It was as if he hadn't left. That was the first feeling to hit Bob as he strolled down the street, hardly anything had changed and somehow he was finding it hard to believe that it had been more than forty hours since he had last been in Mainframe. One of the more noticeable changes he could see was the difference in the number of sprites here now; hazarding a guess as to the reason for this he decided that it had probably happened after Daemon's defeat when people had left behind the systems that hadn't survived and moved on to pastures new. Quite a few had obviously decided to settle here in Mainframe.
He wandered without purpose for most of the morning, looking around as he strolled and reminiscing about the times he had spent in this little system. He'd had some good times here, great times, more than anything he regretted leaving but he'd had no choice in the matter. Losing himself in memories of the past, he barely noticed as he turned onto Baudway. Suddenly he found a lump of emotion in his throat as he came face to face with an extremely familiar Diner and noted with a sad smile that it no longer belonged to Dot, now the sign over the building read "Enzo's". She must have been too busy with the running of the system to carry on at the Diner too. Perhaps if he had been around to lend a helping hand…he shook off the thought quickly and snuck a quick peek through the window. Apart from that one small change the Diner had remained the same, Cecil was still there speeding up and down the aisle and telling the customers to "Wait at the bar, wait at the bar". There was no sign of Enzo; Bob guessed he was probably keeping Dot company. He dove to one side quickly as the doors suddenly swung open and a take out order sped off down the street to an unknown destination.
Forcing himself to leave the source of so many memories Bob turned around and walked slowly away, grinning to himself at the thought of Matrix in a chef's hat and apron, preparing energy shakes. He knew full well that the Diner didn't belong to Matrix but little Enzo but the mental image was too amusing to dismiss straight away. He was still grinning at the thought when the Diner was far behind him, judging from the crowds around him now he was in the busiest part of Mainframe. Sprites hurried past him not noticing he was standing there. For some reason this made his good mood disappear. At one time he would have been mobbed by adoring fans had he walked down the street but now he felt like just another anonymous face in the crowd. Despite the feeling he was still glad to be back, even if it was only for a short visit.
After checking the time with Glitch he found he still had a few minutes before he had to leave. There was still so much to see and do before he could get to the point of his visit. After spending a few nanos standing there doing absolutely nothing he decided to take a stroll past his old apartment and go on to floating point park to relax before he did what he had come to do.
After dodging the rushing sprites in the street and narrowly avoiding a serious accident with a pushchair he made his way to his old apartment, or more precisely to where his apartment used to be. Now he noticed with a pang that the apartment had gone. It had been torn down many hours ago and replaced with a simple, stone memorial in honour of the sprites who had died in the battle against Daemon. Running a hand through his blackened silver hair he grinned sorrowfully. Trust Dot to do something like this. He knew he had hurt her badly by not coming back to Mainframe after the war but she must have been really mad at him in order to do something this drastic. He could just imagine the faces of the others when she told them what she was thinking of doing. He had to admit though that it was a masterstroke of planning, in one fell swoop she had honoured the memory of the brave sprites who hadn't lived to see freedom and had got rid of the last piece of evidence of his time in Mainframe, his home. It was Dot all over.
Suddenly he didn't feel like refreshing his memories at the park. He approached the memorial sadly and ran his hand slowly down the sleek surface of the plaque. His fingers picked out the chiselled outlines of the names carved into its surface. There were countless names there; too many he thought sadly, hundreds of lives had been lost in that final battle, just how many of those names could he have saved? How many would still be alive today if he had attacked sooner? Turning his back to the memorial he slid down until he was sitting at its base and placed his head in his hands. He knew exactly how many. None. The massacre of the final battle had been thorough and he knew that no matter what he had done in those crucial, final moments there was no way he could have saved the people whose names now graced the cold memorial behind him. Even so it didn't stop him from wishing things could have been different.
