffled; not a hair was out of place. "You underestimated me. Such a fool, never believing what's so painfully obvious. You just made your last mistake."
He began walking slowly forward, obviously relishing the idea of finishing off his enemy at close range, of watching up close as he suffered. However...
"Don't kill him."
"What?" Vamdemon spun around, and Mummymon raised his head groggily to stare.
"I said, don't kill him," said Arukenimon. "Just let him go, all right? This isn't his fight; he's got nothing to do with it. Leave him alone."
For a moment, the demon looked nonplused. Then he smiled. "So, standing up for him after all, are you? I thought you had more sense than that. Very well, then. You two can die together... how romantic."
He advanced on her, and she did not move, but just stood and waited. Vamdemon smiled faintly; foolish creature, to be so proud as to stand up to him. Let her die thinking she had made some noble gesture. It was all the same to him...
Something hit him hard in the back, nearly throwing him off his feet. Arukenimon jumped out of the way as he staggered. Mummymon, braced against the tree, had dragged himself to his feet and was now firing his gun at Vamdemon. It wasn't hurting the vampire lord much, but it was distracting him. That was all Arukenimon needed to get to her partner's side and help support him. With him leaning on her shoulder and her cradling her injured arm, the two of them staggered off into the night.
Vamdemon picked himself up and tried to reorganize himself. He made a motion to follow his prey, but stopped as his sharp ears picked up a sound coming from the other direction. It seemed the Digidestined children had arrived as well, and were looking for him. He looked from the direction his erstwhile servants had gone, to Ken's prone and motionless form, and then back in the direction of the approaching sounds. Then, with a faint shrug, he glided away in search of Digidestined.
Mummymon and Arukenimon didn't make it very far before their injuries forced them to stop. They both collapsed on the ground to catch their breaths.
"You saved me," he said.
"So did you," she answered.
"Of course I did. I couldn't let him kill you."
"Yeah, well, I know... but you didn't have to go and kill yourself doing it," she answered. "You shouldn't have listened to me. You shouldn't have listened."
Suddenly, she had thrown herself against his side, forgetting for the moment that both of them were injured, hiding her face against his shoulder.
"You really are an idiot," she said shakily.
"Yes, I know," he said, putting his arms gently around her. "Shh, it's okay, it's going to be all right..."
Ken twitched a little, and then gave even that effort up with a groan. He had never in his life felt so utterly exhausted... no, worse even than exhausted, drained, as though he'd been sapped even of the potential to regain his strength. Every muscle felt leaden, every nerve dulled. What was the point of even trying to get up? He just wanted to lie there and not think, not move, maybe just go to sleep and never wake up...
Only he couldn't sleep, because something was tickling his face in a way so undeniable that he couldn't possibly ignore it. He raised a hand to try to brush whatever it was away, but he wasn't sure he had the strength. He opened his eyes, blinked as the world went from darkness to a blur of dull color, and then jumped as he realized there was another pair of eyes inches from his own.
"Ah!" he gasped, sitting up quickly and flinching away.
"Ken, don't worry, it's just me," said a familiar voice.
"Worm...mon?" Ken managed. His voice felt abrasive against his throat. "You... you followed me?"
"Of course I did, Ken," said Wormmon soothingly. "I'm your partner, no matter what. I have to be here to protect you... only I'm not doing a very good job of it today, am I?" he finished sadly.
"No, no, you're doing fine," said Ken. "You tried to help me. You tried to stop me from listening to her. You told me it would go wrong." His eyes went distant. "I remember how it felt. Like... like I could do anything, like I couldn't even imagine how much I could do. I thought I'd never be satisfied again - I'd have to keep fighting forever..."
He shuddered violently, his face twisted in revulsion. To Wormmon's great surprise, Ken was suddenly hugging him as if he were a life raft in a wild ocean. He was sobbing uncontrollably.
"I hated it!" he cried. "It was so... so terrible... I hated it, Wormmon, I hated it, don't ever let it happen again..."
"I won't, Ken," answered Wormmon, nuzzling his cheek. "It won't happen again. I'm going to be right here taking care of you, so don't cry."
Ken shook his head, still clinging to his partner, and Wormmon had no choice but to wait while the boy cried himself back to calmness.
The Digidestined and their partners scrambled through the gate and found themselves standing in a forest. They looked around, feeling slightly nervous. Previous to now, they had spent very little time in the Digital World at night, and now, with the shadows heavy around them, a night wind making the trees whisper, and the knowledge that something deadly was lurking somewhere beyond their sight was making them feel edgy. This problem was aggravated by the amount of noise their partners were making; the clearing the door had opened into was barely more than a space where the trees grew a bit further apart. There wasn't enough room for all the Digimon to fit, and it took a few minutes to get everyone organized. Ankylomon had accidentally knocked over a few trees when he made his arrival, causing a chaotic episode in which everyone else around had to scramble to avoid being crushed.
"Don't do that!" Miyako protested, as a branch narrowly missed hitting her. Several stray twigs bounced off her helmet.
"Sorry, I can't help it," Ankylomon said.
"Both of you be quiet," said Iori. "This is no place to be fooling around. Ken could be anywhere. Vamdemon could have emerged already - he could be looking for us right now!"
"So stop talking already," Daisuke mumbled, too quietly for anyone to hear.
