At first, he thought the voices were part of his dream. The Digimon had been sleeping for a while now, dreaming vaguely of dark rooms full of glittering lights and strange machinery, while people he couldn't see talked about things he didn't understand. These voices were different, though. They were high-pitched and childish, and spoke with hushed uncertainty.
"What is it?"
"Is it a cat?"
"It can't be a cat, dummy. Cats have fur."
"Well, it might be a cat. A weird cat."
"It doesn't matter. I think it's dead."
"It's not dead! It's still breathing, see?"
Something poked him, and the Digimon came fully awake with a start. He was slow in recognizing his surroundings: he had, for that last few hours, been sleeping deeply underneath a table in a dark and empty room. Now things had changed, for the room was brightly lit, and there were people in it - human people. The Digimon sat up and stared at them.
"Who the heck are you?" he demanded.
Both of them reeled back at once.
"It talks!" one exclaimed. It was a female, judging by her voice, which was the only thing the Digimon knew to judge by.
"'Course I can talk," said the Digimon, annoyed.
"Are you an alien?" asked the other human.
"Nuh-uh. You stupid or somethin'? I'm a Digimon. Name's Impmon," the Digimon replied. "Now that we got that outta the way, you can answer my question. Who are you?"
"I'm Ai," answered the girl. "This is my brother Mako."
"We're human beans," added the boy informatively.
Impmon scratched his head. "Ya don't say. You sure are a lot smaller than the last humans I saw. You sure you're human?"
"We're just small 'cause we aren't grown up yet," said Ai. "What about you? You're smaller than we are!"
"Humph," said Impmon. "That ain't none of your business. Didn't anyone ever teach you not to make personal remarks? I'm s'posed to be this size, and that oughta be good enough for you."
"Sorry," said the girl.
"Hey, what are you doing here?" Mako asked. "Are you on a secret mission or something?"
"Something like that," Impmon replied, "so I gotta go. See ya."
He got up and began to stalk off. His posture of aloof disdain was ruined when his bad leg gave out under him, and he tipped headfirst into a pile of building blocks. He floundered around, snarling foul imprecations, until the two children came to haul him out.
"You're hurt!" said Ai, noticing the wound on his leg for the first time. "It's okay! We'll make it better!"
Impmon watched, amazed, as the two humans went scampering off. A few moments later, they returned, with one carrying a damp rag and the other holding a small box. Ai knelt beside him and pressed the cloth to his injuries.
"Yow! That smarts!" Impmon yelped, jerking away.
"Hold still. I've gotta make it clean, or you'll get an invection," said Ai. "That's what mommy always tells me."
Impmon bowed to this inarguable point and allowed her to wash his wound. When she was done, Mako pulled a fistful of paper-wrapped bandages from the box and managed to painstakingly get two of them onto the target, while the rest of them became affixed to Mako's fingers, clothing, and the carpet.
"There!" Ai declared. "All better!"
"Humph," said Impmon. It was his opinion that it might take more than that to make everything "all better" but his pride wouldn't allow him to admit that. He attempted to climb to his feet, but was once more accosted by two human children.
"Don't go away yet!" said Mako. "Can't you stay just a little while? Please?"
"Please?" Ai echoed.
Impmon hesitated. Small children with pleading eyes had been outside of his experience until now, and he wasn't adequately equipped to deal with them. He tried to stare them down, but found his will inexplicably weakening, and he was finally forced to look away. He shook his head. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to stay here - at least until his leg healed up.
"All right, all right," he said. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to hang out here for a little while. But just a little while, so don't go gettin' any ideas!"
The children cheered and hugged him, which was not a particularly enjoyable experience, since he was still sitting on a pile of wooden building blocks, and also because they weren't all that careful about his injured leg. Still, he bore this abuse stolidly, telling himself it was nowhere near as bad as what he'd get back in the outside world. At least they weren't actively trying to hurt him, and that was an improvement on many aspects of his old life.
"Are you hungry?" asked Mako. "Do you want something to eat?"
"You should eat something, so you can get better," said Ai authoritatively.
"Sounds good to me," said Impmon offhandedly. He realized that he hadn't eaten anything since yesterday, and he was ravenous.
"Okay!" said the children. They scampered off, presumably in the direction of food.
Impmon settled back and attempted to make himself comfortable. He reviewed the facts. He seemed to have blundered into another world by accident, and he had no idea how to go about getting out of it - but that didn't look like it was going to be a problem, since he also seemed to have accidentally blundered into a nice safe place to hide. There were soft places to sleep here, and presumably there would be food in a few minutes, if the bumping and clattering noises he was hearing down the hall were any indication, and a couple of human beings who seemed prepared to attend to his every need for him.
