Chapter Thirteen: War Games
a/n: Please just know that the apprehension I feel at posting this is truly excruciating. And also that I haven't forgotten you.
Near the heart of the labyrinth, a quarter mile under the sand, Izzy stilled, distracted by the sudden grinding crash of battle, and just like that Tai was halfway down the hall, running towards trouble. The sound of his quickly retreating footsteps finally registered, and Izzy looked up sharply, spotting Tai just as he disappeared around the next corner. Damn it. Feeling a fine grit sliding between the stone floor and the soles of his shoes, Izzy flailed a bit for the loose left strap on his backpack, shoved his arm through it, and charged after Tai, settling the bag so it knocked gently against the center of his back.
"Tai, will you- wait!" Izzy called down the long stone corridor, squinting into the cloud of thick, grey dust Tai had kicked up.
"Catch up!" he heard Tai yell back, faraway, and he rolled his eyes, approaching the corner with a burst of speed.
Improbably, Tai was waiting for him at the bend, and they would've had a nasty collision if Tai hadn't managed to spring mostly out of the way, grabbing Izzy's arm to keep his balance. They froze like that, both breathing hard and looking exasperated, until Tai said come on, tugging the arm he still had hold of, and they took off again, hurtling towards the building commotion.
For Izzy, the past few days were a blur of hastily memorized sequences of left and right. He'd gotten full schematics of the extensive tunnel system beneath the sand from Gennai and buried himself in them immediately, but making sense of it all took time, and recon took longer, and he felt constantly out of breath at the thought of Mimi's fingers slipping through his. The memory recurred with relentless clarity, haunting him the way those last chaotic seconds in the Digital World had all those years ago; Tai just out of reach, the resigned look in his eyes, the carnival tilt of the trolley, the unresponsive controls under his fingers.
I'll fix it, he'd said, and for three years he woke up with those words ricocheting off the hard edges of nightmares, a vast and impossible promise that ate away at him by degrees.
He could tell by the gentle way the others were handling him that he must be getting that wild look again, but Tai, nonplussed, just hunkered down next to him, poked him in the ribcage with a bony elbow, pressed an unwrapped granola bar into his wildly gesturing hand, never wondered whether they'd pull it off, only ever wondered how.
Izzy just sat back and wondered how he'd ever managed to hold on to faith like that.
"Left fork," Tai said, veering off without waiting for an answer, but Izzy pulled up short.
"Um...no," Tai said, looking over his shoulder at Izzy as he gestured down the corridor with his weapon of choice; Matt's frying pan. "We've been through this. Left goes-"
"Left goes through that weird room with all the holes in the floor. If you fall in one again-"
"If I fall in one again?" Tai said, looking almost comically affronted. "I'm not going to fall in one again, Izzy,who falls in the same hole twice?"
Izzy just looked at him.
A staggering rumble ran through the floor and a fine rain of dust settled around them as they both went sprawling. The frying pan clanged against the wall some few feet away and spun listlessly until it lost momentum.
Izzy, flat on his back, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Tai sighed. "Fine. Let's go right."
Tai had applied himself to the labyrinth of tunnels with a laser focus that Izzy wouldn't have expected from him before, arguing tirelessly about strategy and poring over the maps Izzy sketched on the outer wall of the coliseum long after everyone else was at least pretending to be asleep.
He'd also done most of the reconnaissance himself, shrugging off a concussion in the wake of his run in with Dokugumon, disappearing for hours at a time, barely avoiding being spotted by patrols of minions on several occasions, which eventually led to a shouting match with Matt that was almost comforting in its familiarity.
The one thing Matt glaringly declined to shout at Tai about was the way he refused to acknowledge his sullen, withdrawn, and intermittently glowing sister as she haunted their general vicinity. In fact, everyone was doing their best to ignore the tension between Tai and Kari—he so obviously thought they were losing her to the worrying otherness; to her sudden, unflinching ruthlessness and the way she blinked slowly when addressed as if she'd been somewhere else.
"Tai, do you think Kari is...um..." Izzy'd tried, once, but he didn't miss the way Tai's eyebrows drew together sharply and he let it go.
"Let's just...get Mimi back first," Tai said, quietly, a few minutes later, when Izzy had long since moved on. And then, "You going down there with me?"
"Yeah, Tai," he said easily, watching TK watch Kari, and figured they'd better hurry-
"-up, we're almost there!" Tai bellowed over the now-deafening sounds of fighting, and Izzy was jolted back to the present, rounding that last corner with Tai and barreling into the gaping central chamber of the maze just as an explosion rocked the room, throwing off a hail of gravel. They both flinched back, and Tai, who was slightly ahead of him, threw an arm up to protect his face as Izzy skidded to a stop just shy of knocking him over.
"You okay?" Izzy gasped. The ground shook.
