Chapter 8: The Hanged Man
-by Ajora Fravashi
*Disclaimer: All I own are videogame carts/CDs, random paraphernalia, and more seashells than you can shake a digimental at. I do not, however, own Digimon.
It was a beautiful day. The winds blowing from the mountains were crisp, cool and scented with just a hint of sun-warmed pines. There were a few fluffy cumulus clouds in a digital azure sky. The disk of pale gold that was the sun hung high above, not too strong but not weak either.
But the sun can become so strong that its heat can wilt trees and bake marshes into wastelands. It can take life as easily as its energy can give it. These thoughts circled in Ken's mind as he sat on a chair he placed between the two airy windows. When the sun becomes too warm, it becomes deadly. He had an idea of why Takeru was doing this, and the thought scared him. He had to do something before Takeru went too far, but somehow he simply felt that there was nothing he could do.
Ken pulled out his D-terminal and thumbed it open. There was mail from Ryo, though it came through only recently and was garbled in the last few paragraphs. An e-mail that came through fragmented? That was rare. He made out what he could though, and what he read made him laugh humorlessly.
Ryo wanted information from him, since he was so close to Takeru. Oh, if only he knew. If only Ryo had even the faintest idea that Ken knew only what Takeru wished for him to know, then the Tamer wouldn't have been so quick to ask him to act as his eyes and ears. With a sigh, Ken deleted the e-mail. He had nothing he could offer to his childhood friend that would be of the slightest interest. And even if he did, would he want to spy on Takeru for Ryo's sake? Was Ryo even aware that he had asked Ken to do something so underhanded?
"Yes, of course he was," Ken muttered in a voice so soft that it was barely audible. "He remembered what I was like as the Kaiser, even if he couldn't interfere and smack me back to my senses. Why not ask that of me?"
Wormmon's right antenna twitched in the midst of slumber, almost as if he had been aware of Ken's words. But as he rolled over the small gap that separated his cushioned wicker basket nest from Nahualmon's, Ken was certain that the arthropod wasn't really conscious. The teenaged boy soon returned to his thoughts.
He was only in a position to make educated guesses, nothing more. Even if he wanted to inform Ryo on the matter, the most he could give were theories. But worry gnawed at him and the longer he thought about it, the more he wondered if letting Takeru proceed like this was a good idea. He didn't want to betray the boy he had become extremely fond of, nor did he want Takeru to do something unforgivable. He simply didn't want Takeru to make the same mistakes he did.
He knew Takeru could be dangerous when driven to righteous wrath, but that anger was stoked so rarely that it was easy to dismiss the blond as a boring choirboy. People were rarely what they seemed to be on the surface. And, given the right stimuli, Takeru could easily become as bad as Ken had been as the Kaiser. Maybe worse. Part of him didn't want to admit to it, but he was too much a realist now to delude himself as he once had. However, Takeru always maintained a somewhat romanticized outlook on life and it wouldn't be too hard for that to be twisted to something dangerous.
Hugging a knee to his chest, Ken mulled over this unpleasant train of thought. Takeru was really nice to him, so patient and understanding. Takeru did many things for him just for the sake of it. And that was before the blond had admitted to having feelings for him that he had mistakenly thought were only for Hikari. It had gotten to the point now where he was beginning to think that he was more than fond of Takeru. Maybe even love. Love was a powerful word that was not to be taken lightly, so he was very cautious in using it. But...
Wormmon let out a great yawn before crawling out of the nests. Several of Nahualmon's lavender feathers had come loose during their nap and now stuck to the creases between one segment of Wormmon's carapace and the other in a fairly comical arrangement. Were Ken in a better mood, he would have laughed at the sight. Wormmon was relatively decent at reading his partner's moods and asked what was wrong.
Ken wasn't sure where to begin or just how to consolidate his insubstantial theories and feelings into something approaching coherency. Regardless of the cacophony of his myriad thoughts, he pressed on the best way he knew how.
It had taken longer than he believed it would. First he went over his feelings for Takeru, as tentative as he was about dropping the word with such power. Wormmon sat through it without comment, though there was a time once when the digimon had felt almost jealous of Takeru for being so important to Ken and readily protested. Thankfully it wasn't that way anymore and Wormmon had come to terms with it. Then Ken brought up what Wormmon had already learned, that there were no virals in the castle other than his own partners. Wormmon was glad that his partner had seen this for himself, but his eyes soon widened in horror when Ken explained why there were no other virii.
"Snails are pests, Ken. They must be eliminated before they destroy the garden."
"Virii are pests, Ken. They must be eliminated before they destroy the garden."
The same line, save for the change of a single word, spoken by two different people who had never encountered each other. One of them was dead, yet the other was alive and even now was showing signs of taking on the dead one's appearance. Could it be that Takeru had taken more than just the dead one's appearance and musical ability?
Wormmon's eyes widened to the size of tea saucers as Ken worked out everything verbally. It wasn't as if Kageko was ever cruel to him or anything, it was just that she believed he was useless. Which he was really, and she had little patience for what she deemed "useless". But the idea of her spirit in Takeru was really creepy and he didn't like it at all. In fact, it downright terrified him. This wasn't natural, even in the Digital World. Then what Ken said next made him want to find a small hole to crawl in and not come out for a very long time.
