A/N: Welcome back! Chapter 5 is finally finished, thanks to all your kind encouragement. I am giving myself several belated pats on the back. Belated is better than never. But I couldn't have done it without you guys! I am a slug. This is but the hard truth. You know what happens to a slug if you pour salt on it? Yeeeeah. But you guys are smart. You covered me with sugary sweet reviews and sugar is what gives slugs the kick they need to press on through danger and a sea of papers and exams! (Actually I don't have the faintest idea what sugar does to slugs but it's hardly relevant, I am me after all.)
Special thanks to BenignUser for generally being fantastic over the course of writing this last chapter, and also to the members of Digi-Challenge who have offered some very nice encouragement. Through your reviews I was also introduced to some spiffing fellow writers and I have enjoyed stalking your stuff!
Now, let's begin! Minor characters in this chapter: Nakata Shigeo and Kakitani Yuichi, Takeru's friend and roommate from basketball camp.
In Which Much Waiting Occurs and Nothing Really Gets Done
"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
- Thomas Edison
Koushirou hoped that Taichi would fall asleep, as he often did on long rides, until they reached Shinagawa so that Koushirou had time to sort out his own muddled theories. But they were barely out of Odaiba before he felt Taichi watching him, a brood of questions set to leap from his lips. Koushirou knew he was fighting them. He was deciding whether or not his doubts would stick a pin in Koushirou's delicate ego. And even though the thought prickled and tugged at a corner of Koushirou's mouth, he couldn't say Taichi's caution was unjustified.
The growth of their friendship had almost been clipped short as a sapling, back when Taichi's insensitivity outweighed his affection, and it was simply hard sometimes to remember that his mouth ran too fast for his thoughts to keep up. To be fair, Koushirou was, at that time, hypersensitive to criticism from most anyone. And he'd been so jealous of Taichi. Well, perhaps jealous wasn't the right word. He'd admired and envied his confidence, his easy way with people. Equally, there were things about Taichi he'd resented, which had only widened the rift between them.
But they'd surpassed those early years. Sure, half the time Koushirou still wanted to throttle Taichi, or needed to lie down after hanging with him because his head was all in a whirl and four hours of running commentary on Family Guy was clearly not conducive to rational thought. But they'd both become more patient with each other, more understanding of their differences. And Koushirou liked to think they'd even learned a bit from each other.
Even so, at times like this, envy came surging back. Koushirou had come far since childhood, even since middle school, when he'd felt the need to apologize for every theory gone wrong. But what he wouldn't give for Taichi's self-assured smile, the defiant blaze in his eyes which made him friends out of strangers and rivals out of enemies.
He steeled himself as Taichi clenched his jaw in that way of his that meant he wanted to be Very Serious.
"Koushirou, I know you've got your reasons, but I'm curious why you want to pass yourself off as an Aomori camper. I mean, I assume there's a plan involved?"
Koushirou could have laughed. Those words had been rolled over and over in Taichi's head so much that they came out sounding regurgitated, as if he were spitting verbal cud. Taichi was not a pig (in most respects, on good days, and it was easier to just not think about bad days). Some imposter who was polite and straight-laced had commandeered his mouth and made him talk like a pig. If just Taichi were speaking, he'd have said something more along the lines of, "Koushirou, what the juicy frick is with that plan?"
"I figured it was worth it to make the attempt," Koushirou replied, matching the closely monitored neutrality in Taichi's voice. "Aomori accepts high school athletes, but it would be best for us to mingle with Hosoda's own group mates and learn what we can from them."
"They'll all be asleep by now, won't they?" Taichi asked.
"With all the excitement, I'm sure we can find someone willing to talk – and if not, it's still worth the effort to go there and comfort Takeru, then try to track Hosoda's path, in case I'm wrong about his heading to Shiroike." Keeping his voice level, he added, "I actually don't think you and Yamato-san could have pulled any of this off on your own, and that's why I sent him to Shiroike."
Taichi's mouth tipped. "Oh, I see how it is. So you don't trust us with the brain work. I can't say I blame you. But I still don't get how you plan to get past Aomori security."
Koushirou grinned. "Just Taichi" was back. "That's where this comes in," he said, and pulled out his wallet. "Take a look."
"Your school ID?" Taichi squinted in the dim lighting and sucked in his breath. "Is this forged?"
"I made some modifications to my old junior high ID. It wasn't hard to substitute the dates of attendance."
