Warning: I cried more over this story than anything I've ever written. If that's any indication of anything, I figured you might as well know about it.
It was hard to find a person who didn't like Juri. If inquiries were made around her school, most people would have said that they admired and respected her a great deal, possibly more than any of the other Tamers. Perhaps she'd lost a bit of her old innocence - she was no longer as playful as she'd once been - but compensation had come in the form of maturity and wisdom. At only fifteen, she acted more grown up than some adults. She had become famous in her own right, not as a hero, but as someone who was eternally gentle and kind, someone who would listen to people's problems and give them comfort and advice.
Right now, though, she was involved in nothing so serious. She and a few of her friends were enjoying a day at the park, spending a few precious hours away from schoolwork and worries. It was the first warm day in quite a while, and everyone was determined to have some fun. Takato had brought a frisbee, and he, Jen, and their partners had invited Juri to join in their game. She'd accepted, but it seemed like she preferred more to watch the boys show off than to really play herself. Jen the martial artist showed off his skills with a series of spins and flips. The Digimon had a simpler aproach; Guilmon was proving particularly adept at snapping the spinning disk in his mouth. Takato laughed as the 'mon made a wild dive, catching the frisbee in midair just before hitting the ground in a spray of leaves.
"Nice catch!" he shouted. "Come on, boy, throw it here!"
"Okay, Takatomon!" he called back, laughing. He tossed the disk to his partner, who caught it easily.
"Look out, Juri!' said Takato. "I'm going long!"
"All right!" she called back.
She began running swiftly across the grass as Takato prepared to throw. It went perfectly, sailing into the clear blue sky in a graceful arc, revolving smoothly without so much as a wobble. Juri kept her eyes on it as it rode lazily on the breeze. Just as she was reaching out to catch it, her foot caught on a hidden rock, and she stumbled and fell. Takato hurried to her side.
"Oops," she said. "Looks like I missed."
"Never mind that. You okay?" Takato asked.
"I'm fine," she said, sitting up and dusting herself off. "Maybe a little bruised."
She began making an inspection of her knees and elbows for injuries. More covertly, so did Takato. The weather had been cold for a long time, and this was the first time in months he'd seen her in a skirt and short sleeves. Now he was surprised to note that there were bruises on several spots on her arms and legs.
"Are you sure you're just a little bruised?" he asked.
"Hm?" she said. "Oh, those. Those have been there. I tripped going down the stairs a while back - that's where most of them came from. They've just been a little slow healing up."
"Well... Okay. As long as you're all right."
"I'm fine," she said. "Though now that you mention it, I am a little tired. Maybe I should stop playing."
"Yeah, I guess we have been here a while," said Jen. "I've got to go home for dinner soon, anyway."
"That's right. I should be going home," Juri replied. "Bye, everyone! See you tomorrow!"
As she hurried off, Jen watched her with a thoughtful expression.
"She does look tired," he said.
"Well, we have been playing hard today," said Takato, brushing at the dirt on his clothes. "Man, I don't know what my mom's going to say about these grass stains. Probably something about me doing the laundry for the rest of the month."
"She wasn't playing that hard," Jen replied. "She mostly just stood and watched."
Takato shrugged. "She never was the athletic type. Not like you or Ruki."
"Maybe so, but she still shouldn't be that tired," said Jen. "And aren't bruises that don't go away symptomatic of something?"
"I don't know. What are you getting at?" Takato asked. "That she's sick? She looks fine to me. I think you're overreacting."
"Yeah, I probably am," Jen replied. "Anyway, I have to get going. See you around, Takato. Bye, Guilmon."
"Bye-bye!" said Guilmon, waving a claw.
"Bye, Jen. Bye, Terriermon. Don't think too hard," said Takato. He trudged off to face the wrath of his mother. Jen waved a final time before heading towards his own home.
"D'you think she's sick?" asked Terriermon. "She didn't look all that sick to me."
"There's different ways of being sick. Don't you know that?" Jen replied. "Just because she's not coughing and sneezing doesn't mean something's not wrong with her."
"That's not an answer to my question," said Terriermon.
"Takato's probably right; I probably am overreacting," Jen replied. "It's just... I heard of a disease called 'leukemia.' It gets in your blood and makes it not work the way it's supposed to, so you bruise easily and don't heal up like you should."
"That does kinda sound like what she has," Terriermon answered thoughtfully. "Then again, maybe she's just sore from falling down the stairs. You wouldn't want to play frisbee, either, if you felt like that."
Jen laughed. "You're right. That's probably all it is."
"Of course I'm right," said Terriermon, settling onto his customary place on Jen's shoulder. "If you're going to worry, worry about something useful - like whether or not we're going to be late for dinner!"
"All right, I hear you! If you're in such a hurry, you can take off for yourself!" Jen replied.
He dove forward into a sprint, moving so fast that Terriermon was left in midair, fanning his ears so he could hover. With a yelp, he took off after his partner.
The warm weather was short-lived, and the people of Tokyo reverted unhappily back to jackets and jeans. For Takato, it was a way of forgetting his uneasiness at seeing Juri's collection of bruises. At school, she was the same as always, quiet and dreamy and just a little bit distant, even from her friends. However, since she wasn't any more distant than usual, he never thought anything of it, until the day she didn't come to class.
"Does anyone know where Juri is?" he asked one of her friends during the break between classes.
"Not really," the girl replied. "I think she might not be feeling well. She's been a little short on energy the last couple of days."
"Oh," said Takato. "But you don't know for sure?"
"No. You're her friend; don't you talk to her?"
"Sure I talk to her!" he answered. "She just doesn't talk much back. And she was fine last time I looked."
"Oh, well. She's probably just got a cold or something," answered the girl. "Or maybe the flu. I wouldn't skip school this close to exams just for a little cold."
"Hm," said Takato thoughtfully. "Well, thanks. I'll have to go check up on her later."
