A/N: Hi everyone! Happy Odaiba Day! Well, it's August 1 where I am, which is Japan (again, yay!). For those of you in certain time zones, it's still Harry Potter's birthday. Oh well, I'm sure you don't mind celebrating two things at once, right? Anyway miracle of miracles, it's the first chapter of Act 2! I keep trying to do things differently than Digimon Tri but somehow I fail. Hopefully y'all forgive me and enjoy this story again.
A hundred million thanks to everyone who's supported this fic and left reviews/sent messages, you guys are the reason I keep trucking on with this monster fic. Also, apologies in advance for everyone being so fricking miserable in this chapter... given the circumstances... I'm sure you understand.
All Seems Beautiful
The Second Act:
A Weak Hope
"I want the old days back again and they'll never come back,
and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears."
- Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
At some point Koushirou had decided his childhood room needed an upgrade. So he'd shopped around for bedspreads and settled on one with a more mature navy and green checkered pattern. Then his mother had suggested clearing out the junk under his bed, which reminded him that, in fact, he liked his room just as it was. He was not a pack rat. Everything simply had its place. The shelves were home to books and video game paraphernalia and the occasional action figure (which he kept as a collector's item, and certainly not because he couldn't bear to throw it out). Computer equipment took up most of the floor space, leaving only a few unclogged walking lanes. He'd resisted his mom's attempts to donate that old globe too, and moved it to safety behind his bed, where it sat collecting dust. Why he kept it was a mystery even to him. He really should throw it out, Koushirou thought to himself, watching Taichi spin the globe around with one finger, engrossed in a game of "guess the country."
"Okay, guess what country is under my finger," Taichi said as the globe spun to a stop. "I think… Nicaragua. That looks like Central America. What say you, Koushirou?"
"I told you, I'm not playing. And that is not Central America, that's Europe."
Taichi lifted his finger and squinted at the print on the surface of the globe, putting tiny wrinkles in his nose. "Moldova. That's a real place?"
As he had been doing for the last hour (and for most of his childhood, if he were honest), Koushirou ignored Taichi's idle attempts to entertain himself and focused on his computer.
Password, password, what password? Gennai had failed to mention it when he'd given him that odd little gadget-hard drive-thing in the cypher room. You would think, if you planned to go through all the trouble of downloading your entire database to hand over to someone else, that you'd at least give them a hint about the password. A riddle, maybe. Or an anagram. One of those old code rings that used to come in cereal boxes.
He'd just have to try another way. Nothing like good old-fashioned winging it.
"Okay, this time I pick… hmm… Japan. 'Cause there's no place like home. Your turn."
Password: Oolong tea. If Gennai expected him to guess the password without any hints, then it should be something that springs right to mind, shouldn't it?
"You listening? It's your turn."
Password denied. Well, shucks.
"Koushirou. Hellooo. C'mon, I'm starting to worry that your soul has departed for the astral plane and now your body's nothing more than an empty husk that smells like aftershave and too much time spent indoors. Hey, do you shave yet?" There was a thump. "What the hell, Moldova again?"
Password denied. Damn. Well, if it wasn't something characteristic of him, maybe it was characteristic of Gennai.
"Kooooooushiroooou, come baaaack to me. It's lonely out there in the void."
"What would Gennai-san pick for a password?" Koushirou asked.
Taichi paused in the midst of lobbing bits of crumpled paper at the side of Koushirou's head. "Uh, I don't know, 'open sesame'? Why do you ask?"
"Just, it's strange." Koushirou picked the paper wads from his lap and tossed them in the rough direction of the waste bin, where they made a noncommittal attempt to jump the rim before zooming under the bed. "I mean, Gennai-san and I never ran out of things to talk about. Everything I know about the digital world, I learned from him. But other than that, our personalities weren't much of a match. Sometimes I think the Gennai-san you knew was rather different from the one I knew."
The vacant expression on Taichi's face cleared as he spoke, only to return even more zealously stupid than before.
"So, what, the Gennai you knew was Dr. Jekyll and I knew Mr. Hyde?
"Look, just say whatever comes to mind."
"A password? That Gennai would use?"
Koushirou turned red. "Taichi-san, can you be serious for two seconds of your life?"
"I am serious!"
"You're the one who said the Gennai I knew was different from the one you knew, and the Gennai I knew was a major league pervert, who loved pafu-pafu."
Feeling very silly, but otherwise out of options, Koushirou started typing. A memory drifted in, of fixing a lock on his bedroom door only to be assaulted by Monzaemon doing the can-can the first time he let Gennai download on his computer. Pafu-pafu, that's right. I never did click that icon. His curiosity had waged war with prepubescent anxiety and suffered a spectacular loss.
Password acknowledged. Accessing database.
"Unbelievable," Koushirou muttered.
"What's unbelievable?" Taichi asked, crawling around to peer over his shoulder at the screen. "I was right, wasn't I? Sweet. My next guess was going to be Moldova."
"We're in," Koushirou went on as if he hadn't spoken. It was sometimes the only way to get anywhere in a conversation with Taichi. Rummaging through his desk door, he took out a pair of cables, neatly wrapped with twist-ties. "Plug this into your digivice."
A number of icons he'd never seen before had loaded on his desktop, but he would investigate them later. He pushed a pile of notebooks and loose papers aside as Taichi handed him his digivice for Koushirou to link up with his computer. He tried to return the second cable as well, but Koushirou shook his head.
"That one is for you."
"Me? To use how? I'm not hiding a USB port in my pinky, you know."
"It's not a phone charger. Just keep your hand tight around it."
Taichi quirked a brow but did as he was told. The one advantage in being the only one in the group with such a high level of tech background was that even when his friends thought his idea sounded stupid, they never knew just how stupid. Koushirou didn't have any basis for what they were about to try, except for the understanding that, when switching from organic material to data, there must be a point of transition.
"Alright, are you ready?"
Taichi gave him a look. "I've been lying on the floor in your room for a full hour. I've lost fifteen guessing games to that globe. I'm humiliated, and I've got to justify it somehow."
He may be humiliated, but Yagami Taichi was no shrinking flower.
"The parameters for inducing digitization are these: proximity to an active digital gate, particularly one that's in the process of opening, and physical exertion," Koushirou ticked them off his fingers. "You don't need to meet that criteria in order to experience it, but these are the optimum conditions."
"Optimum," Taichi mumbled.
Koushirou waited, but Taichi only waved for him to go on.
"So I'm going to open a gate." Taichi had brought Hikari's D3 with him for this purpose, although they'd kept Hikari in the dark about why they needed to borrow it. "I want you to get sweating, make your body work."
Another bolt of crimson splashed across Koushirou's nose. Taichi laughed. "You are such an easy mark," he teased.
If Koushirou thought Taichi would jog in place, or do push-ups, he was sorely mistaken. "Cultural festival isn't far away, and Sora tricked me into doing Soran-bushi with her." He bent into some lunges. "Put on the music, I gotta get in the zone."
Whether he entered the zone or not, it was clear that Taichi had yet to master the dance. Maybe it wasn't meant to be Soran-bushi at all, rather some kind of primitive mating ritual. Koushirou tried not to wince each time the books on his shelves wobbled as Taichi banged into them.
The Digital Gate sputtered a couple times, like it didn't want to open. This was happening more and more often lately. Jou had suggested it might be the work of Baihumon, trying to keep them out. But Koushiro didn't think Baihumon had that kind of power, or he'd have used it much earlier.
More likely the Spore children were dogging their digivices more than ever.
At last the screen flashed green. Taichi continued to leap around, bellowing "Dokkoisho!" while keeping a tight grip on the second cable. I thought he would be more reluctant. Koushirou schooled his face into a neutral expression. He doesn't seem nervous about this. The others would lose their minds if they knew I suggested digitizing him on purpose.
But what other choice did they have? Gennai was gone. That left him, Koushirou, the only one with any chance of finding a way to help Taichi. And maybe even thinking that way was arrogant of him, considering didn't have a clue where to start.
When he proposed the idea to Taichi, he'd expected to have to pull out all the stops to convince him to try it. There would be no point in pretending this was safe – it wasn't. But Taichi agreed without any reservations, like Koushirou was inviting him over for a friendly Street Fighter tournament, not to risk his very existence in this dimension. He should have known. The Taichi of late, the dreary, rain-cloud-blocking-sunshine version, might not be as enthusastic as he would be under other circumstances, but still he was always one to shun stagnation. Always the man of action.
If this goes wrong, I'll never forgive myself.
Of course, so far, it seemed unlikely a future of endless regret lay ahead of him, as no digitization appeared to take place. The music track was almost at the end. Perhaps his theory had been wrong, and nothing could instigate a spell of digitization. Perhaps they were totally random.
Koushirou thought for a minute, then, on a hunch, closed and reopened the Gate.
The effect was instantaneous. Taichi seemed to wink out of existence for a fraction of a second, then reappeared and tumbled into the bed. Only the bed didn't stop him – his body disappeared right through it, and landed on the ground with a hard whump.
Koushirou scrambled out of his chair and got on his hands and knees.
Something large and lumpy had taken up residence beneath his mattress. It groaned when Koushirou poked at it.
"Tap if you're alive."
His unfortunate floor sustained quite the beat down.