I did pretty good when I landed here, he thought. I could maybe get used to this...
The children returned. One had a half a box of cookies clutched under his arm; the other had seized two apples and a banana from a fruit dish. They laid out these offerings before him, and watched happily as he seized one of the fruits and began attacking it. He ate the banana, peel and all, and started in on the apples.
"Is it good?" Ai asked him.
"Ish ahh ite," said Impmon with his mouth full. He took an enormous gulp to free up his mouth again. "Hey, I had an idea while you were gone. See, I'm looking for me a human partner. Every Digimon's s'posed to have one. I was just thinkin', if I was to find myself a partner here, I wouldn't have to leave, so..."
"Can we be your partners?" asked Mako. "Both of us?"
"Please?" asked Ai. She was giving him that big-eyed stare again.
"Well..." he said. "I don't guess it would hurt. It's okay by me if it's okay by you."
"Yeah!" they cheered. They hugged him again, which was nearly as uncomfortable as the first time, but he was starting to adjust to it. He emerged from his captivity feeling half- smothered and more than a little squashed, and it took him a moment to get his bearings. He became aware of a sense of pressure, and he looked, thinking he had managed to sit on another building block. Instead, he found a small device cased in purple plastic. It was glowing softly.
"Guess this makes it official," he said quietly, awed a little in spite of himself.
"Ooh, that's pretty!" said Ai. "Let me see it!"
"No, me! I wanna look at it!"
Distracted by this new arrival, the two children forgot all about Impmon and went into a squabble over the device. Impmon sighed a little and wondered just what he'd gotten himself into.
Takato once again found himself sitting and watching, as activity swirled around him. He was too drained to let it worry him much. Enough had happened to him today; he could let other people have the action and leave him out of it.
At the moment, most of said action was happening to Guilmon, who had been hooked up to a variety of wires affixed to every part of his body, forcing him to hold unnaturally still while a computer processed readings under Jenrya's watchful eye. Nearby, Ryo had likewise plugged himself into a machine and was uploading the data from the Digimon he'd caught, while Mr. Lee watched the process with interest. Ruki was the only one who was not doing anything particularly constructive; she was leaning against the wall and staring off into space, apparently lost in a world of her own. She didn't even flinch when Guilmon, startled by something, jumped and pulled several of his wires loose, causing sparks to shower and the computer to bleep in protest.
"Now look what you've gone and done," said Jenrya. "Now we're going to have to start all over."
"Sorry," said Guilmon, letting his ears droop. "Something poked me!"
"I wonder what that could have been?" asked Terriermon, doing his best to look innocent.
Jenrya shot him a glare.
"Aw, c'mon," said Terriermon. "He looked funny all trussed up like that!"
Jenrya sighed and did what he could about getting all his wires back in place.
"I hope you guys are having better luck than we are," he said, in the direction of his father and Ryo.
"We're getting there," said Ryo. He unplugged the cable from his wrist and stretched. "Have I told you already how much trouble this is?"
"Once or twice," said Terriermon. "Or three times, or four, or five, or..."
"Enough," said Jenrya. It wasn't certain whether he was talking to Terriermon, to Ryo, or both.
"These initial results, though, are quite interesting," said Mr. Lee, who was bending over a nearby computer screen. It was littered with numbers and symbols, most of which were scrolling by so quickly that Takato wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of them even if the actual words were something he could have understood. "I've never seen a Digimon quite like this one before. It's not just a matter of parameters; the entire program is a drastic change from your average Digimon."
"So what you're saying," said Ruki, entering the conversation for the first time, "is that this thing, whatever it is, isn't even exactly a Digimon."
"Not in the sense they were originally conceived, no," Mr. Lee replied. "I want to look at this more closely..."
"How about you look at it later?" asked Jenrya, only half-joking. "You've been here too long as it is. Mom will be going crazy."
"You're the one who told me to stay," his father replied, but he began gathering his things to leave anyway.
"Don't worry, Mr. Lee," said Ryo. "I'll wire the files to your home computer. You can play with them there all you want. I'll look them over, too, and see if I can get any ideas."
"I'd appreciate that," the man replied. "Goodbye, all."
He waved to everyone and headed for the exit. Ruki sighed.
"I'm going home, too," she said. "There's nothing else for me to do here. Give me a call as soon as you've got anything to report."