Despite his best intentions, he went through the rest of the day with his mind only half on his schoolwork. Some little seed of concern that had been planted in the back of his mind at the frisbee game was now starting to grow, and he was having a hard time beating it back. Now that he'd had it pointed out to him, he had to admit that Juri had seemed somewhat more tired than usual lately - still her same sweet self, but a little less inclined to get out and do things than she had been in the past. Anyone who remarked on it got the answer that she had been studying for exams, an answer so common among tired high school students that no one had ever questioned it.
*And why should I?* he told himself. *It's a perfectly good answer. Everyone is tired these days, with tests coming up, and you know Juri is fragile. She's probably just overreached herself and picked up a bug somewhere. Why am I so worried about it, anyway?*
"Aren't bruises that don't go away symptomatic of something?"
Takato scowled at the memory.
*There's nothing wrong with her. She'll be just fine after she rests a while.*
At the end of the day, the teacher called Takato to her desk. He must have convinced himself that his friend was going to be all right, because all worries about Juri were replaced by the more personal concerns of academics. He thought furiously of all the quizzes and papers he'd dealt with in recent weeks, wondering if any of them had been good enough or bad enough to merit the professor's attention.
"You wanted to talk to me?" he asked.
"Yes," the teacher replied. "You're a friend of Katou Juri, correct?"
"That's right," answered Takato.
"She had a doctor's appointment today and couldn't make it to class. I was wondering if I could ask you to bring her homework to her."
"Sure. I can do that," said Takato. "I was planning on dropping by her house today anyway."
"Good," the teacher replied. She began going through some papers and collecting a bundle of worksheets.
"Um, teacher?" Takato asked. "You wouldn't know what's wrong with Juri, would you?"
"I wasn't aware there was anything wrong with her. I was told she was only going in for a checkup."
"Oh, okay. That's good to know," Takato replied.
He took the packet the teacher gave him and walked out of the school feeling relieved. A checkup! That wasn't so bad. Granted, it was a bit odd having to go in the middle of the day, but if the doctor was busy, he might not have been able to work her in any other time. At any rate, checkups were nothing to worry about; everyone had checkups sometimes. There was nothing for him to worry about.
He arrived at the Katou residence and found the place quiet. It was the wrong time of day for there to be many customers in the restaurant, so the adults of the household were simply wiping down tables and doing other quiet chores as they waited for the dinner hour. Both of them looked up in surprise as the bell over the door rang.
"Takato! Are you here to see Juri?" asked Mr. Katou.
"Yeah, I brought her homework for her," Takato replied.
Juri's parents looked at each other briefly, as if checking for something.
"She's in her room," said Mr. Katou at last. "You can go on up."
Takato did as he was told, scaling the stairs and moving quietly up to his friend's room. It was so silent up there that for a moment he wondered if she had somehow gotten out of the house without her parents knowing. Then he looked in her room and found her sitting by the window, perfectly still.
"Juri?" he said quietly. "You okay?"
"Oh, hi, Takato," she said, turning towards him. "Nice of you to come over."
"Teacher asked me to bring you the work you missed today," he answered. He wondered if her voice had always been so quiet and misty, and he just hadn't noticed. "Is something on your mind? You look thoughtful."
Juri looked down for a moment, collecting herself. Then she looked up again, though she didn't quite meet his eyes.
"I went to the doctor's office today."
"I heard. Are you all right?"
"No," she said. "I'm sick. I've got some kind of cancer. Leukemia."
"Oh," said Takato, trying to assimilate that information. "But you're going to be okay, right? I mean, I've heard of people getting leukemia and getting better. They can cure it, can't they?"
"They're going to try," she said. "They say they've caught it pretty early. I have a good chance of getting better."
"You'll get well," Takato said positively. "After everything we've gone through, you can beat a little thing like being sick."
She let her eyes meet his, and he was startled at the seriousness he saw there.
"Even we don't win every battle," she said quietly.
"Don't talk like that," he said. "Think like that, and you won't get well. You have to think positively."
She gave him a small smile. "Maybe you're right. It's just... a shock. I still need some time to get used to it."
"Oh. I guess I understand," said Takato. "Anyway, um... here's your homework."
"Thank you. It will give me something to do while I'm at home. My parents don't want me going out too much, so I might not be in school for a while."
"Oh," said Takato again. "So... do you want me to tell the others, or would you rather tell them yourself?"
"You tell them," she said. "I'm not really ready to talk about it yet."
Takato could take a hint. "Well, if you do feel like talking about it later, I'll listen."
She smiled. "Thanks, Takato. I know I can count on you."
"Thanks," he said. "You rest and get better, now. We'll be waiting for you when you come back."
"I'll try. Bye, Takato."
"Bye, Juri. Take care of yourself."
Takato headed home as fast as he ever had in his life. He wasn't sure why he was in such a hurry, but the impetus to get away was so strong that he had no choice but to run like the wind, his sneakers pounding on the concrete as he dashed up sidewalks, dodging bicycles and pedestrians.
*Jen was right,* he thought vaguely, his labored breath rasping in his ears. *Jen was right, and I was right, too. I felt something was wrong with her. I've felt it for a while now, and I just didn't want to believe it.*
He skidded to a halt at his front door and leaned against the door frame, panting and waiting for his heartbeat to still. The reminder of his own strong life-force gave him determination.
*I won't let anything happen to her. She'll live. We'll make her live!*
He went inside and made a search for the telephone. As usual, his father had left it in the wrong place, and he had a bit of a hunt before he finally spotted it lying on a shelf, half hidden by an old magazine. He picked it up and dialed a familiar number.
"Hi!" said a cheery female voice.
"Oh, hi, Shuichon," said Takato. He hesitated, wondering if he ought to tell her or not. She was twelve now, and a lot more mature than she had been when he'd first met her, but he still wasn't sure how she'd take the kind of news he wanted to deliver. Given a choice, he'd prefer to let someone else deal with it. "Can I talk to Jen, please?"
"Sure. Hang on!"