Sakimoto Kageko had been hit by a Dark Seed in the same battle that Ryo and Ken defeated Millenniumon. She was the first one hit, then Ken saw what was done to Kageko and shoved Ryo out of the way, only to get hit in turn. She had recovered quickly and went back to the real world while Ken was still sick, and was never seen again. Later, when Ken recovered enough to be sent back, he learned that Kageko had been listed as killed by a car wreck in the newspapers. Ken found later, through Ryo's files, that it was not an accident that killed her but a failed attempt to surgically remove the Dark Seed. In the end she had been cremated and any tangible evidence went up in smoke. Ken could only guess that the Dark Seed was still out there, stolen by whomever had left his friend to die. Then years later Takeru had been abducted for several weeks, and there had been no damage that could be found by normal medical investigation. But then, after the initial intrusion by the Dark Seed and the sickness brought about as the body's natural defenses tried to neutralize it, there never was any damage apparent and Ken had the firsthand experience to know this.
It was a long shot, but Ken concluded that Takeru must have the last remaining true Dark Seed. There was no other way Ken could explain Takeru's behavior changes, why Takeru seemed to have inherited Kageko's memories and abilities, or why Takeru was projecting the features of a dead girl he'd never met on himself. The Dark Seed didn't make one truly evil, it simply enhanced its host's abilities and fueled emotions that might otherwise be suppressed in social interactions. With Ken it had taken his insecurities and twisted them in such a way that it induced a form of megalomania and sadism. With it Ken had found refuge in trying to be something he wasn't, and delighted in the escapism.
There was silence as Ken ran into a roadblock in his train of thought. The Dark Seed intensified the darker passions that humankind was capable of and he suspected that this was why Takeru was acting like a self-righteous crusader, but it didn't explain the memories. Ken had always believed that the Dark Seeds were meant to act as an external quine, a self-replication program of Millenniumon's that would feed off the energies and emotions of its host before the entirety of the code was generated and executed. Had the Dark Seed somehow absorbed Kageko's memories before she died? If so, then it would suggest that they were programmed to learn from the host too. Would this suggest that they were capable of some amount of sentience? If so, it would be so easy to place the blame on his behavior on them like he had when he was younger, and he didn't want to be such a coward anymore.
And yet, how was he going to confront Takeru? The Dark Seed did not instill rationality into the host. They were modelled by Millenniumon after all, and the evil god had been far from sane. He really didn't want to fight Takeru, but he didn't want Takeru to make the same mistakes he made either. It was a great dilemma and his heart ached terribly at the thought of making a choice either way.
Wormmon nuzzled at his partner's leg reassuringly. He really didn't like the situation they were in, and was unsure of what to do now. If he and Nahualmon-
"Wormmon, if you and Nahualmon stay, you'll be in danger," Ken said, unaware that he finished Wormmon's thought. "But it might be more dangerous if you leave. Takeru won't hurt you two himself, but the other digimon here might."
"I know." Wormmon's voice quavered slightly with the admission, but he raised himself up slightly in an attempt to be brave. "We'll pull through, Ken. We always have."
Sighing, Ken allowed himself a moment to pat Wormmon on the head. He was completely powerless and didn't like the feeling at all. He never did. But then, admitting to that was just as cowardly as blaming something else for his foul behavior. Wormmon leaned into the touch, taking what comfort he could. Then-
"Do you think you and Nahualmon can find a way out of here?"
Wormmon blinked in surprise at that question. "Probably. Why?"
A tiny, half-hearted smile quirked at a corner of Ken's lips. "Ryo needs information and I'm not in a position to send it to him. But if you and Nahualmon can find your way out of here, you can tell him what I've told you."
"...Oh." Wormmon thought on that for a moment. He had had more than his fair share of squirming around in hidden places, but getting out of here could be tricky. Perhaps if he could find a sewage system or something like that, it would be feasible to escape. What he was going to do with Nahualmon was an issue he would have to deal with once they reached that point. Nahualmon was very vain about its plumage. But then, there had been worse situations that Wormmon had squirmed out of with his carapace more or less intact. "You can count on me, Ken!"
The tiny smile on Ken's face broadened at that. "I know. And Wormmon? Be sure to tell Ryo how you got out. Tell him everything."
"Of course!" Wormmon then turned from his partner to poke at the sleeping feathered reptile until Nahualmon gave an indignant squawk and hopped out of bed.
It took a few moments for Wormmon to explain things to Nahualmon in such a way that the other digimon would understand, but it didn't take as long for Wormmon to plot out their escape route. Incompetent and slow Wormmon may have been in battle, but he always knew ways of squirming out of predicaments that other digimon would never bother to consider. Better to survive with a bruised pride and one's carapace intact than get killed in a battle. Once Wormmon was done, he gave Ken as big a hug as his little forelegs could manage and skittered out of the room with Nahualmon close behind. Thankfully, the knightmon was still sound asleep.
It was raining, an event so typical of Japanese coastal cities that it was of little circumstance. The overcast clouds and lack of sufficient sunlight gave everything a grey tint, as if a picture had been taken of this part of Tokyo with greyscale film. In a way it was appropriate for Hikari's current mood.
She had heard from Miyako, who had told everyone that might have been involved with the Digital World at one point or another, that Takeru and Ken were missing. Then there were the news that some unidentified Chosen Child had gathered the vaccines and sympathetic datas together and was staging a genocide against the viral part of the population. Any involvement by Ken was pretty much ruled out for the simple reason that his own partner was a virus. Then Koushiro had started a campaign to get responses from the international Chosen Children, and what he learned had been told to the others in Japan.
