Chapter XVIII

When Piximon and Wizardmon had returned from their escapade with Pathogen's army, they were in more than an irritated mood. The rest of the Destined had been ordered to remain confined in their separate rooms until nightfall. By that time Pinocchimon had explained the entire situation to them. The rest of the day was spent relocating the Pyocomon to a new area within Piximon's domain and ensuring communications with other villages outside the area were still secure.

When night did come, Piximon finally allowed the rest of the Destined to meet in the main hall of his house for dinner. Takeru had joined later on after receiving a harsh lecture from both the red digimon and Wizardmon for disobeying their orders. The blond still appeared pale and noticeably thinner than earlier, and it was this that finally allowed the two digimon to let him go join the others.

After sitting for several minutes eating silently, Daisuke finally broke the tension.

"What's happening with Pathogen?" he inquired sharply.

Piximon closed his eyes calmly. "Hmm…I wonder," he commented vaguely.

Daisuke narrowed his eyes. "Piximon, we deserve to know. We're going to have to fight him eventually," he pointed out obstinately.

"He's recruiting more to his army and slowly infecting more of the Digital World. Our allies are falling short to his power," answered Wizardmon. He then stared hard at Daisuke and the others. "Which is precisely why you all much receive your training now before anything else happens."

"We're still relatively safe, though, right? I mean this is Piximon's domain—he can't touch it, right?" inquired Miyako with some alarm.

Piximon gazed at her steadily. "It is safe for a limited time. Pathogen will eventually find a way to crack his way into here. Even the most protected system has weaknesses. He's just taking his time locating them," he answered grimly.

"Why? If he can break into here now, why doesn't he do it?" asked Koushirou.

"Because he's still not strong enough to take on all of us," replied Wizardmon. He folded his hands over the table. "He will be soon, though."

"Tomorrow we will start your training to fully harness your abilities and signs," continued Piximon.

There was silence around the table as everyone contemplated the situation at hand. It was a grave and sickening atmosphere that most of them hadn't predicted to arrive so soon. Daisuke crossed his hands and narrowed his eyes darkly. If we are going to fight him soon, we won't stand a chance unless we train. What happened last time isn't going to happen again. He glanced at Takeru and saw the latter staring blankly at the wall, as if he hadn't even registered what Piximon and Wizardmon had said. Daisuke studied him carefully. Takeru had grown stronger—that much was obvious—and his left arm was still useful somehow despite Piximon's words. Whatever he and Wizardmon had made him go through in such a short amount of time must have been truly remarkable. It gave Daisuke a feeling of hope.

"I thought blondie wouldn't be able to use his left arm anymore, Piximon," he commented offhandedly, looking to the fluttering digimon at the head of the table.

Piximon gave a short chuckle. "Yes, I did. But you'd be surprised at how tenacity can pull a person through difficult circumstances," he said lightly, casting a significant look at Takeru, who ignored him. "If you all remain steadfast to your conviction I am sure that you will not lose to Pathogen. But it's a hard task—the one that lies ahead of you. You better be prepared for all sorts of pain—both physical and emotional."

At this everyone broke into smiles.

"Piximon, I don't think we know the meaning of giving up," remarked Taichi, grinning.

The red digimon smiled. "Oh? Then I doubt you shall fail to handle yourselves at tomorrow's session," he said knowingly.

"Is there any chance of Pathogen reverting back to his human self?" questioned Takeru suddenly.

Everyone looked at him in surprise. Piximon narrowed his eyes at his inquiry. "I really don't know, Takeru. At this point Pathogen is more viral than human—and he's the one who fully embraced his digimon side. I don't think he even wants to be reminded that he has a trace of humanity in him," he answered slowly.

"What a sad existence he has, to be created for the sole purpose of proving the validity of the Digital World—to be alone and isolated because he was the only one of his kind—treated specially but not wanting any of it," murmured Takeru abstractedly.

"Are you sympathizing with Pathogen?" demanded Daisuke angrily, glaring hard at the blond. Hikari placed a hand on his arm.

Takeru finally looked at him, his absent gaze at once erased. "Perhaps I am, but I know my place. You don't need to worry about where my loyalties are, Daisuke," he stated darkly.

Daisuke gave a bitter laugh. "Of course not. I have no concerns about who you're loyal to. Especially considering your past," he chided sourly.

"Dais," muttered Hikari warningly. But the spiky-haired youth ignored her entirely as he continued staring at Takeru.

The blond lowered his gaze. "I won't pretend I wasn't at fault for what happened, Daisuke," he said quietly.

"Well, that's reassuring to know."