"Will do," said Jenrya, his eyes still on the screen. It looked like he might actually get some results this time, if Terriermon didn't continue to intervene; Guilmon appeared to have gotten bored with the whole situation and gone back to sleep. "Might be a while, though, so don't go holding your breath."
"We'll work it out between the two of us - don't worry!" said Ryo. "You go home and chill."
"I never chill," said Ruki. She shifted her gaze to Takato, who was shifting from foot to foot as he watched the others work. "You should go home, too. We don't need your help to do this."
Takato scowled. "You needed my help a little while ago."
"Humph," said Ruki, turning away. "Fine, then. If you think you're so hot, you can sit here and supervise, or whatever it is you think you're doing."
She stomped off. Renamon followed her, her ears tilted in an expression that looked like concern.
"What'd I say?" asked Takato.
"It's hard to say," Jenrya answered calmly.
"Oh, come on," said Ryo, rolling his eyes. "You know as well as I do what's going on. She's ticked off because up until now, Renamon has been the strongest of the tamed Digimon. She can't stand it that some new guy who only heard of Digimon a few days ago is outstripping her. Never mind that you barely know what you did, much less how you did it..."
"I didn't do anything! It was all Guilmon," said Takato.
Jenrya shook his head. "That's not what I saw. You did seem to have some control over what happened. Guilmon evolved because of you, and you got him back under control yourself. You do have some kind of knack as a Tamer."
"And she's mad at me because it turns out I'm good at this after all?" Takato said. "I thought she was mad because I'm not a good Tamer to begin with."
"It's not that you're good," said Ryo. "I'm awesome, and she doesn't care one way or another. She's mad because she's afraid you might turn out to be better than her."
"But I'm not!" said Takato.
"Then you have nothing to worry about," said Ryo. "But you might as well go home anyway. Don't you have parents or something who might wonder about you?"
"Oh yeah. Right," said Takato. "Look after Guilmon for me, won't you?"
"Sure, always," Ryou agreed.
"Well, then... see ya," he said.
"Bye," said Jenrya. "Hey, I've got my karate lessons tomorrow, but I'll see you in school on Monday, okay? I'll tell you how the results of this test turn out."
"Okay! See you then." Somehow, that made him feel a lot better. He patted the sleeping Guilmon on the head, who snored a little in response, and began heading for the door. It surprised him a little that he was actually able to remember how to get back to the entrance.
Maybe I am getting the hang of this, he thought. Maybe I really can be a Tamer...
Some people stayed home from work on Sunday, but not Yamaki - not when he was on a roll. He was surrounded by printouts, forms, and data disks, and was in a better mood than he had been in several weeks. It would take some time to pull together everything he needed and get all the permissions from the higher-ups, but he finally had a plan to deal with DREAD, and he wasn't going to stop working on it until he had it ready.
That will put Fukunaga in his place. Show me up, will he? Two can play at this game...
He knew DREAD's weakness, now. He had suspected before, but watching the recording of the Monodramon X being destroyed had solidified the idea in his mind: one of the members of DREAD was a Cypher. That in itself was useful knowledge, but now he had an idea of how to employ that knowledge, as well. Just before the X Digimon had lost all its coherency, there had been a voice just audible in the background. It was just a small comment, but it was all Yamaki needed to hear to crack this case wide open.
Of course, having an idea and implementing it were two different things. Before he could set things in motion, he would need a few permissions, and to make some changes on one of his old Cypher-blocking programs. That might take a few days, depending on how long it took to get adequate materials for his experiments. Time was of the essence, and so here he was on a Sunday, tweaking computer code in an empty building, while his fellow workers all played golf, or whatever it was they did on their days off.
At least, he had assumed that he was the only one working. At most, he had thought that he might see a few of the cleaning staff bumping around, but none of his immediate co-workers. Hence, he was rather surprised to hear a knock on his office door. He ignored it for a moment before remembering belatedly that he didn't have a receptionist to answer it for him. He wondered if he should ignore it, but decided that if there was someone out there knocking, it could only be because they knew he was there and probably wouldn't go away until they got a response from him. He stomped over to the door and jerked it open.
"I thought I'd find you here," said the woman at the door.
"Ah... Reika," he said, momentarily nonplused. "What brings you here?"
"Knowing that you were here," she answered. "Here. I brought you this."
She pressed a box into his hands. He stared at it.
"What's this supposed to be?"
"Your lunch. You can give the box back tomorrow," she replied. "I've been watching you lately, and you haven't taken a lunch break in days, so I made this for you. You'll think a lot more clearly if you eat something."