In Russia, Laura and Anna's digimon had disappeared. Much to their distress, they had realized after the fact that their snimon and unimon were very likely to be involved. The report was made by Anna, the only one who had cultivated a tentative handle on the Japanese language. Catherine of France had Takeru's grandfather compose her e-mail, saying that she had gathered reports from all over Europe, and anyone with a vaccine partner said they couldn't contact their digimon at all. Also, a few of the data-type digimon were missing, and any kid with a virus digimon had told their partners to stay in the real world until the genocide was over. The situation was echoed in the Americas, as reported by Chichos and Sam, both who learned Japanese for very different reasons. Sam had become something of an anime fanboy over the years, and Chichos's one-time crush on Ken had bloomed into a long-distance friendship. Mimi, of course, was doing her best to help organize the North American kids. There had never been more than a handful of Chosen Children in the African and Middle Eastern sectors, but the few that existed could only make their reports in Arabic and broken English. Thankfully, the genocide hadn't extended that far in the Digital World, a sentiment that was shared by Dingo and the rest of the Chosen Children in the South Pacific. India's counterpart in the Digital World had yet to be reached as well, but according to one of the Poi brothers, it had taken hold in their region of the Digital World. Yuehon had lost her airdramon's loyalty to the banner of the Three-Edged Sword, a fact that made her report bitter and she demanded that something be done about the upstart responsible for the genocide.
With all the accounts flooding in, there was a need to organize people and chart out the extent of the situation. Koushiro had finally given in and bought a large map of the real world, then printed out a chart he made of the Digital World's geography the moment he wrangled a deal with someone in a poster company that had a printer big enough for the job. With the help of Jou and Miyako, Koushiro had the two charts posted up in his "war room" (technically his bedroom) and stuck red thumbtacks where he could pinpoint definite attacks by the armies of the Three-Edged Sword. It became increasingly obvious that the armies succeeded where others would have failed. The mastermind behind the banner of the Three-Edged Sword was employing battle tactics oddly reminiscent of the Romans, which no single clan of digimon could hope to stand up to. Brute force and sheer numbers would never win this war in their favor. Ken's knowledge of military history would have been an asset, but no one could find Ken and Takeru. It had even been suggested by a few of the international kids that Takeru might be responsible, a notion dismissed as ridiculous by the Japanese Chosen Children. They had known Takeru for so many years that the very idea was immediately ignored. Takeru would never do such a thing!
Hikari sighed as she spared a brief glance at the large clock mounted on the external wall of a department store building. To add to the nagging sensation Hikari had that they might be wrong about Takeru, there were other problems she had to deal with. It had been a very long time since she had the visions, so long that she thought the ability had left her, but then the dreams had started up a few days ago. They weren't normal dreams, but played more like recollections of events she had never experienced herself.
The first had been a memory of fondness, of walking in the rain with only the company of someone she loved very dearly. There was some frustration in the sense that she couldn't find the words to tell this person how she felt, but it was okay for now. There was no rush and they had all the time in the world. The peace between them was timeless and breaking the silence didn't seem necessary. Suddenly the guy stopped and hugged her, much to her surprise, and whispered. "Thanks for listening. It means a lot." And oh, the way her heart fluttered at the feeling of being embraced by him. The moment could not be more perfect.
That dream had bewildered her, for she was certain she had never been through this before. Her love for Takeru was the same as the love she had for her brother, and that never gave her the feeling she had in the dream. Then came the other dreams.
There was a girl in one of them, a girl with hair so white and skin so pale that she could be nothing but an albino. The girl was wearing a sun hat and shades, but they didn't distract much from the brilliant smile on her face. She had her arm hooked with that of the boy Hikari's dream-self was in love with, and said those words that felt like a stab of ice. Hikari's dream-self maintained a rigid composure as she congratulated them, then yanked her little brother along as she sharply turned and stalked away. Stupid of her to think she ever had a chance with him. Of course he wasn't that way.
It was stupid to get close to anyone, her dream-self felt, it was even more stupid to feel that way about a best friend and potentially ruin that friendship by scaring him away. The chance that this friend was gay, or at least bisexual, was infinitesimal. And that was the first clue Hikari had about the identity of the person sending her the dreams. Then another dream, this time about a younger brother that evoked mixed feelings from the dream-self. There was jealousy that the boy was more normal and compassionate than he could ever hope to be, a brother's love strained by the stress of having to work constantly to please others and maintain the status of child genius, frustration over their parents' somewhat negligent behavior towards the brother, concern over his well-being, and disappointment that the brother wasn't fast enough on the uptake. But the boy had promise and could offer their parents what the dream-self never could: a son that wasn't ashamed of their average intelligence and could return their love.
She had cornered the dream-self then, letting her consciousness stir without actually waking until she had enough control to dispel the illusion and manifest an image of herself. Shortly after this, a boy that looked only eleven years old appeared before her. His hair was an untamable mess of lavender and his shrewd blue-violet eyes were framed by gold-rimmed spectacles. A look of surprise briefly crossed his face when she took control of the dream, which was soon masked by a haughty expression that appeared too well practiced.
"I didn't expect your power to be this well developed," the boy stated dryly. He crossed his arms in wariness, a gesture that suggested a natural distrust of others. There was something so familiar about him, but Hikari couldn't quite remember what it was.
Hikari blinked curiously at him before responding in as soothing a voice as she could manage. "I didn't know I still had it."
