A/N: At last! Chapter 19! This one was rough to write. Partly because I struggled over the dilemma I mentioned last chapter. The way things stand now, chapter 20 will be the last part of summer.
Thanks a billion for your great reviews last time! Every time I got a new one I felt prodded to keep working on this chapter. So give yourselves a pat on the back.
Anyway, like I said, I have some misgivings about this chapter, but it got to the point where I felt like, "post it as is or die," so. Here you are. It may feel a bit awkward here and there but hopefully certain things make up for that. Thanks again for continuing to read in spite of all the delays!
Minor characters: Noda Toranosuke (who Taichi stole a bike from); Ariyasu Sumire (Spore Child).
Non Cogito, Ergo…?
"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win."
- Stephen King
Sanou High School
Hikari-chan! thanks for worrying about me. U R the sweetest. Im OK, no brain leakage to speak of. Im with Miyako the Wacko now. that THING threw a post box at me! (the monster I mean, not Miyako. tho she is kind of a monster.) but since Im me, it was no sweat. I hope u r impressed with my awesome psychic.
"You spelled 'physique' wrong," said Miyako as she leaned over Daisuke's shoulder.
He glared at her.
"That's an exam word, so you better learn it," she went on unperturbed. "And so that people won't mistake you for a Pokémon."
"You and Take-dork always get so tight-ass about things nobody cares about," Daisuke snipped as he fixed his spelling, signed the email "BIGGEST BEAR HUG EVER, Daisuke," and hit Send.
Monstrous though she could sometimes be, he was in fact grateful to have Miyako with him. Otherwise he might never have escaped the clutches of his soccer senpai, and their panicky, frenzied fussing over him in the way of people trying to pretend they know what they're doing when they don't. Daisuke heard the three of them (Seiichi, Touya, and Kaoru) bandy about the word "hospital" six or seven times before any of them thought to look for a ride there. Mostly they tried to doctor him themselves: "Can you hear me, Motomiya? Blink if you're not dead!" "How many fingers am I holding up?" "Dude, thumbs don't count as fingers."
Real bunch of Einsteins Taichi had on his team.
Luckily, it turned out Miyako was also at school that day, hanging out with a few members of the computer club while working on some project, though there was no official meeting. A call from Koushirou sent her running outside, where she spotted Daisuke flailing uselessly at his upperclassmen captors as they took turns poking his ribs to see if any were broken. (He was pretty sure he'd fractured something, but at least now that he wasn't being restrained he knew he could still move.)
With a schoolmarm-ish pinch of her lips that reminded Daisuke distinctly of Hawkmon, despite said Digimon not having any actual lips, Miyako swooped in hollering, "He is not a pincushion!" as she booted the boys out of the way. "Why didn't you blockheads get a teacher!?" My hero, he'd thought at the time, before realizing he'd only traded one evil for another.
Now they were alone in the darkness of the printing room, the blinds half-drawn over open windows, through which a faint breeze entered to lift specks of dust in glittering spirals. There was a small oscillating fan in one corner, which Daisuke had switched on right away, for all the good it did. The room was muggy, cramped, but at least they had privacy. Daisuke sat backwards in a folding chair, chin resting on his arms, letting his leg swing back and forth. Every now and then it struck the table with a thump. Then Miyako would turn around with a glare and a finger at her lips.
"What?" he cried in exasperation after she'd shushed him for the eighth time. "No one's gonna be bothered that we're here, Miyako." Thump.
"You're bothering me." She hissed through her teeth. The weak breeze from the fan tossed loose hairs in her face. "I can't raise Koushirou-senpai, Taichi-san's cell goes right to voicemail, the others are all spread out – and I still think we need to get you to a doctor sooner rather than later."
"Well, we don't."
"Daisuke, you probably broke something."
"You know me. Adamantium bones."
"And if you punctured a lung?"
Now that he thought about it, breathing did hurt. A little. Running might be beyond him. But Daisuke was resolved. He wasn't about to get himself shut up in some waiting room in an hour-long queue for the x-ray machine, while Taichi and the others were out wrestling with the very monster that got him sent there to begin with. Everything worked, more or less, so x-rays would just have to wait until after they'd bagged the beasts.
"I'm not sure your brain is working," frowned Miyako when he said as much to her, "but then again I'm never sure about that. Alright. If you keel over and start whimpering like a puppy, though, I'm going to laugh so hard while I lug your ass to the hospital."
"You would find pleasure in my pain, witch woman," griped Daisuke. At least he didn't have to worry about her ragging on him from now on. "How did you call Taichi-san anyway?" he asked suddenly. "Didn't he lose his phone in Vademon's cave?"
"He got a new one, dummy. Same number."
Oh. Daisuke felt stupid. He could've called Taichi an hour ago and caught up with him in Shimbashi. Maybe he still could – assuming Taichi wasn't miles away in central Tokyo already.
"I'm trying him again," he announced, hopping off the chair. Immediately white heat flared in his ribs. He screwed his eyes shut and clutched his side.
When he opened them, Miyako's face was a storm of concern. "See, you are hurt. We have to –"
"I'm fine," he insisted, moving his hand away and snatching her cell phone off the desk. His own was buried somewhere in his backpack, and reaching it would mean bending over, which he thought was not a good idea just now. He was not hurt. Mildly inconvenienced, yeah, maybe, sure, but inconvenienced was far from incapacitated. He could do this.
"Right," scoffed Miyako, "and I'm Beyoncé."
"The only pain I've got is the one in my neck, called Inoue Miyako." The display on her phone was unfamiliar to him. "Where the hell is your contacts list?" he grumbled as he poked at the buttons.
"I told you, I just called him and he didn't pick up."
"Never mind, I found it." He pressed Call and waited, studiously ignoring the scowl of deep disapproval Miyako set on him.
The phone rang a few times before the voicemail tone sounded.
"Told you," Miyako said again.
To provoke her more than anything else, Daisuke hit Re-dial. With a huff, Miyako crossed to the other side of the room to stand near the fan, and peeled a thread of hair off her sweaty forehead. Daisuke smirked at her and was about to goad her some more when his call picked up.
"State your name," said a rough male voice that was decidedly not Taichi's. Daisuke's smirk faded.
"Uh, Motomiya Daisuke. State your name."
"Yeah, right," Daisuke scoffed. What a mouthful. "Okay, Noda, thanks for giving me your name, I'll be sure to pass it on to the police when I report you for stealing my friend's phone."
