Disclaimer: No own, No sue.

AN: Well, here we go. Lots going on in this chapter, and we're pulling up on some action sequences soon. Imagine that.

Also, a cameo from Izzy! All that and more!

Happy reading!

"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point."

C.S. Lewis

Tai Kamiya was not one to take a responsibility lightly, in truth, even as a child he never had been. In his world, in his life, filled with danger and worlds to be saved, his greatest responsibility had always been his sister. This had always been very clear to him, long before he was the Child of Courage and she the Child of Light. Those facts only gave a name and reason to what he'd felt all along; Kari was something very special and very rare, and was to be protected above all else. In fact, he often thought, with no small amount of guilt, that if forced to choose between her life and the Digital World, he would owe the Digital World a huge apology. This was very clear to him, as clear as the line between good and evil, between courage and cowardice, between honor and infamy. Tai preferred that all things in his life could be clear and easily definable, and by and large, certain digital issues notwithstanding, his life was quite clear. His role was quite clear.

Or at least, it had been.

Looking back, he could pinpoint the rise of the Digimon Emperor as the beginning of his unease, and the reason why was obvious. The old digivices were blocked, and his Crest had not availed him any further. He could not fight this darkness. That alone was a blow to the young leader, so used to standing in front and now relegated to the bench. The worst was yet to come, however. New chosen children arose to fight the Emperor… and with them went Kari. It hadn't been a surprise, really, somewhere in the back of his mind he'd known that the Crest of Light would hardly be crippled by such a small thing as a dark spire. If any Crest were to be in the forefront, it would be Light. It would be Kari.

If he weren't so terrified every time she went through the gate without him, he'd probably burst with pride. He never said anything to her, though. He just swallowed his fear for her and watched her go, knowing there was nothing he could do for her and hating it. Tai knew that letting her go alone required more courage than anything he'd ever face, and courage, at least, was very clear and comforting to him.

After four years, although the fear had never lessened, he'd become accustomed to the new order of things, and grudgingly had become comfortable with it. But now another change was sweeping the Digidestined, and it too was making him question his role.

All of the older kids had always had an unspoken understanding about the role and importance of each of the Crests. They were all vital, of course. Some were obvious, Courage, Knowledge, Love. Others were subtle, like Sincerity, Reliability, and Friendship. The final two were understood to be different. The Crest of Light was clearly powerful and sentient, its meaning and importance buried in the mythology of the Digital World. It acted on its own, powered an exceptional digimon, and belonged to a girl that stood out from the other destined in an indefinable but undeniable way. It just went without saying among them: Kari and her Crest are different.

In a similar vein, they had always thought of the Crest of Hope in the same way. Perhaps more so, because there hadn't been a face, a child to go with it. Ishida's younger brother had always been… almost a silent presence among them. He was missing, lost, but his role among them, his place by the campfire remained there still. They never spoke of him, but they carried the knowledge of his absence, and Ishida's grief had been palpable around them. Mimi had once remarked, sitting by the mouth of a cave in the digital world, watching the rain patter against her cowboy boots, that it felt like the digital world was wounded, and it cried from the pain of it, the pain of its slow bleeding. She'd been looking at Ishida when she said it. They'd all understood.

Tai had always found it odd that the Crest of Hope, of all things, should represent this loss they carried unspoken among them.

Like the Crest of Light, it acted of its own discretion from time to time, always when they needed it most and not a nanosecond before. Those occasions were rare, but when it happened, it was… an experience. Tai remembered the prophecy… arrows of hope and light, so Agumon and Gabumon could digivolve farther than they ever had before. It hadn't quite happened as the prophecy stated, but in the end, the strange, compelling powers of hope and light had been made clear.

Now the Crest of Hope had a face to go with it. Takaishi Takeru had reappeared, and considering all Tai knew about the crests, he didn't need Sora's emotional intuition to guess that he and Kari would get along. They would have things in common, certainly, be friends, even.

Tai was okay with that. In theory.

Reality was a far different story. Kari certainly did feel something for Takaishi, but it certainly wasn't friendship. He'd seen her face on the beach that morning, even though she'd tried to mask it as anger. She'd been terrified… about Takaishi… for Takaishi. When he had appeared, she'd blown her top at him. Shouted up and down the beach, and then she'd turned on Tai, himself. Through her yelling, he'd seen her eyes. No one, not one person in the world knew Kari as well as he did.

He knew what he'd seen. He'd snapped at the boy and Kari had leapt to his defense, taking his side against her brother. She'd never done that before.