"Ah," he said again. "Well... thank you. That was... considerate of you."
She gave him a wry smile. "I ought to hang around to make sure you actually eat it. I know how you are - you'll set it aside and forget all about it as soon as you get caught up in your work again."
"I won't forget about it," he said. "I suspect you would find a way to make it come back and haunt me if I did."
"I would," Reika replied. "So... is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Not at the present," answered Yamaki, mildly distracted. Actually, he could think of a few things, but some of them weren't appropriate for a workplace discussion. It was striking him once again that she was a very attractive woman, and pleasant company. Any time she started showing a personal interest in him tended to inspire these kinds of thoughts, and he pushed them away. "It was good of you to think of me, though."
"I try to do what I can," she answered. "I hate feeling useless, and there's so little I can really do..."
"If I think of something, I'll let you know," he said.
"All right, then... I guess I'll see you tomorrow," she said. "Don't overdo it, all right?"
"You're lying," she said, "but that's all right. I forgive you. Good luck."
She gave a nod of farewell and walked off. He watched her a moment before resolutely turning away and shutting the door behind him. There were times for such distractions, but this wasn't one of those times. Right now, he had work to do, and the sooner he got it done, the sooner he could go back to the frail, neglected thing that passed for his social life. He returned to his desk and went back to tweaking code. He did eat his lunch, though, and reflected that Reika was not only a pleasant and attractive woman, she was also a good cook. Still, this was just one more incentive to get this disagreeable job over with. Yamaki wanted his life back... and if he had to take someone else's to do it, it was just one less annoying Cypher in the world.
Monday had an annoying habit of turning up once a week, whether Takato wanted it to or not. He usually didn't care for it, particularly when he knew there was a test coming up, but this weekend, he wished he could have had at least six more Sundays to get things done. Aside from Ryo calling him into DREAD HQ for training, his parents had ordered him to clean his room. Trying to find time enough to do everything at once had left him exhausted, and he hadn't felt at all like dragging himself out of bed to sit through another day of lessons.
Nevertheless, he was able to reach the schoolyard at his usual time, a few minutes before the bell was set to ring, and he searched the playground to see who else was around. After a few minutes of searching, he was able to spot Jenrya lurking near the fence in the shade of some trees. Takato glanced around, as if afraid he thought someone might be watching him, and then tried to walk casually over to join him.
"What are you looking so nervous about?" were the first words out of Jenrya's mouth. "Nobody's watching us here."
"Oh," said Takato.
"Never mind, it's okay," said Jenrya, sighing. "You'll get it all worked out after a while. Anyway, I heard you and Ryo got together yesterday for some training. How did that go?"
"Not so good," Takato admitted. "We tried and tried, but we couldn't get him to evolve again. Actually, we can't get him to do much of anything. He thinks this is all some kind of big game we're playing."
"Well, at least Ruki will be relieved," said Jenrya wryly. "Dad and I looked over the data for Guilmon's programming. It's definitely... different. You're really going to have to be on your guard. We don't have any way of predicting what he's going to do next."
"Great," said Takato. "You mean he might lose it and run away again?"
"He might," Jenrya allowed, "but from what I can tell just by a casual observation, he seems to respond well to your presence. The best thing I can tell you right now is just keep spending as much time with him as you can, and maybe he'll settle down a little. Maybe."
"Is that all you found out?" asked Takato.
"For now. We're still trying to straighten everything out. Dad's working on analyzing the data from that other weird Digimon we caught, too - when he's not trying to track down the people from his old organization. We've got our hands full right now!"
"Okay, okay, chill!" said Takato, holding up his hands placatingly. "I was just asking."
Jenrya managed to look sheepish. "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you. I was up late trying to help, and I'm a little irritable today. I wish I had Terriermon's way of coping." He poked his backpack, which snored softly in response.
Takato laughed a little - and then quickly went serious again as he spotted something that needed his attention.
"Here they come," he muttered.
"Hm?" Jenrya glanced in the direction Takato was looking, and saw Hirokazu and Kenta making their way towards Takato. "Uh-oh. Looks like I'd better get going. Later!"
"Hey, you don't have to-" Takato began, but it was too late. Jenrya had already hurried away.
"Yo, Takato!" Hirokazu called, sidling over. "What's up? Who's that you were talking to?"
"Erm, just a friend," said Takato. "Kind of a friend, anyway. We only met a couple of days ago."