"Hey, I'm trying to right a wrong myself. Your friend's the thief."
"Noda!" cried someone else on Toranosuke's end. "You took my phone?! Why didn't you tell me before I went to look for it?"
"Taichi-senpai!" Daisuke blurted out rather more loudly than necessary.
"Reparations for my bike, dude," sneered Toranosuke.
"Give it a rest, man, it was an emergency. Who makes off with a bike in broad daylight? Besides, I offered to let you punch me."
"Would that ease the emotional duress you put my poor bike through? She's gonna need heaps of therapy."
"So sue me," Taichi muttered, but close enough that Daisuke could hear him, and assumed Toranosuke had passed over the phone. "'Lo?"
"Taichi-senpai, it's Daisuke! – oof." The force of yelling reignited the pain in his ribs. He sat down and continued softly, "I escaped your teammates – who are useless, by the way – and Miyako filled me in on what's going on. Tell me where the monsters are so I can go kick their scaly butts."
"That'd be a great way to get another post box dropped on you," Taichi said agreeably. "Speaking of which, shouldn't you be lying on a gurney right now?"
Was he going to go through this with everyone? "No way. I can move just fine. Must've been less of a hit than you thought it was."
"Really." Taichi sounded skeptical.
"No, not really," Miyako piped in, drawing closer to Daisuke, who growled at her.
"No one asked you. Taichi-senpai," he went on trying to sound determined and not desperate, "don't forget, you owe me a milkshake."
At that Taichi laughed. Daisuke imagined the lopsided grin that cracked over his face. "And Motomiya Daisuke never skimps out on a milkshake, right?"
"Damn straight," Daisuke said proudly.
"Well, I won't forget," Taichi chuckled. His voice dropped low as he returned to the crisis at hand. "I'll fill you in, then. I lost the creature I was following. Er, that was following me. It got away. Didn't see where. But Koushirou's trying out a way to track them, and then I guess we corral them and send them to Digiworld."
Miyako was practically hanging off Daisuke to get close enough to hear. "Is that wise?" she asked. "I mean, we don't even know if that's where they came from."
"Yeah, that's why no one's tried it yet. But if we can't get through to Gennai, then I don't know what else we can do. I'm tired of not having a plan. We can't just let them wander Tokyo. At least, in Digiworld, we stand a chance in a fight. So. You guys stay there. I'll meet you."
"Gotcha," Daisuke nodded.
"Okay. Just let me shake Noda, then I'll come get you – where are you, anyway?"
"Sanou High, printing room," Miyako answered while Daisuke sniggered into his palm.
"I probably should've asked that first. Sit tight, you two." The line went dead.
"Well," Daisuke sighed as he returned Miyako's cell, "a bad plan is better than no plan."
"You think so?" Miyako asked as she pocketed it. "That's a surprise, considering you're the type to just do whatever feels like a good idea at the time."
"Really starting to wish you'd left me with Toyomizu," he muttered without any real energy. Whatever he had left after the attack, the heat had sapped out of him. But that would change once Taichi got here, he was sure. Nothing got his blood pumping like an adventure. Especially with his friends. Especially with his idol.
"Daisuke, you've got the stupidest giddy smile." Back to crouching in front of the little fan, Miyako rolled her eyes at him, one side of her mouth quirked up. "The kind of smile people get when they're having an inside joke with themselves."
He could feel the exact grin stretching cheek to cheek. Although she was a monster, Miyako would probably understand if he told her why it was there. She was good that way. Prone to outbursts of emotion, but not more so than he was, and anyway she always came through when it mattered.
Instead he just echoed Taichi. "I never skimp out on a milkshake," he said.
Especially milkshakes from Taichi.
Takeru didn't have the patience to endure the elevator past the third floor. After making an abrupt dash for the exit in which he knocked the hat off an elderly woman, he doubled back only to return it before racing up the next three flights, taking the stairs two at a time. He'd long since given up on making it in time; unless Hikari'd managed to engage the creature in the world's most lethal staring contest, they would have fought by now. Though Hikari was feisty for a five foot tall waif who never managed to hit the 50 kg mark, somehow Takeru doubted she'd win even if she bashed the creature over the head with her camera.
It was panic that sent him barreling through the door to the roof, and it was panic that stopped him cold.
The slight figure of a girl in a white and green sailor uniform lay crumpled on her side near the edge of the roof. He ran over to crouch next to her. He couldn't tell if she was breathing. The fear that overwhelmed him in that instant was like nothing he'd felt in years – not since the last time he couldn't help someone he cared about. When Angemon died. When he thought his brother had abandoned him. When Sora chose to face Piedmon alone to give them time to escape, leaving him and Patamon as Hikari's only protection.
Even losing his D3 to Seiki couldn't compare to how he felt on seeing Hikari look so –
"Relax," came a soft murmur from the lump at his feet. "M'not dead. Just dizzy."
Relief swept over him. "Geez, you scared me. I thought that monster –" The words killed you froze on his tongue.
Hikari smiled, opening her eyes and blinking up at him. "And they say I'm a worry-wart."
"Are you okay?"
"Everything spins when I try to stand. But it's getting better. Help me sit up?"
She pushed off her elbows. Takeru slid an arm around her back and levered her up, letting her lean into him as she got her bearings. Her neck twisted as she looked around the roof.
"You didn't see anyone else up here, did you? Or going down?"
Takeru thought. "No. At least there was no one in the stairwell. They could have taken the elevator, though. Someone was here with you?"
"You took the stairs?" Hikari asked, turning to peer at him.
"Yeah – well, halfway."
She gave him an odd, affectionate look. "There was no one with me," she said after a beat. "It's... the monster was going to attack. But something happened – my D3 – I don't know – and it started to disappear. Like smoke. And I know I didn't do anything. I could have sworn..."
He waited while she searched for the words.
"It just felt like I wasn't alone," she said at last.
Takeru didn't like the sound of any of that. Why did strange things always happen to Hikari? "Maybe your guardian angel came to help," he replied with a shrug.
"Angewomon is my guardian angel, and it was definitely not her."
"Then it was your fairy godmother, and she's a world class kick boxer."
Hikari giggled as she got to her feet. Keeping a hand at her back, Takeru rose with her, and didn't move away until she no longer seemed about to topple right back down. She scrubbed at her forehead with the heel of her palm.
