A/N: My apologies for the confusion when I first posted. It's fixed now and in a readable format :) Thank you for your patience.

This chapter isn't dynamic like the previous ones. It's not going on my list of favorite chapters, but I think it works well as a transitional chapter, and introduces a key character. At the very least, you may be able to get a laugh out of it. I think it's still in need of some editing, though.

FYI: In two weeks I start a study abroad program in Japan. This means fantastic opportunities for research, but not a whole lot of time for writing. I can't guarantee when the next chapter will be up. If you guys are lucky, I'll post chapter eight before I go, but considering my track record I don't want to make promises. But as long as I can, I'll try to write in Japan and not leave you guys hanging until December.

Happy Anniversary, everyone!

Chapter Seven

Speak "Friend" and Enter

"If you contribute towards other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life."
- XIV Dalai Lama




Sora's plan to sleep in on Tuesday morning was dashed at sunup by her mother, shaking her arm and hissing through a dream haze "Koushirou" and, oddly, "detergent." Wondering what Koushirou so desperately needed to wash in the wee hours of the morning, she spent a few minutes pawing the closet for the color-safe bleach until her mother's bewildered face reappearing in her room snapped her brain into gear. Not detergent, but "urgent."

She hurried to the family room, where she found Koushirou in the flesh.

"Good morning, Sora-san. How are you?"

She met that with a bleary it's-six-a.m.-and-I'm-on-vacation stare.

"I brought you some banana nut muffins, my mother baked them. And, uh. Coffee."

Cue muffins. Wafting scent of banana and coffee. She was vaguely aware that he was trying to schmooze her, but too not-awake to chew him out for it and, ooh, Italian Roast.

"I realize I'm rather early for our trip to Narita, but I'm sorry to say, that is, um, I can't make it anymore. Neither can Yamato-san or Taichi-san, as it turns out, because we've been up since midnight. Running around Shinagawa-ku. I'm so sorry to change plans on such short notice, but, see, it took us a long time to find Takeru-kun's D3, which was stolen by Hosoda Seiki, another camper at Aomori who also happens to be one of the recipients of Oikawa's Dark Spores, whom Gennai advised us to watch out for just yesterday. I don't mean to make excuses but I hope you, um, understand, and we are really really sorry."

It didn't bode well when Koushirou, usually so neat and organized, fell into the practice of telling stories backwards. And scattering "um's" and "uh's" like scraps of bread for flustered pigeons. She tried to puzzle out the order of events, and once she understood enough to be concerned, said:

"I thought you were out of detergent."

He paused and said, "I probably don't look like much, but that's because of getting lost in Shinagawa."

She nodded, noticing for the first time how harried he looked. His skin was drained of color, his shoulders slouched, and he'd pulled on two mismatched socks. At the same time it hit her that she couldn't look much better, having just rolled out of bed. In her wrinkled green nightgown she resembled something like wasabi paste.

"Come sit down," she said, taking a seat on the couch and patting the cushion next to her. "Okay. Look. The beginning got a little lost among all your I'm sorry's but my guess is everything started when Takeru-kun's D3 was stolen. Stolen," she repeated as the idea sank in. "Why would someone do that?"

"I'm not sure just yet." Leaning forward, Koushirou kneaded the bridge of his nose. "Hosoda-san tried to open a Digital Gate with it. Whether that was the extent of his intentions, I don't know. I think he may not have planned to sabotage Takeru-kun specifically, but when Takeru-kun went off to camp, he was singled out as the weak link."

"But you got the D3 back," she asked anxiously. "You got it back, right?"

To her relief, he nodded. "Yamato-san, Daisuke-kun, and Ken-kun managed to… encourage him to hand it over," he said generously. "They're all very tired and a little beat up, but it's nothing a few days' rest won't cure. The most serious mishap was Taichi-san. He fell down a flight of cement stairs and sliced his chin open."

"He what?" Sora tried to recall the last time Taichi had been injured. Not since – well, three months ago, when he was in raptures about entering his senior year, and decided to announce it to the world by free-running on the school grounds. Which was fine until he made an awkward Tarzan leap and crashed into the equipment shed. He was concussed, but kept laughing stupidly even as his classmates gathered around him in horror.

"He does it for the attention, right," Sora joked half-heartedly, dropping her head into her hand. "Geez, is he okay? Is he at the hospital? I should get dressed." She stood again.

Seizing her wrist, Koushirou shook his head. "Slow down, he just got home a few minutes ago. I talked to him on his cell and he's sleep-deprived but otherwise fine." She hesitated, and he took that as a cue to go on. "The situation's serious though. Yamato-san got some information out of Hosoda-san, but not nearly enough. Our only lead seems to be Kawada Noriko-san. Whatever Hosoda-san did allowed him to open a Gate at the camp, but I doubt he would have been able to go through, because Takeru-kun's D3 rebounded on him. I have the D3 to examine, in case anything he did to it made it faulty."

"Are you telling me," Sora said, "that we're targets in this world now? After we've been barred from going to Digiworld?"

