It was much later than usual, Akari noted, when she finally deemed it safe to leave Xros Heart's general to retreat to her own bed.
The battles that day had been fierce, more fierce than they had been ready for. Taiki had used up most of his energy, and once again he'd left Akari and Zenjirou to fend for themselves and lead the Digimon while he recharged. While Zenjirou wasn't exactly eager to take charge again after what happened in the Lake Zone, he had told Akari he wouldn't let her or Taiki down, and had taken off with a squad to set up their defenses.
"Taiki, that bad habit of yours... It'll get us into real trouble someday, you know," she murmured out loud, glancing backwards at the form of her sleeping friend. He didn't move - he was still out cold, of course - but she hadn't expected him to. Akari had known Taiki for years, and Digimon or no Digimon, this type of behavior was hardly new for him. She frowned. "But a lot more is on the line this time..."
She turned away, shaking her head, but to her surprise, she found a certain red Digimon watching her. She supposed, in retrospect, it was natural that Shoutmon would be watching over Taiki - especially given how things had been going lately - but she would have figured for sure he would have been asleep with the others that had stayed behind by now...
Still, she wouldn't complain to have some company, even if tonight's choice of companion wasn't the most human.
"Shoutmon? Why are you still up?" Teasingly, Akari patted her stomach and grinned. "You didn't eat too much DigiNoire and get sick, did you?"
"O-Of course not!" Shoutmon spluttered in response, clearly flustered from a surprise attack on his man... no, monhood so late at night. Crossing his arms across his little armored chest, the Digimon let out a 'hmph!' and smirked at her. "I'll have you know, I ate so much, I've circled back to being hungry again!"
Despite the fact that this boast was followed with a triumphant laugh from Shoutmon, Akari was far from impressed. Having known him for this long (come to think of it, how long had she known the Digimon now...?), however, she saw through to the hidden meaning in his words, and walked past him.
"Okay, okay, I get it. I'll see if there's any of those snacks from the Breakfast Zone left," Akari shook her head, glad Shoutmon was behind her so he couldn't see the grin she was starting to wear. As different as they could be sometimes, he and Taiki were alike in the strangest ways. Despite herself, she actually started to hum a little. She may have hated all of this in the beginning, but... She was really starting to get used to it now.
Seemingly satisfied, Shoutmon "forgot" to be overly boastful and followed after Akari - but not before casting one last, dutiful look towards Taiki. Silent for a few moments, listening to Akari's hums, Shoutmon turned thoughtful - a state of mind one would think was unlike him, but then, the figurehead of an army and right hand to the General couldn't give anyone reason to doubt, could they?
Finally settling on being manly- monly- about it, instead of continuing to stay quiet, Shoutmon finally spoke up. It was a subject that had actually been bugging him for almost as long as he'd known Taiki and Akari, at least, as long as he'd known them well enough to feel the dynamic.
"Hey, Akari..." The Digimon started slowly, picking up the pace to walk side-by-side with the human girl. He looked up at her, meeting her questioning gaze with a solemn one - one that obviously took her off guard. Letting out a laugh, as to not worry her, he continued hurriedly. "It's not bad or anything like that, I just wanted to ask something about Taiki."
"Taiki? Shouldn't you ask him about it when he wakes up then?" Akari tilted her head, wondering why the Digimon closest to Taiki would want to talk to her about him. Even if he was sleeping, Shoutmon usually just... No, come to think of it, this was the first time she'd seen Shoutmon really take interest in Taiki, at least since Lake Zone. "... Mmm, well, I guess it's okay. What is it?"
"Why do you always say that what he does is a 'bad habit'?" Shoutmon was frank about it. Seeing Akari's stumped look, he continued. "Think about it! Sure, he gets tired, but he's the best General any Digimon could hope for, and he gets the job done, doesn't he-?"
Akari had stopped walking somewhere in-between "he gets tired" and "he gets the job done" to look away and bite her lip. More confused than he already was, Shoutmon stepped forward to look her in the eye - as much as he could given the height difference, anyway.
"Well... What's good about it, Shoutmon?" Akari started slowly. She placed her hand against the wall, looking back in the direction they had come from - in the direction of Taiki - and closed her eyes. Shoutmon honestly couldn't answer, because, well, he thought it was obvious - the fact he had to be asked sort of stumped him. After a moment, however, she turned to Shoutmon, her voice raised. "Look at today! What would happen if Tactimon or Lillithmon just came and attacked us right now, with a full assault? Or even half of one?"
