All Seems Beautiful

The First Act:

The child who hides plays seeks to find,
and when within the light is found,
invokes fire to enshroud; prophet-blind
looks upon the mountain's crown.

Surrogate jar, gaze upon him
smiling; that effervescent well –
Seek you his soul, fettered in sin,
and for your heart shall toll the bell.

As for that young Euphemia,
so consecrated a chalice,
lock away the candelabra;
in the dark consume with madness.

'Neath dome of brass, o'er hollowed sea,
a cantata raise – strike – awake!
Stygian howl, postmortem shriek
shall the blood-born tomb desecrate.

Chapter One

A Changing Wind



The heat wave that flooded Japan in the summer of 2006 turned the city of Odaiba from the heart of Tokyo tourism into a giant pancake griddle, frying its denizens along with it. Even the Rainbow Bridge seemed to sway in the worst of each torrid afternoon, blanketed in parched air. Meteorologists were taken by surprise; they'd hardly expected another scorcher of such magnitude after temperatures had climbed into the 100 degrees Fahrenheit as recently as 2004. For a few weeks the news broadcasted nothing but the latest concerning global warming and melting polar ice caps on the brink of joining the ocean. Skeptics pointing out that the wave was localized merely to Japan were duly ignored, and their arguments rendered moot when temperatures in the U.S.A. soared even higher that same season. Other countries swiftly followed suit, though Europe, still reeling from the effects of their last devastating heat wave in 2003, was blessedly skipped over.

No one in Tokyo had forgotten what it felt like when bare feet sizzled on sun-baked asphalt, or the midday peak brought on vertigo and fainting spells. Bottled water flew from the shelves of convenience stores within hours after they were set out – Pocari Sweat, Dasani, Ice Mountain in eco-friendly bottles. Customers crowded the malls and cinemas, paying to watch everything from box office hits to the most obscure B-rated Indie films just to relax in the air conditioned theaters. In fear of heatstroke, parents shuttered their children indoors. With the parks a forbidden pleasure to them, Odaiba's youth found themselves longing for their long-awaited summer break to end.

It was this lack of stimulation that drove Yagami Taichi, a near-Internet virgin who typed at a rate of 30 words per minute, to plunk himself in front of his father's computer and switch it on. It was too hot for soccer (not that he hadn't tried), too hot to cook, too hot to even wear a shirt –his had found its new home over the arm of the couch around eleven A.M. Misora Hibari's husky voice lilted softly from the kitchen radio as he twirled around in the rolling desk chair, waiting for the computer to boot up.

His best friend, Izumi Koushirou, who had built his own PC at the age of 14, and who Taichi suspected had to be bodily forced away from the monitor by three armed imperial stormtroopers to eat and sleep, shot him a message almost the very instant he logged on his neglected Instant Messenger account.

koshiro_han89: I thought for sure you'd be sleeping.

Taichi fought the urge to roll his eyes more as an act of self-discipline than any delusion that Koushirou could see him. (His friend had once threatened to hide a Webcam in Taichi's house. Over the following two weeks, Taichi made sure to finish his homework every day.)

Typing made his fingers cramp up, which he considered to be as traumatic as a post-practice charley horse. (By some miracle, he never had this problem with his video games.) He spent a moment flexing them before hitting Send.

soccergami: hi u. and its the middle of the day

koshiro_han89: Even so, I assumed the planet would hurl into the sun before you resurrected your IM.

The response appeared within seconds, as if Koushirou didn't even need to glance at the keyboard. Taichi asked himself why he'd bothered logging on at all. He was quicker typing on his cell phone, and more of his friends bothered with text messaging than IM.

But the terms had been set, and Yagami Taichi was never one to back down from a challenge – even if Koushirou had no idea they were competing. To his chagrin, Koushirou's next message arrived before he finished writing his own.

koshiro_han89: Though, at the rate this heat wave is going, a quick death in which we burn up without time to notice might be preferable to slowly liquefying into anthropomorphic goo á la the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Hikari!" Taichi shouted.

His fifteen-year-old sister shuffled into the doorway, which he'd left open to let fresh air stream in from the family room. She wore a pink spaghetti-strap shirt and cut-off jean shorts. Taichi considered asking her what had happened to the rest of her pants until he caught her scowling at him with her rarely used but no less potent Little-Sister petulance. He wisely swallowed the thought and shot her a grin. The sultry heat had made cavemen of them all.

"What is it? I'm going out." Hikari sounded impatient, which was unlike her, and another reason not to test her right now.

"Going out where?"

"Shopping with Miyako-san. We won't be long."

"What does 'anthro…peeomorph' mean?" he asked, squinting hard at the screen.

Hikari pointed to the cluttered computer desk. "There's a dictionary over there," she said. "You've memorized the alphabet by now, right?"

Taichi flicked a gum eraser at her retreating back, then banged his forehead against the keyboard with enough force to rattle his father's Yankees pencil holder. Fine, if she wanted to be difficult – see if he saved her any of the last few gingersnaps in the cupboard.