He nodded. "That's why it's so important to find out how many people we're dealing with. Hosoda-san implied that he's not the only one of the kids with Dark Spores who are after us. What their purpose is, I can't say, except that Hosoda-san seemed desperate to get to Digiworld at any cost. Maybe they're driven by frustration, and loneliness for their partners."

"Then maybe it's something we can resolve through diplomacy. If they're willing to talk to us, we can act as go-betweens, communicate with Gennai for some leniency with them."

"That's my hope, although remember, Gennai doesn't control the Digital Gates. There are elements of Digiworld even he doesn't fully understand. I wouldn't expect the Digital Sovereigns to condescend to help us either, unless there's something in it for them."

To date the only Chosen to have met the Sovereigns were the junior team, Daisuke and his friends. Although Azulongmon had given them the Digi-Core (which had passed through Gennai before coming to the Chosen), the Sovereigns mostly acted indifferent to their efforts in Digiworld.

"Plus," Koushirou went on, "leniency – after they tried to force open a Gate – it might be hard to swing that one by now. And Hosoda-san said something to Yamato-san – something along the lines of 'We hate you.'"

With a frown, Sora lifted the Styrofoam coffee cup to her mouth. Koushirou leaned more of his weight on the couch cushions, his eyelids drooping, fingers twitching like agitated birds.

"You look exhausted," she said at last. "Have you slept yet?"

"No – I went home with Yamato-san, and spent a while looking over some records and waiting for Taichi-san to leave the hospital. Then I figured I should tell you in person, to make sure I got through to you before you left for the airport. I guess I'll leave it up to you to decide how much to tell Mimi-san."

"What do you mean?" She raised her brow. "I'm not going to lie to her. Doesn't she – do you mean she doesn't know anything, you know, recent?"

"Very little. Per Taichi-san's request, I didn't tell her about what happened to him last Wednesday. He didn't want her to spend her last few days in America worrying – but I'm sure he intends to tell her when she arrives here," Koushirou hastily added at the reproachful dip of Sora's mouth. "He's not going to keep it a secret – he can't, you know. As for what happened in Digiworld yesterday, and at the camp last night, the only reason she doesn't know yet is because she's on a plane, and we might as well wait to see her before we update her."

Sora's eyes narrowed further.

"I did send her an email after Gennai's first message to let her know that something is going on with Digiworld, and to be on her guard." Now it was his turn to scowl at her. "Look, I only meant I'll leave it up to you to decide how much of a damper it will put on her first day here to tell her everything at once. I haven't left her fully out of the loop. It was Taichi-san's request –"

"I know," Sora sighed, looking away. "This is how he wants to cope – by denying what's happening so he can bumble along like he always does. I haven't heard him mention it once since Friday."

"Which was only three days ago," he pointed out. "And he mentioned it, sort of, last night. I think he hasn't really grasped it. I don't know that any of us have," he added quietly.

"Gennai's explanation was less than enlightening," she muttered.

"At least he hasn't had any more trouble."

"That he's mentioned."

Koushirou shut his mouth, and slid his gaze around the room. They fell into an uncomfortable silence.

Sora's insides felt alternately hot and icy cold. It was likely enough that Taichi wouldn't tell them if he'd been digitized again. She knew that if it were her, she'd be as close-mouthed about it as possible, because denying its existence would keep fear from overpowering her. But he was the Chosen of Courage. Maybe he was better equipped than she was to deal with it.

Or maybe he's paralyzed with fear over something he doesn't understand.

Lately she'd spent a lot of time trying to guess what Taichi was feeling. He'd been lively enough when they'd popped in on Yamato with news of Mimi's arrival. She hadn't wanted to broach the subject of Gennai's message unless he brought it up first. Now she wondered why she'd tiptoed around, waiting for him to make the first move, when he was the one with the most right to be scared.

But she wasn't used to a timid Taichi.

From her side came a tremendous snore. Koushirou was dozing off over the arm of the couch. Affection rushed through her, and also guilt that he'd had to do so much, while she'd been sleeping soundly. She gave his shoulder a gentle pat.

"Come on, you can sleep in the guest room till Mimi gets here. My mom will be working; you'll have the house to yourself."

Several hours later, Sora pulled into the parking lot of Narita. With more coffee. She took a sip to brace herself for navigating the airport grounds (part of the first level of hell). After squeezing between the elbows of a pack of confused foreigners gathered around the currency exchange, she found her way to the arrival lobby. The 2:30 throng of weary travelers was just emerging from the gate, slugging along and toting luggage that had the look of being recently proud and new, and then forced unceremoniously under cramped airplane seats.

Sora had called Jou to tell him that it would just be the two of them picking Mimi up, but apparently even that was optimistic thinking. He'd stumbled over "oh" and "I see" and "uhm, ah" until she'd finally asked if he would prefer she went by herself.

"Oh, I don't want to leave you alone on that ride. Although, I guess Mimi-kun will be with you for the return trip, but I don't mean to back out, I just, she'd probably rather go with you and there's no need for three people and I was only going so we'd have enough cars for all of us and, and, but if you want me to come along I mean if you think she'd want me along –"

And so forth.