Shoutmon stared up at her for a few moments. He didn't want to think about that... and as far as he was concerned, those kinds of things wouldn't happen. They just didn't.
... And yet, thinking on Lake Zone alone, it was clear that it was at least possible, and recognizing that possibility, Shoutmon couldn't bring himself to tell her - the girl who had known his General far longer than he had - that she was wrong. Not entirely anyway.
"We'd fight back, obviously...!" Shoutmon finally answered her. It wasn't his best answer, but he couldn't exactly tell her he could do fine without access to DigiXros - Taiki's ability to bring about such amazing power was part of the reason he had wanted Taiki as his General in the first place, after all! "Besides, Akari, Taiki is my General! We're an army! We've gotta be ready for things like-"
Akari's cry was loud, loud enough that it echoed down the hallway of the building they were in. This, combined with the fact that Akari had, true to form, clamped her hands around Shoutmon's mouth, successfully stopped Shoutmon.
"Taiki isn't a general back home, Shoutmon! Taiki isn't part of an army back home, Shoutmon! Even now, this isn't even a normal kind of army no matter what way you look at it!" It was clear that these were things that Akari had been holding back for a while now - perhaps things even Taiki himself had understood, given his acceptance of her treatment of him - but Shoutmon still just didn't get it.
"But Akari... Taiki is still Taiki, isn't he? So what does any of that matter?" Shoutmon frowned, recalling when he had first met Taiki. He hadn't been the General of Xros Heart then, and there had been no other Digimon involved. All he had done, for no gain, was save Shoutmon's life. How was that part of something that was a bad habit?
"Shoutmon- Think about it!" Akari shook her head, making a fist. "Just think about what kind of bad things could happen to someone with an attitude like that without an army backing them up, Shoutmon!" She paused for a moment, then realized how to really hit home, and pointed at Shoutmon himself. "Look what happened to you before Taiki showed up to save you!"
What happened to him before Taiki had shown up to save him? It didn't even need to be asked.
He had been dying.
He had gotten in over his head, trying to help his village, his friends, and not only had he ended up in another world, he had ended up on a one-way ticket to deletion.
And it had all happened because he couldn't turn his back on everyone in his village. ... Come to think of it, though, that sounded just like...
"I just can't turn my back on you, Shoutmon!"
"Even if you did work for them, I won't turn my back on you, Dorurumon!"
"I refuse to turn my back on Ba'almon, even if everyone else does!"
"We can't turn out backs on Nene! Even if she is our enemy, she's still in trouble!"
Just like Taiki.
Suddenly, Shoutmon's throat felt very dry. To him, Taiki had been this pillar of strength, this unshakeable hero who would lead him to victory - to conquest of the Digital World, and beyond that, to kingship and to peace. There had never been any doubting in Taiki's strength, in Taiki's heart, and aside from when Taiki got tired from pushing himself too hard, he had never once shown weakness.
"That is a weakness, Shoutmon," Akari told him softly. Shoutmon blinked - he hadn't realized he had been thinking out loud. "What would he do if he fell down, out of energy, in the middle of something? Because he has, Shoutmon. What if he helps too many people and never has energy for himself? What if people only want him because they know he'll help them unconditionally if they really need it?"
She paused, kicking her foot against the ground. There was a small silence, and neither human nor Digimon could raise their gazes to meet each other.
"... He does great things, Shoutmon, but he doesn't consider what happens to himself in the process. Other people getting hurt is bad, but Taiki getting hurt? He doesn't even consider that - as long as the other people get saved, he's fine with it... That's why it's a bad habit," Akari sighed. "So that's what I've been doing for him. I'm like his manager, you know? I keep him out of too much, I help him rest, and I make sure nothing bad happens to him."
"Akari...?" The red Digimon watched her, curious. It was clear she was getting at something, but from the looks of it, she was having trouble getting it out. Unsure of what else to do, Shoutmon decided on the most natural course of action - he gave her a light slap on the back. "A-Akari! Come on, you can say it! It's oka-"
Finally looking at Akari, Shoutmon stopped mid-sentence. The reason she had stopped wasn't because she was having trouble getting it out, rather, she was getting her feelings out in a very different way entirely. She was crying.
"H-Hey, Akari, what's wrong...?" Shoutmon was stumped, and he would have fallen onto his backside had Akari not fallen to her knees just then. How was he supposed to deal with something like this...! Most of the time, when there was crying around him, it had to do with all of the battles and stuff, but this? He had no idea how to react to this!