"Thank goodness." Koushirou let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Are you stuck, or can you get out on your own?"
There was a shuffling noise, then the sound of some knick-knack breaking, followed by a curse. Koushirou sank back into the chair as Taichi crawled into the open, holding the shattered remains of a Christmas ornament. How long had that been down there?
"Just tell me you got what you needed," his friend sighed, depositing the bits of ornament on the desk. He looked suddenly very tired. Which made Koushirou's insides squirm all the more.
"The readings will take time to decipher," he admitted. "I'll let you know as soon as I come up with anything."
"Did this thing help at all?" Taichi held out the cable.
"That I won't know until I look through the readings."
"Should we do this again? Aren't you supposed to replicate experiments?"
"I think once is enough, in this case," Koushirou answered. Though in any other situation, not only would he agree, but he'd have been the first to point out exactly that. They ought to try this a second time for confirmation. More data would yield better results.
It was a testament to his own weakness that he couldn't do that to Taichi again. Taichi was perfectly willing. And perfectly desperate, even if he acted like he didn't care. Wasn't scared. Well, Koushirou was scared. You just went right through my bed, like a ghost. I don't even know what prevented you plunging right into the downstairs apartment. His heart was still jumping every few seconds. But when he glanced back at Taichi, he saw nothing but trust.
I'm such a lousy friend.
"Just so you know, I'm not expecting a lot." Taichi sat on the bed and started to drum idly at the wood frame. "Not that I don't think you can do it, I wouldn't even know what it is you're trying to do anyhow. But I mean, no pressure. If you think of something that might help, I'll try it. If you don't, it's not your fault. So don't get all mixed up in this, you know? Remember to shower and eat once in a while."
Koushirou nodded. Nods were useful. He'd never felt such appreciation for nonverbal communication.
Taichi drummed a bit longer, then sat on his hands as if realizing what he'd been doing with them. He rocked forward, tilted his head, bird-like, and changed the subject: "I also wanted to check in with you on our next move in the digital world. Any plans?"
"… Not yet. I was hoping that this gadget of Gennai-san's might give me some ideas."
"Okay. I'll let you work, then. The rest of us will keeping doing what we've been doing, and scout the digital world sector by sector. Leave no stone unturned, and all that jazz. Until we find them."
Strings of code loaded little by little on his computer screen. Inside them could be the secret to saving his closest friends. Both of them. If he could figure them out, and that was a big if. If he couldn't –
He took a huge gulp of oolong tea.
Taichi materialized beside him, swinging one hand over the back of his chair, the other gripping the edge of the desk. "We will find them, you know." His brown eyes gleamed in the wash of the monitor light. He made a fist, held it in Koushirou's direct line of sight. "I'll punch Baihumon myself if I have to."
Smiling, Koushirou replied, "He will eat you alive and use your bones as toothpicks."
"Fee fi fo fum," said Taichi.
Koushirou shook his head. "You are some kind of idiot."
But nothing new came to him that evening, and the clock struck three a.m. before he finally trudged off to bed. His eyes hurt; too long spent staring at those rigid rows of hieroglyphs without a single eureka moment.
It had been easy, two weeks ago, to come up with ideas. While the hurt was still fresh, while his teammates were heart-broken but anxious for their next recourse, he'd kept them supplied. When no one knew what to do, they looked to Koushirou for reassurance that there was anything left they could do. Thanks to that, he'd been able to keep his own heartbreak on the back burner for a while.
But strategy after strategy fell through. They were no closer to rescuing their partners today than they'd been last week. And as the days wore on, exhausting and fruitless, his friends' expectant looks when he entered the meeting room grew less so. Now they gathered and listened in grim silence as Koushirou outlined the new Plan B, the fiftieth of its name, trying his hapless best to make it sound New and Better, before giving the floor to Taichi to rally the troops. He always managed, with that implacable fire of his, to make their plan sound far more promising than Koushirou ever could.
There was no point in sleeping because it was during those quiet hours, with nothing left to distract him, that he noticed Tentomon's absence the most. He felt… like a door come off its hinge.
That's it, Koushirou-han. Keep thinking. You'll come up with something.
You should take a break. When is the last time you ate? Mentaiko chips and oolong tea don't count. Remember, you always say you should listen to me more often.
Four hours of not sleeping finally came to an end, and he got up bleary-eyed and with a pounding headache. In the kitchen, he poured himself a cup of his father's coffee. Black and bitter. His mother looked at him in concern.
"Koushirou, are you going to school today? You look terrible. I think you should stay home and rest."
Part of him wished he could. But he'd already skipped several days, and the autumn term had barely begun. Besides, he wouldn't get any rest at home at all as long as Gennai's program remained encrypted. At least he knew himself that well.
The early September sky matched his mood, murky and colorless, unwilling to commit to rain. Before Koushirou had even made it to his locker, Taichi flagged him down in the hall. Seconds later he'd caught up, and slumped against the wall while Koushirou fished for his classical Japanese textbook.
"So I've been thinking," Taichi began.
"I thought your New Year's resolution was never to do that again."
"Ahh, Kou," Taichi swung his arms like an elementary school kid, following as Koushirou adjusted his bag and started up the stairs. "Hadn't you heard? Seventy six per cent of all New Year's resolutions get lost in the sock drawer before Mardi Gras. People are so careless."
"I see. Maybe you've heard of the midyear resolution?"
"Anyway, I was thinking, and this is what I thought about. You know Kawada Noriko."
"Well, we should invite her over. Her and her posse. Take them out, get to know them."
Koushirou took that in for a moment. "You mean make friends with them?"
"Yeah! Better late than never, right? If they learn to see us as friends, rather than an obstacle, they might second-guess this Gate business."
"Where do you want to take them?"
"I don't know, maybe a barbecue. Something we can do with a large group that won't make us conspicuous. And also it has to be cheap, because I'm strapped for cash."
"I think some of the others might take some warming up to it, but it's worth suggesting," Koushirou said. Privately he thought Taichi was chomping at the bit for something to do, to make him feel useful. In that, they were in the same boat.
"Actually, it was Hikari's idea. And I'm pretty sure she got it from Takeru. So, you'll help?"
"If it's what you want."
"Good," Taichi said with a satisfied nod. "Then I'll need the contact info for all the Spore kids from you. I'll get Jou to help me with phone calls, he's a college student, he does nothing all day long."
Jou would be thrilled with that estimation of his schedule. Koushirou started to reply, but whatever he meant to say was forgotten the next instant as they reached the top of the stairs.
Yamato stood across from them, by a window, his guitar case thrown over his back. Clearly he'd just come from morning band practice. He looked at Taichi. Taichi looked at him.
The tense silence that followed seemed to stretch into eternity. It was like a scene out of an old Western, each waiting for the other to draw first. Which neither was about to do. Even Koushirou, who avoided social drama at all cost, could tell that much. He counted to ten. No, they were still staring at each other. He'd give them another ten.
Six, seven, eight, nine… Now he elbowed Taichi in the side.
"We're holding up traffic."
At first Taichi continued to glower at Yamato, who stared back cool as you please. A muscle worked in Taichi's jaw. Then a smile burst across his face, pulling his cheeks taut, and he shrugged theatrically as he made his way down the hall.
"You heard him." He directed this to Yamato, or rather, to the window behind Yamato's head. "We're holding up traffic. Gotta go."
And he stormed away so fast that Koushirou almost lost sight of him as his brain processed this unexpected turn of events. Risking a look back before the crowds blocked his view, he could just make out Yamato's tall blond head starting off in the opposite direction.
"Wait, Yamato – !"
None of them had noticed Sora watching their uncomfortable tableau from the stairwell. Now she went running after Yamato. Good, Koushirou thought, she'd have more of a chance knocking sense into him than he would. If he even cared to. Koushirou hadn't quite made up his mind how he felt about Yamato's stunt last week, but overall, he didn't care one way or the other. His (self-appointed) job was to fix things, not judge them.
That was one reason why he followed Taichi as he wove through the throng of students instead of going to his own classroom. The other reason was a little more complicated.
They were in another stairwell, this one leading to the roof. No one was too likely to come this way right now. Taichi plopped down like a stone on the bottom step and put his head in his hands.
Koushirou lingered in the doorway, somewhat like a sentry on watch.
After a few slow, steadying breaths, Taichi raked his bangs out of his face. "Dammit. What is wrong with me?"
Koushirou waited for an explanation. When none was forthcoming, he asked: "I assume that's a rhetorical question?"
"I just – when I see him I get so – to heck with him anyway." In frustration, Taichi kicked the wall. Then he kicked it a few more times. Finally he peeked at Koushirou, who hadn't moved. "Aren't you going to tell me what he did wasn't so bad, and I should forgive him?"
Was that what he came here to do? Maybe he ought to. But he wasn't so good at this sort of thing. Sora would get to it eventually, if she hadn't already. So he lifted one shoulder.
"I just wanted to remind you it's green curry day in the caf."
With some hesitation, almost like he felt sure he was being tricked, Taichi ambled toward him. They went back into the hallway, now emptying fast as everyone skittered off to classes. Taichi sighed, visibly braced himself. Koushirou waited.
Then came a smile, bright, if a bit thinner than usual, and somewhat bitter around the edges. "I thought you didn't like green curry," Taichi commented.