Of course he would dislike the idea of being the sole guy to meet Mimi, since he was Jou and girls gave him hives and all. But regardless of whether or not Mimi wanted to see him (which she definitely did), Sora also would have liked the chance to catch up.

So here she was, the only one out of five people awake and lucid enough to greet Mimi at the airport. She scanned the crowd for Mimi's signature hats or hairstyles, and the ground for her snazzy shoes. The arrivals and departures board hadn't listed her flight as delayed, but once her plane had hovered over Tokyo for thirty minutes before landing.

Travelers flushed out of the international arrivals gate in droves. Mimi was small, just a hair over five feet. Missing each other would be easy if she were swallowed by the crowd. She glanced farther down the terminal. Lolling by a vending machine was a girl in a cotton top and pink bolero, flipping through a copy of Vogue. As Sora crossed the hall, she looked up from the magazine.

Two years had passed since Mimi's last visit to Japan. She was sixteen now, seventeen in October. Sora stared for a moment, distinguishing the smooth curve of her jaw, her familiar doe brown eyes. Her hair was back to its original dark blonde, wavy and loose over her shoulders. Her body had filled out, curving fluidly from her tapering waist to her shapely legs.

When had peppy, flirty Mimi morphed into this beautiful young woman?

And yet, when she smiled and waved, it was with the same bubbly enthusiasm Sora remembered from her childhood of cowboy hats and broken compasses. Suddenly it wasn't possible to get too close to her, to hug her too tightly. Mimi replied by dropping her handbag and tossing her arms around Sora's neck.

She'd needed to see Mimi today. After everything she'd learned from Koushirou, she needed a dose of her friend's joie de vivre.

"Sora-san! How are you?" Mimi launched into chattering, linking their arms. She looked uncommonly alert for someone who had just traveled for sixteen hours. "Two years! I'm so excited, I just want to scream! Japan! – Oh my gosh, you're wearing that in this weather?"

She tugged at the blue-green crocheted scarf dangling from Sora's neck. "I'm so glad you're still into scarves," she giggled. "I have, like, five for you in my luggage. Maria has become quite the mad knitter and even though I told her you'd be embarrassed if she sent too many presents, I couldn't talk her out of giving you a bunch."

Sora blushed and laughed.

"Miyako-chan still loves those maxi skirts, right? I found a couple at Urban Outfitters that are just too cute! Oh, I have presents for the boys too, but they aren't skirts."

"Aw, and ever since they heard you were coming, they've been practicing wearing heels and hose, too."

Twenty minutes later, the girls towed Mimi's luggage to Sora's car. Sora flipped open the trunk of the Mitsubishi and crammed Mimi's suitcases inside.

"I'm so tired!" Mimi climbed in the passenger's seat. She leaned back and hid a yawn. Sora followed her in and turned the key in the ignition. "I hate packing to go overseas. It's even more tiring than the trip itself. There must be ten spacebags in those cases. Oh, and have I ever told you I hate Chicago O'hare? Because I do. The transfers are a nightmare. Next time I am so going through San Francisco. Less tiring."

"Well, you can nap on the ride back. Sorry that the AC is broken. At home we've got the guest room made up for you."

"I can't sleep now," Mimi protested. She flipped open the visor mirror and inspected her face. "You have to tell me everything. How's the university hunt going? Are Takeru-kun and Hikari-chan looking into high schools yet? Are they thinking of following you to Sanou High? Oh, but before we get into that, did you guys clean up that little mess in Digiworld?"

Sora' fingers had been drumming on the steering wheel and froze in the air mid-tap. Mimi watched her brightly, expectantly. Koushirou trusted her to say enough that Mimi wasn't left ignorant, but could still enjoy her vacation. She'd thought it over, but every way she tried to phrase the events of the last week was saying too little. Mimi was a Chosen. She deserved the whole truth. It'd be nice to have this conversation later, but…

That Taichi wanted to cover things up, that Koushirou was letting him, concerned her.

"It's actually," she said, "taken a bad turn."

Mimi's grin wilted. "Bad, how bad?"

Sora paused at a Stop sign."I don't know all the details. A lot went on just yesterday – Daisuke-kun's team ported in, so they could tell you more than I can. But Gennai's ordered us to come to Digiworld as little as possible, and we're supposed to be wary of the kids whom Oikawa-san implanted with Dark Spores."

"What does that mean?"

"It means we're targets," Sora said. "Look, last night, Takeru-kun's D3 was stolen."

She related what Koushirou had told her. When she finished, she glanced at Mimi, whose manicured fingers were fiddling with the strap to her handbag. She was staring straight ahead.

"What are you thinking?" Sora asked.

Mimi tucked a coil of hair behind her ear. "Mmm… that I can't believe after all these years, those kids would want revenge on us. That I'm so relieved Takeru-kun and the others are all right. That it's about time something happened in that world, it's been quiet for so long." Her lips curved in a tentative smile. "I wonder what Palmon is doing right now…"

"Me too," Sora nodded. After a moment, she added, "– Anyway, that's why there wasn't a whole retinue of admirers to escort you off the runway when you disembarked."

