Thank you to everyone who stuck by this story despite my disappearance! I was inspired to finish this chapter faster because of your support. And the most recent trailer of Digimon tri helped me edit the rough draft to its current form in two days.

It's not the best, but I'm eager to start on the next two chapters so I can finish setting up the premise. Please enjoy!


Three

Source of Divergence

There

The alarm clock had been ringing for minutes before Natsuko Takaishi realized that her son was not getting up on time today. She went inside his bedroom, reset the alarm for half an hour later, and gave him a quick kiss on the forehead.

"I'm off to work, see you tonight."

He did not stir. Natsuko fought back a smile. In moments like this, he always seemed more like her sweet baby boy than the lanky teenager he actually was. There was always something unconsciously innocent about her son. He even used to sleep with an orange stuffed pig that he had bought at camp, although she hadn't seen that stuffed animal in a while.

Natsuko supposed, somewhat regretfully, that her boy was inevitably growing. These days, Takeru felt like a complete stranger, as if he led a separate life that she didn't know about. For example, he had come home very late last night. Before she could reprimand him – you said you'd be back right after dinner! – he'd already headed straight for his bedroom without any explanation, leaving Sora to apologize for breaking the curfew, for keeping him late. Because she liked and trusted Sora, she let the matter slide, though it didn't mean she wasn't going to later try to tease out answers like a true newspaperwoman.

And then there were other things. Like the fact that Takeru didn't seem to have friends at school and hung out most of the time with Yamato's friends from summer camp. Or that he never seemed surprised when there were news reports of mysterious attacks around Tokyo. Or that from time to time, she'd hear him call out for someone named Angemon in his sleep, but she'd never seen or heard of Takeru interacting with someone with such a distinctive name.

Once, she'd offhandedly brought up Takeru's reticence and secretiveness with the boys' father, during one of their regular let's-catch-up-and-stay-friendly lunches. It had just been one of those things to keep conversation going so neither of them became too awkward. She'd expected Hiroaki to say something about boys growing up, and then she would halfheartedly get some advice from him based on how he was raising Yamato, and then they could both call it a day.

Instead, Hiroaki said, very seriously, "I think that the boys know more than they let on about what's going on in Tokyo."

"What's going on in Tokyo?"

"You work for the Setagaya Shimbun, surely you've been reading the news reports."

"You mean the attacks –"

"You can't ignore that there is a pattern to everything that's happening."

"There's no pattern," Natsuko said. "Everyone is always looking for sensational patterns, but criminal acts can be surprisingly similar. I thought you'd know that, since you worked for the TV station!"

She half meant it to be a cheeky remark, but it only riled Hiroaki even more. "For goodness' sakes, Natsuko! You can be so stubborn and blind."

Lunch didn't last much longer after that. Natsuko paid her portion of the bill in a huff, and only managed a cordial "Have a good day" before she practically stomped her way out of there.

Stubborn and blind? Hiroaki was full of conspiracy theories. Part of the reason they got divorced despite having two lovely kids together. And now, part of the reason they hadn't scheduled another lunch since.

On her way out of the apartment, Natsuko turned off the news program that she watched in the mornings. There was another attack last night, again outside one of the bars in Ebisu. As a reporter, she had covered a few of these cases years ago before they ceased to be novelties and the articles all started to sound the same. Young women, aged anywhere between twenty and thirty, found with acute anemia. A particular tactless coworker of hers at the time had joked that perhaps there was a vampire on the loose in Tokyo. A month later, his own girlfriend was attacked. Soon after, he left both the job and the city.

For some reason, her mind turned to Hiroaki and that final lunchtime conversation. Could the boys -

Don't be silly, she told herself sternly. She couldn't allow her thoughts to go there. So she pulled her coat closer and headed down the stairs to her car.


There was a new chip on Sora's wall. Mimi contemplated this exciting development as she picked her own paint-chipped nails. She must be one of the rare people who grew into rather than out of the nail biting habit. It'd begun on the first day of university when she realized she was in over her head coming to New York. Not because of the language barrier, not even because of the cultural shock (pink hair dye, really?), but because New York wasn't any safer than Tokyo.