Clearly impressed, Taichi flipped the ID over on his palm. "I guess you didn't need to take a new picture, since you look more or less the same –"
"I don't look exactly the same," Koushirou hissed, snatching the ID from Taichi's fingers. Scowling, he slid it carefully back into his wallet. He turned his glare on his reflection in the window and wondered if it was time for that hair cut.
"Anyway, I don't expect I'll have a reason to use it. The plan is to sneak in; I'll only whip it out if I get stopped by security. But we're banking on the staff having too many kids to keep track of to notice that they haven't seen me before. If they figure out I'm not supposed to be there, I don't know what will happen. They probably just won't let me stay, but I guess they might also turn me over to the police."
"And what am I supposed to do while you're inside?"
"Look pretty and distract the guards."
"That might take some acting."
"Okay, then you can sweep the grounds, see if you can find footprints or anything."
"Like the police are doing? What if I get arrested for trespassing?"
"That's why I told you to look pretty –"
Taichi slapped his forehead. His knees shot skyward as the rest of him slouched low in his seat. "I think I've been a bad influence on you," he pouted.
Shaking his head, Koushirou tugged on the collar of Taichi's shirt. "No, you don't get to take credit for my wit. That was all me."
"Yeah, it was." Taichi pulled his legs up and smiled over his knees. He blinked sleepily out the window. "It was all you."
They rode in silence after that. Eventually Taichi fell asleep, leaning in on a margin of Koushirou's space until he had to scrunch uncomfortably against the wall. He wished he'd thought ahead and let Taichi take the window seat. There was a reason he tried to avoid sitting next to Taichi on long trips: whoever got stuck next to him would end up as his pillow, willing or unwilling.
The bus sped past a sea of dark trees and Koushirou wondered if his parents were still asleep. He'd left a note for them, and his cell phone was charged and tucked safely in his shirt pocket. But some pathetically hopeful part of him still entertained the notion that he'd get home before they knew he'd gone. He didn't want them to worry. And he was sure he'd be too tired to field their questions when he returned.
By the time they reached the outskirts of Shinagawa, Koushirou felt something heavy dragging his eyelids downward, and the electric glow of his computer screen seemed to burn. He reluctantly put it away and closed his eyes. He ached all over. The rumble of street noises did nothing to help. He felt like he were sitting in the pit of an extravagantly out-of-tune orchestra that featured garbage cans in place of timpanis. And something wouldn't stop beeping… a stopwatch or alarm… just wouldn't stop…
"Koushirou, wake up!"
He was being shaken. Through a sleepy haze he saw Taichi's anxious frown, and when his head had stopped rattling he forced himself to sit up. He pushed away from the window, wincing at a knot in his neck. "What?"
"A digivice's signal." Taichi was intently chewing on his lower lip and staring at his own digivice. "This dot showed up and started beeping. You didn't hear it?"
"I heard, but didn't recognize it," Koushirou said, unlatching his digivice from his belt. "Mine's got the same signal… You know, you're a real mother hen when it comes to these things."
Taichi stared at him blankly. "What?"
"You know how mothers, even when they're fast asleep, are tuned to their baby's cries? You're like that with your digivice… and anything to do with Digiworld."
"I guess," Taichi mumbled with a slight shrug. "We need to track the signal. It could be Hosoda."
"Who else could it be?" Koushirou sighed, frustrated with their lack of information. "We might as well get off here."
"No. Just I'll go. You continue to Aomori in case I lose him. Someone needs to talk to Takeru, anyway."
"But –" Koushirou furrowed his brow at the thought of Taichi wandering an unfamiliar town by himself.
"I'll be fine. We're already in the university town, so we'll be close to each other. And I can't get any more lost here than I did in Digiworld."
"You realize that's not exactly comforting."
"One of us has to go." Already squeezing down the aisle, Taichi threw a grin over his shoulder. "And you can't trust me with the mission that requires brain work."
He sweet-talked the driver into dropping him off at the curb. No sooner had he hopped off the bus than he took off down the street, focused on the uncanny device in his hand.
Koushirou had hoped he would wave. He felt his enthusiasm seep out of him, spilling through his feet. Gennai's injunctions came unbidden to his mind, almost like a reproof: Stick close together. Don't come to Digiworld if you can help it. Keep an eye on those with Dark Spores.
He wondered if they'd break all three in one night.
