A/N: Hi kits! I clearly didn't manage to put this up before I left for Japan. Japan is lovely, but my Internet access here is very much limited to when I have extra time after classes, which so far has not been much. But the lack of Internet access has actually improved my discipline when it comes to writing… so maybe that'll be a good thing for you! (But it's crazy to try to read fanfiction in the uni library, never knowing how well your neighbor reads English, so I'm feeling very deprived right now : I love you fanficcers! I do I do!)
Thank you all for your lovely reviews last chapter. There are a couple of you to whom I haven't replied back, or to whom I owe messages. I hope no one's too angry ^^; this is also the result of no fabulous Internets when I want them. But sincerely, thanks for your comments. I've definitely taken them to heart. And thanks to those of you who wished me a good trip! That was so sweet~ Here, have some virtual mochi, om nom nom.
We're diving into a new arc now, so I won't put it off any longer. Enjoy!
"It was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all."
- Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
A week passed quietly, and in the interim the Chosen enjoyed summer vacation as it ought to be enjoyed. Sports practices resumed in the morning hours, after it became clear that the deadly midday heat wouldn't abate for some time. The afternoon hours were whiled away at the beach, in the air conditioned malls, in the movie theater. By the end of the long, eventless week, Iori was bored enough to give in to Miyako's invitation to watch all six hours of Pride and Prejudice. He found himself on the floor, squished between Miyako and Hikari, the pretzel bowl lamentably out of reach. Five other girls rolled themselves out in a human horseshoe. Iori thought a couple of them might be Miyako's sisters, Momoe and Chizuru, not that it mattered much. He was still surrounded on all sides by fluffy-slippered, twittering teenage girls, who each seemed to believe he was her personal squish-toy.
"You didn't tell me it was a slumber party," he growled in Miyako's ear, once someone suggested they paint each other's nails.
"Pajama party," Miyako corrected him, with a glint of mischief in her eye. "I didn't think it was necessary. I mean, what girl watches this movie without a whole flock to help ogle the dashing Mr. Darcy?"
Iori, not being much for pajama parties, and not one of the oglers either, snagged his first chance to squirm away and call for help. Figuring nothing in the world could persuade Daisuke to pass up indoor soccer to sit through the remaining five and a quarter hours of Pride and Prejudice, he punched Takeru's number into the phone. Takeru conveniently lived in the same building, and had also read the book. (Although he'd made Iori swear not to reveal that to anyone until he was safely graduated and studying overseas.)
Takeru picked up after the first ring. "Hello," he said, as if his room were filled with a dreary rain cloud. "What's up?"
"Takeru-san, I need help," Iori hissed. His palm felt clammy on the smooth surface of the phone. "I'm drowning in estrogen."
There was a short pause, and then Takeru said, in his best It's-not-pity manner, "Don't worry, Iori-kun, your voice will change eventually."
"No," Iori rolled his eyes. (His voice was already changing, if the frequent cracks and squawks were anything to go by.) "I'm surrounded by girls. Which would be fine if they didn't think I'm squishy."
"Their word, not mine." He stole a glance into the living room. To his horror, the bottles of nail polish were not only out, but in an array of brilliant neon colors. With sparkles. "You have to come rescue me. If a guy their age joins us, they'll grow up a little. Or, at the very least, lose interest in me."
"I think you overestimate my aptitude in Studliness 101."
"Your voice has changed," Iori pointed out, "which automatically makes you a stud when you're in junior high."
"Now I'm scared to go up there."
Takeru laughed brightly, which is rude and offensive when someone gives you a desperate plea for help, Iori thought. Then he said:
"Even if I didn't find the prospect of being the only 'stud' amid a swarm of girls extremely terrifying, I wouldn't be able to go. My mom's reinstated my phone privileges, but I'm still confined to the apartment."
"Can't you bargain with her?" Iori begged. "Say you'll ground yourself for another two days, to make up for this one?"
"No way. Sorry, but I'm too desperate to get out of here. I'm not sure I can remember what it's like to feel the sun on my skin, to tumble down a grassy hill, to frolic with the deer among wildflowers, to observe the tranquility of nature and get in touch with my inner existentialist –"
"Yes, because you used to do all that so often," Iori scoffed, glaring sternly at a pepper shaker in the shape of an apron-wearing milk cow, complete with udders.
"My imprisonment has enlightened me to the fact that these are all important things I need to do, so I can die without regrets," was Takeru's casual reply. "Besides, I want to butter Mom up so she'll let me out for the party next week. That means I can't ask for any favors beforehand."
"Okay, okay." Iori reluctantly hung up the phone, admitting defeat. For a moment he thought morosely of calling someone else. But it had been hard enough to admit to Takeru that he'd been sucked into Miyako's scheme, knowing full well it involved Pride and Prejudice. He couldn't bring himself to betray his honor to anyone else.
Miyako and Hikari waltzed into the kitchen, arms linked. "Were you calling for back-up?" Miyako asked with a sly smirk.