The entire table was staring at the two. Piximon and Wizardmon bore mildly interested expressions as they watched the engaging debate. Daisuke and Takeru had to clear the air between them before they could work together as a team. Trust was fundamental in future situations. If they couldn't put aside the past now then they would never be able to work together. And furthermore, it wasn't healthy for either of them to bear such heavy feelings.

"So you plan on enlightening us, blondie?" continued Daisuke bitingly.

Takeru's eyes hardened as he regarded Daisuke. "Soon enough, Daisuke, soon enough," he replied.

Daisuke gave a snort of disbelief. "This again? Why not now, huh? You know it would be better to get this over with as soon as possible—hell, maybe I'll even forgive you faster," he commented indignantly.

"I would—if not for the pain it causes me to remember."

Beside him, Yamato buried his face into the palm of his hand.

Daisuke stared at Takeru. "That's it then," he said dully. He then abruptly stood up and left the room.

Tension hung over the group once Daisuke was gone. Takeru stared blankly at the wall and ignored all looks thrown in his direction. Perhaps he had overreacted. He knew Daisuke only wanted a simple answer. But even this he could not give—not when he had barely begun to forgive himself. Daisuke deserved the truth. Takeru was simply being a coward.

"Well, then. I suppose we should get to bed now! You all have a long day ahead of you tomorrow!" announced Piximon suddenly.

Everyone jolted from their seats before standing up slowly. Yamato remained by Takeru's side.

"Takeru…are you all right?" he inquired softly.

"Do you think I overreacted, Yamato? When I tried to get you to believe me—do you think I was too expectant? Maybe I should have been calmer in my approaches. Maybe then Daisuke wouldn't have had to wait four years."

Yamato stared at Takeru and finally pulled him into an embrace. "You can't blame yourself for this, Takeru. This was something neither of you could control. If I had been in your place, I might have been even worse off considering my temper," he said reassuringly.

"I know he deserves an explanation. I know everyone deserves an explanation—but I can't do it, Yamato. I can't," muttered Takeru into the older blond's shoulder. He then pulled away and looked steadily into his brother's eyes. "I'm scared to…"

"To remember," guessed Yamato knowingly.

Takeru nodded.

"You have to let it go, Takeru. Keeping it in is not going to help you."

"I know that."

Yamato watched Takeru apprehensively. "One way or another it's going to come out soon. I don't think Piximon and Wizardmon will tolerate this for much longer," he advised.

Takeru gave a small chuckle. "That I know. I could practically feel Piximon yelling at me to just spill everything out at the dinner table," he commented.

Yamato smiled and stood up, dragging Takeru with him. "Come on. There's no point in discussing this now. When you're ready, you're ready. Now let's get some rest," he suggested as they began heading down the hall. "Piximon's place is enormous. I can't find anything here."

For the first time in a long while Takeru gave a hearty laugh. It warmed Yamato's heart greatly to see his brother smile genuinely. Lately it had seemed as if nothing could brighten the young man's spirit. Yamato was thoroughly worried about him, but he knew that Takeru would be all right—eventually. There was still plenty of history and drama they would have go through before true happiness could be achieved again.

"Do you have any idea what they have in store for us?"

Takeru smiled wryly. "Hell," he replied simply.

Yamato blinked in mild surprise.

"Oh. Well, that should be fun."


It was a bright day in Piximon's garden. Naturally, however, the red digimon had full control over the weather in his domain, but the Destined were still grateful he chose a clear and sunny day to begin their training rather than a dreary and cold one. After all, Piximon was known for subjecting his comrades to certain turmoil just for the fun of it.

Yamato looked around the field and breathed in deeply. It was quite strange—the concept of the Digital World. Everything here was digitalized, not real flesh and bone. But if they died or were injured here, those same wounds would carry on to the real world. In truth, the Digital World was parallel to theirs. But it was still so uncanny—the concept of a digital world, and them being its saviors. It took time to adjust. And even after all these years, Yamato would still look back and wonder.

"Today we will be working on the basics. We will go through a thorough examination of your powers and attributes before actually doing any physical work. I want to make sure you're all mentally prepped first," announced Piximon.

The group was sitting around in a circle. Piximon fluttered lightly in the air, doing an aerial version of pacing the ground as he spoke. "I have also brought in a valuable correspondent to help with this goal," he continued before gesturing to some unknown presence. "You can come out now."

Everyone watched as a figure suddenly appeared before them.

"Hello, all. It's been a while hasn't it?" greeted Gennai.

Taichi laughed. "Gennai? You look…younger!" he exclaimed incredulously.

"It's a wonderful thing—these shells. I can assume almost any shape I want," he explained with a smile. "But that's besides the point. What I'm here to do is lecture and lecture I will do."

Daisuke groaned loudly. "Please! As if we haven't heard enough of this!"