He heard the front door click-snap closed and Hikari's footsteps pad down the hall. For a long moment he gazed blankly at the screen, where Koushirou's words bellowed at him in stark royal blue.

soccergami: its 2 hot 2 sleep

The kitchen telephone rang, summoning Taichi out of his chair to drag himself into the hall. He picked up the phone and spoke into the receiver:

"Hello, Yagami residence."

"Taichi-san, it's Koushirou."

He held the phone away and stared at it. "Koushirou?" he sputtered as soon as the shock wore off. "What the – you forfeiting?"


"Never mind."

"You were taking so long to reply on IM that I decided to call you."

"So glad to hear you missed the sound of my sexy voice."

He heard Koushirou give a breathy chuckle and grinned to himself. Koushirou didn't laugh often enough. In fact, it took a very dedicated jokester to coax him into smiling, and even that required nothing less than enormous shoes, trick bouquets, and pie-slathered faces. Taichi had once made a New Year's resolution to see how often he could make Koushirou choke on his own tongue laughing. He'd made it in front of everyone at his mother's annual holiday gathering, and then he'd dropped his pants and flaunted his Spider-man boxers. To his credit, Koushirou had, in fact, laughed.

"Are you surviving the heat wave?" Koushirou asked. "I feel like I haven't seen you in ages."

"Sheesh, I know," Taichi said. "Usually I'm all over you this time of year – liberating you from that hermit's hovel you call your room. You all hunched over your desk in the gloom, waiting for me to come get you and show you the world beyond the darkness."

"You're going all 'Allegory of the Cave' on me, and I don't like it." Taichi pictured Koushirou glowering at his computer screen. "What you mean is you take advantage of your superior muscle power to abduct my unobliging self from my home and take me to whatever den of iniquity strikes your fancy. Like to play skeet ball or, or… chase pigeons, or check if the manikins in the shops are anatomically correct."

"And they were!"

Koushirou snorted into the phone. Delighted, Taichi stunned the kettle with one of his blinding Happy-Pill grins.

"But Taichi-san, in all seriousness: there's something weird about this heat wave," Koushirou said after a pause. "As in abnormal, beware-of-otherworldly-vortexes weird."

"Sure there is. When I find people spontaneously liquefying into anthro – anthropo – anthromo –"

"It's anthropomorphic, and I was kidding. But this really does remind me of the weather anomalies back in the summer of '99."

"The summer of love," Taichi purred, but his mind drifted to memories of that early August, when he'd found himself in the middle of an adventure more souped up than any video game, Assassin's Creed included. There were still times when he woke up surprised to find himself at home, and not lying on a makeshift bed of enormous green fronds with the sun rising over the dour summit of Infinity Mountain.

"It's been four years since Daisuke and the others were Chosen," he said. "You're thinking we're about due?"

"Well, that's one possibility, but it's not like I expect new Chosen popping up every few years to become routine. I haven't noticed any new activity with the Digital Gates or even a hint of trouble in Gennai's emails. If there are any new recruits, they're doing a good job of hiding."

As usual, Taichi breezed over the fact that Koushirou regularly corresponded with the Digital World's resident guru the way normal kids did with friends over a long distance. He wandered over to the kitchenette and opened a cupboard. "Yeah, and besides, that first year we got snow in summer."

"It's not impossible that this excessive heat is related to Digiworld." Koushirou's tone was soft and pensive. Taichi imagined the gears churning in his head, clicking and locking, fitting together the whole picture. "I may be overreacting, but I have some basis for that. I just received an email from Willis in which he'd noted that everywhere the heat wave is at its worst, there is a Digital Gate."

Frowning, Taichi tucked the phone under his chin as he struggled with a can of tomato soup with ponzu. "Okay. That's weird."

"Yeah. I doubt it's a coincidence. Still, it doesn't necessarily mean trouble."


"It could just mean –"

"Hang on – engaged in mortal combat with the soup can – fricking lunatics who invent these death-contraptions –"

"… As I was saying, it could mean that the presence of Digital Gates somehow magnifies the temperature in those areas. A natural phenomenon – nothing for us to be concerned about."

"I sense a dangling 'but.'" Taichi cursed as the seal popped off the can and chunky soup splattered on his bare chest. He fumbled for a paper towel.

"If there is a problem, it's something we should investigate quickly. Maybe we can even put a damper on it before it becomes a threat. It's not like any of us have as much time for saving the world as we used to. And considering it's summer break –"

"Makes sense. So I guess you want to check out the Gates at the old camp grounds and Hikarigaoka with me?"

"That would be ideal. I doubt we'll find anything, but better safe than sorry."

"Okay. I'll round up whoever I can find to join us. It'll be good to see you."

"You too, Taichi-san."

"Don't forget to wear sunblock, you hermit."

"Shut up and make sure you eat that soup after pounding it into submission."

Taichi pulled out a chair and rested his chin on the countertop. The microwave hummed, warming his soup.

His mother had set an arrangement of blue irises and cheerful yellow tulips by the windowsill. Sunlight peeked through the tender underside of each petal. He looked at them, or past them, his fingers tingling like red hot needle pricks under his skin.