"This is a waste of time." Daisuke dragged an arm along his sweaty brow. That was it; he was done with this heat wave. Exhaustion plus sticky summer nights made him cranky and a little nauseous. "Who knows if that kid with Takeru's D3 will even come here? And if he does, it's dark enough that we could completely miss him. Maybe we'll end up sitting here until morning, unless we get mugged by gangsters first…"
"There are no gangsters out here, Daisuke," Ken said patiently, as if Daisuke had said he was worried about bears. He pulled a hair elastic off his wrist and swept his blue-black mane into a loose ponytail.
Poking at the ash in the fire pit with a long stick, Daisuke wondered if he'd be able to scare Ken before the night was out. So far his best friend hadn't been impressed by even one of his ghost stories. Not even the one that was a rip-off of Saw. Then again, Ken had gone with him to see Saw, and then he'd stood outside the stall while Daisuke vomited popcorn and Milk Duds into the toilet, so he probably knew what was going to happen.
"Aardvark," Daisuke said.
Ken rolled his eyes. "Beluga whale."
"… Begins with 'I'," Ken corrected, burying his face in his hands. "Daisuke, do you do that on purpose just to age me prematurely?"
"Maybe," Daisuke said, proud of himself. It was important to keep Ken on his toes, else he'd fall into that endless void which was his Thoughts and it was a pain in the arse to pull him back out. "I just like to say 'iguana.' It's fun, kind of like Gila monster – or dromedary."
He heard nothing from Ken, but in the glow of his flashlight, could see his shoulders shake with silent laughter.
The snap of twigs made his head swivel to the right, at Yamato prowling around the campgrounds like some beast from the forest. A lanky, two-legged beast with tobacco breath. As he watched, Yamato planted his foot on a decaying tree branch and leaned his full weight on it until it broke in half.
"Is he trying to collect firewood?" Daisuke whispered to Ken.
"Just leave him alone," Ken replied. "He's got a lot on his mind right now." He shifted on their log bench, brushing a few twigs off the seat of his pants.
Daisuke kept a watch on Yamato out of the corner of his eye. He was slightly afraid that all Yamato's pent up rage would finally burst out and piss on the two unsuspecting middle schoolers sharing a log. The senior Chosen had spent the entire bus ride fuming until his ears turned crimson, and refused to talk to them while they climbed the winding trail to the campsite. Daisuke wanted to say something to remind him that they were all a team, and age didn't matter. If there was something Yamato was concerned about, it would be better to share it with them, rather than skulk around like a caged animal.
He realized he hadn't actually seen Yamato for more than a few minutes since Christmas. No – since Takeru's birthday. At least he'd bothered to show up for his brother's birthday. On Koushirou's he'd called from his tour. On Sora's he'd done nothing.
"… Hey," Daisuke said after a minute. "If that kid doesn't want to try to open a Gate, what d'you think he wants to use Takeru's D3 for?"
Ken leaned back and looked at his shoes. "I don't know what would be most likely. Maybe he wants to take it apart and compare it to his own D3, find out why it doesn't work properly. Maybe it's revenge – he hates the idea of someone else having something he can't. Or maybe he's being paid by someone to steal it and bring it to them. The possibilities are endless. We don't have any data."
Daisuke's mouth slipped open at the thought of some kid picking apart a D3. It wasn't that he hadn't thought about how Takeru must be feeling. He just hadn't entertained the idea that they wouldn't recover the D3 no problemo, and tease Takeru about the whole thing afterward. For the first time he allowed himself to be swept with sympathy.
"We definitely have to get it back," he murmured, thrusting his stick further into the ash. A cloud of dust rose from the fire pit and he coughed.
He felt Ken watching him, considering him. He pretended not to notice.
"How do you feel about what's happening to Taichi-san?" Ken asked.
Daisuke grimaced, giving his full attention to his alien messages in the dirt. "What does it matter how I feel?" he said with a casual shrug. "It's Taichi-san's problem."
"It's not just a problem, Daisuke. It's… practically a death sentence." Ken's voice was low, gentle, but Daisuke felt like he'd been kicked. Casual, he reminded himself. Blue jeans and ringer shirt casual.
He couldn't think of anything to say at first. A clump of something settled in his throat. He fought to swallow around it while vigorously working the ashes with his stick.
"We faced death lots of times and found a way out of it," he protested when he managed to unstick his tongue. Maybe that didn't sound as whiny and defensive to Ken as it did to him.
"That's a very noncommittal response." Ken tentatively put a hand on his shoulder. "Besides, this is different than anything that's happened to us before. I'm scared for him. And knowing how important Taichi-san is to you… I want you to know you can talk to me."