Gennai gave a patient smile. "Now to start off. Fire. It is probably the most destructive force amongst yourselves—and not to mention it's shared by three of you. With fire comes leadership and great responsibility. Taichi, Sora, and Daisuke, you three are the foundation of this group. You three are the leaders of the pack. But you three also have different attributes. Taichi, you are Courage—which means, naturally, you are the one most fit to guide everyone in their time of need. Never lose that mindset. Sora, you are Love—with that comes great nurturing abilities. If Taichi is the one to lead everyone out of the darkness, you will most certainly be the one to support them. That is your gift—the gift to forgive and care for unselfishly. Daisuke, you are a mixture of Courage and Friendship… You will soon understand what that truly means. To be quite honest, you successors have quite a lot to live up to. And your attributes tend to be more complex and hidden because of this mixture of original signs."

He paused and then smiled again. "But that's what makes it interesting." Everyone stared at him. Gennai took a deep breath and crossed his arms. "Aah…so much to cover. But I'll move on. Electricity. This ability belongs solely to you, Koushirou. The Crest of Knowledge also allows for you to learn things at a fast rate—but this also means that you must learn how to actually wield that information. Thus, wisdom comes into the picture. You are the brains behind the outfit, no doubt about it. Don't let curiosity get the best of you, though, Koushirou," continued Gennai.

"Water and ice. I will discuss these two together because they have always in fact been paired up—only in physical power, though. Faith and Friendship are two completely different crests. For you Jyou, Faith means responsibility. You are the dependable one—and it was also this attribute that allowed you to remember your past and how to control your powers so easily. Faith. You are specially tied to the Digital World. Not even Pathogen could have broken this bond. With water you are especially strong. The ability to see through illusions and to heal. These two gifts may not have manifested yet, but they will eventually. Give it time.

"And now Yamato. Friendship. This of course means you are naturally attuned to everyone's feelings. You are the one who understands the ties that bind people the most. If there is a second leader to be found, it will be found in you. With ice you can be quite unforgiving. Its attributes allow you to see people for what they truly are. There is no deception in handling people for you—a good skill to have. You will sorely need this in the future, I am willing to bet."

This time Gennai paused because Miyako was waving her arm in the air. He blinked several times in surprise before nodding in her direction.

"Um, we already know all of this so…why are we listening to it again?" she asked.

Gennai folded his arms. "Well, let's just say it's for debriefing purposes. Keep in mind every word. These are your powers. Even if you have heard about them a thousand times, listen. Because soon you'll come to practice what I am preaching," he replied calmly.

At this everyone was silent again. Gennai took this as his leave to continue. "Next we have life, earth, and wind. When referring to life, I mean you, Mimi. You have the special ability to control life in the form of plants. Because of this you are especially attuned to the Digital World in terms of heart. You treasure life in all its forms, good or evil, and because your crest is Purity, have the capability to sway those from the side of evil. Earth and wind are self-explanatory I think. Iori and Miyako, since you are also successors, I don't know exactly what attributes you will carry. Only time will tell. But for Iori, this much I can tell. Like earth, you are steadfast and loyal. And with Knowledge and Faith as your predecessors, I think we can expect much from you. Miyako, Love and Purity are your gifts. Though it may seem unlikely now, you will learn to accept your talents soon enough. They will aid you greatly.

"Now, Light. Hikari, you are its holder. With this you are attracted to and by everything good and evil. Your spirit enables you to understand the conflicts between light and darkness well. However, you yourself must be strong enough to resist the pull of darkness. Light cannot exist without darkness—and this is very much true in your case. You cannot avoid darkness. But you most certainly can work alongside it. Keep it in check, but never work with it. Exorcism. In your world this deals heavily with religious ideas, but in ours, it's very simple. Same concept, but no ideology to tie it down. You are the light that banishes the evil from people and digimon's hearts.

"Kindness. This crest was lost to us for a time—as were you, Ken. But now it has been uncovered and we see its powers again for this first time in a long while. Like what its name implies, you are uncharacteristically compassionate to everyone's needs. And since you have already had your own experience with darkness, you know exactly how to help those who have faltered. They will look to you for guidance. Your ability to block physical attacks comes from this attribute. The same goes for mental attacks—though this skill you will have to learn with time. Because you have gone through the darkness and back, you are tainted. But this is not a disadvantage. Your understanding of the dark side of the world is what makes you genuinely unique and stronger than most others. You have fallen once, but you will never fall again."

Finally, Gennai came to a stop. He sighed greatly and then rested his eyes on Takeru. There was a strange glimmer in his eyes as he began speaking again.