A new adventure.

He grabbed the phone and punched in Sora's number.

There were three tricks Hikari knew to tell if Inoue Miyako was in a good mood. The first depended on her work schedule. Retail, Miyako believed, was not her calling, but what could she do? Her family owned the local I-Mart. She could scout for a job elsewhere, but this was conveniently located on the first floor of her apartment complex, and there weren't many places that would jump at the chance to hire students fresh out of junior high school. Plus, certain perks came along with the job: she didn't have to worry about performance reviews, and since all the employees were in the family, there wasn't much chance of her getting fired.

(She had, at one mentally-scarring interval, tried her hand at babysitting. She returned with a Band-Aid on her arm where the devil's three-year-old changeling son had dug his teeth right through her skin. Even so, she claimed it wasn't the brat that drove her away, but his mother, who kept sniffing her as if her nose could detect bad intentions, and who kept a collection of owl figurines in a glass case so that they were always, always watching.)

Trick No. 2: her outfit. If she arrived in hip-hugging jeans and open-toed sandals, with a subtle hint of make-up on her face, Hikari knew she was feeling good about herself. But if she'd exchanged her contacts for her old frameless glasses, covered her hair with a faded bandana, and put on the sneakers with the hole in the left toe box, it was time to come down with a horribly contagious disease. Hikari was particularly fond of whooping cough.

Trick 3: her greeting. This was the clincher. Sometimes, if tricks one and two turned up reasons to worry, Hikari would bypass the third and dash on home. Today she decided to risk it. She was meeting Miyako at the I-Mart, which meant she had been working, but she was wearing her favorite pair of boy-cut jeans. On her feet were tan cork sandals.

Hikari pushed the door open and walked in to a chorus of chimes. There were a few browsers among the wares, and Miyako was ringing up a customer at the register. Hikari waved at her and received a nod in reply.

The customer departed carrying a plastic bag, and Hikari sidled up to the counter.

"Long day?"

"Ugh." Miyako rolled her eyes. A hand rose to adjust her glasses. "Is it only two o'clock? I'm dead on my feet."

"If you're too tired for shopping…" Hikari shrugged, noticing the store wasn't air conditioned, though there was an oscillating fan set up at the other end of the counter.

Miyako shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant. I mean I'm tired of this."

"Ah, I see. It's like when I'm too full to finish my curry, but I've still got room for ice cream."


The two girls laughed just as Miyako's sister Momoe arrived. Miyako immediately tugged off her apron and threw it at Momoe, who caught it one-handed. "See you, Neechan."

Momoe's response was to heave a monstrous yawn and wilt over the counter. Taking Hikari by the arm, Miyako steered her outside and grinned. "I bet she only just woke up an hour ago."

"Sleeping till one in the afternoon? College life must be a blast."

"That's what I always say, and then she goes on about the horrors of term papers and credit hours, and all I can think is, 'at least you made it through examination hell!'"

Hikari groaned as they headed down the street towards the train station. "Don't remind me. I'm so tired of prepping for high school entrance exams, and it's not even winter."

"It's not so bad," Miyako told her with all the assurance of one who has been there, done that. "At least it wasn't for me. You'll pass, anyway. Don't know about Daisuke. Maybe if he really buckles down…"

Hikari lifted an eyebrow. Miyako sniggered. "Well, it isn't like he'll be applying for Tokyo High."

They took a left at a crosswalk. "So, Aquacity, then Decks?" Miyako asked, and Hikari agreed with a nod.

As they walked, Miyako unclasped her bag and took out a can of cool green tea. "I'm glad we're going shopping. I haven't been to Aquacity in a while, but I remember there was this cute little boutique I wanted to visit sometime. Fleur-de-lis, I think it was called."

"We can look for it," Hikari said. "I want to stop in a bookstore. Takeru-kun's been sentenced to basketball camp – today's his first day – he's been dreading it all week. So I think a consolation gift is in order."

"I haven't seen Takeru-kun for… weeks." Miyako sipped her tea. "I see entirely too little of you guys since I entered high school. Hurry up and graduate already."

"We're working on it," Hikari laughed, just as the mall came into sight.

Hida Iori positioned himself on a mat in front of the low tea table and cast a discreet glance around the hotel room he was sharing with his grandfather. It was compact, a six tatami room, with a natural color scheme of beige and mahogany – as befit a ryokan. He brushed his fingers along the familiar grooves of the straw matting.

A pair of cotton futons were stacked in the closet, one for him and one for his grandfather. Adjacent to the closet was a Japanese-style bathroom with a deep tub, lit by a muted lamp. The toilet was in a separate room, built in the Western style complete with a bidet. Iori found colorful towels, lavender and mint green, in a drawer beneath the sink, bearing the ryokan's name: Ikedaya.

The Ikeda Inn. They were in Hakone. He, his mother, and his grandfather. Together, likely for the last time.

