A/N: I don't own Digimon.
Leaving behind the dark, troubled skies, Takato Matsuki wearily stepped through the well-concealed blast door with a laconic Guilmon at his side. As the massive block of solid metal slowly ground its way closed and began the lengthy, noisy process of engaging its many locks, the grown Tamer let out a superficially relieved breath. Today's patrol had been quiet, but such a tense operation was nearly as hard on Takato's ragged nerves as a full blown battle; you could never tell when you might be about to breathe your last while stalking through the city's deserted bones.
It felt good to be back in a relatively secure position.
When the last lock cycled into place with a loud thunk, and the final stragglers of Takato's reconnaissance team disappeared down the dimly lit hall of cracked concrete, the former gogglehead slowly made his way down the narrow passageway. Though it might not look like much on the surface, this was one of the strongest safe houses in the area—and, as de facto headquarters for this particular cell of the X Faction, such defenses were quite necessary.
But… there was a sickly sense to the air that Takato perceived quite clearly as his footsteps quietly echoed against the concrete walls. The fear of discovery, and the grimly anticipated loss of what life there was to be had in this worn out refuge, permeated the stale air. No amount of fan-induced circulation with the atmosphere aboveground could get rid of this sour tang, and Takato's listless stride faltered for a moment as another wave of it washed over him. The Tamer knew it would only worsen as he went further down, but the prospect of reaching his bunk was too much for the fatigued young man to ignore.
Besides, there was nowhere else to go.
At his partner's side, Guilmon's dull yellow eyes seemed to reflect a similar internal battle before the back-breaking weight of the Digimon's exhaustion won out over his instinctive revulsion. Years before, the Reptile Rookie would likely have commented unhappily on the fetid state of the air he was breathing. Now, there was no point to even a token complaint.
After nearly a minute of silent walking, the pair reached the long flight of stairs that had been built in lieu of a moving transport. Less noise and fewer moving parts meant a lower chance of detection by forces on the surface, so elevators this close to the entrance had been disregarded as a needless security risk. Having to walk down the distance of seven stories did nothing to improve Takato's melancholy mood, however. Although his team, by now already halfway down the tight steps, was beginning to loosen up and even crack a few off color jokes to each other in tired, hushed tones, the Tamer and his partner maintained their stolid silence.
There was really nothing for them to say anymore.
When they had at last conquered the mind-dulling descent, Takato and Guilmon, as one, turned to face the wall on their left with stony expressions.
A large plaque, engraved with nearly half a hundred tiny names, had been mounted there by Takato himself some months previously. The hand-built cenotaph was suitably plain—almost utilitarian in its simplicity of design—and would likely have been passed over thoughtlessly by Tokyo's sensation-hungry populace almost a decade ago, but Takato's attention was, as always, mercilessly arrested by the precise, compact shape of each of the letters in those forty-seven names.
Although Takato had meant the plaque as a respectful, sorrowful tribute, it had become a thing of cold, raw reminders. Reminders of fragile candle flames snuffed out in a heartless storm that innocence and blind hope had not been able to hold back.
The worst part of it all was the vast, empty space left for the inclusion of new and memorable names. The latest had been added just last week.
When Takato's eyes began to sting and prickle, he finally turned his back on the electrum-plated slab of wild cherry wood. With Guilmon following faithfully behind, the Tamer quickly pounded on the metal door that separated him from the actual shelter, just a little over ten feet away from the dreadful cenotaph.
Looking up at the dark camera mounted above the door, Takato stated, in a hoarse voice, "Crimson Mode."
Today's password had been chosen, no doubt, for the sense of optimism that the name and being had always inspired within the Tamers; after all, Gallantmon Crimson Mode had always turned the tide whenever he made an appearance. This sentiment, after the telling of enthusiastic stories and the witnessing of Gallantmon's many incredible battles in his normal form, had gradually bled over into the rest of the cell.
A dark, bitter part of Takato thought of it all as a bad joke. He and Guilmon hadn't ascended to Crimson Mode in nearly six years. And if they were to happen to do so today, they would probably throw their lives away in a desperate attempt to end the eternal stalemate that was running the world ragged.
Not that a single being could do much in this global cold war.
A solid chunk broke through the Tamer's gloomy musings. The door was unlocked and now swinging outwards slowly. The grimy face of an exceptionally bright-eyed girl of about seventeen peered out at Takato before breaking into a small grin.
"Trailing behind?" she asked impishly, standing aside to allow the pair to pass.
To this day, Takato simply did not understand how Suzie Wong had ever managed to keep a hold of the cheerfulness that had characterized her as a young girl.