Iori was glad he didn't blush easily. "You must have something better to do than eavesdrop on my phone calls," he said.
Miyako gave an ominous chuckle that said she did indeed have something better to do and it was going to put Iori through even more agony. She disappeared into the pantry and Hikari took a seat in a chair next to Iori, her turquoise pajama pants bunched above her knees. She looked at Iori kindly (Iori remembered how he'd always thought Hikari was fantastic, like a living goddess) and said, "Did you try to get in touch with Takeru-kun? I invited him along too, but he said his mom won't relax the rules. It's too bad, he's read the book three times."
Iori filed that away for future use. Blackmail always worked to win a favor or two.
In the end, he managed to duck out after an early dinner of instant ramen and donuts (purchased from the I-Mart with Miyako's 30% discount). The movie actually wasn't that bad; the characters did more than sit around primly and talk about embroidery. Part of him almost regretted that by leaving early, he wouldn't find out if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy ever figured out how to marry each other without offending all their relatives. (This was only a small, disturbingly sentimental part likely brought on by over-eating French cream donuts.)
Seven o'clock found him biking to the drugstore to pick up his grandfather's preferred pain killer medication. The sun had dipped low among the city's patchwork of buildings, dyeing the sky rich violets and rose petal pinks. He parked in front of the store and locked his bike, and when he turned around he found himself facing Kawada Noriko.
He almost jumped to see her there so suddenly. Since Hawkmon had mentioned the Dark Spores, part of him had been expecting her to show up at his door, the same moon-faced little girl with the wet eyes and bony, fidgety fingers. The girl paused in locking her bike next to him barely resembled that old memory. Somehow, in the last few years, she'd become pretty.
– More accurately, it wasn't that she'd become pretty so much as she was no longer ugly. There was nothing especially lovely about her face, no trace of classic beauty. She was still as skinny and figureless as a twig, her eyes too small, her lips too pale.
But she'd grown her hair out. Which might not have struck him if she'd been any other girl, except that the old Noriko hadn't liked her hair and wanted it cut short so no one could comment on how unmanageable it was. Now it tumbled down her shoulders to the maximum length allowed by her school, and she'd clipped it with a thin red barrette.
Iori didn't know much about girls, but he'd witnessed how traumatic it had been for Miyako to go to her first day of school with glasses, and how excited she'd been when her parents decided she was old enough for contact lenses. He'd personally never thought she looked ugly with her glasses, but it used to bother him when Daisuke would tease her about their size or strength. Even if she teased him right back, Iori knew at least a part of her was sensitive enough about her glasses to take the jokes seriously.
So he knew in a glance that Noriko had changed. Although the panic that flashed across her face when she recognized him fit the old Noriko well enough.
Without exchanging a word, they walked into the drug store together. For all appearances, they looked like two school friends enjoying the summer break. Except that Noriko kept her head bowed, and Iori staunchly didn't glance at her until they were well into the aisles and out of earshot.
He didn't know what to make of her, walking beside him with timid steps, clenching her fist around the hem of her shirt. Why had she decided to stay with him, rather than dash away? And if she wanted to talk, why was she mutely waiting for him to make the first move?
"What are you doing here?" he asked. She lived in Bunkyou Ward, why was she in Odaiba?
That made her lift her head in shock. "… Visiting a friend. I need sunscreen so we can play outside," she said, finding her voice.
Iori made his way towards the racks of sunscreen with swift, purposeful steps. She gave a puzzled kind of gurgle and scurried after him. He picked up a slender yellow bottle and held it up for her to see.
"It's cheap. SPF 25. Will this do?"
"I – uh – yes…"
With a curt nod, he pivoted on his heel. On the way to the register, he grabbed his grandfather's pain killers off a shelf. He dumped both on the counter and the cashier began to ring them up.
"Wait –" Noriko caught up to him, waving her hands furiously, and tried to snatch the bottle of sunscreen. "I don't need you to pay –"
"I'm going to," he said, already unclasping his wallet.
She took a few more stabs at protesting, and finally gave in as he carefully ensured that their purchases would end up in different bags. He handed one to her without waiting to make sure she took it, which she did, but not without rolling her eyes.
"Your hair is different," she said she said in lieu of "thank you."
He tipped his mouth. "You should talk."
"Your part is on the side now. It suits you."
"… Thanks." He parted it on the side because he'd started growing it longer than was advisable for a kendo student, and he thought it looked more neat and orderly.
"How's Takaishi-san?" Noriko asked as they ambled outside.
Iori laid a wary eye on her. "Better. Our expert returned his D3 to him and said that, fortunately, he doesn't think it came to any harm in the scuffle. Takeru-san was extremely relieved."
While he spoke, Noriko colored darkly and halted next to a vending machine. He let the words hang in the air for a tense moment. "You weren't thinking about what happened on Tuesday."
Embarrassed, she shook her head. "Takaishi-san was kind to me way back when. And he was always with you, so that's how I remember him."