"At least the monster's gone."
"Do you think it was destroyed?"
"Don't know... we should contact the others." She pulled out her D-terminal. "Oh, I have mail from Daisuke-kun."
Without thinking, Takeru read over her shoulder, then blushed and pulled away when he realized what he was doing.
"Sorry," he said. He hated it when people read his messages, as if just because it was a text it was less private than a letter on fancy stationery.
Hikari patted his arm. "Don't worry, I'm not going to have you arrested for mail fraud. I'm glad Daisuke-kun's okay, but I wish someone would send us instructions already..."
He supposed it didn't really bother her, his reading her mail. It wasn't as if she and Daisuke kept a lot of secrets from him. Secrets and Daisuke were practically antithetical.
Takeru took a deep breath. Okay. If he was obsessing over an accidental peek at his best friend's mail, he was still really wound up. Hikari was fine. The monster was gone, for now. They might not know everything that passed up here, while Hikari lay in a faint and he kept up his frantic search for her, but when did they ever know anything when it came to other dimensions, and yet they threw themselves into these things time after time. And each time the battles hit harder – whether it was a vampire abducting their families, or a missile launched on their home by the digital incarnation of Frankenstein's monster, people on Earth suffered. Whether a sad young boy who found an outlet for his grief in virtualized violence, or a misguided man who in his loneliness became fixated on reaching out to another world, people on Earth caused suffering. Suffering created by suffering, in perpetuity. These monsters, released by the Spore Children's efforts to get into Digiworld... they were a manifestation of just that.
"Hey." Hikari slid her hand into his. "You're going all inward on me," she said with her a gentle tug to return his mind to his body, before leading him towards the elevator.
"Sorry," he said again.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
If they were not currently embroiled in one of their more blundering missions, if they were, say, in the classroom with their desks pushed together for lunch, talking below the ebullient clamor of junior high boys and girls making the best of their twenty minute recess, and she said that phrase, he would have joked that his thoughts were worth well over a penny. A quarter'd be a steal. His mouth opened, but nothing came out.
"It's Hosoda-kun, isn't it." Hikari's fingers flew over the keypad on her D-terminal as the elevator descended the levels.
He looked at her in surprise.
"I know he's been on your mind. I've wanted to talk with you about him, but things have been so crazy – you were grounded, and my brother..." She trailed off, glancing up at him. He sucked at his lip. "Anyway, you shouldn't keep things bottled up. It's not healthy, and you're not any good at it."
This was a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, Takeru thought, but if he reminded her that no one kept a cap on their emotions like Yagami Hikari, he knew she'd only flash him a resigned smile. She was right, though. He was nowhere near as transparent as Daisuke, but no matter how earnestly he laid on the I'm fines, certain people always saw right through them when he had a problem. Deflecting took skill.
But how could he verbalize a feeling he didn't understand? His preoccupation with Seiki was complicated... or maybe too simple. When boiled down, however, it equaled guilt.
He settled for saying, "I just feel bad for him," the same platitude which rolled off the Chosen's lips with such regularity these days, neither assigning nor denying complicity. That left a bad taste in his mouth. This was Hikari, after all. He could be candid with her. "We sort of failed those kids," he amended. "If we could have helped them before things got bad..."
"Before demons dropped out of the sky, you mean?" The elevator opened on the first floor.
"Don't you feel at least a little responsible for what they've done?" Takeru asked.
"They're putting innocent people in danger," Hikari replied in a strict tone that brooked no argument. "I know what they've gone through is – if they'd trusted us, instead of deciding we're out to get them, maybe none of this would have happened. Don't know how much we could have done for them, considering even Gennai can't persuade the Sovereigns to let them into Digiworld." She pursed her lips. "But that doesn't make it okay for them to put other people in danger. I can sympathize with them and hold them accountable at the same time."
"Yeah," Takeru agreed, a bit glumly. He hesitated, but since she seemed full of opinions today... "I've been thinking that we should look for their partners," he said. "I mean, I know Gennai didn't have any luck with that, and if he couldn't do it how can we, but still. This whole rivalry could blow over if they see we're doing something to help them. I don't know what we can do, but there must be something."
Ken had been right – on what basis were they assuming the Spore Children were their enemies? Because they said so? The olive branch of peace had been offered, but tentatively, to be whisked away as soon as the other looked ready to snap it in half.
A crease in Hikari's brow deepened. "Yeah, I think so too." Once they were back under the glare of the Asakusa sun, she smiled up at him. "Let's bring it up with everyone when we get a chance. Now I'm going to call Koushirou-san and ask him what to do next."
"Hopefully he's got something better for us to do than play hide-and-seek around Tokyo," Takeru joked, trying to match her mood. She had plenty more reason to freak out than he did – the fact that she was at present alive at all, instead of crumbling in the peptic acid of a monster's stomach, was more cause for concern than it had any right to be – but she was taking it all in stride.
Probably just so I won't worry, he thought, glancing at her sidelong. Unlike him, Hikari had a knack for making her I'm fines believable. But no matter how good an actress she was, he knew better. Whether because he knew her, or because of what they'd been through since the tender age of eight – he could tell. Still, it was sweet of her to lie.
For all the good that it did.
"Oomph," said Sora as the car lurched and she spilled gracelessly over Sumire in the back seat. She steadied the thermometer in her hand. "Jou, have I ever complimented your driving? 'Cause if I have, I take it back."
"Sorry about that," Jou said as he steered around another pothole. "I'm pretty sure there weren't any huge gaps in this road before Godzilla over there decided to go for a stroll."
Sora made some lightly sarcastic remark in return, their conversation filtering through the whirr of Koushirou's brain as he examined the schematic loading on his computer. Getting close to the creature had been more difficult than anticipated. At the moment, Ken was in the field trying to get a read on it (digivices and D3s had the same breadth of range, but D3s were far more precise). They were following him in the car, crawling at a pace slow enough that Koushirou could just open the door and walk off if he wanted to. His own digivice was plugged into his PC so he could review what he'd learned of analyzing digital imprints. Distance had never been such a problem in the past; Digimon would register in their digivice as long as they could see it. Ken, at least, should be close enough by now. Which supported Ken's theory that this creature was not a Digimon at all, but rather a denizen of the World of Darkness.