During what had been intended to be freshman orientation, a Snimon crashed against the wall of the auditorium and shattered the windows. It had come out of nowhere, and gone long before the arrival of campus police. That was the closest Mimi had ever come to being directly attacked. She had hid in the girls' bathroom with her new classmates, one hand clenched around her Digivice, nibbling the thumbnail of the other as she considered contacting Palmon through her Digivice. Then she was hearing the distant wailing of police sirens and carefully put the Digivice back in her pocket.

Sora was right, per usual. How Mimi sometimes hated her, hated everyone.

Up until that particular incident, she had managed to retain the childhood innocence that earned her the Crest of Purity. Now she lived under the constant fear that time was running out. They'd lost the war, even if Yamato and Gennai would never admit it, and she'd never get to experience the world to the fullest.

She'd become more reckless. Sora would freak out to know that she was going out to alcohol-infused frat parties, and often spending the night with strangers whose names she could not recall the next day. Or that she was sneaking off to the Digital World to spend time with Palmon, even though she'd come close to being caught and losing her partner. Or that she was making up excuses not to come to their meetings, because the next time Yamato could not make a decision she might not be able to stop herself from screaming in his face.

Mimi leaned back against the couch and yawned as she surveyed the room. As usual, the meeting took place in the middle of the night in her time zone. For once, however, she was one of the first chosen to get there. While Koushiro studied the Digital Gates on his laptop and Sora occupied herself with tea making in the kitchen, she found herself studying the supposed eighth child. The girl was currently seated on the other end of the faded couch, dressed in Sora's old clothes with a blanket around her shoulders. Her face had a sickly pallor but her brown eyes were alert. She had not gotten up to greet Mimi when she'd arrived, but she smiled hesitantly when their eyes met.

"Hi, I'm Hikari. Nice to meet you."

Mimi hated her immediately. The innocence that shone from her eyes reminded her of the girl she used to be, the bearer of the Crest of Purity. Yes, it was irrational. So sue me, she thought darkly, while finding a smile to respond, "I'm Mimi."

Hikari smiled slightly, the I know unspoken. Mimi recalled the brief summary that Sora and Koushiro had given her.

"So you came from a parallel universe?" She was leaning forward and her questions were rapid fire. "You're Taichi's little sister? You are the eighth chosen?"

"Yes," Hikari said simply, lowering her eyes.

Mimi slumped back against the couch as she tried to pick her next question. It was hard to wrap her mind around the situation, even though Hikari was sitting not even five feet away. The eighth child was real, not just something that the old kook made up so they could keep fighting. Taichi had a little sister who died as a toddler that he never talked about. Parallel universes weren't just something that Koushiro liked to gabble about.

Most importantly, and most bafflingly to Mimi, there actually existed some universe where the Chosen Children had defeated Vandemon, had saved the world.

How? In her mind's eye she suddenly saw her aged professor filling the board with Greek symbols as he reorganized the laws of mathematics to prove an existence theorem.

"Are you the key to defeating Vandemon?" she asked, trying and failing to disguise her eagerness.

Hikari was quiet as she considered the question, fumbling with her Digivice on her lap. "It's…not that simple."

The Gennai-like answer was unsatisfying. Mimi wanted to press further, but Taichi and the Ishida siblings chose that moment to come through the front door.

After greetings were exchanged, Takeru went to the kitchen to find Sora and Yamato plopped on the floor near Koushiro, glancing at the screen every now and then. Taichi, however, made this way to the couch in the most awkward manner possible. Mimi usually paid very little attention to Taichi, since he was usually battling Jyou for the title of who had the least to contribute. Today, however, she found herself studying him. Sora had mentioned the bad shape he was in after meeting Hikari, that he practically broke down after explaining what happened to his younger sister over ten years ago. Somewhere inside her own hardened heart, Mimi found a twinge of sympathy. She was fortunate enough to not have been directly responsible for anyone's death. Imagine the guilt that would tear away at you night after night, especially when anyone was your younger sister…

"Morning Taichi!" she said, trying to be perky. "Did you want to join us?"