Forcing his muscles into the semblance of a smile—and the Tamer relievedly noticed that doing so seemed to lift his spirits a little, if only for a moment—Takato stepped through and answered, "Just taking my time."
Suzie's eyes dimmed slightly as she sensed the melancholy mood hanging about the older Tamer. Though she didn't display any obvious pity—no one she knew liked being the target of such a thing these days—her tone softened into considerate empathy. "The food in the cafeteria is still warm. Dinner was late today." Injecting a little spirit into her grin, she added, "Ai was daydreaming about the new guy from Kyoto, Takeru, and she started burning the food."
Mako Suzuki's name was on the plaque, two columns to the left and seven lines above Riley's.
Swallowing the lump suddenly growing in his throat, Takato murmured, "Thanks," and brushed past. He didn't think Suzie minded; a glance at a reflective computer console nearby showed him Suzie greeting Guilmon happily. Guilmon, on his part, perked up a little as the teenager scratched him behind the ears.
Figuring that his partner would find his own way to dinner soon enough, Takato took a moment to glance around the control room. Glowing monitors flashed intermittently as
information streamed across them, while nine or ten different pairs of eyes carefully observed the data and quietly commented on it all to each other.
Five of the beings in the room were partner-less Digimon; three of them held the X-Antibody.
It was, however, a haggard human face that the young man paid the most attention to. And, as though sensing Takato's regard, the figure's dark eyes alit on the Tamer's uncertain expression.
"Takato," the man said in a low voice that cracked near the end.
The former Head of Hypnos looked little better than he had days ago. Nursing Riley through her illness over the past few months had taken more out of him than he was willing to admit.
And his grief at her passing had not been alleviated in the slightest.
Despite the grayish tinge to his skin, Yamaki had forced himself back into his usual routine, as though to drown his pain in the demanding workload. Henry, the technical leader of the cell, had been unable to convince the man to take some time for himself, having only received an empty, burned out look in response to the Tamer's suggestion.
Out of respect for Yamaki, Henry had not asked again, although everyone involved knew that the man was nearing his breaking point.
Back in the present, Takato hesitated. Though each of the cell's twenty-seven members was intimately familiar with sorrow and despair, the former gogglehead remained unsure of how to interact with those who were still gripped within the deepest depths of those dark wells.
Yamaki had noticed this, and he absently pulled his old sunglasses over his bloodshot eyes, despite the dim lighting. Drawing a breath, he asked, in a resolutely steady tone, "Anything to report?"
Takato winced slightly before subconsciously straightening his back and raising his chin. "Not today," he said, turning his mind over to the calm, detached place he had built up for conducting business of this sort. In a way, he had to just to keep the wrongness of it all from getting to him.
It just wasn't right for Tokyo to be a ghost town, even if that much hadn't changed since Takato's eighteenth birthday.
Upon hearing the Tamer's short summary, Yamaki nodded slowly. Takato could tell that the wearied and weak man was wrenching his attention towards the information… or rather, the lack thereof.
"What about… did you hear from any of the outer settlements?" he asked, momentarily stumbling over his words and inciting a sympathetic twinge in Takato.
Drawing his own focus back, the Tamer replied, "Just a few standard green lights from Lowtown, the Terrace, and Orchard."
Yamaki's gaze sharpened behind his shades temporarily subsiding into a more distant world of thought. "That's good news, I suppose."
Takato shrugged slightly, indicating his cautious optimism. "And add that to a lack of movement from the other side here in Tokyo…"
"And it might indicate a trend." Yamaki's fingers made an odd flicking motion, and it took Takato little more than a second to place it. Although the older man's lighter had been lost a while back, the habitual act of flipping its lid back and forth had still not yet disappeared entirely.
After a few moments of silence between them, Yamaki sighed and removed his sunglasses before rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Hopefully something more solid than speculation comes in soon. We can't trust to hope," he said, his voice breaking from exhaustion halfway through. Grimacing, Yamaki sank into a nearby chair and let his head fall into his hands, looking utterly drained of all his energy. Perhaps even his life force.
His heart twisting at the wretched sight that this made, Takato made to speak twice before he finally managed to get the words out. "Yamaki… you can't… you can't do this to yourself. It's still fresh, I know, but it'll… eat you up…" He trailed off quietly, feeling like a hypocrite.
Yamaki barely acknowledged the Tamer's words with a glance that took long seconds to focus on the younger man. It was another few moments before the former head of Hypnos registered the sincere emotion behind the statement. After a drawn out, rattling breath, Yamaki slowly nodded. "I think… maybe, you're right."
Several heads surreptitiously turned at this quiet admission, and more than one person in the room allowed himself a hidden smile of relief.