"He's right," said Takeru, speaking barely above a whisper. "All this racket's bound to have attracted some attention. He'll be here any minute."
"Shouldn't we be trying to hide?" asked Miyako nervously.
"Where?" asked Hikari. "There's nowhere to hide. It's not like our Digimon are inconspicuous this way."
"We aren't hiding," said Daisuke firmly. "I'm not letting some stupid ghost chase me all around the Digital World. It's a waste of energy. We came for a fight, and that's just what we're going to do."
"He's got a point," Takeru agreed. "Forewarned is forearmed. Vamdemon will find us wherever we go, anyway. It's not worth tiring ourselves out running away from him, and maybe letting ourselves get herded into a corner."
"So we stay here and wait?" asked Iori. "I don't know if I like that idea."
"What other choice do we have?" Hikari replied.
"We could go looking for him," suggested Miyako thoughtfully. "You know, get a jump on him. Put him on defensive. Besides, Vamdemon might not have emerged yet. We might still have a chance."
"As if we wouldn't have one otherwise," said Takeru, but not loud enough to be heard. He still remembered what their last battle with Vamdemon had been like. They'd had a full roster of not just Champions, but Ultimates and Megas to back them up, and had still won only by the barest of margins - apparently even barer than they'd thought, if Vamdemon had still survived. It wasn't in the Child of Hope's nature to think pessimistically, but he wasn't foolish enough to underestimate his enemy's powers, either.
"I like her idea," said Daisuke. "Let's find this chump and put him out of business fast. All this hanging around talking is stupid."
"I'm with him," Hikari agreed, sounding grimly determined. "Let's do this and get it over with."
"All right, then," said Takeru. "I think we're agreed... Iori? Anything to add?"
Iori considered, then nodded. "Let's stop him. He's hurt too many people already. He shouldn't be allowed to hurt any more."
"Good. Let's go. Quietly, please, if you can."
They set out, moving slowly into the forest, keeping their eyes peeled for trouble and watching their D-3's. There seemed to be a signal somewhere up ahead, though faint and indistinct. Gatomon, wishing fervently that her Champion form was a little more impressive than this, and sniffing the air with her whiskers twitching. Suddenly, she put out a paw, stopping Hikari in her tracks.
"I smell him," she said.
"Smell who?" Hiakari asked. "Ken?"
"No. Vamdemon. I'd know him anywhere. He's here, close by. Watching."
"How astute," said a cold voice. "You never get tired of putting me through trouble, do you, Gatomon?"
"I can't think of anyone who deserves it more than you do," she answered.
"Oh, I'm stung," he said, stepping into view. Everyone backed away instinctively as his icy gaze swept over them, and he smiled lazily, showing off his pointed teeth. They glittered in the strange violet light that hovered around him. Even those who had never met him before and had only the vaguest idea what he was capable of felt a chill just looking at him. "That's not a polite way to greet an old friend, Gatomon. Have you forgotten who it was who took you in when you were lost in the wilderness and gave you a home?"
"You made me a slave," she spat. "You only took me in so you could beat me and torture me, and use me to hurt the people I cared about!"
"I'm glad you remember," he said.
"How could I forget?" she retorted. "I'm going to carry the scars you gave me as long as I live. Now I'm glad you're back, so I can give you a few of your own!"
"Gatomon, no!" Hikari shouted.
Too late. Gatomon had sprung, claws raised to slash at Vamdemon's face. He deflected her with a flip of his energy whips, throwing her tail over ears to the ground. Hikari rushed to her friend's side.
"Don't do that!" she scolded. "You're not strong enough to fight him, Gatomon!"
Gatomon sat up, shaking her head to clear it. "I want to hurt him. I want to make him pay."
"Hey, you can't do that to her!" XV-mon bellowed.
He fired a blast of energy at the vampire lord, and then used the moment of distraction to rush at him, looking as if he was ready to grab the dark Digimon and tear him in half. Vamdemon sprang into the air, neatly dodging the attack, and then produced a wave of shrieking bats that dove at XV-mon and kept him busy for a while. The other Digimon retaliated, and the fight began in earnest.
"I don't like the looks of this!" said Miyako, watching as Aquilamon was clipped by one of Vamdemon's energy whips. "I've never seen a Digimon this powerful before!"
"I've seen worse, but not by much," Takeru said. "Even if he isn't at full strength, our Champions just aren't going to be a match for him."
"Are you saying we're going to lose?" asked Daisuke, staring at Takeru with a stunned expression.
"No!" he protested. He tried to ignore an ugly crunching noise coming from the battleground, telling himself he didn't want to know what had caused it. "I'm just... I'm just saying... Guys, Vamdemon is a really powerful Digimon. We're in for a long, ugly battle."
"How did you beat him last time?" asked Iori, still watching the fight.
"Our Digimon were able to evolve to Ultimate using the powers of the Crests," said Hikari. "But we don't have those anymore. We gave them up to create a shield that's supposed to protect the Digital World from evil. I'm not sure how we're going to manage without them."