Mimi laughed. "Well, in that case I'll have to forgive them for slighting me. So, is that it? Am I up to speed? No other secrets you're about to divulge – Daisuke-kun's not growing his hair out like Taichi-san's or anything?"

"Oh, please, no," Sora rolled her eyes. "… There is something else," she said, biting her lip.


"You'll have to ask Taichi." Passing a string of cabs, Sora was relieved to see signs for Odaiba appear on the roadside.

"About what?" Mimi's pitch heightened. Sora winced; she couldn't blame Mimi for feeling hurt that she'd been left out of so much. "His recipe for almond blueberry meringue? When should I ask? In between soccer practices? Late at night, when his parents are asleep – or right in front of them so they can feel relieved their healthy teenage son finally has a girlfriend?"


"Well, you're scaring me," Mimi said crossly. "For no reason. I'm one of you, I can't believe you're being all ominous and 'Go Through the Mines of Moria.' I know I live far away, and maybe I was never as close to you guys in the first place –"

"That's just bull," Sora protested. "You're one of my best friends."

"Okay then." Mimi continued to glower. "So why don't you feed me the juicy gossip? C'mon, that's what girlfriends are for. I don't shave my legs and relentlessly assault every pimple just for my socialite's reputation to end up shot by a lack of topics for conversation."

"Can't you be serious," Sora pouted, unhappy that they were fighting already. "Or at least less melodramatic? The only reason I won't tell you is because it's Taichi's business. I don't know how he'd want to explain it."

"I assume you already know what it is?"

Sora nodded.

"And all the other Chosen know?"


"Then why can't you just tell me yourself? Would Taichi-san really be that mad? Isn't it worse to let me imagine a dozen horrible scenarios all worse than what's really going on and get all worked up over it?"

"Because! Because –" Slamming her palms on the wheel, Sora brought the car to a stiff halt at a traffic light. She was finding it hard to talk around the lump in her throat. "It's not an easy thing to say, Mimi-chan."

Mimi's brow creased, and she turned away with a wounded expression. Sora started to reevaluate Koushirou's advice; considering how high-strung Mimi was naturally, maybe understating their circumstances until she was more calm would have been best.

"Fine, I'll tell you," she snapped. "But you're not going to be happy you asked."

She took a deep, steadying breath before taking the plunge. "Gennai said," she said, surprised to find her voice so feeble, "that he – Taichi's data has become warped. He's slowly breaking down, mixing dimensions… He's becoming digital."

Mimi looked at her, eyes wide and dismayed. Her mouth formed a perfect O.

"Jou, I need those tomatoes now." Yamato wiped his hands on a dish towel, standing over a bowl of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Next to him, Jou nudged over the chopped cherry tomatoes on the cutting board. Yamato tossed them into the bowl, along with some slices of cucumber and a handful of chopped onion.

"Thank you guys for doing this," Koushirou said. "I don't think anyone is up for going out to dinner like we planned."

"Not a problem," Yamato said. "Cooking always relaxes me. Even when I'm only making a salad."

Koushirou cracked a smile. "Well, it's nice you aren't making something that would heat up the kitchen on a day like this."

Since Hiroaki often worked late, Yamato's apartment was designated the site of Mimi's welcome home party, which doubled as their anniversary celebration. Earlier the boys had strung pink and white crepe paper across the ceiling. Half of it ended up ripped or in pieces, but they'd decided their hasty duct tape repair jobs added a certain manly charm to the décor.

Yamato had even put a vase of spider mums on the coffee table, with every intention of dumping them down the garbage disposal before his dad came home.

"Now what?" Jou asked, staring at the salad-dressing mix in Yamato's big plexiglass bowl.

Yamato held up a Tupperware container full of a crumbly white cheese. "Now we feta it up."

"Feta cheese?" Sora stuck her head through the front door. "Are you for real? Give it here now!"

Leaping to protect the cheese from Sora's grappling fingers, Yamato almost missed the delighted giggle that followed as Mimi shut the door behind her.

"Mimi-san!" Koushirou jumped out of his chair. Both he and Jou froze stiffly, wearing awkward smiles. "I'm so glad to see you!"

"We missed you," Jou added. He cleared his throat.

Sora rolled her eyes, abandoning her quest for the feta cheese. "Geez, guys. She doesn't bite."

Mimi giggled. "Maybe not, but I've been thinking of getting my incisors filed into fangs."

She strolled into the kitchen and embraced Yamato first. He tried to hug her back without touching her with sloppy cheese-and-dressing-covered hands. "Good to see you, kid," he murmured.

"You too." Mimi grapped a chunk of his hair. "Gosh, it's so long!"

Everyone else laughed. Yamato only growled. Anyone and everyone…

"I can't believe it!" Mimi flitted around, hugging Koushirou, pulling Jou down from his mountainous height so she could kiss his cheek. "You guys haven't changed at all."