"Ah." Iori hadn't forgotten that it was his Jogress partner whose D3 had been stolen. Hadn't forgotten or forgiven. "So you repay kindness by plotting an ambush and stealing?"
"I wasn't involved in that," Noriko protested.
"Hosoda-san said you knew."
"Well, I – yes. I knew, I just couldn't do anything about it!"
"You could have contacted us," Iori hissed. "We could have taken care of the situation before things went so far, and we would have left your name out of it."
"Stop assuming that I'm your ally," she said bitterly. "I don't agree with what Seiki-kun did, but I'm not siding with you either."
"Then what are you?" He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes, a stance which he thought looked imperious. For a junior high schooler, he pulled it off well. Noriko was cowed.
"In between," she sighed, wiping a hand over her forehead. She glanced curiously at the sky. "Was that rain I felt?"
"I heard that a typhoon is coming," Iori said, oddly relieved to return to a less volatile topic. He too tilted his head back to peer at the now cloud-heavy sky.
Noriko shrugged, and made her way over to her bike. "It's a good thing, I guess. We've had such hot weather lately that there've been droughts in the countryside."
Realizing he couldn't let her off the hook so easily, not when she'd been about to reveal something big – he was sure – Iori grabbed hold of her bike seat. She gave a start and glared at him.
"I need to know what you know," he said, blunt and to the point. Always the best approach in the kendo arena. "Kurata Keiko-san said you think the Spores are reactivating."
"Think being the key word."
"And she told us that 'chaos' has started. But she couldn't give us any details." When Noriko remained stubbornly silent, he persisted. "What kind of chaos? Is it a Digimon, or a human? This world or another? Why did it contact you before us?"
"Keiko-chan was afraid of Yagami-san. He was loud. That's what she told me."
"He's always loud, but he wouldn't eat her. At least not on a full stomach."
"I can't answer any of those questions," Noriko swung a leg over her bike, "because I don't know the answers. Except, I can tell you that you're on the complete wrong track. She wasn't using 'chaos' metaphorically."
She hooked her arms over the handles, peering at the pavement. Iori relaxed his grip, annoyed that he couldn't force more out of her, and doubly annoyed that he knew he could if he didn't care so much about her opinion of him. Slowly she raised her chin, and turned her troubled gaze on the illuminated city streets.
"We used to have one mind," she said, startling him. "Seiki-kun and me, and the others. Maybe we idealized our situation, but even then, being united in silly optimism was better than the rift between us now."
"There's nothing wrong with optimism," Iori said.
Her lips curved in a resigned smile. "Except when optimism leads to ignorance, and you end up losing more than you would have by leaving things as they were."
"What are you going to lose?" he asked, bewildered, but she leaned on the pedals and coasted down the sidewalk. Almost as an afterthought, she raised an arm and waved at him at the crosswalk. Her shirt rode up and he caught a glimpse of her smooth stomach.
"Thanks for the sunscreen," she called, which troubled him more than if she'd sped off without saying anything, because it left him wondering, if he'd only found the right thing to say –
"Why haven't we tried to contact Kawada-san over this past week?" Iori demanded, pointedly ignoring the tray of candies inching towards him by way of Daisuke's big toe. The toe peeped through a hole in a very dirty, over-bright orange-and-yellow sock, which had induced Miyako to denounce it in disgust as soon as she walked into the room. Even more uncanny was the fact that Daisuke's other sock was not only hole-free, but also navy blue.
"Stop thinking about your socks," Hikari said, causing Daisuke to fold his legs beneath him. "He was starting to go cross-eyed staring at them," she explained to Takeru, who was listening in on his cell phone from his apartment on the floor below. A ludicrous arrangement, but nothing could be done about it as long as his mother remained his strict jail warden with the keys tucked into her shirt.
Daisuke sat on his knees for almost three minutes before once again sprawling out languidly on the carpet.
"I don't know, I thought we were going to, especially after Taichi-san and Mimi-san talked to that Kurata girl."
Oh, they were discussing Iori's question. That was probably a more important topic than his mismatched socks. Daisuke found that pinching his lips in a scowl created a pleasing effect of contemplation.
"Whose job was it?" he asked.
"Daisuke-kun just asked, 'Whose job was it?'" Hikari echoed to Takeru.
He cast a glance around the room. Every face looked somewhat guilty. This was not acceptable team morale, he thought grimly.
"I don't think it was ever officially decided whose job it was," Miyako said, squirming.
"You mean we all assumed either Taichi-san or Koushirou-san would do it," Iori said.
Blushing for some reason, Miyako rolled her shoulders. "Well, they tend to call the shots, don't they? That we were waiting for their word isn't unusual or anything."