The boy gave a condescending smirk that was rather annoying, but she was curious about his purpose and put up with it for the time being. "It never deserted you, child of Light. As rebarbative as I find this quandary, I cannot extricate him on my own and you are the only one with sensitivity enough for my needs."
"'Him'? Do you mean the guy in those dreams you sent me?" Hikari was even more curious now and hoped that the boy would explain the reason for his visitation. She didn't want to press on the matter, but...
"Correct. I trust you have at least a modicum of familiarity with him. You are only one of very few who remember that time. To the others, it never happened."
Hikari was normally a very polite girl and generally would not have stared as hard as she did at that moment. But the boy was making no sense whatsoever. And, with the way he carried himself, he did not seem like the type of person willing to explain things without making her feel like she was being an idiot. The blank expression on her face must have been more obvious than she thought, for one of the boy's eyebrows arched as the seconds ticked by.
Then, much to her surprise, he gave a dismissive gesture. "I shall have to elucidate that later. Regardless, it's for your ability and the fact that you still retain the memory others forgot that I sought you out. The poor idiot has gotten himself in trouble again and unless I guide you to him, no one else is going to be able to find him in time. Besides, I do believe you owe it to him."
Suddenly there was a flash of memory. It was from back when she was younger, but it had been from a period she had unconsciously blocked out. She remembered Agumon and someone else breaking down the seal that imprisoned her, Yamato and Jou. He was Taichi's age and had managed to defeat the minion that captured them with the aid of a digimon that wasn't his. The boys had thanked him for breaking them out, but her only concern at the time was Taichi and she had asked him to save her brother. He gave a reassuring grin and, after offering her his word that he'd do his best to find her brother, ran off. No one was supposed to remember him. Not back then. He had saved them all from Millenniumon's minions, but they repaid that with unintentional betrayal. It wasn't supposed to end that way and as the dust settled in the desert over which Moon-Millenniumon's floating continent had collapsed, orders were passed from a Holy Beast to Gennai and Piccolomon that no one had overheard. But it didn't matter, for the memory blocks and hypnotic suggestions were soon set in place. No one was supposed to remember Akiyama Ryo and Millenniumon, and the vast mistakes the Holy Beasts had made in trying to rid the Digital World of Millenniumon.
"The human mind is a surprisingly versatile thing," the lavender-haired boy stated as if in another world altogether. "The Holy Beasts could order memory blocks to be set up, but humans are not digimon. The measures taken to keep the Chosen Children from remembering would have completely wiped the memories of digimon, but only worked temporarily for humans. It was just a matter of allowing the neural pathways to be remapped around the blocks, a natural occurrence for growing children."
It took Hikari a moment to gather her thoughts. "But, you said that to the others it never happened-"
"Because they won't remember. They have no reason to. You, Purity, Knowledge and Hope remember because you were younger than the rest, the blocks didn't affect you as strongly. Additionally, the greater the connection one had with him before the blocks were set in place, the more they remember. Hope remembers less than Knowledge, Knowledge remembers less than Light, Light remembers less than Purity. However, that is not what I am here for. So," the boy started abruptly as he pinned her under a very intimidating stare, "you will help me save him, won't you?"
It was more of an order than a question, but Hikari readily consented anyway. If nothing else, she did try to help when and where she could.
After a few hours of discussing things with the stranger, she found herself out here and waiting for someone of Russian descent to show up. This was proving to be a test of patience, especially since there were so many foreigners milling around Shibuya. Many were tourists looking innocently for landmarks to photograph, but there were a few others in search of underaged schoolgirls willing to put out special services for a few thousand yen. One of those perverts had approached her thinking she was that type of girl, and she had taken to retreating to the shadow of a tree near Hachiko after prying herself away from the scary person to avoid further confrontations.
She was ready to give up and was beginning to make her way towards the Shibuya station when the strains of faint drunken singing drifted to her ears. The voice was rough and male, not very well trained but held passion that wasn't always common in the voices of professional singers. It was in a language she didn't understand, but she tried to make it out from the various conversational voices nonetheless.
"...V pobede velikikh idey kommunizma... Mi vidim gryadutshee nashey strani, I krasnomu znameni slavnoy otchizni... Mi budem vsegda bezzavetno verni..."
"That's what we're looking for," whispered the insubstantial, ethereal boy that stood next to her. His expression was almost owlish as he stared across the sea of people, an impression heightened by the presence of his glasses. "There is a woman who is supposed to meet with him, and she's who we need to follow."
They waited in the sea of people, the girl so unassuming that she blended well with the crowd and the boy was invisible to all without her gift. Amidst the flow of tourists it was easy to pass over both them and the woman they waited for. Then, as if the scene was taken out of an old spy movie, an auburn-haired woman sporting a briefcase and trenchcoat bumped into to the singing man. Briefcases were exchanged with false apologies and they went their separate ways. With only the slightest urging from her otherworldly guide she took to following the woman who bore a resemblance to someone she was well acquainted with. With the vast number of people coming and going it was getting to be somewhat difficult. Then, as she followed the woman to a less populated street, she suddenly found herself without a lead. It was as if the woman had disappeared into thin air and left no trace behind. The non corporeal figure had lost interest in her and disappeared as well. How on earth-
Hikari let out a startled yelp as a hand clamped on her wrist and yanked her into a nearby alley. She would have cried out for help were it not for the arm that had hooked around her neck and threatened to strangle her. Terrified, Hikari could do nothing but shiver and hope help would come.