There was a slam and a screech. Everyone turned involuntarily to see Aquilamon falling out of the sky and hitting the ground, narrowly missing falling on top of Gatomon. Vamdemon fired another blast, and Ankylomon threw himself into its path, letting his hard shell accept the brunt of the blow. Even so, they could tell it was hurting him, and he was finally thrown out of the way by a double-hit from the Crimson lighting. Angemon distracted the vampire lord by throwing a few Hand of Fate attacks in his direction, and was immediately faced with another round of bats. Takeru winced; nothing bothered him more than seeing Angemon in pain. A nagging feeling was coming over him, the sensation that things were getting out of control. He also couldn't help noticing that the ghostly nimbus that had surrounded Vamdemon at first was becoming gradually paler, and the Digimon himself beginning to look more solid.
*He's getting stronger,* Takeru realized. *The longer we fight, the stronger he gets and the weaker we get. I don't see any way out of this...*
There was a sharp rap on the door, and Chou hurried to let Oikawa back in. He was carrying his laptop under one arm, and the other held a small black device that appeared to be some kind of handheld scanner. He gave her a curt thank-you and swept off towards Iori's room. He did at least seem to be moving more easily - still a bit stiff but no longer wincing in pain at every movement. The situation had sharpened his brain to a keen focus. Pain didn't matter at all, now. All that mattered was finding his child and helping him as much as he could.
"What exactly are you doing, anyway?" asked Chikara, following Oikawa into the room.
"I don't fully understand it myself," Oikawa answered. He found Iori's desk and began taking things from the top of it, setting them on the floor nearby to clear space for his laptop. "All I know is, Vamdemon gave me exact instructions as to what to do when we were ready for the gate to be opened... Don't ask about that, either. The only thing I'm worried about is that there may not be enough power. It's going to take a lot of a very specific kind of energy, and this-" He held up the device. "-is all I've got. I hope it's enough."
There were a few tense moments as Oikawa went about the business of plugging everything in and getting it turned on. He navigated through a complex maze of programs before finally arriving at a screen showing what appeared to be a card game. The Hida's glanced at each other, as if doubting Oikawa's sanity, as he began manipulating the cards around. When he had all but one in place, he took out a cable from his coat pocket and used it to attach the device to the laptop.
"Well, here goes nothing," he muttered. "Cross your fingers."
He guided the last card-image into the final empty slot. There was a moment of silence, and then a loud rushing noise, like a strong wind. The screen began to shine brightly, pulsing... and then went out.
"Dammit!" he barked, beating his fist on the table.
The laptop lurched in place, and the light returned. This time, instead of pulsing, it simply grew steadily brighter, until the whole room was illuminated with dazzling white light. Oikawa stared a moment. A tiny voice in the back of his mind was saying, "I did it, I finally opened the gate." He wasn't quite sure he believed himself.
"Well," said Chikara, a little breathlessly. "I don't think either of us doubt you now."
"Good," Oikawa answered vaguely. His throat felt very dry; it was hard to talk. "Well. I guess... I guess I'll be going now."
He began to put a hand toward the light, but was stopped by the weight of a hand resting gently on his shoulders. He turned to see Chou looking up at him with concern in her eyes.
"Yukio," she said. "Be careful."
He took her hand and held it in both of his. "Don't worry, Chou. I'll come back safe. Both of us will."
"You've meant so much to us," she said, her voice choking. "Right now, I'm so worried about Iori. If I lost him and you both, I... I don't know... Just come back safe."
"No matter what happens, I will protect Iori," he said, "but unless there's no way to save him except by giving my own life, I will be back. I promise you that."
He leaned over and gently kissed her cheek. Then, before she could say another word, he turned back to the computer and the gateway. As he touched the screen, the light flared to a blinding wave that obscured everything whiteness.
"Yukio!" Chou shouted.
But it was too late. He was gone.
He reappeared standing in some unspecified dark place, and he paused a moment to catch his breath and take in his surroundings. The carpeted floor he'd been standing on a moment ago had been replaced by a forest floor, carpeted only by fallen leaves and twigs. It was very dark, doubly so after all the blinding lights of a moment earlier, and it took him a moment before he could see clearly. In the thin silvery starlight, he was gradually able to make out the shapes of trees. They were palmlike, tropical things, unlike anything that would have grown in downtown Tokyo. There was a faint scent of exotic flowers on the air, a wind that was considerably warmer than it had been the last time he'd been outside. Slowly, he began to absorb the fact that he was no longer in Tokyo, or Japan, or even on Earth.
"I made it," he whispered. He turned in a slow circle, taking it in. "I don't believe it... After all these years...."
Tears stung at his eyes, and he let them fall unchecked. He hadn't realized fully just how much he had longed to be here, and it was almost too much for him. He could only stand there, trembling faintly and staring at everything as if it were the first time he'd ever seen anything in his life.
He didn't know how long he stood there in that trancelike state. What he did know was that he was finally brought out of it by the sound of something moving through the brush. He looked around warily, his heart pounding as if trying to beat its way to an escape route. He couldn't see anything, but there was definitely a movement nearby...
"Yukio!" squealed a small voice.
"What?" he stammered. "Who - who's there? Where are you? How do you know my name?"
"Down here!" squeaked the voice.
He looked down. Sitting at his feet was a tiny Digimon, not much bigger than his two fists put together. It was vaguely plantlike in appearance, with a stem and a few rounded leaves on the top of its head. It blinked dewdrop black eyes at him.
"It is you, isn't it, Yukio?" it asked. "It's been such a long time... You've changed. But isn't it you?"
"Do you know me?" he asked.