There were muffled conversation noises that he couldn't make out, beyond getting an idea that all four of the Lee siblings were shouting at each other about who was on the phone. Then Jen arrived.
"Yeah, it's me. I've got some bad news," he said. "I went over to Juri's house today..."
"Is something wrong with her?"
"Yeah, something's wrong with her. She's got cancer."
"That's what I was afraid of," Jen sighed. "Any idea how she's doing?"
"Not really. She didn't want to talk about it much," said Takato. "I don't really blame her."
"Me neither, really," answered Jen. "Wish she'd told us about it, though. She should trust us to be able to handle it."
"Darn right we'll handle it!" Takato said.
"What do you mean by that?" asked Jen, surprised.
"I mean we'll help her," he said. "We can take care of her. I just know if we're there to support her, she can get well."
Jen laughed grimly. "Takato, I've got news for you. This isn't like a monster or a Digimon. It's not something you can fight. We can be there for her and try to keep her happy, but there's nothing you can do about her being sick or not."
"I can fight it," said Takato.
"You know something? You can be really hard-headed sometimes, Takato," said Jen. "But who knows? Sometimes being hard-headed pays off. We ought to know, sometimes things happen if you just want them enough."
"I want Juri to live," said Takato. "She's my friend."
"She's a friend to all of us. Don't wear yourself out trying to save her on your own," Jen advised. "Anyway, thanks for telling me. Do you want me to pass the word along, or would you rather tell them yourself? Or is Juri going to tell us?"
"She said she wanted me to tell everyone," he said, "but I don't know if I'm up to it."
"I'll make sure the word is passed along. You relax a while; you sound upset."
"Upset isn't the word. Thanks, though," Takato replied.
"You sure you're okay?" asked Jen.
"I'm fine," said Takato firmly.
"Okay, then. See you around. Thanks for telling me."
The boys said goodbye, and Jen hung up, looking thoughtful.
"What was that all about?" his oldest sister Jaarin wanted to know.
He sighed. "You remember my friend Juri? We just found out she's really sick, and we're not really sure whether she's going to get well again."
*So why,* he added silently, *am I more worried about Takato?*
Takato decided that the best option was to go looking for Guilmon. Not that he thought Guilmon could offer him any particular advice or wisdom, but he could at least offer some comfort and stability. No matter how much the Tamers had grown up, Guilmon was the same as he always was, a loveable puppy in the body of a dinosaur and the vocabulary of a child, though he could still occasionally surprise his Tamer with unexpected intelligence. Right now, though, all he wanted was his friend's familiar presence, so Takato went in search of him.
Guilmon had moved into Takato's room not long after the final battle with the D-Reaper, and no one had ever tried to make him move out again. He really wasn't that much trouble, once the family had gotten it firmly established that he was not to eat any bread that wasn't given to him. Now all Takato had to worry about was cleaning the crumbs off his floor and keeping them out of his clean laundry. He found his partner flopped down on Takato's bed, snoring peacefully. Apparently someone had been up to deliver a snack, and there was a litter of crusts and crumbs surrounding the sleeping 'mon, who had his head pillowed on a loaf of fresh bread he hadn't found room for. His ears twitched as Takato entered, and he opened one golden eye.
"Hi, Takato!" he greeted. "You're late. Did you have fun at school?"
"Not really," Takato replied. He brushed crumbs off of his sheet and settled down next to his friend. "I had some bad news today. I found out Juri's really sick."
"Aww, that's too bad," said Guilmon, ears drooping. Then his expression brightened. "Let's send her some chicken soup! That'll make her feel better, right?"
Takato couldn't help smiling a bit. "Nice idea, but I think it's going to take a little more than that."
Guilmon looked puzzled. "She must be really sick, if chicken soup can't fix it."
"She is," said Takato.
"It'll take a long time for her to get better, right?" asked Guilmon.
"Yeah, it'll take a long time," Takato answered slowly. "Or... she might not get better at all."
"You mean she might be sick forever?" Guilmon exclaimed, eyes wide.
"Well... for the rest of her life, at least," said Takato. "Don't you know, Guilmon? Sometimes when people get really sick, they die."
Guilmon blinked. "Like Leomon did?"
"Kind of like that, yeah," said Takato.
"I don't want Juri to die," said Guilmon. "She's nice. She's my friend."
"She's my friend, too. But I'm really scared she's going to die anyway."
Guilmon gave that one a lot of thought. "Does it hurt to die, Takato?"
"I dunno," said Takato. "I've never done it. It hurts being sick, but I don't guess dying hurts."
"Then it would be better than being sick, wouldn't it?"
"Um," said Takato. "But when someone dies, they never come back. They're gone forever. You know, like Leomon never came back."
"But Leomon talked to Juri after he died," Guilmon pointed out. "She told me so."
"That's kind of different. People don't usually do that," said Takato. "If Juri dies, we'll never see her again."
"Where will she go? Leomon got absorbed. Is she going to get absorbed?"
"No, it's different with people," said Takato. "It's more like... like going to sleep, only you don't wake up again."
"That doesn't sound so bad. I like to sleep."
"Yeah, but never waking up?" Takato replied.
Guilmon shrugged. The conversation was clearly too deep for him. "You wouldn't notice, would you, if you were asleep?"
"Yeah, but the rest of us would," said Takato.
"I guess so," Guilmon sighed.
"Well, we're not going to have a problem," Takato said. "Juri will be okay. I'm sure of it."
"That's good," said Guilmon, cheerful again. He yawned. "Can I finish my nap now?"
Takato grinned a bit. "Sure. Maybe I'll join you. It's been a rough day."
He settled down next to his partner and closed his eyes, trying to get his thoughts to settle. The last one to go through his head before he drifted off was that maybe Guilmon was right - it was nice to fall asleep.