"W-Well, you've changed," Jou said, one hand hiding the color splashed across his face. "N-Not that I have much to go on! I just mean you look different. In a good way! Not in a… superficial way. In a grown-up way. Though not a sketchy grown-up –"

"How was your trip?" Yamato interrupted, letting Jou sink back in relief. "Should I bother asking how many flight attendants came on to you?"

"They were all female," Mimi smirked, "so just one."

Jou's blush darkened and the rest broke out in peals of laughter.

Once the salad was finished, Yamato covered the bowl and put it in the fridge to chill until dinner. The group settled in the living room with cold drinks and bags of snack foods and talked. Topics ranged from school to the summer holiday to what bands were playing at Tokyo Dome recently. Content to let the conversation drift around him, Yamato leaned into the sofa's leather cushions, nursing a Cola.

He'd woken up at noon, still more or less beat from last night's adventure. But he made himself get out of bed for Mimi's sake, figuring activity would wake him up soon enough. It had worked for the most part, but now that he was sitting there was little to prevent him from dozing off again.

Someone's eyes were on him – Sora's. As soon as she realized he'd noticed, she turned her attention to her bag of pretzels, and laughed a little too loudly at something Jou was saying.

Heated rush to his face. Koushirou had told him that Sora knew everything that had happened last night, mere hours after they'd argued in this very room. She was probably overflowing with guilt right now.

He wasn't sure why he felt so pissed off.

"How are things going with the band, Yamato-san?" Mimi asked, drawing him out of his thoughts.

Shrugging, he frowned at the window. "Other people could tell you better than I can."

He regretted saying it a minute later. Sora jerked back as if she'd been slapped. His mood – and everyone else's – darkened considerably. "How well we're doing is largely based on our ratings on the charts," he amended. "Our agent is doing his best to promote us. We filmed a commercial this past week."

"Really?" Mimi sounded a little too interested. Her voice got a little squeaky. "Oh, that's so exciting! Did you get to meet any stars?"

"No, but there were little shrines to various bands all over the studio, I swear."

"Did they have anything for Super Junior?" Mimi almost squealed. "I am so into Heechul right now!"

"No – we're not going there," Jou interrupted sternly. "Not now, not ever."

"You're such a bad sport!"

"Daisuke-kun's sister," Jou began ominously, "said my brother looks like Don-something or other –"

"Donghae, and no he doesn't."

"– and since then she's been spamming his inbox with Youtube links every day."

Mimi sighed and dropped her head on his knee. "I can't believe you're judging Super Junior based on yet another silly thing Motomiya Jun-san did."

The bell chimed. Yamato leapt up quickly, glad to move around. He opened the door to a rampaging bull.

"Mimi-chan!" With the bandage covering his chin, Taichi's trademark grin was crooked. He knocked over a can of Sprite as he raced into the living room. "Oh my God you're here!"

"Taichi-saaaan! Omigod I'm here!" Crashing into him, Mimi let him pick her up and swing her around. She let out a huge gasp and grabbed his head. "Your chin is in a cast!"

"No, it's not," he scoffed. "The sadists at the hospital sewed me up, and it was very painful. They didn't even offer me a lollipop. And the stitches are ugly, and I only want you to see pretty things so I can seduce you and keep you in my sketchy super secret underground lair, like the Phantom of the Opera."

"Aw," Mimi cooed, and kissed his forehead through his bangs. "That's so sweet. And creepy."

"I would have gone with a different shirt for the phantom," Koushirou suggested.

Taichi put Mimi down and tugged at his wrinkled Hawaiian-print T-shirt. "What exactly are you implying?"

"That you look more like Alton Brown, who probably doesn't sing as well."

"And you look like a guy who doesn't know jack about fashion or singing," Taichi growled. "Unlike me."

Koushirou crossed his brow. "What do you know about either of those things?"

"Lots, but far be it from me to divulge trade secrets. Ruins the magic, you know."

"This from a guy who just told us he has a 'sketchy super secret lair,'" deadpanned Sora.

He ignored her. "Speaking of Alton Brown –"

"Dinner's in the fridge," Yamato said before he could finish. "Greek salad pita sandwiches."

Taichi stared. "Wow, how… vegetarian." He crossed his arms. "Do we have a cake?"

"A cake? No…"

Making an indignant noise, Taichi tore into the kitchen and started flinging open cupboards. "That's no good! We can't have a party without a cake. I don't care if we've got feta cheese and watermelon and – hummus?" He turned the container over. "Seriously?"

Jou's lips tightened. "Some of us like hummus."

"We need a cake." Stepping back, Taichi scowled at Yamato's poor, defenseless kitchenware. "And you don't have one."

Yamato shrugged, opening the fridge. "Sorry. Usually you bring the cake. We've got eggs, if you want to bake one now."

"I just woke up," Taichi whined. "Brain's too foggy to bake a cake from scratch. And what if I bleed in the batter?" He thought a minute. Yamato was amused to watch him raise his hand to his chin, then think better of it and scratch his nose instead. Taichi smacked the wall. "I'm going to go buy one!"