Wrapped in a comfortable turquoise yukata, with soft zori on his feet, Iori focused on the ceramic teapot on the table. He considered making tea, knowing that if he didn't drink it, his grandfather would. But he couldn't seem to lift his hands from his knees.

The hall door was Western-style, opening inwards with a doorknob. Iori heard it click and his grandfather's rumbling groan as Hida Chikara strode inside.

"What a joy!" Chikara exclaimed, heading to the toilet chamber. "You should have come to the onsen with me, Iori. I feel twenty years younger."

Iori couldn't bring himself to smile, but he tried to keep his voice light, for his grandfather's sake. "If I visited the hot springs to feel twenty years younger, I would cease to exist."

He heard Chikara chuckle. "Very witty. Ah! My skin feels egg-smooth, and glows with such a healthy sheen. And my back! What a wonder! Those hot springs must have healing properties. Tomorrow, beware, your old grandfather may sprout a whole head of hair again."

Iori let his jaw slide open without any words on his tongue. Chikara emerged and grinned at him, displaying what few teeth he had left. "Close your mouth, Iori, or someone will mistake you for tonight's smoked fish dinner."

He eased down across the table from Iori. Moisture from the spring clung to the tips of his handlebar moustache. "We must be sure to convince your mother to take a dip this evening."

Iori nodded, dropping his gaze to the teapot again. He didn't want to look at his grandfather, silhouetted against the balcony window. He didn't want to see that dear face, those well-worn lines and that sagging skin, fine as rice paper, and imagine life without the serene wisdom that pooled in his grandfather's clear eyes.

But Chikara looked at him with a fond smile, and one gnarled, blotted hand reached out to cover his own. Iori tensed, heat rising to his cheeks. His grandfather gave his hands a pat. When he spoke, his voice was soft and rumbling, like pebbles dribbling down a stone ledge.

"Sometimes I think we raised you too strictly, your mother and I." Iori started to speak, but Chikara continued: "It was how my father raised me. How I raised your father. Duty to family, honor above all things. Looking back, I sometimes find I wish I'd experienced more, stepped out of myself a bit. There are so many things the world has to offer."

The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled in gentle folds as he smiled. "I see so much of your father in you. He, too, wore that very same stern look from a young age. I would have loved him no matter what, but he became a son to be proud of as well as love.

"I know he would have thought the same of you, grandson."

A lump settled in Iori's throat. He gave his grandfather's bony fingers a gentle squeeze.

Chikara turned his head toward the sun dipping beyond the balcony. "Sometimes I wonder if I had loosened the reins on your father, perhaps he would have lived longer."

"No," Iori said fiercely, gripping Chikara's hand more resolutely. "That's not true, Ojiisan. Otousan died with honor… the best kind of honor. No one can deny that."

A strange shadow flickered over Chikara's face as he looked back. "Oh, Iori. Yes." He sighed, his shoulders rounding, looking every day of his seventy-one years. "But perhaps, if I hadn't pushed him so hard… perhaps he wouldn't have given up so quickly."

Iori felt something inscrutable well up inside him, a bubble on the verge of bursting. Siezed by a sudden urge to move around, he pushed himself off the floor and crossed to the balcony, leaning his weight against the rail. The street below was almost deserted except for a few college students riding bikes, the sunlight cradling them with fluorescent embers. A gaping lake lay just beyond, lit with a mix of fire and imminent darkness.

He sensed his grandfather come up behind him. Chikara sank into a woven chair and joined him staring at the horizon.

"Tomorrow we will cruise Lake Ashi," he said. "You will see many torii standing tall in the water, their red paint just as vibrant now as when they were built. Not even the rain or the wind causes them to shirk their duty. They will stand, until they can stand no longer."

Iori closed his eyes, grateful for once for his grandfather's poetic ambiguities. Whatever his grandfather was trying to tell him, he wasn't sure he wanted to understand. That even torii couldn't last forever? That not even his grandfather, who had grown up in the thick of World War II, who had worked so hard and so proudly his long life, could resist erosion?

"Someday soon you, too, will meet with a changing wind." Chikara bent forward, thin and wiry as a reed of bamboo. "And you, too, will stand strong until the storm has passed."

Iori clutched the rail until his knuckles blanched, jaw clenched tight. The two men fell silent. Simple words were not enough.



Takaishi Takeru was used to spending his summer break somewhere other than home. These days his mother worked so much that he was lucky to see her before he went to bed or after he woke up in the morning. When she'd given up freelance writing for an in-house position with a local newspaper, the time she had used for editing her articles at home was now spent confined in her cubicle until well into the night.

But even if she wasn't the most present of mothers, Takaishi Natsuko still made her son her number one priority. She understood too well how lonely he was at home, and that the real reason he'd stuck with the basketball team was so he'd have a place to be after school, rather than return to an empty house. Breaks from classes were difficult because she couldn't schedule as many after school play dates for him, and her job kept her at work. She had to be creative to ensure he wasn't alone all summer.