"Of course I do!" the Digimon replied. "Don't you remember? We used to play together, a long time ago, but we could never be near each other like we are now. I always wanted to meet you in person, and I just knew if I waited long enough, you'd come. I waited a long time, but you're finally here, and I'm so glad to see you again..."
Oikawa stared, trying to bring back the old memories of years ago, back when things had been better... and he remembered.
"Pipimon," he said slowly.
"You do remember!" sighed the little 'mon happily. "Oh, Yukio, it's been such a long time! I'm so glad you're here."
"I'm happy to see you again, too, little friend," he answered.
He knelt on the ground long enough to pick Pipimon up and set him on his shoulder. The 'mon chirped happily and rubbed against his cheek.
"A Digimon's just not happy without his partner," said Pipimon contentedly.
"Partner?" Oikawa repeated. "We're partners?"
"From now till forever!" the Digimon replied. "Didn't you know?"
"I know now," he said. He found himself blinking back tears again, but he brushed them away quickly as he remembered his mission. "Pipimon, I hate to break up this chat of ours, but I have something important I need to do. Have you seen any other humans here tonight? Children, with partners?"
Pipimon thought about that.
"There were children," he said slowly, "but I didn't want to go near. There were... bad things here. They frightened me."
"I was afraid of that," said Oikawa grimly. "That's where I'm going to have to go. I have to protect one of those children... well, all of them if I can, but there is one who is very precious to me. I need to find him. I won't make you come with me, but if you could just tell me where they are..."
"I'll show you," said Pipimon. "Anywhere you go, I go. That's what partners are for."
"I don't want to see you get hurt."
"I'm coming anyway."
He sighed. "All right, then. Show me the way."
"That way," said Pipimon, turning and looking off into the distance... or as far as he could, given that the trees sprawled into impenetrable shadow in all directions. Steeling his nerve, Oikawa began to walk.
However, the first thing they found turned out not to be children at all, but a pair of Digimon. Oikawa tried to duck back into the shadows as he heard the sound of something approaching, peering into the darkness to try to make out what was coming. He could just make out two vaguely humanoid silhouettes, both of them leaning on each other and moving with a difficulty that suggested injury. Maybe he didn't have to be frightened of them... Then he realized who they were.
"Mummymon? Arukenimon?" he called. *Wait, maybe I don't want to be noticed by them, considering the way our last few meetings have gone...*
"Mr. Oikawa?" Mummymon called back. "Don't worry, it's all right, I think we've worked things out now."
"Have you?" asked Oikawa, stepping cautiously out of hiding. A visual examination of his former servants convinced him that he probably didn't need to be too wary; neither of them looked like they were capable of attacking anything. Mummymon had several visible burns on his person, and Arukenimon had one arm in a sling.
"What happened to you?" he asked.
"I'd like to know the same thing," Arukenimon answered. "How did you get here?"
"I used the energy from the Dark Spores to open the gate," he answered. "I'm looking for Iori and the other Digidestined. Have you seen them?"
"No, but we've seen some other things," she answered, scowling at her damaged arm. "Your little friend's not going to be having an easy night." This was said wearing her customary cold look. However, it faltered just a bit when she added, "If you're going to be worried about anyone, worry about the Ichijouji boy. He was in a bad way last time I saw him."
"How bad?" asked Oikawa.
"Well... Having Vamdemon around didn't seem to agree with him," she answered evasively. "I think he's in shock."
Oikawa frowned, torn. On the one hand, the most important thing to him was protecting Iori, but Ken's plight was just as much his responsibility, if not more so. After all he'd been through, he might be better off not left alone.
"Maybe you're right," he said. "But... what happened to Vamdemon? Where is he now?"
"We don't know," said Mummymon. "We tried to fight him, but he was too much for us."
"He's not telling it like it is," Arukenimon said. Even with her glasses, it was clear she was trying not to meet anyone's eyes. "I was the one stupid enough to let myself get captured. He started that fight with Vamdemon just to save my life." She flushed, looking supremely embarrassed for a moment. Then she looked up again. "If you're planning on teaching that self- important snob a thing or two, than count me in. That's a job I'm willing to go along with."
"Thank you," said Oikawa. "Right now, though, the first thing I want to do is check on Ken. Where is he?"
"Near here," Mummymon answered. "We couldn't make it very far..."
"I'll find him, then. You don't have to come."
"We're coming," said Arukenimon. Her tone of voice forbid contradiction, and Mummymon nodded in agreement.
"Again, thank you," he answered. "Do you need any help? If you don't mind my saying so, you two don't look so good."
"Neither do you," Arukenimon said. "If you're going to go, then go."
There was no arguing with that, so he did as he was told.
*I'm in the Digital World only a few minutes, and already I have helpers on my side,* he thought. *Maybe I can do some good here, after all.*
A short distance away, Ken had stopped crying. He wasn't doing anything now, just lying on the ground, curled up in a ball at the base of a tree, trying to shrink into the darkness. Wormmon was at his side, doing what he could to comfort the boy, but for all the difference he made, he could have been a throw pillow. Ken wasn't reacting to anything, anymore. All he did was lie there, shivering a bit, but otherwise still as the dead.
Suddenly, there was a crunching noise, and Wormmon's antennae pricked up as he heard the sounds of approaching footsteps. To him, all alone in the dark, they sounded like the lumbering steps of a giant animal, and he quivered in fear. Then he pulled himself together; Ken was obviously not in any shape to take care of himself, so Wormmon would have to do it for him. However, he was shaken all over again when he saw the lady in red who had caused all this trouble come out of the shadows, accompanied by some horrifying skeletal creature. However, the real shock came when he saw the same dark-haired man he had talked to in the alley come out with them.