"Isn't he that weird kid who was watching us the other day?" Kenta asked.
"Yeah," Takato replied. "We ran into each other after school and walked home together. He's really pretty nice, when you get to know him."
"Is that where you've been all weekend?" Hirokazu asked. "Hanging out with him?"
"Not exactly," said Takato. "Mom and Dad told me I couldn't go anywhere or do anything until I got my room cleaned up again. I told them it wasn't my fault it's a mess, but they didn't listen." Well, that was true, as far as it went. They really had forced him to stay in his room until he'd proven it was clean. He had shoved all his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and hidden everything else in the closet or in his desk until he had time to sort it all out. The whole operation had taken less than an hour, but he wasn't about to turn up his nose at a good excuse.
"Is that so? Huh," said Hirokazu. His eyebrows were drawn together, as if he didn't quite believe what he was hearing. "I tried to call you Sunday, and your mom said you weren't home."
Takato did his best to look righteously outraged. "They wouldn't let me talk on the phone until I was done."
"You spent the whole weekend cleaning your room?"
"It was a big mess! You saw it. It was on TV and everything."
"Yeah, sure," said Hirokazu. "You know, you've been acting really weird ever since those guys broke into your house. Are you sure there's not something you're keeping from us?"
"Why would I be keeping something from you?"
"I don't know," said Hirokazu, "but something screwy's going on. You've barely talked to us in days, and now you're hanging out with a different crowd... I dunno, Takato. Looks to me like you're hiding something."
"I'm not hanging out with a different crowd!" said Takato, flushing slightly. "Geez! I'm allowed to talk to people besides you, you know!"
"Yeah, but you're not supposed to totally ignore us!" Hirokazu fired back.
"What I think he's trying to say," said Kenta in a gentler tone, "is that we're worried about you. If there's something wrong, you can tell us."
"There's nothing to talk about," said Takato. "Anyway, that's the bell - we'd better get to class."
He shuffled off. Hirokazu tried to chase him, but Kenta held him back.
"Let him go," he said. "If he doesn't want to talk to us, that's his business."
"Yeah. Sure," said Hirokazu bitterly. He raised his voice. "I guess if he doesn't want to talk to his best friends..."
Takato felt his stomach twist with guilt.
I'm sorry, guys... I'd tell you if I could. I really am still your friend...
One thing was for certain: ever since DREAD had entered his life, classes had risen to a whole new level of torture. Now, besides worrying about what fate had in store for Guilmon, he also had to worry about his friends getting involved. From where he sat, he could still see Hirokazu shooting him venomous glances. Kenta was looking like a puppy who had been scolded by his master, and kept looking from Hirokazu to Takato and back again, plainly unsure what he was supposed to do next. Takato couldn't blame him. The boys had squabbled before, but never had a real fight. This first breach of confidence was going to be difficult for all of them, and Takato was more clueless than Kenta when it came to figuring out what to do.
I can't tell them, he thought. If I do, they'll think I'm lying anyway... And even if I could prove it, they'll be in danger along with me. I can't do that to them. But if I don't tell, Hirokazu might never forgive me. What do I do?
His teacher stood at the front of the room and chattered, but she wasn't giving him any useful answers. He scribbled silently in his notebook, taking down her words without paying much attention to their meaning. His page looked painfully bare without any of his usual drawings on it. When the lunch bell rang, Hirokazu and Kenta went to sit with someone else, leaving Takato to chew silently on his lunch. He stared gloomily down at the picture on the lid of his lunch box without seeing anything.
He was surprised out of his reverie by the sound of chair legs being dragged across the floor, and he looked up to see Juri standing next to him.
"Do you want some company?" she asked. "You looked lonely."
"Yeah," he said. "That would be good."
She sat down. "I thought so. Why aren't you with Hirokazu and Kenta?"
"Er... we kinda had a fight," Takato said. "Now they're mad at me, and I don't know what to do."
"Oh, I'm sorry. That must be awful!" she said. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Probably not," he answered regretfully. "See, it's like this - I've got a secret, a really big secret, and I can't talk about it to just anybody. If I tell Hirokazu and Kenta, they'll get in trouble, and it'll be my fault for telling them stuff they shouldn't know. I don't want to do anything that'll hurt them, because they're my best friends, you know? There are only a couple of people who do know, so I've been spending a lot of time with them, but now Hirokazu's gotten really jealous, because he thinks I like these other guys more than I like him, but he's wrong! The other people don't know me at all, and they're always talking down to me and getting mad at me for no reason, and I wish I could get away, but I can't. I know the secret, and now I'm stuck. I don't know what to do! I can't tell, but if I don't, I don't know how to get Hirokazu to trust me again."