This year, she'd signed him up for basketball camp. They'd talked about it; she knew basketball was just a hobby for Takeru, not something he relished the idea of doing non-stop for two weeks. But the only other option was shipping him off to Grandma Kinu in Shimane, which meant no Internet access and volatile cell phone reception, so he couldn't keep in touch with his friends. Takeru had granted her a stiff smile and assured her he was fine with her solution. He needed to do something over the break, after all, and as a rising star on the varsity team, a little extra practice couldn't hurt.

His mother meant well. He couldn't blame her for assuming, like everybody else, that he was as much of a social butterfly as he pretended to be. Not that it was strictly an act; Takeru hated being alone. Once he might even have been excited about living in the dorms, eating deep fried fish and tuna salad, and playing mini-games with boys his age who were into basketball for the fun rather than the competition. But Aomori Basketball Camp was an entirely unfamiliar environment, and while Takeru was the adaptable sort, there were times when he felt far too vulnerable in his place within the camp hierarchy.

Aomori trained boys from age 14 to 18, which automatically landed ninth graders like Takeru in the lowest class. Everyone was older, and well aware of their senpai status. On the first day, Takeru had been stopped by a high school second year student and made to clean up the garbage around his dinner table. Saying no would have been a swift way to earn himself the role of Community Punching Bag for every bully on the grounds. As he crouched to pick up chopsticks and candy wrappers, the older boys tossed out vulgar comments about his gangly body, and he wondered what had happened to his nerve.

Hadn't he gone through enough in Digiworld? Hadn't he faced down opponents whose most charming smiles would be enough to make his harassers wet their pants? And yet, here he was, cornered like a bed-wetting pansy. Why couldn't he fight back?

It was now mid-afternoon on Wednesday, the third day of his banishment. The older teams were in the middle of a grueling scrimmage, sending the ball whistling across the indoor court in a brown blur. The substitutes and younger campers perched on the bleachers, shouting until their throats were raw, infected by the rampant energy pumping through the gym.

Tugging his neon orange pinny out of his shorts, Takeru took a seat in a corner, farthest from the excitement. His arms and legs throbbed from dribbling practice earlier in the day. He unzipped his tote bag and pulled out a notebook made of imitation leather with a mechanical pencil slipped between the pages.

"Hey, Takaishi-kun."

His head snapped up at the voice of Waku, the supervisor's assistant. Waku was a short man, shaped like a gourd, with a receding hairline and a mole the size of a quarter on his chin. At one point, long ago, Waku had been a candidate for a pro-basketball league – or so Takeru had heard. He couldn't quite imagine Waku on the court, except perhaps as the ball.

"You've got mail," Waku said. "You gotta pick this stuff up at breakfast, kid."

"Sorry." Takeru stuffed his notebook back in his bag and reached for the package Waku held out to him. "I overslept."

The truth was he'd spent the morning waiting for the other boys to abandon the locker room so he could shower in peace, free from any creative commentary on his nether regions. After a full half hour hiding behind a pair of trash cans, he was finally the only one left to stand under the by then icy cold spray.

"I woulda just kept this till tomorrow morning, but you looked like you could use a little cheering up. And I'll tell ya, nothing does good for a man who's down in the dumps like a letter from a lady." Waku's beady eyes twinkled as color poured into Takeru's cheeks. "Kid, that's a girl's writing, or I'm an ass."

"Thanks," Takeru mumbled into his shirt, wishing he'd sat closer to a fan. Waku laughed and clapped his shoulder before disappearing through the double doors.

Takeru picked at the sealing tape with his stubby nails. Printed on the package in delicate, precise handwriting was Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Odaiba, 4-3-31, Shiria Daiba 1306, Yagami Hikari. He smiled softly, remembering the number of times his mother had compared Hikari's penmanship with Takeru's own rough-hewn scrawl, legible only to him, and begged her to teach him her secret.

He ripped through the tape and opened the box. It was light enough to balance in one hand. He found Hikari's letter lying on top of another box wrapped in blue- and green-striped paper, and read it first.

Dear Takeru-kun,

You suck. Brazil won the 2002 World Cup, not Argentina, blockhead, and they won against Germany, not France. Thanks for making me look like a dolt in front of my know-it-all brother. He raved for almost an hour about how great that season was, how France was ruined without What's-his-face Zidane, how Ronaldo clinched the match for Brazil in the final round and won a Golden Fleece and WHOA wasn't it all unbelievably awesome. I now know more than I ever wanted to know about soccer in 2002.

It's your fault for misleading me, so I'm dumping the blame on you. We can overload our brains with useless soccer trivia and use it to bore the world into bowing to our plans for global supremacy.

How is boot camp? Are the bullies still strutting their stuff? Oniichan wanted to send you a taser, but I was worried you'd get arrested. Maybe you can slip ice cubes down their backs. Assuming you have any ice. I know we don't.

Miyako-san and I went shopping on Monday, and I found something that screamed "TAKERU" in five different octaves. Miyako-san thinks it's tasteless and you'll hate it, so I've sent it to you to prove her wrong. You think it's really interesting, right?