"There he is," said Oikawa, hurrying closer to Ken. Wormmon jumped in front of him.
"Don't you hurt him," he said, managing to sound brave.
"I'm not going to hurt him," Oikawa replied. "Really, I promise. I want to try to help him." When Wormmon continued to look skeptical, he said, "You can't let him stay out here all by himself. He needs help."
Wormmon considered that, and decided the dark man was telling the truth. He stood aside and let Oikawa come closer, kneeling next to Ken.
"Wake up," he commanded. "I know you're listening, so don't pretend you aren't."
Ken opened his eyes, red and puffy from crying. "It's you again."
"Yes, it's me again."
"This is all your fault."
"Ken, I..." He sighed. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess. I didn't mean for it to happen this way."
"Yeah, well, it did. Go away and leave me in peace." He turned and hid his face again.
"I am not going to go away," said Oikawa. "Not until you get up and stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"What's the point? I've lost everything."
"You have enough. You have a family that loves you, and your partner, and... and a much better chance of making a good life for yourself than some people ever get," said Oikawa.
"What kind of life am I going to have? The same as everyone else. I'm just ordinary now, just nobody..."
"You're a Digidestined," said Oikawa. "You were chosen by Fate to protect two worlds. Does that sound ordinary to you? Does it make you sound like nobody?"
Ken looked up. "I'm not one of them."
"How do you know?"
"Because... because... because I was the Emperor! They were my enemies!"
"You were the Emperor because I was foolish enough to try to make you so. I chose you because I knew you were Digidestined, because I knew you already had that power inside of you. If it's been misused all this time... that's as much my fault as anyone's."
"Vamdemon's," corrected Arukenimon grimly. Her eyes glittered faintly behind her glasses. "He's been playing games with all of us."
"I don't have any power," said Ken. "Even if I did, Vamdemon took it away."
"No, he didn't," said Arukenimon. "I heard him say so. He said he couldn't draw all of your strength, because too much of it was goodness, useless to him."
"So you have no more power for evil," Oikawa finished. "Only for good... if you want to use it."
"What can I do now?" he asked.
"The other Digidestined children will be looking for Vamdemon," Oikawa said. "You still have a chance to help them."
"I can do that?" he asked. "I could do that... But Wormmon's not strong enough to fight."
"Yes I am," said Wormmon. "Or I can be. I'm your partner, Ken. I can only be as strong as you let me be."
"I see," said Ken. His expression was set. "All right. Let's find this Vamdemon. I have a score to settle with him."
He got to his feet, staggering a bit and leaning against a tree for support. Eventually, though, he found his balance and was able to walk confidently through the forest, moving closer to the battle sounds that were going on in the distance.
At that moment, things were not going well for the Digidesined or their partners. The battle had been going on for quite some time now, and all the Digimon were tired and battered. Some of them had visible injuries; all of them were starting to look strained. The children themselves were huddled in their hiding places, watching with worried expressions.
"We're losing!" Daisuke complained. "Why are we losing? We're giving him everything we've got and he's still fresher than a deodorant commercial!"
Hikari stared at him. "You have a weird way with words, Daisuke."
"He's right," said Takeru. "I don't understand it! He's getting power from somewhere, but I can't figure out where it's coming from. Not only is he getting stronger, but he's actually healing up every time we hit him! He hasn't taken the power from another Digimon, and he hasn't got a human to leech off of anymore, so how is he doing it?"
"Oh, who cares!" Miyako snapped, beating her fist against a tree. "Wherever he's getting his power from, he's using it to kill our Digimon! And then he's going to come after us next... we can't stop him..."
"Come on, Miyako, don't go to pieces on us now!" said Daisuke.
"She's right," said Hikari, looking crestfallen. "We are losing. Our Digimon just can't go on like this. If we don't think of something else to do soon, they're finished!"
"Man!" shouted Takeru, throwing his hat at the ground. "I can't believe this! It can't end this way! I refuse to be beaten by some stupid Digimon we already killed off twice!" He hung his head, helpless tears spilling slowly down his cheeks. There was a moment of silence. Then...
Everyone jumped; they weren't used to Iori shouting that loud.
"What's it?" asked Daisuke, looking at the boy curiously.
"I know where he's getting his power," Iori replied.
"Where?" Takeru asked.
Iori pointed. "Us. He's getting his power from us."
"That's crazy," said Miyako. "We're in trouble now. Iori's just gone crazy. I never thought he'd be the first to go."
"No, no, no," said Iori impatiently. "Haven't you been paying attention to anything? Didn't you hear what Mr. Oikawa said? Vamdemon feeds off dark emotions. The more we lose hope, the stronger he gets, and the stronger he gets..."
"... the more our Digimon get beaten," Takeru finished, "and the more they get beaten, the more we lose hope. Sneaky. That's just the kind of underhanded thing he'd love."
"So what do we do?" asked Daisuke. "Are we just supposed to sit here and think happy thoughts and hope that beats him?"
"I don't think it works like that," Hikari replied. "That might stop him from getting even more powerful, but our Digimon are already nearly beaten. We need some new strength of our own."