Why, oh why did it have to be Ishida's little brother?

"Kamiya!"

Tai jerked from his thoughts, turning red as he realized his entire sixth period class was staring at him. That included Ishida, who for once was looking at him instead of ignoring him. He looked worried, and he motioned Tai's attention towards the instructor, their feud apparently temporarily forgotten.

Tai looked at the teacher, expecting a chastisement for his prolonged inattention. His history teacher was leaning over him in concern, however, a strange look in his eyes.

"Kamiya, the office has called for you. Your sister has fallen ill, and passed out at lunch. You should—"

Tai never heard the end of the sentence.

"Knowledge is power."

Francis Bacon

Izzy growled in frustration, barely restraining himself from tossing his laptop against the wall and watching with supreme satisfaction as it broke into irreparable pieces. Taking a deep breath, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at the tiled ceiling, listening to the squeak of plastic as his chair bent back. Slowly breathing, he tried to think rationally, pulling his extremely active mind in, focusing his entire formidable intellect on the problem before him. He went over what he knew.

Someone had accessed the code of the Digital World. Gee, I wonder who…

This person had no qualms about altering the code to their whims, without regard to the living habitants of aforementioned Digital World.

This person, as of yet, appeared to have no plan or pattern… all the alterations appeared to be random and experimental.

Altering the code randomly was both dangerous and immoral. The potential consequences of this action were like a butterfly flapping its wings. It was like traveling through time. It showed a complete and utter disregard for the sanctity and autonomy of the world and its inhabitants.

Also, it could very well destroy both.

Watching the softly colored characters flying on his screen, Izzy recalled the care and reservation with which he and Gennai had altered the time codes of the digital world, years ago. Every mathematical eventuality had been precisely calculated, weighed against the needs of the many. Now someone… three guesses who… was randomly erasing characters, just to watch things disappear! And the worst of it was, Izzy himself, bound by his morals and plain old common sense, could not bring himself to alter the code. All he could do was replace and repair what he saw change, hoping he caught them all and scrambling to catch up. He glanced at the clock… three-thirty. The younger kids would be heading to the Digital World soon…

A chilling thought brought him up short… when they went into the Digital World, they became part of it, their bodies became data and code… so logically, anyone with access to the code could…

He had to stop them from going in!

Reaching for the phone, he glanced at his view screen, his finger frozen over the speed dial.

As he watched, an entire island began to sink into the sea, a full line of characters disappearing simultaneously from the window beside it.

God damn it!

Slamming his finger onto the button labeled 'Yolei-cell,' he jammed the phone between his ear and shoulder, turning both his hands back to the keyboard, typing frantically. The tinny sound of ringing reached his ear, and he growled softly in time with it.

"Pick up… pick up… damn it, Yolei, this is freaking important!"

"Hi! You've reached Yolei's phone! I'm obviously not available, so please leave a brief message after the beep…"

On his screen, the island suddenly reappeared, looking as good as new.

Beep!

"Yolei—this is Izzy. You guys have to stay out of the digi-world! I can't explain over the phone, but something really bad is happening, and you could all be killed or worse if you go in! Trust me on this! Do not enter--!"

A click signaled the end of the recording. Sighing, Izzy hung up the phone, staring in despair at the code of the Digital world, suddenly exposed and vulnerable before his eyes. Beyond his ragged breathing, his room was nearly silent, except for the normally soothing whir of his laptop, and the faint hum of the air conditioning. Sunlight felt noiselessly across his hands, helplessly resting in his lap.

All he could do was wait… wait for the other shoe to drop, for the ax to fall, and just pray God he could catch it and set it right.

Izzy was so intent upon his waiting that he jumped, almost sending his chair over backwards when a dialogue box appeared on his screen.

::Having fun yet?::

Blinking in surprise at the text, Izzy frowned as he typed a reply. ::Who is this?::

::As far as the Digital World is concerned, God. The great and powerful Oz. Big Brother. Take your pick.::

Leaning forward in amazement, Izzy's fingers flew over the well-worn keys.