This has been your friendly Cheer Up, The World Does Not Want Your Head on a Platter letter from home, where you and your safely attached head are well missed. Write back when you can. I'll call sometime, so remember to charge your cell phone.

Lots of love,


Takeru carefully folded Hikari's letter along the creases and stowed it in his tote bag. He dug his hands through the packing peanuts and retrieved her gift. She had wrapped it so neatly that the paper practically fell from the box by itself. Inside, Takeru found a paperback book with a cover image of a novel going up in flames. The title read No Censor for Censorship: 100 Banned Books.

A grin lit up his face as he flipped through the pages. There were articles on Alice in Wonderland, The Color Purple, The Catcher in the Rye, and a selection of censored works from the Taishou era. Definitely interesting, he thought, right up my alley. No one in the world knew him quite the way Yagami Hikari did. Her letters alone could make the next week and a half bearable.

He didn't notice he was on the receiving end of several funny looks from the boys seated around him until one of them nudged his leg. "Hey, bookworm, how the heck can you read through all this racket?"

Takeru shrugged. "You learn how to tune it out."

The boy lifted his eyebrows, but made no other comment, rude or otherwise. He turned his attention to the court, but Takeru caught him glancing back at him a few times throughout the rest of the scrimmage. Takeru kept his eyes trained on the book and, for a few blissful minutes, he was able to pretend he was sitting in an air-conditioned library, far away from the thump of black-striped rubber balls against the marble-smooth gymnasium floor.

"I think you took a wrong turn. We should have gone left at that last intersection."

"We're fine. This looks familiar to me."

"You mean the trees, the trees, and – let's see – the trees?"

"What else do you expect to find at a campsite?"

Taichi hid a smirk as Sora pierced Daisuke with a withering look over her shoulder. She folded her arms over her chest and slouched down in the shotgun seat while Taichi heaved a huge belly laugh.

"Geez, Sora, chill a little! We're going the right way. I promise."

"Your promises hold about as much water as a sieve." Sora sniffed, glowering at the dashboard.

"A sieve? Are we going gold panning?"

Sora smacked him and Taichi took a hand off the wheel to massage his temple. In the backseat, Daisuke roared and choked on his soda. Koushirou snapped his laptop shut and pounded his fist on Daisuke's back.

"Enough bickering, guys," he said. "Can't you focus even a little? Just because we didn't find anything at Hikarigaoka doesn't guarantee the camp is secure too."

Taichi obediently shut his mouth, returning his eyes to the road. After their discussion on Monday, Taichi and Koushirou had brought each of the Chosen Children up to speed and asked for volunteers to examine the Digital Gates. Recruiting had turned out to be more of a task than they'd expected; in spite of the heat, almost all of the other Chosen were booked all week long. Jou was taking summer classes and had a seminar to attend; Miyako was working; Iori was vacationing in Hakone; Takeru was at camp; it was unreasonable to ask Ken to come all the way from Tamachi; and Mimi, of course, was out of the question. Hikari, Sora and Daisuke had originally promised to come along, but at the last minute Hikari's mother decided to sweep her off for a mother-daughter outing and wouldn't be deterred. They hadn't been able to contact Yamato.

In the end, the four Most Faithful Chosen had commandeered Sora's mother's Mitsubishi (Taichi won the privilege of driving in a coin toss) and set off for Tokyo's Digital Gates. None of them were sure what they were meant to look for, but Koushirou thought their Digivices would, as usual, react to any contaminants in the skin of the vortex.

"I wonder if we should check the gate that opened after we defeated VenomMyotismon too," Sora said, rolling her window up. "And what about the one Oikawa opened? Or the one Taichi fell through after defeating Etemon?"

"Well, about those –"

"Sora-san, roll your window back down!" Daisuke complained, letting water dribble from his sports bottle over his head. "Geez, first you don't tell us the AC is broken until we're a mile away, and now you won't even let the wind in!"

"It's blowing my hair in my eyes," Sora countered. "Look, I didn't bring it all the way up. It's cracked almost halfway. You'd better not be getting water on my mother's seats!"

Daisuke stuck out his lower lip and capped the bottle. In the rearview mirror, Taichi saw Koushirou's eyes roll dangerously close to plummeting into his skull.

"As I was saying, those gates were only temporary. Oikawa sealed his own gate in much the same way BlackWarGreymon sealed his. Gennai closed the gate that took us back to Digiworld to face the Dark Masters."

"And the one that brought me home that first time?" Taichi prodded.

"That one – I'm not really sure about –" Koushirou broke off, dropping his chin in his hands. "Gennai and I have talked about it. The mass of dark energy Etemon imbibed from Datamon's base warped the barrier separating our worlds, and MetalGreymon's attack was what finally broke it and swept you in. I don't know if it was closed or not, but – it dropped you off in the park, right?"

Taichi nodded, drumming his fingers on the wheel. Sora kicked her death glare up a notch.

"Neither Willis nor I can find any trace of a Gate in that area. I'm guessing it closed of its own accord."

"And how about the one I returned through? That one was right outside my apartment complex. All sorts of Digimon were coming through – or their ghosts at least," Taichi said.