He had no idea how long he sat there thinking, the minutes flew by and still the blue skinned sprite was hunched at the base of the memorial. Somehow he felt as if he needed to pay his respects to the many sprites who had deleted in the name of freedom and this was the only way he knew how. Darkness approached swiftly and yet he remained, the crowds were beginning to thin out now; there were fewer sprites out on the streets at this time. Still no one noticed the lone sprite as he sat huddled by the stone statue lost in his sorrow. He passed the time staring at the building opposite and didn't seem to notice the growing darkness or the drop in temperature, which accompanied it.
A sudden cold gust of wind brought him back to his senses and he struggled to stand, wincing at the pins and needles that started almost immediately. Turning one last time to look at the plaque he ran his hand slowly over one of the engraved names and sighed in regret. If only. Shaking off his depression he wiggled his toes a little in order to get his circulation going and after a final glance at the memorial he began a slow, agonising walk back the way he had come. It was amazing just how much pain pins and needles could cause; if anyone saw him walking this way they'd be thinking he'd had an embarrassing accident. He grinned broadly at the thought and carried on walking hoping the tingling in his legs would soon dissipate.
Unlike that morning when he was wandering aimlessly, this walk had a purpose and destination. He strode quickly, looking neither left nor right as he made his way through the dark streets of the system. Finally he arrived at his goal. Glancing up at the large sign above the door he hesitated for a while as he took a deep breath to compose himself. Walking through the double door entrance to the Mainframe General hospital he strode inside, it was time to see Dot.
Room 452, it was fate's cruel joke Matrix thought as he stood at the window of his sister's hospital room. The brightness of the morning outside contrasted sharply with the tangible sorrow filling the small room. The only sounds to break the silence were coming from the machine monitoring Dot's heartbeat and the loud snores coming from Frisket as he slept under the bed. Dot hadn't mentioned the number on the door but Matrix knew that it bothered her immensely. She hated to be reminded of Bob, after all hadn't she demolished his old apartment block a few cycles after the war. And now here she was in room 452 and there was nothing they could do about it, as the hospital was critically full. Matrix sat down on the small, rather uncomfortable chair, which the room boasted and prepared himself for another day. He was lost in his thoughts when a slight growl from Frisket brought his attention back to the present. Footsteps were approaching Dot's room; as they reached the door they stopped and Matrix watched as the handle on the door began to turn slowly. Unholstering Gun he stood up and waited for the owner of the soft footsteps to enter the room. He didn't have to wait long.
"Jeez Matrix don't shoot, I come in peace."
"Sorry AndrAIa." Hiding his embarrassment Matrix quickly replaced Gun and managed a small grin at the aqua haired sprite who had entered. The hours hadn't affected her much, her face had a few laughter lines and her hair a few streaks of grey but even so Matrix couldn't help but think that she was more beautiful now than she had ever been.
AndrAIa stared past Matrix at the bed and its occupant before bringing her gaze back to him. "How's she doing?"
"The doctors think this is it, they don't think she'll make it to the next cycle." He struggled to keep his voice from shaking but AndrAIa knew him too well. Hurrying over she gave him a quick, comforting hug which he returned gratefully, glad of the company.
"Mouse, Ray and Enzo are on their way up now, they're just getting a cup of java from the machine downstairs."
Matrix nodded. The others had developed quite a taste for the stuff during Dot's hospital stay. He kept away from it personally, too much caffeine didn't mix well with his nerves, as the many blast holes above the door proved. Moving to a corner of the room he grabbed the stack of chairs there and began to set them out in readiness for the others.
AndrAIa just stood and watched him sadly; he was taking Dot's illness hard. Ever since she had been hospitalised he hadn't been able to focus on the games well, it had caused them a couple of narrow escapes before AndrAIa had banned him from going in and began entering them alone. It was safer. Now he was filling his days sitting beside Dot and keeping her company when she was awake, which had been getting less and less these last few cycles.
A slight sound from the corridor caught their attention and as the noise grew louder it was obvious that Mouse, Ray and Enzo were approaching the room. Judging from the raised voices it seemed as though Mouse and Ray were in the middle of a lovers' TIFF. Matrix grinned a little, some things never changed. The argument stopped abruptly when the sprites reached the door and caught sight of the look on Matrix's face. No words were necessary; they all knew that the news was bad. Swiftly they entered the room without even bothering to close the door. In silence the small group collected around Dot's bed and sat down in the seats Matrix had set out for them. Mouse was the first to find her voice.