The interesting thing about being leader of the junior team, Daisuke thought, was coping with a variety of personalities. There were cool people who liked soccer and just plain weird people who liked basketball and poetry. There were those who loved herbal tea and wouldn't touch coffee even if it came disguised as liquid fiber. There were those who stressed over the minutest details, and then there were those who didn't give a crap. Daisuke himself was the only one who adequately filled the last category. But, he figured, it was probably that same lackadaisical attitude which made him so skilled at his job. Miyako could screech all she wanted, and Iori could contort his face into grimaces from "mildly disapproving" to "about to hurl at the injustice of it all" but Daisuke would not mind. Hikari was a notorious back-seat driver, and Takeru couldn't accept a plan unless they ironed out every last particular in a topical outline, and Ken was broody and Ken-like and then not broody but still Ken-like and his brain was very very hard to keep up with. But Daisuke, Daisuke serenely did not mind.
He'd perfected the art of the Lazy Cat in a Small Patch of Sunlight, which sounded very Zen, and he called it Sun-kats, like the convenience store, and many people could improve their lives if they'd attempt the Sun-kats method, including quite a few of those in the room with him right now.
"It's still weird that none of us followed up with them when we didn't hear anything about the Spores for an entire week, though. You didn't hear anything, did you?"
When the silence lasted more than a couple seconds, Daisuke figured the question was directed at him. "No, I didn't," he replied, and when Iori turned back to the group, he congratulated himself on another excellent feint.
"Did you hear anything? – I didn't think so – Takeru-kun says he didn't hear anything in the time since he got his phone privileges back." Hikari toyed with her frog-shaped cell phone charm. "At the very least, I should have talked to my brother about Kawada-san. I mentioned her to him a couple times, but once he was rushing out to soccer practice, and both times he just said, 'Yeah, I'll get to it.'"
"It sucks that soccer practice resumed just in time for the first typhoon of the month," Daisuke griped, and was ignored.
"Maybe they didn't know what to say?" Miyako suggested half-heartedly. "Like, Kurata-san cried a lot, and now it turns out she thought Taichi-san was scary, so maybe they were worried about traumatizing more little girls?"
"If anything, they might have been concerned with traumatizing Taichi-san," Ken said, speaking for the first time, which meant he'd finally recovered from his bus ride, which had been unusually bumpy and the bus driver unusually foul-mouthed. "I mean, by a show of hands, how many of us think Taichi-san is scary enough to paralyze a kid with fear?"
"To a shy middle school girl, all older boys might be scary," Hikari pointed out.
"Yes, but – I'm sorry, but his ears." Miyako tried to stifle her laughter. "They are enormous."
"They aren't that big," Hikari objected, with pinched lips. "They just stick out a lot."
"Hikari-san is right," Ken said (Daisuke assumed he didn't mean about Taichi's ears). "And I'm allowing for Kurata-san being shy around boys, or even strangers in general. But there may be another reason for her reticence – whatever she and Kawada-san have to tell could bring the sledgehammer down on us all. And Taichi-san is already cracking under the pressure, so the senior team is hesitant to rush into something big through contacting Kawada-san. Maybe knowing the details would relieve some of that weight, I don't know, but it could also add to it, and the senior team is clearly afraid of having to fight while also piecing together their leader."
"Ken-kun just said that –"
"Geez, can't you put him on speaker phone?" Daisuke complained, yanking the phone from Hikari's hands and placing it in the center of the group. "Take-dork, you got that, didn't you? Almost? Good enough."
"Speak loudly," Hikari gave a pitiful whine. "He's taking notes."
Figures. "As usual, Ken's opinion and mine are 100% different," Daisuke said, finding it no trouble at all to be heard. "Look, what Gennai said definitely wouldn't give anyone the urge to start tap-dancing like they're wearing magic slippers," he went on. "And I'm sure it's got Taichi-san pretty torn up inside. But he's never fallen short of being a great leader and I don't even see any signs that he can't deal. When Agumon was captured, yeah, he lost it for a while, but he got it back, didn't he, and because he didn't let us down, we didn't let him down either."
"You don't see any signs because you don't want to see them," Ken began, but Daisuke didn't let him go on.
"I'm not non-observant, man," he grouched, wondering why Ken always picked the most inopportune times to challenge him. "I've seen him more than you lately, too. A week ago he was stupendous in getting us organized to rescue Takeru's D3. He even squeezed a little bit of info out of Kurata. And since then, he's played soccer, raced my sister to the beach, gotten drunk, gone to karaoke while drunk – he's been normal, right?"
He looked at Hikari for support. She wrinkled her nose and gave a hesitant nod. "Yeah, he's done all those things. All of them," she repeated with a longsuffering sigh.
Stretched out on the floor, Ken regarded Daisuke with an inscrutable look. Daisuke suddenly felt like he were being surveyed by a particularly nitpicky talent scout.
"I'm not denying that he's dealing with it," Ken said, patiently. "Maybe he's dealing just fine. But dealing with something means there's got to be something hurting you first, and when that hurt starts to creep up all at once, people who are really paying attention can tell. For example," he said before Daisuke could cut him off, "Hikari-san – you said you mentioned Kawada-san to him twice, briefly. May I ask why only two times?"
There was a pregnant pause in which all eyes fixed on Hikari. She shifted, sliding her legs out from beneath her. "Because he would get so agitated," she admitted, "like I was reminding him about some important exam coming up that he wasn't confident he could pass."
