For the moment, things were quiet. Who wanted to wake up this early on a Saturday morning? Certainly not Sam; he was content to enjoy the peace and quiet. It was hard to believe that this boy in his striped pajamas, his hair and blankets in equal disarray, could have nearly been the cause of a multi-universal disaster, but that was just what had happened to him. Only a few weeks ago, he'd found himself pulled into the plot of an evil Digimon hoping to destroy the Digital World and Earth, and it had been only with the help of his brother Ken, the other Digidestined, and of course his own Digimon partner that all of them had escaped with nothing more than a few scars and some unhappy memories. Now he was happy to be back in his home, taking it easy...
Dreaming on, Sam didn't hear the scrape of a window opening. Nor did he hear the soft thuds of paws landing on a desk, scattering pencils and knocking them to the floor, then jumping down to join them. He didn't feel as something hopped into his bed, rearranging his already tangled blankets. However, he did notice as it landed solidly on his chest.
"Oomph!" he grunted as the air was knocked out of his lungs.
"Wake! Wake!" barked a cheerful voice. "Wake, wake, wake!"
"It's too early," said Sam, trying to roll over.
The 'mon on his chest rolled off, but not for long. It tried to climb onto his side, whuffling and licking his ear. Sam giggled.
"All right, I'm awake, I'm awake!" he protested. "Come on, stop it! That tickles!"
He opened his eyes and was met by the crystal-blue stare of his partner. Tapirmon was a Holy Beast Digimon, now his own personal best friend. The little elephant-like animal had rescued him when he had been lost in the desert, alone and half-crazed. Now he was content to spend his days at Sam's side as his companion. Nights, however, were different. Tapirmon fed off of dreams, and he was enjoying being in the human world, claiming that human dreams tasted better than the ones he'd gotten at home.
"Did you have good hunting?" asked Sam.
Tapirmon nodded. "Good, good."
"That's cool," Sam replied.
He sat up and stretched, trying to untangle himself from his sheets. He'd always been a restless sleeper, as if trying to make up for the restricted lifestyle he kept by day by being disorganized in the night. Tapirmon assisted him by biting the blankets and dragging them to the floor, then going through his dresser drawers for a pair of clean socks.
"Can't I even sleep in one day?" asked Sam, going in search of his favorite sweatshirt.
"You said you would work," Tapirmon reminded him.
"Yeah, but not first thing in the morning," Sam replied. He pulled on a pair of old jeans and went about trying to put his hair in some kind of order. It never worked, but he hadn't given up trying. When he'd done the best he could do, he slipped on his glasses. "Well, as long as I'm up, I might as well go wake Ken. He actually wanted an early start today."
With his pillow in one hand, he walked up the hall to his younger brother's room, carefully opening the door to avoid the least sound. The room he peered into was nearly empty, having been cleaned thoroughly after Ken's arrival in his old home. Previous to his return, he'd lived in the Digital World. His reappearance had given his parents cause for a delirious shopping spree, providing him with everything from bedspreads to toothbrushes. However, without a lifetime's worth of personal objects to fill in the empty spaces, it looked painfully bare. The only signs of life were a young boy with his long dark hair spilling over his pillow, his arm folded around a large green caterpillar that slept peacefully beside him. Sam smiled, enjoying the quiet scene... and the thought of disrupting it.
A few moments later, Ken was woken rudely as a pillow was launched at him. He came awake with a yelp and stared around, eyes wide, as if he expected to be attacked. When he saw that it was only Sam, he relaxed.
"Morning, little bro!" said Sam jauntily. "Jumpy?"
"You would be, too, if you'd grown up where I did," answered Ken.
"Hey, you told me to wake you up today! You didn't say how!"
In reply, Ken launched two pillows - his own and Sam's - back at his brother. Sam dodged, but not fast enough. Both the pillows hit him, and one bounced off his shoulder and landed on Tapirmon's head. The brothers laughed.
"Okay, okay, you got me!" said Sam. "I bow to the powers of the Paladin! Now, get up and get moving. Mom's already started breakfast. French toast!"
"I'm up!" said Ken. He bounced to his feet, grinning. "I'm getting as bad as the Digimon about food... but you don't know what it's like living on nuts and berries."
Within minutes, both of them were marching into the kitchen.
"Morning, Mom," said Sam, kissing her cheek as he passed.
"Good morning, Mama," said Ken, giving her a hug.
"Hello, boys," she said, her casual greeting belying her overjoyed expression. After having not seen her youngest son for years, even a simple thing like breakfast together was enough to bring tears to her eyes.
To hide the reaction, she busied herself setting out plates: one for her, one for her husband, two for the boys, and two more for their partners. Having breakfast with a caterpillar and a tapir had taken getting used to, but there had never been a thought in her mind that it should be any other way. The boys loved these creatures, and that was enough for her.
"Hey there, boys!" said Mr. Ichijouji, looking up from his morning paper. "You're up early. What's going on?"
"Got work to do!" said Sam, dropping into his chair. "Today's a big day."
"Really? What are you doing?"
"Going to the Digital World," Sam replied, as casually as if he were discussing a trip to the store. "Gennai called me last night - said he'd picked up some weird fluctuations around the Gate, and he wants me to check them out. Unfortunately, at the moment, I'm the only one who really knows how it works... Besides, Digitamamon's having a sale on those spring rolls I like. I'll bring us back some."
"And what about you, Ken?" asked Mrs. Ichijouji. "Have you got anything special to do today?"
"Don't tell me you forgot!" said Ken.
"Seriously! He hasn't talked about anything else all week," Sam added.
"Oh, that's right!" she said. "I'm sorry, Ken! You've got soccer tryouts today, right?"
Ken nodded. "My friend Davis has been teaching me, and he says I'm pretty good. I just hope it's enough."
"It'll be enough," said Sam. "You know Davis! He wouldn't tell you that you were good unless you were even better than he thinks he is."
"You're good, Ken," added Wormmon. "You'll make it."
"I hope so," answered Ken. He stared down at his plate. "Suddenly I don't feel like eating. How can I fight monsters without batting an eye, but I can't go to a soccer tryout without having a nervous breakdown?"
"It's only natural," his father said soothingly. "You're trying to fit back in with the rest of the boys your age. That's hard enough for anyone."
Ken nodded. Fitting back in with the rest of the world was a problem, when you had been out of it for three years. Just finding a way to get him into the school system had been a job - while he had been ahead of his grade on some subjects, others, like History, had fallen by the wayside. He had breathed a sigh of relief when he'd finally been put into Davis's class, and the redhead had worked harder than he'd ever worked on own his studies to help Ken catch up. The two of them had also spent an enjoyable afternoon thinking up explanations for why Ken should have vanished for three years and then suddenly turned up again. All of them were completely plausible, and none of them were true.
"Eat," Sam encouraged, shoving the syrup bottle to his brother. "You're going to want your energy."
"I guess," said Ken. "I think I'll go to the soccer field early and practice - you know, work off my nerves. Maybe Davis can give me some last-minute tips."
"How about I come with you?" Sam asked. "You know, just to wish you luck."
Ken smirked. "You only want to come so you can visit Jun."
"Well, there is that," answered Sam. "But I'd still like to cheer you on."
"No way am I letting you see me make a fool of myself on a soccer field!"
"You're not going to make a fool of yourself," Sam replied. "But if that's how you feel, I'll just hang out with Jun instead."
"You're going to work in the DigiWorld," Ken reminded.
"I'll take her with me, smarty!"
Ken laughed. "Jun fixing Gates! That would be fun to watch."
"You'd be surprised. She helped me before," Sam replied, "and the less said on that subject, the better."
"That's true. Sorry, Sam."
"It's okay," Sam replied. "What matters is that it's all over now, and I'm never going to have to deal with it again."
"Thank goodness for that!" said Ken. "I loved every day I spent in the Digital World, but I wouldn't want to repeat them."
Sam nodded silently. He was glad that the dark times and the fighting were gone, but... much as he hated to admit it, he was just the tiniest bit sorry all the fun was over. He hadn't even officially been named a Digidestined until after the final battle with Myotismon. What was the point of giving him a Digivice if he was never going to get to use it? Just for poetry's sake, because he'd wanted one so badly when he was going to use it for all the wrong reasons? That wasn't enough. It wasn't enough that Sam had turned around just in time to help out with one last battle, not when he had a lifetime of mistakes to atone for.
*But I guess there's no helping it,* he mused. *It really is over now. I suppose it's just as well, but...*
Out of the corner of his eye, Davis was watching a ball of blue fluff. He could just see it as it crept across his floor, trying to stay hidden. He held up a soccer magazine as a shield, trying not to let the creature see him watching it. It took a few hesitant hops, glanced around - and then made a lightning dive across the room and into an open plastic bag. There were munching sounds and joyful squeals.
"Hey!" Davis yelped. "Nukumon, get out of that! Those are my jellybeans!"
Nukumon ignored him, still happily gobbling the candy. Davis got up and pounced on it, hauling out of the bag, only to have the little 'mon slip through his fingers and dive back in. He gave a growl of frustration and picked it up again, bag and all, and dumped Nukumon out into his hands. With him in one hand and the remains of the jellybeans in the other, he stomped off to find his sister. He found her in her room, listening to CDs, but she looked up when he came in.
"Hey, Davis," she said. "What are you up to?"
"Look at this," he said, shoving the bag at her.
"Ooh, jellybeans! Thanks, squirt!" She grabbed a handful and popped them into her mouth. Davis looked like he was going to scream.
"Those weren't for you!" he shouted. "Those are mine, and your Digimon was eating them! What are you going to do about it?"
"Oh, come on, Davis!" said Jun. "Nukumon's just a baby! He doesn't know any better! He was probably just hungry."
"Don't you ever feed the thing?"
"Of course I do! Nukumon's just a growing boy... aren't you Nukumon?" she added, scooping up the blue powder puff. "Aren't you my big boy? Yes you are, yes you are!"
Davis gave a sigh of frustration. "You're gonna spoil that thing rotten!"
"But he's so cute!" Jun answered, cuddling her partner. "Don't you think he's cute?"
"Yeah, real cute," said Davis, making a face. "And to think I was the one who asked Gennai to let you have a partner! I should have kept my mouth shut."
"You don't mean that," Jun replied.
Davis sighed. "I know. But I still have a right to complain. I'm a little brother - it's in my job description."
"Well, here's something else for you to complain about. I promised Yolei and Kari I'd take them shopping," said Jun, "and I'm going to need someone to look after Nukumon while I'm gone."
"Take him with you," Davis replied.
"I can't do that!" Jun protested. "He's so little! He'll get lost! He'll be safer with you and DemiVeemon."
"You've forgotten - I'm going to soccer practice today. A very important soccer practice, so don't even think about telling me to skip it."
"What's so important about this practice? It's just like all the rest, isn't it?"
"No, it's not. Ken's trying out today, and I've gotta be there for moral support. He's so nervous, he's liable to have a breakdown or something."
Jun looked skeptical. "I can't imagine him having a breakdown. He's made of ice."
"That's only until you get to know him better," Davis answered. "He's been having a hard time getting back into the swing of things in the real world. The last thing he needs right now is for me to vanish on him."
"So Ken's going to be there," Jun said.
"Yeah..." Davis agreed, not sure why she was looking so interested by it and much more sure it was probably not something he was going to like.
"Then DemiVeemon and Wormmon can both look after him," said Jun, in a tone of great finality. Nukumon, sensing his partner had won, squealed happily and jumped from her arms onto Davis's head, chirruping happily as he tried to make a nest in the boy's hair.
"Hey, get out of that!" Davis yelped. He pulled the bird down and tried to put it in his pocket, only partially succeeding.
With her argument already over and out of her mind, Jun glanced down at her watch. "Great! It's time to go already. Take good care of Nukumon for me. You want me to say hi to Kari for you?"
"Uh... sure," said Davis vaguely. He was more concerned with the bleak possibility of spending the rest of the afternoon burdened with his sister's Digimon. "Bring me back some more jellybeans!"
"Because Nukumon ate all mine. Besides, you've gotta pay the babysitter!"
Jun considered. "Fair enough. See ya, squirt. Wish Ken good luck for me. Ta-ta!"
She breezed out of the room, blowing a kiss to her Digimon as she passed and leaving a disgruntled brother in her wake. He sighed and shuffled back to his room, woefully regarding what little was left of his jellybeans, while Nukumon sighed and watched the retreating back of his partner. As Davis re-entered his room, DemiVeemon peeked out from under the bed, blinking his wide brown eyes.
"How'd it go?" he asked.
Davis dropped onto his bed, spilling Nukumon across the blankets. "I'm stuck babysitting for Featherhead." He sighed. "Jun put her hands all over my jellybeans, too. I can't eat these now. Anybody want one?"
There were enthusiastic squeals from the Digimon. They took their places on the floor in front of him, looking up expectantly with their shining eyes. Davis spent the next few minutes amusing himself by tossing candy to the 'mons, watching them scamper around and wrestle for the treats. Just as he was dispensing with the last of it, there was a knock on the door. Davis looked up in surprise.
"Who's there?" he called.
"Ichijouji Taxi Service!" a cheerful voice called back. "Did anyone need a ride?"
"Sam!" Davis exclaimed. "Come on in, the door's unlocked!"
At the sound of Sam's voice, Nukumon's eyes lit, and his crest feathers stood on end. As the door squeaked open, he made a lightning fast charge for the door.
"Daddy!" he squealed, colliding with Sam's ankles. "Daddy, daddy, daddy!"
"Hey, take it easy, Nukumon!" Sam protested. "Come on, let go! Sheesh, knock it off already. This is silly!"
There was a soft laugh, and Davis walked into the living room to find Sam and Ken standing at the front door, Ken trying to stifle his mirth as Sam struggled to keep a blue ball of fluff from clinging to his legs. Every time he shoved the 'mon away, it jumped back as if drawn by a magnet, and Sam was looking thoroughly bemused. Just the expression of bafflement on the normally self-assured boy was enough to make Davis join in the laughter as well. The scuffle was finally ended as Tapirmon pried the young Digimon off of his partner and put his foot on it. Nukumon chirped and struggled, but was unable to escape. Sam brushed feathers off his jeans.
"That's one way to keep him under control!" Davis laughed. "Way to go, Tapirmon!"
"My partner," Tapirmon informed the chirping Nukumon.
"Daddy," it chirped sadly.
"Gimme that," said Sam, scooping up the little bird. "Okay, Nukumon, just settle down! I'm only here for a visit."
Nukumon, now settled happily in Sam's arms, voiced no complaint.
"So what are you doing here, anyway?" Davis asked. "The tryout isn't for another hour!"
"I wanted to get there early and work in some extra practice," answered Ken. "I mean, if that's okay with you. I was hoping you'd come along and help me."
"You don't need help," Davis replied, "but sure, I'll come. Playing soccer is always better than hanging around doing nothing... Too bad I've gotta take the animate powder puff with me."
"What for?" asked Sam. "Is Jun not around?"
"Sorry. You just missed her," said Davis. "She's gone shopping with Kari and Yolei, and I'm left looking after the little guy for her. Of course, since you're his daddy, if you want to take care of him..."
"Hey, he's not mine!" Sam protested. "Jun's the one who came up with that little idea. I'll be relieved when he outgrows the Baby stage. Then maybe he'll drop some of this nonsense. So, you ready to go? I'll see you to the soccer field."
"Sure, let's roll!" called Davis enthusiastically. "Just let me get my gym bag, and I'll be right with you."
He scooted off towards his room, reappearing moments later carrying a small bag, partially unzipped. DemiVeemon peered through the opening.
"Hop in, Nukumon," said Sam, trying to put the tiny bird into the bag.
"No, no, no!" it wailed, trying to escape.
"Sorry, little guy," Sam replied, "but it's hard enough getting Mom and Dad to lend me the car. I don't need to get in another accident because I couldn't keep a baby bird out of my face. You just play with Uncle Ken and Uncle Davis a while, okay?"
"Uncle Ken? When did I get dragged into this?" Ken demanded.
"Just deal with it," said Davis. "It'll keep your mind off your nerves."
"Good point," said Ken. "Anything is worth it for that... even dealing with Nukumon."
"You'll feel better once you've started doing something," Sam said. "Which means that the sooner we get going, the better! Come on."
"All right! Race you there!" Davis cheered, and made a dash for the door, the Digimon squealing as they were jostled around in the bag. Ken watched, smiling.
"What's that smug look for?" asked Sam.
"Just thinking he's going to have to wait for us to catch up," Ken replied. "He doesn't know what our car looks like."
"Good point," Sam agreed.
The brothers grinned at each other as they made their way leisurely toward the stairs.
A heap of rugged red rocks jutted out of the waves of golden sand. The sun beamed down on it, outlining every crack and throwing sharp black shadows. A wind whipped by, tossing up a swirl of dust that spun like a crazed dancer across the scenery. It was an eerie place, this desert, vast and empty save for rocks and scrub. From a distance, this rock would have looked just like any other rock. It wasn't until one drew closer that something strange could be seen about it: an oval of light that shimmered faintly, like a swirl of barely visible confetti.
Today there was something else unusual about it, in the form of a pair of presences that had settled themselves on the rock. Tapirmon was taking advantage of the warm sunshine, curled up in a heap of soft sand. His partner, however, was wide awake. Sam sat cross-legged on a reasonably flat part of the rock, a laptop computer balanced on his knees. He paused in his work for a moment, wiping his sweaty palms against his jeans, and then mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. His clothing was perfectly acceptable for a Japanese early fall, but not for the sweltering heat of a DigiWorld desert. His glasses were sliding down his nose, and he was just reaching up to slide them back in place when...
"How's it going?"
Sam's head jerked around, and his glasses fell off, clattering onto the stone. He reached to pick them up, giving an annoyed look to the new arrival.
"Don't sneak up on me like that," he admonished, setting his spectacles back where they belonged.
"Can't help it," answered Gennai, "unless you really expected me to walk all the way here."
"Ah," answered Sam. "I guess that's an excuse... And to answer your question, it goes slowly. I'm not even sure I know what I'm looking for."
Gennai sighed, letting his flippant manner drop. "Neither do I. I was hoping you could help me with that."
"Well, you could tell me what exactly you saw that made you call me out here in the first place," Sam suggested. "Some kind of interference, wasn't it?"
"Some kind," answered Gennai. "Or that's what it looked like, anyway. The readings I picked up were very faint, but they definitely didn't look normal. And when I tried to pin down the source, I couldn't get a lock on anything."
"Hm," said Sam thoughtfully. "And you took the readouts from here, right?"
Gennai nodded. Sam frowned a bit and began clicking some things on his computer. A few screens scrolled by, eventually presenting him with a line graph of activity around the gate, marked along the bottom with times and dates. Most of the time, the gate activity levels crawled along the bottom of the graph, the green lines looking like a row of grass along the screen's edge. Interspersed between this were several sharp spikes, and Sam mentally ticked them off - his own recent arrival, a trip Ken had gone on to visit some Digimon friends, Cody having a picnic with his mother, and so on through every visit the Digidestined and company had paid to the Digital World in the last few weeks. However, there were other marks there that he couldn't explain, not the clear, sharp spikes that their Digiport travels left, but hazy lumps of static that rose up from the bottom of the graph and never quite made it to the top.
"Interesting," said Sam. "And you couldn't track it at all?"
"Not a bit."
"I see," Sam replied. "I have to wonder... I'll bet these readings aren't coming from the Digital World. I think..." His eyes went dark briefly. "I think someone's in my world, trying to get in here. Someone's trying to sneak through the Gate."
"Where did you get that idea?" asked Gennai.
"It ought to be obvious," said Sam. "Or then again, maybe not. It's all about how the gate is constructed. Here, let me see if I can explain."
"Yes, please," Gennai replied. "I'm not sure I ever figured out how you built this. It's not like the other Digiports."
"Unfortunately, no. Even at my best, I wasn't that talented," said Sam. "They open a direct link between this world and my own. This Gate goes through a more roundabout way. I didn't do a very good job of making it. Not nearly as good as I thought I was."
"Somebody should write this down."
"Don't be funny, or I won't explain any more."
"Sorry. Go on, please."
"Anyway, the first time I tried to open a Gate, I made the mistake of assuming that a hole torn in the fabric of the Digital World would naturally open into this one. That's how I wound up making a one-way gate. I think if the Digidestined hadn't been trying to open a door to my world at the same time I was opening one to this one, the Gate could have opened anywhere. It's lucky no one got lost that time.
"That accident taught me one thing: if I wanted a functioning Gate, I was going to have to find some way of opening three portals - one in this world, one in mine, and then something else to link the two together. This Gate is really more like Gates. It's very likely that whoever is causing this disturbance isn't doing it from this world. I think it's more likely that they're trying to open a portal from the real world and not getting it open completely."
"So what are you going to do about it?" asked Gennai.
"I suppose I'm going to have to check it out," Sam sighed, folding up his computer. "Rats. I don't want to... but it's got to be done."
"What's so disagreeable about it?" Gennai asked.
"It's disagreeable," said Sam, getting to his feet, "because there's only one place in my world the Gate can be accessed from, and I don't want to go there."
"Where is that?"
Sam picked up his computer and began turning away. "The place where this whole mess started... my lab."
Ken was nervous. He'd spent the last half-hour warming up with Davis's practice, taking turns at goal-kicking and dribbling the ball up and down the field. That had been all right, but now there were other people here watching him, and he was starting to feel uneasy. Everyone around him was sporting red and black uniforms, and his ordinary clothes were making him feel conspicuous. So were the stares being leveled at him. He could almost hear the whispers that were running up and down the bleachers, hissing his name. Ken watched them out of the corner of his eye, trying to figure out what they were thinking.