Juri listened to this rambling outpouring with eyes full of pity.
"Are these other people very bad?"
Takato thought about it, then shook his head. "Nah, not really. Some of them are pretty nice, most of the time. It's just... they're not my friends. Hirokazu and Kenta have been my best friends forever, and I don't want to lose them." He looked at her desperately. "Juri, you're smart - what do you think I should do?"
"Well..." she said slowly, "if the secret will hurt someone, you should keep it. Just tell them what you told me - that you have a secret, but it will only cause trouble if they know it. I'm sure if they knew you were only trying to help..."
"Hirokazu would try to find out," said Takato. "Then we'd all be in trouble anyway."
"If they're really your friends, they should trust you," she said.
"I guess," he said. "You trust me, anyway, right?"
"Right," she said. "Would you trust me, even if you thought I was keeping a secret?"
"Well, yeah, sure!" he said.
She smiled gratefully. She looked like she was about to say something, but was interrupted by a sudden chiming from the intercom system.
"Attention," said a voice, "will Miss Juri Katou please report to the office? Your parents are here to pick you up. I repeat: Miss Juri Katou, please report to the office..."
"Oh, dear," she said. "I guess I'd better go. Bye, Takato."
"Bye, Juri," he replied. "Hope everything's okay."
"I hope so, too," she said. "Good luck."
On that slightly ominous note, Juri gathered her things and exited the room. Takato felt bereft. The one person who wasn't giving him a hard time, and someone had to snatch her away.
I've got nobody left, he thought.
His best friends were blocked away from him, isolated by the secret that only he could carry. The others at DREAD were hardly more than teammates, at best. Juri trusted him, but even she couldn't hear what was really troubling him - he couldn't put someone as innocent as her in danger. If he told his parents, they would probably have everyone in DREAD arrested - and maybe him, too, for good measure. Even Guilmon, who loved and trusted him, was too naive to understand what he was going through. Takato looked around at the other children in the room, listening to them laughing and chattering with each other. They were having a good time. They had nothing else on their mind more important than schoolwork and chores and socializing. Just now, they felt like a totally alien species. Only a few days ago, he had thought that he was separate from them, that he was different. Now he knew better.
Now he knew what it was like to be absolutely alone.
The door to the computer room flew open with a bang that echoed off of the slick metal surfaces of the room. Jenrya looked up with an expression that said he was expecting to find himself being attacked, and then relaxed slightly when he saw who it was. Takato had been storming around DREAD headquarters for nearly half an hour, looking for someone to complain to, and the delay had only served to build his anger and frustration up to the boiling point.
"I want out!" he shouted.
Terriermon blinked at him. "But you just came in!"
"No, no, that's not it!" said Takato. "I mean, I want out of this - all of this!" He waved his hand around to indicate the lab, the computers, even Jenrya and Terriermon. "When does it all stop? I want my life back! When do I get to be normal again? When do I have to stop dodging my parents and lying to my friends and watching every move I make? A week ago, I had a decent, normal, boring life. I kept out of trouble, I had friends I could hang out with - heck, I almost had a girlfriend, and now it's all shot, and what I want to know is, when do I get to go back to the way things were?"
He stood there, panting. He wasn't sure if everything he'd just said made any kind of sense, and just now, he didn't care. He didn't even want an answer to his questions, not if it was the kind of answer that explained everything rationally and sensibly so he couldn't argue anymore. What he really wanted was an exit he could bolt to. He did not want Jenrya to be sitting there watching him with that pitying look.
"When do I get out?" Takato asked again, pleadingly.
Jenrya just looked sadly back at him. "No one ever said you did."
"But - but that's not fair," Takato protested. "I can't live like this. I can't. I'm just a kid! I don't even have a driver's license! Heck, forget that, I don't even know if I'm going to pass my high school exams! How can you expect me to help save the world when I don't even understand algebra!"
"We never wanted this to happen to you."
"And that's supposed to make it better?" asked Takato. "Am I just supposed to just shrug and say 'Oh, that's okay,' just because you guys let this happen to me by accident?"
"Hey, wait a minute," said Jenrya, bristling a little. "It's not all our fault. You had a hand in this all along. You didn't have to take the egg from Ruki. Even after you took it, you had plenty of opportunities to get rid of it."
