Joe woke up. He figured he had been out of it for only a few seconds because he was still lying flat on the ground and hadn't been disturbed. Gomamon was on his back, which made it difficult to stand. He could hear voices all around him.
"Where did he come from?"
"He just appeared in a flash of light!"
"Do you think he's hurt?"
"He's not moving."
"He's got one of those terrible monsters with him!"
"It looks harmless enough."
"I don't think we can trust it. Shouldn't we try to get rid of it before it attacks us?"
Joe groaned, and heard Gomamon give a mirror groan. He sat up, feeling Gomamon slide onto the ground. Now he looked around, and saw that he was surrounded by people, and city streets, and the skeleton of a building.
"Gomamon," said Joe, "we're back in the real world."
"I thought as much," groaned Gomamon, lying on his back. He wriggled his paws, trying to right himself, like a beetle that had been tipped over. Joe flipped him over and looked at the people around him. They fell silent.
One of them said, "I recognise you, weren't you one of those kids who went up into the sky?"
Joe nodded. One of them. And maybe the only one who would ever return. One of them, at least, had lost their chance forever.
"Wow, kid! That's incredible!"
"How did you come back?"
"How did you leave in the first place?"
"Who's this monster with you?"
Joe didn't answer their questions, just looked down at his arms and lap. Empty.
"What... what happened to the digi-egg I was carrying?" he asked.
"The egg?" said someone, "you kind of materialised about two feet in the air and fell. You were holding an egg but you landed on it and it smashed and disappeared."
"Disappeared," repeated Joe, feeling sick.
"Palmon," said Gomamon, and moment later Joe found himself being nearly crushed by a tight hug from his friend, the flippers pressed into his back. When Joe felt Gomamon's cheek pressed to his, he felt that it was wet and realised that Gomamon was too embarassed to let so many people see him crying.
"I'm glad you're here," the Digimon whispered, "I'm glad you're still here." Joe knew what he meant.
Joe awkwardly stood up, still holding tightly to Gomamon, and bowed briefly to their audience, before running off.
"Joeee, where are we going?" asked Gomamon, with a choking voice.
"To the city centre," said Joe, grimly. In a frustrated sort of way, he was almost glad to have landed in the wrong world - at least getting back to digiworld would give him something to think about. He could feel Gomamon sobbing against his chest but he wasn't going to think about... it.
A lot of people stared at him as he ran past them, some even called out, but he didn't register. He did, however, begin to take some notice of his surroundings. A lot of the buildings were destroyed. There was rubble all over the roads, and as such the small amount of traffic that did exist was having difficulty, beeping their horns and taking dangerous paths.
There was no sign of other Digimon at that moment, although the rifts in the sky still showed the digital world. The oceans and forests of the digiworld were quite bright, although there seemed a faint shade of grey dimming everything in the landscape. All the mountains were black, especially what Joe now recognised as Spiral Mountain, which sent its shadow around the land around it.
It was strange seeing the digital world this way. It was like looking at a map of places they had been.
Joe did not know the area of the city he was in very well, but he followed the wreckage as it intensified, and it was not very long before he found the site of VenomMyotismon's attack.
"Look, there's another one of those monsters!"
Gomamon looked around blankly. He had stopped crying by now.
"What's that crazy kid doing?"
"Hey kid! Get away from that monster before you get yourself hurt!"
"It's okay," sighed Joe, "he's a friend."
"It's the sky kid!"
"Really? You're kidding!"
"What's he doing here?!"
Joe ignored them all and walked to the spot where they had left for the digital world. The ground where the digivices had created the gate was white.
"Gomamon," he said, "I think a gate was already created here. We can go back now. Are you ready."
He stopped, looked to the source of the voice. Jim. In fact, everyone's families; standing right where they had left them.
Joe and Gomamon were soon surrounded by people.
"Joe!" said Jim, slapping him on the back, "how did you get back here?"