"Hope. Quite possibly the strongest attribute among all of you. Do you know why? Because it is an attribute shared by both dark and light sides of the world. Everyone shares hope—and there are all forms of hope. Desperation, determination, perseverance—every attribute here has its roots found in hope. In terms of how its powers manifest through its keeper, however, I cannot say. In all my years in the Digital World, I have seen many Keepers of Hope—and every single one of them had a different power. Unlike the other crests, Hope is ever-changing. Such is the case with you, Takeru. It will be interesting to see what gifts you will be bestowed with. In all cases I have seen, however, Hope is empathic. Most likely you have this gift as well, Takeru. And I am sure it will appear at some point or another. Because Hope is shared by everyone, you are tuned in with everyone's feelings. Don't let it overwhelm you, though. Control will come with practice."

Gennai came to a halt and closed his eyes. Everyone shared significant glances.

"Now…we shall discuss how you will be trained."

It was Wizardmon who had spoken. He appeared beside Gennai and was gazing at them critically. "You will be in groups in accordance to your powers. Though I know you already had your own separate groups established, we will now create new ones. Taichi, Mimi, and Koushirou will make up the first one. Since fire is shared by three of you, we are doing our best to make sure it is distributed evenly among the team. Taichi and Koushirou's powers are both quite destructive, thus Mimi will be there to represent a balance. Next is Jyou, Yamato, and Sora. Your powers are complementary, but contradictive as well, so that means no one can overwhelm the other. Water over fire, ice over water, and fire over ice.

"Third is Iori, Miyako, and Ken. This is an even balance of powers. Iori will provide the strongest physical attack, but Ken will also establish the foundation with his protective shields. Then last is Daisuke, Hikari, and Takeru. This a delicate group since Daisuke is the only one present thus far with a powerful physical attribute. Takeru has his teleportation, which I daresay he has mastered quite a bit in the past week, but you, Daisuke, will be providing much of the support for this team until its members further enhance their own abilities."

Daisuke snorted. "So I'm supposed to back these guys up myself? Gee, that sounds fair," he remarked to himself. Hikari shot him a hurt glance and he shook his head. "I don't mean it personally, Hikari. But…it's a lot of work for me."

Wizardmon nodded. "Yes, it is. But not only will it be hard physically, but mentally as well," he stated enigmatically.

The goggled boy shot him a wary look. It was clear what Wizardmon was hinting at. The debate between himself and Takeru was still at open ends—and with them now in a team, it would prove to be a difficult task to handle. Daisuke didn't know if he could take being with him all day long. He eyed Piximon down. Somehow he had a faint feeling that the red digimon had arranged for them to be on the same team purposely.

"Now we will do basic physical training—to build up your stamina, strength, and speed," Wizardmon finished.

Taichi stared at him in surprise. "Physical training? We're not going to use our powers?" he inquired.

Piximon laughed. "Ah, that's for later! We must first teach you combating skills. They will come in handy when you find yourself incapable of using your powers," he explained.

"Will there be instances where we can't use them?" Miyako asked anxiously.

The red digimon gave a secretive grin. "Maybe."

Wizardmon clapped his hands. "Now enough with all this talk. First, all of you stretch your muscles. We'll be doing a one mile run," he ordered.

"What?" cried out Taichi and Daisuke.

"You heard me," Wizardmon said. He smiled mischievously. "And that's just the tip of the iceberg."

"Being tortured by a bunch of sadistic digimon isn't exactly my idea of training," muttered Miyako darkly. Beside her, Iori stifled a chuckle.

An hour later had them all doing sit-ups whilst Wizardmon stood watch, timing and barking out criticisms on their form. Yamato attempted vainly to try and not let the digimon's words get to him, but that plan turned to failure when Wizardmon poked him hard with his staff for slacking off. The blond was slightly put out. They had ran one mile, done fifty pushups, five minutes straight of jumping jacks, and they were still being demoted by harsh words. Yamato was beginning to feel the rippling edges of anger at the corner of his mind.

"We're not…fucking…machines!" gasped out Daisuke as he finished his fifty sit-ups. He was sprawled out on the ground, chest heaving as he tried to regain the breath he had lost in the past hour. It was a miracle he didn't collapse altogether. None of them had undergone this sort of physical training since high school gym classes. And even then the teachers never pushed them this hard.

"The more you do now the better the result will be in the future. It may pain you now, yes, but within a few days your bodies will become accustomed to this sort of strenuous routine," remarked Piximon sagely.

Daisuke glared at the red digimon. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to—"

"Shut your mouth, Dais, and just relax while you have the chance," cut in Taichi.

Wizardmon surveyed the scene. "Come on, you all! Is this all you have? What happened to that youthful energy I always hear about?" he barked.