"I'm coming too!" Mimi said, already snapping on her sandals. "Just to make sure you buy a cute cake, and not something decorated with dinosaurs and half-chewed sugar paste Neanderthals."

"Geez, Mimi, way to kill a guy's appetite with your first grade humor," Taichi said dryly. "I was thinking along more tasteful lines, like a foot-tall sculpture of a shirtless Sacha Baron Cohen. Made of cake."

Sora wrinkled her nose. "You have to get out now."

"Makes you miss the days of half-eaten Neanderthals, doesn't it." Taichi headed outside with Mimi following. "We'll be back in an hour, tops."

"Bye-bye!" Mimi yelled cheerfully, and shut the door behind her.

The quiet that suffused the room afterward was like plunging into cool water. Flinging himself onto the vacated sofa, Yamato stretched out and stared at the crepe paper trembling above him. Sora and Jou slowly returned to their drinks, staring at each other across the table.

Koushirou held up his watch. "You all realize Taichi-san was here for less than four minutes."

The others groaned.

Hesitating in the genkan of the Takaishi's apartment, Hikari slipped off her shoes and glanced toward Takeru's door. "Please, I know he's grounded, I won't take very long," she said, hoping Natsuko could tell she was determined. "I haven't seen Takeru-kun in a week, and I was so worried about him."

Running a hand through her hair in a gesture similar to the way Yamato always played with his bangs, Natsuko sighed, but she stepped aside to let Hikari in. "Alright, but you only get five minutes. I have to be strict, Hikari-chan. He did something I never would have thought him capable of, and then he lied about it." She abruptly frowned. "In fact, it's probably because I'm so concerned that he lied that I'm letting you in there at all."

Hikari ducked away meekly. She padded to Takeru's room at the end of the hall, passing framed photographs documenting Takeru growing up. Here and there Yamato appeared like a ghost, somehow seeming alone and apart. She reached Takeru's door and knocked. "Takeru-kun? It's me."

"Come in," came Takeru's voice, tired and underused.

Pushing the door open just a crack, Hikari peeked inside. Takeru's room was dark except for the open window letting in the afternoon sunlight. The ceiling fan spun languidly. Takeru lay stretched out on his bed, a leg draped over the side, an arm tucked behind his pillow.

Hikari walked over and took a seat on the edge of his bed. Are you all right was the first thing she thought to ask. I can't believe you didn't tell me was the next.

Rejecting both, she said, "I liked your last letter. Nakata-kun sounds like a fun person."

Takeru sighed. "I actually miss his unending blather. We should have exchanged phone numbers."

"Don't worry, how many Nakata Shigeos can there be in Sangenjaya? I'm sure you'll find each other."

She gently took hold of his wrist. "Koushirou-san says so far, the diagnostics he's run on your D3 are all in order. Maybe it'll be fine."

He didn't answer, only stared at the ceiling. Tiny glow-in-the-dark stars and planets formed an indoor galaxy, the leftovers of many a childhood game of "let's play aliens." Hikari looked at them and her throat tightened.

"Why didn't you call me?" she asked when she could no longer help it. "Why did you tell my brother not to wake me up and get my help?"

He took a deep breath that caused his chest to swell. "I'm sorry, okay. I was… embarrassed."

"I've never taken you for the proud type," she said. Then realized how ridiculous that sounded. "I take that back. I've never taken you for the petty type."

"Are you mad?"

"Well, yeah, a little. I mean, I've been a Chosen just about as long as you have. You were there for me at the Dark Ocean. I would have thought you'd let me return the favor." She tucked her chin into her hand, giving his wrist a squeeze.

"You have bigger things to worry about." Takeru pulled away and sat up. He'd gotten so tall. "I didn't know about what's happening to Taichi-san until this morning. I'm… I'm sorry."

"Sorry about what?" she asked sharply. "Sorry he cut his chin? He's had worse injuries. Usually self-inflicted. Sorry he's," she struggled to spit the words out, "disappearing? Vanishing right before my eyes? Leaving my world, to become part of one that makes no promise of a future?"

Takeru met her eyes for the first time. "You don't know that for sure."

"It's what Gennai said would happen. Not in so many words, but what else could he mean by 'it's irreversible'?"

"I doubt that. We've overcome 'impossible' odds before. This time will be no different."

"Even though the enemy we're fighting is invisible?" Hikari glared at him with enough reproach that he backed off. "I think I understand what's going on better than any of the others. Maybe better than Oniichan even. I've been there, Takeru-kun! Once you leave your world, just by walking across a street, and end up somewhere else – you know there's no ticket back home."

She felt him stand up and come around to face her. The loss of his weight caused the mattress to roll beneath her. Takeru squatted down, resting his elbows on his knees. "But you did come home."

"Because you were there," she protested. "And the second time, because Miyako-san was there."

"We may have helped, but neither of us would have gotten away alive if you hadn't been there."

She bit her lip. A knock on the door broke through the whirlwind of her thoughts. "Time's up, Takeru," Natsuko said, sounding somewhat apologetic. She opened the door, but didn't come inside.

"Shoot." Takeru dropped his head. "Mom and her rules."