"Yeah, but I didn't know what I was getting into!" Takato said. "I thought - I thought this would be fun. I didn't think it would mean having to give up so much..."
"Aw, poor Takato," said Terriermon. "Poor baby doesn't like this game anymore. How about we play a new game, like 'grow up and catch a clue'?"
"Quiet, Terriermon. You're not helping," said Jenrya. "Takato, I... I'm really sorry. I can only imagine how difficult this is for you, but you've got to hang in there. If nothing else, do it for Guilmon. He needs you, and he'd never understand if you left him now."
Takato sighed. "I know, I know. I mean, I love Guilmon. I promised I'd never let anything happen to him, and I want to keep my promise. I said I'd protect him no matter what it takes, but now... now I'm losing all the things I thought I'd never have to give up. I know I have to do it, but... it hurts."
"Did something happen to you today?" asked Jenrya, sounding concerned. "You were all gung-ho about this the last time we talked. What happened?"
"It's my friends, Hirokazu and Kenta. You've seen them - they're the ones I always hang out with on the playground," said Takato. "All my life, they've been my only real friends. Now I'm mixed up in this big thing - maybe the biggest thing that'll ever happen to me - and I can't tell them what's going on. They're mad at me, because they know I'm keeping secrets from them. They think I've ditched them for someone else, and they're furious that I won't explain what's going on, and I don't blame them." He looked at Jenrya plaintively. "What did you do when this happened to you? How did you deal with your friends?"
"Well..." said Jenrya, looking away, "the problem never really came up..."
"What, don't you have friends?"
Terriermon laughed. "And Jen says I have no tact!"
"I was never really much of a people person," said Jenrya. "Nobody really noticed when I stopped being less of one than usual."
"Geez, I'm sorry," said Takato.
"It's okay. It doesn't bother me. Terriermon's the best friend I could ask for - and Ruki and Ryo aren't bad once you get to know them. I don't get lonely," said Jenrya.
"I wish I had your luck," Takato answered glumly. He sighed. "So that's it, then. I'm just not getting out."
"Don't be so fatalistic," said Jenrya. "This isn't going to last forever. It's not. We won't let it. Someday we'll win, and everything will be better than it was before. You've just got to keep believing that."
"I'll try," said Takato. "Won't be easy, but I'll try."
"I know," Jenrya replied. "In the meantime, I know it's not the same, but... Well, like I said, I'm not much of a people person, but... well, if you wanted to come over to my place sometime, I've got some pretty good video games."
"I never was much good at video games."
"I'd teach you."
Takato thought about that for a while.
"Are you trying to say you want to be friends?" he asked at last.
Jenrya shrugged. "I don't know. I might not be all that good at it... but it's still been a long time since I've had someone to play video games with."
"Oh, well," said Takato. "I could use some pointers, come to think of it. Hey, it'd be really fun if I could blow Hirokazu away next time we play, right?"
Jenrya smiled. "Right! Hey, you haven't met the rest of my family, either. I have the cutest little sister..."
"You mean the cutest little spoiled brat!"
"Terriermon, just because she drags you around by the ears..."
"Well, you never stop her!"
"What am I supposed to tell her? Everyone is supposed to think you're a stuffed animal, remember?"
"Tell her I'm collectible!"
Takato laughed. "I think I'd like to meet your family."
"Yeah, they're great," said Jenrya. "And maybe... maybe I could meet your friends? I mean, if we all hang out together, maybe they won't be so jealous."
"Hey, that might work!" said Takato. "That's a good idea. Tomorrow I'll introduce them to you, if you want."
"That would be nice," Jenrya replied. He thought for a minute. "Takato, why didn't you tell them the truth?"
"Well, they want to know what you're doing, right? Why don't you just tell them?"
"I couldn't do that," said Takato. "It would put them in danger, wouldn't it? I mean, I'm in enough trouble as it is - I don't want to hurt my friends, too. If I'm really their friend, I should protect them, right?"
"I can't speak from experience," Jenrya said, "but I think if they're really your friends, they'd want to be there for you. I think if they're angry at you, that might just be why. They want to be a part of whatever you're doing, even if it gets them in trouble."
"Won't it get you guys in trouble, if I go telling your secrets?"
"Well, I'm not saying you should tell everybody," said Jenrya, "but if you think you can trust them..."
"I'll think about it," said Takato. "Hirokazu isn't all that good about keeping secrets... and Kenta is, but if I tell him, he's bound to say something to Hirokazu."
Jenrya shrugged. "You know them better than I do. So, do you want to come over? We can let Guilmon out in my room. Even if he makes noise, everyone will just think it's my computer."