"It died after the fifty pushups!" Miyako shouted back as she collapsed onto her back. "No more! I can't take it anymore!"

Hikari, who was holding down her feet, smiled sympathetically and looked over at Iori, who appeared as calm as ever. "Are you done?" she asked in amazement.

Iori nodded. "It wasn't too bad. Not much different from what my grandfather makes me do," he replied.

Wizardmon's ears perked at this as he turned to the younger boy. "Oh? Well, in that case, we will have to make this menu harder in the near future!" he commented cheerfully.

"IORI!"

The young boy blinked several times and lowered his head apologetically.

"They enjoy this. I can see their smirks," muttered Yamato as he looked at Takeru. The latter merely smiled slightly.

"I'm sure there's much more to come after this," he remarked quietly.

"And you are right, young Takeru! Now that we have got your blood running, it's time for you all to get into your separate groups. We're going to have a little competition to build up morale and cooperation between your members! Now up, up!" exclaimed Wizardmon.

Daisuke treaded over to where Hikari and Takeru were. "I wonder what they have up their sleeves now," he murmured to himself.

"We will hold a treasure hunt! Here are your lists! You have two hours to find everything before meeting back here. The items are located all over Piximon's main garden—so you better move quick! You have a lot of space to cover. Ready? Begin!" directed Wizardmon in a rush as he hazardously tossed one scroll of paper to each group. The teams barely had a chance to take in his directions before they were being ushered aside.

Hikari glanced at the scroll in her hand and then watched as everyone else scrambled off in the distance. "Um…I guess…we should start…," she said unsurely as Daisuke took the scroll and read the first item.

"First off…a feather from a Pyocomon…"

"They should be located near the fields," remarked Takeru idly as he looked towards the west. "Their former village relied heavily on agriculture. They'll be in the more remote areas of the garden."

Hikari stared at him. "You know a lot about this place," she pointed out as a matter-of-factly.

Takeru shrugged. "I had a week's tour of this place before you came along," he replied.

Daisuke rolled up the scroll and placed it in his pocket. "Well, let's go then," he said simply.

The other two watched as he marched past them silently. Hikari sighed and put a hand to Takeru's shoulder. "He's still pretty mad about last night," she said quietly.

The blond remained impassive. "Not surprising."

The three then made their way on in silence. Occasionally, Hikari would share some words with Daisuke. But between the latter and Takeru, there were no words exchanged—not even the barest glance was spared. Hikari worried about their prospects as a team. Though they were only in these groups for training purposes, they still needed to operate well together. If Takeru and Daisuke didn't resolve their problems now it would affect everyone as a whole in the future. Hikari sighed to herself. She felt so inadequate being around them. There was nothing she could do but mediate whatever fuses would blow. Daisuke had a quick temper, but fortunately he was able to hold himself back now. Takeru was simply a mystery to her now. She had no idea what he was doing for the past four years and nor did he try to clarify it for her.

If they made it through in the end, it would be an absolute miracle. Hikari stared at the two. Eventually, one of them would break—and she had a feeling it would be Takeru. He may have changed drastically in temperament, but inside he was still as sensitive as he was as a child. He was most likely in pain due to Daisuke's hostility towards him—which was why Hikari didn't understand his hesitation. If he was hurt so much by this, why didn't he just explain himself? Considering it was Takeru, she was sure he had a reasonable explanation for why he remained utterly obsolete for four years.

"I would—if not for the pain it causes me to remember."

Hikari narrowed her eyes. What did Takeru mean by that? She studied the blond carefully. It made her so sad—to think that they were once so close where she could almost read what he was thinking and now…now she didn't have the faintest idea of where to begin.

The scenery around them was rapidly changing from the pleasant glade Piximon had arranged for them to meet. The ground became smoother and the grasses fuller as they treaded the soft terrain. Hikari glanced at her watch. Ten minutes had now passed since their departure from the main area. She looked up and scrutinized the land before her. It didn't seem like there was any Pyocomon village nearby.

"Oi, blondie, you sure about your facts?" queried Daisuke as they walked.

Takeru eyed the area and closed his eyes for a moment. "They're here. I can tell," he said softly.

Daisuke arched an eyebrow. "What? You're psychic now? Amazing."

Hikari nudged him hard in the ribs. He frowned slightly and shook his head.

They were journeying up a hill, and as far as he could tell, there was no sign of any type of civilization. Daisuke scowled to himself. They were walking to some pointless destination and he was getting annoyed. As soon as they reached the top they took a moment to rest and he turned around to face Takeru indignantly.

"Well, what now, oh Great Seer?" he snapped sharply.

Takeru paid him no mind as he observed the scene below them. "We're here," he stated simply.