"Guess I should go," Hikari said.

"Hikari-chan." This time he grabbed her wrist. "It's going to be fine," he said, gently. "I promise."

She hesitated. His hand slid off her arm, but lingered nearby. At last she gave him a small smile.

"Yeah, it will."

Mimi's favorite confectionery hadn't changed much since she'd last been there. The walls were candy pink and white. Decorative hot air balloons with their cargo of shiny bags of sweets hung from the ceiling. One entire wall was plastered with photos of people who'd celebrated their birthdays among the shop's shelves upon shelves of fudge and saltwater taffy and lemon drops. On display in a glass case were puffy muffins, intricately-piped cakes, and rich chocolate. Everything was sugar and lace and spend-thrifty.

Taichi's wallet drooped limp with defeat. "… So looks like we can't buy anything that costs more than ¥2000."

"Oh, please, Taichi-san." Mimi patted her handbag. "I'm totally chipping in. We can go a little more extravagant than that."

"Your wish is my command," Taichi replied with a mock bow. With a chirp, Mimi bent over the display case.

Taichi took a seat in a shockingly white wicker chair. He propped his elbow on the table and watched Mimi as she alternated between inspecting the cakes and chatting with the cashier. At least one of the original Chosen was enjoying their anniversary.

He'd been stunned by the subdued atmosphere in Yamato's house. Beforehand, he'd made up his mind to be as outgoing and silly as possible, so that nothing he did would bring down the others' spirits. But apparently they didn't need his help in that department. Everyone looked like they'd rather just be home. At the same time, none of them wanted to be away from each other today.

He'd needed time to think, to come up with a plan that would lift whatever fog was clouding their happiness. Cake was a convenient excuse. Not to mention tasty.

"Taichi-san!" Mimi cried, waving him over. "What do you think of this?" she asked, pointing to a white-iced cake on a stand. "Red velvet cheesecake. Sounds cool and refreshing, doesn't it?"

Not just cheesecake. Not just red velvet.. Red velvet cheesecake. Leave it to Mimi to describe such a tower of decadence as "refreshing."

"How much?"

"Is money all you can think about?" She stuck out her lower lip, crossing her arms. "It's not pricey. Not when you compare. I know how to shop, Taichi-san."

"Never said you didn't." He looked at the cake, trimmed with such careful precision, on a silver stand waiting to be cut into pieces. All that hard work, only to end up yesterday's stale crumbs. That cake probably thought quite a lot of itself, right up until the moment a diner pierced it with a fork.

He had to get out of here. He was starting to identify with a cake.

"Red velvet cheesecake it is," he said, peeling a few bills out of his wallet. Mimi opened her bag and added some cash of her own. The cashier packed the cake in a powder blue box and handed it to Taichi.

"Hold on a minute," the cashier said. "Guess what. You're our 50th customer of the day, which means you win our sweepstakes."

"Really?" Taichi and Mimi exchanged a look of surprise. "What do we win?"

"Keiko-chan!" the cashier called. "Bring out the prize – we've got our 50th!"

A moment later, a young girl passed behind the counter. She wore her mouse brown hair in a low ponytail, and looked sidelong at the customers with shy eyes. She handed Taichi and Mimi a pair of coupons and said in a small voice:

"Congratulations on winning our sweepstakes. These coupons entitle you to 50% off any cake worth ¥4000 or more. I hope you enjoy our cakes and continue to shop at Lulu's Confections."

Taichi took the coupon absently, captivated by the girl's face. The tremble in her lower lip, the low brow too heavy for her delicate face reminded him of someone. He searched his mind for her name. Keiko – Keiko from somewhere –

I've always wanted to open a bakery.

"Keiko-chan?" he exclaimed. "You can't be Kurata Keiko-chan?"

Her dark eyes widened. "N-No, you've got me mixed up with someone else."

"I don't think so." He grinned to reassure her. "Remember me? Yagami Taichi? We met a couple times a few years ago."

"You're th-thinking of someone else!" the girl insisted, backing against the far wall and knocking into a jar of M&Ms. "I've n-never met you! Please leave!" she shrieked, and darted into the adjacent room.

"Keiko-chan!" The cashier stared after her, amazed. "I can't understand it. She's a timid girl, but I've never seen her like this. I'm very sorry." He bowed deeply, patting his apron.

Taichi shook his head. "Don't worry. I'm sure she has her reasons." He gestured to Mimi. "Come on," he said, and walked outside without checking to see if she'd followed.

Mimi caught up with him quickly. "Was that one of the Spore Children?" she asked.

He was impressed that she'd remembered. "Yeah, I'm sure of it. Kurata Keiko-chan, that really shy little girl with the eyebrows."

"Why would she run away like that?" Mimi wondered. "We never did anything to scare her."

"Maybe she's in on whatever plan Hosoda Seiki was part of."

"You think?" Mimi said, doubtful. "She doesn't seem the type for conspiracies. I mean, back then she'd barely talk to anyone."

"But she reacted so strongly. Like she's hiding something."