Teeth clenched, Daisuke dipped his head a couple times, up and down like a bobblehead doll. He was too conscious of Ken's arm around his shoulders, a firm grip that was meant to offer comfort, but he wanted it removed. The part of him that was already a tangle of nerves felt even more exposed, and though he was grateful for Ken's support, he wished he hadn't picked now to talk about this.
"Even so –" He blinked rapidly. "Even so – if Taichi-san's not worried about it –"
"He's worried." Daisuke almost jumped at the hard voice growling in his ear. Yamato towered over him, his fair hair framed in a halo of moonlight. The expression on his face was anything but angelic. "He's not just worried, he's terrified. Just good at hiding it."
Daisuke balled his fists as his frayed nerves sparked. "Stop acting like you know so much," he retorted hotly. "You're never even around anymore. Why should I believe you more than anyone else? More than Taichi-san?"
Yamato's eyes flashed dangerously, but he didn't say a word, even to scoff at Daisuke. He took a long drag of his cigarette. He made as if to walk off, back to trampling as much of the grounds as he can, Daisuke thought with a snort. But then he turned back around, and Daisuke thought he was holding himself funny, maybe a little stiffly. He squirmed.
"Why am I the only one who doesn't think of Digiworld as our secret dream land? Why am I the only one who sees how detrimental it can be?" Surrounded by a chorus of chirping grasshoppers, Yamato's anger seemed out of place, a ripple in a still pond. "It's not a fricking utopia."
Daisuke started to stand. Ken caught his arm, shooting him a warning look, and levered himself off the ground. He stared coolly at Yamato. "You don't mean any of that," he said with a stoicism Daisuke envied.
Of course, Ken was also able to speak with the authority of one who had been through several Digiworld-related tragedies. Yamato practically shrank in front of a middle schooler. Under any other circumstances, Daisuke would have doubled over laughing. Without a word, Yamato stalked out of sight, leaving behind a trail of smoke in his wake.
Ken sat back down with folded his hands. He stared placidly at nothing discernable. Daisuke joined him. "You all right?" he asked after a few moments had elapsed.
"Fine," Ken replied crisply. "I wish we could build a fire."
"… It would just make us even hotter," Daisuke said, and let the topic drop. Ken's tone was not welcoming. He picked up his stick and scratched his name in the ash. And tried not to think about blond bastards with the temper of a billy goat.
Takeru picked and tripped his way down an alley, his arms stretched out and flailing like a pair of antennae. He wasn't sure how far he'd managed to run from Aomori, or how many policemen would be on his scent. He imagined the entire force was out looking for him with body gear and tasers and tracking dogs.
The sidewalks were alive in the neon glow of the city's nightlife, so he kept to the alleys. His head pounded like he'd tried sparring with a narwhal. His tongue was dry. It was tempting to duck into a convenience store or hit up a vending machine, but he couldn't risk being seen on the main road.
Dammit, I'm not a convict. Takeru took a couple steadying breaths, but his treacherous heart continued to racket around his rib cage.
In spite of the late hour, the streets were far from deserted. Somehow the impromptu route he'd chosen had led him straight into the Red Light district. Drawing on every trick he'd learned as a city kid in Sangenjaya, Takeru did his best to keep silent and invisible. If someone came down one of the back roads he was following, he lifted his head and stared straight forward, but avoided meeting their eyes. Rule number one was never to look vulnerable or suspicious. Luckily, he was a 5'8", broad-shouldered athlete who looked older than his fourteen years. He kept to himself and an impassable protective circle materialized around him.
Shuffling around the dumpster behind a small Indian restaurant, Takeru's hand caught on a rusty nail, opening a gash in his palm. He hissed and crouched to inspect it. The wound oozed red and ragged. How long would it take for it to become infected?
So much for getting out of this unscathed. Once again he vowed never to allow himself another drink. Or even in the proximity of other people with alcohol. No more nomikai for him, not if it led to stupid decisions like this.
What had he been thinking, running away from Aomori?
As his head cleared, he started to wonder how long it would take before the police were searching for him instead of Hosoda. He could have compromised their success in obtaining his D3. And they'd call his mom. Crap, they would call his mom.
To think he'd believed himself ready to sacrifice his liver just to get his D3 back.
Gingerly cradling his injured hand, Takeru paused at the gate of a park. Except for the glare of the street lamps, the park was enveloped in night. If he crossed it, he'd end up in a different part of town. He threw a leg over the fence and hopped down.