"Fine," Tai said, breathless, and glanced quickly over his shoulder, presumably to check on Izzy. He had blood in his eyebrow, and Izzy was going to tell him so, but then he spotted Mimi and everything else went straight out the window.
The room was vast, with a cavernously high ceiling. It was packed with Digimon, and scattered throughout the crowd were the twisted, colorless creatures that mimicked them; the invading force, similar in shape and form to the Digimon, but with black, dead eyes and a dim, brainless tendency towards violence. Slightly more than half of the Digimon were doggedly fighting back the monsters, and that half looked to Mimi.
She was standing on the raised stone platform at the center of the room, two sets of heavy chains swinging above her head, thick metal cuffs hanging from both of her wrists. Her hair flew around her in a soft pink cloud as she turned to shout an order to the group of Bakemon by the far wall. Izzy watched as they swarmed over a struggling, wailing Cherrymon. A low, strange roar shook dust down from the ceiling, and Izzy followed the sound to find Ogremon at Mimi's back, grappling with something huge and empty that blurred at the edges. Mimi was loosely hefting a large tree branch, feet planted wide and eyes alert, and Izzy realized with a jolt that it was one of Cherrymon's limbs. A writhing inkspot with a gaping mouth full of teeth got too close, and Mimi swung the heavy club without batting an eyelash; a flashing, scary grin lighting up her dirt-smudged face. She stepped into the swing, leaving the center of the platform wide open, and in the place she'd been standing was Tentomon, hovering near Mimi and deftly picking off anything that approached the steps with a crackling bolt of electricity.
Izzy cut a glance to his left and found Tai's expression stuck somewhere between slack-jawed surprise and startled laughter as a high, welcome whine of power joined the din, and Tentomon started to glow. Mimi glanced back, startled, and Izzy saw the realization dawn on her face before she whirled and scanned the crowd, spotting them almost immediately. Izzy felt his hand come up in a lame little wave before he managed to stop it and Mimi's grin went wide and familiar.
He tried not to imagine what he must look like, standing in the middle of the pandemonium, one hand raised absently and then forgotten there, choking on relief.
"Tentomon digivolve to..."
Tai spun the frying pan in his hand, a smooth, unconscious motion, and bumped shoulders with Izzy companionably.
"Let's go," he said, and plunged ahead, into the parting crowd.
"Okay," Izzy said, dazed, and followed him.
"You good?" Tai said over his shoulder, falling into a defensive stance on Mimi's unprotected side, and Izzy hung back, reaching out to rest his hand on the broad plane of Kabuterimon's face as he landed and leaned in close. Kabuterimon rumbled Izzy's name with a humbling reverence, bending so that Izzy could scramble up, stepping into the smooth proffered palm and settling in between his buzzing wings.
"Yeah," Mimi breathed, and Izzy glanced up in time to see the way they were grinning at each other sidelong. "What's the plan?"
"We've got the two Megas topside," Tai said. "Let's see who wants to go quietly before we call in the cavalry."
"That tunnel is the most direct route to the surface," Izzy called down to them, pointing, and they both looked to the dark arch across the room, barely visible beyond a dozen skirmishes. "We need to clear it."
"You want to do something about that?" Tai said, and Izzy nodded.
"Hang on," Kabuterimon said, and blasted a wide swath. Digimon on both sides of the fight scrambled to get out of his way. Izzy bent low, flattening himself against Kabuterimon's shell, buffeted by wind, eyes watering. The tunnel opening approached with unnerving speed. It looked impossibly small.
"Listen up!" Tai was shouting somewhere behind them, and Izzy focused on his voice as Kabuterimon skimmed the surface of what appeared to be a giant, pulsing oil-slick, covered in bubbles...no...hundreds of blinking eyes. "The Digidestined are operating out of these tunnels now. If you're still here when my friends upstairs join the party, you'd better be on the right side. If you'd like to step out, Kabuterimon here will show you the door."
Something white—an unnerving absence of color with a cavernous mouth—reached out blindly for Izzy, opening wide, opening up, turning itself inside out. Izzy looked away, looked back, memorizing the sight of them up on the altar, Tai and Mimi and the army of monsters pressing in from every direction.
Hundreds of eyes were fixed on Tai. The silence was deafening as the battle ground to a halt under the pure force of something dangerous in his expression. And the last thing Izzy heard before the dizzying, stomach-churning mad dash for the surface was Mimi's voice like a bell, hard and musical and cutting across the silence.
"I wouldn't make him ask again."
"She was laughing," Tai said with an air of wonder, "and waving one of Cherrymon's arms around like a club while the Bakemon just tore him to shreds! His face. You guys. His face."
He trailed off with an expansive, open-palmed shrug like I have no words.
"Tai," Mimi said, sounding embarrassed, but she still had the knotty branch in hand, propped jauntily against one shoulder, and the reckless tilt of her chin was undeniably proud.