Satisfied, Ken turned back to Daisuke. "I know fear," he said in a low voice. "There's nothing like it for bringing out a different side of your personality."
Now that the conversation had been effectively derailed, Iori tried to nudge the Chosen back to the topic of Noriko. Daisuke lapsed into silence, which no one could fail to notice. From time to time he'd catch Ken glancing at him, and then he'd scowl, but Ken stubbornly wouldn't even flinch.
It didn't escape Daisuke that Hikari, too, become quieter than usual for the rest of the afternoon. Later, when Ken rejected his invitation to sleep over on account of morning soccer practice, Daisuke and Hikari walked home together, each in their private brooding bubble.
He felt like he should say something. She was, after all, not only his teammate, but an old and important friend. He hated to see her with her pretty eyes downcast, mouth curved in not quite a frown, but certainly not a smile.
So he said, "That Ken. He loves to theorize. He and Koushirou get together just to exchange bizarre theories over coffee. I think that between the two of them, they've already solved the mystery of the human psyche."
Hikari reached up and smoothed a lock of hair. "You know what?" she said after a moment. "I think Ken-kun is wrong on this one. I mean, his theory makes sense, except that he assumes that my brother's team is dysfunctional, which it's not."
My brother's team echoed with delight through Daisuke's head. He remembered how when he and Miyako and Iori had first set out as a Chosen, old-timers Hikari and Takeru had been a constant source of knowledge for them. And yet it had taken some time before they'd coalesced with their new team mates. For a while they'd stood off to the side, sharing inside jokes, sometimes just through a look or a laugh. During that period, Daisuke had wondered if the two of them didn't think the new team was less exciting or useful than the original team.
And maybe they had had some of those thoughts now and then. He didn't blame them for feeling nostalgic. He couldn't imagine leaving his current team mates to start a third team of Chosen, not after everything they'd been through together. And they had come around as they all naturally came to see eye to eye. He liked to think that both of them were happy with their positions now, that the early stages of their first adventure had been just that, early, and that bashfulness had given way to a strong bond of friendship.
And so – when Hikari referred to her brother's team, without including herself as part of it, Daisuke was happy. Not that he'd ever resent it if she or Takeru wanted to spend time with just the original Chosen. They had that right. But still, he was happy.
"Their lives are very busy," Hikari went on, "but they care about each other. And they understand each other, which is chief. And the number one thing they all understand is that the team, the twelve of us, comes first no matter what."
She took hold of Daisuke's elbow. "Daisuke-kun, you won't get mad at me for saying something about Ken-kun, will you? You know I like him a lot."
"Sure," he said automatically, hoping whatever she had to say wasn't too incriminating.
"I like Ken-kun," she repeated. "He's smart and probably more perceptive than the rest of us. But he's… been exposed to a lot of evil in his life. He doesn't have many happy memories. So when he creates his theories, he's coming from the viewpoint of someone who's learned not to expect a whole lot from people."
She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then added, "I think we are stronger than he gives us credit for – all of us, not just my brother – because we know we can count on each other for support."
"I'm with you," Daisuke said, a grin splitting across his face. "It's like that wise old man said, 'Don't be afraid of being afraid.'"
"You mean 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'?"
"The point is, all that gibberish about fear changing people – sure, he's right, he's Ken, but the thing is, you can rise above your fear. You can crush it."
"Exactly." Hikari beamed. "You don't have to let fear get the best of you."
"And Taichi-senpai is the last person who'd lose heart at a time like this," Daisuke said, chest swelling. Since elementary school, he'd known Yagami Taichi was a man worth modeling. It wasn't just that he'd been his elementary school soccer team's star, or that he'd wormed his way into the regulars by his fifth year, or that he had many friends, or that he always seemed sure of himself. It was that he'd never let Daisuke down, even just in his heart of hearts, where he knew he most likely expected too much of this boy who was only three years his senior.
Any shred of doubt left darkening his view of the future fell to the wayside; any seeds planted by Ken's warning were uprooted. We are the Chosen Children, he thought with pride. Chosen for a purpose, and we'll see it through, together.
But fear is a cunning enemy. It sets up snares behind the lines, raids your reserves from the shadows, leaving traces of its misdeeds in the dust so that you know it's there, waiting, beyond where you can see. It does not dismantle your bridges, and your trenches are left intact, so you feel protected, so you underestimate the enemy. It waits, patiently, until you relax your guard and are at your most vulnerable.
And then comes the day when the enemy has amassed enough arms to assault from every corner, charging in like the god in the thunderclouds, with no objective except to shut you down. There are casualties. Atrocities, atrocities too hideous to speak of; the stink never washes out. Fear never troubles itself with the aftermath of the havoc it wrecks.
Once you are touched by fear, you will see yourself changed. Maybe you will go mad.