We need a less romantic name for that place, Koushirou mused. It was a jump to assume the monster came from the dark world, as opposed to any of the other myriad dimensions existing beyond their ken, but at times like this there was something to be said for intuition. And the dark world had plagued them before.
His eyes traveled to the pouch on his PC case which held the plain silver flash drive given to him by Gennai in the Cipher Room. He still hadn't told anyone about it, though he checked every night to make sure it was still there. Of course he'd tried snapping it into his PC to take a look at its contents. But maybe Gennai's trust was misplaced, as the program inside made his head spin.
Could it help now? Gennai said he thought Koushirou would need it soon. But if he didn't know how it worked...
Now he understood why Taichi always complained about Gennai's "helpful unhelpfulness."
"37.6," Sora read off the thermometer she'd had to hold in Sumire's mouth, as the girl refused to wake up. "Well, her temperature's going down at least."
"Good," Jou said, letting the car coast to a full halt. "Try waking her again."
"Do you think she shouldn't be sleeping?"
"No, it'd just be useful to talk to her. She's not in the danger zone so she might as well tell us what she can."
Koushirou nudged the door open. "I'm going to catch up with Ken-kun. Call me if Ariyasu-san has anything important to say."
The fog had receded to nothing but a thin haze suspended in the air, making the sky seem overcast. Clasping his laptop close to his chest, Koushirou trudged down the sidewalk, keeping one eye out for Ken and the other fixed on the monster, which had taken to jetting over a copse of trees in a small park and ripping at branches with its claws.
As he walked, he was startled by the sight of a pair of businessmen coming from the opposite direction. Up till now, there hadn't been any sign of life other than themselves, the energy field created by the fog having somehow cleared the streets of anyone without a digivice. Now that it's lifting, people will start to return – apparently unharmed and oblivious, Koushirou surmised.
The two men were perplexed by the goings on in the park, which Koushirou heard them attribute to "another typhoon already." As he passed them, Koushirou threw a surreptitious glance over his shoulder. The two men entered the part of town over which the fog was thickest – and promptly disappeared.
So that's how it works.
Interesting that the energy field seemed only able to extend over a limited radius from the mouth of the portal. The Chosen fighting monsters in other parts of town hadn't mentioned deserted roads or vanishing crowds.
He found Ken taking cover behind a park bench as the monster continued to tear at the treetops. "Your plan isn't working," Ken commented when he dropped down beside him.
"Yeah, I just don't understand it." Koushirou flipped open his PC. "It's never been so hard to take a reading. Even if it's not a Digimon, you would think we'd pick up something."
"The World of Darkness is getting clever," Ken murmured.
Koushirou kept his gaze on the screen. If he knew how to help Ken fight his demons, he'd do so in an instant. But as usual, all he could do was bury himself in his computer.
"Cell phone," Ken said after a minute.
Koushirou blinked at him in confusion before his ears alerted him to the trill of his phone. He pulled it out of his pocket. "It's Hikari-san," he said as he went to answer the call. "Hello, Hikari-san, what's going on?"
"Hi, Koushirou-san," she replied. Nothing in her tone spoke of alarm. "I hadn't heard from you in a while, so I thought I'd call. Takeru-kun and I got rid of a monster, and –"
"You got rid of one!?" Koushirou exclaimed. Beside him, Ken looked over sharply.
"Yeah. No one else has?"
"Not as far as I know. What did you do to it?"
"Um..." She hesitated. "I don't know, exactly. I was just standing there and – my digivice did something. I wasn't all that conscious. And the creature disintegrated."
"Disintegrated? Did you actually witness that happen?"
"Yeah, it broke apart piece by piece. Like a Digimon when it dies."
"Wow." Scratching behind his ear, Koushirou exchanged a look with Ken, who was hanging on to his every word. "I think everyone else is just scrambling to effect some kind of damage control. Our digivices and D3s have been useless."
"Koushirou-san, it was her D3 in particular," Takeru's voice chimed in from Hikari's end. "Mine didn't have anything to do with it."
That made Ken nod. "There's always been something a bit different about Hikari-san's D3."
"Indeed." Koushirou watched the creature zoom overhead, head tipped thoughtfully. "Hikari-san, see if you can relay any data your D3 gathered to me."
Another way in which the D3s were advantageous – he didn't have to physically plug them into his PC in order to download. A window came up containing a .zip file. He clicked Extract.
Ken let out a whistle. "Koushirou-san, this is what you wanted, isn't it?"
"Yes." Beautiful, he thought. The string of code that composed the creature's digital imprint – it was beautiful. Satisfaction rolled over him. "Great. Perfect. We can use this to detect other similar imprints and track down the remaining creatures. Well done, Hikari-san."
"Glad to help," Hikari said.
"Let me input the data, and I'll message you when I know where to send you next. You and Takeru-kun can have a break. Make sure you drink something," he added, thinking Sora and Jou would both frown at him if he forgot.
"Will do. Thanks."
As soon as Hikari hung up, Koushirou poured his attention into the program. With his programming skill combined with Ken's, it was done in a flash. The process itself wasn't different from locating digivice signals, something they did all the time. A city map of Tokyo loaded on the screen, four glowing dots in various wards denoting creatures. Koushirou made a mental note of each: Shimbashi, Setagaya, Tamachi, Shibuya. The one in Asakusa could, of course, trouble them no longer.
As he toyed with the zoom function (not only could he track which ward they were in, he could even pinpoint well-known landmarks in their area – one, for example, was currently flanking the statue of Hachikou the Faithful Dog), Ken leaned in front of him, squinting, and adjusted the screen's tilt. "Where did the one in Shimbashi go?" he asked, frowning.
"The monster in Shimbashi," Ken repeated. "It's gone."
Koushirou scanned the map, but Ken was right. If the monster had flown elsewhere, it wasn't registering, and it could only have gone beyond the margins of the map if it had some teleportation ability the creatures had kept hidden until now. He broadened the search range anyway. At the same time, Gennai's animated video graphic appeared at the corner of his screen. He exchanged a look with Ken, and clicked it.
Pieces of Gennai's wrinkled face appeared, somewhat obscured by the tufts of feathers, fur and flapping paws crowding around him, and Tentomon dropped in front of everyone before he even had a chance to speak, antennae twitching in his unique method of expressing happiness.
"Koushirou-han! You're not dead after all!" chirped his partner.
"... Nope, alive and kicking, Tentomon." Koushirou managed to bite back a chuckle. "What made you think I was dead?" he asked.