Making to push himself out of the chair with his limp arms, Yamaki said labouredly, as he tried to stand, "I could do with some sleep…"
It didn't take more than a moment for a younger cell member to appear at Yamaki's side and support him; Takato also moved to grasp the man's other arm, but Yoshiko, who had been with the cell since its inception, shook her head and smiled gently.
Seeing as the young woman—just a few years Takato's elder—appeared to have things under control, the Tamer nodded gratefully. As the pair slowly made their way to the living quarters, Takato said softly, "Rest well, old friend."
Turning his head slightly, Yamaki gave a drowsy nod of thanks. Yoshiko tossed a reassuring wink over her shoulder as she carefully guided the older man to his room and some much needed sleep.
Taking a moment to humbly acknowledge the pleased expressions the other cell members graced him with, Takato set off again, feeling a little lighter than before. Unbeknownst to him, his embarrassed shrug was, as always, taken as a sign of moral fiber, and respectful eyes marked the Tamer's departure.
And so, it was with a carefully schooled expression of gloominess that Takato stepped into the cafeteria. He didn't think anyone would notice if they didn't watch him closely, but… what did it matter anyway?
Dinner for today was miso soup. Although he wasn't in the mood for this particular dish—and the blackened bread sitting at the buffet style counter did not appear very appealing, either—Takato reluctantly ladled out a bowl and silently looked for a place to sit.
The safe house was compact enough that there was not a great deal of room for all twenty-seven resistance fighters, so they had been forced to make the most of the space they had. One of the natural results of this was a dining area small enough that it was best if most everyone ate in shifts. Currently, three of the five small tables were still occupied…
…though Henry Wong sat by himself next to the wall, his steady gaze fixed on the papers and the PDA scattered around his dirty bowl and half-empty glass.
Smiling slightly, Takato carefully navigated his way across the tiny room, managing to slide into an empty chair across from his friend with no mishaps. Henry, noticing his fellow Tamer, quirked a small grin in greeting.
"Hi, Henry." Being mindful of the paper sheets spread across the table, Takato blew gently on the soup before realizing that it was cool enough not to need his help. "So, how's the leg today?" the former gogglehead asked as he tasted his first spoonful.
Henry shrugged in response. "Better than yesterday. Jyou figures I might be able to start laying off my medications within the next month. We just got the last few pieces of shrapnel out this morning."
Though his face had momentarily scrunched up at the bland taste of the miso, Takato quickly pulled on a smile. "That's great," he said before taking a sip of water.
Inclining his head, Henry replied, "Well, I'll never get the full range of motion back, but I'm definitely looking forward to a real lack of pain." As he spoke, the Tamer absentmindedly kneaded the meat of his right leg with the palm of his hand; the leg was outstretched to the side of the table, and Takato could tell that his friend was taking real pleasure in the idea of the limb being less of an obstacle to him.
Shaking his head, Takato mused aloud, "How long has it been, anyway?"
"About a year and a half. Terriermon's almost happier than I am; he's been really restless, working so close to base. I'd say he can't wait to get back to Mega."
"Hope you two haven't lost your touch," Takato said with a little more truth to his jest than he would have liked.
Henry waved a hand dismissively, though his eyes were momentarily shadowed by both concern and a fresh flicker of pain. "…I wouldn't worry about it," the Tamer soon supplied, bringing back a relaxed expression to his face. "Besides, even if we have, I've been doing some good work around here. Going over intelligence reports, planning missions and coordinating with other cells… I've got something to fall back on in case I'm not up for field assignments."
Takato winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean to imply that you'd be dead weight or anything if…"
Chuckling, Henry cut him off. "That's just like you, Takato. Always apologizing for something you didn't mean."
"Old habit. It's sort of a leftover from the days when I constantly put my foot in my mouth. But I guess that hasn't stopped, either."
Several minutes passed as Takato slowly ate his lukewarm meal, while Henry turned his attention back to the paperwork surrounding him. Takato was surprised to notice that his friend was steadily writing on the creamy white sheets with a short pencil while occasionally consulting his PDA.
At last, when Takato had nearly finished his meal, he asked, around a small bit of chewy bread, "What're you working on?"
Henry glanced up. "It's a little project I started recently." Laying down the pencil, the Tamer turned around the paper he had been working on so Takato could review it.
After a moment, the former gogglehead said, "It looks like an outline for something."
"An account of everything that's happened since J-Day." Leaning back in his chair, Henry's face took on a distant quality. "I've got the framework set out for a lot of it. I'm going to go over the appearance of the X-Antibody in the Digital World… the ensuing prejudice and escalating violence… the human-Digimon alliances… and the surprise attacks that kicked off this whole mess."