Maybe it would be better just to call someone, tell them where I am. He took a few uncertain steps and prayed for the moon to gleam through the clouds. At this point I've probably gotten myself too lost to find a bathroom, let alone Hosoda Seiki.
I could call Hikari-chan. Taichi-san can drive. He'll make fun of me for getting hurt and harass me until I'm old and arthritic, but he'll come to pick me up.
Somewhat guiltily, he realized he didn't want Yamato to find out about this little escapade. Ever.
But if I quit now, and Hosoda's not at the camp like the others think…
He thought constantly of Patamon.
Just at the moment that his confidence was wavering, he heard the crunch of leaves and twigs to his left. The park patrol? No, probably a deer. They'd been unusually brazen this summer, or so he'd heard.
His deer was considerably noisy. And clumsy. Snap – bump. "Ow! Dammit."
Well, either Noisy and Clumsy was a person or Rudolph was extremely confused about the time of year. Person, then. Takeru chanced a look over his shoulder. In the darkness all he could hear were lumbering footsteps, and a distant, yet familiar, beeping.
The blinking red light he could now tell was pulsing with each beep confirmed what he'd already guessed. Someone was approaching who had a digivice.
Takeru braced himself and waited. Meanwhile he tried not to think about how supremely he failed at fist fights. Mostly because it took him longer than most people to get mad. Once he was good and fired up, he popped his claws, but he still lacked experience. Tussling with Daisuke on his living room floor hardly counted as a brawl, especially since they mostly roared at each other and occasionally took a badly-aimed swipe. Oh well. Maybe rage would feed his amateur fists and his subconscious would recall moves from all those Bruce Lee movies Daisuke loved so much.
When the intruder came within spitting distance, Takeru sprang up on his long legs and launched himself forward. He scratched and groped at a torso which was uncommonly bendy, writhing away every time he thought he had him pinned. They tumbled over a bed of twigs and leaves. Takeru's shoes filled with dirt and a pebble caught between his toes. He made a mad grab for the flashing red light in the other's hand and latched onto a fistful of bushy hair.
"Hosoda?" he ventured, even though he knew Seiki could not have grown that much hair since dinner unless the egg salad really had been poisoned.
"Geh, geroff," came the muffled voice from beneath him. An uncomfortably familiar voice, in spite of Takeru's hands clawing at his face.
Hastily Takeru rolled away, ending up with more stones lodged in his back. He lay there with his eyes squeezed shut, breathing heavily, hoping he'd camouflage with the darkness and his attacker, having conveniently lost his memory as a result of their battle, would trot off on his merry way.
No such luck. "Geez, Takeru, get up for pete's sake," said Taichi from above. He took hold of Takeru's wrist and pulled him to his feet.
They stood awkwardly – or Takeru did, he couldn't see Taichi but figured no one could look more like a foal new on his legs than he did now. Then he felt Taichi's hand wrap around his arm and he was steered toward the nearest streetlamp. Taichi climbed the fence deftly and Takeru followed, still feeling like his stomach had folded in on itself.
Awash in the milky lamplight, Taichi folded his arms. His lips were pinched in a stern frown, rare enough for Taichi but no less striking fear in the hearts of lesser men. It was a look that said, Surrender now, for all hope is lost.
"Hi," Taichi said, nothing short of menacing.
Takeru smiled, sort of, and made an embarrassed noise like the squeak of an unoiled door hinge.
"Now don't give me any BS," Taichi leaned his elbow against the lamppost. "What in the holy land of Whatthefrick are you doing out here, off campus, by yourself?"
"Origami," was what Takeru wanted to say. He was becoming helplessly angry. Angry because he was helpless. The folly of his non-plan began to dawn on him, now that Taichi was regarding him with dark circles under his eyes.
But he'd never been good at back-talking, not to senpai at least. So he licked his lips, and told the truth.
"I couldn't just sit on my butt and do nothing," he blurted out. "It's my D3. My responsibility. I failed to protect it. So I have to be the one to get it back."
"Respons – you want me to talk to you about responsibility?" Taichi thundered. "Your responsibility was to wait for Koushirou and me at Aomori! Where it's safe! Now Koushirou's on his way to try to sneak into the school, and he's gonna spend an hour searching for you that he could have spent tracking your thief! What were you going to do, what? Were you going to hitchhike across Japan, hope that eventually you'd bump into Hosoda, and beat him with your cleats until he forked over your D3?"
"We don't wear cleats," Takeru murmured into his chest. "… I'm sorry."