"Sure, sounds great," said Takato. "You know, Jen, you give good advice. It's too bad you don't hang out much with people. You'd make somebody a pretty good friend."
Jenrya smiled a little. "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
It was a small, plain room. There were no windows, and only one door, which was just now closed and locked. Even if it had been wide open, there was nothing beyond it but a narrow hallway that would lead someone to a number of armed guards long before they ever found escape. Inside the room, there was nothing but a small table, two chairs, and a bright light hanging from a cord in the middle of the ceiling. It shed its garish light on the room's only two occupants: a suited man with a thatch of red hair, and a young girl who quailed under his intense gaze.
"I don't see why you're being so stubborn about this, girl," he said.
"I don't want to betray my friend," she said. "He trusts me."
"You won't be betraying him," the man replied. "You'll be helping him. Trust me. As long as he's working for them, he's in danger. You can save him. All you have to do is listen to what I say, and everything will work out fine."
"That doesn't matter. It has to be done, and you're the perfect one to do it. You're Matsuda's friend. He won't suspect you."
"I still don't know... What if I say something wrong? What if they find out?"
"We'll protect you. All you have to do is trust us, and if they start getting suspicious, let us handle it."
The girl moistened her lips. Her eyes flicked back and forth, as if hoping that a way out had appeared while she had been staring down at the floor. All she could see was the table, the glaring light, and the redheaded man. He gave her a smile that was not particularly reassuring.
"I should tell you," he said, "we don't expect you to work without payment."
A spark of anger showed in her eyes. "You think money is going to make me want to do this?"
"Not money. Something much better. Something we know you want."
Her eyes widened, and the man smiled, knowing she was caught.
"It's still in the experimental stages. We haven't finalized it yet. It's not available to just anyone, but if you're willing to help us out, we might just let you be one of the ones to test it. But we won't even show it to you if you don't cooperate, so you might want to think long and hard about giving us some help."
She hesitated a moment. "You - you promise if I do this, Takato won't be hurt? You won't do anything to him?"
"Of course not. We're just trying to help everyone. He'll be a lot safer once we've dealt with DREAD."
"Well... if it will help Takato..."
"Then I'll do it."
"Wonderful." He passed her a disk. "This will give you all the information you need. I trust you have suitable equipment to run this?"
She gave a timid nod. "I don't like computers very much, but my father insisted..."
"Fine. As long as you can run that program, you shouldn't have any problems. We'll take care of everything else. You can leave now."
She got up and hurried for the door. On the way out, she passed a blonde man in dark glasses, but his ferocious expression was more than enough encouragement for her to get out of his way as quickly as possible. He watched her go as she fled up the hallway.
"So," he said. "I'm too late."
"You couldn't have stopped me even if you'd gotten here sooner," Fukunaga replied. "I've already gotten everything cleared away."
"So I've heard," he said. "They brought me the news - after the fact, of course. What the devil do you think you're doing, dragging a child into this?"
"It's a perfectly sound plan. You fight fire with fire. You fight children with other children. She's a friend of the boy who was given the egg. She can talk to him and find out what he's been doing and what he knows. She's perfectly placed to deal with these DREAD people."
"But it's not your watch! It is my job to deal with them, and I will. I already have a lead that is much less risky than you sending an ignorant little girl in to try to wheedle secrets out of them."
"Yes, well, obviously you didn't set your oh-so-wonderful plan in motion fast enough, did you, Yamaki?" Fukuna taunted.
"This is not your department! You were supposed to worry about the Digimon, and I was supposed to deal with DREAD!" Yamaki ranted. "Why aren't you doing your job? You're not even trying to get your own work - you're too busy trying to prove your superiority to me! And you're not doing a very good job of it if the best thing you can scrape up is a child."
"Oh, she's not all I've got," said Fukunaga.
Yamaki raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What else do you have?"
"I'm not going to tell you."
"You realize that if you don't tell me, we could wind up seriously interfering with each other's plans?" said Yamaki.
"Then maybe," Fukunaga replied, "you should remember who is in charge here, and rethink your plans."
"And I think you should remember exactly what you're in charge of," said Yamaki. "I have my job, and I will continue to do it as I see fit. I suggest you reconsider your priorities."
He turned on his heel and stalked off, fuming. He would show this man to steal his job! All he needed was a little time. It was time he would probably have, too, because there was no way this hare-brained scheme could work. There was nothing a trembling little girl could do against a menace like DREAD...