"I don't," said Koushirou. "That's why I always give you mine."
"Always? You've been giving me your green curry the whole year and I never noticed?"
"I have to say, when you're eating, you have the most intense focus, like a professional chess player."
"So, when it comes to lunch time, I turn into a freak like you?"
"Yes, however, my freakishness is much easier to build a career out of than yours."
Taichi laughed. They were almost at his classroom now, but Taichi was laughing so hard that he stopped a few feet before it. "What the. Koushirou. Can you imagine –" He wiped away tears.
"Okay, it wasn't that funny."
"Wasn't that funny! Shit, man –"
The laughter came to an abrupt end, punctuated by thud of his bookbag as it struck the floor. Pens, erasers, and bits of odds and ends spilled everywhere. And Taichi was on the floor too, though Koushirou had never seen him fall – wasn't even sure how he'd fallen, there was nothing around to trip over, not to mention for heaven's sake they'd been standing still –
"It's okay, I'm okay. Chill out, Koushirou."
Shakily, Koushirou helped him back to his feet. How ridiculous was this. Here Taichi was mysteriously falling all over the place, and yet he was the one unable to keep from trembling.
"I didn't even notice you wink out," he said, struggling to sound normal. "We may be running out of time."
"Koushirou." Taichi's grip on his arm was a hair too tight. "I get that you're worried about me, but let's make one thing clear. The Digimon are our top priority, agreed?"
As used as he was to the outrageous things that came out of his friend's mouth, this one left him gobsmacked. "Taichi-san, be realistic."
"I am being realistic," he bit back, full of impatience. "I'm surprised you're not. Think it through. Which is more likely to happen – we manage to track down Baihumon, who we at least know is in the digital world, or you stumble upon some miracle cure for me that even Gennai couldn't find?" When Koushirou didn't, couldn't respond, Taichi pushed further: "Being realistic means doing everything we can to achieve an end that is actually achievable. Besides." Taichi gazed down the gray-tiled hall, his voice sounding far away. "I can't stand the thought that I might die with the knowledge that I couldn't save Agumon."
"Even so," Koushirou choked out, looking out in the same direction, "even so, I'm going to give my all to both projects. You know how I get about not finishing things."
Not even Taichi could make him choose between his two best friends.
After a trauma, normal never seemed normal. Waking up in the morning to beams of sunlight creeping over the bedsheet felt odd. Taichi lay flat on his back staring at the ceiling, pondering the dry scratchiness of the film-like folds of his eyelids. His heavy limbs resisted as he made himself sit up, drink some water from the cup on his desk, swing his feet to the floor. One hand raked back his messy bangs, then lingered by his ear, as if not knowing what to do with itself next. Another twenty seconds or so passed before he forced himself up and into a change of clothes.
Going through the motions at school felt odd. Lunchtime passed in a haze. He ate without tasting a thing. The din of fellow students' chatter resonated in his ears as if coming from inside a well.
At some point Sora came over to him, and they talked. Not about anything that mattered, just shooting the breeze. But while their conversation went one way, their minds went elsewhere. He knew it, she knew it. It was why she loitered in the hall with him between classes when usually she made sure to be in her seat long before the bell.
Miyako visited him too, looking for reassurance, which he gave. She seemed a little calmer for it, only to show up again an hour later with a new concern. Soon she'd started coming over so often that a rumor was floated that they were dating. For her sake, Taichi pretended not to know about it.
And like clockwork, Koushirou showed up at his side at the end of the day, always with another scheme to lay out. He wanted Taichi's support so badly, and Taichi wanted to give it to him. But it was like the part of him that vibed off challenge, off impossible odds, had packed up and left. It wasn't fair to put all of this on Koushirou's shoulders, just because Koushirou could get so determined to fix the unfixable. So Taichi tried, and tried, and tried to recall his old self. He only ever managed a mirror image, but his friends didn't notice, or at least didn't mind, as long as he kept making all the hard decisions for them.
(A selfish thought. He had a lot of those recently.)
Then there was Yamato.
Not a word had passed between them since his outburst in the hall. Some days, simply knowing Yamato was in the same building, breathing the same air, made him want to topple his desk over and tear the classroom apart. He napped through math to make sure he didn't.
(Not that his teacher showed any appreciation for his forethought.)
Now he wanted to destroy things… less so. In fact he wasn't sure what he would do if Yamato spoke to him, now. Would he punch him in the nose, or start bawling like a child in front of the entire school?
"I'm sorry, I screwed up, I can't say it enough but I feel like I'm being strangled by all these apologies. I'm not angry. I'm just a coward who can't admit it, and I need you, and I hate that about myself."
Taichi lifted his forehead off the cold wall. Sora was looking at him strangely. "You okay?" she asked.
"Me? Yeah… why?"
"… It's time to go home."
Blinking, as if just walking into sudden sunlight, he squinted up at the clock. She was right, of course. "No club today?"
Sora shook her head. "You?"
"Told them I have a family thing."
"The soccer club can make do without its captain?"
"At this point I'm only the captain in name," he answered. "I had to pass the mantle to Onodera before break."
"Mmm, but they all still treat you like the captain."
"I know." Maybe it wasn't fair to Onodera Hayate, his underclassman who frankly deserved to take over the captaincy, that Taichi had decided not to quit soccer in the fall term. Many third years gave up their club activities around that time in order to study for college entrance exams. Before break Taichi hadn't quit because he just couldn't imagine life without soccer. Now, he just didn't know how much time he had left for soccer, or anything really.
They found their bikes and waited at the school gates for Koushirou and Miyako. Then the four of them cycled over the Rainbow Bridge back to Odaiba together. Taichi saw Sora's foot hesitate on the pedal before they left, while she stared back at the school as if seeing some apparition. He knew without asking that she was looking for Yamato's blond head coming out from the bike rack to join them. She might as well try her luck at spotting a real ghost.
When they arrived at the meeting spot, an alley close to the I-Mart where people rarely ventured but which still got a signal from the store's wifi router, it was to find the others already gathered, except for Jou, Ken and Mimi. Takeru and Iori had tried to set up a projector for Koushirou, an undertaking which had somehow resulted in wires tied in a knot around Daisuke's ankles. While they helped untangle him, Koushirou connected his computer to the projector, and Miyako ran into the I-Mart with Hikari for snacks. Five minutes later Jou arrived and immediately tripped over the projector. As usual, Ken showed up last, coming all the way from Tamachi, and, also as usual, gazed serenely upon the chaos around him.
Mimi had gone back to America only two days after the ill-fated camping trip. She video called in to these meetings as often as she could, saying she refused to be left out this time.
Taichi had gone to see her off at the airport. So had most of the others. They hadn't planned to, but after what had happened how could they not. With the wound still so new, the thought of going so far away had Mimi more hysterical than they'd seen her in years.
"I want to stay," she insisted for the umpteenth time, even though no one could tell who she was directing this to.
Sora patted her back. "You have to go to school, Mimi-chan."
"I could drop out."
"You could not. Your future is important."
Mimi stared miserably at the floor. "What do you know."
Blinking, Sora tipped her head, glancing at Taichi. He took a step forward and put his hand on Mimi's shoulder. "We know everything will be all right. You'll see."
She batted his hand away and glared. He was used to Mimi's bursts of temper, but the sheen of tears on her pale face took him aback. "Will I? Or will you all forget about me the minute I'm out of sight, and I'll have to find out whether everything is 'all right' or not from a three-line email that doesn't come until too late?"
Taichi raised both hands in a gesture of surrender. "Whoa, whoa – what makes you think we're going to do anything like that?"
"You never told me about what happened to you."
"That – because it has nothing to do with you!"
"It has everything to do with me!" she thundered. Taichi looked at Sora for support, but she only raised one eyebrow and shrugged. Clearly, with the shift in conversation, Sora was now in Mimi's corner.
"If something bad happens to you, it matters to me! Don't act like you have everything under control when you don't, it makes you look stupid!"
"Mimi-kun," Jou interjected, making her spin toward him with a look of fury.
"For the last time, just call me Mimi!"
She stalked off into the bathroom, Sora following with a parting look for Taichi that said, You could have handled that better. Taichi sighed. Jou sighed in commiseration, then pointed to a coffee cart.
"Before she comes back out, I need an IV of caffeine pumped straight into my bloodstream."
"Me too," Taichi said, and they hauled what remained of their pride across the hall.
As difficult as Mimi could be, she had a point. Sometimes they were lax in sharing information with her so far away. Naturally she had a hard time. And everyone agreed their little team needed better organization, so they designed a plan to keep everyone updated. Takeru volunteered to take notes and email them out after every meeting.
"All set up," Koushirou announced, switching on the projector. An image of his desktop hit the wall behind the I-Mart. "I know everyone's busy, so let's get started – right, Taichi-san?"
In the middle of extracting Daisuke from the mass of cables, which didn't seem inclined to relinquish its victim, Taichi shouted back, "Yeah, sure, be right there." He tugged once more at the unrelenting wires. "Daisuke, I think you maybe you should get used to having tentacles."
"For pete's sake," Ken muttered, coming over and undoing the knots in the wires in a matter of seconds.
"Couldn't you have done that earlier?" Taichi complained.
Ken shrugged one shoulder, mouth tilted in a half-smile.