He perched on the armrest next to Hikari, keeping a careful distance. "Hey. What were you guys chatting about?"

He addressed Mimi but watched Hikari.

"I was learning more about her." Mimi wasn't sure why she felt intimidated. Taichi was very alert today, like a sleeping lion who had newly awakened.

"Like what?"

"Um, like what happened in my, um, universe. With Vandemon."

"Must've been a tough fight," Taichi said gently.

"Um...yeah, it took a few tries…"

Hikari laughed nervously while Mimi watched the pair with curiosity. The tone they used with each other wasn't that different from the tone that Yamato and Takeru used to converse, yet something about the conversation seemed stilted. As the rest of the chosen filtered in and the Yagami siblings continued chatting about nothing in particular, Mimi figured out why. Both were careful not to address the other directly: Taichi never called Hikari by her name, and she never called him older brother.

Once quorum had been attained, Sora walked out of the kitchen with a tray of mismatched teacups and mugs, all steaming with freshly brewed jasmine tea. Everyone reached for his or her usual cup – Mimi's was a pink mug with the handle missing – and Taichi presented the remaining chipped white mug to Hikari, who took it with a murmur of thank you.

Yamato cleared his throat after a not-so-subtle jab from Sora. "Um, right, thanks everyone for coming together again, it's definitely been a crazy few days."

He went on to give a brief summary of what happened, from Takeru's discovery at the school to Taichi's explanation. Given that all this was already shared over email and numerous phone calls, the usual Mimi would've interjected during his rambling with a reminder that she lived in a time zone so could he please hurry up, delivered sugary sweet. Today, however, she held her breath for his next words.

"Hikari, can you please tell us…how you defeated Vandemon?"


Hikari sighed. She had been dreading this. She wasn't Takeru, who loved telling stories, or Daisuke, who loved to be dramatic. She wasn't even good at telling short jokes, often fumbling over the punch line before nailing the setup. Storytelling just wasn't her calling. After all, she was a photographer, and a picture was worth a thousand words, or some old, wise person once claimed.

Not to mention, the whole situation at hand was surreal. She was in another universe, asked to tell the story of the universe she had come from.

As she surveyed the audience who watched her with such expectancy, particularly the other Taichi whose intensity made her feel uncomfortable, she tried to figure out where to begin.

"Well, our worlds probably began to diverge during our battles against Vandemon, so I guess I'll start there. I wasn't there from the beginning, but the others told me that Vandemon had gotten hold of the eighth crest and was looking for the eighth child because of a prophecy. He figured out a way to open a portal from the Digital World to the real world."

Yamato was nodding. "Sounds familiar so far."

"When Vandemon came to Tokyo, he had his henchmen spread out across the city with duplicates of my crest to see who could react to it. The monsters were pretty discreet initially and mainly targeted kids during the day, and at night he fed on young women for sustenance."

She noted the exchange of dark looks. This part, too, had happened – or was still happening – in this universe.

"My brother and friends didn't realize that I was the eighth child, and my cat had lost my Digivice and a crow was carrying it all over the city, so they followed the trail without finding the eighth child for a long time. Meanwhile, the monsters were getting out of control and attacking the city, so it was harder to hide from their families that something terrible was going on. The other Chosen Children finally realized that I was the eighth child when my partner Digimon remembered that she was waiting for me."

"Who's your partner?" Takeru interrupted.

"Tailmon. Vandemon's Tailmon." Hikari felt a stab of anxiety. "Please don't hurt her if you see her. She's really a good Digimon. She and Wizardmon both."

Hikari's eyes flitted from face to face in the ensuing silence until Sora said, very gently, "Hey…do you want to finish your story first?"