Meanwhile, the rest of the soccer team was trying to size up Ken. They had heard a lot of strange rumors about this boy, thanks in no small part to Davis's vivid imagination and his tendency to answer any awkward questions with wild flights of fancy. The stories concerning the boy and his disappearance ran the gamut from government conspiracies to kidnaping rings to UFO's. There were even a few that said he'd spent the last few years living on his own in another dimension under the guardianship of a bunch of talking animals, but nobody believed them. They believed what they saw, and now they were looking very hard at this newcomer.
There was a little bit of resentment over that situation. After all, Ken had just shown up out of nowhere, begging for a chance to try out for the team, and his parents and Davis had both pestered the coach enough that he'd finally relented. Still, the team whispered, nobody else in the school was getting that kind of preferential treatment. They wondered if it was worth the bother of making this kind of special tryout just for one boy. Could he even play, they wondered? It was hard to tell, just looking at him. He looked like such a slender, fragile thing, with his pale skin and delicate features. His long dark hair framed his face like a blue-black curtain, making his violet eyes look particularly large and bright, nearly childlike. And yet, there was a proudness in his gait, surety of his movements that hinted at reserves of strength that were just waiting to be put on display. He was definitely not your everyday sort of kid, they all agreed. But could he play?
"What do you think?" asked Davis. "Are you ready?"
Ken hesitated, uncertain. From under the bleachers, he could see three pairs of glinting eyes - Wormmon, Nukumon, and DemiVeemon, all watching him. He glanced at Davis and saw nothing but confidence. He nodded.
"I think I am," he said.
The coach marched out onto the field, looking around like a general surveying a roomful of soldiers who hadn't polished their boots.
"All right, straighten up!" he barked. "As you already know, we've got a newcomer here today. He's here to try out for the team. Anyone got a problem with that?"
He waited. He was well aware that his team did have a few problems with that. He did himself. The only reason the boy was here at all was because Davis had pestered so incessantly to give his friend a chance. Davis was a good player, better than the coach liked to admit sometimes, and he'd never seen the boy so dead set on getting anything. He had a feeling the boy would beg for the rest of the year if he didn't get what he wanted, so the coach had decided to just let him have his way and get it over with. He pretended not to hear the soft mutters that came from his team.
"That's what I thought," he said ambiguously. "I want to get this over quickly. We're going to have a trial game. Hayashi." He pointed at a boy who had been team captain last year. "You pick your team. The rookie can have the other team. Choose your members."
Hayashi stared at the rest of the team, trying to make his decision. This wasn't quite fair, he thought. Davis was one of the best players on the team. People who had never played against him before would sometimes be fooled on that count, and who could blame them? Off the field, the boy walked with a faint but noticeable limp, evidence of a mysterious injury he'd sustained some time ago, but once on the soccer field, he suddenly started moving as if there were wings on his feet. Ordinarily, Hayashi would have wanted him on his side, but choosing him today was impossible - he had no doubt that the boy wouldn't play his best if it meant his friend might not make the team. On the other hand, leaving him to Ken would give the newcomer a marked advantage. He decided to do without Davis's dubious help and trust his coach could tell Ken's skill with or without help from his friend. He chose a solid team and watched as the remainder wandered over to Ken's side of the field to plan.
There were a few tense moments at the teams worked out their strategy. Now that things were happening, though, Ken was starting to feel more in control. Davis had already briefed him on the players he'd be working on, their strengths and weaknesses, and left it up to Ken's sense of strategy to work with them. They all crouched in a huddle, listening as he gave them quiet, confident directions.
Then the coach ordered them all onto the field. They all took their positions, Ken moving to the forefront to meet the leader of the other team. They locked eyes.
"Good luck, rookie," said Hayashi.
"I don't think that will be a problem," answered Ken coolly.
A whistle blew. A breeze rushed past Hayashi, making him blink. When he looked again, Ken was gone, and the ball with him. Turning quickly, he saw the newcomer shooting up the field, looking like a blur as he raced toward the goal, the rest of his team arranging themselves around him and their opponents rushing to try to stop them. One of them tried to take the ball from him - too late. Ken hadn't survived his three years in the Digital World just by luck, and now his razor- sharp reflexes gave him just enough time to send the black and white sphere careening across the field, where it was neatly trapped by another player. That boy dribbled the ball a short ways before the opposing players began to catch up to him. Just at the last possible moment, he kicked the ball through an opening to be collected by Davis.
Hayashi grinned. He'd been playing soccer with Davis for a couple of seasons now, and he knew just how the boy played. He was the sort who didn't let the ball out of his possession unless he knew he had no other choice, especially when the goal was so close. He was the best goal- kicker on the team - everyone knew that - so of course he would try to score, no matter how many people were arraying themselves to block him.
Therefore it was totally unexpected when Davis kicked the ball hard and fast toward the newcomer. It was so unexpected that a few people actually jumped in the wrong direction to block a ball that wasn't coming as soon as they saw him move. Meanwhile, Ken captured the ball unobstructed and kicked it easily past the confused goalie.
"Score!" shouted the coach from the sidelines. "I've seen enough. Break it up already!"
With Davis's team whooping and cheering and their opponents still stunned, the game broke up in disarray. The coach went to collect Davis and Ken, leading them to the edge of the field.
"Well, Mr. Ichijouji," he said, "it seems you know something about soccer, after all."
Ken blushed a little. "Not that much. I couldn't have done it if Davis hadn't taught me."
"That's not true," Davis chimed in. "He planned all the plays himself! I just taught him the rules."
"You also coached me every afternoon and helped me practice," said Ken. "And I couldn't have planned any plays if you hadn't known the players so well."
"You're still faster than me."
"You're still a better goal-kicker than me."
"Quiet, both of you!" said the coach. The boys were instantly quiet, staring up at him sheepishly. "I don't care which of you is better at what. You're both very good. As long as you both keep playing like that, I don't see any reason why Ken shouldn't be on the team."
"Yahoo!" Davis whooped, leaping up and punching the air in jubilation. Ken only blushed a little more brightly and stammered his thanks, but the coach cut him off.
"Don't bother," he said. "Listen, kid - don't go thinking that just because I'm making an exception for you means you're always going to get this kind of special treatment, got it? You're going to practice just as hard as everyone else here."
"Yes, sir. I can do that."
"Yes, sir. I'm used to practicing. You should have seen what my old fighting instructor made me go through."
"Fighting instructor?" the coach repeated, thinking suddenly of all the rumors about where the boy had been all this time.
Ken nodded. "Yes, sir. He made sure I could defend myself from just about anything. That took a lot of practice."
"I'd hate to meet this kid in a dark alley," the coach muttered.
"Nothing," he said. "Anyway... Davis, you were the one who taught Ken to play?"
"I showed him the ropes, yeah," Davis answered.
"You and he seem to work pretty well together. It's good to see you improving your teamwork. I heard your grades have been going up, too."
Davis colored a little. "Ken's been helping me study. He's smart."
"I see. Well, whatever you're doing, keep it up. You two make an impressive team. There's an international soccer conference this summer, and we're sending two representatives. Continue like this, and I won't have any problems deciding who to send."
"Whoa," said Davis, impresed. "Thanks, coach! We won't let you down!"
"See to it," answered the coach gruffly. "You can start by stopping this talk and getting back on the field! Let's go! Move!"
The boys moved, going back onto the field to join the others, who were milling around talking to each other. As Davis and Ken approached, the talk quieted as everyone stopped to look at them. After a moment, Hayashi stepped forward.
"Hey, Ichijouji," he said.
"You're pretty good."
"Thanks. So are you."
"You're gonna play like that at the next championship, right?"
"You'd better believe it!" Ken replied.
Hayashi grinned. "You're all right. Glad to have you aboard."
Ken grinned. "Thanks. Hey, what are we all standing around talking for? Let's play some soccer!"
Sam came home in a hurry. His mother, who was busy washing dishes, looked up in some surprise as he came bursting into the kitchen, dumping his laptop and the rest of his impedimenta onto the table.
"Hello, son," she greeted. "Did you bring the egg rolls?"
"Forgot," he answered. "Hey, Mom, mind if I use the phone a minute? I need to make a call."
"Yeah, there was some weird activity with the Digital Gate, so I'm going to go check it out, and I want someone to come with me," he replied.
"Oh," she said, in the tone of one who had not completely absorbed what she'd heard. She settled on asking what was, to her, the only pertinent question: "Is it safe?"
"It'll be safer if someone comes with me. Can I use the phone?"
"Go right ahead," she said.
Sam went to the phone, pausing only long enough to run through the list of his options. There was no point in calling any of the girls; they were probably still out shopping. Likewise, Davis and Ken were at soccer practice and wouldn't appreciate being bothered. He could call Cody, but he didn't think he would. Cody was a tough little kid, but he was still just a kid. What Sam really wanted - though he hated to admit it - was not physical protection but moral support, and it was hard for a sixteen-year-old boy to feel protected by someone nearly half his age. That left only one other choice. He flipped open the phone book, looked up a number, and dialed.
A few moments later, the phone was answered by a woman's voice.
"Hello," said Sam. "This is Sam Ichijouji. I'm looking for TK. Is he in?"
"Yes, he's here. One minute - I'll go get him."
The phone was put down, and there were unclear conversation noises. Then the receiver was picked up again.
"Hey, Sam," TK greeted. "What's up?"
"No idea," Sam replied, "and since I hate not knowing what's going on, I intend to go find out. Want to come?"
"Depends. What does it involve?"
"Well, it's like this," Sam said. "Gennai and I made a check on the Gate this morning, and it looks like something seriously weird is going on with it. From what I can tell, the problem is originating here on Earth, and to check that out..."
"You've got to go back to the lab," TK finished.
"Right. And I don't mind telling you, I'm not keen on going back in there alone. Maybe I'm just crazy, but I can't help feeling like if I go back there, something bad is going to happen."
"I don't blame you there," TK replied. "I might feel the same way if I had to go to Spiral Mountain or something."
"So you don't mind coming?"
"Sure, I don't mind. I'm not doing anything important today."
"Great," Sam replied. "Anyway, Dad took the car, so we'll have to go by bus or something, at least most of the way. I don't think there is a bus that'll take us all the way there. Can you meet me at... hmm... how about the bus stop on lower Seventh Street? That'll put us pretty close; we can walk the rest of the way."
"I can do that," TK replied, "but how are you going to get Tapirmon on a bus?"
Sam allowed himself a grin. "Don't worry. I'm a genius, remember? You just worry about getting yourself down there."
"Right. See you soon, then."
TK hung up the phone and turned to his mother. She was, as was usual, sitting at the kitchen table with her word processor, hammering out yet another article for the magazine she worked for. She looked like she would be perfectly happy to have her son and his Digimon out from underfoot for a while.
"Hey, Mom, can I have some bus money?" he asked. "I'm going downtown with Sam for a while."
"Will you be back in time for dinner?" she replied, not looking up from the screen.
"I think so. Sam's just going to look at some computer stuff and asked me to keep him company." That was close enough to the truth to keep him from feeling guilty, and wouldn't worry his mother.
"All right. Just don't be gone too long. The money's in my purse."
"Thanks, Mom. Don't worry, I'll be back soon."
He went to collect his bus fare and his partner, who flapped to his usual perch on TK's head.
"Where are we going?" Patamon asked.
"Sam's lab. He wants to check something out."
Patamon squirmed uncomfortably. "I don't want to go there."
"Neither does Sam. That's why we're coming, too."
Still feeling somewhat nervous, TK boarded the bus and rode silently to his destination, staring out the window and thinking about what he was getting into. The lab had been Sam's hideout for a few brief days when his own pride and paranoia wouldn't allow him to walk among ordinary people. It was there, too, that Arukenimon and Mummymon had plotted and ultimately succeeded in raising their master, Myotismon. The thought still brought a chill to the pit of TK's stomach. The vampire lord had come very close to finishing them all off that time, and it had only been through a great deal of bravery, quick thinking, and sheer determination that they had all pulled through in one piece - all but Myotismon, of course. Even so, TK didn't have to be the sensitive creature Kari was to know where evil auras lurked, and he wasn't at all keen on revisiting the place where all that trouble had hatched.
Eventually, the bus screeched to a slow halt at the seventh street bus stop, where TK could see a boy with dark, disorderly hair and glasses sitting on a bench. As TK paid his fare and scrambled off the bus, Sam got up and greeted him. He had a laundry sack slung over his shoulder.
"Hiya, TK," he greeted, winking. "Ready to go to the laundromat?"
"Sure am," TK agreed. More quietly, he said, "I was wondering how you were going to get Tapirmon out of the apartment without him being noticed. You're a little old to be lugging around stuffed animals."
"A person would have to be half-blind to mistake Tapirmon for a stuffed animal, anyway," Sam replied.
Away from prying eyes, he let Tapirmon out of the sack. The little animal hopped out and shook himself, his large ears flapping. He scratched them with a semitransparent hind leg and looked up at both boys inquiringly. TK looked away; like so many people, he wasn't completely comfortable meeting those all-seeing eyes. Sam just rolled up the bag and slung it back over his shoulder.
"Come on, this way."
He led the way down a dirty, cracked sidewalk through rows of battered-looking buildings. The further they went, the more deteriorated things looked, and TK tried to shake off the feeling that there were things watching him from behind those grimy windows. He wondered if anyone seeing them from a distance would mistake Tapirmon for an odd-looking dog and gave a short, nervous laugh. Sam glared at him, and he silenced. The quiet was oppressive, enhanced by the growing shadows as the puffy white clouds overhead began to turn sullen and gray. Eventually, they came to a vaguely familiar-looking alley, and Sam turned and walked quietly into it.
"This is it," he said in a near whisper.
"Where? I don't see a door."
"It's hidden, or should be," Sam said. "Arukenimon did something to it, and Gennai helped me bolster it up a bit. Nobody should be able to find it unless they know exactly what they're looking for... which really makes me wonder how anyone could be using it. Ah, here we are."
He walked up to what looked like a perfectly ordinary patch of wall, running his fingers over the concrete. TK couldn't see a change, but he heard a faint whirring. Beckoning, Sam walked through the wall, with Tapirmon trotting confidently at his heels. TK shrugged and followed him.
They followed a sharply twisting spiral staircase and found themselves standing in a dark metal hallway, all slick shiny surfaces without so much as a rug for the floor. There were no visible lamps, but a faint blue glow like moonlight seemed to hover over everything. There were four doors in the wall, and TK tried one experimentally; it was locked.
"You don't want to go in there," Sam told him. "That was Arukenimon's room. Even at my worst, I was never crazy enough to go in there."
TK took his hand off the handle as if it were red hot, and Sam laughed softly.
"This is the door we want," he said, opening the one at the far end of the hall. It swung smoothly and silently open. "Welcome to my little playground."
TK went in. Like the hallway, it was all made of shiny steel, with banks of computer consoles and screens arrayed against the walls. On the floor was a single rolling desk chair, a toolbox with tools strewn around it, and a few empty pizza boxes and other assorted garbage. On the far side of the room was a black curtain, pulled away to reveal more strange machines... and a large black coffin. TK tried not to look at it.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Nothing. Just hang out a minute. Try not to touch anything," Sam replied. "I'm just going to have a quick look at the computer logs and see what's been going on in here, if anything."
"Okay. Mind if I look around a little, then?"
"Sure, be my guest. Just be careful. There are things in here that are dangerous if you don't know what you're doing... or even if you do."
TK acknowledged this and proceeded in prowling around. Behind him, he could hear the whirs and beeps of computers being started, and then some rapid-fire typing, but he didn't bother to watch. He prowled idly through the strewn tools and trash, reflecting that Sam and his cohorts had not only been a lot of trouble, but they'd also been terrible housekeepers. There were pizza crusts left in the boxes that must have been sitting there for weeks. Strangely, they weren't a bit moldy; in fact, other than being a bit hard and stale, they could have been left there yesterday. Puzzled by this oddity, TK began noticing that other things were also amiss.
"Would you look at this," he said to Patamon. "Not even any dust!"
"Or spider webs," Patamon replied.
"That's weird," said TK. "I don't care how well-protected this place is, if you leave it alone for a month or two, there should have been dust or dead bugs or something... but everything looks just like new. I can see my reflection on the floor like it was polished this morning."
"Something's not right in here," said Patamon, flatting his ears against his head. "It feels... dead. I don't like it in here, TK. Can we get out now?"
"In a minute, Patamon. Just as soon as Sam's done with-"
His statement was interrupted by the sound of a low growl. TK jumped, spinning in place in search of the source of the noise. What he saw was Tapirmon, hackles raised and teeth bared, ears slicked tightly against his head as he glared at... what? For a moment, TK couldn't see anything. Then he could see, and what he saw made his blood freeze. Standing behind Sam was a patch of blackness like a deep shadow, transparent but dark as night. It was shaped like a human. It was moving, reaching out its spectral hand towards Sam.
"Look out!" he shouted.
"Huh?" Sam turned, and just as he did, Tapirmon lunged at him hard enough to make the whole chair tip over. It, Sam, and Tapirmon hit the floor with a crash, and the apparition vanished. Sam untangled himself, wincing and rubbing at a bruised elbow.
"What was that all about?" he demanded irritably.
"Something was trying to get you," TK answered.
"What are you talking about? There's no one in here but us."
"I don't care," said TK. "Something was in here. It was reaching for you. You saw it, didn't you, Patamon?"
"Uh-huh," Patamon agreed. "It was all black all over, and it didn't have a face."
"All right, then," said Sam. "Assuming there was such a thing, where is it now?"
"I don't know," TK admitted. "It disappeared when Tapirmon tackled you. Didn't you hear him? He was glaring at it and growling. His eyes were all lit up. It was creepy."
"Disappeared," Sam repeated. "Things don't just disappear, not in the real world. And it couldn't have left the room without opening the door."
"It didn't leave, it disappeared," said TK. "Like a shadow when you turn the light on. First it was here, and then it wasn't."
"That's impossible," said Sam. "Things just don't do that. Anyway, I've got the information I wanted. Let's get out of this creepy place."
TK was glad to get out of the lab, but he was only mildly comforted. As he walked out of the dark hallway and into the dark alleyway beyond, he asked, "So, what did you find out?"
"Weird things, not much of it useful," Sam replied. "Someone has definitely been messing with the computers. There was one major bunch of activity a few days after Myotismon was destroyed, with smaller spurts coming every couple of days afterwards, ending with the most recent yesterday. I'm going to have to take all the info home and sort it out before I figure out exactly what's been done. Wish I knew who did it... and why."
"Maybe the dark thing did it," Patamon suggested.
Sam gave him a superior look, for a moment looking very much like his disagreeable old self. "There was no dark thing. You must have been imagining it. It's easy to do when you're nervous, especially in a weird dark place like that, with all those reflections. I used to see weird things myself, after I'd been working too long without enough sleep."
"I didn't hallucinate Tapirmon growling," TK said stubbornly. "He wouldn't get all worked up over a reflection."
"He was picking up on you two being nervous," said Sam, "and then you yelled and startled him. Now, let's quit arguing about it. I want to go home and get this data analyzed so I can make a report to Gennai."
TK sighed and decided to let the matter drop, for now. He muttered quietly into Patamon's ear.
"I know what I saw," he said, "and it wasn't a hallucination. It wasn't any reflection, either. It was real."
"I saw it, too," said Patamon. "What do you think it was?"
"I don't know... Maybe it was a ghost!"
Sam came home to a lively scene. Ken and Davis were both in his apartment, along with their respective partners and Nukumon. All of them were running around the living room in a show of unfocused activity, whooping and shouting and coming dangerously close to knocking over small furnishings. It was unusual for Ken to show such exuberance, and Sam grinned as he guessed what was going on.
"Hey, Kenny-boy! Made the team?" he called over the hubbub.
"Yeah!" Ken said. "Wish you had been there, Sam - it was great!"
"I told him he could do it with one hand tied behind his back, and he didn't listen to me," said Davis.
"But Davis," said DemiVeemon, "you don't use your hands to play soccer."
"Oh, you know what I mean!"
"Well, congratulations," Sam said, ruffling his brother's hair affectionately. "Knew you had it in you. What are you doing now? Going to Disneyland?"
"Mom's letting us order pizza," answered Ken in his usual serious way. "Maybe watch some movies. I still have a lot of movies to catch up on."
"Victory party, huh? Sounds like fun. Am I invited?" Sam asked.
"Oh, I don't know," said Ken casually. "What do you think, Wormmon?"
"Um..." said Wormmon, who looked slightly baffled by the teasing.
Before he could formulate an answer, there was a knock on the door.
"Are you hiding my kid brother in there?" called Jun's voice.
"You want him? You can have him!" Sam called back.
"Sam!" she squealed.
The door was opened, and in came Jun and a small entourage consisting of Kari and Yolei, who made quieter entrances. Jun herself flung herself at Sam and hugged him, while Nukumon dashed around her feet squeaking.
"Easy, easy!" Sam told her, trying to stifle a laugh. "Not in front of the kids!"
"Hm?" she said. "Oh, hi, Ken. I didn't know you were here."
"I live here," Ken told her.
He was distracted from saying anything more by Yolei, who came up to greet him.
"Hi, Ken!" she chirped. "Did you have a good time at the soccer game? Jun took us shopping, and she helped me fix my hair and pick out some makeup. How do I look?"