Daisuke patted his chest in delight. "I'm free! My heroes! I must shower you with riches." He planted a sloppy kiss on each of their cheeks.
"Next time just send a check," Ken said.
"Literally nothing I did helped at all," Taichi scowled as he wiped his cheek.
"Taichi-san," Koushirou prompted again with a note of exasperation.
"Okay, okay. Hey, everyone, thanks for coming. Koushirou will take it from here."
Koushirou shot him a withering glare. "Thanks, Taichi-san. So glad I waited for you."
Shrugging, Taichi dropped to a squat next to Daisuke. What did Koushirou want from him? He was the only one who could get them out of this mess, but still he insisted that Taichi bring the meeting to order.
Koushirou brought up a screenshot on the projector and began to rattle off a list of their latest activities in the digital world and the results. Which, predictably, were none. So much effort and nothing to show for it.
As Koushirou droned on, Daisuke picked up a stick and poked Miyako's leg to indicate he wanted the bag of snacks. Naturally, she hissed at him to grow up and use his words, which provoked Daisuke to mumble that at least he could take a joke, which caused Miyako to bristle, looking about ready to bite his fingers off. Which led Hikari to get involved.
"Shush, Daisuke-kun, just ask for what you want."
"Right, because I am not a vending machine," Miyako huffed.
Daisuke scowled, but Taichi could tell there was little steam left in him. Their bout of immaturity probably would have ended there, if not for what happened next.
"Maybe he didn't want to interrupt Koushirou-san." Takeru, of all people, had come to Daisuke's defense against the (admittedly formidable) twin assault of Miyako and Hikari. "Why do you always have to pick him apart? Just let him have the bag."
Miyako stared, mouth slipping open. Daisuke looked rather as if he'd been struck in the head with a cast iron skillet.
Hikari, though, snapped back: "Oh please, like you were even paying attention."
"Speak for yourself," growled Takeru.
Taichi couldn't let this go on any longer. "Whether you're paying attention or not, knock it off already." Hikari and Takeru looked away. Lightening his tone, Taichi added: "I see why you two don't fight very often. You suck at it."
"I guess you'd know," Takeru mumbled.
He paused. "What was that?"
Takeru didn't answer. Instead he pushed himself off the ground and snatched his bookbag. Then he stalked off to sit next to Jou, eyes fixed on the screen. Jou seemed surprised to see him, throwing a brief glance back at the junior team's little assembly. But his confusion cleared when he spotted Taichi sitting among them, and he offered a sympathetic shrug.
Taichi scrubbed his forehead. So Takeru was still mad at him. He had to understand that it wasn't as if Taichi had purposely ostracized Yamato from their group. Taichi hadn't said a word against including Yamato, and besides, Yamato was on their mailing list. He knew when and where the meetings were held. If he wasn't here, it was his own damn fault.
But getting the cold shoulder from Takeru made Taichi feel like crap. Worse, because each felt compelled to defend their brother, things were tense between Takeru and Hikari as well. He tried to peek at his sister's face. An outsider might not notice the rigid way she held her body, or the tight, drawn corners of her small mouth.
Someone thrust a sheet of paper under Taichi's nose. He took it on automatic and raised his brow at Iori, who had a whole stack of papers under his arm. "What's this?"
"Stats on all of the kids with Dark Spores," Iori answered, looking straight down his nose. He seemed to enjoy looming over Taichi while the other sat on the ground, even straightening his posture. "You'd know if you were listening."
Taichi grumbled. Fate seemed to have decreed that he would be chastised by every younger kid in his acquaintance today.
"Please, everyone, be on your guard," Koushirou was saying as the rest of the papers made their way around the group. "We can't afford more incidents like what happened a couple weeks ago when monsters were let loose in the city. If you have any interaction with the Spore children at all, no matter how small, let me or Taichi-san know right away."
Sora raised her hand. "In the event that something does happen, what are we going to do without Biyomon and the others?" she asked.
It was the first time anyone had brought this up. They tended to avoid vocally acknowledging that their partners were not, in fact, waiting for them in the digital world. To no one's surprise, Sora's question was met with dead silence from everyone but Koushirou.
"It certainly presents a problem," he answered softly. "Taichi-san?"
And now the spotlight was back on him, even though he didn't want it. He was clean out of encouraging words and positive thinking.
"Our only option will be to force any monsters spawned by the unstable gates into the Dark Ocean," he said. His voice seemed to boom in an invasive, grating way through their solemn congress. With monumental effort, he mustered what little was left of his optimism and can-do attitude. "That's why we need to be proactive. We should get together, us and them. Or as many of them as are willing to come. Not for a meeting or anything heavy." He looked around. "I was thinking a barbecue."
"They're going to think we're trying to schmooze them," Ken pointed out.
Lips pinched, Daisuke gave his friend a nudge. "I thought you wanted to make nice."
"Look, we have two options as far as I see," Taichi continued before they could start bickering. "One, we do nothing and wait for them to open more Gates. Then we clean up their mess and tell them for the umpteenth time to quit it. Two, we try to convince them we're not their enemy. Given the… circumstances… maybe they'll be more inclined to believe us now."
Only Daisuke seemed to have any strong opinions on that. Everyone else took in the idea with an air of disinterest. Half were looking up the time on their phones. He'd never seen his friends check out like this. Guilt stabbed at him.
"Koushirou, is there anything else or are we done here?"
"Just one more item," Koushirou replied. "Regarding our next step."
"Let me guess, we're finally going to give up combing the entire digital world and just put Missing Digimon fliers on trees instead," Takeru joked with the kind of black humor only constant exhaustion and disappointment could bring on.
"Perhaps I've got something a little better," Koushirou said.
Around him, the group shifted subtly as people turned to face the projector, where Koushirou set up yet another map.
"As Takeru-kun observed, it's not likely we're going to stumble upon the place where Baihumon's confined our partners by happenstance. So one of our aims was to sniff out Baihumon himself. Easier said than done. Sovereigns, it turns out, are hard to pin down. However, recently I came across something intriguing in one of Gennai's databanks."
The cypher room gadget, Taichi interpreted. As far as the others were aware, it was Gennai's final effort to help them.
"Gennai knew each of the Sovereigns well," Koushirou went on. "So well, it turns out, that he knew where they live. Look here."
An array of red points lit up on the map, scattered like stars across the digital plane.
"Are you saying we can walk right up to a Baihumon's house?" Miyako exclaimed.
"I doubt it will be as simple as that, but – potentially, yes."
"But there are only four Sovereigns, and more than four dots," Daisuke said.
Nodding, Koushirou tapped each point with his finger. "I don't know yet what that means. It could be the Sovereigns move around so much that the keep several homes. Or maybe some of these contain old information and have been abandoned."
"This is amazing," Taichi breathed. He'd gotten to his feet. Now he made his way to the map projected on the wall, those glowing red pinpricks drawing him forward like a magnet. "Koushirou, you're a genius."
To that, Koushirou gave a shrug. "Based on what data we have, I can't zero in on Baihumon any further than this, but at least for now, it narrows the scope of our investigation."
"It's more than that," Taichi said. His chest puffed. "This is the hope we've been waiting for."
Later, when they'd broken things down and started off for home, Taichi helped Koushirou push the projector back inside the stock room in the I-Mart (it belonged to Miyako's father). While they worked to make sure all the parts were put back in the right places, Koushirou said:
"It's hope, yes, Taichi-san, but a very weak one."
"So?" Taichi finished with a coil of cable and hooked it on the wall. "Weak hope is all we've ever had. How about that card game at Myotismon's Gate?"
"That was different."
"Different in that we were young and too stupid to understand how slim the odds were. We should be that stupid again, Koushirou. Stupidity works. You and I are going to scout each and every one of those points on the map, starting tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Koushirou froze in shock. "That doesn't give me much time to gather data!"
"Leave the gathering to me," Taichi said. "I'll be your scout. You'll do what you do best and make sense of it all, while also giving me backup. Firsthand experience is better than guesswork, isn't it?"
"We could be walking into anything! Without our partners!"
"Eh, it'll be fine."
"Trust me," he said, voice low. "The instant you say it isn't safe, we'll go. But we have to at least try. Don't you want to show the others some solid proof that we can fix this?"
Koushirou still looked troubled. But something Taichi said must have hit home, because he stopped protesting. "I'll come to your place then, so we can borrow Hikari-san's D3."
Taichi nodded. Then he clapped Koushirou's shoulder. Koushirou probably thought it was to reassure him, but Taichi wasn't so certain. Somehow, he felt the one who needed reassurance was himself.
If only Sora had made it out the door a few minutes earlier, she might have had a chance to talk to Yamato before school. Before Taichi showed up and devastated what little progress Yamato had made these past few days. Taichi didn't mean to do it, and truth be told it wasn't even quite his fault. There certainly wasn't much he could do about how sensitive Yamato was, all the time, about everything. Even so, whenever Sora thought Yamato might be about to make an effort to talk, in swept Hurricane Taichi to wreak havoc.
Talking to Taichi was an exercise in perseverance. For someone so loud and with such an attention-gathering presence, he sure knew how to evade a conversation. But at least she and Taichi were in the same class. Getting close enough to Yamato to snag him even for a second was proving difficult.
So Sora did the only thing there was left to do. She went to his apartment.