She complied somewhat reluctantly. "Once Tailmon found and identified me as her partner, she and her friend Wizardmon left to fetch my crest and were captured. In the meantime, Vandemon and his monsters began to round up everyone in Tokyo. All the kids were first taken to the TV station to be screened. Everyone who was identified not to be a chosen child was sent to sleep. My brother and his friends tried very hard to protect me, to make sure that Vandemon couldn't find me, but they couldn't win against all of the monsters who came after us. So…I gave myself up to Vandemon. I thought it was the right thing to do."

She paused then, ostensibly to take a breath, but really to collect herself. She had never stopped wondering whether her innocent, brave attempt to save her friends and the city by giving herself up to Phantomon had cost Wizardmon's life. Nor could she forget the pain in Tailmon's blue eyes when she lost her friend only shortly after she found her partner.

"So his headquarters are at the TV station, that explains why my dad lost his job due to ghosts haunting the place," Yamato said, eyes narrowing, while Takeru's expression grew stony.

Taichi looked excited. "You had a fight at the TV station and defeated him, I guess?"

"Not exactly. We did have a fight there and my partner Digimon evolved to Perfect for the first time there, and we thought we destroyed Vandemon. But he came back as a stronger VenomVandemon. Agumon and Gabumon had to warp evolve into their final forms in order to defeat him."

"You've got to be kidding me," Jyou said aloud. "His current form isn't the worst we'll see?"

"Warp evolution," Koushiro said thoughtfully. "I hadn't realized that Agumon and Gabumon could still evolve again. That could give us some options."

"Actually everyone's Digimon could evolve again past Perfect," Hikari said. "It just takes the right trigger and it doesn't happen easily."

"So after Vandemon – I mean VenomVandemon – was gone, that's all?" Mimi said eagerly. "The Digital World was safe, and you could all go home?"

Hikari hated being the messenger of bad news. "Not…exactly. Vandemon is only one of the monsters we had to fight over the years."

"Oh."

Mimi's disappointment was mirrored on everyone's face, everyone except Takeru that was. He had been attentive while Hikari was telling her story, but he was now frowning at his brother, who seemed frozen.

"Never mind what comes after," Taichi spoke up, when it was clear that Yamato had nothing to contribute. "Let's worry about getting rid of Vandemon first."

Sora came to life as well. "Exactly. We've already established that the two worlds are different, so we might be in the clear after Vandemon."

Hikari highly doubted it, but she didn't have the energy or the intent to make enemies of everyone. There was a tiny sliver of possibility that Vandemon's final form would never be seen in this universe.

"Yeah!" Taichi chimed in. "Hikari's given us some really important information. We really appreciate this!"

Before Hikari could acknowledge his words, Koushiro spoke up. "You were wrong about one thing." He held up a hand to head off any protests from Taichi. "You said that our worlds diverged when Vandemon came back to Tokyo," he continued. "But it diverged much earlier than that. It diverged when you died, Hikari. Time also passes much faster in the Digital World, so a lot of things could have happened in the three years between your death and us entering the Digital World. We need to assume the worst of every possibility."

Hikari was well aware that her death was a key source of divergence, but had been unwilling to bring it up. It was still too weird.

"Also, another difference, now that I think about it," Koushiro said, this time far more hesitantly. "You said that your partner is a Tailmon who works for Vandemon."

"Yes! Have you met her?"

"Well, not exactly." Koushiro now looked ten times more uncomfortable. "We've never met Tailmon. The Vandemon in our world doesn't have a Tailmon."


Taichi watched the color drain from his sister's face at the insinuation that her partner might not exist in this world.

"There must be a mistake," she insisted. "Maybe he didn't bring her to Tokyo. Maybe he left her behind to guard his castle. She should be one of Vandemon's highest ranked servants!"

Koushiro was still shaking his head. "I'm very sorry, Hikari," he said. "We haven't seen any Tailmon in the past eight years. We have seen a lot of Piemon and Pinochimon though."