"It's kind of a long story," said Joe. Kind of too long. "I was in a couple of different worlds and then I accidentally came back here. I came back to this spot so I could return to the digital world. Things look pretty bad here, so I guess the battle's not over yet."
"You think this is bad?" said Jim, gesturing. The city almost seemed grey, a shadow clinging to it. Buildings were wrecked, people scared and there was smoke coming from some way away.
"Yes, of course," said Joe simply.
"I can tell you, it was a lot worse right up until about half an hour ago! There were those Digimon monsters everywhere and the city was darker than it is now."
Joe glanced at his watch. Half an hour ago; that had probably been around the time when they had won that last battle. Won. What a strange word to use. And such a short time since... that.
But Jim had had the relief of seeing his brother safe. The parents wanted the same reassurance.
"Is Sora alright?"
"Has Tai been looking after his sister? Are they both okay?"
"How has Izzy been holding up?"
"TK's still alive and well, isn't he?"
"How's my little girl, how's my Mimi?"
Joe grimaced at that last one, although all the parents were talking at once, clamouring for news, and all of them became worried at his expression. This was one situation Joe had definitely not wanted, very strongly.
"Well," he said finally, awkwardly, "like I said, I went between worlds, so I haven't seen most of the others in a couple of days. But the last I saw, everyone was okay."
"Matt decided to go off on his own for a little while - but don't worry! - his Digimon is one of the two strongest and will definitely protect him well. Last I saw, Tai was taking really good care of his sister, and he and Sora are looking after TK as well. Izzy is with them. Two of the four evil Digimon that have been terrorising the digital world were destroyed, the rulers of the sea and the forest."
Joe gestured to the sky, highlighting the obvious contrast between the sea and forest and the rest of the land. And as they watched, the cities began to dissolve away. For a second, the image of the third Dark Master hovered in the air in front of the humans, but fell apart into pieces and disappeared.
"Machinedramon!" said Gomamon.
"There you go," said Joe, trying to sound normal, "it proves that your children are still alive and well. They just defeated the third Dark Master."
"That means... Piedmon," said Gomamon. The two remembered how Piedmon had effortlessly smashed away Wargreymon and MetalGarurumon.
"Right," said Joe, "we really can't wait here any longer."
Joe's digivice began to glow. Mr Tachikawa put a hand on his arm.
"Joe," he said, "you forgot to mention Mimi. I trust she's okay?"
He hadn't 'forgotten' at all. He looked into the man's eyes, giving nothing away, and crying inwardly. Gomamon's grip on him tightened a little, either for support or because he was feeling the same way. Joe knew that he could be in the digital world in a few seconds, and could avoid the question.
He also knew that did not befit his crest. Mimi had been his responsibility. He had failed. And he was the one who had the responsibility to give her parents this news.
He wasn't sure he could do it. Gomamon pulled the crest of Sincerity from Joe's neck and waved it slightly.
Joe said, very slowly, not breaking the gaze of the man in front of him, "that is Mimi's crest. It represented Sincerity and Passion. She saved three worlds. She was a great... a great friend. And she died bravely."
He swallowed hard, still looking into Mr Tachikawa's eyes. He saw the sudden shock and pain that he knew must mirror his own. He had been worried that he would be blamed. He had been blamed for many things. But perhaps the man could see that the boy in front of him felt the same way.
Mrs Tachikawa started crying loudly, nearing hysteria. Tai and Izzy's parents moved to try to comfort her, to reassure her. Her husband did not, he needed his strength for himself.
Gomamon was crying again, as the digivice glowed more brightly and began to pull them into the sky again. They were jolted to a stop, suddenly. The light pulled them up, and Mr Tachikawa held Joe's foot, preventing him from leaving.
"Take me with you," he said, very firmly.
"I can't," said Joe, "not without a digivice, and without your own Digimon it's dan-"
"I don't care. Who killed my Mimi? I have to find them, don't you understand?"
"I'm coming too," said Mrs Tachikawa suddenly, still sounding precariously close to hysteria but with surprising firmness.