When Takato had heard the news that his friend was sick - perhaps fatally - he had thought that life could never go back to being good until she was better again. He was halfway right. It was hard on him, not having Juri's familiar, caring presence as he worked his way through the days, to listen to him when he was having a hard day and to cheer him up when he was down. Even so, he was amazed to find things settling into a routine. He continued to go to school and hang out with his friends and all the other things he'd always done. After a few weeks had gone by, he even realized he was laughing and having fun again. Yes, things were different, but as time went by and Juri didn't seem to get any worse, he began to relax.
One of his daily touchstones was delivering Juri's homework. No matter how sick she might be, she was still a conscientious girl, and she insisted that as long as she was up and about, she might as well be doing something useful with her time. Since her parents, fearful that she might catch something or strain herself if she went out, were confining her to her room, her options for entertainment were limited.
"You know, if I was sick, I sure wouldn't be doing algebra problems," Takato remarked, as he delivered his daily workload.
"Oh, I don't mind," she said. "Actually, I kind of like it."
Takato blinked. "What's to like about algebra?"
"It's not quite like that," Juri replied, giggling a bit. "I mean, I like feeling like I'm getting something accomplished. Watching TV all the time is boring, and I've read all my books before, so it's nice to have a challenge. Besides, its hard to feel worried when I'm doing something as ordinary as homework."
"I guess so," said Takato. "So you're still feeling all right, huh?"
"Pretty well. I go to the doctor's once a week for treatments. It's okay, except it makes my stomach upset. It's a lucky thing my parents are such good cooks, or I might not want to eat anything. But at least it doesn't make my hair fall out," she added, laughing again and running her hand through her long auburn hair.
Takato laughed with her. "Well, I'm glad you're feeling better. See, I told you you'd get well."
"I guess you're right," she said. "I talked to the doctor yesterday, and he said I'm doing very well. He says if I keep this up, I might make a full recovery soon."
"Really?" asked Takato, impressed. "Hey, that's great! We should celebrate!"
"Don't you think it's a little early to be celebrating?" asked Juri. "I mean, I'm not completely well yet..."
"Hey, every little victory counts," Takato assured her. "Any excuse for a party, right?"
She smiled. "Sure. Let's have a party."
Takato went home in a lighthearted mood. He hadn't realized, until then, just how weighed down he'd felt when he'd heard about her sickness. Somewhere in the back of his mind, it had rung like a death knell, and for all his insistence to the contrary, he was amazed to find that he really had thought she would die.
*But I don't have to worry anymore,* he thought as he made his way home. *She really is getting well! I should have known nothing could keep her down for long!*
Smiling, he ambled along, already making plans for the coming party. He'd have to call the whole gang as soon as he got home; it had been ages since they'd all gotten together to celebrate something, not since their partners had come home from the Digital World. It would have to be something really special, because there was nothing more important right now than making sure Juri stayed happy and got well...
So determined was he to have his celebration be perfect that it took three days to get everything properly arranged, but when the night of the party came, he felt he'd outdone himself. Everyone came, and the Katous closed their restaurant for a few hours so the children could set up their celebration. Everyone came, and the crowd of ten Tamers and assorted partners made quite a collection when crammed into one small building. Guardromon wouldn't fit through the front door, but they propped it open, and he sat outside and joined in the conversation, while his partner kept everyone laughing with nonstop jokes and clownish antics. Culumon turned up without being invited, as if drawn instinctively to the sounds of celebration. Impmon and his two Tamers also came to the party, with the Digimon wearing a bow tie instead of his usual bandanna and stammering an awkward but heartfelt wish that Juri feel better soon. She gave him a big hug, making him blush brilliantly. Ryo showed up halfway through the party, apologizing for his lateness by bestowing gifts on the guest of honor. There was lots of pizza and sodas and cakes for everyone. Altogether, the celebration was a raging success, and it ended only when Juri apologetically told them that she was getting tired and wanted to go upstairs and sleep. Somewhat reluctantly, the guests cleared out.
"That was a good party," Hirokazu remarked to his partner.
"Most exellent," Guardromon agreed. "I am most impressed by miss Juri's bravery in the face of adversity."
"Yeah, took the words right outta my mouth," said Hirokazu. "Guess she still can't party like she used to, though. She looked pretty tired when we said goodnight."
"Perhaps her batteries are running low?"
"Something like that. She probably does need some rest, being sick and all."
For a while, they were quiet, something that Hirokazu seldom was. Then he spoke again.
"You know, I like Juri," he said. "She's been my friend a long time. Knew each other since we were kids."
"Yes, I know. I like her, too. She's an admirable young lady."
"Yeah. You know... I'm glad she's getting better, 'cause I'd miss her if something happened to her."
"I'd miss her, too."
"Yeah, I know... Guardromon?"
"Um... well, nothing. I just wanted to... never mind."
"Is something wrong?"
"Not really... but thanks for caring. You're a good friend, Guardromon."
"So are you, Hirokazu."
They reached the front door of Hirokazu's house, and the boy bid his partner goodnight. Inside, his mother was washing the supper dishes.
"You look serious," she said. "What's the matter? Wasn't it a good party?"
"Nah, Mom, it was a great party," he replied. "I'm glad I went."
And with that, he went up to his room, where he was very quiet.
A few days later, the world had finally set itself back to rights again. Juri was back at school, as good as ever, talking and laughing as if determined to make up for lost time, and all her friends breathed easier. She was still careful not to overtire herself, but for the most part, it was easy to forget that she'd ever been sick at all. Adding to this, summer was fast approaching, bringing with it ever warmer days, clear blue skies, and a promise of long lazy vacations. Everyone passed their exams with flying colors, leaving them free to enjoy the first few days of total relaxation they'd had in months.
For Takato, summer was a good time to go visit his cousin Kai on the sunny beaches of Okinawa, so a few weeks after school let out, he packed his things and left Tokyo for a vacation. He was pleased to find that Kai was still as cheery and energetic as he remembered, that he himself was a better swimmer than he had been the last time he had gone for a visit, and that Guilmon could still catch octopuses with the best of them. For two weeks, he spent his time swimming, fishing, sailing, exploring, and generally having a wonderful time. He returned home tired but happy, suntanned, and loaded down with souvenirs.