The swollen belly of the sky had reached a shade of deep violet-gray, like a shriveled old plum, and ever since then the wind lashing against the windows had grown more and more virulent. Taichi settled himself on the couch, a baseball game flickering on the television, and watched the pattering rain fall in fat drops. Against the backdrop of churning darkness, they looked like suicidal stars that had been stripped of their inner light.
Yuuko yawned, tugging the blanket wrapped around her shoulders closer as she headed into her bedroom. It was hard to believe that only a day before, the temperature had soared so high that the air conditioner had collapsed from overuse.
Something about the fluctuating weather disturbed Taichi. It wasn't that typhoons were anything unusual this time of year. And he certainly didn't think there was anything malicious about this particular storm. Taichi considered himself the practical type. He left the superstitions up to his sister, who saw signs in everything from a spilt tea cup to the rare night when not a single cricket chirped.
It was one o'clock on Friday morning, August 11th. Thursday blustered by in a whirlwind: after breakfast he'd rushed to the soccer field, and practiced shooting and formations until lunchtime. Then a goalkeeper from a rival school had talked him into coming down to what was known as Graffiti Bridge, because high school seniors kept up an annual tradition of vandalizing it. There had once been a slender trickle of a river under the bridge which had since dried up. Now it was the ideal place for rival, but equally soccer-obsessed teenagers to hold an impromptu gave of shoot-and-parry.
Well-known as Sanou High's ace striker, Taichi took care of the shooting. The GK was a phenomenal opponent, and more than once Taichi paused to admire his quick, calculated saves. He wished they could have played on the same team. They would have been formidable.
On one side of the bridge, some romantic from last year's graduating class had spray painted, "One for sorrow, two for joy." Standing under that bold blue scrawl, Taichi had suddenly remembered the last time he'd practiced there man-to-man with someone. Déjà vu always brought along the discomforting sensation of being outside of himself, washed in a memory while his body switched to autopilot.
When he was twelve, newly inducted into junior high, his first real trial turned out to be coping with the return to the bottom rung on the soccer team. As a first year, his were menial tasks – rubbing down soccer balls, setting up obstacle courses, dislodging chunks of packed dirt and pebbles from the other players' cleats. He'd gotten used to the freedom brought by seniority and skill in elementary school, and its sudden absence was a hard pill to swallow.
The coach would tell him, "It's just the one year. If you're really as good as you say, then you'll earn back your position in no time. Don't look at your period as a novice as wasteful or worthless. On the bench, you can observe the more experienced players – learn from them now, and it'll make the transition from rookie to regular that much easier."
Taichi now thought that, if he'd never been swept off to Digiworld, if he'd never naively become the leader of his ragtag team, then he probably wouldn't have appreciated his coach's advice. But the few big successes and the many failures brought about by his own ignorance in Digiworld had taught him the importance of learning from example. So when other rookies quit the team because of lack of things to do, he kept going, kept watch, and in the end learned quite a lot without ever playing in a game.
Not that any of that stopped him from training on his own, of course, and he used to trudge down to Graffiti Bridge after school to practice shooting against the old stone walls. On an overcast autumn afternoon, not quite midway through the second trimester, he pulled on his Lotto cleats with the broken laces and went down to the riverbed. As usual, he started off with some basic lifting, which had by then become sheer muscle memory for him, but made good warm-up. Then he happened to look up, and see someone passing by on the hill.
It wasn't unusual for other kids to play under the bridge while he practiced. They either stayed out of each other's way or decided to merge into a larger game. Taichi waved at the newcomer, a boy with an untamed mass of hair that must have been brown, but which looked drained of color by the overcast sky. Half-rimmed glasses perched on the arch of his tiny, pushed-in nose. He wore the uniform of Seinanjou Jr. High, which Taichi knew was ritzy and prestigious, and had a soccer team made of a bunch of bed-wetters.
As Taichi took another shot at his makeshift goal between two broken broomsticks, the boy slid down the hillside, splattering his tennis shoes with mud. At the bottom, he slid his hands in his pockets and stood there, watching. With an uneasy glance over his shoulder, Taichi wondered how long he'd been studying him from the top of the hill.
Never the type to carry on and let a problem resolve itself, he swiveled on his heel, leaving his soccer ball to roll in the dirt. He picked his way across the riverbed while raising a hand in casual salute.
"Yo," he said, because that was the cool thing to say, and it didn't make any promises that you gave a crap.
The other returned that with a quick tug of a grin. In fact he was a little creepy, Taichi thought. Maybe because he was taller, and looking down at Taichi through thick lenses, which were half obscured by the light. His skin was waxy pale, except for a smattering of gray freckles like a trail from cheek to cheek. Moreover, his bearing was that of a much older person, who kept a firm hand on the path his life took, and never let anything spin out of control. The effect of this on a middle school first year was slightly disconcerting.
"You overuse that right leg," remarked the boy, in a voice that was both self-assured and post pubescent.
"What?" Taichi looked at his legs, which were smeared in long streaks of grime. A scab was peeling off his right knee. "Uh, I'm right-handed, so –"
"It's normal for one body part to be stronger than the other. If you're right-handed, you may not have as much dexterity in your left. The same goes for your legs – one may be naturally stronger than the other, but if you allow yourself to take it easy on your less developed leg, it'll be your mistake."