Tentatively, Shoutmon slowly reached around her to give her a standing hug - he could do that much, right? - but as soon as he did, Akari started wailing.
"I- I can't help him anymore, Shoutmon!" She finally managed to choke out in-between her cries. "In this world... I-I'm not good enough. I can't do enough for him anymore! I can't be his manager anymore, I can't fight with him- H-He could get really hurt, and there's nothing I can do for him, Shoutmon! Why would he need me anyway, when he has all of you Digimon now...? All I can do is give him pillows and get him to bed, and that's only if I'm close enough when it happens...! I- I'm useless, Shoutmon!"
The awkwardness of the situation faded as Shoutmon listened to Akari's worries, perhaps ones she had had all along, and certainly ones that would have at least tripled after accepting to stay in the Digital World. He had never really thought about it, he'd never had reason before, but her role in Taiki's life had slowly, but surely, been taken away from her.
... Or at least, that's what she thought. Though he and Taiki weren't like that in the traditional sense, they were partner Digimon and human, they shared a bond that few others shared, and Shoutmon knew just from his observations - hot-blooded and tempermental as he was - that there were some errors in Akari's line of reasoning.
"You're not useless, Akari," Shoutmon's words were quiet (for him), but his voice was stern, hard, and spoken with the force of a leader - a king. "You know that Taiki needs you. You're like his... rock, you know what I mean? You sit on top of him and you keep all his pieces there. You keep him held together, so he doesn't go too far over his head. No one else, not me, not Zenjirou, not Ballistamon, no one can do that for him. No one ever will."
Akari was silent for a few moments, remnants of her tears still on her face, but no new ones were coming. Shoutmon, with all the passion and heart he would give the strongest challenge, looked her in the eye.
"And that's because you're important."
That finally brought her out of it. Akari blinked a few times, before finally, she wiped her tears and praised Shoutmon, apologizing for never realizing how monly and wonderful he was, even after all of this time, and then things were great.
... Well, she got to wiping her tears, at least. The rest was what Shoutmon would have liked to hear, but rather than any of that, what he got was Akari cracking up. Not as in some sort of strong mask cracking up, giving way to more tears - that, he would have expected.
No, Akari was laughing at him. Not a moment later, she was laughing hard at him.
"T-That's the b-best you could do? W-What kind of king compares someone to a r-rock while they're-" Barely able to contain herself just to get that much out, Akari finally collapsed onto her back, laughing at Shoutmon - his red face heating up just added that much more fuel to the fire.
"Fine, then I won't try next time! S-See if I care!" His pride clearly wounded, Shoutmon crossed his arms and scowled. Perhaps he was being overdramatic, or perhaps he was just being himself, but either way, it was his offense that helped Akari calm down enough to finally return his initial hug, even if he'd long since pulled away to give her a pep talk. "Wh- Huh?"
"... Thank you, Shoutmon." This time, Akari's words were much more sincere, and Shoutmon let his ego chill for a moment, patting her on the back, to let her do what she had to. "I... I guess I'm being a little silly, huh? We already went through this, and still..."
"Nah, you're not," Shoutmon replied, pulling back just enough so he could shoot her a grin. "It's gotta be tough, not being able to be out there with us all the time. I've never really thought about it. Even harder given Taiki... So how about this. I'll take your place-" Shoutmon stopped himself, then shook his head. He didn't like the sound of that. "... No, just..."
He didn't exactly want to get laughed at again either, though, and his dramatic speeches typically didn't extend further than "You want to know who I am! Fine, I'll tell you!" whenever he met a new enemy - so this was definitely a night of new experiences for him.
"Just think of me as your backup!" Shoutmon decided that couldn't be taken badly, and satisfied with it, he continued. "When you can't be there for Taiki, just think of me as your stand-in! That way, you'll be right up there with him even when things are too hot for 'you' to be there. I'll keep him covered. That sound good?"
Akari didn't need to think long on that one. After tonight - no, maybe she had known it all along - she knew she definitely could count on Shoutmon to keep Taiki out of trouble when she wouldn't be able to anymore, in the harsh battles to come.
Months later, when it was Akari's own power - not Taiki's - that helped trigger Shoutmon's transformation to OmegaShoutmon, Shoutmon and Akari both knew for sure that one thing would always hold true.
As long as one of them was by Taiki's side, no matter which one it was, he would always, always be safe.