"Maybe," a shy voice cut in, "I can help?"
Everyone turned around to see Ken standing at the edge of the clearing and looking uncomfortable.
"Whoa," said Daisuke. "What are you doing here?"
"I have a little score to settle with Vamdemon," Ken answered. "Wormmon? Do you feel up to it?"
"I can do it," Wormmon answered.
"All right. Let's hope this works."
Ken held up his Digivice, and a beam of light fell from its screen, covering Wormmon in a shower of illumination. Everyone blinked at the intensity of the light, turning away to shield their eyes. Then they felt a rush of wind, and they looked up in time to see something large and winged shooting over their heads. What appeared to be a giant green wasp was zooming into battle, a sword of pink energy held at ready. Everyone stared, first at him, then at Ken, who was gaping.
"I didn't know he could do that," he said.
"It's just as well," said a voice behind him. "You might have put him to bad use."
Much to everyone's surprise, Oikawa stepped into view, accompanied by a lady in red and a man in blue, both of whom looked rather worse for wear.
"Mr. Oikawa!" Iori exclaimed. "You're here! How? And who are they?"
"Friends, I think," he answered. "Arukenimon and Mummymon, my associates in this little venture. And as for my being here, I came looking for you. So much of this danger is my fault. I didn't want to see anything happen to you if I could prevent it. You are worth a great deal to me."
Iori colored a bit. "Mr. Oikawa..."
"Be sentimental later," said Takeru. "Keep your eyes on the battle!"
Everyone looked. The arrival of the green wasp seemed to have given heart to the other Digimon; they didn't quite understand who he was or what he was doing there, but his very presence was an encouragement. They renewed their attacks with all the strength they could muster... and yet, Vamdemon resisted them. He was starting to look a bit ruffled, but nowhere near as bad as the other Digimon looked. They could hold out a while longer with the help Ken had given them, but it was only prolonging the inevitable.
"It's not enough," said Ken, staring in horror as Vamdemon batted his partner about with a rope of red light.
"It has to be enough," Takeru said. "We just have to win. There's got to be something else we can do."
"We could-" Mummymon offered, or began to. The step he had begun to take turned into a stumble, and Oikawa and Arukenimon had to catch him.
"No," said Oikawa. "There's no point in you going out and getting yourself killed. You're in no shape to fight, not either of you."
"What about me?" asked a small voice. Everyone stared, suddenly noticing Pipimon riding on Oikawa's shoulder.
"What's that?" asked Daisuke.
"Pipimon. My partner," said Oikawa distractedly. "But you can't fight. You just don't have the strength, and I don't have what it takes to make you evolve. You'll be crushed."
"I don't have to fight," said Pipimon. "They need strength. I can give that. That's the rule."
"Rule?" Oikawa repeated, perplexed.
"I think Vamdemon said something about that," said Arukenimon, looking thoughtful. "He said... anyone can take power if they have the skill, and anyone can give power if they have the will."
Pipimon nodded. "I'll give them my power, if you want. It's not much, but it might help..."
Much to everyone's amazement, Pipimon closed his eyes and began glowing faintly. A small ball of light rose away from him, drifting towards the battlefield. It split into segments, bits of light that touched each of the Digidestined's Digimon, who seemed to suddenly feel a bit fresher, just as if they'd been allowed a few minutes to catch their breath. Pipimon opened his eyes, looking tired.
"That's all I can give," he said regretfully. "Too much and I'd fade away..."
"Can anyone do that?" asked Oikawa. "Even a human?"
"Anyone," Pipimon replied.
*This never would have happened if it weren't for me,* he thought. *If I hadn't agreed to host that creature, he would have been forced to wander the material world until he faded away. If I hadn't obeyed him, Ken wouldn't have had to suffer the Dark Spores. No one here would have had to suffer as much as they have. Now I'm going to do something about it.*
He closed his eyes, searching deep inside himself for any traces of strength he could find, and he was amazed to find that he could almost see them, like millions of white lights. He forced them together, making them gather in his hands like a legion of tiny fireflies. As he collected more of them, he began feeling a weakness fall over him, something that made him feel as if he were slowly going numb all over. His muscles began to tremble as sudden weakness fell over them, and his head spun. There weren't many lights left inside of him now, just a few flickers that kept his heart beating and drew breath into his body.
*They need everything they can get. This is all my fault; I should give them whatever I can, but...* Images whirled across his mind. He could die now, if he chose. That would be just payment for his deeds. He might even see Hiroki again. But there were people here he wanted to be with - Iori, Chou, Pipimon, so many people here who needed him.
*I want to live,* he decided. With a final burst of will, he sent the ball of lights spinning into the night to burst over the field like a firework, raining power and life down on the injured fighters below. Then he collapsed onto the ground. Iori was at his side in an instant.
"Mr. Oikawa, are you all right?" he asked.
"I... I'll be all right," he said weakly.
"Look, look!" Miyako squealed.
With the added power boost, the Digimon seemed to have recovered their energy, and now the battle was looking even. Even their injuries looked to be healed a bit.
"Yeah, we've got him on the run now!" Daisuke whooped.
"Not yet, you don't," said Arukenimon. "But maybe we can do something about that."
She bowed her head a moment, collecting a number of red lights in her hand, which she sent sailing into the night sky before collapsing into her partner's arms. Mummymon helped settle her comfortably on the ground before repeating the trick in blue. The Digidestined looked at each other and shrugged.