She twirled in place, showing off what was obviously a new outfit, more stylish than what she usually wore. She had indeed put up her long hair and was wearing makeup for the first time since Ken had met her. He stared as if he'd never seen a girl before.
"You look... great," he managed.
Sam took a look at the expression on his brother's face and laughed. He clamped a hand over Ken's eyes.
"Enough of that!" he said. "Aren't you a little young for that sort of thing, kid?"
Ken squirmed away. "I happen to be very mature for my age, thank you very much."
"Oh, really?" asked Yolei, raising an eyebrow. Ken blushed furiously and declined to comment.
"Did you buy anything new, Jun?" asked Sam, turning his attention back to his girlfriend.
"Not much. Just some new nail polish. It changes colors, see?" she answered, offering him her hand. He took it and gravely studied the color-changing paint.
"So I see," he said seriously. "Very impressive."
"Aw, man, how can you stand that nonsense?" asked Davis, rolling his eyes.
"I like nonsense," said Sam. "It keeps me from taking myself too seriously. I tried taking myself seriously once, and it didn't work out very well."
"Um. Well, yeah," said Davis, "but I don't take anything seriously, and I think I'd go crazy if I had to spend too much time talking about nail polish."
"Would you like to see my new nail polish?" asked Kari sweetly.
"All right, all right!" said Mr. Ichijouji, coming into the room. "Break it up, kids. The last thing I want is a teenaged orgy going on in here."
"It's not an orgy, Dad," said Sam, rolling his eyes. "We're socializing."
"You were flirting," said Gatomon.
"Hey, there's nothing wrong with that!" Sam insisted. "Aw, come on, dad. It's just harmless joking around."
"He's right, Mr. Ichijouji," said Yolei, shooting a look at her partner. "How much trouble do you think we could get into with this stick in the mud hanging around?"
"Humph!" said Poromon, ruffling his feathers, but he didn't contradict her.
"Hm," said Mr. Ichijouji. "Well, I suppose that's a point..."
"So can they stay for dinner?" asked Ken.
"Please?" Ken begged, making his eyes go wide. He was very good at that; framed by his long hair, his luminous eyes looked particularly childlike and pleading. He'd learned the trick from Wormmon and perfected it on returning to the real world and learning that his parents would do anything for him as long as he looked properly pathetic.
"Oh, all right," said his father. "I guess as long as you're properly chaperoned, it's not a problem."
There was a collective cheer from the assembled humans and Digimon.
"All right! Party time!" Davis whooped. "Come on, let's go to the video place! I wanna get the movies before all the good ones are picked over."
"Great! Let me put my disk away, and I'll be right with you," Sam replied.
He bounded off to his room, listening to the sounds of a good-natured argument breaking out behind him, as the others debated which movies they wanted to watch, and he grinned. The disk was tossed onto his desk and forgotten almost immediately, as Sam left the apartment with nothing more on his mind than having an enjoyable evening.
It was late when the Ichijouji parents finally called a halt to the party and chased the guests out of the house, and it was even later by the time a showered and pajama-ed Sam set aside his glasses, turned out the lights, and crawled into bed. He was grateful for the moment of peace. As much fun as he'd had at his brother's victory celebration, it had still been a long day, and he was ready for some sleep. He sighed softly and closed his eyes.
Bump, bump. What was that? Oh, just Tapirmon making his nightly rounds. The otherworldly animal lived not off of physical food (though he'd eat it eagerly enough if you gave it to him) but on the dreams of living things. He always patrolled the household after dark, protecting the family from nightmares and making sure only the best dreams made it to them, and then he set out to roam the city in search of his own meals. Sam was used to the routine; why was the noise bothering him now?
Rattle, rattle. A breeze was blowing through the open window, tossing the papers that were on his desk. Sam wished it would die down; he wanted to sleep, but the noises kept disturbing him. Why was that? He was normally a sound sleeper, dropping into bed and not knowing a thing until the next morning. Now every small noise seemed to be catching his attention: a dripping sink in the bathroom, the muffled sound of his father's snores. And it was so stuffy in here! Why was that? The window was wide open, and a cool breeze was blowing in, but the air in Sam's room felt still, warm, and lifeless. He got out of bed and stood by the window, taking a few breaths of night air. It cleared his head some, enough that when he crawled back into bed, he could finally drop into an uneasy sleep.
As he slept, he dreamed. In his dream, he was walking through a dark, shadowed world, a place where everything from the earth to the sky was black. The people were dark shades that walked past him in a rush, jostling and shouting at him, pushing him around like a twig in the current of a great river. The scenery was uncertain, but it hardly mattered. All Sam knew for certain was a crushing sense of despair. Everything he had tried had failed, everything he loved was gone, all his chances for succeeding at anything had been snatched away, and there was no one in the world who cared whether he lived or died. The sense of loneliness was overwhelming, worse than he had ever felt, worse even than he had felt when he'd been alone in the desert of the Digital World. That had been numbed by panic; this was far worse because there was a feeling of age with it. Whatever had happened to him, it had been going on a long time, so long that he knew there wasn't even the slimmest glimmer of hope left. It was a feeling bordering on insanity, and he felt an overwhelming urge to scream, to start crying and never stop...
He woke up with a jerk and a gasp, panting for breath, sweating and trembling. So powerful was the force of the dream that he had to stop and force himself to recognize that he was, in fact, safe in his own room and everything had been just a dream. Hadn't it? It had felt so strange, like nothing he'd ever felt before, even in a dream. And why was he having a nightmare, anyway? Tapirmon was supposed to protect him from that. Since the little Digimon had come to live with him, he hadn't had so much as one of those silly dreams about coming to school in his underwear, much less something like this!
Even as he was thinking that, he became aware of a noise, and he turned to look. Tapirmon was standing in the middle of the floor, bristling and snarling, his glowing blue eyes fixed on something at the foot of Sam's bed. Sam looked, and wished he hadn't.
At the foot of his bed, staring fixedly at him, was a patch of blackness that made the darkness of his room look gray by comparison. It was humanlike, very tall and thin, and where there should have been a face, there was only a blank shadow. Two eyes glinted out, red and smoldering like dying suns. Sam stared, petrified, feeling his breath catch in his throat. He couldn't even scream, only sit there frozen, beyond panic, with his heart hammering against his chest.
"Get out," Tapirmon rumbled. "Go. This is my human, and he stays with me."
The dark thing's gaze shifted ever so slightly from Sam to Tapirmon. The temperature in the room seemed to drop a few degrees, and Sam shivered. He had a sudden certainty that this thing wasn't just inexplicable and unnatural; it was evil. There was not a single shred of anything kind or wise or sane, only endless hatred and pain. Tapirmon faced it without fear, and when it hesitated to move, he spat a cloud of pearly white stuff at it - a good dream. That made the dark thing back off a bit, and when Tapirmon stepped slowly towards it, it floated away and phased into the shadows. Sam continued to stare at the place where it had been, and Tapirmon jumped into bed with him, licking his face until he revived.
"Thanks," said Sam weakly. "I'm okay now, I think... What was that thing?"
"Bad," Tapirmon replied. He was a wise creature, but he was also capable of being ridiculously laconic when he felt like it. He began grooming himself industriously, as if he'd had something sticky dumped over him.
"I know that," said Sam, sounding more like himself now that he had something to be annoyed about, "but what was it?"
Tapirmon stopped licking his fur. He stared off into space, looking oddly sad.
"A nightmare," he said finally.
"A nightmare?" Sam repeated. "But I thought... I thought you could deal with those."
Tapirmon shook his head. "I'm sorry."
"I let it touch you," said Tapirmon. "I tried to stop it, but it was too strong."
"It... touched me?" asked Sam, feeling an oozing sense of revulsion. "The dream... Did you see it? It was awful... It was like I wasn't even me anymore, I was just..."
"Everything was darkness," Tapirmon finished softly.
"That's it exactly. No light at all, just darkness."
Tapirmon hung his head. "It makes me sad. I feel sorry for it."
"Sorry? For that thing? But you said it was evil!"
"It was human, once."
Sam almost fell out of bed. "What?"
"Human," Tapirmon repeated. He turned to look Sam in the eye. "You had a nightmare, once."
"Yes," Sam agreed. "You told me. In my heart."
Tapirmon nodded. "It was a bad one. It would have eaten you up, but I took it out."
"That's right. I remember."
"Nobody took his out," said Tapirmon. "It stayed there, and it grew and grew until it ate him up. Now there's nothing left but the nightmare."
"You mean, if you hadn't found me then, I might have ended up like that... that thing?" Sam blurted.
Tapirmon shrugged. "Maybe."
Sam shivered. He didn't even want to think about it. The dark thing had been bad enough when he hadn't known what it was; somehow it was worse now that he knew it had once been someone like himself. Then something new occurred to him.
"You saw it earlier today, didn't you?" he asked.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't want to believe."
"Oh." Sam frowned, thinking hard. "It appeared today in the lab, and now it's followed me home... TK said it was reaching for me. It almost got me this time. It's after me."
Tapirmon didn't disagree.
"What am I going to do?" asked Sam in a small voice.
Tapirmon didn't know.
"Go to sleep, Sam," he said softly. "I'll stay here. I'll protect you."
"Can you, from that thing?"
"It won't be back tonight."
"But tomorrow, and the day after that?"
Tapirmon just looked at him, letting his clear blue eyes fill Sam's world. Sam relaxed, seeing all the little creature's love and loyalty reflected there. Tapirmon might be small, but he was still a Holy Beast, and he was still strong. He wouldn't let anything bad happen to Sam. Nothing bad would happen as long as Tapirmon was here, so he might as well sleep. It would feel so good to rest, to just lie down and close his eyes...
Sam slumped over, asleep before he hit the pillow, and Tapirmon settled down next to him, nudging his way under the boy's arm and propping his chin on his shoulder. He was capable of working the sleep-hypnosis on a tired human - that was easy. Fighting off the shadows of some all-consuming darkness... that was a little bit harder. Still, Tapirmon was determined. This was his human, and he would look after him no matter what. Sam would sleep comfortably tonight, wrapped in his soft blankets and his partner's spell, but Tapirmon himself would keep watch.
The clouds of yesterday had given way to a beautiful new dawn, but Sam awoke in no shape to enjoy it. Despite sleeping under the aegis of Tapirmon's magic, he woke up feeling bleary-eyed and drained. Tapirmon himself was only marginally better; he'd depleted his resources fighting off the nightmare and casting the spell, and since he'd opted to spend the night protecting Sam instead of hunting, he'd neither eaten nor slept and was feeling generally exhausted. Neither of them were in the mood to be rousted from their bed.
"Up and at 'em!" called Ken, knocking on the bedroom door.
"Go away," said Sam grouchily.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Ken. "Come on, get up! Today's a school day, you know."
"I know," Sam replied, "and I still say I don't wanna get out of bed."
"What's wrong? Are you sick?" asked Ken, a little more gently.
"Yeah, I think I am," said Sam. "I really don't feel good today, and I didn't get much sleep last night. Could you ask Mom if I can stay home today?"
"Okay! Hang on."
A few moments later, the door of his room was opened, admitting Mrs. Ichijouji. She bustled over to her son's bedside and began making an inspection worthy of any doctor, looking into his eyes and checking his temperature.
"You do feel a little feverish," she said. "How are you feeling?"
"Just really tired and run down," Sam admitted. "I had nightmares last night even Tapirmon couldn't get rid of. He doesn't feel good, either."
Mrs. Ichijouji looked at Tapirmon. He did look awfully tired, not quite like his usual perky self.
"What do you think?" she asked the Digimon.
"Sam needs to stay home today, I think," he replied. "Bad things were moving last night. He needs his rest so he can fight."
Mrs. Ichijouji felt a momentary chill at that pronouncement; when Tapirmon looked at you with those penetrating eyes and said things like that, it was hard not to feel unnerved. To cover it up, she said, "Well, I'm sure you'll both feel better for a day off. I told you yesterday, Sam, you shouldn't have been running around without a jacket, and then staying up so late... Well, just don't do it again. You two rest up a bit, and I'll check in on you in a little while."
"Thanks, Mom. You're the best," answered Sam. "Oh, and Mom? Could you do me a favor and ask Ken to come in and talk to me before he goes to school? I've got some important Digimon stuff to tell him."
"Of course, dear. I'll send him right in."
She left the room again with a parting admonition to rest and get his strength back. Sam settled back into bed, thanking his lucky stars that he had indulgent parents. He was no longer tempted to take advantage of their generosity - well, not much - but it was immensely useful when you were living the life of a Digidestined. His mother and father would do whatever he or Ken asked of them without asking too many questions. It would be much more difficult, with stricter parents, to come up with an excuse to stay home all day to puzzle over the Gate, the computer data, and the dark thing.
Ken came in.
"Hey, big brother. Staying home from school today?" he said. "Mom told me you were taking a sick day."
"Ostensibly? What are you really doing?"
"Research," Sam replied, "and I really don't feel good today. I had an unwelcome visitor last night."
"You mean there was someone in the apartment?" asked Wormmon, eyes wide.
"Not someone," Sam corrected. "Something."
"A Digimon?" Ken asked.
Sam shook his head. "If only. This was something worse. More like a ghost or an evil spirit. Tapirmon called it a nightmare, or someone who had been taken over by one. It's been hanging around my lab, and now I think it's interested in me. I've got to figure out what it is and what to do about it before..." He trailed off, thinking of the shadow's touch, and shuddered.
"Are you serious?" asked Ken.
"Completely," Sam replied. "Ask Tapirmon. Ask TK - he saw it yesterday."
"What do you think it wants?"
"I'm not going to assume anything until I've learned more," said Sam. "That's why I want you to go on to school, find the others, and warn them. Tell them to stick together, watch each other's backs, and get over here as soon as school is out. Got it?"
"Got it," Ken replied. "Don't worry, Sam - I won't let you down."
"I know you won't," said Sam. "Now go on, before you're late for school. And don't eat all the cornflakes; I want some once I wake up."
"You're awfully casual for someone being haunted by an evil spirit," Ken said.
Sam shrugged. "I've done it before, haven't I? Have a good day at school."
"Thanks. Good luck with your research. And if you need me...?"
"Well, I skipped a few years of school. Another day won't hurt."
Sam grinned. "If I need you I'll call. Now get going."
Ken left the room with one last wave and a backwards glance. Sam waved back, and then dropped back onto his pillow to do some thinking.
*Good kid, my brother. No thanks to me, I guess. He was out there doing some good while I was home polishing my ego. Oh, well, what's done is done. Maybe now I can be of use to somebody.*
Stretching and rubbing at his eyes, he dragged himself out of bed, nearly pushing his partner onto the floor in the process.
"Sorry, boy," he said. "No rest for the weary. Let's get some work done."
The first friend Ken saw when he arrived at school was TK. Normally he wouldn't have considered this especially convenient, since the first people he sought out when he arrived were usually either Davis or Yolei, but today he had questions he wanted to ask. He picked up his pace to catch up to the boy in the white hat.
"Hey, TK, wait up!"
TK obediently stopped walking and turned to greet his friend. "Morning, Ken. What's your hurry?"
"I want to talk to you," said Ken, "preferably where nobody's going to overhear us."
"Is there trouble?" TK asked, catching the worried look on Ken's face.
"Sam seems to think so, and I think I agree with him. He was trying to put a good face on it, but he's scared. He didn't look this scared when he thought MaloMyotismon was going to kill him."
"Did he say what he was worried about?"
"Yeah. He said... he said you saw something weird yesterday. Is that true?"
TK nodded. "That's one way of putting it."
"What did you see?" asked Ken.
"Well..." said TK slowly, "it was like a shadow... only more so. Like a living person made all out of shadows."
Ken sighed. "That's what Sam said he saw."
"So he's admitting it's real now?"
"He says it was in his room last night," said Ken. "Not only is he admitting it's real, but now he's worried about it - worried enough to skip school so he can stay home and try to figure out what it is and what to do about it. He told me to come to school and tell everyone what's going on. He told us all to stick together."
"In case it decides to come after one of us?" TK asked.
Ken shrugged. "Let's hope not. You saw the thing, TK - what do you think it is?"
"No idea," TK admitted. "Patamon was scared stiff of it, if that means anything. So was Tapirmon. If there's anything to be said for animal instinct, I'd say this shadow is something to worry about. Sam might be right in telling us to stay close together."
"Maybe so," Ken said. "Anyway, he said we should all come back to my place after school, so-"
"Hey, guys!" called a cheery voice. "Are you having a party without me?"
"More like a business meeting," TK replied. "Morning, Davis. You missed the news."
"Huh? What news?" asked Davis, coming up to join them.
"Sam saw a ghost last night," said Ken. "TK saw it yesterday. It's following my brother around, and he's worried about it."
"A ghost?" Davis repeated. "I thought there was no such thing."
"Well, maybe it's not a real ghost," said TK, "but it's out there, and it's not good. We're going over to Ken's house this afternoon to hear what Sam has to say about it."
"Today?" asked Davis, looking affronted. "But there's soccer pracitce today! We've got to be there!"
TK gave him an annoyed look. "Come on, Davis. I know soccer is like eating and breathing to you, but you can skip one day in an emergency."
"Maybe I can, but he can't," Davis replied, pointing at Ken. "He just barely made it onto the team. How is it going to look when he misses his very first official practice? The coach'll be steamed."
Ken winced. "Rats. I forgot about that. What am I supposed to do now? I can't let Sam down."
"You won't let him down," said Davis. "Just talk to him after practice. It'll only take a little while, I promise."
"But didn't Sam say to come over as soon as school was out?" asked Wormmon.
"Soccer practice is part of school," Davis replied.
"Not really," TK muttered.
"Close enough," Davis maintained. "Come on, what's the problem? Ken will be okay. If there is something lurking around out there, I don't think it's going to be hanging around the soccer field, and if it is, Ken and I will watch each other's backs. We'll be perfectly safe."
"Um," said TK, looking as if he'd like to argue.
"I'll ask Sam about it," Ken decided. "If he says it's okay, I'll go."
"That's the spirit!" Davis cheered. "Come on - you'd better hurry, or we'll be late for class."
"Right," TK said. "I'll see if I can track down Cody later and tell him what's up. You two talk to the girls."
"Right," said Ken. "Okay, Wormmon, you go hang out with the other Digimon and meet me at the soccer field after school, okay? If I decide to go straight home, I'll pick you up there."
"Are you sure I can't stay with you?" he asked. "I don't want to be left alone."
"You won't be alone. DemiVeemon and all the other Digimon will be with you. You'll be fine. You know you'll get caught if you come inside where all the people are, and we've got to keep you secret."
"I know. I just don't like it." Wormmon crawled regretfully off of Ken's shoulder and scurried into the shrubbery.
"The rest of us had better get inside," said TK. "Talk to you later, guys."
They hurried into the building and found their seats. While the class was still getting organized, Ken took the opportunity to take out his D-Terminal and type up a quick note to his brother, explaining the soccer situation and asking for suggestions. However, once the teacher arrived, he had no choice but to turn his attention to his lessons and leave his other problems for later.
By lunchtime, semi-encouraging news had arrived in the form of an e-mail from Sam.
Dear Ken, it read, much as I hate saying so, I know you know how to take care of yourself, so if you feel like you can't miss practice, go ahead and go. However, I am going to take it as promised that you will keep your eyes peeled at all times, and that you will come directly home as soon as you're done. No hanging around socializing, no stopping on the way back. Keep Davis with you - he may be crazy, but he's good protection in a pinch. I'm back in touch with Gennai, trying to figure out what's going on, but we're not coming up with much yet. Until we know what's happening, I want you on your guard, got it? - Sam
*He worries a lot,* thought Ken, a bit grumpily. *If he really thinks I can take care of myself then why is he fretting so much?*
On second thought, however, he decided he wasn't really as annoyed as all that. It was good to have a big brother who wanted to protect him instead of fight with him. Not only that, but he had permission to go to practice! He showed the note to his friends as they sat around the lunch table.
"All right!" Davis cheered. "I knew your brother was a reasonable guy."
"Yup, the nice, reasonable guy who once tried to pull your arm out of its socket," TK muttered.
"He paid me back for that! He let me push his computer out the window!"
"Anyone listening to this conversation would say Sam sounds completely reasonable, all right," Cody said.
"He sounds really worried," Kari commented, looking over the note. "Maybe you ought to go home anyway, just to make him feel better."
"Sam will be okay," said Yolei. "He's a tough kid. He can handle being worried for an hour. I don't see what the big deal is, anyway. Ghosts and things don't come out in the middle of the day, do they?"
"It was the middle of the day when I saw it yesterday," TK said.
"That was different," Yolei maintained. "You were down in that creepy lab where the monsters and things used to hang out. I can imagine anything hiding down there."
"Ooh, Yolei's afraid of the basement mosnter! Booga booga booga!" said Davis, making faces at her. She yelped and swatted at him, but he ducked away, laughing. Cody glared at them.
"Why can't you act your age?" he asked.
"Why don't you act yours?" Davis retorted. "You're the oldest little kid I ever met."
"Someday I'm going to start eating lunch somewhere else," said TK. "Anyway, I guess there's no point in arguing over it. I think Ken's made his mind up. The rest of us can go to Sam's meeting, and he and Davis can catch up later."
"Don't worry about a thing," said Davis. "I can look after Ken... and he can look after me. Not that there's anything to be afraid of," he added quickly.
"That remains to be seen," TK answered. "If you had seen what I saw, maybe you'd be a little more concerned. Anyway, Ken... good luck with your practice, and be careful out there."