"Piemon?" Hikari said, eyes widening. "Pinochimon?"

"Yes, do you know them?" Koushiro said. "They are Vandemon's closest associates in this universe."

At the mention of universe, she visibly slumped back. "I see," she whispered, lowering her head to hide the glisten in her eyes.

Taichi couldn't see her like this. "Hang on a sec," he said. "How about let's catch Hikari up on what's been going on over here? Maybe we can figure out what's going on if we lay out everything side by side."

Hikari raised her head to give him a look of gratitude and he felt a rush of warmth. As a little girl, she had often looked at him like that when he tucked her into bed after nightmares. This was the first time that this Hikari even met his eyes. He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile.

"Right," said Yamato, when all eyes turned towards him expectantly. "Right. Well, as you mentioned, our universes diverged once Vandemon came to Tokyo. It started out the same – kidnapping kids, feeding on young women, attacking landmarks – but his tactics changed over time once he realized that he couldn't find the eighth child, and that more importantly, we couldn't either. So he started to try and infect as many kids as possible, even though none of them reacted to the crest."

Hikari gasped. "The dark spores."

Koushiro turned to her curiously. "That's what Gennai calls the infection as well, but he never explained what they were. Would you happen to know?"

"Dark spores can be planted inside kids and feed on their negative emotions to grow. They change their hosts' personalities and can be harvested to do very terrible, but very powerful things." Hikari was frowning as she tried to make sense of it. "Do you think…Vandemon is trying to find other Chosen Children?"

There was a ripple of surprise through the group. They had known that there had been Chosen Children in the past, but not that there were presently other Chosen Children in Tokyo.

"The infected children could actually be Chosen Children? They have partner Digimon and have crest powers?"

"It's just a guess," said Hikari. "The children with dark spores had partner Digimon in my universe and they were eventually cleansed of the infection. We also realized that there were other kids with Digimon around the world. They turned out to be very important allies in our later battles. Maybe Vandemon knew that they existed, and wanted to find and control them before you guys could, the same way he wanted to find the eighth child."

"Whatever his purpose is," Koushiro said, not looking fully convinced, "Vandemon has amassed an army of infected children, who keep surveillance over us in this world while taking over the Digital World pixel by pixel. They have been able to build what we call Dark Towers, which prevents evolution and effectively limits our abilities to do anything. They have also been able to channel the Dark Towers' energies to enslave innocent Digimon for even more control.

"The only bright side, as far as we can see, is that the attacks in Tokyo and other big cities around the world have been lessening in frequency as Vandemon increasingly focuses on the Digital World. There are still the occasional attacks, young women are still vulnerable, but by and large most of his henchmen have left our world. This probably means that something bigger is coming, but we have no way of telling what."

"And we have no way of fighting them," Yamato added.

"What about Digimentals?" Hikari said. "Have you been able to find any?"

It took Koushiro a few seconds to react. "Ah, you know about them too. Yes, Gennai mentioned that Digimentals can help us get around the Dark Towers by introducing a new means of evolution, but we were only able to get our hands on one Digimental." Koushiro nodded at Takeru, who stared glumly at Sora's floor.

"We had located a few more, but the infected children ended up finding them first." Taichi would never disclose to Hikari that he couldn't lift the Digimental of Courage, no matter how hard he tried. The memory still stung. "In fact, we have reason to believe that those stolen Digimentals granted them ownership of a few very powerful Digimon who now stand guard over their bases."

Hikari paled. "Can I – see what these Digimon look like?"

Koushiro looked puzzled, but did as she asked. "Here," he said, loading the images on his laptop and turning it around for her. "Do you recognize them?"

Hikari stared at the images, lingering particularly long on the suntanned face of the boy Taichi used to coach in soccer. "It's them," she said quietly.

Koushiro blinked. "So you know them."

To everyone's surprise, Hikari wore a look of determination when she looked up. "We need to find my Digimental," she said. "It must still be out there, and I think that could be where Tailmon is."