"Who are you and why are you following me," the woman demanded. Her voice had an odd accent that Hikari couldn't quite place, but she did loosen her hold when she realized that Hikari was just a teenaged girl.
"Yagami Hikari," Hikari managed to get out in a surprisingly calm voice. "I can help you find Ryo."
The woman let her go. Hikari rubbed gingerly at her throat while the woman watched her with almost hawkish blue eyes. Now that Hikari had a closer look, it was obvious where Ryo had inherited most of his features. The eyes, hair, and complexion were remarkably similar, right down to the two locks that dangled over the woman's forehead and had escaped from a tight ponytail. There were the more intangible differences that stood out though, a hardness and distrust in the woman that was absent in Ryo.
"And how is it that you know what Izumi was unable to find out," Mrs. Akiyama asked with every bit as much suspicion as Hikari anticipated.
With a sigh, Hikari fidgeted for a moment before responding. She really wasn't sure what to say. Tell the truth and Mrs. Akiyama would think she was nuts. Lie and if the woman figured it out, she would never be trusted again. But then... "Have you heard from Izumi recently? He lost your number, so I was sent as soon as he found out where to go."
That seemed to be enough, thankfully. Mrs. Akiyama gave a small grunt of acceptance before speaking again. "I see. Where to, then?"
"We'll have to make a trip to the warehouses of Sagacho. The nearest train station to it would be the Monzennakachou station. I hope this isn't a problem."
Mrs. Akiyama's gaze was still uncomfortable in its sharpness, and Hikari had to resist the urge to squirm uncomfortably under it. "How good are you at keeping secrets, child?"
Blinking, Hikari could do little more than try to come up with an answer that wasn't going to sound too suspicious. But only the truth would suffice in this situation. "If you mean about the briefcase exchange, it wasn't very subtle, but I won't mention it to anyone." Then, much to her surprise, Mrs. Akiyama laughed.
"That? My brother was smuggling a gun, not top-secret documents. Trust me, even if I was caught, being in jail would not be a new experience. Now, shall we go?"
Sagacho was something of an enigma. It was a warehouse district near the Tsukiji Fish Market, and once had been home to the Sagacho Shokuryo Building, a seventy-five year old brownstone building that was briefly turned into a contemporary art museum. But, as was the norm in Tokyo's scrap-and-build mentality, all good and old things come to an end. It had been closed down and demolished after twenty years serving as one of the city's most important centers of modern art. In its place stood a condominium high-rise, an aesthetically disappointing replacement for the old but dear European-style warehouse. The atmosphere of the neighborhood had lost its laid-back, artistic quality with its art museum, and the bustle held the weary airs of the rest of the old neighborhoods of the city.
Hikari, more sensitive than most to the shadows of the past, could feel the sense of lost dreams and futile endeavors that permeated the area where the Shokuryo Building once stood. It was depressing and she was relieved when they finally crossed the street to the abandoned warehouse that her ethereal guide had decided to lean against as an indication that this was where they would find Ryo. He certainly had no intention of making this easy for her, and she had to constantly make an act of looking at her D-terminal to keep Mrs. Akiyama from suspecting that something more was going on.
"There are three locks that will offer some vexing hindrance," the boy stated in a rather bored tone. "I would advocate the use of a crowbar or similarly shaped piece of metal to take care of them. He's locked up in what used to be a supervisor's office, and the woman who confined him will prove intransigent. Are you prepared?"
It took a moment for Hikari to figure out what the more obscure words meant, but she relayed the boy's message when she did. Mrs. Akiyama, thinking it had been an e-mail from Koushiro, didn't look up from her task of putting together the pistol and silencer that had until recently been swaddled in red silk and stuffed in the briefcase.
"7.62 mm Tokarev TT33," the woman muttered idly as she pushed bullets into the magazine. "Standard Red Army fare. Eight rounds should be more than enough, don't you think?" With that, the gun's magazine was set into place with an ominous click.
Hikari had always been somewhat uncomfortable with the thought of violence. When push came to shove she would rather try and make peace. However, there were times when peace was not an option, and she was beginning to suspect that this might end up as one of them. Then there was the question: should she ask Mrs. Akiyama to save it for a last resort, or let the woman handle it herself? It wasn't Hikari's fight, really, she was simply here to act as messenger. But-
"Don't fret, I've no intention of blowing anyone's head off unless they ask for it," Mrs. Akiyama offered as reassurance. "This is simply a safety measure." Then, silently, Mrs. Akiyama slipped into the sheltering darkness within the abandoned warehouse.
The air within was musty and stale, leaving Hikari to wonder how long ago the warehouse had been shut down and why hadn't it been demolished yet. She could practically taste the dust in the air, and it was starting to irritate her. The beams of light that streamed in from between aged boards offered some relief from the darkness and helped her follow Mrs. Akiyama's pace. It wasn't long before they came to the first obstacle: two doors that had been locked from the inside.
Much to Hikari's surprise, something cylindric and metallic was pressed into her palm.
"Flashlight," Mrs. Akiyama stated with an amused tone of voice. "Point the beam at the doorknob on the right, will you? Try not to make any sudden moves and do keep your head down."