"I will," said Ken solemnly. "I'm always careful. It'll be okay."
*I seem to be hearing that a lot today,* he reflected. *It's funny... the more I hear it, the more nervous I get.*
Despite everyone's worries, soccer practice went off without a hitch. Ken joined the ranks of fellow players and was pleased to note that they actually seemed happy to see him; apparently their resentment at having a latecomer inducted into their group was counterbalanced by the realization that they would be a lot better off with him on their side. Watching him run through the drills convinced them that insisting Ken be allowed a tryout was one of the smartest things Davis had ever done. Growing up in the Digital World, where one wrong move might mean an early death, Ken had developed speed and reflexes that were incredible for someone his age. It was true that his goal-kicking still needed some work, but his defense was unstoppable, and he had a sound mind for tactics. When he combined his defensive talents with Davis's offensive, the two of them were unstoppable. By the time practice was over, it was clear everyone had decided he was "one of us."
"I'm so glad Sam let me stay today," said Ken to Davis as they walked home. "That was fun!"
"I told you, you're a natural," Davis replied. "When you're a natural at doing something, nothing's more fun than doing it."
"I guess so," said Ken, "but now I think we'd better hurry home before Sam gets mad. He's bound to be expecting us by now."
Davis glanced at the sky and then at his watch. "You're right, we are running kinda late. Come on - I know a shortcut that'll get us there in no time."
Following Davis's lead, Ken and the Digimon scampered down some sidewalks, over a fence, and through some back alleys. It wasn't long before Ken, unfamiliar with the city's layout, was completely lost, but Davis seemed to know where he was going. He led his troupe over a bridge and down a side street, passing through the narrow gap between two buildings, where the lowering sun couldn't reach them. It was dark and spooky there, amid the weeds and broken bottles that always seemed to populate such locations, and Ken thought again of the dark thing and Yolei's statement that such creatures tended to dwell in places like this. In the gathering twilight, it was harder to dismiss Sam's warnings.
"Are we almost there?" he asked.
"Almost," Davis answered. "Just a few more - what the heck?"
Davis jumped backwards, nearly knocking Ken over as he tripped over Wormmon. The group took a moment to untangle themselves, with the Digimon complaining and Davis hissing at them to be quiet.
"What is it?" asked DemiVeemon, shuffling closer for a look. "I can't see!"
Ken peered over Davis's shoulder. A few yards away, there was an uneven lump lying on the sidewalk. It looked to Ken like a pile of someone's dirty clothes left inconsiderately in the street. Then he realized that they really were dirty clothes... and someone was still wearing them.
"A person?" he whispered. "Is he... is he... dead?"
Davis took a few careful steps closer, trying to get a better look without actually coming too close. "Kinda looks that way," he said. He was trying to speak casually, but there was a tremor in his voice that said that Digidestined of Courage or not, he didn't like being called on to deal with dead bodies.
"What happened to him?" asked Ken, coming to stand next to his friend.
"I dunno. He doesn't look hurt," Davis replied. "Maybe he OD'ed on something?"
"Maybe he was sick," Ken said. There was a note of pity in his voice; up close, the huddled figure was more pathetic than frightening. His clothes were ragged, torn, and stained, looking as if they would hardly keep him warm. His hair was long and matted, hanging lankly around a thin, tired face. Beneath his pathetic garments, he was terribly thin. The expression on his face was a painful one, as if even in death he hadn't found rest.
"Do you have to stand there staring at him?" asked DemiVeemon. "This is creepy."
"I think we should get going," said Davis. "The others are waiting, remember? We were supposed to go straight home!"
"Sam wasn't counting on this," Ken replied. "Besides, he might not be dead yet. Maybe he's just passed out. We should call the police or an ambulance or something."
Bravely, he took another step closer to the figure, kneeling down to see if he was still breathing. As he did so, one of the man's hands moved, and Ken got a sudden feeling of skeletal fingers closing around his wrist, right across the scar left from his warrior's days, sending threads of pain up and down his arm. With a rasping breath, the man levered himself up from the ground, raising his head so that Ken was suddenly face to face with him. It was a ghastly face, gray and haggard, with deeply sunk eyes that flashed with insanity. His teeth were bared, his breath hissing wetly past them as he struggled to breathe. He raised his other hand, reaching...
Ken let out a scream and jumped away, and the man collapsed face first back onto the pavement. The entire group turned tail and fled, running for their lives without stopping to see if the man might be coming after them. They didn't stop running until they were all safely inside Ken's apartment building and sequestered on an elevator on their way to Ken's apartment. Even there, they didn't say anything. Ken's hands were still trembling as he tried to unlock his front door, but he was saved the effort as Sam opened it for him.
"Where have you been?" he said irritably.
"Shut up," Ken said, voice shaking.. "Be quiet and leave me alone."
"Huh?" said Sam. "Ken, what in the world happened? You look like you've seen a... Did you see a ghost?"
"No," said Davis. "We've just had a completely freaky experience. If you don't mind, I'm going to go sit down."
Ken followed silently into the living room, sitting down on the floor, since all the chairs were currently occupied by the other Digidestined. Davis wandered uninvited into the kitchen to get something to drink.
"What happened to you two?" asked Kari. "We were starting to worry."
"It must have been something pretty bad," Jun commented, "to rattle Davis's nerves of steel."
"We have just had a macabre experience of the highest order," said Ken. "You wouldn't be feeling too good if you had been attacked by a dead body, would you?" Safe among his friends, he was getting some of his aplomb back, but he was still holding tightly to Wormmon for comfort.
"Dead body?" Yolei repeated, grimacing. "What were you doing messing around with one of those?"
"It was in our way," said Davis, walking back into the room with a can of cola in his hand, "and wonder boy here had to go messing with it instead of walking around it like a sensible person."
"And you got attacked by a dead body," TK finished, still looking skeptical.
Ken shrugged. "It wasn't as dead as we thought it was. Actually, I was trying to see if he was really dead or not, and whether there was something we could do to help, and he jumped up and grabbed me!"
"Well, you should know better than to play with things like that," Jun scolded.
"We thought you were a dead body when we rescued you from Myotismon," Cody pointed out.
"Oh," she said. "Well, that was different. You knew me." Nukumon chittered his agreement.
"This week definitely takes the prize for weird," said Sam. "Ghosts, dead bodies... I'm starting to feel like we've all wandered into a B-movie."
"You get used to it," said Kari. "What I want to know is, what are we going to do next?"
"Well, as far as your 'dead body' is concerned, we might as well leave him alone," Sam replied, "unless you think we need to call the police and tell them there's a crazy guy running around loose downtown."
"We probably should," said Davis, "but I can't even remember where we saw him... and he might be gone by the time we figure out where he was."
"Okay, then," Sam replied. "We'll stick to the business at hand - the Gate, and the Nightmare."
"Have you gotten any more information on that?" asked Yolei.
"Not much, but I'll tell what I've got. About the Gate... from what I've gathered, there has definitely been someone getting in and out of my lab. The activity log recorded that there was someone messing with the computers just a day after Myotismon was defeated - a sizeable surge of activity, in fact. Someone was very busy in there, messing around with all the machines, pushing buttons, and generally getting into trouble. Somehow, they managed to get the Gate partially functioning - not well enough that they could actually get inside the Digital World, but enough that they got a door of some type open. It's a little blurry what happened after that, but it looks like they walked through the door, looked around a bit, and came back. Then there was a long stretch - about a week - of no activity. After that point, someone's been coming in every other day or so, reopening the semi-door and going through. They always stay a little while and leave, but it appears the time they spend there has been steadily increasing. The first stay was just a few minutes; the last one was over an hour."
"Strange," said TK. "What do you make of that?"
"Not a lot," Sam replied. "My best guess is that they're searching for a way to make the final jump, from the in-between space to the Digital World. It's possible that they're even bringing materials from here to there, perhaps assembling more machines to help them get the final door open, which might explain the increased visiting time. That's only speculation, of course."
"If someone's making regular trips to the lab," said Cody, "couldn't we set up a guard and see who comes in?"
"Maybe," said Sam, "though it would be hard convincing our parents to let us skip school to guard a door, or to stay out all night. That seems to be when most of the activity is going on - late at night."
"Have the Digimon do it," Jun suggested.
"Right. Nukumon can have the first turn," Davis suggested.
"No way! He's too little!" she wailed, clutching her partner protectively. "Make Tapirmon do it; he stays out all night anyway."
"It would be a lot easier to wire up a video camera," said Ken.
"Good idea," said Yolei. "I think I can get us one of those. My sister's got one she might let me use."
"Great," Sam said. "I'd appreciate it if you get it as soon as possible. In the meantime, I might have to go back to the lab again and wire up some security of my own. I have a few ideas I'd like to try."
"You're not going alone, I hope," said Kari.
"No, anyone who'd be willing to come with me, I'd like it if you came. The way TK tells it, that shadow might have gotten me if I had been alone."
"Have you found out anything more about the shadow, yet?" asked Cody.
"Not much that I didn't already know," Sam replied. "I've been quizzing Tapirmon on it. The most we can agree on is that the dark thing is what you might call a living nightmare. It grew from a human being who allowed himself to be overwhelmed by darkness. It isn't technically what you'd call alive, but it does seem to have some kind of voluntary locomotion - not so much thinking for itself as echoing its original hosts inclinations."
"So really," Yolei summarized, "it's just someone's bad attitude wandering around on its own. Can it do that?"
"No," said Tapirmon, "but I don't think it knows that."
"Huh?" said TK.
"It can't do what its doing," said Tapirmon. "Not for long. It can't exist very long, here in the real world. There's no... source. Once a nightmare leaves its human host, it loses its power. Nightmares never live very long." He looked rather saddened at the thought. "It is agony, being a nightmare. Their entire world is despair, and they can only survive by drawing more from other humans. The longer they live, the worse it gets. They all give up, in the end."
A few of the children shivered, and their Digimon tried to snuggle closer to them - whether for their partner's comfort or their own, it was hard to tell. Davis said, "So you mean, if we just ignore it long enough, it'll go away?"
"It seems that way," said Sam, "but until then, I think we'd all be better off if we didn't go out alone. Getting bitten by a rogue nightmare isn't a pleasant experience, and Tapirmon says this is one of the nastiest ones he's ever seen."
"Do you think the nightmare has something to do with the trouble with the Gate?" asked Cody thoughtfully.
"I don't know how it could," answered Sam, frowning.
"But that doesn't mean it isn't," Ken pointed out. "If I'm understanding Tapirmon correctly, then it's very seldom that nightmares emerge like this at all, and even more seldom in the real world. The fact that there should be one hanging around your lab just when weird things start happening there is too big of a coincidence."
"Point granted," said Sam. "All right, let me work on that."
"Correction," said TK. "Let us work on it. This is a team, remember?"
Sam blushed. "Oops. Sorry about that. Guess I got carried away. Okay, since I've been chairing most of this meeting so far, would anyone else like to make some comments?"
"Not really," said TK. "I think the best thing to do now is just to stay calm. If Tapirmon's right, the shadow will go away by itself in a little while... how long do you think it will take, Tapirmon?"
"Not sure," said the Digimon. "Maybe three days. Maybe more."
"So by the time the week is over, we probably won't have to worry about it anymore," said Cody.
"Right," said TK, nodding. "So we just avoid it for a while and let it burn itself out, and in the meantime, we figure out who's messing with the Gate. That's really the more important issue."
"True," Sam agreed, "and since nobody's actually passed through it yet, we shouldn't even have to worry about that too much."
"But not so much that we don't keep on working on the problem," said Ken, giving Sam a sharp look.
"Don't worry, Paladin," said Sam. "I won't let anyone get into your world - not without our permission anyway."
"So, do we have everything squared away now?" asked Davis. "Because if we do, I think we ought to try to get home before it gets too dark. I don't know about you guys, but I don't feel like the idea of walking home in the dark with who-knows-what out there looking for us."
"Good idea," said Kari.
"For once," muttered Yolei, more out of habit than conviction. "Anyway, I want to talk to my sister about that video camera."
"And I want to do some more work with the Gate," Sam finished. "You can help, Ken. Meeting adjourned!"
The group broke up, wandering off in singles or pairs to find their way back home. Davis walked side by side with his sister, gladder of her company than he usually would have admitted to. No one could call him a coward, but he preferred the enemy he could fight to the mysterious and unseen - give him a nice, straightforward monster any day of the week, not this ephemeral dark thing that had come to disrupt their lives.
As they passed the alley where Davis and Ken had seen the fallen man, he couldn't resist looking to see if he was still there. He was gone, and there was no trace left to show he had ever been there. The sun had slipped past the horizon, leaving behind nothing but the afterglow of a sunset and the pale glow of street lights, making the street seem shadowed and dreamlike. Davis wondered if maybe he had just imagined the whole incident, so unreal did it seem now. He smiled wryly.
*Maybe it was a nightmare.*
Yolei came home to the usual chaos - something that was unavoidable in a house with four teenaged children competing for resources. At the moment, the oldest of the Inoue siblings, Mantarou, was watching a baseball game on TV, while the middle sister, Chizuru, was monopolizing the sofa as she browsed a magazine. The oldest sister wasn't in evidence, and Yolei guessed she was hiding from the ruckus.
"Come on, tag him out!" Mantarou was shouting, waving his fist at the screen. "Oh, hi, Yolei. Have fun at school? Oh, come on, that was so not fair! That ball didn't come within a mile of him! Did you see that? What are you doing out so late, anyway?"
"Hanging out with the gang," said Yolei. "Has Momoe come home yet?"
"I dunno," he said vaguely. "I didn't hear her come in... Hit it out of the park! You can do it!"
Yolei decided there was no point in talking any more to Mantarou. She turned her attention to Chizuru.
"How about you?" she asked. "Do you know where Momoe is?"
"Gee, let's see," said Chizuru. "I don't think she went to Africa, and it's the wrong season to fly to the moon, so... have you tried looking in her room?"
"Because it's easier to ask you first!"
Chizuru laughed. "Get out of here before I hit you with this magazine!"
"I'm getting, I'm getting!"
Yolei scampered away as Chizuru swatted at her, purposely missing by a foot. She wandered up the hall and knocked on her oldest sister's door.
"Come in!" Momoe called.
She did as she was told, tiptoing quietly inside and closing the door. There was something about Momoe's room that made her feel as if she ought to be quiet, probably because Momoe always seemed to be reading or typing. Even now, she had her full attention focused on a thick book, but she set it aside as her little sister came in.
"Hey, there," she greeted. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, hm?"
"Nothing much," Yolei replied. "I just wanted to see if I could ask a little favor."
"A favor, is it?" asked Momoe, raising an eyebrow. "What kind of favor?"
"Just a little one. I wanted to ask if I could borrow your video camera for a while."
Momoe looked skeptical. "You aren't going to do something weird like spy on the boys' locker room are you?"
"No!" said Yolei. "Where would you get that idea?"
"Because," said Momoe, grinning, "one of my friends tried that once. I thought you might have picked the idea up from her."
Yolei giggled. "Can I guess which friend it was?"
"You might," Momoe agreed. "So, if you don't have any dubious purposes for it, what do you need it for?"
"Just a project Sam's working on."
"Oh, him," said Momoe, as if that made everything all right. "Well, I guess if Sam Ichijouji the genius wants to borrow my stuff, he might as well. After all, if he breaks it, he can afford to buy me a new one."
Yolei grinned. "Thanks, Momoe. I knew I could count on you. I'll get it back to you as soon as we're done."
"No rush," Momoe replied. "I don't have another film class until next semester, anyway. Have some fun with it. Just... trust me, you really don't want to look in the boys' locker room. I've seen it, and it's not a pretty sight."
"Uh... I'll take your word for it," Yolei replied.
She left the room carrying Momoe's camera and a stack of blank tapes, reflecting that as much trouble as they could sometimes be, her siblings were still occasionally handy people to have around. She wasted no time in phoning the Ichijouji residence. After a few rings, Ken answered the phone.
"Hey, Ken, this is Yolei."
"Oh! What's up?"
"I got the camera," she said. "It was a cinch. She didn't even ask too much what I needed it for... gave me a couple of interesting suggestions, though."
"Oh," said Ken. "Well, Sam and I are still struggling with these computer things. The more we find out, the weirder it gets. I'm starting to wonder if the things might be broken."
"Really? What makes you think that?"
"Well, it's like this," Ken explained. "To pass from our world to the Digital World, you have to undergo a kind of fundamental change, going from solid matter to digital matter. Anybody undergoing a change like that is going to give off a kind of an energy field, and it's different for every person who goes through, kind of like an electric thumb-print. I've managed to get readings for all of the people we know for sure have gone through the Gate or the Digi-ports at any point, and then I took a reading for whatever's trying to sneak through now."
"You didn't recognize it, did you?" asked Yolei.
"Almost," said Ken. "I've managed to pick out two fairly distinct readings - sometimes just one goes through, sometimes both. The important thing is, their readings almost exactly match the readings given off by Arukenimon and Mummymon."
"You think they might be up to something?"
"No, I don't think so. For one thing, all the readings are from Earth going in, not from the Digital World out. For another, Gennai's had his spies keeping an eye on them, and he says they haven't been causing too much trouble - not more than you'd expect for a Virus Digimon, anyway, and they haven't shown any interest in going back to Earth," said Ken. "My personal theory is that the computer's got a glitch in it, and it's spitting back old records from when they were still trying to punch their way in. Sam doesn't believe it, but then again, Sam's the same guy who throws a fit if someone eats all the cornflakes without telling him first."
Yolei giggled. "Well, nobody's perfect. You should hear some of the things my big brother is saying to the TV. His baseball team is losing. Anyway, this should all be figured out as soon as I get this camera in place."
"I admit, I'll be curious to see what it picks up," said Ken. "Until then, I think I'll feel better if I at least act like I'm working on the problem. When are you going to set the camera up?"
Yolei considered. "Probably tomorrow after school. If I go out alone now, I think Sam would skin me alive."
"He wouldn't do that," said Ken. "He'd think of something more creative. Anyway, nice talking to you, Yolei, but if I don't get back to work, I'll be the one Sam skins. See you tomorrow!"
"Bye, Ken! Watch out for Yosemite Sam."
She hung up the phone and looked around the room. Her sister's camera was lying innocently on the counter next to her, and her impulsive nature was telling her that she ought to go out right now and get her job done. On the sofa, Chizuru had given up on her magazine and was now busy painting her nails, while Mantarou continued to rail at the television. She could distantly hear the sound of her father shuffling papers as he worked on bills and invoices for the store, the sound of her mother humming as she made dinner, and some soft classical music coming from Momoe's room. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Poromon sitting on a chair, pretending to be a stuffed animal. It was a busy, noisy, crazy household, but when Yolei thought about what might be lurking outside in the darkness, it also felt warm and secure. She decided to save her project until tomorrow.
By the next day, Yolei found it hard to believe that she'd ever been even a little bit worried about the presence of dark shadows and things that went bump in the dark. The weather was beautiful - unseasonably warm, without a cloud in sight, and despite the fact that it was still the middle of the school year, everyone was acting as if summer vacation were just around the corner. Even the teachers seemed to sense that their students weren't inclined to pay attention today, giving relaxed lectures and hardly any work. Yolei was in a good mood as she headed for her locker at the end of the day.
"Hey, Yolei," TK greeted from a few lockers down. "All ready to go to Sam's lab?"
"Sure," she said. Then she stopped. "No, wait... Darnit! I left the camera in my room."
TK shrugged. "Guess you'll just have to go back and get it, then. We're not really in a rush."
"I guess not," Yolei sighed, "but I can think of things I'd rather do with my time. Do you want to come with me? I could stand some company."
"No thanks. Once is enough," TK replied. "Though if you don't know the way..."
"That's okay. Sam e-mailed me last night with the directions. I've got them all saved to my D-Terminal," Yolei replied. "Thanks for offering, though."
"I'll come," Cody offered.
"Oh, no, you don't have to do that."
"It's not a problem. I have to follow you back to the apartment, anyway," said Cody.
"Besides, you shouldn't go to the lab alone. That thing might still be there."
Yolei personally didn't believe there was any mysterious thing lurking around Sam's lab, but Cody looked so serious and so determined that she didn't feel inclined to say so out loud.
"You could be right," she said. "I'm sure I'll enjoy your company."
On the walk home, Yolei decided that having Cody come along with her was really not such a bad idea. She'd always had a bit of a soft spot for the boy; his family had lived in the same building as Yolei for years, long before she had been born. Her sisters had baby-sat for him while he was growing up, and she herself thought of him as something like a younger sibling - a solace to the youngest child in a large family. At the same time, he seemed to have more maturity than Yolei herself, not to mention a lot of the people who were older than her. With that serious expression, made more adult by those intense green eyes and a thin scar across one cheek (souvenir of an old monster battle), even looking at him wasn't enough to immediately reassure her that he was still several years her junior. He would be a good companion for visiting a supposedly haunted place.
Cody was characteristically silent on the bus ride to the lab, and Yolei filled the time by fiddling with the camera, making sure its batteries were charged, the tape was properly wound, and everything was generally as it should be.
"Smile for the camera!" she told Cody, pointing it at him.
Cody responded by picking up Upamon and holding him in front of his face. The little 'mon gave her a wide grin and wiggled his ears, and Yolei laughed.
"You're the most serious kid in the world, Cody," she said, "but I like you anyway."
Cody put Upamon down. He was smiling.