It seemed like an age had passed since she'd last come here with Taichi before Mimi's arrival in Japan. Before that, she hadn't gone to his apartment in months. Although that wasn't entirely true – early after the break up, she'd discovered the cheese grater Yamato had lent her to make gratin still in the kitchen. But it had taken a good ten minutes just to muster the courage to bring it over to him, and then another five wavering outside the door. She'd planned to be cool, brisk, just the usual pleasantries before handing over her charge and leaving. Instead, the second the door opened, she'd about thrown the cheese grater into the room and scurried off with the tinny sound of it striking the floor ringing in her ears.
Not her most graceful moment, no.
She gathered her resolve and rang the bell. The hallway light flickered above, the bulb letting off a low electric buzz like a summer cicada. After a moment she heard shuffling in the room beyond the door. Yamato opened it only partway, squinting out at her. He looked very pale. Dark hollows ringed his eyes, and his hair was disheveled.
"What is it?" he asked, with a voice like the dull edge of a knife. Sora thought back to the unexpected camaraderie she'd felt with him before all of this had happened, the way his arrival in the digital world had swept her worries aside. Apparently that had been a fluke, a momentary lapse into the memory of how it felt to be in synch with each other. Nothing but deja vu. Now there was only distance between them.
But feelings could be changed, and her aim wasn't to make him like her any more, it was to remind him there were ways to deal with Taichi other than the way Taichi decided he should be dealt with.
"Can I come in?" she asked with a smile.
"No," came the answer, short and frosty.
Sora didn't bat an eye. "Okay. I just wanted to see how you were."
"You're not fine," she said softly. Her attempt at keeping things light slipped away. "None of us are fine. All the more reason why we should be leaning on our friends right now."
He didn't say anything, only leaned his forehead against the door jamb. Weariness clung to his sagging shoulders. She sensed the emotions rolling over him and he heart reached out.
"I just came from the meeting," she said conversationally. "Koushirou-kun had some interesting ideas this time. He has an idea where the Sovereigns might live. We've got a new plan at last."
"Where they live?" Yamato grimaced. "What does he want us to do, go up and ring Baihumon's doorbell?"
"Anything's better than trucking around the digital world with no clue what we're looking for," she protested.
But Yamato shook his head. "Even if we find him, I doubt Baihumon's going to just undo what he did. There's no point in going to those meetings. Taichi and Koushirou can't bring back Gabumon and the others through determination alone."
Sora released a small sigh. Even though she knew Yamato's words came from frustration with himself, she wished she could tell him how much his words hurt her. After all, Biyomon was gone too. If only Taichi were here, to help her feel something other than despair. Of course, if Taichi were here now, she wouldn't be.
There was very little use in talking to Yamato when he didn't want to listen. She tried a different angle. "Takeru-kun's worried about you."
That elicited a self-deprecating laugh. "He's alright. He can't stay bratty for long. He needs to make his show of family loyalty, then he'll get over it."
"That's not all it is." Her eyes had gone a bit wide. "He's not just doing it for show, Yamato, come on."
"Takeru isn't the reason you're here anyway," he interrupted, and let the door swing open wider. Folding his arms over his chest, he regarded her with an air of challenge. "You're here because you want me to make nice with Taichi."
Heat filled her cheeks, which made her mad at herself, because she had nothing to feel ashamed of. And he shouldn't be acting like some martyr when she was trying to help him. Taichi might bull-headedly do things Taichi's way, for better or worse, but Yamato was just the same. And she'd been dealing with these two hardheads for almost half her life.
"Whether or not you 'make nice' with him is up to you. I just think you should talk. Actually talk, not grunt at each other and storm off like characters on a sitcom."
"Sorry we're not as into chit-chat as you girls."
She clamped down on her annoyance. "You know Taichi. He's stubborn."
"That's the understatement of the year."
"And he's hurting too, just like you. You're not the only one blaming himself."
A muscle worked in Yamato's jaw. His fingers tightened on the door as he stared past her, knuckles blanched in the dim light.
Finally, he said, "It's none of your business."
With that, he faded back into the dark room. It shut with a click of finality. Once again, she was alone in the hallway. She started to raise her hand to knock, to bring him out again. But it fell slowly back to her side instead when she realized the lump in her throat had made it hard to speak.
Hikari stood in front of the large sheet of test results posted in the school hallway, willing her mind to be playing tricks on her.
She wasn't vain. At least, she didn't think so, yet here she was, as shocked as she'd ever been, staring at the scores as if they would spontaneously shuffle back into the expected order. All year and last, she'd never ranked less than top five in her year on exams, whether formal or practice. She was no genius, but Odaiba Junior High was small to begin with, and she studied hard. Today she couldn't find her name in that first row. She move on to six through ten, but all of those spots had been earned by other students.
To her shame, tears pricked at her eyes. She walked to the side, following the score sheet as it unfurled to her right, and never had it seemed so endless, so incriminating. It felt like she'd reach the very end before finding her score. And then she lit upon it:
Ranking #21: Yagami Hikari, Class 3-C
From top five to 21. That was quite a slip. Nowhere near the lowest score, but still.
How had she let this happen?
Her mother would be so disappointed… Well, she would if she cared about things like exam scores, Hikari amended ruefully. Yagami Yuuko couldn't stand to hear that her kids had been bullied in school, or that they ate too much at lunch and wound up in the nurse's office with an upset stomach. Little things like failing a test ("21 is not failing, it's in fact more than passing, Hikari, you need to go easier on yourself," Gatomon's voice huffed in her mind) tended to slide right by.
Her father would remind her of all the times she'd done well, and that everyone was allowed a mistake now and then. Taichi would ask if he could trade his ranking for her wretched 21.
The only one who would care was herself. And care she did. Deeply.
"Wow, Hikari-chan, you didn't make the top five for once," Daisuke said at her elbow, for whatever inscrutable Daisuke reason sounding impressed. "Hey, it's good news for me, if you can mess up then I can luck out! Hey Takeru! Bet I made top ten!"
"Sorry." Takeru didn't waste a moment crushing Daisuke's hopes and dreams. "I already found your name and it's definitely not in the top ten."
"More like top 200."
"Damn," Daisuke muttered, looking a bit put out for all of three seconds before he perked up at the sight of his soccer team heading for outside. "Oh well, there are more important things than grades."
"Like soccer," Takeru suggested mildly. "And ramen."
"Exactly!" Beaming, Daisuke gave Hikari a clap on the shoulder, sending her teetering to the side. "You guys get me. Smell you later, gators." He sped off down the hall, leaving the other two to digest being called "gators."
Next to Hikari, Takeru shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and she could feel the discomfort rolling off of him in waves. Why don't you just go home, if you can't bear to be near me? a part of her spat, but those thoughts were quelled by others pointing out how dull and stupid this whole fight was. They weren't even supposed to be in a fight. Just because Taichi and Yamato couldn't deal with the emotional hoops they put each other through without feuding didn't mean they all had to go out-and-out Montague and Capulet.
So tell him that, came Gatomon's voice again.
But she couldn't do that. Guilt wouldn't let her.
Gatomon sighed. Hikari. You could not have known what would happen that day in Asakusa. You are not responsible for what that Spore creature did anymore than I am.
Gatomon, though, was palpably not here. And imagining how her partner would comfort her only made her feel worse. Hot tears sprang to her eyes. She didn't want to cry in front of her classmates.
"Hey." Takeru glanced at her, still holding himself stiff as a post as he looked her up and down. "Heat getting to you? You look a little red."
"'M fine," she choked out, shielding her face from him. An overwhelming need to be away from other people sent her dashing down the hall, leaving behind a very confused Takeru. She didn't care. What a sight I am – storming off because of one lousy test score, even crying over it! How had she ever had the gall to think of herself as well-adjusted!
Eventually she reached the science lab, which was always empty this time of day. She slid the door open and dropped unceremoniously onto one of the stools. Here, at least, she could be as pathetic as she wanted without letting anyone see. Perhaps she was more than a little vain after all.
Only it turned out the lab wasn't as empty as she thought.
"Boyfriend break up with you?" a voice asked.
Hikari froze, hands covering her face. Surprise crowding out fear of embarrassment for a moment, her body twisted almost all the way around to find the speaker. It was a dark-haired boy, sitting at a lab station near the teacher's desk. He was on the thin side and had very red lips. His wispy eyebrows quirked in something like amusement.
"Sorry," Hikari gasped. "I'll go."
The boy shook his head. "I don't care. It's not like I live here."
She turned back around after a pause, not quite sure what to do with herself. The boy took a measurement with a compass, then scribbled something on counter. "So, bad break up?" he asked again.
Hikari shook her head. "No… just a bad test score."
"What?" He gave a short laugh that was over almost as soon as it began. "That's nothing."
"Maybe to you. I usually get top five." Wow, and did she sound petty or what?
"Well, I'm number one," he said. "And I'll let you switch our names if it'll make you stop crying."
"Number one!?" The top student in the third year, and the only one she'd never been able to outscore – not that she'd been keeping track. It was hard not to notice missing that coveted number one ranking time after time. "What's your name?"
The boy shrugged, lethargically, as if recalling his own name took too much effort. "Shin Jaewan. You?"
"Oh, the photographer."
A pink streak bridged her nose. "How do you know that?"