"Mimi," Tai said. "You're a maniac."
"Well, I just thought," she said, meeting his eyes evenly as a pretty blush spread across her high, fine cheekbones, "what would Tai do?"
"You'll get into all kinds of trouble that way," Matt said fondly, straightening from where he'd propped himself against the wall to rest his wrenched ankle. He punched Tai lightly on the arm before hobbling off, presumably to find his brother and Kari as they'd disappeared again.
"Come on," Sora said, saving Tai and Mimi from the silence. "Let's see if Izzy's managed to get ahold of Gennai."
They picked their way across the now mostly empty central chamber of the underground maze, which only an hour or so before had been the site of a chaotic mass-exodus, climbing over a piles of rubble and tangled detritus, smiling or nodding somewhat awkwardly at the occasional Floramon or Gekomon who paused their cleanup efforts to stare.
The battle had gone overwhelmingly their way, but they had no illusions about what was waiting for them at the end of the road. Not just a monster or two, not just the usual megalomaniacs, but the systematic destruction of the Digital World. An invading virus that would leave nothing in its path, remaking the Digital World in black and white, forcing out the Digimon until they were endangered, and then extinct.
Failure was unthinkable, they could all agree on that.
It meant the end of everything.
Matt caught up with Sora on the dusty stone altar, where she'd found herself pushing a broom, surrounded by no less than a dozen Bakemon.
"Well, it's all in the past," she was saying. "Forgive and forget, right?"
One of the Bakemon was wringing his hands. It was more…creepy…than contrite.
Sora's hair was caught up in a red bandana. It clashed horribly, endearingly. Matt came up the steps, careful, leaning on a makeshift cane, and raised his eyebrows.
"No, really, it's fine," Sora told the Bakemon, dry, glancing at Matt. "Someone's always…trying to eat us."
Matt swallowed a smile.
"Soramon is forgiving!" one of the Bakemon exclaimed, and they all pressed around her, humming.
"It's just Sora," she said, stumbling back.
"Sora is just! Just Sora! Just Sora!"
"…nevermind," Sora said, sighing, and tentatively clasped one of their outstretched hands. The Bakemon, seeming pacified by this, swarmed off like a school of fish. A cool, moaning wind followed in their wake.
"Wow," Sora said, rubbing her hand on her jeans. "Yikes."
"Here," Matt said, amused, and handed her a bowl of what looked like stew.
"Thanks," Sora said. "Come on, sit down."
She set the broom aside and perched on the top step and Matt settled in next to her. They watched the Bakemon drift around the room, terrorizing the other, gentler Digimon until Ogremon lost his patience and shooed them off. Sora swirled her stew around the bowl.
"What?" Matt said finally, leaning sideways to bump her shoulder.
Sora frowned into her food. "Are we crazy to think this can work? Floramon, Deramon, Bakemon…bunch of, ugh…" She looked around conspiratorially, "…Numamon. Mimi's got that Gazimon following her around like a shadow. Franklin. Matt…I think we're crazy. This is crazy."
"Oh, come on," Matt said. "They're just minions. They're not dangerous. Eat your food."
Sora scooped up a brownish cube from the bowl.
"Everyone in this room has tried to kill us," she said, gloomy, with her mouth full.
"Tai talked them around," Matt said, and Sora snorted.
Mimi breezed in then, toting Gomamon, who looked half-awake at best.
"Hey, Izzy's ready!" she shouted across the room, and everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and rushed the door. They parted around her like a pink rock in a stream. Sora waved. Mimi grinned and disappeared into the crowd.
"So, Mimi's way crazier than we thought," Sora said. Matt hummed in agreement and levered himself upright.
"Hey, what is this stuff anyway?" Sora said around a mouthful of food.
"I have no idea," Matt said.
"Okay, great," Sora said, polishing it off, and went after him.
They were calling it the war room.
Izzy's computer was wired into a towering monitor across from the door. Gennai loomed large, surveying the assembly. Off to the right, Izzy leaned against the brick, waiting. Tentomon was at his feet and Tai at his shoulder.
The small room was far beyond capacity, but the crowd of Digimon made space for Matt and Sora, and they crossed to the front, returning Tai's warm smile, finding a place next to Joe. Mimi joined them in short order with Gomamon still curled in her arms. TK and Kari came in last and stood at the back, and Tai turned minutely towards Izzy to hide his reaction.
"Are we worried about this?" Mimi said quietly to the three of them within earshot, her expression carefully bland.
"I'll talk to him," Matt said, and when Joe sent him a pointed sidelong look, Matt rolled his eyes. "We're capable of having a civil—"
"All right everyone, let's get started," Tai said loudly, his voice cutting through the hushed murmurs, and all eyes went to the front.