"If they can do it..." said Daisuke. He raised his Digivice high, and it shot a beam of orange light into the air to strike XV-mon.
Iori nodded silently, taking out his own Digivice and raising it into the air, making yellow light shine down on Ankylomon. One by one, the other Digidestined raised their D-3's high, filling the air with colored brilliance. Vamdemon cringed away, hissing in pain as the light made his eyes sting.
"No! What are you brats doing?" he snarled.
"Taking you down!" XV-mon roared, flaring his wings. He fired a blast of energy at Vamdemon, who tried to dodge... but where could he go when the force was so powerful that all the ground for several fee around him was turned into a crater. He took a glancing blow to the side that made him stagger a bit. He couldn't collect himself in time to avoid a powerful blow from Ankylomon's Tail Hammer. He blocked it instead, but it was still enough to push him several yards backwards, narrowly missing slamming him against a tree. Aquilamon rained bursts of energy down on him, singing him badly, while Angemon threw down blazes of golden light at him. Stingmon dove out of nowhere to slash him with his stinging saber. Everywhere he turned, it seemed, there was an angry Digimon trying to stab him, burn him, beat him, or otherwise damage him, and suddenly nothing he was doing seemed to hurt them.
"Help me out here, guys," said Gatomon. "I know how to take him out once and for all! Gatomon, digivolve to... Angewomon!"
"No, not her!" Vamdemon shouted. He was looking desperately for an exit.
"Too late, Vamdemon," she said. "You should have stayed dead when we killed you the first time. Heaven's Charm!"
A circle seemed to open in the sky, like a glowing whirlpool that drew towards it little points of light - Daisuke's fiery orange, Iori's golden yellow, Hikari's gentle pink, Takeru's blue, a deep indigo for Ken, softer lavender for Miyako, the deep red and blue given by Arukenimon and Mummymon, and the brilliant white lights from Oikawa and his partner. They all merged into one blazing rainbow of light. It hovered there in the sky, bright as the sun but somehow impossible to look away from. Vamdemon was petrified, and could only stand and watch as Angewomon pulled the lights into a blazing arrow and fired it straight at his heart.
The earth shook, and a sound so loud it made everyone's hearts shake in their chests ripped through the air. For a moment, everyone was too dazzled by the light and sound and smoke to see what was going on. Then the haze started to clear, showing them a deep crater, which contained a handful of baby Digimon, and a mask that had cracked down the center.
"Is he gone?" asked Ken, staring.
"Finally!" said Takeru. He was grinning from ear to ear. "And this time, he's going to stay that way!"
"You were awesome," said Daisuke to Ken. "You and that... what do you call it? A... Stingmon, I think it said? Anyway, that was way cool."
"I didn't do much," said Ken, bowing his head modestly. "It felt good to be doing something right for a change. Maybe... maybe I'll learn to like this Digidestined thing, after all."
"If you weren't one of us before, you're one now," said Hikari. "Come on, let's go check on our Digimon."
There was a confused moment where everyone tried to sort out from the unfamiliar babies who belonged to whom; Takeru recognized Poyomon right away, but everyone else had a bit of trouble. It wasn't until everyone was safely reunited with their partners that they thought to check on the rest of their help. They hurried back to the edge of the glen, where Mummymon, Arukenimon, and Oikawa had collapsed. The half-Digimon seemed to be nothing more than tired. The human, however, was lying perfectly still, barely breathing, eyes closed. Iori shook him. Oikawa slowly opened his eyes.
"Is it over?" he asked. "Did we win?"
"It's over," Iori agreed.
"No, it's not," Daisuke contradicted.
"Huh?" said Takeru. "What are you talking about? We won!"
"I know we won," Daisuke replied. "It's just not over. Look."
He pointed. What had looked in the darkness to be a thick stand of trees was slowly coming to appear to be nothing more than the outgrowth at the edge of a forest - a few trees, a few thinner saplings, a few bushes, and beyond that, nothing but an empty plain. They could see the horizon now, a band of hazy grey that was gradually lightening to gold. Even as they watched, the rim of the sun peeked over the horizon.
"See," said Daisuke. "It's not over. It's a new day - everything's just beginning."
"A new day," Oikawa repeated. "Dawn in the Digital World. It's so beautiful..."
That was all the strength he had left. With a smile of utter contentment on his face, he closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Somehow, no one had ever even considered the idea that Oikawa would not recover from his ordeal at the Hida's apartment. They'd brought him there through his own laptop, and after Mrs. Hida had seen the state he was in, she had insisted that he be moved no further. So, while the other children staggered home, clutching their partners and yawning cavernously, Iori was sent to camp out on the sofa while Oikawa was put to bed.
All told, it was almost a month before he fully recovered. The first few days were spent doing almost nothing but sleep, slowly regaining his strength, and the family walked around on tiptoe lest they wake him. However, by the end of the week, he was recovered sufficiently that Chou deemed him well enough to start rejoining the family again. He spent most of his time on the living room sofa, watching the activity around him and dozing or reading as he pleased, with Pipimon as his constant companion. Chou herself was nearly as devoted as Pipimon was, making a great fuss over him. He blushingly insisted that she was going to spoil him rotten, and accepted everything he was given. No one had ever made a fuss over him before, and the attention and affection was better than any medicine in the world.