"How long, Matrix?"
"Not long, a couple more minutes perhaps but they think that she won't even last that long." Matrix's voice cracked on the last few words and he looked down at the floor, unable to bear the sadness in his friends' eyes.
"Oh User." Mouse stared back down at the still body of her friend. Something inside her was refusing to believe that Dot was dying. She looked fine, a few slight lines on her face and white patches in her hair but most of them had those nowadays. She herself had long said goodbye to her brilliant red hair, now it was more of a brilliant shade of white. Stifling a grin she glanced over at Matrix, he hadn't fared well with Father Time either. Nowadays he was what some people would call "Follically Challenged". She preferred to call him "Bald". Mouse didn't like to mince words. She said what she thought, who cared about the consequences.
The five friends sat there in silence for a while, each one deep in their own thoughts and memories. Noticing the drop in temperature in the room Matrix stood up quietly and stepped up to the open window. He was surprised to see that darkness had fallen; it hadn't felt like he'd been here all day. He stood at the window for a short while after closing it, just staring out at the dark emptiness outside, something about it mirrored the hollow feeling he sensed inside himself. A low growl from Frisket was enough to alert him to a possible intruder.
"What is it boy?"
Frisket only whined a little and sniffed the air puzzled. Matrix sighed and replaced his gun once again. "I wish Bob was here."
The others started at the unexpected comment and stared at Matrix, AndrAIa squeezed his hand reassuringly "You know he can't come, Matrix."
"Yeah, I know. But it still doesn't make it any easier. I mean, I miss him."
Mouse sighed before replying, "We all do Hon but you know he can't be here."
They fell back into silence after this, it was almost as if there was nothing more to be said. Once again the only sounds in the room came from Dot's heart monitor and Frisket's snoring. No one noticed the blue sprite standing in the doorway.
Bob wandered through the corridors slowly; now that he'd arrived at the hospital he was feeling nervous. After all it had been over forty hours since he and Dot had last seen each other, how she was going to react when she saw him he didn't know. And if he was completely honest he didn't care, it would be enough just to see her again. Something inside him made him smile as he approached her room, trust her to get room 452. Noticing the open door he peered into the room and for the first time in forty hours laid eyes on six of his dearest friends. Dot was sleeping, this he could see straight away. He didn't want to wake her just yet; she wasn't ready to see him at the moment. For now he was content with taking in every little detail of his friends, he'd missed them more than he'd thought possible. A small growl from Frisket reminded him of just how much the dog loved to hate him and he grinned at the dog's bewildered look at catching his scent. Still he was happy to stay outside the room and there he remained for a while, listening to the conversation going on inside and noting every little change in his friends' appearances.
They hadn't really changed over the hours; only small changes were evident. Things like grey hair, middle-aged paunches, and baldness. Bob grinned at the last, poor old Matrix. Enzo was the one who had changed the most, he'd really grown from the last time Bob had seen him, back then he had been nothing but a young boy, barely 1.0. Now he was a younger version of Matrix, the only differences being that Enzo had two eyes and wasn't quite as muscular.
Turning his attention to Dot he managed a small smile, the sprite in the bed was almost 6.5 now and had changed a lot from the last time they had seen each other. Bob thought back to that day, he had been about to board the ship with the others in order to search out Daemon's stronghold. He had heard someone call his name and had turned only to be flattened by Dot, obviously taking a leaf out of Enzo's book. After she had helped him up and he had regained a little of his dignity and composure, which he remembered had been difficult with many of his friends surrounding him and laughing, she had hugged him tightly and he had sworn again the same pledge he had made after the system restart a few cycles ago.
"Don't ever leave me again."
Bob sighed at the memory; it had happened so long ago. Running a trembling hand through his hair he closed his eyes to prevent the tears, which were threatening to fall. Why couldn't he have kept that promise?