"Of course." Hikari fumbled a bit with the flashlight before finding the switch. A pale beam soon shot forth from it and, with some adjustment, fell upon the locked doors. In the darkness she could hear the woman pace away from the doors, then pause. Then there was the sound of a loud cough, shortly followed by the splintering impact of lead on wood. Without ceremony, Ryo's mother stepped up to kick at the right door. This was the last action needed to loosen the damaged locks and the doors swung open with little encouragement.
The next obstacle was a similarly locked door on the way to the elevator that would lead to the top floor. It was dealt with in the same manner as the last and they had little trouble getting the elevator to work. It was surprisingly well-maintained, leaving Mrs. Akiyama to voice her suspicions that this warehouse had been intentionally spared from demolition due to underworld dealings. It all felt like something out of a movie, and the tension settled into the pit of Hikari's stomach like a hefty lump of cold lead. Finally, the elevator jolted to a halt and the two prepared to exit it.
But the elevator's doors would not part.
Hikari blinked in surprise as she watched Mrs. Akiyama try to force the doors apart. She didn't know what the words meant, but there was little doubt in her mind that they were expletives. They should have gotten a crowbar like the boy suggested.
"-Can't shoot at it, the bullet would ricochet. Doesn't seem like it can be forced." The older woman sighed as she stepped back and took a moment to consider the options. "Honestly, I don't see how we can get out of this without doing damage to ourselves."
With no desire to comment, Hikari pondered the situation. There were no metal railings, so they couldn't detach one and use it as a lever. There was nothing strange about the keypad used to punch in the floor numbers. It was just a normal keypad, a little advanced for the time when this building was commissioned, but perfectly normal otherwise. Three floors and a basement, that was it. Oh yes, and that little panel that could be pulled aside to call for help in case of an emergency. Hey, wait...
It was Mrs. Akiyama's turn to be surprised when Hikari knelt to open the panel to the help phone. It was as they suspected: a simple little red phone housed in the metal of the elevator's casing. Refusing to be deterred, Hikari pulled the phone out of its resting place and looked at the surface underneath. Nothing at all was there that would offer a hint as to how to to get out of here. Hikari's shoulders slumped as she realized that there was nothing to help them out.
Mrs. Akiyama took the red phone from her hand and examined it closely. Then, without a word, unscrewed the speaker's grate and held up the phone to Hikari's eyes. The grate had been hiding a simple little button that was buried by wires.
"How did you...?"
"You're not the only one who has seen a lot of spy movies," the older woman said with a smirk. She then pulled the phone close to clear away the insulated wires and pressed the button. Soundlessly the elevator doors parted and then stopped, leaving a gap with the span of several centimeters. It was just enough to slip the long flashlight's shaft through. Mrs. Akiyama used her flashlight to widen the gap, but it was only wide enough to allow Hikari passage. Hikari was, after all, the smaller and slimmer of the two. With a quick "thanks," Hikari struggled though the gap to find something long enough to widen it so that Mrs. Akiyama could pass through. This floor, unlike the place where they had entered, was unusually clean and free of the dust of years. She found what she needed in the form of a crowbar propped up against a doorjamb down the hallway. And standing beside it was the phantasmic figure.
"Did I not advise that you find a crowbar before you two started here? Do heed my words, for you might not be so fortunate next time."
Hikari was beginning the process of responding when he disappeared again. This was getting to be quite frustrating. It took only a moment to pick up the crowbar and retrace her steps to the elevator. Mrs. Akiyama accepted the crowbar, wedged the tip between the layers of the right door and pushed against it. The gap widened further, and once it passed the span of fifty centimeters, the doors opened the rest of the way on their own.
The two stalked silently towards the door where Hikari had found the crowbar, then paused long enough for Mrs. Akiyama to release the safety lock on her pistol again before moving on. To their surprise, this door was not locked. Perhaps whomever had locked the previous doors did not see a reason to repeat the action on this due to the nature of the elevator. It was convenient, however, and Mrs. Akiyama's steady hand eased the doorknob to the left until the bolt soundlessly retracted and allowed them entry.
Slumped against the opposite wall with his wrists and ankles tied was Ryo, who looked so pale and ill in the harsh white light that bore down upon him. Kneeling beside him with a small glass of water in hand was a gaunt, hawkish-looking woman whose tightly bunned hair only furthered the impression of severity.
"Come on, Oshiro. Call me 'Mommy' and I'll let you have a drink, okay," the woman crooned softly at the boy. She stroked Ryo's hair as she spoke with claw-like fingers. "Be a good boy for Mommy, Oshiro."
Hikari felt nauseous as she watched the deranged scene before her and was certain that Mrs. Akiyama was feeling the same way. She was briefly startled as Mrs. Akiyama's left arm stretched out and cocked the silenced pistol.
"Poslushay ty, mudack," Mrs. Akiyama shot out as she steadied her gun with her right hand. "Listen! Step away from him and I may spare you."
Yoshitaka Reiko glanced up, stunned for a moment. She quickly recovered her wits and drew herself up. She was an average height for an Asian woman, but her clothes hung off of her thin frame as if on a hanger. "Can't you allow a mother to grieve?"
Mrs. Akiyama gave a disgusted snort. "Ty mne van'ku ne val'ay! This isn't grief, this is an attempt to inflict Stockholm Syndrome on my son. You understand that as well as I do. Now untie him, pizda!"
The gaunt woman gave what sounded like a sigh of resignation and reached into an inner pocket of her business suit's blazer. Then, faster than either of them could see clearly, whipped out a pistol of her own and aimed it at Ryo's head. Hikari's heart leapt in dread, but slowly settled when it was evident that Mrs. Yoshinaka wasn't going to fire quite yet. She didn't dare move.