"Your pictures are everywhere, aren't they?" Jaewan waved a hand in a broad gesture, as if her amateur photography wallpapered the entire school. "Not to mention they're in the class newsletter. I liked that one of the peacock in the rain at Ueno Zoo."
"Oh. Thanks." She couldn't think of anything else to say to that. It was the first time a boy her age had noticed her photos. Takeru and Daisuke commented on them sometimes. usually stuff like "This squash looks like Yamamoto-sense's head" or "Is that your finger up in the corner?"
Jaewan appeared to be packing up. "You should probably hit the bathroom before you go back out there," he added, surprising her again. "I know girls don't like to be seen with their eyes all red and puffy."
She nodded, chin cupped in her hands as she stared glumly off into space. At last finding herself alone reminded her that she was meant to be missing Gatomon. Her shoulders started to quake. She bit down on her lip, trying not to make a sound.
"… I know it's not any of my business," Jaewan began. He was back in the doorway. Hikari blinked; she'd been sure he'd gone out. "But I don't have anywhere I need to be, so if you want to talk…"
Hikari blushed again, wondering how she could pour her heart out to a total stranger. What could she tell him anyway? My best friend's imprisoned in another world, my other best friend is mad at me, and, oh yeah, my brother's slowly transforming into data. She'd be better off sticking with the ex-boyfriend story.
"N-no, I'm okay," she told him, and gave a watery smile.
"Oh, a photographer and an actress. Multi-talented. You could win an Oscar."
"It's just…" Her gaze shifted to the side. "Life, you know."
He nodded sagely. "Yeah. I know."
She thought he'd leave then, but before he did he stuck his hand into his pocket and produced a lollipop. "Here," he said, offering it to her.
"Oh… uh, thanks."
"Okay, see you," he replied, raising a hand as he ambled back into the hall. This time she listened for the tread of his footsteps growing quieter, until she was sure he was gone. She unwrapped the lollipop and licked. Strawberry. Her favorite.
Shin Jaewan. She knew she'd heard his name somewhere. The school auditorium during opening ceremony aside, that is. For a long moment she sucked the candy, as she weighed a certain possibility that crossed her mind. Finding she couldn't reason it away, she dug a sheaf of papers out of her school bag. She flipped through it with some trepidation, each page turned building her confidence that, after all, she was looking for something that was not there –
– except then, it was.
Shin Jaewan: age, 16. Location: Odaiba. Known kin: Parents, older brother, younger sister. In 2002 was a fifth grade student at at Odaiba Elementary. Present for the Seeding. Whereabouts unknown at the time of the Sprouting.
Hikari sat up straight, stunned. Not only was there a Spore Child in Odaiba, but he was in her school. In her year. And he'd just given her a lollipop. Had he known she was a Chosen Child? He must have. How could he not?
A couple days later found Taichi back in the digital world, ready to be Koushirou's eyes.
He skidded down a rocky slope, kicking up a cloud of dust. He paused long enough to wipe his face with the sleeve of his weather-beaten jacket. The jacket, of course, was just as dust-covered as he was, and only left bigger marks.
"Taichi-san, can you hear me? Am I loud enough?"
He stumbled and skidded a bit further at the sound of Koushirou's disembodied voice coming from the headset he was wearing. The headsets were Koushirou's latest brain child to help them improve communication between worlds, but according to Koushirou, they still needed testing. "Roger that, reading you loud and clear. Er, maybe too clear. Try coming down one or twenty decibels."
"Sorry," his friend replied sheepishly, and at a more moderate volume. "This is fascinating – I figured the weak signal from your sector would interfere with the transmission, but you're coming through perfectly."
Although he didn't quite know what about that information caused fascination, Taichi made a noise of assent and continued on down the slope.
"Now if we just had a device that would enable me to see what you're seeing as well as hear…"
"Guess you've found your new excuse to play on the computer all night."
"I don't play on the computer, I'm working –"
"Okay, I've reached the bottom. Now what?" Taichi raised a hand and surveyed the land. "I see some kind of lake."
"You're standing in the crater of a dormant volcano, right at the nexus of the distortions. Nothing looks odd or out of place?"
"Not to the naked eye." The crater looked like just that. Rough, jagged stone ledges fenced him in on all sides. The earth was soft and springy where the slope reached its base, but walking further in toward the lake, Taichi found that the soil became dry and brittle, the grass thinning and turning brown. He relayed this to Koushirou who remarked again that this was all so fascinating.
"Say that word one more time and I'm going to start introducing you to people as Spock."
He stopped suddenly at the edge of the lake. What had been an odd, vaguely sewer-like odor at the foot of the crater was now a putrid draft coming from the water.
"This place has a funny smell. Must be monster fart," he quipped.
From the other side, he could just make out Koushirou's longsuffering sigh. "Please pay attention to your surroundings. Remember, a Sovereign might be lurking out there."
"Isn't that what we want?"
"Plan A is to find a Sovereign while remaining in one piece. Finding a Sovereign and then getting eaten by said Sovereign is more like Plan F. I'll let you know if we have to go that route, but in the meantime, don't whet any appetites."
"I'll do my best not to sound too tasty as I walk around." Taichi started down the embankment, more sliding than climbing if he were honest, which he was not. "This is cake. I don't know why you get so worked up about – oof."
"Nothing. That was deliberate." He pushed himself out of the mud. If anyone asked, he'd been turning cartwheels, in pursuit of his dream of joining the circus as the Man Who Cartwheels Through Mud. Pebbles crunched under his sneakers as he found flat ground and trudged out toward the water. His nose wrinkled. "Dang, that's ripe."
"A stinking lake…" Puzzlement colored Koushirou's voice. "You're sure it's not sulfur?"
"I've been in enough hot springs to tell the difference. This is less rotten eggs and more…"
"Monster fart, yeah, you said. In any case, better not touch the water."
"Wait. There's something out in the middle." Taichi shaded his eyes with a hand and squinted at a lumpy land mass, completely barren, at least on the surface. "Like an island." But how could he get to it, especially if he wanted to avoid touching the water?
"Before you try to build a raft, throw some wood into lake. Let's see if there's any reaction."
"A raft! Koushirou, you're a genius!"
"That was a joke."
"It was? Oh. Haha. …Why is it a joke?"
"How are you going to build a raft all by yourself, with no help from us or the Digimon? And no rope?"
"You're right," Taichi said as he walked the perimeter of the lake. "Good thing someone left a boat here."
"What? No way. That's too big a coinc-"
Taichi flipped open his phone and sent a photo message.
"Wow. It really is a boat…"
There was still the problem that Taichi didn't know what kind of condition the boat was in, let alone to whom it belonged – Koushirou shared his opinion that it fell in the same category as the trolley, the phone booths, and other assorted mismatched objects they happened upon in odd places throughout the digital world. These were, in Taichi's view, minor issues that Taichi's wits combined with Koushirou's know-how, plus a little bit of luck, could easily solve. He tossed a piece of driftwood out where the waves were still shallow and watched it bob to the surface, seemingly unharmed. Then he tested it with the toe of his shoe. That also came away no worse for the wear, which was a stroke of luck, as he didn't relish the thought of losing more shoes in the digital world. And so Koushirou was at last convinced that the lake was neither filled with skin-peeling acid nor past the boiling point.
Taichi took this as permission to push the boat off the sand and climb in. It was a rickety-looked wooden rowboat, periwinkle blue paint chipped and full of splinters. At least it proved to be seaworthy, even if it wasn't much to look at.
"Just make sure you don't drink any of it," Koushirou warned him. "It could still be toxic."
"Fine, mom, I promise I won't take a big gulp of the dirty lake." Taichi rolled his eyes, fumbling with the oars. He could paddle a canoe well enough, but it wasn't like he hit the lake every day. But in a couple minutes, he found a steady rhythm, the oars becoming like extensions of his arms, slicing through the murky water and re-emerging with a spray of foam.
As the tiny island approached, Taichi wondered what he would do if he really did find a Sovereign there. After multiple encounters with Baihumon, Plan F seemed the far more likely outcome. He should probably be concerned with how cavalier Koushirou seemed about the possibility of him ending up Baihumon's first course.
There were four Sovereigns, though, and what if it was one of the others? According to Gennai, Zhuqiaomon might react to them in much the same way Baihumon had, and Ebonwumon was supposedly more inclined to nap. How nice it would be if they came all the way out here and found Azulongmon. At least he was a Sovereign who would listen to them.
"You know Sora-san's going to murder me when she finds out what we're up to," Koushirou commented.
"You're that scared of her, are you?"
"If you weren't so reckless, you would be too."
Taichi hummed. "Well. Maybe I am," he muttered, watching the shoreline grow more and more distant.
"Maybe you are what?"
"Reckless or scared?"
Taichi blinked. "I –" He managed to dodge answering thanks to the boat striking a sand bar, a narrow, serpentine trail leading to the island. He let the oars drop with a clatter and hopped out. His feet sank into the wet sand as he dragged the boat along behind him.
"Anything interesting to report?"
"Urgh," he grunted, the rope tied to the boat cutting into his shoulder.
"So that's a no?"
"Unless you want," huff, "me to report on," huff, "the number of buckets my sweat could fill."
"… I'll pass."