Daisuke turned around halfway and blinked back his surprise. Hikari cheered. "How did you know, Takeru?" she asked excitedly as they began traipsing down the hill.

"Just a hunch," he replied coolly.

"Great Seer. That should be your new nickname from now on," muttered Daisuke sarcastically.

Takeru looked at him serenely. "If that's what you want."

"Both of you, stop. We have a feather to get," interrupted Hikari just as Daisuke was about to reply.

The burgundy-haired boy crossed his arms and walked off ahead, cursing to himself. Hikari followed him with her gaze worriedly. "Takeru…I don't know what happened but…this can't go on for much longer. You know that, right?"

The blond was silent as they approached the village. The Pyocomon there stopped and immediately bounded towards him joyously.

"Takeru! You're here! What a great honor!"

Takeru stared at them in surprise. "What do you mean?" he asked in wonder.

The Pyocomon jumped on him excitedly. "You saved us last time! We haven't had the chance to repay you yet!" they exclaimed.

Hikari watched in a slight daze as the first signs of a true smile made its way onto Takeru's face. He held one Pyocomon out at arms' length. "Well, you could give us one of your feathers," he said.

The Pyocomon snorted derisively. "That's not enough for our savior!"

"Well, that's sort of what we need right now—and in a hurry, too. We have other things to get before the end of the day. I'm sure you can pay back your savior properly another day," interjected Daisuke coldly.

The small rookie digimon stared at him for a bit before finally acquiescing. They handed over to Takeru a bright pink and blue feather, to which the latter took gratefully.

"Thank you," he said earnestly as they took their leave.

The Pyocomon hopped around energetically. "It's you we thank! Come back any time, Takeru. You are always welcome!" they called out.

Takeru spared them a wave and another smile before catching up to Hikari and Daisuke, who had hurriedly made his way out of the village. As he handed the feather for his safekeeping, Daisuke snatched it away harshly and gave Takeru a fixed grin.

"Good work," he commended tightly.

Takeru's eyes darkened. "Daisuke…"

"Don't," the latter said quickly. "I'll accept you as my teammate for now, Takeru. And while we're teammates I don't want to talk to you unless it's absolutely necessary. Trust me, it's much better this way. The longer you play dummy, the longer I'll pretend you don't exist. Is that okay with you?"

Takeru felt as if a sudden clamp ensnared his heart within its grip. He nodded slowly. "Yeah, I get you," he replied numbly.

Daisuke nodded curtly and looked away.

"What's next on the list?" inquired Hikari calmly. After hearing that exchange, she knew it wasn't safe for her to try to persuade Daisuke to think otherwise. That would be required for later, though. They could not very well be on the same team and not even look at one another.

"Golden apple," replied Daisuke.

Hikari paused. "Do you know where to find that?"

"No idea."

Takeru shook his head. "Me neither."

"Well, I'm assuming it'll be found on a tree—meaning a place with water and good sunlight. We're in a pretty dry region so I think heading back east will do us some good," reasoned Daisuke.

"If it's water…," murmured Takeru before looking up quickly. "I know where it is."

Daisuke looked at him calmly. "Care to point the way?"

Takeru shook his head. "I don't know how to get there from here, but I remember seeing a painting in Piximon's house that depicted an area in his garden with a tree that had gold apples growing on it," he recalled.

Hikari pondered to herself. "But then how do we get there?" she asked aloud.

"If it's exactly like that painting…"

Both Daisuke and Hikari watched as Takeru paced back and forth before coming to a halt. He faced them. "Right. Let's go."

"What are you—" began Daisuke before suddenly freezing as he noted the sphere of blinding light encircle them. He looked at Takeru in alarm. "Are you serious?"

Before he knew it, however, the scenery around them was changed. The three of them were standing in the middle of a golden field. The oddly colored grass was cut and a small lake obscured their view. Daisuke took in their new surroundings in astonishment before looking at Takeru again. The latter regarded the area sullenly.

"I guess this is it," he said quietly.

"Takeru… That was… Your old teleportations didn't used to be so quick," gasped out Hikari.

The blond thought to himself for a moment. "No, they didn't. Maybe four years of remaining dormant has done my abilities some good," he commented dryly.

Hikari managed a small smile. It had frightened her a bit. The last transportation she ever experienced by the hands of Takeru was slower, much steadier, and required indirect contact with each of them to accomplish it. This time it had been much faster, much more uncontrollable, and required no contact whatsoever. Her heart was still beating from the shock. Yet Takeru appeared as calm as ever. Daisuke, too, seemed rather normal to this change. Hikari took several deep breaths. She was certainly becoming more squeamish in these later years.