Taichi switched from examining his legs to gawking at the boy himself. "But I run all the time," he protested. "And I do the same amount of exercises with each leg."
"Do you always shoot with your right leg?"
He thought for a moment, and nodded.
"Then you need to train your left leg to shoot as well. It won't always be convenient for you to shoot with your right leg, so your left needs to be substantially reliable in a pinch."
With a wary glance at this stranger who had turned up out of nowhere like the blessed saint of soccer, Taichi asked, "And you think so, why?" which was an absurd question, because he knew every word the boy had said was true. But he didn't like that he'd been criticized without so much as a self-introduction, especially by a student from Seinanjou. Who from Seinanjou could tell soccer from double-dutch? "Who are you, anyway?"
Instead of answering, the other strolled further down the riverbed, and tucked Taichi's soccer ball under the sole of his foot. "If you don't believe me, let's have a game," he said, and started lifting, just as Taichi had been when he appeared on the hill. The ball bounced between his calves, higher and higher, never faltering in its cycle even once. As the minutes stacked up, Taichi's skepticism turned into shock, and then excitement.
"Yes," he said, jogging after the boy. "Let's have a game."
But within the first fifteen minutes, he'd had the ball ripped away seven times. His every attempt to block the boy from stealing it failed, and he watched the ball soar past him, a perfect shot into a nonexistent goal. The last time, he tripped over his own feet trying to regain it, and thudded hard on his knees.
The boy paused several feet away. "You okay?" he asked.
"Again," Taichi huffed, pushing himself to his feet, but a foreign weight seemed to drag his upper body back down. "Again," he repeated, when the other made no move to come closer.
"Are you sure?" the boy asked, squinting at him. "You'll only get schooled."
That shot through him like a red hot bullet. Instead of answering, he mustered up his strength and rushed the boy, who froze at first in surprise. Then he gave some bemused laugh, and dribbled the ball away smoothly. In a beat, Taichi doubled back and caught up to him, and from the corner of his eye he caught the boy's bratty little smirk.
After the first hour, Taichi felt discouraged, but still fired up. After the second, he started to get overwhelmed. Sweat beaded his opponent's forehead, which wasn't much of a comfort when he was losing by miles. Taichi resolved, again, to take the game to close-quarters, since that was the only way a one-on-one game could be played. And yet, somehow, he always ended up pushed back until his opponent cleared enough space to maneuver into the goal. But he clenched his teeth, determined not to lose. Or at least to go down fighting. It was still exhilarating to face an opponent at such a high level of mastery.
The last rays of daylight began to disappear, the colors of dusk ran together, and the game continued. Although exhausted physically, Taichi's mental senses were at their peak. From the glint in the other boy's eye, he could tell his brain worked in the same way. Now that time was crucial, strategies buzzed through his head like ambient noise. The stench of dirt and sweat filled his nose, an icy fist gripped his throat with each breath, and his ankles throbbed as the ball flitted capriciously between them.
And then he made a misstep, or simply took too long to slide his foot into place, and the ball vanished along with his opponent. At that moment, he became loosely aware of the chilly night wind freezing the sweat that ran down his neck and arms into pinpricks of icicles. He dropped backwards, landing on the hard-packed earth, with his blank stare turned on the sky.
How long he lay there was a mystery. He closed his eyes and imagined that the other boy had gone home, savoring his victory. But when his heart rate started to calm, and the blood beating in his ears quieted, he realized the boy was still there, panting along with him. Rolling on his side and tilting his head, he could just see the boy collapsed on the ground, his once crisp uniform rumpled and coated in dust.
Gingerly, Taichi picked himself up. His legs felt at once sturdy as bricks and about to shatter. He took a few shaky steps forward, and sank back down.
"Good – hah – game," he wheezed.
The other boy had his eyes on him again, deep and intense. Taichi's misgivings returned at full force. "What?" he asked, too tired to be properly irritated.
"Was I right?" the boy asked softly.
Taichi blinked. "What – about my legs?" He scratched his head. "Probably."
"Is that so." The boy tipped his head back and adjusted his glasses. "You're sure about that?"
"Yeah," Taichi nodded earnestly. "Because you're – I mean, no offense or anything – you're from Seinanjou, but you're better than me. I have to eliminate my weaknesses, if I want to get to your level."
"You're going to get very dirty," the boy observed.
He laughed. "Good thing I like baths."
"And you may never catch up."
"Says you. Just wait until next year, when we're both on a team. I'll wipe the floor with you. Odaiba Jr. High has never lost to Seinanjou yet."
"Are you dense?" the boy asked, with such an incredulous expression that Taichi almost laughed again. "What makes you think you can catch up to me in only a year? You either think too well of yourself, or you underestimate me."