There better be a Sovereign on that island. Even one that meant to eat him. No way had he made it all this way just to find it deserted.
"Something odd is registering on my screen," Koushirou mentioned, half-speaking to himself. Taichi pictured him with his chin cupped in his hand, thick brow knit. "Just ahead of you… is there some kind of structure, or monolith?"
"Or Destiny Stone?" Taichi let go of the boat, staring in awe.
He'd never had the chance to see one of the Stones before, only heard about them from Hikari. Yet he knew beyond all doubt that he was right. The Stone loomed above him, surrounded by a copse of trees, which prevented it being seen from shore. Round its middle like an artillery belt was the shining gold band of a Holy Ring.
"Are you sure?" Koushirou demanded, because he was particular about facts and things.
"Really big rock, check. Holy ring, check. Only question left is why a Destiny Stone would pop up somewhere so stinky." He rolled his eyes while Koushirou sputtered, trying to come up with a way to make Taichi do what he wanted. Fine, he'd throw him a bone. "Sending pictures now."
Snap went his camera. His digivice whirred, reacting to who-knows-what. That was Koushirou's department. Excited, breathy exclamations of "oh!" and "I hadn't thought!" carried over the line as Koushirou parsed the data rolling in. Meanwhile Taichi walked around the Stone, hand outstretched, but not quite touching it.
"After Arukenimon and Mummymon destroyed them, Azulongmon left to create new Stones," Koushirou said. "This must be one of them."
Taichi nodded. "So this island must be somewhere Azulongmon comes." Azulongmon could be here right now. "Is there a way we could leave him a message?"
"Like a Digital Sovereign answering machine? That'd be convenient. I think we used up our quota for lucky breaks with that boat." Koushirou paused a beat and then said: "But here's what you could do."
He had Taichi find a sharp rock and a tree stump, the nearest they could get to paper and pen, and sent an email full of Digi-code. Taichi did his best to transcribe them, but between the fact that he couldn't make heads or tails of the symbols himself, and that trying to write like this made him feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway, he had no clue how legible it was. (It took a monumental effort to resist the urge to confuse Koushirou by calling him "Wilson.")
"So what did I write?" he asked, trudging back the way he came, now that seemed Azulongmon was not at home. He couldn't mind it too much. He could tell his team how close he'd come to finding Azulongmon and that would be encouragement enough. In spite of the weight of the boat, he just about danced his way back down the trail.
"A note to Azulongmon asking him to contact Centarumon."
"Well, I couldn't mention us, could I? What if Baihumon got wind of it?"
"He'd destroy the message before Azulongmon ever saw it."
"Precisely. A while ago I asked Centarumon to act as our liaison. I think he's bored without Gennai."
"You mean he misses him," Taichi murmured, some of the spring leaving his step.
Koushirou grew quiet. "That too."
Subdued, Taichi set the boat back into the water, pushing off the bank with the blade of an oar, struggling not to see the vision of Gennai slumped to the ground with Babamon's staff protruding from his back. His blue eyes, which had leapt like flames themselves at the Wall of Fire, had turned glassy and dull, like a wax figurine. The sheer panic and desperation written across Yamato's face in the moment that everything precious to them was taken away.
Kosuhirou's voice filtered through the static in the headset, somewhat timid. Coming out of a daze, Taichi realized he'd stopped rowing, the boat floating as if half-asleep on the idle water. Angrily, he scrubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, ashamed to find them wet.
"If… if you want to talk…" Koushirou offered with even more hesitation. Though knowing he couldn't see him, Taichi shook his head.
"No. Thanks. But there's no use talking about him."
"Gennai? … Or Yamato-san."
His face grew hot, good mood all but evaporated. He made to resume rowing, but grabbed the oars with too much force and one was knocked into the water.
"Dammit!" With a frustrated growl, Taichi leaned over the edge of the boat and plunged his arm into the cold, gloomy lake, groping for the oar. His fingers brushed the slippery handle, not quite managing to catch hold.
"What's happening?" Koushirou asked.
"Dropped an oar. Hold on. I gotta take the headset off so it doesn't get wet."
"Wait – don't go in the –"
But Taichi had already kicked off his shoes and socks, as well as his jacket, and thrown the headset on top of the pile in the bottom of the boat. The water wouldn't hurt him, they'd already figured out that much. He jumped in feet first and held onto the boat with one arm as he swam after the wayward oar, drifting indolently ever farther.
To reach it, he had to let go of the boat at last, and that was when he first felt something tickle his foot.
In retrospect, the most surprising thing about what happened next was that, after all his experience in the digital world, the thought "what could go wrong?" had dashed across his mind.
He had just enough time to grab the oar, clutching it to his chest, before the Something wrapped around his leg and pulled him underwater.
Air rushed out of him and he shut his mouth quickly. There was no point in opening his eyes in this dirty, stinking pit. Instead he stabbed blindly with the oar at the unrelenting appendage that ensnared him. For all the good it did. Moments later the oar gave a violent jerk in his hands and he felt the vibrations race up his arms as it was snapped in half.
So which plan is this? Taichi chuckled at himself. Find a Sovereigns' hideout and get eaten by some other unrelated Digimon? Would that be Plan I for idiot?
His lungs burned, Koushirou's injunction not to drink the water branded on his mind. Whatever creature had hm trapped dragged his body this way and that under the surface, like a doll, finally flipping him high into the air. He took a huge gasp of air, only to immediately lose all of it as the creature's rope-like arm slammed into his abdomen. He groaned, spat out some lake filth, and fixed his dizzy, grit-filled eyes on the Digimon that rose up like a behemoth.
"Gesomon," Taichi let out a bitter laugh that morphed into a cough. "I should've known I'd be killed by some low level ocean flunky."
He did not think this Gesomon understood spoken language. Not all Digimon seemed to have that gift, and if this one did, it did not seem inclined to conversation. Taichi couldn't blame it, really. He hated chit-chat on an empty stomach too.
Gesomon's tentacle coiled further around his waist, squeezing him like a ripe lemon. With all the strength he could muster, Taichi brought the jagged end of the broken oar down into Gesomon's flesh. The beast roared, out of fury more than pain; the oar hadn't even broken through his steel-like skin. Nevertheless, its hold on him loosened.
"Yeah!" Taichi belted. "Eat that, Captain Ahab!"
Seemingly unimpressed with the literary reference, or perhaps offended by it, Gesomon responded by tilting its jaw open wide. An ominous gargling noise came from the depths of its throat. Gesomon, what kind of powers does it have? Taichi wondered, wishing now more than ever that he'd managed to keep ahold of the headset – Koushirou would give him the answer in a flash. He's a squid – all tentacley and – squidy – Oh, crap in a bucket… Squid ink!
No sooner had the realization come to him than a jet black stream surged out of the depths of Gesomon's mouth. He had a split second to raise his arm over his eyes before it splattered him with goo. His defense wasn't entirely successful. Peripheral vision had gone in one eye, and the other… he couldn't see anything at all.
Taichi bit back a scream of frustration. He was going to die here, alone in this fetid pool, half-blind, his first solid clue towards finding Agumon no more than a five minutes' walk up the beach, and on top of that he was going to lose yet another pair of shoes to Digiworld. How would his friends explain his death to his family? If they really cared about him, they'd leave the Gesomon part out of it. Maybe make up some story about how he'd valiantly taken on MetalSeadramon with his bare hands. Protecting a baby – no, ten baby Digimon. Yeah. At least that sounded more heroic than "he dropped an oar."
Then Gesomon resumed pounding him into the water with all the enthusiasm of a toddler who had just discovered where the pots and pans were kept.
"You've got –" Taichi sputtered between plunges, "no sense – of rhythm –"
He couldn't move, couldn't see. Agumon… looks like without you I really am no use. Maybe their mission was doomed from the start. A fool's errand. Sometimes, what with all the friends they'd made and all their victories, it was easy to brush off the digital world's true face: that it was wild, that it followed no rules, that here, the Loch Ness Monster was just as likely to bake you a pie as it was to tear you to shreds. Well, at least Sora wouldn't get the chance to kill him. He was beginning to have difficulty thinking…
"GET AWAY FROM HIM!"
Though he couldn't quite see it, Taichi's bad eye still reacted to a bright light, coming from… from somewhere nearby. This time, panic edged Gesomon's enraged roar. It let go of Taichi's limp body, and he fell into the lake, sinking deeper and deeper. For a moment he let it happen. He ached all over. The very thought of swimming left him exhausted.
Then another thought came to him: That sounded like Koushirou.
Taichi forced his legs to kick. Forced his arms to pump the water, clawing for the surface as he followed the dim trace of hopefully sunshine his semi-good eye could just make out.
He broke through the waves, taking great gulps of air. "Koushirou!"
"Taichi-san! Over here!"
"Where's here!" he sputtered.
Someone grabbed the collar of his shirt, hoisted him out of the water, and put him on what felt like a horse's back. "Calm yourself," Centarumon's voice boomed as Taichi wavered in his newfound seat. "I will take us to land."
"Centarumon… you can swim?"
At the edge of the lake, a blurry Koushirou was waiting for them. Taichi blinked in his general direction, brow scrunched in a tight knot.
"Came to my rescue, huh," he remarked.