"…conversation," Matt muttered.
"Yeah, all right," Joe said.
"Greetings!" Gennai said, in that chuckling, reedy voice, eyes glinting with something mysterious, in the usual way. A sound of acknowledgement went up from the crowd. "It's no secret that the Digital World is dying. That's why they're here."
He opened his arms, gesturing at the Digidestined. "They always come when they're needed. Well, we certainly need them now."
Izzy reached down and punched a command into the keyboard. The screen split down the center, Gennai on the left, a map of the Digital World on the right.
"We are…here," Izzy said, pointing at the miniature image of a coliseum on the screen. "Formerly the headquarters of Cherrymon and his band of…associates."
Tai huffed a quiet laugh.
Izzy ignored him. He pointed to a spot some distance north, in the center of the desert. "And this is Piximon's Oasis," he tapped the screen and it erupted into a tangled jungle, stretching on for miles. "If you know where to look."
"Gennai has identified the Oasis as the weak spot between dimensions," Tai said, pushing off from the wall and stepping forward. "This is where the virus first crossed over. And it's where we'll need to go to send it back."
"I've been working on an antivirus. Sort of a…software patch," Izzy said. "Delivered to this spot, it should be able to eradicate the virus and reset the Digital World."
"What about Primary Village?" Mimi said.
"Not lost," Tai said.
"And the monsters?" one of the Gekomon asked.
"We believe that severing their connection to their own dimension will…well…" Izzy glanced at Tai.
"They'll die," Tai said, and crossed his arms.
The silence was brief.
Ogremon cracked his knuckles. "When do we leave?"
"You're not coming," Izzy said. "We—the Digidestined—we're leaving tomorrow."
The outcry was immediate, and in the small space, deafening. Tai was instantly at the edge of the crowd, arms outstretched, shouting for attention.
"Hey! Listen! We need you here," he said. "Ogremon, this is home base, and you need to hold it in case this doesn't work. If we fail, you're going to need an army to take back this dimension. Last line of defense. That's you."
"You're only human," Ogremon said, gruff, his eyes going automatically to Mimi.
"Hasn't stopped us before," she said.
"Things have changed," Ogremon said. "You've got four Digimon, that's half your team."
Gennai, who had watched all of this placidly from the glowing monitor, shook his head. "Six."
Izzy and Tai shared a conspiratorial glance. Sora found that her heart was pounding.
"Oh," Joe said, looking at Izzy, who nodded once, his eyes crinkling at the corners.
Tai leveled his gaze on Matt and Sora. "Six," he repeated, and he couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face. "On account of two old friends meeting us halfway."
The room had mostly emptied out by the time Matt approached Tai.
"Can we…?" he said, gesturing towards the door.
"Sure," Tai said, and followed him out.
The sun was down. Up in the bleachers, they were perfectly alone. Matt took off his shoe and put up his foot, sighing.
"How bad is it?" Tai said, eyeing the swollen ankle.
"You're not leaving me here."
Tai looked up sharply. "Of course not. Jesus."
"Sorry," Matt said shaking his head. "I'm just…"
Tai waved the apology away. "Forget it."
"Tai," Matt said, and then hesitated, studying his friend's profile.
"You want to talk about Kari." Tai stared off across the coliseum blankly.
"She's not in control," Tai said. "There's something bigger at work here. The Digital World is using her. And I want to protect her, but…"
He trailed off with a frustrated sound.
"But we need her," Matt said.
"We won't win without her." Tai buried his head in his hands, leaning forward. "She's my sister, Matt. What if—what if she…"
Matt dropped his hand casually between Tai's shoulders. "Tai, if you want to send her home, everyone will understand. Izzy can do it tonight."
"We'll lose," Tai said miserably.
"The software patch—"
"Izzy doesn't think it'll be strong enough without something to boost the signal," Tai said. "They're counting on us."
"We can find another way," Matt said.
Tai straightened, and Matt let his arm rest along the seat behind him.
"There's no other way."
"Fine, but Tai," Matt said. "Listen to me. No matter what happens, this time we're all going home."
Tai turned to look at Matt, and he didn't believe him, it was obvious, but the toughness was back in the set of his jaw. Matt waited.
"Okay," Tai said finally, turning to stare out into the dark again, leaning subtly back against Matt's arm.
"Okay," Matt said.
The night sky was breathtaking, out in the desert. Cloudless, endless. An impossible riot of stars. Matt tipped his head back. He felt small, but being in the Digital World always made him feel small.
"You know that thing they say in stories? About unfamiliar constellations?" Matt said. "It really is strange, isn't it? I didn't think it would bother me."
"Well, stare at them long enough and you forget the old ones," Tai said, flashing him a quick smile.
"Oh, right," Matt said, feeling disoriented.
He'd forgotten, for a moment, that Tai had ever been away.