They were both in good spirits when they reached the bus stop, and the walk to the lab was actually quite pleasant. Yolei enjoyed a secret sense of smugness; the boys were all a little crazy, thinking there were spooks out here! All it took was a few shadows and ugly old buildings, and they went to pieces. In a neighborhood like this, she was more afraid of a building falling on her than of a ghost.
"This will only take a minute," she told Cody, as she began checking around for the door Sam had told her about. As he'd said, the wall looked completely solid, but when she ran her hand over it, she could feel the edges of a doorframe and a carefully concealed latch. When she pressed it, she heard something click and felt the door slide open, but there was no visible difference to the wall. With a shrug, she and Poromon slipped through the invisible opening and went looking for a likely spot to put the camera.
Meanwhile, Cody was passing the time by prowling around the alley, hunting for clues. He couldn't bring himself to share Yolei's belief that there was nothing to worry about, or that the something in question might not be supernatural. If there could be Digimon and other dimensions, why not ghosts or nightmares? He'd grown up listening to his grandfather tell stories about Japan's wide variety of legendary creatures, and was prepared to be open-minded on the subject. Still, that didn't mean he might not find some trace of the intruder's passage.
"See anything, Upamon?" he asked.
"No," the 'mon replied, "but I smell something. Somebody's been here besides us... but it's weird."
"Is it a human?"
"It's hard to tell. It smells kind of like a human being, but..."
He trailed off, pricking up his ears. Cody stopped to listen. He could hear footsteps coming up the sidewalk, heavy and shuffling, moving at an uncertain gait. Cody froze, evaluating his situation. He was standing alone in a dead-end alley, and the only escape was to move directly toward the approaching footfalls.
*It's going to be okay,* he told himself. *There's no reason why they should look this way; they're going to walk right on by...*
A shadow fell across the alleyway, giving Iori a view only of a tall, dark figure. He froze.
"Yolei... Yolei, come here..." he tried to call, but it came out as a strangled whisper.
The dark person, whoever it was, continued shuffling slowly closer, and Cody tried to back away until his back hit the fence at the end of the alley. He could see the man clearly now - his filthy hair and skull-like face, set with the darkest eyes he'd ever seen. The stranger's breath rasped audibly as he staggered slowly forward, staring straight ahead of him, zombie-like.
Suddenly, his gaze snapped down onto Cody.
"What are you doing here?" he barked.
"I - I was -" Cody stammered.
"I told you never to come here! Didn't I tell you never to come here?"
Since he hadn't done any such thing, Cody didn't answer. He stared up at the strange man, who now appeared to be glaring fixedly a point somewhere above Cody's head.
"... told you ... not to ... said you'd listen ..." he muttered. "Why didn't you listen? You were supposed to listen to me. You said you'd listen. Why didn't you... why..."
His strength seemed to run out, and he slumped against a wall, still muttering, carrying on conversations with people only he could see. Slowly, Cody began to edge past him, but he need not have bothered. He could have been invisible for all the attention that was paid to him. The boy slipped through the invisible door and found Yolei at the far end of the hallway, tinkering around with some wires.
"Is this too conspicuous?" she asked.
"Never mind that," said Cody. "There's somebody outside!"
"What? I didn't hear anything."
"Well, he's there, and he just about scared me half to death."
"Do you think he's the one breaking in here?" asked Yolei.
"I don't think so," said Cody, frowning. "He'd need to be thinking clearly to use the computers. He's out there talking to a wall now, so I don't think he's thinking very clearly."
"Oh...kay," said Yolei slowly. "What are we going to do about him? Just wait for him to go away? Or make him go away?"
Cody looked uncomfortable. "I don't... really want to go near him again. I'm not scared or anything, but..."
"Well, I don't really want to stay down here all day," Yolei replied.
"Maybe we can just sneak past him?" Upamon suggested. "I don't think he really knows we're here. He didn't seem to see us."
"That might work," said Cody thoughtfully. "He couldn't move very fast... I don't think he could follow us even if he wanted to."
Yolei nodded resolutely. "Okay, then."
They stepped back out the hidden door. The man was still there, slumped against the wall, continuing to mumble to himself. As they crept slowly by him, he continued to stare off into space without registering their presence. The narrow alley was just barely big enough for the three people, and Yolei held her breath as she stepped carefully over his outstretched legs. As she passed in front of him, she could see that there were tears coursing down his grimy face as he pleaded with the air.
"...broke your promise, both of you... promised you'd bring me along... Please, take me with you, don't go without me, please..."
His rambling broke up into incoherent sobbing, and he slumped over onto the ground. Upamon had to jump quickly to avoid being squashed. Out of his unnerving gaze, the children scrambled to get out of the alley and into the sunlight. The ride back to their apartment was very quiet. Cody was rattled by the experience and didn't feel like talking, and he assumed that his friend's silence was due to a similar condition. Actually, she had something on her mind.
As soon as she arrived home, Yolei went in search of the telephone. It wasn't hard to find; her father was holding it and shouting into it. From what Yolei could glean, it sounded like a shipment of something-or-other had gotten lost in transit, and her father was trying to figure out what had become of it and whether he could get his money refunded. He didn't look like he'd appreciate being interrupted, so his daughter sat and fumed until he finally hung up, somewhat flushed but smiling with success.
"Glad they were willing to see reason," he said. "It'll be here on Tuesday, and we get a ten percent discount. Not bad."
"That's great, Dad," said Yolei. "Can I use the phone now?"
"Take a number. Wait in line."
"What? Who else needs it?"
"I don't know," said Mr. Inoue. "Chizuru, phone's free!"
"No, it's not!" Yolei protested. "I have to call Ken! It's important."
"You called him yesterday," said Chizuru, striding into the room. "And you saw him all day at school today."
"I did not. We're in different classes and you know it. Gimme the phone."
"Because once you get on it, you won't get off until about eleven o'clock tonight, and I won't have time," said Yolei.
"Tough luck. There's a party coming up next week, and I need to find a date. Of course, if you were to help me, then I wouldn't need the phone..." Yolei sighed. "How am I supposed to help you get a date?"
"Well, I was sort of hoping to go with Tai Kamiya, and his sister's kind of your best friend, so I thought maybe..."
"Oh!" said Yolei. "Well, maybe I can work on that, then. But no promises!"
"I have complete faith in you," Chizuru replied. She tossed her sister the phone. "Have fun!"
"Thanks," Yolei said dully. Under her breath, she muttered, "If I didn't know better, I'd say she planned that."
She punched a familiar number into the phone. It rang only once before being answered with a quiet, "Hello?"
"Ken, you must have been sitting on the phone," said Yolei.
"I'm guarding it," Ken replied. "Sam got tired of working and went to sleep, and he warned me not to let anything wake him up."
"How come he gets to sleep on the job?" Yolei asked.
"He was tired," answered Ken simply. "He's been working harder than he can really afford to. Now he says he's run out of ideas and needs to sleep on the problem a while."
"Do you think it will do any good?" asked Yolei.
"It might. Having Tapirmon around is good for encouraging useful dreams. Anyway, what were you calling about? It wasn't to talk about my brother, I'm sure."
"No," answered Yolei. "Actually, I think I ran into your dead body today."
"What?" Ken exclaimed.
"The guy you found in an alley," Yolei said patiently. "Unless there's more than one scary- looking crazy guy running around loose, which I guess is possible, but..."
"What did he look like?" Ken asked.
"Um. Kind of tall and pale, with long black hair - I guess it was black - and a ratty-looking old coat. Is that the guy you saw?"
"Sounds like it," said Ken. "Where did you see him?"
"Outside the lab."
"What was he doing there?"
"Talking to a wall," Yolei said. "I think he's playing with a short deck."
"That's weird," said Ken. "That lab is miles away from here, and Daisuke and I saw the guy close to home. He couldn't possibly have walked all that way - he could barely even sit up."
"Didn't look much like he had money for a taxi, either," Yolei agreed. "Weird."
"Kind of a coincidence he'd be hanging around Sam's lab, isn't it?"
"I thought so, too. That's why I called."
"Well, thanks, Yolei. I'll tell Sam when he wakes up."
"Okay. You two take care of yourselves. I've got to go now."
"Do you? You can stay and talk if you want. It'll be a relief to talk to someone besides Sam about something besides computers and data and Digital Gates."
"Oh. Well, maybe I'll call again later, then. Right now, though, I've got to call the Kamiyas and make some negotiations."
"Take my word for it, it's complicated. Later, Ken."
"Bye, Yolei. Call again soon."
"Will do. Bye!"
Reluctantly, she hung up on her boyfriend and went to see what she could do about improving her sister's love life.
Sam slept. Anyone looking at him would have wondered how he was possibly getting any rest at all, precariously as he was perched. He had originally been lying neatly on the sofa, but that hadn't lasted very long; now one leg and one arm had slid over the edge, and the other arm had been draped over the arm of the sofa. The other foot was propped on Tapirmon's back, who bore the treatment stolidly. It looked as if the only reason Sam was still on the sofa at all was because he wasn't awake enough to realize he was supposed to fall off.
However, even deep sleep wasn't enough to make the young genius's mind stop working. He had concentrated on the same problem that he was literally working on it in his dreams. He'd fallen asleep mulling over the confusing figures he and his brother had unearthed the day before, trying to force himself to recognize the patterns he knew instinctively were there, if only he could see them...
After a time, though, he drifted off into dreams, the curiously sharp, realistic dreams that came from keeping close company with a Taprimon. In his dream, he was walking down the alley that led to his lab, passing through the hidden doorway and walking down into the hidden tunnels below the ground. There were voices in the room ahead of him, so he moved inexorably forward to see who was speaking.
At last, he was looking into his lab, and he was surprised to see that there were people in there - himself, Jun, Arukenimon, Mummymon, and... even in his sleep, Sam shuddered as he recognized Myotismon. He turned around to watch as Sam entered the room, smiling and showing off his sharp white fangs.
"So, you've returned," he said. "Of course, you'd think that was your right, wouldn't you? You were always an arrogant boy. Even now, you still call this your place, though you fear it in your heart because you know it has always belonged to me."
Sam tried to stammer a disclaimer, but found that his vocal chords didn't seem to work.
Myotismon seemed to understand anyway, for he waved a hand dismissively.
"Don't try to argue with me, boy. Even in dreams, I am not generous with favors."
Sam was shocked into not even trying to speak. He'd been in dreams where he'd known he was dreaming, but he'd never had a dream tell him so.
"You have never owned this place," said Myotismon, slowly stepping forward. "It was another pair of hands that followed my instructions, fitted this all together so one cleverer than he could finally complete my great plan. I disposed of him... just as I will now dispose of you!" His hands shot out to seize him, and Sam gave a cry as he felt himself thrown off his footing...
He finally fell off the sofa and hit the floor with a thud. The dozing Tapirmon gave a squeak of surprise.
"Umph!" Sam muttered into the carpet.
"Hey, are you okay?" said Ken, who'd been sitting and reading in a nearby armchair.
"Just dandy," Sam replied, fumbling around for his glasses. "Don't you know? I fall off sofas all the time for fun. I predict it will be the next big sport."
"You really are a grouch when you first wake up," said Ken.
"You would be, too, if you'd had the dream I had," Sam replied. He'd finally found his glasses only to learn that they had been slightly bent when he'd fallen, and was now trying to straighten them out. "I was back in the lab, getting lectured by Myotismon. Man, even after he's dead, he's still got to hound me."
"Oh, that reminds me," said Ken. "Speaking of dead, Yolei says she ran into that man again."
"The one Daisuke and I saw the other day. The one we thought was dead and wasn't."
"Really? That's kind of a coincidence," Sam replied. "Are you sure it was the same one?"
"Sure as I can be. Yolei described him to me, and the descriptions match up," Ken replied.
"And if you think that's a coincidence, guess where she saw him?"
"It's not my lab," said Sam automatically. If Myotismon was mad at him for calling him that, he deemed it wisest not to call it that anymore. Then he halted and mentally backed up a few paces.
"Wait a minute. She saw him at the lab?"
"That's what I said?"
"Interesting... very interesting." Sam frowned, looking thoughtful. "You know, I wonder... No, I don't wonder, I am absolutely positive!"
"About what?" asked Wormmon, blinking in puzzlement.
Sam was clearly not paying attention.
"And here I always thought he meant... Huh? Did you say something, Wormmon?"
"He wants to know what you're talking about," said Ken. "So do I, as a matter of fact.
What are you so worked up about?"
"I know who's getting into my lab."
"Really?" asked Ken. "Who?"
Sam shrugged. "No idea."
"You're not making any sense," Wormmon complained.
"Seriously," Ken agreed. "You sound like Tapirmon."
"Okay, let me back up and see if I know what I'm talking about," said Sam. "I wasn't the one who built the lab. It was already there when I moved in, and I just tinkered with things as I needed to. Somebody else put all the equipment into place, someone else working for Myotismon who knew enough about the business to build the kind of sophisticated machinery it would take to open a Digital Gate... but apparently not enough to build the Gate itself. Hence, Myotismon's need for me. I'm guessing Myotismon didn't want the guy cluttering things up after that; he told me he disposed of him. I always thought that meant Myotismon killed him. Now I wonder. Myotismon wouldn't be squeamish about killing somebody; you'd think he would be bragging about it. So... what if he never killed the designer? What if he's still out there?"
"You think so?" asked Ken. "Why would he still be hanging around the lab? If it were me, I'd want to stay as far away as I could."
"I'd think it was obvious. He wants in. He wants to get into the Digital World, but he doesn't know how I did it, so he's been sneaking into the lab every chance he gets, poking around, trying to find a way."
"Okay, maybe that's plausible," said Ken, "but what about the energy signature? You said it matched Arukenimon and Mummymon's signatures almost perfectly. How do you explain that?"
"Easy. The designer's signature matches theirs because theirs was copied from his. Myotismon told me that, too. He wanted creatures that could travel between the human world and the Digital World, so he made Arukenimon and Mummymon from a human's DNA - the same human that built the computers. They've got the same DNA as he does, so of course their energy patterns are going to be similar to his."
"Then why are there readings for two people, hm?" asked Ken.
Sam opened his mouth to reply. He shut it again. "Um. I hadn't thought of that."
There was a moment of silence. Then a small voice said, "I think I might know."
Everyone turned to look at Wormmon.
"Really?" asked Sam. "What's your idea?"
"I think it might be the Nightmare," answered Wormmon.
Sam looked at Tapirmon. "Is that possible?"
Tapirmon shrugged. "I'm not sure."
"Well, that's a big help," Sam sighed.
"You know," said Ken, "I think what we really need to do is find this guy and ask him a few questions. If we can. Or at least get close enough that we can get some readings and find out for sure if the man Daisuke and I saw is the same one that's trying to open the gate. Or had the Nightmare, for that matter."
"And how are we going to do that?" asked Ken.
Sam shrugged. "We look for him."
"Are you sure this is really necessary?" Davis complained.
"Of course it's necessary," said Sam. "If we're going to ask the guy some questions, we have to find him first. Unless you propose we call him on the phone."
"I don't think he'd talk to us if we found him," said Yolei dubiously. "Last I heard from him, he didn't seem very coherent."
"Well, we've got to find him anyway," said Sam, and Tapirmon nodded his approval.
"Even if it turns out I am wrong - which I am not - we can at least get him off the streets before he causes any more trouble."
Yolei sighed resignedly.
"I wanted to be in Ken's group," she whispered to Davis, "and he wouldn't let me."
"Because he wants you paying attention," said Poromon.
"I can pay attention!"
"But you're supposed to pay attention to your work, Yolei, not to Ken."
Davis laughed quietly. "Whoever picked your Digimon knew what they were doing. They gave you one to keep you out of trouble."
"Too bad they didn't do the same for you," Yolei shot back.
TK said, "Both of you quit arguing and pay attention."
The team of Digidestined had split into two sections, so as to cover more ground but still have enough people together that they would be reasonably well protected. No one had been completely happy with the divisions, but in the end, they had agreed to go along with the plan. Now they were scouring the city, one group beginning at the entrance to the lab, and the other from the place where Ken and Davis said they had seen the strange man.
"Well, I think we've covered this street pretty well," said Sam. "Where are we going next?"
TK consulted a map. "Go to the end of the block and turn left. Then we go up another block and-"
The phone rang. Everyone jumped, and DemiVeemon gave a little squeak as he fell off the edge of a sidewalk in surprise. Davis answered the phone.
"What's up?" he said.
"Davis," said Jun's voice, "it..."
She didn't seem to be able to get any further. Her brother's face creased in worry.
"Jun, snap out of it," he commanded. "Tell me what happened!"
"It got them."
"Kari and Cody. It just kind of grazed the rest of us, but..."
"Ohmigosh," he said. "Where are you now?"
"Over by the park," she said vaguely. "Hurry."
"We're coming. Just hang on."
Davis snapped the phone shut and began running.
"Come on," he shouted over his shoulder.
"What? Where are you going?" Sam demanded.
"To the park," Davis shouted back. "Something's happened. We've gotta get there now."
The others glanced at each other for a second, and then took off after Davis as fast as their feet, wings, or paws could carry them.
They arrived at the park in a straggling line, with Davis and DemiVeemon in the lead and Yolei panting along in back as Poromon tried to shove her forward. The group they found was equally disorganized. Jun was sitting at the base of a tree, apparently scared witless but otherwise unharmed, while Ken and Wormmon stood keeping watch over her.. Kari looked worse; she was curled up on the ground a shivering ball, with Gatomon doing her best to comfort her. The normally calm Cody looked to be getting over a case of hysterical crying. His face was still wet with tears, and he sniffled and hiccuped while Upamon and Ken tried to get him under control again. He looked up as he heard the others approach, but Kari stayed where she was.
"What happened here?" asked Sam, surveying the chaos.
Jun shook herself free of her daze and went to greet the others. Her Digimon partner was noticeably absent, and Davis raised an eyebrow.
"Where'd Nukumon go?" he asked.
"He took off after it," said Jun, her eyes dark with worry. "It was the dark thing, Sam, just like you said. We were just walking up the path, and it came out of the trees and... and..."
"It's okay," Sam said soothingly. "Just take a deep breath."
"I don't know what it did," she said. "It just came walking out of the shadows, and it got between me and the others... It brushed me when it went by. It was so cold. Not cold, but when it touched me, I felt chills all over. It went after Ken, but it didn't seem to like him, for some reason. Maybe because Wormmon kept jumping in front of him. Then it turned on Kari, and Gatomon couldn't keep it away. She screamed and went like she is now. Then it went after Cody. Then Nukumon jumped at it and started carrying on and blowing bubbles, so it ran off again, and Nukumon chased it."
"That's weird," said Sam. "How come a little baby like Nukumon could keep the thing away, but Gatomon couldn't?"
"That's not weird," said TK. "Nukumon's innocent. He doesn't know what it's like to be scared and alone - he just knows that Jun's always there to protect him, so he doesn't know how to be afraid. The shadow couldn't get hold of him. Gatomon, well... she's been through some rough stuff."
"I didn't like it," said Gatomon, ears drooping. "I tried to protect Kari, but that shadow... it made me think of being back in Myotismon's army again, when I was all alone and hurting and didn't have Kari or Wizardmon or anyone to protect me. I couldn't fight it."
"It's okay," Davis assured her. "You did your best. Come on, Kari, wake up. It's me, Davis. You're safe now. The shadow's gone."
"Hm?" she said. She looked up, her face as pale as wax. Her eyes seemed not to want to focus properly. "Gatomon? Davis? Where did you go? I was all alone..."
"Well, you're not alone anymore," said Davis. "See, we're all here. You're okay now."
Meanwhile, Cody was making a valiant effort to pull himself together.
"Sorry," he said finally. "I feel stupid. I didn't mean to fall apart like that."
"It's okay," said Ken. "That shadow scared Sam and Kari and Jun, and they're all a lot older than you. You have a right to be scared, too."
"But I didn't have to cry," he said crossly. "I'm too old to cry."
"That's okay. These are extenuating circumstances," said Sam.
Yolei frowned. "I didn't really believe there was a shadow until now... but for it to scare Kari like that... You okay now, Kari?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said weakly, cradling Gatomon in her arms. "Things just got weird for a second."
"Same here," said Cody. "That shadow... I have this weird feeling it knows me. Like we'd met before."
"That's weird," Sam said. "I sure never got that feeling... though I was asleep at the time.... Tapirmon, what on earth are you doing?"
"Sniffing," answered Tapirmon, twitching his long nose. "Nightmares don't smell good. Very bad." He sneezed. "This one is worse than usual. Worse than last time, even."
"That's not fair!" said Yolei. "You said they're supposed to get weaker the longer they hang around."
"Supposed to," Tapirmon replied.
The dialogue was interrupted as something round and fuzzy bounced back into the clearing. It looked a bit like Nukumon, except that it was much larger, with a white face where Nukumon had been solid blue, and its beak was striped in orange and black.
"No more monster," it said proudly. "Chased it away. Clever me."
"Nukumon, is that you?" asked Jun.
"Uh-uh," it answered, shaking its head. "I'm Puffmon now! I digivolved! Aren't I smart?"
"Yes, you are!" she agreed, scooping the feathery ball into her arms.
"Cool! It's about time he digivolved!" Davis enthused. "Guess fighting off that shadow thing was just the boost he needed."
"I'm still cuter," DemiVeemon asserted.
"Can we get out of here now?" asked Yolei. "What if that thing comes back? I don't want to meet it if that's what it does to you." She waved vaguely at Kari and Cody, who were still sitting on the ground in various stages of shock.