"We could tell you persisted in reaching out to us for a long time, though we could not forge through the interference," Gennai replied in his usual tone of genial amusement. "When your signals stopped coming, some of our friends here feared the worst."
"See? Told you they were fine." Gomamon, apparently well enough to make fun of his friends, smirked at Tentomon. "Worry any more and your skin will start to shed."
"It's called an exoskeleton," Tentomon snipped back frostily.
"Are you okay too, Ken-chan?" Wormmon asked, skittering closer.
The smile Koushirou could no longer suppress was mirrored on Ken's lips. "Yes. We're all fine," he said.
"For now, at any rate," added Koushirou. "Gennai, the Spore Children, they tried to open a Digital Gate by using Ken-kun's D3 as a conduit, and now there are these creatures –"
"Yes, I am aware of the situation." One hand emerged from behind Gennai's back to stroke his moustache. "I was afraid something like this might occur if those children were left to their own devices. There are six in all, correct?"
"There were," Koushirou answered. "Two have disappeared."
"Good. As I conjectured, at this time they cannot retain their form in your world for an extended duration. I expect the others will vanish soon as well, but there's no reason why we can't help them along, or at least prevent them from leveling your homes before they go."
"It would be best if we could keep the general public in the dark about all this," Ken said with a glance at Koushirou. "Keep the fight in the sky?"
Koushirou nodded. Most of their Digimon had some flight ability, but there was a great difference between Garudamon's graceful dives and MetalGreymon's unwieldy sort of tumble through the air. "Stingmon, then, for the monster here. We can get Kabuterimon if we need him, but he's too big to be inconspicuous. Hikari-san and Takeru-kun can bring their partners to the monster in Setagaya. As for the one in Shibuya..."
Mimi and Iori were around there, having accidentally met up while train-hopping. Originally Takeru had been with them, which was good, one because they could summon Shakkoumon, two because Koushirou wasn't sure Mimi and Iori had ever had a conversation together which lasted past, "Pumpkin pudding is so delicious, isn't it?" "Mmphgulpdelicious." But Takeru had been diverted by the threat to Hikari and left the group. Koushirou thought privately that the whole team needed to assemble for a seminar on tactics; if they'd thought about things instead of just reacting, they would have realized it made more sense for Takeru and Iori to stick together, that the baffling partnership of Mimi and Iori had a very questionable chance for success, and the current status quo being what is was, the only flying Digimon they had between them was Lillymon. He supposed he could send Sora to back them up, though she'd be reluctant to leave the girl –
"Have you spoken with Taichi?" Gennai asked when Koushirou's pause began to stretch.
"Not since his call dropped earlier," Koushirou realized, some of the tension in his neck loosening as his hands moved almost of their own volition to his cell phone and punched in Taichi's number. This time, at least, he would have a plan to offer. Taichi was always ready to take it from there.
The intense fear that at first gripped his throat in a stranglehold had settled into a flu-like congestion deep in Taichi's lungs. Sunburn prickled the tip of his nose. His shirt front clung to his skin, dark with perspiration. Feeling dehydration creep up on him, he gave a scan of a nearby vending machine for anything with electrolytes, and slipped in a couple of coins for a Pocari Sweat. As he leaned against a wall and uncapped the bottle, he forced himself to take long, steadying breaths. At least his hands no longer shook when he raised them above his shoulders.
They were getting worse. These capricious little vanishing acts that came over him lately – they weren't so little anymore. Or so innocent. When he'd crashed down the stairs during the hunt with Takeru, he'd been back on his feet quick enough; would've been quicker still if he hadn't lost his goddamned tooth in the grim, too. This time...
This time he'd fallen on his back, direct sun on his face, insensible, unsure he even knew what it was to think. He lay on the pavement with the squeak of the bike wheel drifting to his ears as momentum kept it spinning, as if finding itself abruptly upended had left it desperate to have something to do, however ineffective now that the sky and the ground had switched places. Needing to do something familiar to convince itself that it still had control, that the world hadn't just gone bonkers for no reason. After all, wheels were made to spin.
And humans were made, to...?
I think, therefore I am.
Digitization. It wasn't even a real word. At least, not in the sense he meant it. No definition could be appended to the dictionary until it had been encountered a time or two, and he felt pretty sure he was a pioneer in that regard. Pictures could be digitized – text, sound – but a human being? How did you digitize a personality, memory, without discarding something vital? If Gennai was right that nothing could be done, how much of him would be left afterward? I'm like the kid in Wonka Factory, the one who turns into a bunch of TV pixels.
That kid was such a brat.
Toranosuke found him that way, blinking vacantly at the rotating bike wheel and trying to convince himself that moving was a worthwhile endeavor. The only reason he'd escaped with all his teeth this time was because Toranosuke took one look at his ashen face and lost all inclination to belt him for making off with his bike. Turned out Noda Toranosuke was an alright sort of guy – though irate over the state of "She," by which he meant his bike (somehow Taichi'd managed to suppress the urge to snigger), Toranosuke had helped him to his feet, even checked him for signs of a concussion, before going off on an explosive tirade and filching his cell phone when he wasn't looking.
Yeah. That wasn't as cool. Maybe he deserved it for "borrowing" the guy's bike, but. Still.
After downing two-thirds of his drink, Taichi wiped his face with the somewhat dry hem of his soccer jersey and plodded onward. No matter how helpless warping out made him feel, now was not the time for wallowing. It was hopefully a good sign that he hadn't overheard any news of billboards toppling or statues cleaving, but not knowing where the monster had gone left him uneasy.
He thought about calling Yamato again. With the creatures as spread out as they were, and as dangerous, maybe he should have pushed for him to come from the start. And he had a way of – of telling it straight. Of not letting Taichi get away with doubt and self-pity when other people were relying on him. Sometimes his total lack of restraint about his misgivings put a wedge in their friendship, but in the end they came through stronger. His voice carried loudest when Taichi was acting bull-headed. And yet – and yet –
If he called now, Yamato would definitely take it as a sign that he had to leave the band to come help. And the band was everything to him. He was trying to build a future, and Digiworld, no matter how much he loved it and cherished his time there, kept getting in the way.
Yamato shouldn't have to jeopardize his dream. He, Taichi, would just have to do better.