"Idiot, he's so drugged and delirious from dehydration that he wouldn't recognize you. Get out of here," she snarled. "Leave us or I'll shoot. You wouldn't want that, would you, bitch?"
Hikari looked up slowly and noticed the pained look on Mrs. Akiyama's face. The arm that held up the gun was visibly shaking. The tables have been turned.
One's perspective of time is subjective. What was probably only a few seconds seemed to stretch on for an eternity. So it seemed to Hikari, who could count off all the events in the span of a few heartbeats.
Doki, Mrs. Akiyama's pistol lowered and with a smug grin, Mrs. Yoshinaka's did as well.
Doki, Mrs. Akiyama's arm shot up again with almost lightning speed and she only had half a second to aim.
Doki, two shots from two different guns. Two cracks of metal on bone and flesh. Two wounds. Two screams of pain. Two blood splatters on the walls.
Doki. The clatter of a gun on the floor tiles. A faint thud as Mrs. Yoshinaka clutched her shattered wrist close and collapsed on the floor. She would never have use of that hand again.
Mrs. Akiyama tossed aside her pistol in the rush to check on Ryo. And, despite Mrs. Yoshinaka's attempts on Ryo, Hikari dashed forth to tend to the woman's wound. With nothing else available, she tore the hem of her skirt until she had enough material with which to bandage and slow the bleeding.
"The mandavoshka just hit him in the shoulder, thankfully," Mrs. Akiyama muttered. She pulled out a Swiss Army knife and began cutting at the ropes that bound her son. "We're lucky her gun has a skewed barrel. Never trust weapons made in China."
With an absent nod, Hikari finished tying the bandage in place. She pointedly ignored the foul-mouthed grumblings of the gaunt woman and the threats of retaliation. People could be so ungrateful when help was offered without strings attached. Then, much to her surprise, Mrs. Akiyama reached over to whack her gun hard against the back of Mrs. Yoshinaka's head. The woman slumped forward, unconscious.
"What was that for?"
"She wouldn't shut up. Ungrateful pizda. No one appreciates random acts of kindness anymore." Mrs. Akiyama wiped away a bead of nervous sweat before pulling out the most slender blade in the pocket knife. She then cut away the portion of the red sweater before pausing to examine the wound. "The bullet is just lodged into the bone, not very deep. Hikari, could you leave us for a moment?"
"Be careful," Hikari whispered. When she had Mrs. Akiyama's assurance, she silently left the room.
Outside the office door, the boy was leaning against a parallel wall. He had been waiting for her.
"Not bad, even if you didn't listen to me," the boy began, then paused as a particularly sour look crossed his face. "Thank you."
Hikari couldn't find the heart to respond immediately. With the way the boy was acting, it didn't seem that he was used to thanking people for anything. But, she did have to be polite. "You're welcome."
The boy looked away, clearly uncomfortable with something. Hikari was tempted to ask him about it and hopefully help out if she could, but-
"I suppose I should depart now-"
The outburst startled both of them, and both because they didn't think Hikari had it in her. The boy gave a wry half-smile and settled back against the wall. "Yes?"
"Who are you? Why are you here?"
He sighed and crossed his arms. "The ineluctable truth of the matter is that I don't exist. Not here and now, anyway. I am no longer of this world."
"You're a ghost," Hikari asked in as delicate a manner as she could. She worried that it might upset him, but there was little else she could think of.
"No, not quite." The boy paused as he considered just how to explain his situation. "Funny thing, time. If someone goes back and alters it, an entirely new reality spins off from the original one. If the change is too different, these exist as parallel worlds. If the change is miniscule, time fixes itself and the realities collapse back together. People may remember events differently, but the end result is the same nonetheless. In the other timeline, he aided me and I took on a new life. This splintered into my version of reality, but because I made no effort to extricate myself from self-imposed exile, the timelines collapsed together. I don't exist anymore, except in this evanescent form. I assure you, it's very frustrating."
They were silent again, neither willing to touch back on the subject. Hikari felt very sorry for him, but could offer no words of comfort. He would dismiss them anyway.
"At least I get to observe my subjects without being noticed," he said with a factitious smirk. With a quick "farewell," he strode down the corridor and disappeared in the darkness.
Two large mamon, hulking beasts that stank to the heavens but were indispensable if one wanted heavy lifting done, lumbered up the single path towards the castle of the Segfault Mountains. Bound to their harnesses were sturdy nylon straps that were attached to the wagon they dragged behind them. This wagon's cargo were the spoils of war sharing space with the technology stolen from the houses of the departed members of the Gennai Order. They paused before the great iron portcullis and trumpeted their return. With the creaking of heavy chains wrapping around wooden spools, the portcullis was slowly drawn up to allow them passage.
A black shadow darted from within the wagon and into the castle's shadows. The Lord Regent paid this little attention as he addressed the two mamon and their revolvmon driver, certain that it was Libra. She had been a necessity in locating all of the abandoned residences, and had probably taken it upon herself to oversee the acquisition of material goods. He thanked them for bringing him everything, and directed the wagon towards the courtyard to be unloaded.
Something padded up to his side and gave a respectful nod in place of a bow. "Lord Regent, shall I see to the acquisitions and make sure that everything goes to its proper place?"