Visitors came. Coming in singles and pairs, the Digidestined children dropped in to deliver their thanks as well as get-well gifts. Ken himself appeared sometime in the second week, shyly offering his thanks. He had intended to stay no longer than it took to accomplish that task, but as luck would have it, Oikawa was passing the time by having a game of chess with Iori, and an old hand at the game like Ken couldn't resist watching and offering a few pointers. Some hours later, he had proven that he still remembered how to play, with or without Dark Spores, and he and Iori had become fast friends. He became a regular addition to the Hida household, appearing every chance he got. Another get-well card arrived without a visible bearer, appearing mysteriously in the night. It was written in two different handwritings, and was just enough to reassure Oikawa that his wayward children were going to be all right, after all.
Near the end of the fourth week, Iori came home from school, and was pleased and surprised to see that Oikawa had once again returned to his customary after-school place at the kitchen table, sipping tea and chatting with Chou. They appeared to both be in a good mood; they were laughing about something.
"You're up!" Iori greeted, in an uncharacteristic show of excitement. "Are you feeling better today, Mr. Oikawa?"
"I'm feeling wonderful, thank you," he answered. "Almost as good as new. I'll be ready to go back to work soon. A pity - as soon as I'm feeling well enough to enjoy my vacation, I have to give it up."
"You will take a few more days, still, won't you?" asked Chou.
"I think so," he answered. "Just a few. I do think I'm well enough to start getting out and about again, though. I think I'd like to spend some time outside today."
"Are you sure?" asked Chou. "I don't want know if you should be exerting yourself again so soon..."
"I'll be very careful," he assured her. "I've had about all I can take of resting. It's time I got out and got my blood moving again - get my endurance back. So, Iori, what do you think? Would you like to go for a walk with me?"
"I'd like that," said Iori. "Mom, do you think it would be all right if we went back to the Digital World?"
She considered that one a little. She had gotten used to the idea of this other world, and had even made a few trips there herself, just to see what it was like. She was greatly impressed by the beautiful world, but not so deeply as Oikawa himself had been. Much of his recovery time had been spent telling her stories about the world, entertaining her as she did the housework, and she'd heard the reverence in his voice as he spoke.
"I think," she said slowly, "that it might actually be good for him. He loves the place so much, I think he'd be more likely to get well there than anywhere else."
Oikawa smiled. "I'm glad you agree. Besides, I think Pipimon and Upamon would like the exercise." He nodded in the direction of the young 'mons, who were having a game of tag under the table.
"All right!" said Iori happily. "I'll get the computer ready!"
Within a few minutes, the boy and his friend had materialized in the Digital World. It was a perfect day there, warm and sunny, with a gentle breeze. The place they had come to was a rolling expanse of grassy hills, dappled with flowers and a few graceful trees. Oikawa looked around, savoring it's beauty. Then he turned to smile at Iori.
"Let's walk a bit," he suggested.
They did, traveling hand in hand up a tall hill, upon which perched a few flowering trees. They stopped there to catch their breath again, while the Digimon scampered through the tall grass playing hide and seek. Oikawa closed his eyes, enjoying the feel of the wind in his hair and the sunlight on his face. Iori studied him carefully, trying to see any sign of lingering weakness, and saw nothing but health and joy. Could this be the same person he had run into months ago, the one with the lank hair and sunken eyes who was so full of fear and loneliness? There was no trace of that person now. As he opened his eyes again to look out across the digital scenery, the expression on his face was nothing less than beatific.
"Everything is so good," he said softly, as if to confirm Iori's thoughts. "I never imagined life could be this good, but it is, and it just keeps getting better. I should thank you. You turned my life around, Iori. Without you, who knows where I'd be now?"
"I knew I should help you," said Iori. "I could see it, the first time we met. I knew you needed help... I'm glad I helped you, though."
"Are you?" he asked. "That's good to hear. Iori... can I ask you how you feel about me?"
"How I feel about you? Hm," he said. He paused a moment, to give the matter his due consideration. "Well, like I said, I'm glad I met you. You've made all our lives better - me and Mom and Grandpa and all my friends... And I like you. You're a good friend. And... and... I know my dad was great, and I wish I could have gotten to know him, but... if I couldn't have him, I'm glad I have you."
"Thank you, Iori," he answered. "That means a lot to me, especially in the light of what I want to say next... Only I'm not sure how to say it. Iori, I've grown very fond of your family. You're all very dear to me, and well... I suppose you've noticed that your mother and I have become good friends?"
"We've been talking," he said. "Over the last few days now. She misses having a husband, and I don't want to go back to living alone. We like each other's company. I'm very fond of her, and I believe she cares about me as well..."
"Are you in love with my mom?" asked Iori.
Oikawa blushed. "Yes, I am. I do love her. We have been talking about getting married, and your grandfather is all in favor of the idea, but I wanted to ask you first... and to tell you... I love you very much too, Iori. I would be proud to call you my son."
Iori was still for a moment, as if stunned. Then he flung his arms around Oikawa and hugged him tightly.
"I knew it would be you," he said.
"Knew what?" Oikawa asked.
"I knew, when I saw you... you'd be the one to let me know my father. And I was right."
He beamed up at Oikawa, who smiled back at him, and the sun beamed down on a joyful father who held his son tightly in its warm light.