By the time he reached the high school, the grounds were empty, all practices over in time for students to go home for lunch. Taichi leapt the fence with rather less than his usual gusto. He found Daisuke and Miyako waiting for him under the shade of the students' entrance, Daisuke with his head ducked into the spray of the outdoor sink.
"You know we use that to wash the steps, right," Taichi remarked as he strolled over to them.
Daisuke straightened, water glistening in his hair, dribbling down his chin. His nose wrinkled. "Like you're picky about that."
To prove his point, Daisuke cupped his hands under the faucet and splashed him.
"I see you're fit as a fiddle," Taichi sputtered as Daisuke cackled gleefully. "Why am I not surprised that you're the only guy in the world who could get flattened by a post box and walk away from it without a scratch?"
Daisuke replied with an enthusiastic nod. "I'm like a Looney Tunes character! Next time it'll be a piano or something!"
"Poke him in the ribs," Miyako suggested with a dark look for Daisuke. "Then tell me how very like Bugs Bunny he is."
"Bugs Bunny didn't get hit, he did the hitting – nngh – ow!" Daisuke protested as Taichi did as he was told, coming up from behind and tickling his sides. With a glare, Daisuke shoved at him. "It's just a bruise or something, no big deal," he grumbled, curiously red-faced.
"Daisuke, tickling's not supposed to hurt," Taichi said with a frown.
"I hate being tickled!"
"Didn't say it's supposed to be fun." He sighed. Now he definitely had to get Daisuke to the clinic – kicking and screaming if need be. Why was monster hunting so much more complicated outside of Digiworld?
"Look, I can take a little pain." The hot flush hadn't left Daisuke's cheeks, but he stalwartly met Taichi's eyes. "Besides, you wouldn't let anyone ship you off to the doctor at a time like this no matter what."
"Yeah, I would, because I'd only be a liability if I tagged along." He hadn't meant to sound like such a dad, and Daisuke might even be right – last time Taichi'd fractured his ankle and been banned from practice, he'd just gone to the park and joined a game with the kids there. But there was this thing where he was supposed to be a mentor and a role model, and even if he didn't model smart behavior so well, at least he should encourage it in his protégé.
Besides, Daisuke was a kid. Same age as Hikari. He wouldn't let her chase after a monster the size of a dump truck if she were injured.
"Listen, Daisuke –"
He was cut off by a blast of music from his pocket.
Miyako's brow rose. "'Theme from Jaws'?"
"Ring tone for Koushirou, because he always sneaks up on me out of nowhere," Taichi said dryly as he fumbled to answer his phone. "Not done with you," he added first, jabbing a no-nonsense finger at Daisuke, who had evidently decided to shoot for the world record for Most Epic Pout.
"Yo, Koushirou, sorry about losing you earlier."
"No problem. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he answered. "Lost the monster, though."
"That's alright. It's gone back to where it came from."
"Gone? As in –"
"As in we don't have to worry about it anymore. I got through to Gennai."
Taichi listened with mounting discomfort as Koushirou ran through everything that had happened on his end. It should be a relief that the creatures would disappear on their own. It should. Yet when did they ever get such an easy break?
"I'd like to say never look a gift horse in the mouth, but to be honest I feel the same way," Koushirou said when Taichi voiced his doubts.
Taichi chewed the inside of his cheek. "Alright, first things first. Let's do like you suggested, and have Gennai send Wormmon to you guys, and Palmon, Patamon and Gatomon to Mimi, Takeru and Hikari. Ken, you email them the plan." He paused while Koushirou passed this on. "If these things were let in through the Gate the Spore kids made, then there's nothing to stop them coming back, assuming those kids are as stupid as I think they are and try this again," he continued. "I know we don't have much on them, Koushirou, but I'd rather make sure there isn't a next time."
"Yes." Koushirou nodded after a minute. "There's also the potential for them to get used to our world and figure out how to stay here longer."
"So we're agreed. We have to get rid of them for good."
"That's easy enough to say, but how?"
"Can't you ask Gennai?"
He heard a series of murmurs – Koushirou relaying their discussion to Gennai. Daisuke was still at his side, though his pout had faded into a half concerned, half frustrated sideways scrunch of his lips. Wandering over, Miyako rested her chin on Daisuke's shoulder and looked at Taichi, eyes questioning.
"Hey Koushirou," Taichi said, flashing a grin at the younger pair, "can you hold on a sec? We'll log on a school computer and contact you via video chat. Daisuke and Miyako-chan want in on our parley too."
"Sounds good," said Koushirou with a hint of amusement. "Meet you there."
They had to schmooze the teacher on duty into giving them the key to the computer lab, but luckily Miyako had her club project for an excuse. The glossy new school computers took half the boot-up time that the Yagami family's ancient desktop did. Miyako pulled up the Internet and logged into video chat in only a minute. The screen divided by thirds, a window for the three of them, one for Ken and Koushirou, and the margins of another near to bursting as it pressed full of Digimon.
"Taichi!" screeched Agumon. Taichi grinned at him before watching his partner fall off screen as Veemon bounded over him.
"Daisuke, you're all wet! You been swimming?"
Meanwhile, Hawkmon, in an effort to uphold the dignity his friends had so carelessly squandered, edged next to them until he'd managed to shuffle mostly into view; then, with a huge, blink-and-you'll-miss-it lash of his wing, knocked them out of the way. He fixed a half-lidded bird eye on his partner. "I see that you are well, Miyako-san," he commented, before turning to fix the sole feather which had come awry in the tussle.
"Can't complain," Miyako said, giggling.
"Hawkmon, if you don't mind." Gennai sidled into the window. After another prolonged moment of looking at Miyako and preening, Hawkmon made room for him, and Gennai settled down with their remaining partners perched, draped, or puddled over and around him, as if he were seated among the prizes in a crane game.
"Okay, so," Taichi began. "What can we do to get rid of the monsters, Gennai?"
At first Gennai didn't answer, only pressed his lips tighter.
Ken leaned in, saying, "If there was a way to do that, don't you think Gennai would have told us from the start?"
"Not if he's assuming we want to be discreet."
"I mean, it would be nice." Taichi shrugged. "But we have to risk being seen. If Koushirou's right and the monsters are going to get stronger, then we're fools if we don't take advantage of their weakness now. And do we really want to take the chance that every time they reappear, enough of us will be free to handle them?"