Yamato crossed his arms over his chest. "How do you know that?"

"I've seen them receive their partners." Her voice was flat as she gestured at the screen, where a spiky-haired boy stood next to the Fladramon that Taichi had come to hate. "Their partners were locked away by the Digimentals. If none of you have seen Tailmon, then there's a good chance that she is locked away by the Digimental of Light. We need to find her."

Takeru looked thoughtful. "There was a Digimental with an unfamiliar crest next to mine. Remember? A bunch of us tried lifting it before Ken found us."

"That must be mine! The Digimental of Light in my universe was found next to the Digimental of Hope. We need to find Tailmon," she said again. "As soon as possible."

"Another Digimon that could evolve," Jyou said, sitting up straighter. "This could make a difference, couldn't it? Patamon wouldn't have to be the only Digimon playing offense."

Taichi's brain was racing fast. "We might be able to reclaim some of File Island so we could set up a base again. If we could free enough Digimon, we could even get their help knocking down towers in surrounding areas."

"We could also free the TV station, and that would weaken Vandemon's base here in Tokyo," added Sora.

"While this all sounds great," Yamato cut in before the others could get too excited, "we don't have this Digimental. We don't even know if it's still there, and even if it is, we still have to retrieve it. Remember, Takeru got his Digimental before the Dark Towers were as dense as they are now."

Taichi wanted to whack him, and not just because of Hikari's visible disappointment. How did they end up with such a wet noodle as their leader? How did they put up with him for so long? Most of the time he just didn't care enough to contradict Yamato's excuses, but his annoyance was bubbling over today.

"I think it's worth a shot," he said. He surveyed the room. "Takeru, do you still remember where you found yours?"

Takeru nodded. "It's not as strongly guarded as the other places. Pegasmon might be able to get us there before alarm is raised."

Mimi yawned. "Seems like a straightforward mission then," she said. "Takeru and Pegasmon can take Hikari to her Digimental. Sneak. Retrieve. Done."

Yamato glared at her. "It's not that simple, Mimi. The Digital World is dangerous, or have you forgotten?"

"It's not that difficult either," she retorted. "I've been to the Digital World a few times when it was nighttime here. Nobody keeps active guard at night because all the infected kids need to sleep or something."

Almost everyone stared at her, including Hikari.

"You could operate Digital Gates?"

"You know your way around the Digital World at night?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'm pretty, not stupid," she said, studying her bitten nails. "I got an A-minus in my computer science class. And I'm a damn good driver."

"Well." Sora somehow managed to combine a concealed giggle and rolling her eyes in the same motion. "That's that. Seems like the path forward is pretty clear, right?"

Yamato finally caved to the seven pairs of eyes boring into him. "It's settled then. Takeru and Hikari will retrieve the Digimental."


Here

It was late morning when the meeting that Koushiro had called together came to a close. Worried and weary, the children had been sitting in silence before Jyou set the example by getting up. Apologizing profusely, he mentioned a big examination that was to start in thirty minutes, promised to help out as much as needed, and started his trek back to the Digital Gates. One by one, the others followed, thanking Koushiro for his time and many squeezing Taichi's shoulder in support as they passed.

Taichi lingered and watched Koushiro pack up his laptop. He had the strong sense that the other boy had not finished talking to him, even though he'd made no indication whatsoever. Chalk it up to years of friendship that preceded their comradeship in the Digital World. As different as the two of them were, the stereotypical jock and the stereotypical nerd, their bond ran deep, matched only by Sora pre-Yamato.

"Well?" he said, taking a seated position beside Koushiro as he was finishing up.

Koushiro opened his mouth before something caught his eye. Blinking, Taichi followed his line of sight to find Takeru walking towards them. That was a surprise. He was sure that Yamato had dragged his younger brother along when he took his leave.

"Aren't you going to be late for classes?"

"You are leaving me out of something, and I want to know."

"It's something we will share with everyone once we are more certain," Koushiro said. "It's nothing that should concern you right now."