"Sorry, Yolei," said Sam. "We've got to finish looking around first. We still have to find that strange man, and if the nightmare is here, he might be here, too."
"True," said Ken. "All right. Someone can stay here and look after Kari and Cody, and the rest of us will search the park."
"I'll stay," Jun offered. "I'm a little rattled myself, and I want to talk to Nukumon - Puffmon, I mean."
The rest of the team nodded and split off into different directions, their Digimon sniffing the ground or flapping off into the treetops. Davis in particular was determined to cover every inch of ground he came across. He might not mind if he himself was in danger, but if some creepy shadow wanted to mess with his girlfriend and his sister, well, it had better be ready to mess with him, too.
"If I find the guy who did this," he said to DemiVeemon, "I'm gonna give him a piece of my mind!"
"And a piece of your arm, and a piece of your leg..." the 'mon chimed in.
"Cool it! This is serious."
"Oh yeah. Sorry."
They trudged along, peering under bushes and behind park benches. DemiVeemon even put his head down a hole in the ground, only to be chased out by an annoyed groundhog. Davis scolded him for wasting time. Once he caught a glimpse of Patamon soaring overhead, and he distantly heard the sound of Yolei talking to someone. Other than that, the area seemed strangely deserted. He wondered what the park was doing, being so deserted on a day like today. There should have been a half a dozen schoolchildren running around. True, it was starting to get a little late, and the sky had turned overcast, but that was no reason for there to be nobody here, unless...
"Davis," DemiVeemon said, "something doesn't smell right."
Davis stopped. He didn't smell anything, but DemiVeemon had his nose in the air, twitching busily.
"Does it smell like a nightmare?" Davis asked.
"How should I know? I never smelled one before!"
"Well, what does it smell like?"
"Like a human," the Digimon replied. "He needs a bath, too. Phew!"
Davis nodded. "Bet that's the guy we're looking for. Go find him, DemiVeemon!"
"Do I have to?"
DemiVeemon gave a sigh and scurried off into the gathering twilight, and Davis raced off after him. He caught up to the little blue 'mon to find him standing like a pointer hound, his attention focused on an unmoving dark shape. The figure lay perfectly still, but Davis was not about to be fooled into thinking he was dead again. The man was curled into a tight ball, as if trying to protect himself from the cold or something worse. Davis and his partner stood and stared.
"Well, this is him, all right," said Davis quietly. He felt rather sorry for the man, huddled in the shadows as if trying to hide from the whole world. "Now what do we do with him?"
"Go find the others?" asked DemiVeemon, edging away.
"But he might get lost!" Davis protested.
"He won't go far."
The man on the ground twitched a bit, and they both jumped.
"Now look! You woke him up!" Davis scolded in a whisper.
"I did not! You did!"
The man on the ground sat up as if he'd heard a gun go off, staring wild-eyed at Davis. Then his expression shifted, and he looked surprised all over again.
"I know you," he said, pointing an unsteady finger at Davis.
"No, you don't," said Davis, backing slowly away.
"Please, don't go," the man rasped. "Don't leave me behind again... don't leave me behind..."
Davis tried to get away, but the man made a dive and managed to latch hold of his ankle. He fell down hard, getting a mouthful of grass. DemiVeemon blew an angry stream of bubbles at the man, who didn't seem to notice, not even when Davis's free foot nearly struck him in the face.
"Guys, get over here, now!" Davis shouted.
He tried frantically to free himself, but the man's grip was stronger than it looked. He finally managed to kick himself loose and scrambled to his feet, staggering out of the man's reach. He looked back, half-expecting the man to get up and chase after him, but he only sat there on the ground. He was crying now, an awful sound like something breaking. Davis stared in horrified fascination. He almost didn't notice when the others arrived.
"What the...?" said TK.
"That's him," said Yolei.
"I guess so," said Sam. "Um... sir? Are you okay?"
The man didn't react. He went on crying, rocking helplessly back and forth. The children stood and looked uncertainly at each other, waiting for someone to have an idea and hoping that perhaps they wouldn't be called upon to do anything. Finally, Tapirmon came trotting forward and put his front paws on the man's knees, the better to put himself in eye level with him.
"Look at me," he commanded quietly.
Slowly, the man opened his eyes and looked. Tapirmon looked back, holding him in an unwavering blue stare. For a long time, they were perfectly quiet, and Sam could only guess what was going on between the two of them. He'd had a similar experience once, when he too had been pulled back from the brink of madness and despair by his partner's holy powers. Finally, the man's eyes slipped closed again, and he toppled over and fell back onto the mossy ground. Tapirmon stepped casually away again.
"He'll sleep now," he said. "No nightmares. His mind is very sick, but he'll be better after he sleeps."
"What do we do with him in the meantime?" asked Ken. "We can't just leave him here... can we?"
Jun glanced at her watch. "Maybe we could take him to my place for a while? Mom and Dad won't be home for another couple of hours, I don't think."
"Maybe," said Davis. "It's not that far... and he doesn't look like he'd be that heavy. His coat's gotta weigh more than he does."
Yolei wrinkled her nose. "I'm not carrying him. He smells awful."
"I'll do it," said Sam. He took the man by one arm and carefully pulled him up. He did weigh a lot less than a grown man should have. Bravely, Jun came to shore up the other side, and the two of them began hauling him slowly across the ground.
"I hope nobody sees us doing this," Ken muttered. "The last thing we need is to have to explain why we're carrying this guy around."
"We'll have to take the back ways," said Davis. "That'll take longer, but it's safer. Fewer people to see us."
Ken sighed. "More back streets. Great."
They finally got their burden to the front door of Davis and Jun's apartment building. Kari arranged a small distraction, having Gatomon run through the lobby and raise a small ruckus while she added to the din by chasing after her and shouting in a way no person who actually wanted to catch a frightened cat would do. While the rest of the people in the lobby dealt with that situation, the other children quickly carried their burden to the safety of an elevator.
When Kari and Gatomon returned a few minutes later, looking breathless and rather pleased with themselves, they found that the strange man was now comfortably situated on the Motomiya's sofa, and the others were all gathered around watching him.
"How is he?" Kari asked.
"The same," Sam replied. "Tapirmon put a sleeping-spell on him; he won't wake up again until it's taken off again. Do you think he's ready to get up now, Tapirmon?"
The tapir scratched an ear thoughtfully, then nodded. He jumped onto the arm of the sofa, then on the back, then jumped solidly onto the man's chest.
"Oof!" he grunted, as Tapirmon bounced nonchalantly to the floor again. "Ow... what happened?"
"It's okay," said TK. "You're safe now."
"I doubt it," said the man sourly. He opened his eyes. They still looked red and tired, but they had an awareness that had not been there before. He was confused, but he was confused about what he was actually seeing and not the phantoms of a broken mind. He looked around the room, focusing briefly on the children and their companions. Most of the Digimon were pretending to be stuffed animals, but the man gave them a critical look anyway.
"Those are Digimon," he said. "I must be dreaming... but it doesn't feel like a dream..."
"It's no dream," said Sam. "We found you in the park and brought you here... and if you know those are Digimon, you must be the one we were looking for."
"You're one of the Ichijouji boys," said the man. "I remember you. I was the one who told them... How did you escape?"
"Long story," said Sam. "Right now, we need some answers from you."
"No," said Kari. "Right now, we need to take care of this man. Tapirmon might have straightened him out some, but he's still not well and he needs help."
"Oh," said Sam, blushing.
"Good idea," Ken said. "He'll be better able to answer our questions after he's had something to eat and drink... and maybe some clean clothes," he added, with a glance at the grungy old coat.
"And a bath," said Yolei with a grimace.
"Don't say things like that," said Poromon. "It's rude."
"It's true," said the man, making a wry face. "If... if you could help me... I don't know why you'd want to, but I'd be eternally grateful..."
"I'll go see if we've got something for him to eat," said Jun, scampering off towards the kitchen. "Davis, see if you can steal some of Dad's clothes or something for him. The bathroom's just down that hall if you want to get cleaned up. Do you think you can manage by yourself, Mr..."
"Oikawa," he said. "I think I can manage. Thank you. Thank you very much."
He got up and made his slow way down the hall. Davis vanished for a few minutes and reappeared with a bundle of clothes, which he pushed through the bathroom door.
"Had to steal dad's sweatsuit," he said. "I don't think any of Dad's good clothes would fit that guy."
"Just as well," said Ken. "I doubt your father would want you giving away his good clothes to a total stranger."
"Not total," Sam answered thoughtfully. "I think I've heard of Mr. Oikawa... Yeah, Dad mentioned him a few times."
"He did?" asked Ken.
"This was before you came home," Sam replied. "He used to work for the same company Dad did. Then one day, he just came in, announced he was leaving, collected his last paycheck, and left. No explanation, no nothing. They thought it was weird, you know?" The others nodded. In a country where a job was equated with your family and your religion, for people to simply walk away from their employment without an explanation was erratic behavior.
"Anyway, they decided something out of the ordinary was going on, so they called the police and tipped them off. They tracked him to his apartment. Everything was still there, but he was gone. They waited and waited, and he never came back. Stopped paying his rent and picking up his mail. He just vanished from the face of the earth."
"Just like you and me," said Ken.
Sam nodded. "Exactly. He would have known about us from Dad. He really could have been the one that tipped Myotismon off that there was a young genius nearby who could be just what he was looking for..." He sighed and shook his head ruefully.
"But why would he want to?" asked Cody.
Nobody knew. They shrugged and settled back to wait for answers.
A few minutes later, Oikawa reappeared, looking clean and a bit more alert, although rather strange in his ill-fitting borrowed clothes. Hearing his return, Jun came in carrying a mug of steaming, whitish liquid. Sam intercepted it and studied it critically.
"Miso," he said, with a nod of approval. "Just what the doctor ordered. Thanks, Jun. You're the best."
She smiled modestly. "It's what Mom always gives us when we're sick."
"Same here," he replied. He handed the soup to Mr. Oikawa. "Drink that. It'll make you feel better."
He nodded his thanks and drank gratefully, not bothering to speak again until the last drop was gone.
"Thank you again," he said at last. "I really can't remember when the last time I had a real meal was..."
"Can you answer some questions for us now?" asked Sam. "I hate to rush you, but it's really sort of urgent."
"Ask what you will."
"All right. Are you the one who built Myotismon's laboratory?"
Oikawa looked surprised at the blunt question, but he nodded. "I am."
The man sighed. "It is a long and unhappy story. I've been trying not to think about it."
"Tell it," said Gatomon gently. "You'll feel better after you tell someone." Oikawa turned to look at her.
"A real Digimon," he said. "I always wanted to meet a real one. A real one, not a ghost or one of those vile copies..."
In reply, DemiVeemon hopped onto the sofa and investigated him. Finding him acceptable now that he was clean, he hopped onto the man's lap and curled up like a small blue cat. When nothing bad happened to him for this, a few of the other Digimon came to join him. The man looked flattered. He settled back on the sofa and closed his eyes, the better to recall his story.
"It started many years ago, when I was just a child," he said. "I never fit in well with my peers, and I had only one close friend. His name was Hiroki Hida..."
"What?" yelped Cody, jumping as if he'd been stuck with a pin.
"Is something wrong?" asked Oikawa.
"That was my father's name," said Cody.
"Was it?" asked Oikawa. "Yes, I remember now - he did have a son. I had almost forgotten. Then... then you know what happened next..."
"He died," Cody finished. "He died, and he left us both alone."
There was silence in the room for a moment. Ken remembered hearing Cody say how he'd felt the shadow recognized him, how the boy and the nightmare had known each other because they carried the same pain...
Oikawa sighed deeply. "Yes, he did. It broke my heart, because once he was gone, there was no one left in my life. But it was more than that, because the two of us had made a promise to each other. You see, we both knew about the Digital World."
"You did?" asked Cody, wide-eyed.
"Yes. We used to catch glimpses of it, now and then, through our video games. The Digimon could talk with us, but none of them could get out, nor could we get to them. We made a promise that someday, we would find a way into the Digital World. He died before he could keep his promise."
"But you were determined to finish without him," said Sam.
"Not alone. I couldn't. I had the knowledge, but it was Hiroki's drive that kept the dream going. I was lost without him. I could do nothing... until Myotismon found me, and then I was worse than lost. He found me when I was sunk so deeply into despair that nothing else mattered, and he promised me that I could have my chance to go to the Digital World if I would help him in exchange. I believed him, and I sacrificed everything I had to help him. Instead, he used me just long enough to get what he needed, and then discarded me - turned me out into the streets and left me to wander, lost and alone. I had nothing left - no job, no money, no home, nothing. I scavenged and stole what I could to survive, but after a while, I couldn't... think anymore."
"Nightmare," Tapirmon barked. "It ate you."
"Yes," he answered softly. "It did."
"He's not being figurative, you know," said Yolei. "There really is a Nightmare running around loose. We saw it."
"So have I," he said. "I've seen it in those rare moments when I was awake and aware enough to know it was not just another figment of my imagination. At first I thought it was, but when it started making me do things, as Myotismon did... I know the feeling of being controlled, and I know the feeling of simply not knowing where I am or what I am doing, and the shadow was controlling me."
Tapirmon growled, and Sam ran a hand over his back to calm him.
"How could it?" Sam asked. "I mean, Tapirmon says the Nightmare doesn't have a real mind of its own. How can it control you if it can't think or plan like a rational being?"
"It can," Oikawa insisted. "As soon as I realized the thing was controlling me, I forced myself to think about it, to try to understand what it was so that I could fight it. I came to the conclusion that after Myotismon left me, there was still some touch of his power his power on me, a residue of darkness that allowed the shadow to come to life. And like Myotismon, the shadow has the same goal: to give itself, not just a spirit form, but true life."
"And that's why it keeps going to the lab!" said Sam. "It's following Myotismon's trail, trying to get into the Digital World."
"So I believe," Oikawa replied. "I have been doing what I can to stop it by forcing it to stay in the real world for as long as I can, but to do that, I have to accept it back to myself, and it is worse every time... The more time it spends beyond the gate, the more powerful it grows. I fear I can no longer control it, even now that my mind has cleared again."
"Then there's only one thing we can do," said Sam. "We're going to have to catch the thing and stop it."
"How are we going to do that?" asked Davis. "It's a shadow, for crying out loud, not a monster."
"We will destroy it," said Tapirmon. "You are the embodiment of those things that are antiethical to it - love, courage, wisdom, hope. Hold fast to your weapons and it will not destroy you."
"Yeah, but how do we destroy it?" asked Yolei.
Tapirmon looked embarrassed. "I'm still working on that."
TK sighed. "Great. We get to wing it again. My favorite."
"Well, we've got to do something," said Davis.
"Absolutely right," Ken agreed. "I am still the Paladin, and I am not letting so much as Myotismon's shadow back into the Digital World."
"All right, then," said TK. "We're going to have to go after that shadow and... hope for the best, I guess."
"You can do it, TK," said Patamon encouragingly. "Even without a Crest, you're still the Child of Hope."
"But we can't just walk off and leave Mr. Oikawa," said Jun. "What if the thing comes back to get him?"
"Fine," said Sam. "Tapirmon and I will stay here and guard him. The rest of you go to the lab and track down that Nightmare."
"Right," the others agreed.
"Watch out for yourself, big brother," Ken called.
"You too, Ken," Sam called back. "Come home in one piece!"
The Digidestined hurried out the door, leaving Sam and Tapirmon alone with Mr. Oikawa. Sam glanced at the man around the edges of his glasses; he had gone quiet and was staring morosely off into space. Sam sighed. Something told him this was going to be a very long night.
Night had fallen, making the Digidestined uneasy. Bad enough to be seeing nightmares when the sun was out, but none of them had yet had the misfortune to meet one when the shadows were pressing around, and they were not really was really looking forward to finding their quarry.
"Do we have to come down here?" Upamon complained.
"If we want to find the Nightmare, we do," TK replied. "Sooner or later, he's bound to come back to the lab, so that's where we have to go."
"So we're just going to hang around and wait for it all night?" asked Davis. "Man, our parents are going to skin us alive!"
"We'll worry about that later," Yolei replied. "Right now, the most important thing is - eek!"
She jumped away from something the others couldn't see, tripping over Puffmon and falling onto the children and Digimon nearest to her. They all yelped and grumbled as they tried to shove her away.
"What was that?" asked Davis.
"I don't know," she said shakily. "Something just ran past me... something big and cold."
"Was it the Nightmare?" Cody asked, eyes wide.
"It couldn't be, could it?" Yolei asked. "I mean, it's just a shadow, right? I shouldn't be able to touch it. I mean, it nearly knocked me over..."
TK's face looked grim in the light of the street lamps. "Stay close together, and be careful."
They made the rest of the trip to the lab in as close to dead silence as they could manage, looking guilty every time they stumbled on a crack or kicked a stray pebble. At last, they reached the dark alley, and Yolei moved to the front of the group so she could open the door. She walked slowly, hands out so that she could find the opening in the inky darkness. Her fingers brushed along the rough stone wall, then the invisible doorframe, then...
"Guys," she said, "the door's open."
"Huh?" said TK. "That's not right. It's supposed to be closed and locked."
"Well, it's not. See for yourself."
She walked through the wall and abruptly disappeared. Poromon gave a squeak and fluttered in after her, leaving the others to scramble after her. They found themselves standing in the long hallway that led to the lab. There was a sound coming from the end of the hall, a faint whirring and an electrical crackling. The kids and their Digimon looked at each other, but no one dared to actually say anything. Moving slowly, barely daring to breathe, they tiptoed toward the lab. As they neared the door, TK gestured for them to stay put. He flattened himself against the wall and inched forward until he could peek around the doorframe.
"What do you see?" Davis whispered.
"There's no one in there," TK replied, "but... I think someone was, and not too long ago. Look."
Assured that there was nothing immediately dangerous in the area, the children looked. The laboratory was indeed empty of living things, nor did there seem to be any spirits in residence. There was, however, a large, crackling hole standing open in the middle of the room. Through it, shifting green and yellow lights could be seen, their colors sickly, their patterns dazzling.
"It must have gone through the gate," said Yolei.
"Then I guess we don't have any choice," TK replied. "We'll have to go in after it."
"Couldn't we just wait for it to come out again?" asked Jun uneasily.
"We can't risk it," answered Cody, shaking his head. "You heard Mr. Oikawa - every time that shadow goes in there, it gets stronger. We have to find it as soon as possible."
The others agreed. Moving cautiously, they stepped through the Gate.
Instantly, they were caught up in a dizzying swirl of light. They were used to the sensation of passing through a Digi-port and knew it could be a rough ride, but none of them had ever felt anything to match this. They felt themselves being spun wildly across reality, tides of possibility that threatened to pull them apart. They closed their eyes and gritted their teeth, fighting back nausea. Finally, they were deposited with a bump on rough terrain. They lay there a moment, waiting for stomachs to stop churning and heads to stop spinning. Cautiously, one by one, they opened their eyes.
The first thing they did was have a look around to make sure everyone had landed safely. They certainly hadn't landed comfortably; most of them seemed to have been dumped unceremoniously to the ground, sometimes piled in small heaps as two or three humans or Digimon landed on top of each other. The Digimon seemed to have evolved during the trip and were now back in their Rookie forms. Jun was now accompanied by a large blue penguin-like creature. Just out of curiosity, Davis checked it on his D-Terminal and was informed that this was a Penmon. He glanced around at the others, who were slowly hauling themselves to their feet.
"Is everybody okay?" he called.
"I don't want to ride the roller coaster anymore," TK mumbled indistinctly.
Yolei sat up and shook herself. "Where are we?"
"I don't think you want to know," said Ken, looking stunned. Everyone contradicted him by staring around anxiously.
They were in the Digital World. They recognized the place instantly - it was a little grove of willow trees that stood next to a clear stream. They stood on a broad, flat rock that soaked up the morning sun, making it a pleasant place to picnic during the cool fall days. All of them had been there before and had a fondness for the place, which was why seeing it gave them such a turn. The trees were withered and blackened, their leaves mottled with disease, and the soft green grass had dried to brown scrub and dust. The stream was nothing more than an indentation in the earth splotched here and there with scummy puddles and the sad remains of fish. One or two were still alive, flopping and gasping faintly for the water they could no longer reach. The sky was red and hazed with smoke.
"What happened here?" asked Kari, eyes wide with horror.
"This looks like a Glitch's work to me," said Yolei uneasily.
Ken shook his head. "No Glitch I ever saw could do this. The only time I ever saw this kind of mass destruction was just before..."
"Myotismon?" TK suggested softly.
"But that's impossible!" Jun protested. "We destroyed him! He can't do this anymore!"
"But it wasn't him who did it," said Ken. "It was Sam and his computers. He upset the balance of the Digital World with all those gates, and that's what made it go to pieces. Someone could still do that... and all the materials are still in the lab..."
"Maybe we've gotten into bigger trouble than we thought," Cody said.
"Correct," said a soft voice.
Everyone jumped. Standing where they were sure there had been nothing a few moments ago, there was now a most imposing something. It took the form of a human man, but no one was convinced for an instant that it was human. For one thing, its skin was perfectly chalk white, and the centers of its eyes were garnet red. Otherwise, it was perfectly black, from its hair to its coat to its boots. It bore an eerie similarity to Mr. Oikawa - not as he had looked when they had last seen him, but how he must have been when he was well and strong. The thing smiled thinly at their reactions.
"You're the Nightmare," Daisuke said.