Taichi felt a twinge of annoyance. "Maybe," he said, frowning, "or maybe I just don't see the point in assuming I'm going to lose. If you start out with the intention to win, you'll find the strength to press on until you do. Plus, it makes the journey that much more fun."
A shadow passed over the boy's face. He pulled his knees in and wrapped them in his arms. He looked at Taichi with a smile. "The world must seem very beautiful to you, Taichi."
Every other reply Taichi could have made flew from his mind. His heart skipped a beat. When had he mentioned his name?
The other boy had stood. "I think we'll meet again," he said, turning to climb the hillside. "Maybe. I haven't decided yet. But if we do, I'm sure you'll remember me."
All that had come flooding back to Taichi this afternoon, while he practiced shooting under the bridge. Years had passed since he'd last thought about it. And wondered why he hadn't insisted on the other boy's name.
Except that he knew it now, and had never told anyone.
The very first game Taichi played in as a substitute forward was against Seinanjou Jr. High. He thought for sure his mysterious opponent from the year before would have made it to regulars by then. But he never showed throughout the entire game. Afterward, Taichi described him to some of Seinanjou's substitutes, who'd shared a strange look and said there had never been a player like that on the team.
But then his little sister had become a Chosen Child again, and gotten mixed up with someone calling himself the Digimon Emperor. This Emperor had a crown of stylishly unkempt hair, tinted glasses on his nose, and a smirk like a viper. He was a genius. He played soccer.
And one day, after it turned out the Emperor's name was Ken and he wasn't so much of a viper after all, he invited his friends over for a Christmas party. The party met an untimely end when a monster invasion crashed through the city, but once the Chosen had cleaned up that little mess, they all saw Ken to the bus station so he could ride home to Tamachi. And Ken had said he was grateful to have friends to share Christmas with, because these last couple years had been very lonely without his brother. Taking out his wallet, he pulled out a photo which he claimed he'd only just started carrying with him, and Taichi looked at it and suddenly knew.
But what had Ichijouji Osamu been doing at Odaiba's Graffiti Bridge, just days before his death?
Taichi had never told Ken he'd met his brother. It was a rare thing for him to feel unsure, but he couldn't guess how Ken would take the news. Besides, it wasn't like he could say he wanted to share a good memory. Mostly he didn't know what to make of Osamu, even now. And he'd even heard Ken say that Osamu had hated soccer.
He wondered what it was about that memory that bothered him so much. Maybe the string of disturbing events he'd gone through lately was getting too much for him. As much as he hated to admit it, he was tired of feeling constantly on edge.
He still hadn't told anyone that he'd been digitized when the gate opened at Shiroike.
But Koushirou suspected it, he thought. He'd dodged a few sly questions thrown into their last couple of phone calls, but maybe not well enough. As he lounged on the couch, unable to find a comfortable spot, he decided that he should just come clean. The longer he hid the truth, the louder Koushirou and Sora would yell when they found out. Their voices would get high and squeaky. In theory it would be amusing, especially since Koushirou had this habit of turning cherry red when he was mad. But the amusement wouldn't last long once his ears began to ring with their shrieks.
Well, he was Yagami Taichi, fearless leader, hero of the soccer field, slayer of the quadratic formula. He had a reputation to protect.
Taichi peeled himself off the couch by rolling straight onto the floor. Then again, maybe Koushirou could wait until a decent hour. It was, after all, well past midnight. Normal people were tucked into their beds, instead of lying face-down on the living room rug.
He decided it was time to sleep. As he took hold of the coffee table and levered himself up, the television suddenly blinked and erupted into static. The luminescent numbers of the digital clock on the mantel started spinning, setting the time for 45:04, 23:55, 00:91. Through the cracked door of his father's study, he could see the computer screen glowing blue, tiny lights flickering in and out.
Taichi forced his eyes closed. By now he understood the signs, but he'd never grow used to what came next.
1.] shinai: A practice sword used in kendo.
2.] This is common practice in Japanese schools, straight up through high school. It reinforces the importance of senpai-kouhai relationships. The younger students observe the older students and learn from their successes and mistakes. In return they do the ordinary jobs, which may not seem to have much to do with sports, but actually they build strength, discipline, humility and patience for the motivated student. Plus, since every player on the regular team has had to go through this novice period, it can be seen as a ritual of initiation.
3.] Japanese school years are divided into trimesters, generally from April-July, late August-December, and January-March.
Clearly I'm taking some liberties with Osamu's past. So far I don't think anything is particularly off from canon, although I've never been great with Ken's history since eventually it gets all Wonderswanny. Feel free to correct me, but even then I might leave it as is just for the sake of moving the plot along. The one thing that is doubtful is when exactly Osamu died. I figured Ken wandered around Digiworld after the Chosen did, though not long after, so I put him at nine years old. But eight might be more accurate. Anyway, I picked the latest time I thought was plausible for Osamu to die, since I wanted Taichi to be olderish. I don't think it interferes too much with Ken's history.
Anyway, I hope this was worth the wait, and hopefully you won't need to wait quite as long for chapter nine. Thanks!