::The boy who would be emperor. I should have known. Do you have any idea what you're playing at? What you're risking? If you keep this up, the Digital World will collapse around you!::

::Who's going to stop me? You? You've who have had the code all along, and simply sat on it? Unwilling to seize the power that was beneath your fingers? Or those sad little children who call themselves destined? Let them set foot in the digital world. I welcome them. You know what I'll do to them. You wouldn't be able to save them all.::

::What's stopping me from doing the same thing to you? I could alter the code… use it to kill you. I know you're in the Digital World, I could find you easily enough. You just found the code; you're only beginning to understand it. I've been studying it for years… I invented this game.::

::How ironic that you're about to lose it. You won't kill me; you don't have it in you. Even if you could find me.::

::You're very arrogant. You should know you're not the only genius in the world, Ichijouji Ken.::

There was a moment of silence, which stretched interminably as Izzy stared at the blinking cursor. Suddenly the text box disappeared, as Ken terminated the conversation. Smirking, Izzy guessed he'd been shocked that he knew who he was… and mentally he thanked the swift and merciless gossip channels of the Digidestined, through which information was disseminated with a speed and accuracy that any intelligence agency would admire. Watching the code carefully, but seeing no further changes, he addressed himself to his long, technical and only slightly panicked e-mail to Gennai, the fifth he written that day.

One thing was certain… something had to be done about Ken, and soon.

It's a long way down to nothing at all… "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of"

U2

TK stared, unseeing, into his locker, trying to remember what he'd wanted when he'd opened it. His eyes wandered aimlessly over the letters on his textbooks, but he couldn't seem to pull any sense from the words. Meian Era literature… pre-calculus… economics of the developing world… what was he looking for, again? He glanced at his watch, noting with relief that he hadn't blacked out, again. Time seemed to be moving normally, for the moment. Sighing, TK grabbed his math book, knowing it was a pretty sure bet that he had homework in it, even if he couldn't remember what it was.

He heard footsteps approaching through the still, empty corridor, a shadow flashing out of the squares of sunlight stretching towards him across faded blue linoleum. A flare of gold told him who it was, and he relaxed slightly, wondering why he was so wound up, why his heart had been racing and his adrenalin flying all afternoon without respite. He was exhausted from the prolonged stress, and he saw that his hands were shaking visibly. Gathering his stack of books, he held them to his chest to disguise the trembling.

"Hey, squirt, what's up?" Matt greeted him, his shirt fashionably un-tucked beneath his dark green jacket, looking ever the cool, composed celebrity. If he'd had the energy, TK would have envied him that composure. As it was, he closed his locker and leaned wearily against it. He smiled as best he could, knowing what Matt expected to see and trying his best to look the part and avoid any unnecessary questions.

"Not much… I was just going to head home and start on this mountain of homework." TK hoped his voice sounded wry and cheerful and not tired and pathetic. He honestly couldn't tell how it sounded, but he didn't want Matt to worry.

A worried frown marred Matt's face. Damn… guess there's no fooling him…

"I thought you said you were going to the Digital World today?" Matt's tone was more worried than his expression belied, and his eyes swept up and down his little brother critically. In truth, the reason he's sought TK out was because he'd had an awful, icy feeling in his chest all afternoon, like the feeling you get just before a sob, and whenever he closed his eyes he saw TK, disappearing before his mind's eye. He had known something was wrong, but had still hoped that he was imagining things, imagining the feeling of dread. Looking at TK's white face and barely disguised trembling, he knew he'd been right.

TK shrugged, pretending to scrutinize the books and notebooks in his arms. "I think the others are going in… I haven't talked to anyone but Cody all day… I told him I—that I wasn't feeling up to it."

Matt stepped closer, laying a hand on TK's shoulder. "I don't think they're going… Tai got called out of class today to take Kari home sick. And now you're—"

He was cut of by TK, the younger boy's tone finally having some energy to it. "Kari went home sick? I—I didn't even notice she wasn't there…and Davis, was he missing, too? I don't remember…" He trailed off, trying to remember his afternoon classes, but all he could recall was trying desperately to hang on to his consciousness, and occasionally getting reprimanded by teachers for staring at the clock. All afternoon he'd watched the time, seeing whole minutes seem to be skipped. It was if his reality was a scratched CD, jumping and skipping randomly, leaving him with absolutely no memory of the lost time.

A firm hand grasped his chin, forcing him to look up into icy blue eyes currently bright with anxiety, while a second hand pressed against his forehead, checking for fever. The pale skin didn't feel warm, and TK squirmed away from his brother, making a face. Matt ignored the younger boy's protests, scrutinizing his brother from head to toe. Except for his pallor and the wary, exhausted glint in his eyes, he seemed all right. That diagnosis didn't sit well with the older boy, who finally released TK's chin, but kept him trapped by the lockers.