Takeru thought on that. This large, cat-like digimon was relatively new to his ranks, but had so far proven loyal to the cause. There was no harm in letting the creature handle something so small. "Very well. But that," he said, pointing to a glass and metal construct, "I want that in the most secure part of the castle. I'm sure you know where."
The vaccine-type digimon gave a toothy smile, affected by Takeru's own good mood. He called out his farewell as Takeru went back into the castle and began ordering the jagamon and hanumon teams to unload and organize the wagon's stock.
With nothing else in his way or demanding his attention, Takeru trotted up to his apartment within the keep. Hopefully the hanumon teams would be quick to set up his little case, but for now he wanted to be with Ken. Despite the sheer size of the palace, it didn't take him more than a few minutes to make it to the door that led to the royal apartment. The knightmon guard straightened as soon as he appeared and gave a good-natured greeting. Although he was suspicious that the knightmon had been sleeping on the job, Takeru returned the gesture and entered the apartment.
It was eerily silent. He couldn't hear Nahualmon's warbling or the voices of either Wormmon or Ken, and this instantly set off alarms in his head. Worry began gnawing at his gut as he checked room after room to find the three of them. Every room was unoccupied. Every one, except...
The last place Takeru looked was in the large bed, which was so still that he almost overlooked it. But buried under the covers and quilts, as if he was trying to hide from the world, was Ken. With a sigh of relief, Takeru stepped delicately towards the bed in hopes that he wouldn't disturb Ken's sleep. The digimon were probably asleep too.
Takeru paused when he heard his name whispered, then sighed. So much for sneaking up on Ken. With a tiny smile of fondness, he sat on the bed. His fingers gingerly brushed the hair away from Ken's face and lingered on the smooth skin. "Yes, Ken?"
A faintly pained look passed over Ken's face. It was brief, but stayed there long enough for Takeru to notice it. Takeru was tempted to ask about it, but Ken responded before he had the chance.
"Please don't do anything you'll regret. Don't end up like me."
Perturbed, Takeru pulled his hand away and placed it over Ken's, which were draped over each other across his chest. He squeezed them lightly and his worry mounted as he realized how cold those fingers were. "You don't have to concern yourself over such things, Ken. Everything is going according to plan. Just relax until it's all over, okay?"
Ken's right hand rose to lace his fingers with Takeru's. He gazed into his boyfriend's eyes, as if trying to make a silent appeal that he couldn't quite fit into words. Talking sense into Takeru this late in the proceedings would never work and he certainly had experience to know this well. But the least he could do was try. "Takeru, I'm saying this because I care too much about you to let you set yourself up for such a fall. Please, just let it all go. It's not worth it."
"How much do you know," Takeru asked, though he was beginning to suspect that Ken knew more than he was letting on. When Ken looked away, Takeru simply shook his head. "Nevermind. It's not as bad as you think, Ken. For the garden to be pure, a few weeds and pests must be removed. I'm just playing the gardener."
Takeru leaned in to lightly kiss Ken's forehead, unaware of the pain that Ken was hiding from him when he did so. "Because I love you. Because every enemy we have fought has been viral. Because I don't want you to be in danger ever again."
Ken closed his eyes and fought the urge to cry. It was going to happen all over again, but to Takeru instead of him. And Takeru's reasons were because of him. He was indirectly responsible for what was going on outside the castle walls. It was a painful realization.
Silently Takeru gave Ken's cheek one last caress before he waved someone into the room. "I think it's best you sleep through this. I really don't want you to worry. It'll be okay."
A glance at the doorway revealed a bakumon waiting patiently for the order. Ken resigned himself to his fate. He had done what he could without stoking the ire of the boy he loved, and it had failed. Any further attempts would also fail. He did not resist when Takeru kissed him again and stepped back to let the bakumon breathe an ether-like smoke over him. He was certain that Wormmon would get word out in time. There was nothing else he could do now.
Takeru was torn. He really hadn't wanted to do this, but he would rather have Ken asleep through the war and unaware of what was really going on. At the very least, it should be over soon and Ken wouldn't be in the stasis pod for long. He dismissed the bakumon once she was done and squared his shoulders. It would be okay. He was doing the right thing. It was for Ken's own good.
A couple of penmon waddled into the apartment's common room with a netted bundle dragged between them. They waited patiently for his acknowledgement before speaking.
"We found this wandering around," the first penmon said, gesturing to the bundle of lavender feathers and scales with his wing. "What should we do with it?"
There was an indignant squawk as the second penmon poked at the bundle. Takeru recognized it instantly. If Nahualmon had gotten out, then Wormmon had probably done so too. "Was there another with it? A wormmon?"
The two penmon simply shook their heads. "This one was all we could find. Should we search for the wormmon?"
"Yes. I'd like him back alive. Don't hesitate to search every centimeter of the castle. As for Nahualmon..." Takeru paused as he tried to consider the options. He would prefer to have Nahualmon deleted, but data in the Digital World had a way of coming back. And letting Nahualmon go would be like offering someone a bloodhound to track Ken. Perhaps the glass and metal stasis pod could hold two. "Please find a hanumon or two, could you? It's time to activate my newest acquisition."
Ajora: This was twice as long as it should have been, but at least I covered everything I wanted to in this chapter. The next card, whenever I get around to it, is Justice. Also, why so much Russian in this chapter? The Japanese are normally a very polite people and Mrs. Akiyama likely would never have learned how to curse so colorfully in Japanese.