Koushirou fell silent again. Taichi glanced at him in the rearview mirror. His brow was knit and he was chewing the inside of his cheek. Knowing better than to interrupt him when he was like this, Taichi fiddled with the radio.

"I can't believe your mom doesn't have a CD player," he said as the radio faded in and out.

"She's old-fashioned," Sora sighed. "You're not going to get good reception out here. I'll be surprised if you get anything but ambient noise."

Daisuke grabbed Taichi's knapsack from under his seat and unzipped it. "You should buy a cassette adapter," he suggested, reaching in and producing a stick of cinnamon-flavored gum. "I could hook it up for you. Then you could play CDs in the car without having to do anything really fancy."

"I'll look into it. You can pick something from my mom's cassette tape collection, if you want, but it's mostly jazz and showtunes."

"No Sex Pistols?" Daisuke dropped his jaw wide. "No Dropkick Murphys?"

Taichi laughed and Sora rolled her eyes, hiding a grin.

"We're here," Taichi announced, pulling up a dirt road into the vacant parking lot of Shiroike Camping Grounds. He parallel parked the Mitsubishi, even though there were no other cars in sight. They slid out, Koushirou lugging his PC along with him, and Taichi locked the doors.

Visiting the old campgrounds always filled Taichi with a sense of home-coming. The last time the Chosen had gathered here, it had been to help the junior team face off against MaloMyotismon. But Taichi had come often since, whenever he felt particularly nostalgic, and sometimes when he was upset. If the others had the same habit, they'd never made mention, but neither had he.

"I'm surprised there aren't any campers around right now," Sora said as they trekked past the office building to the rows of wood cabins and A-tents that had once been their own stomping ground.

Koushirou shrugged. "I heard there wasn't enough interest, from kids or counselors."

"That's a shame. We had a good time."

"Maybe you did, but I was miserable before, you know, everything happened. The dial-up connection here was abysmal."

Following Taichi's lead, Daisuke mounted the narrow wooden steps leading to the horseshoe of cabins. He managed a low whistle around the clump of gum in his mouth. "So this is where it all happened."

"I think that one was mine," Taichi said, pointing to a cabin near the edge of the woods. "I stayed there with Yamato and Koushirou – Jou had a cabin farther along, and the girls were… closer to the office, I think."

"But you were all in the same cabin the day you got beamed up to Digiworld, right?" Daisuke said.

"Yeah. We all happened to run there when the snow hit. I really don't know why we were the only ones who came outside after it stopped…"

"Must've been fate, I guess."

"I don't believe in fate." Koushirou crossed the open grass that led to the river. "Everything concerning Digiworld follows a logical, comprehensible pattern. Even if we don't know the where-fores and how-tos, I'm certain they exist."

Daisuke cocked his head quizzically at Taichi, who shrugged. He understood it was difficult for any of them not to believe in fate, after the things they'd gone through together. But Koushirou was the one working to piece the puzzle together. He was the one trying to understand the way Digiworld worked. And, more often than not, his theories were sound. If anyone could piece together the mystery surrounding the Digital World, it was him.

The foursome came to a halt at the spot they knew the gate to be. They knelt down, holding their Digivices (and D3) in the palms of their hands, as they had done in Hikarigaoka. Taichi fiddled with a blade of grass. The Digivices had astounded him with their powers many times before, but he couldn't help feeling silly, squatting in the dirt and staring mutely at his outstretched hand.

Daisuke popped the gum he'd stolen from Taichi's knapsack again and again. After several minutes, Sora looked dangerously close to propelling him through the vortex herself. Koushirou remained seated cross-legged with his PC propped up in his lap, scowling at the screen, his Digivice tucked into his adapter. Taichi wished he'd brought something to eat.

After ten minutes, Koushirou let out a sigh and shut down his PC. "Looks like it was a false alarm, guys," he said. "Sorry about that."

Taichi shook his head, standing up to stretch. "Nah, Kou. I'm glad you brought it up. If there had been something to worry about, we would have had it squared away in no time."

"My gum's lost its flavor already," Daisuke whined. He nudged Taichi's ribs. "Next time buy something that lasts longer, 'kay?"

"Ugh, do I have grass stains on my jeans?" Sora asked, twisting her body to glimpse the back of her shorts.

Only a fool would pass up a chance to ogle Sora's butt, so Taichi leaned over and thoroughly inspected every inch of fabric and seam. "All clear," he said, shooting her a cheeky grin.

"You dog." Sora giggled. He waggled his eyebrows at her, then started to draw himself up, when the world tipped.

With a true athlete's grace, he managed to spin on his heel and regain his footing. Turning back to the others, he found them with their mouths open, eyes as wide and round as sand dollars.

"Taichi!" Sora gave a little gasp, the color drained from her face.

"Don't move," Koushirou said, with the look of a panic-stricken deer. Taichi wasn't sure if his instruction was intended for him or his friends.

