Emerald eyes stared forward, focused only on what lay ahead. The stillness of the night provided a silent, murky backdrop, juxtaposed by his own form as he dashed through the leaves, through the bushes, through the trees…
An endless array of blurred leaves and branches whizzed past him with each distinct movement. Each leap, each dash, and each landing was accurate and silent. There was somewhere he had to be, just like every other night, at this exact time, for the last few weeks.
He'd left no trace of himself in this time period, at which point he felt he only deserved to be a memory, not a physical presence. His very existence plagued him so, almost to the point where if he could will himself to disappear, he'd do it in an instant.
Anything to relieve him of the memories.
Anything to relieve him of the guilt.
Anything to relieve him of the knowledge that, against his will, he still existed… And Leomon didn't.
Impmon landed expertly on a branch, the white claws on his feet gripping the dry, cracked bark of the branch he now rested upon. Grooves and indentations decorated this spot, remnants of each time he'd taken this path to conduct this… visit.
And it was this very branch which constantly embodied the mental chasm he'd yet to cross. From this very branch, he could see the house…
He could see the window…
He could see the silhouette, standing vigilantly at the window. Waiting. Watching. Hoping.
His breath seized in his throat as he stared forth, and though there were only mere yards between his current position and that illuminated window and that silhouette, it felt like thousands of miles.
It may as well have been miles.
He didn't have the fortitude to close the gap between them, primarily because he was the one who'd created the gap in the first place.
Impmon breathed silently as a slight breeze picked up, carrying with it his guilt-laden whisper.
It had been weeks since he'd seen her.
He missed her; missed those embracing arms, that kind smile, those warm eyes…
But ironically enough, it was the eyes that he feared to see the most. They'd be different this time around, he knew that. They'd be scrutinizing, fearful, and cold. They'd ask questions of him, demand answers from him, and bore into his very soul. But more than that… They'd look upon him with disgust, with disappointment, with disdain.
He supposed he was saving himself from those eyes by resting on this branch just outside Juri's window, saving himself from the guilt he'd bestowed upon himself the minute breath had returned to his lungs that fateful night…
He growled at himself.
With Leomon's strength coursing through his body for good now, he couldn't go back to her. He'd let her down, just as he figured he would.
He didn't understand.
Initially, the mission he undertook was selfless and justified; the perfect gift for the human he'd become fond of… Now, with him reeling in the aftermath of his own failure, he couldn't find it in him to face her.
Not when he knew that he was occupying the space that should have been Leomon's… But that didn't make it any easier to look into that room and see how empty it was... It didn't make it any easier to see how lonely Juri was.
But those facts didn't give him the strength that he needed to leap from this branch, and knock on that window, and embrace the girl he loved as he'd loved his own Tamers.
He just couldn't.
This self-imposed penance would never cease, he thought. Not as long as he felt guilty for existing solely because of Leomon's sacrifice. In his own way, he'd keep watch over her this way. If there was anything he could do for Leomon at this point, it would be to keep her safe. He owed the lion Digimon that much.
Juri's silhouette shifted, and then drifted away from the window. Just like every other night, the warm, yellowish light was extinguished as she retired to bed. With his keen eyesight, he could see her climbing into bed, pulling the covers over her head.
It was selfish to do this to her, he knew that. With him refusing to show his face and Leomon gone for good, she looked lonelier now than he'd ever seen her before…
Something had to be done… He had to change, to drop this guilt and return to her. His heart called to her each time he saw her, but guilt held him steadfast in a constant state of this shameful cowardice.
With a sigh, he turned to leave…
He froze, and his ears twitched.
His head turned ever so slightly. Silent nights like these only served to amplify any sudden noises, no matter how quiet they would normally be. The sound… It was soft, but from what he could sense, it was close. Very close.
The air wasn't still anymore. He could sense something. Something… Following him.
He sat still for a few more moments, and then decided to make a move. His lithe form moved swiftly through the trees, keeping every foot placement silent. His pursuer was doing the same, and gaining on him quickly. He made a swift decision, switching up his footing and leaping down to the ground below. His feet were only on the ground for a moment before he launched himself skyward once more, now armed with a handful of stones. With fair dexterity, he flung each stone in the direction he sensed his pursuer, dashing backwards through a patch of leaves.
To his surprise, his plan backfired as one of the stones was flung back at him. It only took a split second for the stone to strike him, knock him off balance, and send him tumbling to the ground below. He hit the ground hard on his back, rolling into the trunk of a nearby tree. He groaned out curses as his head throbbed, glaring up at the scant canopy above.
"Why do you do this to yourself, Impmon?" A smooth voice purred from all around him.
His eyes narrowed as he got to his feet. "Why does it matter to you what I do, Fox Face?"
Indeed, Renamon alighted just before him, holding a few of the stones he'd thrown and tossing them into the air absently. "Did you honestly think that disappearing from her life was doing her a favor?"
He didn't answer, his eyes traveling past Renamon's form to a nearby tree. He could make a break for it if he really wanted to…
Renamon took a step forward, and his eyes unconsciously locked with hers. Those piercing sapphire eyes of hers were practically daring him to attempt escape. With a slight whimper, he took a step back. "I've watched you visit her for the past few weeks, Impmon. You do it religiously, every night before she goes to bed."
His eyes faltered. "So you're my stalker now, Fox Face? Didn't know ya liked me that much," he said sourly.
"I like Juri. That's why I'm out here, to try and talk some sense into you."
"Say what you want," he snapped. "Nothin' you say is gonna get me to go back there." He turned to walk away.
"Indeed. It isn't my job to fight your cowardice for you."
He paused, and then glared back at her. "Cowardice…? That's what you think it is?"