Takato's expression didn't outwardly change, though he felt a reflexive jerk of sadness as he remotely viewed a series of memories corresponding with each of the points Henry had
mentioned. "…any particular reason you're disturbing those old ghosts?" he eventually asked, unsure of what else to say.
"…it's the right thing to do." The resolute tone of his friend's voice caused Takato to sit up in surprise. Henry, meanwhile, continued evenly, "History has to be told someday. And you know what the other sides would say if they had the chance."
Takato frowned as his grip on his spoon tightened. "They'd pass off genocide as the weeding out of monsters and weak data. It'd be the same from either the humans who fear Digimon, or the Digimon who despise the X-Antibody and everything it stands for."
"Exactly." Then, Henry sighed quietly. "Besides… writing it all down is a good way of confronting the past inside my head… and my heart."
The next half hour was spent in contemplative silence. Henry returned to his work of careful literary planning, while Takato stared off into space, lost in his own thoughts. Others came and went, with Guilmon among them. Upon noticing the reticent air hanging about the pair by the far wall, however, the rest of the visitors to the cafeteria kept a quiet distance; no one was incline to disturb the two Tamers, whom they all looked up to with nearly reverent expressions.
When Takato's eyelids began to droop, he quietly bade Henry goodnight and gradually padded his way back to his room. A distant corner of his mind noted that he had about eight hours of sleep available to him before he would leave on another lengthy patrol. The rest of him was too caught up in his web of conflicting emotions to care how much or how little rest he got.
After pushing the door of his sparsely decorated quarters closed behind him, Takato strode the seven feet to the clean bed shoved up against the back wall. After sinking down onto the rich quilt covering the lumpy mattress—the quilt was one of the few luxuries afforded to the Tamer—the weary young man's crimson eyes inexorably slid over to the framed pictures propped up on the plain dresser in front of him.
The faded photographs spoke of a happier time; you didn't live in the present day without instantly recognizing that. Images of a green park and various combinations of the same grinning teenagers were the most abundant: the Tamers in the prime of their untarnished youth, untouched by true war and desperation.
There were other pictures, of course. Family and friends, all scattered throughout the assortment of still images… but one particular photo stood prominently among the others.
Takato and Jeri were sitting at the edge of a fountain in the middle of the city. The cascading water was casting a glorious rainbow in the misty air behind them; the colors in the snapshot had dulled over time, but it was easy to imagine how rich they had once been in real life.
They were both eating ice cream. Jeri was smiling widely as she licked the top scoop; a thin dribble of melted chocolate was visible, sliding down the cone between her fingers. Takato's face, in contrast, held a surprised expression; he hadn't been expecting the camera flash. But once he had seen the developed photo, he had immediately framed it and proudly displayed it on the wall of his old bedroom.
They both looked so… content. So happily ignorant of the things to come that it was painful for Takato to look at the scene. It was like a thorny rose that heartlessly cut its holder's fingers, but still held an inescapable beauty within it that made it impossible to let go.
Sitting next to the photo was a plain golden band, its gleam dulled by the merciless passage of time. Takato had once worn it on his left hand, and he had often smiled in dazed disbelief when he looked at the ring.
Its mate was now buried with Jeri Matsuki.
A trembling breath was all it took to break down the walls that Takato had shored up for so long. The tears began to fall in a hot, steady stream, though the young man remained silent in his anguish. His vision blurred, but the image of the small photograph was burned into his memory like a brand.
It was sad. He knew exactly what Yamaki was going through now, but was unable to help him. He understood Henry's hidden resentment over his grievous, permanent injury and its effect upon his life, but Takato remained unable to get past it as his friend was doing now.
And so he cried until he was numb in body, heart, and mind. He cried until the salt began to dry on his grungy shirt, until his eyes were red-rimmed and crusty.
He cried until he fell into a fitful sleep full of nightmarish images and heartrending memories.
When Guilmon quietly entered the room an hour later, his golden gaze fell upon his broken Tamer… and he began to weep silently for his suffering friend.
A/N: The world of Digimon, even in most fan fiction, is usually a bright one. There's always hope, there's always a quick resolution to immediate problems, and no one ever stays down for long. I decided to turn that view on its head, and this is the result: a bleak, dark life lived in the shadow of a seemingly endless war.
This fic is partly inspired by the Book of Job, as a matter of fact… though without God's uplifting and awe-inspiring monologue at the end. Heh.
As always, please review. Your feedback is one of my motivators for posting these things; 'one' is certainly the loneliest number in the world of literature.