"All right, so a golden apple… I guess we just have to pick one from that tree," remarked Daisuke as he pointed towards the lake.

Takeru turned around and narrowed his eyes. In the middle of the lake, on a lone plateau of small land, stood a single black tree. The leaves that sprouted from its branches were crimson and golden apples were spotted in abundance all over its foliage. Takeru looked towards the sky and noted its violet hue. The sun was a fiery orange-red that shone down on them strangely, casting a gloomy, blood red covering over everything. He had never been in this part of Piximon's garden—but somehow he felt as if he had.

"So…do we transport over there?" questioned Hikari out loud. She also felt the same eeriness that Takeru did. This place held some sort of tragedy. She wondered what could have happened.

"It's worth a try," agreed Takeru. "Ready?"

The other two nodded and in a flash their surroundings morphed. Daisuke gazed around the small island. The ground was barren. Only the tree represented any sort of life there, and even its presence did not soothe his qualms.

"So…"

"Guests detected. Present password to continue."

Daisuke froze and looked at the others. "Did I just hear that?" he asked slowly.

Hikari nodded. Takeru stared at the tree, which had begun to glow an unearthly red. It seemed to pulse out an uncanny wave of light. "I think it came from there," he said.

Again the tree glowed and that same monotonous voice sounded. "Present password to continue, guests."

Daisuke looked aghast. "You mean to tell me we need a password to get to this damn tree?" he cried out in dismay.

"Incorrect password. Access denied."

Suddenly, the three of them found themselves back where they started—staring from afar at the tree located in the middle of the lake. Daisuke rubbed his eyes. "You have got to be kidding me," he muttered.

"Well…I imagine Piximon would have wanted to make this as hard as he possibly could," quipped Hikari bracingly. "It's only been half an hour. We still have time to figure this out."

Daisuke gritted his teeth. "But how do we get there without the password?" he demanded angrily.

Hikari furrowed her eyebrows worriedly. Takeru stared hard at their surroundings. "Hey…do you guys feel that?" he voiced aloud.

"What?" snapped Daisuke.

Takeru's eyes roamed the area carefully. "I just feel like there's someone else here…watching," he murmured before his eyes came to a halt at something behind Daisuke and Hikari. "And there we are."

The two turned around and stared at their intruder in surprise. Daisuke clenched his fists. Enough of these games, Piximon. Are you trying to drive us mad? Another boy around their age stood before them. His eyes were bright blue and his hair a spiky brown mess. He wore a friendly smile despite his unusual attire, which consisted something of a mix between modern punk rock and medieval armor.

"You seem to be having trouble," he said brightly.

Daisuke's gaze hardened. "Maybe. Care to help?" he asked airily.

The stranger smiled. "That tree won't let anyone touch it without the password. It's one of Piximon's most prized possessions—and even you Destined don't have permission to access it," he said knowingly.

"How do you know so much about us?" Hikari asked in a slight daze. All of this was starting to twist her mind around. She didn't know what to think anymore. The boy appeared to be harmless, but there was something very off about him. The fact that he looked so much like a human disconcerted her greatly. Even Gennai wasn't so convincing due to his rather eccentric behavior.

"It's my duty to know all about you. But more specifically, my special duty while I'm here is to watch over that tree. There usually aren't any guests or intruders that enter this territory due to my custom-made shields and firewalls. But apparently you managed to slip in so I was called over immediately. I applaud you, but you will not be going any further without the password."

Takeru watched the boy calmly. "I don't suppose you know what it is," he said lightly.

The stranger gave a smirk. "I'm its guardian. Of course I know how to access it. But I'm afraid I can't give away that privilege so freely," he replied.

"Stop with the bullshit already. Just tell us how we can get the password," Daisuke cut in, his tone impassive despite the fiery look in his eyes.

"You have to earn it of course," the strange answered enigmatically.

"How?" asked Hikari.

The boy looked at her kindly. "By proper Digital World procedures of course. We fight."

Daisuke arched an eyebrow. "Fight? What type of fight are you asking for?"

"Any. The rules are simple. You may use anything. Your own powers, digimon, weapons, anything and everything. If you win I will grant you the password to access the Bleeding Tree."

Hikari blinked. "Is that what it's called? Why?" she inquired curiously.

The stranger's eyes flashed. "You should ask Piximon about that some time," he replied softly.

Daisuke cracked his knuckles. "All right, that sounds simple enough. Are we allowed to do three on one?" he asked.

"Of course."

"So what will you use?"

"Everything around me."

Daisuke scrutinized him darkly. "Who are you?" he finally asked.

A smile. "You can just call me Ryo."

"You're a browser," Takeru said suddenly.

Ryo looked at him sharply. "Well…it seems like you may know something about me as well," he replied breezily.