"If that is what you believe," the dark being replied.
"What have you done to the Digital World?" Ken demanded angrily.
"What do you think I've done?"
"I don't know," he admitted, "beyond messing it up-"
The Nightmare smiled. "Then that is what I've done."
"Look, we don't have time for your games," said Davis. "We're here to protect the Digital
World, so if you don't put things back the way they were..."
"Do you really think I'm going to do that?" asked the Nightmare.
Davis looked momentarily puzzled. "Well, now that you mention it, no, but..."
"Then I won't," said the Nightmare. It laughed.
"That's not funny!" Kari scolded it.
The dark thing only continued to smile smugly.
"Don't just stand there!" Davis scolded it. "Do something!"
"You wish to fight?" the Nightmare asked. "Very well. Begin!"
His arms snapped outwards as if to fling something at them. He seemed to fade away in several directions at once, vanishing into the scenery. The Digidestined stared at each other.
"Now what do we do?" asked Yolei.
"I think he wants us to follow him," TK replied.
"That would be very stupid," Ken said. "He could lead us into any kind of trap he wanted."
"Well, he went in every direction at once," Davis pointed out. "The only way to not follow him would be to sit here and do nothing, which is also pretty dumb."
"He has a point," said Kari. "We have to do something."
TK sighed. "You're right. All right, what do we do?"
"I guess we pick a direction," said Ken. "It's better than splitting up."
Jun spun in a small circle. "Which direction are we supposed to go? None of them look very good to me."
"Well, Ken?" asked Davis. "You're the expert. What's the best way to go from here?"
Ken frowned, trying to picture the lay of the land in his mind's eye. "Well, if our shadow knows his way around, he'd probably go that way." He pointed somewhere to the northwest.
"The other way leads directly to an empty plain; he wouldn't have any shelter there."
"Then let's get going," said TK.
They trudged off, their footfalls stirring up clouds of dust as they walked, and the sky over their heads steadily turning darker. To make matters worse, they were heading directly into a forest. The trees here were not burnt-looking like the ones by the stream, but they were black and twisted, with grasping branches and diseased-looking blue-grey leaves. The further they went, the more dense their growth became. Bushes appeared, adding sharp thorns to the obstacles the children were forced to navigate. The Digimon struggled to pull themselves through the thick underbrush, while the children did what they could to climb through it without being spiked on briars. Ken, in his Paladin's cloak, swore softly as the cape seemed to snag on every plant they passed. As it grew darker, a thin mist rose up, reducing visibility to only a few feet in every direction. The sun was no longer visible. A few people shivered.
"Are we there yet?" Veemon wailed.
"Where are we going, anyway?" asked Yolei.
"I... I don't know," said Ken softly.
"What?" asked Cody. "But... I thought you knew the Digital World like the back of your hand!"
"I do," he answered. "Or I thought I did... but the path I was leading us on should have taken us through the trees and toward a rock formation. We should have been there by now."
"Well, we have been moving pretty slowly," said Davis.
Ken shrugged. "Maybe, but... I don't know. Something doesn't feel right."
"Let's keep going," Kari urged. "We aren't going to get anywhere just sitting here."
"Does anyone even know which direction we're going anymore?" asked Yolei, looking around at the trees that all looked the same. No one answered her.
Gatomon was prowling around at the rear of the party, investigating the ground.
"That's funny," she said. "I thought my nose was better than that."
"What do you mean?" Kari asked.
"I was trying to check our tracks to see which way we came from," she answered, "but they're not there anymore."
"Not there?" Kari repeated.
Cody walked over and crouched on the ground next to Gatomon. He ran his hand across the dry earth and looked thoughtful.
"She's right," he said. "They're gone. This dust should show footprints, but there are none. It's like we just appeared here."
"This really was a trap," Ken muttered. "It was a trap, and we walked right into it..."
"Then we'll just have to walk right out of it," said Davis. "I don't see any walls around us.
He broke into a jog, crashing through the bushes, leaving the others no choice but to hurry and try to keep up with him. For a while, all they could do was try to follow the sound of his footsteps. Then that noise suddenly stopped. Worried, the others picked up their pace, bursting through a thick wall of vines and moss...
...and all of them stopped. They were standing on the edge of a cliff, looking out at a massive expanse of darkness. Davis stood a short distance away, looking over all of it with a dazed expression, and the others tiptoed over to join him. Together, they stared silently out at the blackness, trying to understand it. It was moving, rolling like some restless sleeping monster, heaving with a sound like labored breath. Far below their feet, something crashed against the rock and exploded into silver-gray spray. The air was cold and damp, heavy with the scent of salt.
"An ocean," said Ken, confused.
Kari nodded, her expression turning frightened. "A dark ocean... I dreamed about an ocean like this, once..."
There was a low hiss, a sound that sent chills down everyone's spines, as if sound itself could have temperature, cold as ice. It took them a moment to realize the hiss had words.
"Is it not beautiful?" it whispered longingly.
The Digidestined turned in place. Standing behind them was the shadow, it's opaque eyes staring out at the never-ending sea of darkness.
"What's going on?" Ken demanded. "Where are we? Why did you bring us here?"
"I brought you nowhere. You walked here," answered the Nightmare mildly.
"But you made sure we came here, didn't you?" TK persisted. "You tried to lure us away."
"I merely presented possibilities. The choice was yours."
"Look, I'm getting tired of these brain games!" Davis snapped. "Give us a straight answer, would you?"
"If you ask the correct questions."
"All right," said Ken. "How did that ocean get there?"
"It is a manifestation of my will. My will is the strongest thing in this world. Everything else must bend to it."
The children looked at each other, mystified. They were used to enemies who fought back; they were not entirely sure what to make of this strange apparition. Finally, Ken stepped forwards.
"What do you intend to do to us now that we're here?" he asked.
The specter smiled again. "What do you believe I intend to do?"
"You're a reflection of Myotismon. He came here to rebuild this world to what he wanted it to be, just the way you are. He would have known we would do everything in our power to stop him. That being the case, I believe," said Ken, taking a breath, "that you came here to fight us... and to destroy us."
"Then," the Nightmare replied, "so be it."
He flung his arms out in a sweeping gesture. Waves of darkness rolled out in concentric rings, bowling the children and their partners over, sending them tumbling head over heels. Several of them fell dangerously close to the edge of the cliff, and had to scramble to regain firm footing. The rest staggered back into the forest to land in the sharp-toothed briar bushes. TK wrestled a hand free and reached for his D-Terminal to send a message.
"Sam," he said, "I think now we're in trouble."
Sam sat silently in an armchair, keeping an eye on Oikawa. There hardly seemed to be any point in it; all the man had done since the other children had left was to sit on the sofa and stare off into space. Judging by the distant expression he wore, he had probably forgotten where he was and what was going on already.
"What's the matter with him?" asked Sam to Tapirmon. Oikawa did not show any signs of hearing anything, continuing to sit silently.
Tapirmon sighed sadly. "Bad dreams."
"What?" said Sam, perplexed. "But I thought you fixed him!"
"No. I only... put it off, a little," Tapirmon replied. "I am only a very small Holy Beast. My powers have limits, and the darkness is very strong."
"I don't understand. Why can't you fix him? You fixed me."
"You fixed yourself. I stripped away your dark dreams so that you could see in the light of truth, and you had the strength to rebuild. He has nothing."
Sam frowned, deep in thought. "I remember... You told me if I didn't replace the nightmare with something good, it would just come back again."
"And that's what's happening to him?"
"Yes. He has lost all hope. He does not believe that there is any chance that he could ever be happy again, so he does not dare to dream anything else, even if the dream would save him. He lacks even the strength of will to end his suffering."
Sam shuddered. "You mean he'd kill himself if he could."
There was a long silence. Sam banged his fist on the coffee table.
"Well, it's not going to happen! This guy doesn't deserve to die! The only thing he's guilty of is wanting to go to the Digital World, and... Wait a second."
"You have an idea?" asked Tapirmon.
"Of course I do! Don't I always?" Sam replied.
He got to his feet and went to try to shake his houseguest out of his daze.
"Hey, Mr. Oikawa, wake up!" he said. "Come on, we're going somewhere!"
"We are?" the man answered dazedly.
"Yes," said Sam. "Just trust me."
Oikawa shook his head. "It's not necessary... One place is as good as another..."
"Then it doesn't matter if we go, then, does it?" Sam retorted. "Come on, get up!"
He grabbed the man's skeletal hand and pulled. Oikawa made no particular effort to obey, but little more than skin and bones, and Sam was strong. He hauled the man to his feet and began guiding him toward the door. He was dismayed to find his passage obstructed by the sudden arrival of Davis and Jun's parents, who were finally returning home. Everyone stopped and stared at each other.
"Uh... hi," said Sam. "Um... I guess you want to know what's going on."
"That would be a good thing to know," said Mr. Motomiya sternly. "What are you doing here? Where are Davis and Jun? Who is this man?"
"Um..." said Sam again. "Well... Make Davis explain it. I've got to go!"
With that, he turned and began running down the hall with his confused companion in tow.
"Where are we going?" Oikawa asked. "Why couldn't we stop and talk to them?"
"It would have taken a long time to explain what's going on so they could understand," Sam replied. "They really will take it better after its all over and I can take my time explaining. Anyway, we want to get where we're going as soon as possible."
"Where are we going?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out."
Oikawa said nothing more, but he did pick up his pace a bit, and Sam smiled. The suspense was doing what he'd intended it to do: make his charge wake up and start paying attention to his surroundings again. It seemed logical that if Oikawa's current problem was rooted so deeply in having nothing left to hope for, giving him a mystery to think about would do him some good.
They flagged down a taxi outside the apartment building, and Sam muttered quiet instructions while Oikawa got inside with Tapirmon slipping deftly by in his shadow. From there, they rode in silence. Sam didn't want to give his surprise away too early, but he couldn't think of anything else to talk about, either. He worried that Oikawa might lose his focus and slip back into his dark silence, but he seemed to be all right. He kept watching the scenery roll by, staring intently, as if trying to guess where they might be going. As they drew nearer to their destination, he stared at the dirty streets and dilapidated buildings with a look of confusion.
"I know this place," he said softly. "But this is... We shouldn't be going here, should we?"
"Why not?" Sam asked.
They paid the taxi fare and stepped out into the dark street. Sam confidently led the way to the hidden laboratory door, beckoning for Oikawa to follow him.
"What are we going to do here?" asked Oikawa, sounding apprehensive.
"We're going to open a Gate. What else?"
"Right," said Sam, ducking through the door. "A Gate to the Digital World."
Oikawa stopped as if he'd walked into a wall. "A what?"
"It's what you wanted, wasn't it? Your dream."
"But I shouldn't... I don't deserve the chance. Because of me, Myotismon nearly destroyed it all..."
Sam shook his head. "It's all right. None of that matters."
"Look," said Sam reasonably, "you never meant to do any harm, did you? Did you really want the Digital World destroyed?"
Oikawa looked scandalized. "Never!"
"Right. You were tricked into it. So was I, come to think of it. It wasn't your fault, and it wasn't my fault. After everything you've suffered through, you've had more than enough punishment. You deserve a chance to go to the Digital World... maybe more than anyone alive." He turned and began leading the way down the hall to the lab. With a dazed look, Oikawa followed him.
Entering the lab, Sam thought he saw evidence that someone had been moving around in there - some of the machines were still running, and his chair was not where he had left it last time. Perhaps his friends had already set out ahead of him? All the more reason, then, for him to follow them. He went about pressing buttons and flipping switches.
"Here it comes," he said.
There was a rushing noise, and a portal opened, shining like bright sunlight, reflecting off the shiny metal surfaces of the room and making everything glow. Oikawa stared into it as if entranced. With a faint smile, Sam took his wrist and led him through the Gate.
They stepped out into a grassy meadow, a broad expanse of emerald green dotted with brightly colored flowers. In one direction, a stand of regal pine trees cast cool shadows; in another, the ocean glittered beneath the moonlight. A small stream trickled across the land, laughing to itself. Oikawa stared.
"Is it like you imagined?" asked Sam quietly.
"It can't be real. I'm dreaming again," he said. "Except all my dreams were terrible..."
He gazed up at the stars, tracing the patterns they made across the sky, constellations unlike any seen on Earth. He knelt at the side of the stream, letting a handful of water slip through his fingers. His movement startled a Pichimon that was drifting in the shallows; it gave a squeak and dove out of sight. He watched it swim away with an expression of amazement.
"It is real," he said at last.
"Real enough," Sam replied. "Go on, have a look around. Most of the Digimon are sleeping this time of day, so it should be safe enough."
Oikawa needed no more encouragement. He set about making a methodical exploration, while Sam settled down to keep an eye on him. He flashed a grin at Tapirmon, who smiled back. The experiment seemed to be paying off; the man was still looking somewhat dazed, but it was only the kind of dazzled, kid-in-a-candy-store expression anyone would be wearing if he'd unexpectedly had his fondest dream handed to him. He certainly seemed to be in no danger of forgetting where he was! Sam leaned comfortably against a tree, feeling he'd done a good night's work.
"You look pleased with yourself," said an irritated-sounding voice. Sam jumped several inches and looked around frantically. Standing behind him was Gennai, who stood with his arms folded across his chest, scowling down at Sam.
"Didn't I tell you not to sneak up on me?" Sam demanded.
"Never mind that," said Gennai tersely. "What do you think you're doing, bringing strangers here? I thought you had better sense than that."
"What him? That's Mr. Oikawa. You don't have to worry about him. He's a little strange, but he's completely harmless."
"I don't care if he's a Mongolian tree frog," Gennai snapped. "You don't just bring random people here. If you must bring someone, you consult me first. I thought we'd agreed on that..."
"We did," said Sam, feeling a little sheepish. "I just didn't have time for all that tonight. Mr. Oikawa's a special case. If you'd just let me explain..."
"Fine," said Gennai. "Explain. And it had better be good."
"Well, it's like this," Sam began, and launched into a summary of what he knew about his guest and his role in their adventures to date. Gennai listened, always keeping an eye on the dark man in the meadow.
"So you see, I was only trying to help him - maybe save his life," said Sam. "I promise he won't cause any trouble here. I think he'd rather die than do anything to harm the Digital World."
"I see," said Gennai thoughtfully. "Well, in a case like this... I think I see your reasoning.
All right, I'll let you off the hook this time. Just... in the future, call me and let me know what you're doing instead of making me run into the night to find you. I was in the middle of a good book."
Sam laughed. "So that's why you were looking so grumpy! I thought you were overreacting a little."
"I was not grumpy," said Gennai, looking affronted. "That was righteous indignation."
Sam would have come back with a witty retort, but he was interrupted by Oikawa, who had noticed the stranger and come to investigate.
"Who is this?" he asked Sam. "I wasn't aware there were any humans here."
"Well, I'm not precisely human," said Gennai. "Just a very close facsimile. It's kind of hard to explain in simple terms."
"I'll settle for complicated terms," Oikawa replied.
"Mr. Oikawa, this is Gennai," said Sam. "He's a friend of ours, a great sage and warrior. He's the guardian of the Digital World. If there's anything you want to know about this place, this is the guy to ask. He's been looking after this place for centuries."
Oikawa looked incredulously at Gennai, who to all outward appearances was no more than twenty-five. Gennai caught the look and shrugged.
"Time is a relative concept, anyway," he said.
"I... see," said Oikawa, looking both puzzled and intrigued. "You guard this place? I hope I'm not intruding..."
"No, no, that's all right. Sam's explained the whole thing. You're quite welcome here. If there's anything you want to know, feel free to ask. I'll answer to the best of my ability."
"Would you? Right now, I have a thousand questions... I hardly know where to start..."
"We might not have time for all of them, then. You might want to start with the first couple of hundred and see how they go," said Gennai good-naturedly.
For a moment, Oikawa looked dismayed. Then he seemed to realize Gennai was joking and gave an uncertain laugh, as if he'd nearly forgotten how.
"Very well, only three hundred," he said. "What is this place, really? How did it come to be here? Has it always been here, or-?"
"Hey, I said I'd answer questions, but I didn't say I'd answer them all at once!" Gennai protested. "Maybe I'd better try to start at the beginning..."
Sam only half-listened as Gennai launched into a history of the Digital World. He seemed to have forgiven Oikawa for interrupting his quiet evening at home; he actually seemed to be enjoying himself... and why not? Sam knew Gennai liked an audience to show off for, and here was Oikawa hanging on to his every word. It occurred to Sam for the first time that it had to be a little lonely, being the only one of his kind in all the Digital World. Maybe this idea would do Gennai some good, too.
"What do you think, Tapirmon?" he said. "I think those two will be okay on their own for a while. Maybe we'd better check up on what the others are doing."
Tapirmon nodded vigorously.
Sam took out his D-3 and began fiddling with it, trying to make it tell him where the other Digidestined were. It didn't seem to be cooperating. Under normal circumstances, the little box always seemed to know where everyone was, whether they were in the real world or the Digital World. Today, though, it was simply giving him an annoying blank screen. He slapped at it a few times and swore.
"Don't tell me they're in trouble," he muttered. "If they're in trouble and they didn't even bother to call me..."
Tapirmon whimpered. Sam shook the device angrily and threw it at the ground. Much to his surprise, it gave off a hiss of static. Praying he hadn't broken it, he knelt to pick it up. It spat out another burst of static, then subsided into a steady hiss. Through the buzzing, he was able to make out a voice.
"Sam, I think we're in trouble," said TK.
"I'll say," Sam replied. "Where are you? I can hardly hear you."
"We're in the Digital World."
"You are?" Sam asked. He glared down at his screen again; it remained frustratingly empty. "I'm not picking up a reading. Where exactly in the Digital World are you?"
"We touched down by the stream near the willow trees in sector E-23," TK replied. "We aren't really sure where we went from there; everything is messed up."
"Messed up? How?"
"Burned... When we got to the stream, it was nearly dried up. The trees were burned to stumps. All the grass was dead."
Sam looked around. The stream in question splashed merrily through its bed not ten yards from where Sam was standing. The trees and plants were likewise in good working order.
"TK, are you sure that's where you landed?" he asked. "Because I'm there now, and everything looks like it's been washed yesterday. I don't even see any dead leaves."
"But..." TK began, and stopped. "Something seriously weird is going on."
"You can say that again," Sam replied. "What's going on right now?"
"Right now, our Digimon are fighting with something that should be a shadow and isn't, and they're not doing too well. Some help would be appreciated!"
"All right, all right. Hang in there. I'll be right over as soon as I can figure out where the heck you are."
There was something that sounded unpleasantly like an explosion in the background, and the static level increased.
"Hurry," said TK. "I don't think our Digimon are going to last much longer at this rate.
We need some help before..."
Whatever else he was going to say was drowned out by another burst of static. He thought he faintly heard an unfamiliar voice saying something that didn't sound friendly, and then the connection abruptly went dead. Sam jumped back to his feet and went for reinforcements.
"Hey, Gennai," he shouted, "could you come here a minute?"
"I'm busy. Can it wait?"
"No. Quit playing schoolteacher and help me. This is important."
"Right," said Gennai. Turning to Oikawa, he said, "Excuse me a minute. Duty calls."
He got up and went to where Sam was, half-hidden in the shadows of the trees.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Trouble," Sam replied. "I just got a call from TK, and he says he and the others are in a bad fight, and I can't even figure out where they are."
"Your D-3 isn't picking them up?"
"Not a trace. What's even weirder, he says the portion of the Digital World has been burnt to a crisp... and he says he landed right about here."
"Definitely strange," said Gennai. "You're right, this needs looking into."
"It would help," Sam muttered, glaring at his D-3, "if I'd remembered to bring my laptop."
"That can be remedied. Hold on."
Gennai turned and walked into a cloud of opaline lights that suddenly manifested themselves. A few moments later, he returned carrying a small portable computer.
"Will this do?" he asked.
Sam flipped it open and booted it up. He made a cursory examination and nodded.
"This should work. Just give me a second to work. I need to be able to tap into the machines at the lab, and that's going to take a little while."
"While you're doing that, let me make a search for the Didigestined," Gennai replied.
"Odds are, if they're anywhere in the Digital World, I can find them."
Sam nodded, already engrossed in his task. Gennai turned and faded away again.
A few moments later, he returned.
"Not a trace," he muttered. "It's just like you said. It's like they aren't in the Digital World at all."
Sam rapped a final key on the laptop and watched as it pulled up its results.
"Well, there's the answer," he said. "They aren't in the Digital World. They never made it here."
TK stared up at the Nightmare. It looked down at him with its strange garnet eyes, a deep red that held no warmth in it, the color of old blood. The being's face was strangely impassive.
"You do not have permission to do that," it said.
"Permission?" TK blurted. "Since when do I have to ask you for permission to call my friends?"
"This is my world. All things here obey my will."
There was another blast of black energy and the D-3 was thrown out of his hands. It clattered across the stones and landed inches away from the cliffside.
"Do not do that again," the Nightmare told him sternly.
"I'd like to see you stop me," TK retorted.
The Nightmare responded by hurling another energy blast at him, but he rolled out of the way, taking shelter amid the trees.
"Patamon!" he shouted. "Get the Digivice!"
"Got it!" Patamon shouted. He folded his ears against his back, going into a sharp dive. The Nightmare saw the movement and threw another blast of energy at the D-3, knocking it over the cliff and sending it hurtling toward the ocean. Patamon was still quicker; he snatched the device out of the air and carried it back to his partner's side.
"Thanks, little guy," said TK. "I owe you another one."