"Mom, Dad, I'm home!" he shouted, banging through the front door of the bakery.
"Oh, hello, honey," his mother said. "How was your trip?"
"Aw, it was the best! Kai and I went fishing, and I caught this huge fish - took all of us together to reel it in. I got a picture of it with me here somewhere. Kai said even he'd never caught one that big before. Not bad for a city kid, huh? So, anything good happen while I was gone?"
"Well... now that you mention it, one of your friends called the other day," said his mother thoughtfully. "He said you should call him back as soon as you got back. He said it was important. I wrote his number down."
Takato took the slip of paper that was offered to him, dumping all his bags on the floor to free his hands. He studied the writing.
"This is Jen's number," he said. "Wonder what he wants?"
"I'm not sure, but he sounded serious."
"Jen always sounds serious. That's how he is. Oh, well, I'll give him a call anyway."
True to his word, as soon as he had brought his luggage and his Digimon back up to his room, he went to the phone and called his friend.
"Hi, Jen! I'm back. Did you miss me?"
"Yeah," said Jenrya tersely. "Hey, listen, Takato... there's something I need to tell you?"
"Oh? What's that?"
"Well... something's happened," Jenrya said. "I don't really know how to say this, but... Juri's in the hospital."
"What? Are you serious? I thought she was getting well! Last time I saw her, she looked fine."
"That's what everyone else thought, too, but at her last checkup, they found some things that didn't look right, so they ran some tests, and well..." Jenrya took a deep breath. "She's had a relapse. I don't want to be a downer, but... they say it's harder to fight the second time around. The doctors who looked at her say the cancer's spread to some of her organs. They're going to do what they can, but... it doesn't look good."
"No," said Takato. "This can't be happening... she was fine the last time I saw her... just fine..."
"These things happen, Takato," said Jenrya gently. "You can't always explain it."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner? Why didn't you let me know?"
"We tried. We couldn't get hold of you, so we decided we'd just tell you when you got home. We thought we might as well let you enjoy your vacation without having to worry."
Takato's voice was hurt. "She could have died. She could have died, and I was out there having fun, and you didn't even bother to tell me."
"Look, I tried, okay? And she's not going to die yet. She's only in the hospital for treatment right now. She could still get better, for all we know."
"You should have tried harder."
"I'm sorry. Look, I really am. It's just... we're all a little upset right now. There's no point in going to pieces, especially when she still has a fighting chance. We owe it to Juri to keep on living as best we can, since she can't do that anymore right now."
"I guess you're right," said Takato. "Anyway, I... Thanks for calling me, but I think I need to be alone right now."
"It's okay, I understand. Bye, Takato... and keep your chin up."
Takato hung up the phone as if it weighed a hundred pounds. He kicked his suitcase and watched it burst open, spilling dirty socks and slightly sandy clothing across his floor. He couldn't understand why he'd been so excited a minute ago, because just now, he was sure this had been the worst vacation he'd ever been on.
The hospital door opened, and several heads turned to watch as an attractive young redheaded lady walked in. She ignored their stares, as she usually did. It was strange to think now that the rebellious preteen who had shunned makeup and considered shopping for clothes the worst bore in the world should have grown into something so eye-catching. She had been as surprised as anyone when she had turned from a slightly awkward girl to a beautiful young woman practically overnight, but her mother's genes had finally won out, and she was surprised at time to find she actually liked the attention. Today, however, was not one of those days.
"I'm here to see Juri Katou," she said to the woman at the front desk.
"Sixth floor, room sixteen," the woman replied. "Don't be too long. Visiting hours will be over in thirty minutes."
"That's okay. I just came to bring her something," Ruki replied, holding up a small package as proof.
"All right. There will be an announcement on the intercom when it's time for you to leave."
Ruki took the elevator up to the sixth floor and counted the doors to Juri's room. She found the girl lying still in her bed, reading a book. Ruki rapped lightly on the door.
"Hey," she called, "could you stand some company?"
"Oh, sure, Ruki. I always like your company," Juri replied.
Ruki came in and sat down at Juri's bedside. Up close, she could see that her friend was rather paler than usual, and there were circles under her eyes that hadn't been there before. An IV dripped some unidentified fluid into her arm.
"How are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm fine," answered Juri with a ghost of her old smile. "All things considered, I mean. I miss being out with you guys, though."
"Yeah, we miss you, too," Ruki replied. "Has Takato been to see you yet?"
"He came yesterday." Juri's eyes were downcast. "I'm worried about him."
"About him? I hate to tell you this, but you're the one in the hospital."
"I know," said Juri, laughing a little. "It's weird, but I don't mind being here that much. I'm comfortable with this, but Takato... he's not taking this very well. I don't know how to get through to him."
"Oh, well. You and I will straighten him out," said Ruki. "Anyway... I thought you might be a little lonely stuck here all alone, so I brought you something to cheer you up."
"You didn't have to do that," said Juri, blushing. The color made her look almost healthy again, and Ruki grinned at her.
"Sure I did. Here." She offered Juri a tiny box, wrapped brilliantly in rainbow paper and a wealth of curly ribbons. "Excuse the frills. My mom wrapped it."
"It's very pretty," said Juri, taking the box and admiring it.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Don't just stare at it all day - I want to see you open it."
Obediently, Juri peeled the tape away and undid the paper. Inside, there was a bright golden picture frame, but it didn't hold a photograph. Instead, there was a trading card, one of the Digimon cards she and her friends had always played with when they were younger. This one was a foil edition, flashing brightly under the flourescent lights. The Digimon was Leomon.
"Do you like it?" asked Ruki anxiously.
Juri beamed. "Its perfect. Thank you, Ruki. You couldn't have gotten me anything better."