Mouse was beginning to feel restless, it had been two minutes since anyone had spoken and the silence was becoming unbearable. Plus if she had to listen to the incessant snoring from Frisket for much longer she was going to go random. A sudden thought struck her and summoning her courage she posed a question, which had been hanging in the air silently for many hours now.
"Do you think things would have been different if Bob had come back to Mainframe after the war?"
Matrix jumped a little, both from the sound after the long period of silence and the nature of the question itself. He shot a quick glance at Dot before he answered in a voice barely above a whisper. "I think everything would have been different."
Enzo nodded emphatically, "For starters Dot wouldn't be here in this hospital if she'd had Bob around to stop her from working herself into a frenzy all the time. She missed him too much to relax for long. She's worked herself to death." His voice was tinged with bitterness.
A memory returned to Matrix and he sniggered a little, "You should have seen the TIFF they had once. You think you and Ray can argue, Mouse. Those two could have argued in the Olympics." His voice took on a tender note, "Even so they were meant for each other."
AndrAIa agreed with Enzo and Matrix. With a small sigh she voiced a thought of her own, which she had often wondered about in the past. "Could you imagine what their kids would have been like?"
Mouse laughed a little at this, "I can just see it now, little sprites with Bob's energy and Dot's efficiency combined. They'd probably have taken over the entire system by now. There'd be nowhere left to hide."
Silence fell again as the sprites conjured up their own mental images of Dot and Bob's children, children who would never be born. Dot had never married; she had thrown herself into her work with a vengeance after the war determined to forget about the sprite who had broken both his promise and her heart in one single instant. The others had tried to get her to relax a little, even attempting to set her up with blind dates when sprites began settling in Mainframe. Nothing worked though and they soon gave up, realising that even though she wanted to forget about Bob she would never allow herself to let go.
A change in the regularity of the beeps from Dot's monitor stopped the conversation in its tracks and the five sprites held their breath as Dot's heart seemed almost to falter before settling down into a noticeably slower rhythm. It would not be long now. The younger of the two Enzos took hold of Dot's hand and gave it a gentle squeeze to let her know that she wasn't alone. Another thought hit him and he looked around at his friends and family in the room, some part of him really wanted to ask the question but another part didn't want to hear the answer. Finally his curiosity overcame his fear and taking a deep breath he asked his query in a trembling voice.
"What do you think happens after you delete?"
At this Mouse stood up from her seat and hurried over to give him a gentle hug. They all knew Dot would never see the light of the next cycle but it was still hard to accept. Letting go of Dot's hand Enzo buried his head in Mouse's shoulder and let his tears fall, Mouse just held him tightly until his outburst had died down and he was calm again. Stroking his hair back off his forehead she looked down into his eyes and smiled.
"Deletion is only the next stage, Sugah. We all have to go through it eventually. My mother used to tell me a story about the afterlife of sprites. She used to say that no sprite could truly be deleted. Somewhere beyond the systems they still exist, not governed by the rules we live by. Dot will be ok, and we'll see her again when our own time comes. Until then she'll live on in our hearts and memories."
This seemed to give Enzo a little hope and he released his grip on Mouse, not needing the comfort of the hug any more. He wiped his eyes in embarrassment, getting rid of the last traces of tears. A small sound from the bed grabbed his attention and hurriedly he turned to stare into Dot's violet irises. She raised her hand slowly towards him in concern and smiled sadly at him when she saw how upset he was.
"Don't worry Enzo, I've been looking forward to this day for a long time now."
The others had to strain to hear the words she spoke as they were barely above a whisper. Looking around at the faces of her friends Dot smiled, they had come to see her off on her journey. Enzo had grabbed hold of her hand and was holding it tightly, as if he was trying to hold her here with them. Matrix and AndrAIa were sitting close together, fingers entwined tightly. Matrix seemed to be attempting an encouraging smile despite the tears falling down his face. Mouse was refusing to cry but Dot knew that she was already feeling the loss of her friend. Ray had his arm over her shoulder in a vain attempt at comfort. Something about the situation struck Dot as highly amusing and she managed a very weak laugh surprising the others.