"Alright, Squirt. You couldn't lie effectively if your life depended on it. What's wrong, and do try the truth this time." Matt's tone was flat, betraying little of his inner anxiety, and he smirked coolly when TK flushed and lowered his eyes. The younger boy spoke towards his shoes.

"I'm… kind of having these… black out… things…"

Matt stared at the boy for a long moment… waiting for his composure to come back before he spoke. When he finally replied, it was in measured, clipped words. "What exactly do you mean by black out things?"

In a small voice, TK related the events of the afternoon, about his seeming lapses in reality and memory, attempting to minimize his fear but leaving no details out. It took almost twenty minutes to relate the tale completely, and it was almost three-thirty when he finished. Towards the end, Matt had his brother's shoulders in an anxiously over-tight grip, his face now almost as pale as Takeru's.

"You blacked out and almost got hit BY A BUS and it didn't occur to you that you might need to see the nurse?!" Matt wasn't quite shouting.

The Bearer of Hope refused to look up from the floor. "I'm afraid it has something to do with… with what happened… and my amnesia. I can't talk to them about it anymore, Matt. The therapy… it doesn't help. I spend the whole time trying to tell her enough without saying too much and I just end up more stressed out than I started."

Matt had to tell himself twice to loosen his grip before his fingers obeyed. He squeezed his brother's shoulders softly, feeling hopelessly out of his depth with only several weeks of older-brother experience to draw from. Silence hung between them like a glass veil, delicately spun from a fragile relationship and so capable of shattering into the sparkling shards from whence it came. Taking a deep breath, Matt tried to think of what to reply to this when TK took the matter out of his hands.

Collapsing completely, TK's books and notebooks fell from suddenly limp arms to explode onto the tiled floor in a small blizzard of loose pages, drifting into the deserted hall. Matt barely kept his brother from following his homework down by gripping his arms and propping the teen's dead weight against the lockers. Lowering his brother gently to the floor, he tilted the pale face towards him.

TK was as white as a sheet, his eyes closed and his face expressionless, as though he was deeply asleep. Brushing the limp gold bangs aside, Matt cursed at the feel of his brother's skin. It was icy, terribly cold to the touch despite the sweltering heat of the hallway. Remembering his first aid lessons, courtesy of Joe, Matt found TK's pulse quickly, wincing at the rapid—too rapid!—beats, in time with the shallow breathing, the only signs of life from the boy.

Frantically the blond looked up and down the hall, desperate for help but unwilling to leave his brother's side. He thought angrily of his cell phone, safe in his car, right where he didn't need it. All of the classrooms were locked, and the main office was on the other side of the building. Seeing no other option, he began to shout, knowing someone must still be in the school.

"HELP! Someone, HELP! Call an ambulance! Please… somebody…" He trailed off, staring desperately into the deserted hall, the cheery bright sunlight mocking him. He looked desperately at his unconscious brother, ready to run for help, and felt again for a pulse. Pushing aside TK's collar, he felt something move… the crest! He pulled frantically at the chain, the pendant falling into his hand. The symbol was flickering feebly, and felt slightly cold to the touch. It had never felt cold while Matt wore it. An idea whispered in the back of his mind, something odd and unbelievable. Pulling out his own crest, which he'd been wearing since the Dark Ocean fiasco, he gripped it in his fist, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.

What's going on? What's wrong with him?

His Crest grew cool to the touch in his hand, but he was used to that. The Crest of Friendship had always seemed cool, like the light it cast. He wondered if it would work in this way, if it would respond to him, as Hope seemed to work for TK.

In his mind's eye, images began to flash. Some kind of… letters, colored letters of light against black… the digital code… he'd seen it on Izzy's computer. As he watched, the characters disappeared and rearranged. And again, and again.

I don't understand! What does that have to do with TK?

His crest grew colder still, and unbeknownst to him, blue light was beginning to fill the hallway, pushing back the sunlight. He saw TK and Kari, on the beach… the pink and gold lights of their crests, carving a path between realities. Then the code reappeared, the characters flashing at him. Gold. Pink.

Gold.

Pink.

The code.

Dropping his crest as though it had burned him, although it had done in fact quite the opposite, Matt stared at his younger brother, whose eyes were beginning to open.

"Oh—my—God. I get it now… I understand—"

TK squinted up at him, confusion in his eyes. "Ugh… what happened… wha—Mimi?"

Whirling, Matt turned to see Joe and Mimi behind him, concerned looks plastered across their faces. Joe was kneeling behind Matt, opening a bottle of water that he handed to TK, who took it shakily and drank without protest. Mimi was standing above Joe, TK's books and papers stacked neatly in her arms.