"The Spore Children may be too freaked to try again," Ken countered. There was a stubborn set to his jaw that surprised Taichi – though given the conversation he'd had with Daisuke just this morning, perhaps he should have expected to be contradicted.
Daisuke elbowed past Taichi and Miyako to seize the monitor. The table shuddered beneath. "Come on, Ken! You can't really believe that," he cried. "Look, we all want to help them, okay, nothing would suck worse than never being able to see Veemon again. But you can't just deny reality! Don't you get it, they're desperate, and they've already proved they'll do anything to get to Digiworld!"
Ken went quiet. Cursing, Daisuke gave the monitor another shake, as if that would somehow urge his friend out his reticence. Then Ken stood so that only his legs were visible on screen. Koushirou swiveled around to ask him something, and Ken started off for elsewhere, not rushing, but without a glance back.
"... He went to keep an eye on Stingmon," Koushirou explained, turning back to them.
Daisuke's hand fell away. "Ken," he muttered.
With a look of sympathy, Miyako patted the chair next to her. He plopped down with a sigh.
"He may be right," Taichi offered, gentler now, wishing he'd reined in his fire before. "But the chance that he's not is too high."
"Agreed," said Koushirou.
"Children," Gennai interjected with an apologetic dip of his head. "I quite follow your reasoning. There is a possibility – though one I would not propose if there were any other recourse."
"What is it?"
"Send them to the World of Darkness," Gennai said, somber. "I believe you took a similar action years ago, with Daemon. You cannot destroy them, they cannot stay in your world, and they must not come here. Lock them away in the Pit."
Taichi's brow furrowed. Open a portal to the World of Darkness? On purpose? Daisuke's team had done so because Daemon was too strong – but these monsters were nowhere near Daemon's level. Their partners should be able to get rid of them, like Taichi wanted.
Daisuke beat him to it – "Why can't we destroy them?" he demanded, forgetting, as always, to retain a semblance of respect for his elders, digital or otherwise.
"I misspoke. You can, but you must not."
"But Hikari-chan beat one," Daisuke interrupted.
That news seemed to honestly disturb Gennai for a moment. He stilled but for a tremor in his arms so slight that Taichi wasn't sure he'd seen it. "Did she? That is... unexpected. At any rate, you mustn't destroy any more of them. You know too little about them."
"You seem to know a bit," Miyako observed.
"Not much more than you, in fact. But folly as it is to let the creatures remain, it is also folly to eliminate them without understanding why they exist."
Taichi opened his mouth, a sardonic retort on his lips, but caught the look of warning on Koushirou's face. Reluctantly he swallowed his protest. Koushirou, after all, knew Gennai better than any of them. Fine, we'll do it your way. But I don't like it. I don't like letting them go when we have the power to defeat them.
Although he also didn't like the feeling of rushing into battle without a game plan. Maybe he hadn't cared as much the first time they got enmeshed in the chaos of Digiworld, but those months – day after day of running for their lives, of not knowing if they'd ever get home – had taught him how much security there was in knowing your enemy.
Maybe consigning the creatures to the World of Darkness was the best compromise there was – the only recourse, as Gennai said. They would neither have to fight something they didn't understand, nor let the monsters roam free.
"The only issues I can think of regarding sending them to the World of Darkness would be – first of all, they might have originally come from there," Koushirou was saying. "And second, the fabric between that world and others seems remarkably thin. Both Hikari-san and Ken-san have traveled back and forth from the Dark Ocean to Digiworld and to Earth."
"Daemon didn't come back," Miyako pointed out. "And it never seemed like any of us were able to get deep into the World of Darkness..."
Each time was a close call, though. If her partner and friends hadn't been there, Hikari might have been abducted by the demons masquerading as Divermon. And the dark energy infusing his Digivice, his Spore, was nothing to sneeze at.
"I do not know if they come from the World of the Darkness," Gennai answered slowly. "But if so, then there can be no harm in returning them to their home. They may come back, as you fear, but we won't know unless we try."
"I just don't want to take the risk that they'll come back stronger," Taichi said, frustrated, because this should be routine, if not easy. They should be able to beat them like they'd beaten every other enemy who'd threatened their world or another. They weren't planning a strategic retreat, they didn't have to run away. Victory was sweet, defeat bitter, and this – a cup of wet sand.
"Taichi, Koushirou, I expect that you of all people," Gennai replied – had the twinkle returned to his eye? – "understand the fruits of taking a calculated risk."
In spite of himself, Taichi started to grin. Resigned, and somewhat rueful, but a grin nonetheless. Koushirou's face was less expressive, but he met Taichi's eyes, and Taichi was sure he saw the shadow of thrill there.
"Alright. Let's put it to a vote. All in favor, say 'aye'."
"Aye!" cried Daisuke and Miyako together.
"Yes," said Koushirou, who was only half listening, distracted by something on his computer screen. "But we'll have to postpone initiating anything. I'm looking at the map right now, and the other monsters have vanished too, just like the one in Shimbashi."
Taichi leaned his elbows back against the file cabinet as Miyako's and Daisuke's voices erupted in a flurry of incredulity and disappointment.
"Whatever, it's a good thing. We have to look at it as a good thing." Taichi sighed. "At least we can all go home now."
"I hate anticlimactic endings," Daisuke grumbled.
Miyako rolled her eyes. "Daisuke, that is one thing I'm sure you'll never experience."
"Ken will be happy, anyway," Taichi said.
It irked him, though. For pretty selfish reasons. If he had something to do – if he could attack, take the offense against a threat – all those feelings of powerlessness and of not belonging to himself that slithered and writhed in his gut could be pushed away, stomped out. His episode in the lot behind the temple had left him cold and shaking. What he needed was a way to light a fire in a blizzard.
But he didn't know of one, and he ought to know better than to wish for a fight.
He clapped a hand on Daisuke's shoulder. "C'mon. Now you have no excuse not to get those ribs checked."
Daisuke made a face, but gave in more easily than Taichi'd expected. He was probably still upset over Ken. "Okay. Let's go. Bye, Veemon."
"You're leaving already?" Veemon's entire body drooped, from his tail to the odd horn-like protusions on the back of his head. The Digimon, who had kept out of the discussion until now, crowded into the frame again, Agumon, Tentomon, and Hawkmon squeezing in closest. "You just got here," Veemon complained.
"Yeah, but unfortunately this accident prone idiot did something to his ribs, and he's got to get them looked at," Miyako replied with a bit more cheer. "But I'll stick around for a while, at least until Suzuki-sensei comes after me for the key to the lab. Just to keep you company."