"You all look as though you've seen a ghost." She grinned at them, "What have you been talking about this time?"
Matrix cleared his throat a little at Dot's weak attempt at lightening the mood. He decided to play along, if only to make Dot happy. "Guess."
Dot had allowed her head to slip sideways on the pillow, almost as though it was too much effort for her to keep it straight. She took a deep, shuddering breath before answering, "Bob?"
Ray looked at her in astonishment, "How in the net did you guess that?"
Dot didn't reply for a while, she seemed to be off in a little world of her own a tired but happy smile on her face. Finally though she spoke again, in the same small whisper as before. "Thanks for coming."
Mouse blinked back the tears "You know we wouldn't have missed it for anything Hon."
Dot smiled, "I know, I love you too."
At this Mouse couldn't prevent the tears any longer and buried her face in Ray's shoulder as he squeezed her comfortingly. For a short time there was a period of silence during which Dot continued to stare steadily at the doorway, the smile never leaving her face. Matrix shifted in his seat uncomfortably, they really weren't made for someone of his stature. The resulting noise seemed to wake Dot from her trance and she brought her gaze back to her friends. She gave Enzo's hand a weak squeeze and smiled at them sadly with an expression which seemed to say goodbye.
Raising her left hand from the covers Dot reached out with her fingers towards the air. The beeps from the monitor were steadily slowing down now, as she appeared to nod slightly and grinned.
With that the beeps from the monitor stopped entirely and Dot's body flickered once before fading out of existence leaving nothing but her icon behind.
Bob stood outside the room for a long time. Now that he had reached his destination the nervousness had returned. What if Dot wasn't happy to see him? When he'd heard she was dying he had had to come and see her but now doubts were beginning to plague him. How had she fared after the war? Had she married? Did she have children? Would she even remember who he was? After all, it *had* been a long time since they had last seen each other. A thorough examination of the room from his position at the doorway had been enough to satisfy him. There were no pictures of husbands or children on the clinical looking side cupboard in the room. The only visitors were Dot's brothers, Mouse, and Ray, Phong having passed away some hours ago now. Bob had no doubts that Dot had remained single after he had left. Surely she would have had her husband or children around her now otherwise.
A missed beat on the monitor caught his attention and he waited as the beeps grew constant again, noting how they had slowed down quite a bit. It would only be a few nanos now before Dot deleted and yet something was still stopping him from entering the room. Listening to the faint strains of the conversation Bob smiled to himself. Mouse certainly had an interesting view on sprite afterlife. Bob had to wonder just how much of it she believed and how much she was saying in order to comfort Enzo.
Suddenly a new voice entered the conversation and Bob froze in shock. He had waited to hear this voice again for so long, it hadn't changed at all and he found himself wondering if her singing was still as good as it used to be. As soon as Dot's voice entered the conversation in the room he could feel the barriers preventing him from going in dissolving. Unable to shake the feeling that he was in a dream Bob stepped silently into the room unnoticed by his friends. Dot had begun to talk again and had cracked a very weak joke. Despite the situation Bob couldn't stop from smiling. Without a sound he approached the bed slowly.
Suddenly Dot turned her head on the pillow catching sight of the movement from the corner of her eye. The conversation around her seemed to fade into the background immediately as she looked into the eyes of the sprite who held her heart. He hadn't changed at all from the last time she had seen him. His hair had the same beautiful tones of burnt silver and shone as it caught the reflections from the strip lighting above. His skin was the same shade of blue she remembered so vividly. For a nano she wondered why he hadn't aged like the rest of them, before mentally kicking herself. He was only a figment of her imagination; after all she had seen him everywhere in the first few hours after Daemon's defeat. Taking a deep breath she spoke her first words to him in forty hours.
Bob grinned, he had waited so long to hear her voice again, and to hear her speak his name made him feel complete again. He heard the questioning tone in her voice and hastened to reassure her.