Taichi sighed. Not an angry sigh, Takeru thought. Tired. Frustrated. A Chasing Brainless Adolescents across Tokyo sigh.
"I – I don't know what happened," he said with a shake of his head.
"Okay," Taichi said. He scrubbed at his face with his fists. Takeru noticed, as if for the first time, how much taller he'd grown than Taichi. It was a strange feeling to be chastised by someone he respected, who had always been the equivalent of a big brother to him, and who now had to look up to shout at him. "Okay. Man," he broke off, suddenly leaning toward Takeru and taking a deep whiff. "I can't believe it. You really have been drinking."
"I'm really sorry," Takeru said quickly. "It was stupid. I'm stupid. Today, at least. But it won't happen ever, ever again." Remembering this was his best, very female friend's notoriously overprotective brother, he added, "I'm swearing off alcohol. I will never enjoy a martini. I will never hit on a barmaid. I'll even stay away from beer-battered fish."
"Relaaax!" Taichi gripped Takeru's shoulders. "Dude, no one can get drunk from beer-battered fish."
"I would be the first," Takeru insisted. Taichi gave him a shake.
"Look, I'm not here to browbeat you. Heaven knows I've done worse. You don't need to 'swear off alcohol.' Just… don't get hammered so far from home next time, okey-dokey?"
He grinned. Takeru had never been more grateful for Taichi's grin. "Okay."
"Now I'm going to call Koushirou and we'll revise the plan." Taichi rummaged through his pocket and produced his phone and a flashlight. "Ah, here, you fix this." He dumped the flashlight and a few AA batteries in Takeru's hands. "When it died on the way here, I couldn't see well enough to replace the batteries."
Takeru fumbled with the flashlight. "What are you going to do with me?" he asked, dropping an old battery on the ground.
"Tie you up and stick you in the trunk of my car, then throw you on the shoulder of the highway for the wolves. Don't litter."
"You don't own a car." Takeru stuck the old batteries in his pocket.
"We'll bring you back to Aomori, I guess. They'll decide whether you stay or go home. Um. But just in case they think I kidnapped you, you'll have to go in yourself."
"Alright," Takeru sighed, deflating. He did still want to be part of the rescue, but figured protesting would be pushing it.
Taichi was frowning at his cell phone. "I think we're out of range. I can't get a signal."
Something clicked in Takeru's mind. "Taichi-san, before, wasn't your digivice blinking?"
"Yeah, that was you, right?" Taichi paused. " – Oh. You haven't got yours."
They stared at each other.
Koushirou sneezed into his sleeve.
Someone thrust a tissue in his face. "Here."
"Danks," he said, snatching the tissue and blowing a snot storm out of his nose. Sneaking into Aomori through the bathroom window had not been one of his brightest ideas. Evidently no one ever cleaned in there. He'd been assaulted by dust and grime and who knows how many germs, and of course his allergies had kicked in. He sat on the mattress and gave a magnificent sniff.
"Hnrrghh," he said.
"You just vacuumed a truckload of snot into your esophagus," Nakata said, watching him from the head of the bed.
"Why don't you just hang on to these." Yuichi held out the box of tissues, which he'd kept tucked in his arms while he paced the room ever since Nakata had ushered Koushirou inside.
After squeezing through the highly unsanitary window, Koushirou had dangled his feet over the side and tried to slowly lower himself down. But dangling apparently required more concentration than he'd thought, and before he knew it he was on his rear with dust in his nostrils and slime staining his pants. Then he'd been accosted by a red-haired boy with thick, surprised eyebrows, who'd introduced himself as Nakata Shigeo and asked if he had come to kidnap more students. Then he'd said Koushirou didn't look much like a serial killer and that any friend of Takeru's was probably an alright sort of guy, and that he'd take him to Takeru's room even if it meant facing the wrath of his anal-retentive roommate.
Which, Koushirou had to admit, described Kakitani Yuichi with pinpoint accuracy.
"He up and vanished out of nowhere," Yuichi said. Hands free of the tissue box, he was now occupied with straightening Takeru's pillows. He tore one from beneath Nakata's head. "He was with us in the gymnasium, but when I got back to the room, his stuff was already gone. I thought he'd gone to the bathroom, so I didn't report him. Then one of the TAs banged on my door and said the police had seen him sneak off."
"Great." Koushirou groaned, flopping on his back. Nakata pulled his legs out of the way just in time. "I did not need this. I really did not need this."
"You were coming here to meet Takeru," Nakata recalled. "He wasn't supposed to leave."