Ruki blushed. To cover up her flattered embarrassment, she said, "We had a time finding it. Now that the Digimon craze has finally worn off, those things are getting rare, and finding a foil one on short notice... My mom and grandma and I stayed up all night, calling everywhere we could think of trying to find one."
"You'll have to thank your family for me," said Juri. "It's the best present anyone ever gave me. I'll put him right here on my bedside, and he can keep me company."
"That's what I got him for," said Ruki. "I... guess you must be thinking a lot about him, lately, what with... you know."
"Yes," said Juri. "I do think about him. Sometimes I even dream about him, that he's here looking after me. It makes me feel better."
"Are you scared?"
"Of dying?" Juri asked.
"Not much. I was at first, but I've had time to get used to it. The only thing that bothers me is that I know how much it hurt me when the people close to me died. I don't want you all to hurt like that because of me."
"You're the one who's sick, and you're worried about us?" asked Ruki. "You're really something else, you know that?"
Juri giggled. "It's silly, isn't it?"
"No, it's not," said Ruki. "I used to think I was the brave one in the group, but you just leave me in the dust. I'm going to have a tough time living up to your example."
"You can do it," said Juri. "I want you to look after things when I'm gone. I won't be around to take care of everyone, so you'll have to do it for me."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Just... look after the others. Especially Shuichon and Ai. They're like my little sisters, you know? And someone needs to look after Culumon, too."
Ruki nodded. "I'm not that good at looking after people, but... I'll try."
"You're good at looking out for people. You always looked after me. You taught me how to be strong and brave... and how to play cards with the boys and not lose every time," she added, giggling a bit.
"Yeah, I guess I did do that," said Ruki. She glanced at her watch. "It's almost time to go; I'd better leave before they come to chase me out. Take care of yourself, Juri."
"You too, Ruki. It was good seeing you."
"It was good seeing you, too."
Ruki stood up to leave. She turned toward the door, but then she changed her mind. Instead, she turned back to Juri and hugged her. Then, looking a bit awkward, she hurried from the room again. Juri was being so brave, Ruki couldn't stand to embarrass herself by letting her see her cry.
There were many visitors over the next few weeks, and many of them came carrying gifts, or cards, or words of comfort. Despite her condition, Juri welcomed them all with the gentle grace she'd always shown, and smiled for them and talked to them no matter how drained she looked as she did so. No one was surprised that Takato was the most frequent visitor. He appeared every chance he got, bringing news of the outside world.
"It's too bad you have to be sick right now," he was saying. "Jen's dad has been teaching him how to program his own video games. He's getting really good at it, too. He's letting me try them out. It won't be long before he starts selling the things."
"I'd like to see them," said Juri.
"You will," Takato assured her. "They'll still be waiting for you when you get out of here."
"I'm not sure I am getting out of here," she answered slowly.
"Of course you will," answered Takato - not with forced cheerfulness, but with the breezy tone of one who believes his conversational partner is talking nonsense. "That's no way to be, Juri. You've got to think positive if you want to get well."
"Takato, look at me for a minute."
"I am looking at you."
"No, you're not. Really look at me."
He wasn't used to hearing that tone in Juri's voice. Without even consciously realizing it, he obeyed. It had not completely escaped him that she looked unwell, that she was thin and pale and listless, but he'd expected that. Of course she looked unwell, because she was unwell, but that would go away when she got better... but now, for the first time, he really looked into her eyes. What he saw there rattled him. He found himself backing away from her.
"What are you looking at me like that for?" he asked. "Stop it; it's creepy."
"Yeah, it's like... like you're scared of me," he said. "I'm only trying to help."
She smiled sadly. "Takato, you're so determined. "It's the best thing about you... and the worst."
"Huh? What does that mean?"
"When you want the right thing," she continued, as if she hadn't heard him, "you're my knight in shining armor, and I just know you'll protect me from anything. But when you want the wrong thing... I can never quite forget how scared I was."
A brief vision flashed across Takato's vision, a flare of fire that was like a great red dragon with great sharp teeth and flashing claws, and great dark wings that cast their black shadow over him. He shivered and closed his eyes, trying to blot it out.
"What's wrong with not wanting you to die?" he said.
"Because..." For the first time, her voice shook a little, "because it's something that has to happen. We're all going to die someday, and nobody can change that. Not you, not anybody."
"Well, you don't have to die now."
There was a moment of silence as Takato, thunderstruck, tried to work through that question. How could she ask that? It was so obvious. She just couldn't die now. She couldn't...
"I'm moving to a new hospital in a few days," she said. "I've talked it over with my parents. We've talked a lot about it, and we've all agreed to try... a different treatment."
"Will it help?" asked Takato hopefully.
"I think it will," said Juri. "This hospital I'm going to... they have a special wing for... for terminally ill patients. People they know are going to die, so there's no point in dragging their suffering out any longer. Instead, they just try to make them as comfortable as they can. That's where I want to go now."
"No," he whispered. "Juri, you can't... that's giving up!"
"I'm not giving up. I'm accepting what has to happen," she answered. "I've talked to the doctors, too. They know there isn't much hope left for me. It's only a matter of time. One of them even said he's amazed I'm doing as well as I am; he expected me to die a while ago..."
"That's a terrible thing to say."
"It's true," said Juri. "I can... feel it, somehow, like an anchor tied to me, holding me back. I even think I know what it is."
"What is it?"
"You. You're holding me here, because you just refuse to let me go."
She nodded. "I've thought about it a lot, lately. There's a lot of time to think in here. I keep remembering the look in your eyes when I first told you that I was sick... and then all those other times. Every time I see you, there's a fire in your eyes. I remember it. I've seen it before. You've made up your mind that I'm not going to die, and you're throwing everything you have into stopping me. But this is one time when you're wrong."
"What could be wrong about not wanting you to die? You're my friend; I care about you. I don't want you to go away..."