"A browser? What do you…?"

Before Hikari could finish, however, Ryo had taken stand and lifted both arms in front of him. He gave an impish grin. "Prepare yourselves!" he warned just as the ground began shaking.

"Jesus, he wasn't kidding when he said he would use everything around him!" cursed Daisuke and the others struggled to regain proper foothold.

Hikari stumbled onto the ground and shook her head. "It's useless to try to stand!"

"So how exactly do we defeat him? We knock him unconscious?" queried Takeru.

Daisuke snorted. "Well. That sounds good to me."

He thrust his arm out before him and fired one single shot. It flew at an incredible speed towards Ryo before he dodged it smoothly. He smiled. "Nice shot—but not good enough," he commented as the ground began trembling even more. Only the land in which he stood upon remained still.

Daisuke cursed. "Damn! I can't even get close to him with all this shaking!"

"I'll transport you," murmured Takeru.

And for the third time that day, Daisuke found his surroundings whirling around him crazily for a split second before it stopped. He was standing right behind Ryo, who appeared slightly confused at where he had gone. Daisuke blinked several times in shock before Takeru and Hikari's warning gazes threw him back into reality. He placed the palm of his hand near Ryo's back and sent out a rush of heat. The force was not enough to kill him, but just enough to weaken his body immensely so that he was collapsing right before Daisuke's feet.

The ground stopped shaking at once.

Daisuke's hand remained near Ryo's head. "I think we can figure out who's the victor here," he said with a light smile.

Ryo hid a grin behind his serious mask. "All right. You win. I'll give you the password." Hikari and Takeru walked up just then. He stared at the other two before resting his gaze on the latter. "Nice teamwork."

Takeru and Daisuke glanced once at each other before looking away quickly.

"Yeah," murmured Takeru.

"Whatever," grunted Daisuke.

This time Ryo did not hide his smile. Piximon will be happy to hear about this. "The password is 'hope,'" he said.

"Hope?" repeated Takeru faintly.

Ryo nodded as he stood up slowly, dusting off his clothes. "Yup. Ah, but I can't believe I lost so easily. I must be more out of practice than I thought. I knew I should have gotten a digimon to fight in my stead. But I haven't been in this world in a while and Piximon called me over so unexpectedly. I didn't have any time to prepare!" he suddenly burst out.

Hikari stared at him. "You…are a human…right?"

"Well, I'm certainly no digimon!"

"What world do you come from?" asked Takeru quietly.

Ryo paused before laughing nervously. "Oh, did I let that slip? Well, ignore it, ignore it. I'm from nowhere," he said hurriedly. But the blond's eyes didn't leave his face. Ryo smiled forcefully. Ah…this guy is scary. Gotta be careful around him or else he'll figure me out completely! He clapped his hands. "Well, congratulations! You have the password. I suppose you should get a move on, right?"

Hikari started. "Oh! That's right! Come on, guys, we don't anymore time to lose!"

Takeru nodded and once again the three of them found themselves standing on the little island.

"Guests detected. Present password to continue."

"Hope," all three of them said resolutely.

The tree stopped glowing.

"Is that it?"

"Looks like it."

"That was pathetic."

"Were you expecting fireworks?"

Hikari rolled her eyes as Daisuke scratched his head bemusedly. Takeru walked up to one of its branches and plucked off a golden apple. He threw it towards Daisuke, who caught it automatically.

"All right. We got what we came for. Let's go."

Hikari looked at the scroll. "Next item…a hair from a dragon."

"That's easy. All we have to do is find Aero," remarked Daisuke.

"He's probably somewhere in the flower fields. He's a sucker for those."

Takeru smiled slightly. "Here we go."

The three of them disappeared. Ryo then walked up from behind the tree's trunk and petted it affectionately. Where Takeru had pulled off a golden apple, another one had already started to grow. Ryo smiled faintly as he gazed upon it. The tree was still black, but its leaves had started to change color—going from dark crimson to a lighter, softer shade of red. Ryo gazed at the sky, which had also begun to lighten in shade.

"You're starting to recover, huh? Yeah…maybe not all is lost yet. Right…Takeru?"


TBC

Many apologies for the extreme delay. To be brief, I was hit by a number of walls. Piling schoolwork, summer laziness, writer's block, and then finally my computer completely crashing down on me. But hopefully, this rather long chapter makes up for it. (It's a bit scary the length of this chapter actually. I myself was pretty shocked to see how far it extended.) XD I got my drive back for this story, though. Over three years now and still running. It's a miracle in my book.

A lot of information in this chapter. A bit tedious, but necessary for the story itself. And of course, a new character comes to light. I always did like Ryo. So I simply had to give him a role.