"Which means you were already planning on sneaking in here," Yuichi said hoarsely. He tugged at his pajama shirt. "I should tell on you."
"Do that." Nakata waved at the door. "And I'll tell them you were the one who let him in."
Yuichi's mouth fell open. He croaked a few incredulous, disgruntled noises, then plunked down on his bed.
"I'm not here to cause trouble," Koushirou assured him.
"Fine," Yuichi snapped. "I don't have anything to do with this." So saying, he shimmied under the sheets and flipped them over his head. Koushirou wondered how he could bear it in this heat.
"So," Nakata began, sitting up cross-legged and grinning at Koushirou. "What's the plan? Any idea where Takeru's gone? Was he kidnapped? Are we going to spring him?"
Koushirou waved his hands around. "Nothing like that. The police saw Takeru-kun sneak off campus. I'm sure he went looking for Hosoda. Hosoda stole something of his, right?"
"And that thing was important enough to him that he dared to run away?"
"That's what it looks like." Koushirou wiped his nose with a wad of tissue. He balled it up, sniffled, and tossed it in the wastebasket. "Looks like there's not much I can do here. Just one thing." He looked at Nakata. "Did you know Hosoda Seiki? Or any of his friends?"
Nakata's eyes squinted under his dark brow. Koushirou thought he resembled a Tasmanian Devil with that look. "He didn't really hang out with anyone that I know of," he replied. "He used to want to hang out with us. Well, Takeru. He was creepy. I saw him watching Takeru more times than I think Takeru noticed." He shook his head. "But I figured…"
"Figured, what?" Koushirou pressed.
"Well… I thought Hosoda was into him." He shrugged. "Y'know. My friend Kitamura, he found a boyfriend here, and Takeru's pretty attractive when he's not being thick. Attractive as far as guys go, I mean. I don't swing that way," Nakata clarified.
"I'll put that on the record," Koushirou said dryly. "Well, I can't begin to guess Hosoda's sexual orientation, but I doubt it's relevant here. You can't think of anyone he seemed close to?"
"No," Nakata shook his head. "I told you, he's a creep. He didn't really talk about himself. Once he took a call on the phone, but it was probably his mom. I overheard, it was definitely a mature woman's voice."
Koushirou really wanted to ask what exactly Nakata thought he knew about mature women, then decided it wasn't worth his sanity.
"Last question: Do you know where his room is?"
Nakata swung his legs over the bed. "Second floor, east wing, I forget what number. C'mon, I'll take you there."
The campgrounds used to give Yamato that stomach-churning nostalgia, the kind where your chest tightens, yesterday's dinner leaps blithely within your intestines, and you somehow cannot make one iota of sense because the tumult of memories and feelings is too loud in your head. The name "Shiroike" fit the camp freakishly well – "white pond," and indeed, on that August morning exactly six years ago, the pond had been engulfed in white. The sight of it caused a barrage of memories, warm memories, frightening, shameful, proud. And passionate. There had been such passion, such strength of spirit, in those days, that even he, the lone wolf, couldn't help but wonder that they hadn't somehow surpassed themselves when it was over.
Each memory brought bile to Yamato's throat. He raised a tremulous hand to his mouth and attempted to smoke, but ended up coughing and sputtering. Surpassed themselves, what a joke. If anything, he was more confused than he'd been back then, when his parents were still newly divorced and sailing the red river of regret.
Hadn't he fought with a similar fear back then? Hadn't he looked around and seen the changes in his friends, the way they'd matured, grown wiser, and wondered why he couldn't see any equivalent changes in himself? What had followed created a rift between him and his friends. To this day, he couldn't decide whether or not heading off on his own had been a good idea.
Maybe that was why being at the camp set him off, made him wish to be anywhere else. He felt flooded by the same irrational, useless fury that had fed him as a kid. It made his fingers tingle, gave him the itch to flee. He was enclosed in an open space. He needed to get out, but there were no swan-shaped paddle boats to be found outside of theme parks.
Cigarette. A twitch of his fingers and smoke funneled from his mouth. Takeru used to ask him if he could blow smoke rings or shapes. He'd tried. Bad idea. Now he left the smoke tricks to Gandalf.
"I know that one. It's Draco. The dragon."
"Wow, I'm shocked. You're right. And you didn't even add a tagline like 'The Most Supreme Stinker' or 'He Whose Armpits are Full of Gerbils.'"