She gave a little laugh that sounded like a sob. "What could be wrong? Everything. Everything is wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you think if I just live long enough, I'll get better? Or do you just not care what kind of shape I'm in, as long as I'm here?" she asked. "Takato, listen to me, and please, please try to understand. I am not going to get better. I can feel it. It's like - it's like having a fire inside me, and it's burning me up inside, like I'm going hollow. I'm afraid if it goes on too long, there won't be any of me left, and I'll just be a shell. I can accept that I'm going to die, but I'm afraid of losing myself before I do. I'm afraid of being so helpless... Takato, please, please let me go."
He choked, feeling unable to deny her anything and unable to give her what she was asking. "I can't. I can't stand it."
"I can't stand this. I'm sick. I hurt all the time. I can barely eat. I'm always tired, and I never get any stronger no matter how much I rest. I can barely move anymore. This isn't living anymore. I just want it to end." In a more gentle tone, she added, "I don't think it will bother me to die. Not much. I'll miss all of you, but I know there are people waiting for me... my mother... and Leomon..."
Her gaze strayed to the picture at her bedside, and Takato looked as well, fixing the framed card with a suddenly angry glare.
"It's him, isn't it?" he said. "You never got over losing him, did you? You want to die because you'd rather be with him than us."
"No!" said Juri. "It's not like that at all! It's just... I do want to be with him, but that's not why I'm dying. It's more like... Do you remember when we were all in the Digital World together? I was never as strong as the rest of you. It was hard to keep going sometimes, but when it got too hard for me, Leomon would carry me. He could pick me up like I didn't weigh anything, and I always felt so safe with him. He was so strong, I felt like nothing could hurt me when he was carrying me. That's how it is now. When all this gets to be too much for me to stand, I can feel him close to me, protecting me, giving me the strength to keep going. He's not what's killing me; he's the only thing that helps me stand being alive. Can't you understand?"
"No," he said softly. "I don't understand."
He wasn't listening. Silently, he turned and walked out the door.
Takato did not go to see Juri again for several days. Instead, he wandered around in a bad temper, not seeming to see anything around him, barely speaking to anyone - not his family, his friends, or even his partner. He was lost in a haze of confusion and could see nothing else.
Often, his wanderings brought him circling the park, as if he'd find a miracle there the way he had the last time he'd met an insurmountable obstacle. In the beginning, Guilmon went with him, confused by his partner's behavior but still loyal. After the first few days, however, Takato's silence grew off-putting, and the dinosaur began to stay home. Takato felt sorry about this, but he was too bogged down in his greater problem to try to work out what he could do.
There was one afternoon that found Takato standing by the edge of a path, watching a crowd of children play. There was an older girl with them, perhaps a babysitter, who was entertaining them, and they all circled around her and laughed as she played with them. Takato watched a while, feeling tears welling up in him. So often, he'd seen Juri here, amusing younger children with her puppet or telling them stories. He'd always imagined her growing up and being a mother someday. She'd deserved to have a happy family of her own. She could have had such a good life. Why did it all have to end now? She hadn't even had a chance to grow up, to go to college, to get her first job, to get married... Why did she have to be cut down now, just when her life should have been starting? With why, why, why pounding in his head like a heartbeat, he turned away and went looking for someone who might have answers.
There was a particular small stream in the park, and a small bridge leaping playfully over it while the water laughed as it tickled its way over the smooth stones and made the water-rushes dance. On the banks of this stream, Takato knew, there was a small smooth bank, and it was here that Jenrya often went to practice or to meditate. Approaching the place, Takato saw his friend moving slowly through a Tai Chi pattern. Terriermon was there watching, but as he saw Takato come walking up with a grim expression on his face, he whispered to Jenrya, "I think I'll go see if Shuichon needs me or something," and vanished into the shrubbery. Jenrya stopped what he was doing to greet his friend.
"How are you doing?" he asked.
"Not so good," Takato sighed. "Jen, you're the one with all the answers. Why do people have to die?"
Jen's gaze turned distant, and Takato waited for an answer.
"No reason," said Jenrya, sighing. "No reason at all."
"Huh?" said Takato, surprised. Jenrya had always had explanations for everything before - sometimes grim, sometimes practical, sometimes philosophical, but he always had something.
"No reason," said Jen. "Maybe I can explain. Here, let's sit down."
They went to the little bridge, letting their legs dangle over the side and watching the water slide by below them. There was silence for a moment, but somehow, through his own haze, Takato realized that his friend was trying to martial the resources to say something painful, and he wasn't going to push him.
"When I was a little kid," Jenrya began, "back before Shuichon was born, I used to have a grandmother who lived a few blocks away from my house. My mom's mother, you know - my dad's family still lives in Hong Kong. Anyway, when I was still too young to go to school, my older brother and sister would go off without me, and I'd be left by myself at home. Well, my mom was there, but she was mostly doing housework, and I'd be left by myself. But sometimes, if Mom was going to go somewhere, she'd take me to my grandmother's house. I really looked forward to that. She would play with me and tell me stories, and she baked the best cookies ever. Every afternoon, when she dropped me off at home again, she'd give me a hug and whisper in my ear that I was her favorite grandson, and to come back soon. It made me feel really special.
"Well, she died when I was about six years old. She had a stroke one day, and just like that, she was gone. I couldn't believe it - if she loved me so much, why did she leave me? I asked my dad why she had to die, and this is what he told me: there's no reason. You can tell the cause - that she was old, that it had been a hot summer and she'd been working too hard outside, all that kind of thing - but there's no reason you can give that will explain it away, to make you say, 'Oh, that's all right, I understand.' When you love somebody that much, there's no reason good enough to make losing them hurt less. Even if having that one person die would have stopped the whole world from ending, it still wouldn't be enough to make you willing to let them go.
"I was a little young to understand that, but I guess I must have felt like there was something important in there somewhere, because I remembered it. I thought about it a lot after Terriermon went away. Dad was right. Even if losing that one person would save the whole world..." He trailed off, lost in memory. Then he shook his head. "Funny thing though... after a while, it started to make me feel better. I didn't have to make sense of anything. I wasn't left going crazy trying to find an answer that wasn't there, and once I was free of that, I could learn to accept what had happened and get on with life."