Slowly he raised his hands to his face. They were nut brown like the rest of him, broad and tough, crowned with stubby nails. He wore a Nike wristband on his right arm, and noticed the bandage around his left index finger where he'd cut it with a steak knife was beginning to peel off.

In the space of a moment, his hands disappeared.

"Holy –" Taichi sucked in his breath, tensing up from head to toe. His eyes flickered around wildly, waiting for his hands to reappear – because they would, surely they would. Instead, he saw his forearms begin to disintegrate, as neatly as if someone had brushed an eraser over his body. Then his elbows vanished as well, and he was just starting to panic for real when Daisuke leaped forward and tackled him to the ground.

In the past four years, Daisuke had filled out considerably, morphing from awkward prepubescent to strong-boned teenager. Taichi was the taller of the two, long and lithe, most of his strength in his legs, a body built for speed. Daisuke had wider shoulders, a trunk-like chest and waist, and outweighed him by pounds of sheer muscle. It had come to the point that Daisuke could, more often than not, knock Taichi off his feet on the soccer field with a surprise steal from behind.

But sprawled beneath Daisuke's powerful body, Taichi didn't see the cocksure adolescent his protégé had become. Daisuke's hands braced Taichi's arms to the ground, his eyes squeezed shut. Taichi didn't move for a long moment. His arms were back. He could see his hands. He tried to flex them and sighed with relief when they moved.

Daisuke tightened his grip, and Taichi managed to find his voice, realizing they were both trembling. "I-I think it's okay now," he squeaked rather than spoke. He mustered up a weak smile. "Man. That was different, huh."

Daisuke shook his head. He pressed his face into Taichi's shirt. Taichi could hear his breath hitch in time with his own.

"Taichi – are you –" Koushirou and Sora tumbled down the hill, mouths twisted in identical expressions of horror. At their calls, Daisuke pushed himself up and offered a hand to Taichi, who took it. He wobbled on shaky knees, feeling numb and strangely detached from the rest of the world.

Sora's arm snaked around his waist, and together she and Daisuke helped him towards the car. Koushirou followed close behind, clutching his PC to his chest. Taichi limped along mechanically at first, willing his stomach to stop churning. Sora wouldn't appreciate his emptying the contents of his stomach in her mother's car – that would definitely dig up the infamous Hat Incident. Again.

At the foot of the steps, Taichi decided he'd had enough of being babied and broke away.

"I'm okay now," he said, taking a few staggering steps towards the car. "That," he tried to laugh, "was unbelievable, wasn't it? Looks like there must be a problem in Digiworld after all."

His friends were watching him as if the moment they looked away he'd shatter like glass. He was almost afraid he might, too, but he wasn't going to let them know it.

"What do you think happened there, Koushirou?" he prompted, hoping to turn their attention off him.

Koushirou hesitated. Then he clenched his jaw firmly. "I think," he said, "we need to get you back home."

A/N: For this story, I'm combining elements of American and Japanese culture, in an effort to create a world that is accessible to the majority of the readers, but still holds a share of authenticity. I'm taking liberties with the way Digiworld works, so don't be surprised if I don't follow exact canon. I've interpreted the characters as neatly as I can, but it's true that everyone views them differently. However, I'm making an effort to keep everyone as IC as possible. There will be no major OCs in this story. Those that exist are either plot devices or villains. If you spot an inaccuracy or just want to mention a nonessential point, please do so - I won't promise to change anything, but I'll appreciate your input.

Chapter Notes:

1.] temperatures had climbed into the 100 degrees Fahrenheit as recently as 2004: There was indeed a heat wave in Japan in 2004, as well as a destructive one in Europe in 2003. There was actually a heat wave in the U.S.A. in 2006 – I claim artistic license for my adding it in various places like Japan. Please excuse my use of the Fahrenheit system – it's probably in the 40s for Celsius.

2.] typed at a rate of 30 words per minute: I have no clue how they work out wpm in Japan, but I wanted readers to have a good idea of how slowly Taichi types. It's not like he's a horrible typist – but compared to Koushirou, whose wpm is likely in the 100s…

3.] Taichi's screen name is a pun on his love of soccer and the "gami" (kami) in his surname, which means "god." Koushirou's screen name refers to how Tentomon calls him "Koushirou-han" instead of "Koushirou-san," using Kansai dialect.

4.] Aquacity and Decks: Malls in Odaiba/Daiba situated next to each other.

5.] Ikedaya: An actual ryokan in Hakone. I stayed there during my visit. It's very nice.

6.] The Yagami's full address can be found on Mimi's postcard in Our War Game (the second movie, or the middle part of the English dub movie).

7.] Alice in Wonderland, The Color Purple, The Catcher in the Rye, and a selection of censored works from the Taishou era: These books were banned in various places, not necessarily by an entire country, let alone Japan. This is a creative liberty I am taking – I found a bit on books banned in Japan, but it was too time-consuming to research the books themselves enough to know if they fit the criteria I was looking for. I made homage to them by pointing out the Taishou era books, but listed books commonly known to English lit readers also.

Please review... this took such a long time! Chapter 2 will be up as soon as possible.