Despite his kind intentions, Takeru bristled at his choice of words. "Hikari is my best friend, so if this concerns her safety, it definitely concerns me." He turned to Taichi, imploring. "Please, Taichi. I want to help."

Koushiro and Taichi exchanged a look, both coming to the same conclusion that Takeru would not be deterred. Though a gentler, softer version of Yamato, he had stubbornness for miles where close friends and family were concerned. And everyone knew that he and Hikari shared a very close bond, a very unusual bond that Taichi sometimes envied.

"All right, take a seat," Taichi said. "Now Koushiro. What were you going to tell us?"

"It's not an easy thing for me to share. The thing is…" Koushiro's sigh was filled with regret. "I can't guarantee that we will be able to get Hikari back."

"What?" Taichi jumped to his feet. "You just spent the last hour explaining how we'd be able to find her. You were just telling us about these inter-dimensional portals and those cards that we used to catch Vandemon!"

"I said we could find her," Koushiro said. "In fact, we've more or less already found her, since it's not difficult to narrow down which parallel universe had sent the poem. The problem is, we might not be able to get her back."

Takeru shook his head incredulously. "Finding her should be the tough part. If we can find her, why can't we bring her back?"

"Finding her doesn't mean we will be able to reach her, or get to her in time." Koushiro seemed uncomfortable under the twin withering looks, but he held his ground. "First of all, it's quite clear to me that however the other world did not make use of a portal to call Hikari. What if the portal is not the right way to bring her back? Second of all, even if we were to find a way, it doesn't mean we will do it in time. Time is now of essence."

"Does it matter if we find her in a day vs. a month?"

"Think of it like this." Somehow Koushiro's calmness was unperturbed by the others' lack of faith. He fetched his laptop and handed it to Takeru once it was powered on. "See this folder named To do list? Cut and paste any file from this folder to the folder named Algorithms papers."

Takeru gave him an odd look as he quickly performed the action. Taichi watched over his shoulder, curious about both Koushiro's motives and the contents of his laptop.

"There!"

"Okay. Now move it back."

Still looking odd, and still with Taichi peering over his shoulder, Takeru complied.

"Moving files back and forth seems simple enough, right?" Koushiro said. "Now do it again, Takeru, and hand the laptop back to me."

"I really hope you have a good punch line," Takeru muttered, his finger moving over the trackpad.

"Great," Koushiro said. He took the laptop and fiddled with it for a few minutes. "Okay. Final test I promise. Move the file back to where it came from."

Takeru glanced at the laptop screen and froze. "Well," he said finally, "I can't."

"And why not?"

"The original folder isn't there anymore. Maybe you moved it. Or renamed it. Or deleted it. I can't tell." Takeru's eyes widened, starting to realize what Koushiro had been trying to prove.

Understanding had not yet dawned on Taichi and he was getting tired of not having answers. "What? What does this have to do with Hikari?"

"To the Digital World, we are all data. Hikari, in particular, is like a file that has been moved from her home location to a different location. Perhaps that other location, that other world, is just another network set up similar to ours with some key differences. It should seem simple enough to reverse the action and bring her back, right? But what if the path between her old and new locations changed? What if the disk that held her original location was lost, or deleted? Our data naturally changes over time. Will she always be able to find a way back?"

Takeru opened his mouth. Taichi let out the breath he was holding.

"So you are saying is –"

"The longer it takes to find Hikari, the more permanent her departure will become, and the more difficult it will become to extract Hikari from her new world and find her a place back home."


There

"May I help with the dishes?"

Immersed in her own thoughts, Sora gave a start and turned to find Hikari beside her. It took her a moment to recognize the girl and remember that she too lived here now.

"Oh thank you for offering," she said, "but I'm actually almost done. Why don't you help me dry them?"

She pointed Hikari towards the stack of wet dishes on the counter, and with a nod, the younger girl started to do just that. As she rinsed her hands of detergent, she watched Hikari methodically dry and stack the dishes in a neat pile. Having seen the state of Taichi's apartment many times as a frequent visitor, Sora found it hard to believe that this girl was a Yagami.