"You think that's what I need to do?"
Jen shrugged. "What else can you do?"
"I don't know," said Takato. Very softly, he added, "She really is going to die, isn't she?"
"We're all going to die, sooner or later... but I think she's going to be sooner."
"Are you going to miss her?"
"Yes, I am," said Jenrya, "but you're going to miss her most, aren't you? She always meant more to you than any of us."
"Yeah." Suddenly, Takato found himself feeling better, as if a weight had lifted off his shoulders. Juri was going to die, but he didn't have to stop it, and he also knew now that he wasn't the only one who was going to miss her, and that there were other people who knew how he felt. "Thanks, Jen. I'll think about what you said."
"Think fast. You may not have a lot of time, you know."
"I know. I just... need to think."
With a subdued goodbye and a backwards wave, Takato went home, where he proceeded to go up to his room, stretch out on his bed, and think harder than he ever had in his life.
The phone call from Ruki came a few days later. She had just come from the hospital, and she thought Takato ought to know that Juri wasn't doing very well. She hadn't moved or spoken in several days, and the word was that she could end it all any time. With the faintest hint of her old edge, Ruki advised Takato that if he had anything to say to Juri, he'd better go and say it now. With encouragement like that, Takato had no choice but to go.
He hadn't been to see Juri in several days, so it took some doing just to figure out where her new hospital was. He fidgeted on the bus ride, feeling that his time was slipping away far too fast. Once he reached his destination, however, he relaxed a bit. It surprised him what a comfortable-looking building it was, and disoriented him a bit, giving him conflicting feelings that it was hard to imagine anyone being really sick here, but being glad that his friend was at least spending her last days somewhere pleasant. After checking in and making his intentions known, he was told that he would have to wait a little while it was decided whether he should be allowed to visit someone so ill or not. In the meantime, he was sent to sit on a waiting room bench next to a nervous looking young man.
"Hello," said the man, as if glad of a distraction. "What are you here for?"
"I'm here visiting a friend," said Takato. "How about you?"
"My wife is having a baby," answered the man, with visible pride.
"Oh," said Takato. "That's great. Congratulations."
"Thank you. I'm glad to have some company though; this is my first. I'm kind of nervous, you can understand. You don't mind talking a while, do you?"
"No, I don't mind."
"Thank you again. So... what is your friend here for? Nothing too serious, I hope."
"She'll be over it soon," said Takato.
"That's good. I'm glad to hear it," the man replied. "You're still worried about her, though, aren't you? I can see it in your eyes. That's all right. You always worry when the people who are close to you are sick."
"Yeah. She really is special to me."
"What's she like?"
"She's wonderful," said Takato. "She's always so gentle and kind... she's always willing to listen to someone and try to help them with their troubles. She always listened to me when I had something on my mind, and no matter how crazy an idea it was, she always took me seriously. She never gets mad at people when they make a mistake, and she's so brave and patient and pretty... she has these amazing eyes, like you can just see her heart shining out of them. She was the first girl I ever loved..."
"She sounds like a very special girl."
"She is," said Takato. "Very special... Hey, mister, do you know if your baby is going to be a boy or a girl?"
"Not yet. Why?"
"Well, if it's a girl, could you maybe think about naming her Juri?"
The man looked at Takato with a faint light of understanding dawning in his eyed. "I think that's a beautiful name. I'll certainly consider it."
"Thank you," said Takato.
"Mr. Matsuda?" called a nurse. "The doctors say you can go up for a little while."
"Okay, I'm coming," he called. To the man, he said, "Thanks for listening to me."
"Not at all. Go on, now. Your friend is waiting."
Takato made his way to Juri's room. It was a very pleasant place, he notice - not hospital- like at all, having pretty wallpaper and a brass bedstead instead of everything being sterile white. He could only tell that it was a hospital and not a hotel room because of the way Juri lay so still in her bed, hooked to her machines. She did not react as he came in.
"Juri?" he called. "Juri, can you hear me?"
No answer. She might as well have been a doll for all the reaction he got. He came closer, noticing how pale and thin she looked, how paper-fragile her skin seemed and how her face was pinched with pain.
*This is wrong,* he thought. *I never wanted this to happen to her. She was right; this isn't life.*
"Juri," he said, "I don't know if you can hear me or not, but if you can... or even if you can't... I want to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry I ever made you go through this. I just... I was being selfish. I didn't want you to go away and leave me, but believe me, I never wanted you to suffer this much, either. I really don't want you to suffer like this. You're the last person on Earth who deserves to suffer any more, and I'm sorry I didn't see that sooner. I really hope you can forgive me." His voice choked a little as he continued, "I also want you to know how special you are to me. You were my first love - you know that, right? I still care about you a lot. I've never felt for anyone the way I feel for you, and I'll be sorry to see you go. You'll always, always be my good friend. The world was better for having you in it... but you're right. It is time for you to go. I won't hold you back anymore. I'm going to miss you a lot, but I'm finally ready... to say goodbye. Goodbye, Juri. I'll never forget you."
With tears spilling silently down his face, he turned to go. As he did so, he heard a soft voice murmur something he couldn't quite hear. He leaned closer to her, trying to catch the words she was speaking.
"Leomon..." she said. "Leomon, here I am... Yes, it's good to see you too. ... Follow you? I want to, but I'm so tired. Will you carry me, Leomon?"
As Takato watched, she shifted a little in her bed, curling up as if settling into someone's arms. Smiling contentedly, she gave a long, peaceful sigh. Takato watched her a moment, but she did not breath in again. Still, he lingered, looking at the expression on her face. He hadn't seen her look that peaceful in a long time. He walked quietly out of her room, knowing she was happy again.
In the lobby, he saw the expectant father still waiting for news.
"How is your friend?" he said.
"She's fine," said Takato, smiling softly. "I know she is. She's in good hands."