Mimi didn't reply for a moment. He didn't notice that she'd fallen back a few steps, until she spoke again with a sudden fire:

"If you really think she was part of it all, why are you just walking away, instead of going back in there and asked her about it?"

Startled, he opened and closed his mouth without a word falling out. Mimi stared at him in challenge, slender hands poised on her hips. Well? her scowl seemed to say. Where's the leader people say you are, Taichi-san?

Where, indeed?

Up until now, hadn't he left the investigating to Koushirou, and the younger kids – while he constantly focused on what was happening to him, what that meant for his future? When had he ever willingly refrained from being in the center of the action? If he'd been in Digiworld to hear Hawkmon's report, he would never have let that bird fly away while they still had more questions than answers.

You are their leader. Act like it.

He steeled himself, then pushed the cake box into Mimi's arms. Through the window, he could see Keiko busing tables. Now and then her hands quivered. She never once glanced up from her work.

Marching back inside, Taichi strode right up to her, yanked out a chair, and with a flourish of his arm gestured for her to take a seat.

After a moment's pause in which she looked about ready to either faint or dash madly for the door, she sat as if someone were physically pushing her down.

"Keiko-chan," Taichi said. "I'm not here to scare you or to hurt you. I have no reason to hate you or the other children with Spores. But if you know anything about what happened last night at Shiroike campgrounds, you've gotta tell me. Before it gets worse for everyone."

Her shoulders began to shake. Maybe he came on too harsh. Leaning across the table, he made to touch her hand, but she snatched it away and pinched her lips tighter. Mimi, hovering nearby, came up and took the chair next to Keiko. She wore a gentle smile.

"Keiko-chan," she started in, "please talk to us. If there's anything we can do to help you, we'll do it."

"There's no need for us to be at war," Taichi added, grateful that some of the tremor had gone out of Keiko's limbs with sweet, pretty Mimi now beside her. "Give us a chance, I'm sure we can figure something out."

Her fists curled in her ruffly apron. "N-no, we can't. It's too late. It's already started." "What's started?"

"Chaos," she answered with a sniffle.

"Sweetie, chaos is the sales at the Palisades Mall on Black Friday," Mimi said. "You're gonna have to be more specific."

"I don't know, okay? I really don't know anything. The past few years were hard, and we just wanted to see the Digimon again. We just thought, if we could take a look at a working digivice, we might be able to figure out what's wrong with ours, but then Nori-chan said –"

Taichi jerked upright. "Kawada Noriko."

"Yeah, she's kind of our leader."

"So Kawada said what?"

"She was worried that our digivices won't work for a different reason. That our Spores might still be alive."

"The Spores are still alive?" Taichi stood up with his hands splayed on the tabletop. With him looming over her, Keiko visibly shrank back into Mimi and resumed trembling.

"I d-d-don't kn-know but she th-thought… m-maybe."

"All of them?"

"I don't know!"

"Okay," he said, glancing nervously at the handful of other customers in the store. He bent into a squat and let his arms dangle limply between his legs. "Okay. Just calm down. It's alright if you don't know. Have you heard anything else?"

"Noooo," she wailed, and now tears were pouring down her cheeks. Mimi put her arms around Keiko's shoulders. "I d-don't even know that much! Nori-chan's the smart one! I just t-try to keep to my-myself! Why do these things always happen to m-me?"

She started bawling for real and suddenly the manager was there, a menacing twitch in his moustache. Mimi gave him a bewildered look. Taichi grinned nervously. "We were just leaving."

The moustache tilted further. "Better, or I'm calling the police."

"I didn't mean to –" Taichi pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead. "I wasn't trying to make her cry."

"Let's just go," said Mimi, the cake in one hand and tugging Taichi's belt loop with the other.

"Right. Sorry. Bye. Keiko-chan." He stared at her helplessly. "Keiko-chan, I'm… sorry.

"Geez," he exclaimed after they'd zipped through the door, around the corner and down the block. "Was I really that hard on her?"

Hugging his arm, Mimi's sigh was one of affectionate exasperation. "Taichi-san, you're a high school senior. You tower over her, you're a soccer player, and you're a boy."

"And that makes her cry?"

"If it makes you feel any better, the clash of colors on that shirt of yours makes me want to cry."

"Hey, show some respect, in some countries neon orange on hot pink is super chic."

"So the Spores might still be working," Mimi murmured. "What does that mean?"

Taichi clenched his jaw. "Could mean a lot of things. Maybe Myotismon's still out there. Or someone else's figured out how to activate them. Or they were never really defunct at all."

I've always wanted to open a bakery.

It didn't sit well with him, making a little girl cry. Keiko was around Hikari's age. He might be all the things Mimi listed, but he also liked kids, and did his best to tone the bravado down for them as much as he could. He felt horrible. But he had to ask her those questions, even if it was hard for her to talk about. And if the Spores really were active… Keiko and those kids would be the ones hurt the most.

I love the smell of fresh bread.

Chapter Notes:

1.] 2000: A little over $20.

2.] Palisades (Center): A famous mall in New York.

Thanks for reading! Chapter Eight will be out soon.