"You're hiding from her. Hiding from the fact that what happened, happened. Hiding behind guilt that shouldn't even exist, isolating yourself from those who care about you because of some self-imposed penance… So yes, I'd call that cowardice."
His eyes narrowed. "You act so high and mighty… You always have! You can act like you understand, but you don't, Renamon!"
"I understand guilt, Impmon. But you do not defeat guilt by running away from it. That only invites guilt to pursue you, haunt you, and consume you."
He was silent for a moment. It was true; this little vanishing act of his wasn't improving the level of guilt he felt. If anything, the guilt remained, and became stronger with each visit he paid to Juri's home each night. His shoulders sagged, and he leaned against the tree behind him. "So… You here to take me back?"
"No," Renamon answered coolly. "That choice is yours to make, not mine."
"In case you haven't noticed… I ain't had much luck with choices. Every time I make a choice… Someone ends up getting hurt. That's why… That's why I ran away. That's why I don't want to be around her. I don't want her to get caught up in my mistakes again."
"There are always negative sides to choices, Impmon, that much cannot be denied," she said softly. "But despite all that has happened… I saw you fight to defend the choice you made. You fought to defend Juri, Leomon, and the happiness you wanted them to have. That, in itself, was a very valiant choice." She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Leomon made a choice as well, because he recognized how much you cared for Juri's happiness and how you were willing to risk everything for it. As far as Juri getting hurt… If that's what you fear, then it is even more important for you to be there for her, just in case."
He was quiet for a few moments, possibly letting her words sink in. With a small grin, she leapt up to a nearby lamppost, preparing to leave. "Wait…"
She heard his voice, and gave him a silent, sideways glance.
"You said that you've known about my… little visits to Juri for the past couple of weeks… Why didn't you tell the others where I was if you've known all along?"
She eyed him coyly. "It wasn't my place to tell."
He cocked his head to the side, folding his arms across his chest. "So if you weren't searching for me in order to rat me out, why have you been spying on me all this time?"
Renamon gave him a look that gave him shivers. "You call it 'spying.' I call it 'checking on a friend.' After all… Isn't that what you're doing with her?" Without another word, Renamon vanished from sight.
Impmon stood stunned on the spot, staring down at the ground. Renamon's words had numbed him, lacerating his body with the truths he'd been shielding himself from all this time. He'd been so busy feeling guilty for all this time, he'd forgotten what Juri truly meant to him.
Why had he gone through all this trouble?
Why had he undergone such pain?
Why had he fought so hard?
'For that smile,' he thought to himself. All of this, all of his sacrifices, had been for the girl's smile, the single most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Though all of his work had been for naught in the end, he still remembered that being around him had given her a reason to smile. They cared for each other.
He loved her.
He loved her so strongly, it was almost crippling.
It all made sense now. He'd made these choices, and though they'd turned negative, he still fought for what he desired more than anything: that smile. Leomon had sacrificed himself not to hurt Juri, but to keep her and Impmon together. He squeezed his eyes shut as tears stung them.
He knew what he had to do.
It was around 12:36 am when Juri decided that she couldn't sleep. As warm as her comforter was, as soft and welcoming as her pillow was, she just couldn't drift off.
She rolled over, staring at the blaring red numbers on her clock.
Her mind was a warring squall, keeping her awake with clashing thoughts.
'Give up on him,' some thoughts said. 'He isn't coming back to you.'
'Have faith,' others said. 'He will return.'
'He hates you, that's why he's abandoned you.'
'Keep waiting, you'll see.'
She pulled the pillow over her head in an attempt to muffle these thoughts, but to no avail. Finally, with an exasperated groan, she got out of bed to get some fresh air.
The floorboards creaked slightly with each step she took, her eyes tired and downcast. She'd lost track of how many nights she'd gone without sleep, or rather, how many nights wound up like this. On the one hand, she continued to keep watch for any sign of Impmon each night. She would always tell herself 'tonight will be different. Tonight he'll show up.'
And she'd wait.
When she became weary, she'd be coaxed into bed by those discouraging thoughts. And as much as she hated to think them to herself, each night, she found herself being swayed toward a steadily growing pessimism. She wasn't sure what percent of her mind still remained positive and hopeful, but she did know that it was waning quickly.
She gently nudged a sliding door open, stepping out into the backyard. Everything was so still and serene, and for a few moments, her mind was at ease.
But then came the thoughts.
Those harsh, indignant thoughts.
'Why do you do this to yourself? If he wanted to come back, he would have come back ages ago.' They hissed and snickered in her mind. 'You're a burden to him, that's why he ran away. If it wasn't for you, he wouldn't have experienced so many hardships. He hates you. You'll never see him again. You drove him away. It's all your fault--"
"Stop it!" She startled herself with her sudden outburst, hoping that she hadn't disturbed anyone. She peeked into her home and, not hearing her father and stepmother stirring, let out a breath of temporary relief. It was hard to realize that she was thinking such things. The thoughts blared in her mind like sirens, and she couldn't ignore them no matter what.
However, she knew she couldn't give up on this hope, this faith. Giving up was a trait of weakness, and she wouldn't dare go down that path again. A new determined look came to her face; as much as she missed Impmon and Leomon, she wasn't doing them any good by moping and not taking care of her health. She would continue waiting, but would not let her loneliness consume her. Leomon wouldn't want that.
Impmon wouldn't want that.
Casting one last glance into the night, she turned to enter her home once more…
Was… Someone out there with her…?
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and she suddenly felt too nervous to move. She knew that all she had to do to escape this sensation was step into the house and shut the door, but… Something was telling her to stay there, and not be afraid.
A branch on a nearby tree creaked, followed by a light thump on the ground. Somehow, Juri found the bravery to turn around, and was greeted by two glowing, almost cat-like green eyes…
She knew those eyes.
The small figure came closer, stepping into the moonlight.