Matt watched his brother drink for a moment, nodding in approval, as TK's shivering seemed to subside. "Joe—Mimi—how—why are you guys here?"

Joe was timing TK's pulse on his watch, and answered absently. "Cody left a strange message on my cell, saying TK had seemed off, somehow. His… your mother said he wasn't home yet, so we came here. We heard you yelling for help. We didn't call an ambulance, because we saw your crest's light and knew it was a digital world thing."

Matt nodded. "Thanks a lot. TK just… passed out, no warning what so ever. He was cold to the touch, and his breathing was shallow. What do you think?"

Joe continued to scrutinize the younger boy, who had recovered enough to squirm uncomfortably under their gazes. "I think he should probably go home and rest, at least until we find out what happened. Does it have something to do with the digital world?"

Matt relaxed enough to smirk broadly. "Rather a lot, actually."

Joe and Mimi exchanged confused looks, and Mimi shrugged and turned to TK. "You said my name before… how did you know who I was?"

Here Matt openly snorted, drawing three surprised gazes. "I have a pretty good idea, I think. TK can explain the specifics on the way to the computer lab. He's opening the gate and then we," he paused, looking at Joe and Mimi, "are going to the digital world while he monitors us from the outside. Something is very wrong, and if we don't fix it, it's going to hurt TK and Kari even more."

Silence descended on the hall. After a long moment, TK pushed himself to his feet, only wavering slightly. Joe and Matt stood also, standing beside the boy in case he dropped again. TK turned to his brother, confusion in his eyes. "Matt—how is the digital world hurting me and Kari? I don't understand what you're getting at, and I'm certainly not letting you guys go in alone."

Already heading towards the lab, Matt ignored his brother's confused question, but replied to his protest. "There's no way you're going in, TK. If you're this sick out here, you're not going in, period. Besides, Gabumon, Gommamon, and Palmon are already there. Gabumon emailed me yesterday." Turning suddenly, he confronted TK, causing the younger blond to pull up short. "Promise me, TK. Promise me you won't go in until this is worked out."

"But Matt--!"

"Promise me, Takeru."

TK lowered his head in defeat. "I promise, Matt. But I still don't think you guys should go in."

Joe and Mimi watched the interplay in silence, their questions forgotten. They followed the brothers to the computer lab, Joe silently grateful that he'd brought his book bag, which was of course full of medical supplies. They arrived after a few moments, and the older kids stood in silence as TK typed up the gate.

Mimi looked at the tableau before her, worry marring her pretty features. "Maybe I should wait out here with TK. What if he faints again? Shouldn't we call the others before we rush into this? This isn't like you Matt!"

Turning his computer chair around, TK looked up at his brother, hope in his eyes. "She's got a point. Joe even said I should go home and rest. Why don't we do that, Matt? We can call the others from there."

Shaking his head stubbornly, Matt tried to express the urgency the crest had imparted to him. Something had to be done that very moment; he wasn't taking a chance with TK's life. Not this time, he wasn't going to make that mistake twice in his life. "No, we have to go now. Mimi, you should stay out, that's a good idea, and thank you. TK, open the gate."

TK stared at his brother with a stubborn look on his face, and Joe leaned over to Mimi, whispering, "Do you think Matt and Tai have somehow switched bodies?" Despite the seriousness of the situation, she giggled, seating herself at the station next to TK.

TK hadn't given up yet. "Matt, this is crazy! Your digimon can't even digivolve, and we don't know what's going on in there!" Seeing his brother's closed expression, he sighed heavily and pointed his D3 at the gate. They waited for him to open the gate, but he hesitated, a strange look on his face. "Matt… I have a really bad feeling about this. I—I don't think you should go in there… please, listen to me," he grabbed the older boy's arm, looking him right in the eyes. "Matt, you said you understood how I knew things. Well, I'm telling you now, I have a bad feeling about this."

Matt looked at TK, his expression softening, and opened his mouth to speak. The gate cut him off, flashing brightly, opening on its own.

"Digi-port Open!" A computerized voice chirped into the stunned room. Before TK could say another word, Matt grabbed Joe's arm and they both disappeared.

"Matt! NO! Damn it, you idiot!"

TL collapsed back into his chair, staring at the gate, which closed itself and vanished. Placing a concerned hand on his arm, Mimi spoke softly.

"What did you feel, TK?"

Staring woodenly at the screen, TK shivered. "Menace."