Despite having lived together for the past few days, the two had exchanged few words, and Sora wondered if she should try harder to get to know Taichi's long-lost sister.

"You seem much better now. How are you feeling?"

"Yeah, my fever is almost all gone, thank you."

"Um…how are you feeling in general?" Sora asked.

Hikari said nothing for so long that Sora wondered if she had even heard. But then Hikari let out a small sigh and set down the dish she was holding. "I guess all right."

Great! Sora almost wanted to say and leave the conversation at that so they could go back to their silent coexistence, but she pressed on against the awkwardness. "What do you mean?"

"It's – it's just not what I expected." Hikari met her eyes, her brown eyes pained. "They are not whom I expected."

"They?"

"The Chosen Children," came the soft answer. "And…maybe even the infected children. Everyone is so different here."

Sora turned around to face her fully. "What were we like in your world?" she asked curiously.

A small smile slowly replaced Hikari's frown as she considered the question.

"Mimi is really outgoing, really bubbly. You can't help being happy when she's around. She is going to university abroad but she visits Japan all the time. Sometimes she comes through the Digital Gates with shopping bag because she just felt like visiting. Yamato had a few bands that were really popular with the teenage girls, but he decided to study astrophysics and isn't doing music anymore. He still plays for special occasions if you ask really nicely. Sora – I mean, you are studying fashion design. I'm always blown away by your talent. Some of your pieces are truly amazing and were featured in local magazines! And you and Yamato dated on and off throughout high school, but you're together right now."

Hikari was grinning, suddenly just another high school girl, and Sora felt her face heat up. She had never thought of Yamato in that light. Dating in general was a foreign concept to her, something that people in unrealistic television shows did. But the idea didn't feel unpleasant.

"Koushiro and Jyou probably are the most unchanged. Koushiro is still a computer science student, the most brilliant in his class. He's still the one who usually makes sense of what's going on in the Digital World. And Jyou is still a medical student, super dedicated to his studies, and we all make fun of him because he's dating someone and we've never, ever met her."

Sora almost joined Hikari in the giggling. It wasn't so difficult to imagine Jyou trying to convince everyone that he had a girlfriend.

"Those are the older children. There is also another group of younger Chosen Children, who are some of my best friends, but they are…." Her voice trailed off momentarily. Sora recalled her reaction when she saw the pictures of the infected children and connected the dots. "But anyway. Takeru is also different. He's generally very cheerful, very friendly. He loves the Digital World, wants to write a series about it. He needs to get better at writing first though."

"You guys knew each other really well in your world, didn't you?"

Sora saw the struggle on Hikari's face as she tried to come up with an answer, before she finally settled for a nod. "The jacket I wore belonged to him."

That's right. The jacket that perhaps started it all.

Sora suddenly realized that they'd left someone out, someone she was most curious to learn about. "…and Taichi?" she prompted gently.

Hikari looked pained. "He's…the most different. The Taichi I know was headstrong and impulsive sometimes – well, often," she smiled slightly. "But he was a good leader and a very good older brother. He says he wants to be a politician or a diplomat, which I think fits him. The Taichi here seems so…sad."

There were a lot of things that Sora wanted to say, but the only words that came out were, "I'm sorry."

"Please don't be. I know things are different here."

Things are much worse here.

"Hey, we found the eighth child," said Sora. "There is a reason you're here."

"A lot is riding on me finding my Digimental," Hikari agreed.

"It will be okay." Sora put a hand on her shoulder. She meant to be comforting although Hikari was eyeing it with some suspicion. "You will find it and you'll find your partner. And then we can go on the offensive again. And when the battle is over…"

You will get to go home.

Never a good liar, Sora couldn't quite bring herself to say the last words. So she squeezed Hikari's shoulder again and gave her an encouraging smile, pretending that she had not seen the same resignation reflected in her brown eyes.


tbc