Koushirou nodded. "As soon as you told me about the Destiny Stone, I sent a message to Centarumon. That's how I was able to send him here in time. I did try to warn you," he added with a look of censure.
"Mmm. That was not fun." Taichi made to climb off Centarumon, but found the distance between himself and the ground difficult to fathom. Centarumon interceded, picking up Taichi around the waist and lowering him to the dry grass effortlessly. Koushirou tried to help, reaching out for Taichi's elbow as his legs shook, but all that accomplished was to send them both staggering against the rocky cliffside. Propping himself up on his elbows, Taichi waited for his heart rate to return to normal, as Koushirou hovered around him like a nervous hummingbird.
Taichi raised a finger and pointed. "He got ink in my eyes. Am I –"
"Your vision should clear up soon," Koushirou was quick to assure him. "That Gesomon was a weakling, judging by his stats."
He had to laugh. "Ah… by the way, your headset –"
"Don't worry about that. I can rig another. I expected it wouldn't take you long to trash it."
"The two of you should take your safety into great consideration." His one stern eye swiveling on the two of them crouched together in the sand, Centarumon moved to pace the edge of the lake. His tail gave an agitated swish. "You were no match for that Digimon, and there are many others who would do worse to you. Gennai would not have wanted you to take such risks."
"I have a feeling Gennai didn't get a lot of things he wanted," Taichi muttered.
Centarumon seemed to chew on that for a moment. "Even so. You must not overexert yourselves. You are the digital world's only hope."
"Aren't we always."
Koushirou kept fidgeting beside him. Even with his sight clouded over, Taichi could read the emotions rolling off him like an open book. "Hey, this is not your fault," he said through a haze of exhaustion, his words slurring together. "If it's anyone's, it's mine, for losing the headset."
Koushirou shook his head. "The diagnostics I ran on the lake didn't turn up any life forms, but I'll bet Gesomon was hiding within an underwater cave and I missed him. If I'd kept running scans –"
"So now we know for next time. Stop beating yourself up." Taichi sighed. "I can't believe anything could live in this gross water."
"I wondered if it was meant to be a guardian for the Destiny Stone, but it was so weak…"
"Oh yeah, the Destiny Stone!" Taichi sat up straighter. "Centarumon, there's a Destiny Stone on that island! We left a message for Azulongmon nearby. If he comes back –"
"I will be sure to alert you in the event that a Sovereign appears," Centarumon told him.
Taichi grinned. They might have lost Gennai and their partners, but it seemed they still had a few friends left in the digital world.
He rounded on Koushirou, who had finally begun to look more like himself and less like a lumpy red potato. Still grinning, he said, "Not bad for our first investigation, huh?"
"… No," Koushirou said, with a shy smile in return. He may not want to admit it, may need to make his show of concern, but Taichi knew that he couldn't bring himself to call off. Koushirou wanted this at least as much as he did. "I'd say we did pretty well today, other than you –"
"Bravely defending fifty baby digimon from a hungry Gesomon?"
"– making a complete fool of yourself."
"So, we're on for tomorrow, right?"
Koushirou chuckled. "I'll figure out where we should strike next tonight."
Yamato couldn't sleep. Couldn't eat. Couldn't study. Couldn't remember what it felt like to be able to do any of those things.
He went to school, did homework. Went to band practice. Music was the only thing keeping him from really losing his grip these days. His bandmates weren't impressed with the new, subdued Yamato, but they'd get over it. He wasn't exactly known for his exuberance. At least Komori was happy to have Yamato there every day, on time, focused on music, without a single phone call interrupting their sessions. There'd been no talk of kicking Yamato out of the band, thanks to that.
Yutaka pulled him aside one night, and stared at him intently. It felt weird; Yamato hadn't known Yutaka was capable of anything but goofing off. "Are you okay?" Yutaka asked.
"I should be asking you. How's your hand?"
"Fine, you know it's fine. Most of the cuts weren't that deep. You, however, look like a pile of shit that got run over by a tractor."
"Was the tractor part strictly necessary?"
Yutaka checked over his shoulder to see that Akira and Takashi were occupied. He leaned in close. "Don't you hear from Yagami and Takenouchi anymore?"
"Usually they're blowing up your phone."
"They're dating now, and I've become the third wheel," he said, annoyance building.
Yutaka gaped. "No! Sora-chan wouldn't do that to me. Neither would Yagami. Damn, you mean they're the new Brangelina? The… Taiora?" He paused. "D'you think they'd be up for a threesome?"
Of course Yamato could tell Yutaka didn't believe him about the existence of "Taiora." He'd just reached the limits of his capacity for serious talk, which Yamato still couldn't believe wasn't zero.
Other news kept him distracted. There was still talk of touring, and Komori had suggested the four of them get an apartment together. That was one thing Yamato did not want to think about. Yutaka, Akira, Takashi and himself, living under the same roof? This was how bands broke up, he'd said to Komori.
The discussion was tabled, but Yamato knew it would come up again.
To make matters worse, he didn't want to be living at home right now. He managed to downplay the extent of his bad mood to his dad. It helped that Hiroaki was nearly always working. And his friends had learned long ago to give him space when he wanted it – except Sora, who was like a shadow, always flitting around the edge of his vision. At school, she accosted him every chance she got. But even she had become a more infrequent visitor, ever since he'd snapped at her to mind her own business and shut the door in her face. Just to create yet another reason to hate himself.
Takeru called every day, and let Yamato pick what they talked about. Although, once a topic was picked, Takeru did all the actual talking. Yamato listened with his fingers knotted in his hair, digging into his skull, and reminding himself to be glad his baby brother cared about him so much. The calls always ended with Takeru straining to stay light-hearted, when Takeru was essentially a ray of sunshine in the shape of a boy. At least that's how he'd always been to Yamato.
Day in, day out, he performed his routine robotically, the world around him drained of color. The one and only thing that roused Yamato out of his stupor was encountering Taichi, whose eyes narrowed at the sight of him, mouth twitching like it couldn't decide what expression to go with. Try as he might, Yamato couldn't bring himself to speak first. Or to speak at all. Indeed, the few times words had passed between them at all, they'd been Taichi's alone. Yamato's were stuck, lodged deep in his throat, and the self-imposed silence was all but choking the life out of him. He thought maybe the words would come out if he didn't have to look at Taichi, because the instant he did, he saw the image of Gennai strangling him over the edge of the Wall of Fire. And he would think, if the situation had been reversed, maybe Taichi would have made a different decision. Maybe he'd have let Yamato die, rather than put his trust in Babamon.
As angry, as sad, as guilt-ridden as moments with Taichi made him, they were nothing compared to the grief he felt when he thought about what he'd done to his partner. To Gabumon.
All the Chosen were close with their partners. But Yamato thought he and Gabumon had something deeper. Maybe they all felt that way. All that mattered was that Yamato had given his heart away only twice in his life, the first to his brother, and the second to Gabumon. And Gabumon had given him his even more freely. Then Yamato had gone and done the unthinkable.
Traitor, his mind whispered at night while he tossed like an insomniac, in the morning while he let the eggs fry too long, in math class as he tried to care about things like trigonometric functions. You can't even own up to your mistakes, it told him each time an email came from the Chosen's mailing list. He always read the updates. He knew they'd made little headway tracking down any of the Sovereigns, let alone Baihumon. The thought of going to the meetings, of facing the friends whose partners he'd had a hand in taking away, inflicting the same unbearable pain on them… he couldn't do it. Weakling.
Traitor. Weakling. Selfish. Traitor. Weakling. Selfish. Traitorweaklingselfishtraitorweaklingselfish
Yamato sat up, staring at the blinking light of his alarm clock. The next minute his father's keys were in his hand. The next he was driving across Rainbow Bridge.
Soon he reached Shiraike campsite, still moving as if compelled by some otherworldly force. It seemed years ago that he'd last climbed this slope with Daisuke and Ken, chasing after his brother's D3 that Hosoda Seiki had stolen.
The aurora was there, waiting for him. As if the digital world knew he was coming.
Yamato lifted his digivice. At eleven years old, it had fit snugly in his palm. Now this odd gadget, more precious to him than anything he'd ever owned, felt so small and delicate, more like jewelry than a robust piece of machinery.
But he knew it bursted with power. "Digiport, open," he whispered, almost reverently, in something like a prayer.
The Gate opened, and he felt the familiar disorienting sensation of warping into another world. He landed hard on his knees in a pile of snow. Cold wind howled around him, nipping at his nose and ears. Snow-capped boulders led the path to a small mountain, surrounded by tall, stoic pine trees. A shower of flurries caught on his long lashes. He shook his head, blinking them away.
"Well, well," a voice boomed. "So you dare to come back, after all."
Slowly, Yamato stood. And gazed into the fierce, shrewd yellow eyes of Baihumon, Sovereign of the West.
1] pafupafu: So… most of y'all probably know what I'm referencing here, bahahaha. This is pretty much an internet/video game term for like, putting your face in a woman's breasts and blowing air on them. Idek. Gennai's weird.
2] Soranbushi: An old fisherman's dance that's been popularized at many universities and events throughout Japan. (And outside, I did this dance in college!) "Dokkoisho" is a sound made for exerting energy and is used in the song.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter. It's sad and wordy, I know. We'll get back to a more fun pace in the near future. Please review and let me know what you think! ~ Fizz