"Anyway, we'll see you all soon, remember? Friday's campout?" Taichi added. He and Yamato had been planning their annual Partners campout for weeks, ever since Mimi confirmed that she'd be in Japan until the end of August.
"Yeah!" Agumon brightened. "That's right! But Taichi, you can't come to Digiworld, right?"
He did his best not to scowl at the reminder. "Which is why you guys will come here this year. We've got a private campsite with an actual cabin. And we're gonna fill it with everything you like to eat from our world."
Jubilant cheers exploded from the speakers. Beneath the tumult Taichi could just make out Gennai's indulgent chuckle.
"Sorry we can't have you along too, Gennai. You've probably never tried the stuff these guys like. Cheeseburgers and stuff."
Their mentor's frayed moustache tilted diagonal. "I assume they exist somewhere in Digiworld. To be honest I can't say I've ever felt that I'm missing out., but do eat one in my honor. For myself, I don't feel that the day's started off right until I've had my miso soup."
Sumire wouldn't wake up no matter how Sora called or shook her. Just as Jou came around back to oversee, her temperature suddenly spiked and she let out an ear-splitting scream.
"Oh my God!" Sora cried, as Sumire's nails raked the padded seat. She grabbed her flailing arms by the wrists. "Jou, what's going on!? She was getting better!"
"Believe me, I wish I knew." Jou fumbled with an ice pack and pressed it to Sumire's forehead. The girl lashed out with her foot, kicking Sora in the chin with one patent leather shoe. Though she winced, Sora managed to keep hold of her, and shifted her body so her knees were pinning Sumire's to the seat.
"Come on, Sumire-san, please wake up," she pleaded, watching the girl's once colorless face grow red with exertion. Jou looked utterly lost. "I think she's having a nightmare," Sora said to him.
"Alright, let's go to the hospital. I'll call Koushirou and –"
Then abruptly, the girl's struggles ceased. Her overheated body sagged like a doll's beneath Sora. Touching the inside of her wrist, Sora found her hummingbird pulse gradually winding down, like a top in the final stage of a spin. At last her eyes opened, the color of slate, pupils contracting against the onslaught of daylight.
Quivering, Sora's hand went to the girl's forehead and tucked aside the strands of hair plastered to her skin, tenderly, like a mother would.
Sumire gazed up at her as her breathing slowed. Her mouth parted, upper lip curling. A cruel look for a little girl, incongruous with her perfect cuticles, her pristine uniform.
"Sumire-san," she prompted, gently as she could, the terror of the last few moments lingering like a ghost. "Can you talk? Do you remember anything?"
Her mouth widened. On the edge of the seat, her hand twitched, then lifted to touch Sora's face in a strange imitation of Sora's caress from before. Her thumb brushed over the bruise on her chin where her shoe struck. She giggled.
"Did I do that?" she asked. Her voice was weak and scratchy. "Oops."
"It's okay," Sora said quickly, looking over at Jou. Can we get on with it? her eyes demanded. He ducked out sheepishly and went back to the driver's side. "Sumire-san, can you tell me how I can reach your mom or dad?"
The car kicked into gear and lurched into the road, tires crunching over the gravel.
"Did I kill someone?" Sumire asked.
"Of course not!" Sora exclaimed. "Why would you ask that? Look, just – here. Drink some water. Then try to remember your mom's phone number, okay?"
"I don't know. It's just, I feel like I could have." Sumire took a gulp of the water, then laid back shuddering. "Oooh, my stomach hurts..."
"Hang in there. Atta girl."
"I'm going to take us around to pick up Koushirou and Ken," Jou said as he drove around a corner. "Coast should be clear now. Koushirou probably has Ariyasu-san's home number, too."
Sora nodded wordlessly, deciding to ignore Sumire's first remark for now. Bringing Sumire back to her parents was priority one; making sure none of the other kids involved had ended up like her was next. After that... after that they'd just have to hope this was nothing but feverish delirium. Exhaustion pulled at the corners of her eyes, and it was barely afternoon.
Odaiba, some hours later
"I told you guys nothing was wrong. Let this be a lesson. Always believe me."
"You have three bruised ribs, Daisuke. That's kind of a stretch for 'nothing."
"Language is always evolving, man, don't be such an elitist."
"Your vocabulary's evolving, at least."
"Why does everyone think I don't know words!?"
"And by everyone you mean..."
"Well, officially, as of today, you and Miyako. And Takeru. And Jun."
"Are we evolving the definition of 'everyone' now too?"
"Shut up and let me drink my milkshake in peace."
"You know, I kind of expected you to be a cookies and cream kind of guy. Glad to have my omniscience henceforth proven."
"Are we having a big-words-no-one-uses tournament because if so, that would cut into my milkshake drinking time, and then it would be melt, and that would be the hour of my discontent."
"Winter. It's winter of discontent."
"'Zit feel chilly in here to you?"
"It'd be easier to believe you're mad at me if you weren't grinning."
"Drink your damn milkshake, pipsqueak."
"God, how sexy."
"Come to think of it, why does Gennai like Japanese food so much anyway? I don't think I've ever seen him eat anything else."
"Why does 'sexy' make you think of Gennai?"
"Why is your face red?"
"Mmmyes it is. So, you like them old, Daisuke? I mean, not old, experienced."
"I'm going to kill you!"
"It's his general baldness, right? You fall asleep fantasizing about Captain Picard?"
"... Well, that's a waste of a perfectly good milkshake."
"Still got half left. By the way, Frosty the Snowman is a good look for you."
"By the way, look out below."
"Wha? – HEY! Ew! Not Tabasco! I can't eat this now! Quit laughing!"
"Happy Birthday, idiot."
1] 37.6: For the Celsius-illiterate like me, this should put Sumire's fever at just under 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
2.] Hachikou the Faithful Dog: (忠犬ハチ公) Hachikou was an Akita dog who awaited his owner's return day after day, even after the owner died. His unfaltering loyalty is memorialized in a statue in Shibuya.
3] Pocari Sweat: Common Japanese sports drink.
So, what do you think? I hope things sort of made sense. Are you sick of summer yet? Thanks for reading! If you want to be a dear and leave a review, I promise to lovingly chant your username every night before I go to sleep. (that's not creepy at all right) xoxo