"Yep I'm back, did'ya miss me?" His voice cracked and he took a moment to get his emotions under control. Glancing at Dot he noticed the wry smile on her face and it seemed to help him. Taking a deep breath he let out a soft laugh.
"Sorry, I can't help it, it's a compulsion. It's been a long time."
There was no reply. Bob ran a hand through his hair once more nervously, mussing it up even more than usual. He had intended to pour his heart out to her and yet it seemed to be turning into a casual conversation between friends. Looking once more into Dot's eyes he realised she understood how he felt, she even felt the same herself. After collecting his thoughts he tried once more.
"I thought I'd come and see you."
Dot's smile broadened at this and the small lines around her eyes crinkled in response. She had let him suffer enough. Now it was time to talk back.
"Thanks for coming."
Bob smiled back and he took a few steps closer to the bed. Their eyes were locked in an intense gaze and he could see the hurt and pain she had felt when he left her in her dark, emotional eyes. All of his nervousness left him in that moment and suddenly he felt as if he could finally say the words he had longed to say all these hours.
"I'm sorry I broke my promise." As the words left his lips he felt free, freer then he'd been in a very long time. "I love you Dot, I never stopped loving you, you know." His eyes looked into hers asking a silent question.
Dot felt her heart swelling with joy, Bob was back with her again, everything was going to be alright now. Taking a deep breath she spoke again, wiping away any traces of doubt Bob was feeling.
She smiled, "I know, I love you too."
They continued to look at each other for a while, neither one seemed to want to break the eye contact. Suddenly a loud creaking noise from Matrix's chair brought Bob back to his senses. He grinned, "It's time to say goodbye Dot."
She smiled at him and tore her gaze away from his hazel eyes with difficulty. Looking around at her friends surrounding her bed she found it hard to form the words. Instead she simply squeezed Enzo's hand tenderly and said goodbye through her smile. They seemed to understand what she was saying. The world seemed to be fading away around her now as she felt some last vestige of strength returning. Once more she focussed her gaze on Bob and graced him with a smile.
Bob found himself saying a silent farewell to his friends too, it was something he'd never had the chance to do before and he was seizing the opportunity with both hands. The beeps on the heart monitor were steadily slowing down now; it was time. He reached out his hand towards Dot and gave her the look, which had always made her heart melt.
"Are you ready to go?"
Dot nodded weakly and reached out her hand to his, rejoicing in the feeling of his fingers entwined with hers. "I'm ready." There was a blinding flash and then everything went black.
The next thing she was aware of was standing by her bedside looking down at the empty space she had occupied only a few nanos before. Her friends were still there and seemed to be in shock, staring down at the crumpled sheets still warm from her body. She watched as Matrix reached out with a trembling hand and lifted her icon from the bed tenderly.
Suddenly she became aware of the feeling that someone was looking at her, turning she found herself staring into the warm, gentle eyes of the guardian she had given her heart to so long ago. Blushing a little at the intensity of his gaze she allowed her eyes to drop down to her hand, noticing that her fingers were still tightly clutching his. Noticing something else about the hand she reached up to her face and touched her cheek softly, pulling back her fingers in shock when she realised her skin was as youthful as Bob's appeared.
Noticing her shock Bob gave her hand a reassuring squeeze and grinned at her tenderly. Wordlessly they turned back to have one last look at their friends, still huddled around her bed in mourning. She turned back to Bob, "Will they be alright?"
He nodded, "They'll be fine, don't worry." Looking into her eyes he found he could wait no longer and pulled her towards him, she moved willingly and they lost themselves in their first kiss since Bob had left. With the beginning of the kiss Dot felt the pain and loneliness she had suffered all these hours disappearing. Everything was right again, nothing could ever come between them now. Pulling away after the kiss she took a nano to catch her breath and grinned up at him.
"I missed you."
Holding hands they turned and walked away, away from their friends, away from the hospital. As they passed the memorial once more a shaft of light from one of the street lamps seemed to illuminate the outline of one of the names carved into the shiny surface of the plaque, the name of a sprite who had lost his life saving his friends, the same name Bob had touched regretfully a few minutes earlier, his name…Guardian 452.