"Ken, come on, dragons are way too cool for armpit gerbils. I know it because I'm the dragon slayer king. Arrr. Fear me, ye of the flammable breath."
"Agumon wouldn't appreciate your saying that, you know."
"Is Agumon among the stars? I don't think so. Only starry dragons need be afeared, I'm terrible."
"So your dragon-slaying prowess is restricted to celestial dragons? That kind of limits your scope."
"But Hydra sprouts new heads every time you lop one off, right? So it's actually a whole lot of dragons."
"Hydra's more of a serpent than a dragon…"
Yamato climbed the hill toward his star-gazing kouhai. Daisuke and Ken were on their backs, side by side, Daisuke waving his arm frantically about the sky. Yamato stood a few yards away and listened. Their friendly banter brought on another kind of nostalgia, quieter, more of a rub than a sting or a slap. He dropped the cigarette on the ground, stamped it out.
Then his digivice went haywire.
"Everyone up!" he cried, wrenching the device from his belt, staring at the erratic pulse on the miniscule screen. Daisuke and Ken shot to their feet with alacrity, D3s in hand.
"We should stake out the stairs," Daisuke hissed. He and Ken crouched behind Yamato.
Yamato nodded. "I'll double back in case he tries to escape. You two cut him off at the stairs."
The group broke apart, each headed to his respective post. Yamato took advantage of his long legs and sprinted behind the office cabin. Daisuke and Ken, both more athletic, had time to arrange themselves at different points along the stairs and shrink into the brush. The camp fell silent.
Before long, Yamato heard the pad of footsteps ascending the stairs. Although the tiny image on his digivice barely marked Hosoda's movement, Yamato knew the more advanced D3s could zoom in enough to gauge his progress. He, however, would have to rely on his night vision to tell when Hosoda was in pouncing distance –
Well, there was an unfamiliar silhouette. On the stairs. Hesitating. Why was he hesitating?
Whom he assumed to be Hosoda Seiki lifted Takeru's D3, looked at it uncertainly. His shoulders stiffened. In a flash Yamato realized – he was about to make a break for it.
Not a moment too soon, Yamato flew out from behind the cabin and blocked Hosoda's escape down the stairs. Hosoda whirled in the other direction, caught sight of Ken, and veered to the left. But Daisuke was still hidden at the very top. With a wild war cry, Daisuke propelled himself at Hosoda, coming at him with arms wide open. They crashed into each other. Yamato and Ken rushed to Daisuke's aid, but Hosoda's knee connected with Daisuke's abdomen and he darted off while Daisuke plunged down the stairs.
With one deft move, Ken grabbed Daisuke from behind, halting his descent. "Are you all right?" Yamato heard Ken ask as he followed Hosoda toward the ring of cabins. He didn't stay to here Daisuke's response. He moved more swiftly and fluidly than he had since he and Taichi had chased a bus downtown because Taichi had left his iPod on it. This was more important than forgotten iPods. His little brother's D3 was at stake.
"Hosoda!" His voice, raw and harsh, poured out of him. "Hosoda Seiki, stop where you are before I do something I'll regret!"
He spotted Hosoda in the center of the ring of cabins. The kid was fast – he'd covered double the ground Yamato had. But now he'd stopped. Yamato doubted it was because he'd ordered him to.
The air around him visibly shifted, taking on a rosy hue, then began to undulate. A spectrum of colors spread itself across the sky like a patchwork quilt. The hairs on Yamato's neck and arms stood up straight. He felt what was happening before he saw it.
The sky ripped open with Hosoda Seiki before the Digital Gate.
It is killing me that I'm not able to add a soundtrack, "DUN DUN DUNNNN."
1.] whoever got stuck next to him would end up as his pillow, willing or unwilling: At a camp one year, we took a ride a couple hours away. On the return trip, the girl next to me fell fast asleep and I became her headrest for a while. We didn't know each other well; otherwise I would have been fine with it. But I tried to wake her up, and she only fell asleep on me again! I sympathize with Koushirou. (But at the same time, envy him. I am a mass of complicated emotions.)
2.] And Sherlock Holmes says it's bad to theorize without any data. ;D
3.] nomikai: A drinking party. It's a normal part of both student and business culture in Japan because it gives hard-working people a chance to relax and become closer. However, the drinking age in Japan is 20, so it's generally not acceptable for a minor like Takeru to participate.
Thanks once again for reading! This whole arc is taking a little longer than I expected, so we'll see Mimi either next chapter or the one after! Thanks for your patience and feedback! Feeeeeed the slug if you dare!