"Okay, I'm getting tired of this," Davis muttered, as Veemon was caught in a blast of energy and tossed up into a tree. "I don't care how messed up this place is, our 'mons still ought to be able to digivolve! Let's take it to the next level already!"
"I'm with you," Ken agree. "We sure aren't getting anything done now."
Jun looked down at her partner. "Can you even evolve?"
Penmon shrugged his flippers. "I won't know until I try."
"All right, let's stop talking about it and do it already!" Yolei said. "Digivolve!"
"Hawkmon, digivolve to... Aquilamon!"
"Armadillomon, digivolve to... Ankylomon!"
"Veemon, digivolve to... ExVeemon!"
"Wormmon, digivolve to... Stingmon!"
"Patamon, digivolve to... Angemon!"
"Penmon, digivolve to... Saberdramon!"
Davis ducked as an enormous black bird swooped over his head. He looked over at Jun and grinned.
"Hey, not bad!" he said. "Who knew the little puffball had it in him?"
"Are you calling me a puffball?" asked Saberdramon.
"Nope! Didn't say a thing!"
The Nightmare was sizing up these new arrivals with something that looked like confusion. He turned on the children with an accusing glint in his eyes.
"I do not allow this," it said.
"Oh, yeah?" said Davis. "Looks like your allowance just got cut off."
The specter's expression turned distant and thoughtful for a moment. Its eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"The balance of power is shifting," it said. "How have you done this thing? Tell me!"
"We didn't do anything," said Cody.
"Not that that's going to last long," Yolei chimed in.
The Nightmare scowled. "You did something! The world is shifting - you are not allowed to make your partners evolve!"
"You know what? I don't like this guy," said Kari. "Can we make him go away before he gets any more confusing?"
Gatomon bared her claws. "Gladly."
"I will stop this," said the Nightmare. "I will not let you win again! I will stop all of you!"
"Not a chance!" Davis shouted. "Go get him, ExVeemon!"
"Sure thing, Davis! V-Laser!"
A white-orange blast shot through the air, forcing the shadow to dodge - but dodge it did, easily sidestepping the attack. It was immediately forced back into place by a double attack: Aquilamon had flanked him and was throwing rings of energy back at him, while Saberdramon attacked from the other side, raining down balls of black fire from his wings. One of them clipped the specter as it tried to get out of the way, throwing it off its feet. It recovered with a speed that was surprising; it hardly even seemed to be hurt. It glared up at its attackers with its face twisted in fury.
"How dare you," it hissed. "How dare you disobey my will!" It made a sharp gesture with both hands, as if pulling something from the air. The airborne
Digimon suddenly cried out in alarm as the air suddenly refused to support them. The earth trembled, throwing all but the Nightmare off their feet. The cliff's edge began to crumble, creeping steadily toward the children and their partners.
"This world is mine," said the shadow. "Mine! You will not take my vision from me... You will not destroy my dream..."
No one looked inclined to oblige him; the Digimon were getting grimly back to their feet, ready to try another assault. Stingmon made a dive for the specter, sword blazing, only to slam into an invisible wall and go reeling away, landing in a crumpled heap on the ground.
"I don't like this," Ken said, jumping out of the way as the outraged Nightmare hurled more shadow-bolts. "What the heck is this thing doing, anyway?"
"It's fighting you," answered Yolei, "just like you asked it to..."
At that moment, there was a blipping noise, and the children scrambled for their D- Termials.
"Good, I got through to you," said Sam's voice, a bit echoing but still distinct. "I wasn't sure I could..."
"Quit congratulating yourself and say something helpful," said Davis. "We're kind of in a hurry here!"
"Okay, then, listen up, because I don't know how long I can keep this connection open," Sam replied. "The world you are in is not the Digital World."
"Then what is it?" asked Cody. "It sure looks like the Digital World to me!"
"It's supposed to," Sam replied. "The place you're in now is the space between our world and the Digital World, an indeterminate buffer zone made of nothing but possibilities. The matter in it seems to react to thought waves in a similar way as the Digital World reacts to computer data. In other words, thought becomes reality."
"That doesn't make any sense," said Jun. "You mean, if I thought about that tree over there turning into a taxi cab, it would?"
"Only if you could really convince yourself it would. As long as you think it's impossible, it's not going to happen."
"Okay, so this is all really educational," said Davis, "but how does that relate to what's going on now?"
"What's going on now is that the Nightmare has taken over here," said Sam. "It is totally in control. Remember, this Nightmare isn't much more than a manifestation of Mr. Oikawa's despair combined with an old psychic impression of Myotismon - a bunch of leftover thoughts. And since it's really nothing but pure thought..."
"This world is like its natural habitat," Ken finished.
"Right. Thoughts there are reality," Sam agreed, "so that Nightmare is capable of making itself real. That's why it never faded out like other nightmares do - because it kept going there to recharge itself."
"And that's why this place looks like the Digital World," said Kari. "Because Mr. Oikawa wanted to go there, and Myotismon wanted to destroy it..."
"So what we got here is a Digital World that's all messed up," Yolei finished. "I get it!"
"The point is," said Sam, "we've got to find a way to get that shadow out of the dream world and into another one - preferably to somewhere it won't be able to sneak out of."
"How are we going to do that?" asked TK, wincing as an explosion burst in the background; it sounded very much as if Ankylomon had been thrown into a stand of trees. He told himself he didn't want to look.
"I'm working on that," said Sam. "Give me some time."
"I hate to say it," Ken replied, "but we don't really have much of that!"
"Well, do what you can!"
"We were doing that before you called," said Davis tersely.
"I'm sorry! I'm doing my best," Sam answered, sounding hurt.
"It's okay, Sam," said Jun. "We know you won't let us down!"
"I'll try not to, anyway. Good luck, guys. I'll be with you as soon as I can!"
The connection was closed off. The rest of the Digidestined looked at each other.
"Well, that was a lot of help," said Yolei in a complaining tone.
"Maybe more than it looks like," Ken answered thoughtfully. "It explains why everything here seems so strange. More importantly, it explains what the Nightmare was talking about all this time. He's used to everything around here obeying him, and we've just come in and given him something to compete against. I don't think he likes it, either."
"So, what are you saying?" asked Cody. "That we can just think happy thoughts and all this will blow over? Somehow, I don't think that's going to work."
"Nah, weren't you paying attention?" said Davis. "No matter what we do, that thing is going to have more control than we do, just because of what it is. We can't get rid of him, but maybe we can help our partners a little."
"How do you mean?" asked TK.
Davis shrugged, as if it should have been obvious. "We make them evolve."
"Evolve? Like, to Ultimate?" asked Kari.
"Ultimate, Mega... whatever the heck we can think of," Davis replied. "I'm willing to try, anyway. What have we got to lose?"
"At this point," answered Cody, "not much."
"Are you absolutely sure of what you're doing?" asked Gennai, frowning in concern.
Sam shook his head. "Not a bit... but I've got to at least try." He sighed deeply, staring down at the computer. "This job was a lot more fun when I thought I knew what I was doing. This is not going to be easy. Probably not safe, either. Man, I wish I'd had time to explain to my mother what's going on. If something goes wrong..."
Tapirmon rubbed his head against Sam's side supportively, and Sam freed a hand long enough to rub behind his ears.
"Explain to me again exactly what you're doing," he said. "You intend to open a door to the dream world?"
"Not exactly. I mean, we've already got a door open," Sam replied. "The Gate. It passes straight through there on its way back to Earth. I'm just going to see if I can temporarily seal off the door on the other side, so I can stay there long enough to find the others. If it works like I think it will, it shouldn't be hard. If it doesn't work like I think it will, just about anything could happen."
"Are you sure you want to take the risk?"
"Of course I'm sure," Sam answered stubbornly.
Gennai clapped him on the shoulder. "I knew I chose rightly when I named you a Digidestined. You'll be fine. Don't worry about a thing; I'll be watching things from this end. I've never attempted to enter the dream world myself, but if something goes wrong, I should be able to bail you out."
Sam grinned. "I knew there was a reason I put up with you."
The computer he'd been working on gave a beep, and he looked down at it critically.
"That should be it," he said. "All right. I'm warping to the Gate. I'll try to call if there's trouble."
"Good luck, Sam."
"Thanks. Catch you later."
He tapped a final key on the laptop and vanished in a cloud of data sparks. Gennai sat down next to the machine, watching the screen for signs of errors.
In all the commotion, he'd forgotten completely about Oikawa.
"Well, here goes nothing," said TK. "Let's cross our fingers and hope for the best! Digivices ready, and..."
The children clutched their Digivices, closing their eyes in intense concentration. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then...
There was a thunderous noise, and the kids reflexively jumped away from it in time to avoid being flattened by something falling out of the air. Sam landed with an ungainly bump on the ground, and Tapirmon dropped on top of him, knocking his glasses off. Muttering under his breath, he pushed himself to a crouch, put his glasses back in their proper place, and looked up at all the people looking down at him.
"What happened to you?" asked Jun.
He got up and began dusting himself off.
"Did you ever run into a closed door?" he said. "Hi, everyone. Told you I'd get here eventually. What did I miss?"
"That," said Davis succinctly.
He pointed. Sam looked. Several yards away, the Digimon were still doing what they could to keep the Nightmare from getting too close to their partners. It was impossible to guess, from here, just who was going to win. One minute, it would appear that the Digimon had the upper hand, and in the next, the Nightmare was flattening them into the ground.
"Not so good," said Sam. "Could be worse, but still... not so good."
"Can I help?" asked Tapirmon, looking up with his eyes glowing.
"What do you have in mind?" Sam replied.
Tapirmon didn't say anything, but simply stood and stared at the battle. Irresistably, Sam's eyes were drawn to the scene of the fight as well. The Digimon were looking a bit battered, and he wondered how long they had been engaged in this battle. One of them was a huge black bird that he didn't recognize, but he guessed it had to be the Champion form of Jun's partner...
"Champion," Sam muttered. "Do you mean you want to evolve, Tapirmon?"
Tapirmon shrugged. "It is time to fight."
"All right, then," said Sam. "Let's give this a whirl." He took out his Digivice, clutching it tightly. It began chiming and flashing lights, and the lights were echoed in a swirling mist that rose around his partner.
"Tapirmon, digivolve to... Apemon!"
Out of the mist leaped a shaggy beast covered in golden fur. It crouched down on its long, powerful arms and legs, then leaped into the air again, moving swiftly towards the battle. With a final leap, he swung a heavy bone club at the Nightmare, taking it completely by surprise. It flew through the air and slammed into a tree with a force that would have killed a human being.
However, the specter only stood up again, eyes blazing at the sight of the intruder.
"Where did you come from?" it demanded.
"I was born of a dream of victory," Apemon replied. Sam resisted the urge to grin; his partner might look very different, but he was still the same old Tapirmon inside.
"This is not possible! You should not have entered this world!"
Apemon shrugged. "All things are possible, in dreams."
The enraged Nightmare tried to blast him, but he jumped out of the way, and Gatomon took the opportunity to spring at her enemy from behind, clamping her paws over his face. The others took advantage of his momentary blindness to attack from several angles at once, until the blasts became so intense that Gatomon had to leap away again.
"Man, he's still taking it!" Davis shouted. "What is this guy made of, titanium?"
"The stuff that dreams are made of," said Sam. "I'm not really sure how to hurt him."
"Well, we're going to try anyway," TK replied.
Sam turned to TK. "What have you got in mind?"
"Davis suggested we try to get our Digimon to go to Ultimate."
"Can we do that?"
"We can try."
The Digidestined arranged themselves in a circle - why, they didn't know, other than a near-instinctive feeling that they could channel more power that way. Holding their Digivices tightly, almost prayerfully, each closed his or her eyes and searched deeply for the power they needed. For a moment, it was as if they were floundering in the dark ocean itself, pulled around by the tides of despair that had permeated the world. It did not want to share its power with them. It had held this form too long; it was not yet ready to allow itself to be changed again. They struggled against the overwhelming forces, looking for something, anything, that could help them.
Then, suddenly, a tiny light broke through...
Oikawa had been left to his own devices. He didn't particularly mind that. To be honest, he felt like he deserved it, after the trouble he had caused. He knew these people were trying to be kind to him, but there was a limit to anyone's kindness, particularly to foolish, broken man who already had one foot in the grave. Why go through all the trouble to pull him around? It would be so much easier for everyone if he could just finish his descent back into oblivion. Even here, it hardly mattered if he lived or died. How could it matter? He was all alone, and always would be, because he had lost his only true friend...
His head snapped up as he felt a wave of panic wash over him. There was no one around, no one but Gennai lurking way off in the forest. The voice he'd heard had been right next to him, yet there was no one in sight. Were the voices back again? Was he going to degrade back into madness so soon?
"Hey, down here!"
He looked down. There was a little Digimon sitting almost on his foot, staring up at him with bright black eyes. It was green and round, resembling some sort of squash, down to a few rounded leaves and a stem on top. The difference between it and a normal plant was that it had a pair of feet and a face. Just now, it was smiling in delight, appearing not at all worried about the fact that a tall and rather frightening-looking human had nearly stepped on it.
"Who are you?" Oikawa asked.
The Digimon tilted his head, looking puzzled. "Don't you recognize me, Yukio?"
For a moment, the little Digimon appeared hurt. Then its expression cleared, and it gave him a forgiving smile.
"That's all right," he said. "It's been a long time. I almost didn't recognize you, either.
You've changed so much... But I knew it was you. It is you, isn't it Yukio?"
"Yes, but... how did you know?"
"Don't you remember? We used to play together... a long time ago..."
It stared up at him with a pleading expression, begging him to remember... and suddenly, he did. He had seen this creature before, long ago when he had just been a little boy. He had seen it on the other side of a television screen, and he had known that someday, he needed to reach that other world to find this creature...
"Pipimon," he said. "Your name is Pipimon, isn't it?"
"That's right! You do remember! I just knew you wouldn't forget me! I knew you'd come!"
Overcome with emotion, Oikawa dropped to his knees, and the Digimon scrambled into his lap to be cuddled. The man obliged, cupping him in his hands and letting him rub against his cheek. Pipimon chirped happily.
"I missed you," he said.
"So did I," answered Oikawa quietly. "More than you can know."
*This is why I had to come here,* he thought. *This is why I'm here now. This is why I have to go on living.*
And for the first time in years, his darkness was broken by a tiny point of light.
There was a great deal of commotion. One moment, the children had been certain that they were never going to find the strength to break away from the Nightmare's grip. The next minute, it was as if the sun had appeared over the horizon, turning all the dark shadows into harmless and familiar shapes. Suddenly, everything they wanted to do wasn't difficult; it was as easy as breathing. It happened before they could even think about it.
On the battlefield, there was a sudden burst of light that made the Nightmare scream and try to back away... but there was nowhere he could go. He was surrounded on all sides by swirling lights. There were voices in them.
"DNA digivolve to Paildramon!"
A blue green cloud of lights burst open to reveal a remarkable creature, a strange blending of ExVeemon's dragon-like body, partially covered by Stingmon's green armor.
"What in the...?" Ken began.
"Wild," said Davis. "Our Digimon combined!"
Kari and Yolei kept their eyes focused on a pale pink cloud, hearing their own partners' voices shouting.
"DNA digivolve to Sylphimon!"
Out of the lights came a sleek humanoid with the upper body of a cat, the legs of an eagle, and a pair of feathered wings for arms. It performed a fast aerobatic maneuver, enjoying the speed of its flight.
"Would you look at that?" said Yolei.
"Our Digimon go pretty well together," Kari remarked.
A golden cloud exploded into being, engulfing two more Digimon.
"DNA digivolve to Shakkoumon!"
A gigantic steel angel appeared, its jeweled body flashing in the shimmering lights.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?" asked Cody.
"I'd remember if I had," TK replied.
Now there was only one cloud left, a swirl of deep purple. From within its depths, the final pair of voices could be heard:
"DNA Digivolve to Tondemon!"
In that last flash of light, there appeared the figure of a birdlike humanoid, resplendent in black feathers and golden armor. It flashed its talons menacingly. The Nightmare began to back away.
"They did it!" Sam exclaimed, eyes shining.
"It's beautiful!" Jun sighed.
"All right, now we've got him on the run!" Davis cheered. "Go for it, guys, give it everything you've got!"
Now the Nightmare was searching desperately for a place to escape. It was looking very drawn now, almost as if it were withering up where it stood, its face looking more than ever like a skull as it stared up at the Digimon who glared down at him.
"All together!" Paildramon shouted. "Desperado Blaster!"
The Nightmare let out a final, petrified wail as it saw its doom roaring towards it. Then it was engulfed in lights, and everyone had to shield their eyes from the glare...
It was hard to say when exactly the lights went from the harsh brilliance of battle to a soft, pearly radiance, but when next the children opened their eyes, they had just enough time to see that they were surrounded by a swirling, opalescent mist. Then they found themselves being tipped onto the soft grass of a Digital World meadow. They raised their heads groggily.
"Everybody accounted for?" called Sam.
They sat up and looked around. The children seemed to be unharmed. The Digimon seemed to be in worse shape; all of them had dropped several levels.
"Nukumon's back!" Jun squealed, scooping up a furry blue powder puff.
"Oh, no," Davis groaned, flopping back onto the grass in despair. "And I thought he was gone for good!"
"Tapirmon, is that you?" asked Sam, sizing up what appeared to be a puff of smoke with eyes.
"I'm Mokumon, now," he answered. "Don't worry; I won't stay like this very long. That DNA digivolving is ... very exhausting."
"I'll bet," said Yolei, studying her own partner, who had been reduced to a tiny pink blob with flippers. "They're probably going to demand extra candy for this."
"They can have all they want," said Kari, cuddling Salamon.
Just then, Gennai came dashing over, a laptop computer tucked under his arm.
"Is everyone all right?" he called.
"More or less," said TK, stiffly getting to his feet.
"Thank goodness," Gennai replied, heaving a sigh of relief. "For a moment there, I was picking up a massive power surge in the dream world, and everything started breaking up. I thought I'd better get you all out of there as soon as I could."
"We're okay," Ken assured him. "Everything is okay. The Nightmare has been destroyed."
"And not a moment too soon," Sam replied. He looked around. "By the way, where's Mr. Oikawa?"
"Mr. Oikawa?" Cody repeated. "He's here?"
Sam nodded. "I brought him here. I thought it would help him. Where is he? Don't tell me you let him get lost!"
Gennai made a sound of chagrin. "I was so busy keeping track of you all, I completely forgot!"
"Oh, for crying out loud," Sam muttered, and began dashing back toward the clearing with Mokumon drifting behind him. The rest of the group collected their partners and hurried to follow him.
They found Oikawa relaxing against a willow tree, watching with great interest the antics of a tiny green Digimon. They were too far away still to hear exactly what it was saying, but it was clearly chattering nonstop, and Oikawa was taking in every word.
"I see you've found a friend," Gennai commented.
Oikawa looked up in surprise. "Oh, there you went. I wondered where you had got off to." He spoke calmly, looking completely at ease for the first time since they had met him.
"I've been busy," answered Gennai. "So, what have you got there?"
"This is Pipimon," Oikawa replied, gesturing at the green Digimon. "He says he's my partner... and I'm not inclined to argue with him."
"Partner?" Kari repeated. "But - but he isn't..."
"Not one of you?" Gennai replied. "Neither were Sam and Jun at first, and they've both proven themselves admirably. When you think about it, it makes more sense than not. After all, there are millions of different Digimon. I think, out there somewhere, there must be a Digimon who would suit just about anyone. Deep down, all it really takes to make a set of partners is for them to care about each other."
"Well, I'm glad you've found your Digimon, Mr. Oikawa," Sam replied.
"Thanks to you children," he replied. "If it hadn't been for you all, I would have given up completely. I never would have found my way here."
"Right about now," said Jun, "I'd like to find my way home to a hot bath a my bed."
"It is getting kind of late," Cody admitted, looking up at the star-spangled sky.
Oikawa looked devastated. "We're leaving? Already? But I only just..."
He trailed off, as Gennai came and set a hand on his shoulder.
"If I may," he said, "I'd like to make a small suggestion. Now, as Sam tells it, you really don't have anything back on Earth, correct? No friends, no family, no home, no job..."
Oikawa nodded glumly.
"In that case, the choice seems obvious," Gennai replied. "You can stay here."
The other man's dark eyes lit up. "I could?"
"No reason why not," answered Gennai with a shrug. "It isn't exactly crowded here. There's room enough for one more. Besides, to speak from a purely selfish standpoint, it is very boring having no one to talk to but myself and the Digimon. And to hear Sam speak, you know something about computers and the Digital World. You can help me with my work. Harmonious Ones know, there's enough work here for five or six, and just me to do it. But it's up to you. What do you say?"
Oikawa smiled broadly. "I'd say you have a deal."
"You're staying?" Pipimon squeaked. "You aren't going to leave me again? Yay!"
Sam laughed. "I think that all worked out pretty well."
"Very well," Ken agreed, as the group began heading for the nearest TV set exit. "We've done a full night's work."
"And it's not over yet," Sam chimed in. "At least, not for some of us." He looked pointedly at Davis, grinning slyly.
"What?" said Davis. "What are you talking about?"
"Well," Sam replied, "I ran into your parents when I was leaving your apartment tonight, and I told them you'd explain everything for them... so when you get home, you get to explain to your father why his sweatsuit isn't coming back anytime soon."
Davis gave a moan, and everyone laughed as they stepped through the portal to the Real World.