"The Digimon that killed her," said Joe, still in the same careful, calm voice, "was in turn killed by us, I assure you."
"Me. Gomamon. Mimi's Digimon. And Mimi herself, with the last of her power. About, oh, thirty-five minutes ago."
"You and Mimi were travelling together?"
"I'm sorry," said Joe, "it was really such a short time ago..." He suddenly thought of something. "There may still be hope though. She didn't leave a body, so she may be reconfigured somehow."
Gomamon glanced at Joe. He was surprised that his partner could sound so cold, calm, and practical, considering the subject matter. He knew that Joe didn't believe for a moment that Mimi could come back.
But Joe's words surprised Mimi's father enough to make him loosen his hold, and the two friends were taken to the digital world.
Matt and Gabumon looked around in surprise, then smiled.
"Hey Joe, Gomamon. Where are the others?"
"Oh, we thought we'd move off on our own too."
"To find yourself?"
"I think I found myself."
"And I'd rather I didn't. Do you know whereabouts the others are? We should all help fight Piedmon so we can be finished with this."
"You sound different, Joe. Of course I'll come for the final battle, but I'm not finished here yet."
"Not finished? What do you need to do?"
"There's still... something I gotta figure out."
"Matt, don't be selfish!"
"What?! YOU left too! How dare you call ME selfish?! If I can't work out why I am the way I am, I'll never be good for anything!"
"Well, you'll never be good for anything if you stay here and let your friends die!"
"Die?! Now listen, Joe -"
"Matt, just COME."
The two boys glared at each other, locking eyes. Matt found, to his surprise, that Joe did not back down and did not look away. In fact, -he- was the one to turn away first.
"Let's go," he sighed.
Gomamon became Zudomon, again being able to access the power of Reliability, and the kids followed digivice signals. When they reached the end of any bodies of water, Zudomon dedigivolved and Garurumon carried the three of them instead. It did not take a very long time for the kids to reunite with the main group.
TK caught sight of the four travellers first, and ran up to them happily. Matt grabbed him in a tight hug, for once not seeming to mind that everyone else was watching.
"Hey, Joe!" said Tai, "where's Mimi?"
Matt looked at him, surprised. "Mimi went with him? Did you guys have a fight or something?"
"Don't be so stupid, Matt," snapped Joe, and everyone was surprised to hear Joe speaking so sharply.
"We're looking for Piedmon right now," said Sora, "if she's near here, it would be best to find her again so that the whole team's here for the final battle."
"I'd LIKE to find her again," said Joe, and was silent for a moment. This awful responsibility again, to tell everyone. Every time he said it, it made it sound worse, more real.
He forced the words out quickly. "She died, she's dead."
"WHAT?!" screamed everyone at once.
"Yeah, right," said Izzy, "that sort of joke is really not funny, Joe."
Matt didn't say anything. He thought that Joe's altered manner might mean he WAS speaking the truth. And now, Joe just bowed his head and closed his eyes. The kids fell silent and looked at him, realising from his face that he wasn't joking.
"How did - she can't have - that's just... weren't you supposed to look after her?!" shouted Tai.
"I tried," said Joe weakly, "I tried..."
"Well, obviously you didn't try hard enough, Joe! How could you let this happen? You coward, you IDIOT!"
Tai moved forward, tears in his eyes, and slammed Joe in the chest, knocking the taller boy down. He moved to punch him in the face. Tai was furious, and now Gomamon was too. Gomamon jumped up, deflected the blow and scratched Tai across the face.
"YOU WEREN'T THERE!" screamed Gomamon, "don't you EVER hurt Joe! He did his best! You weren't there, so you don't know what happened!"
Tai held his face and glared at Gomamon. "What's to know? Joe obviously screwed up again!"
"HE DID NOOOOOOOOT!" shouted Gomamon. The other kids took a step back. They had never seen Gomamon so upset. The seal glared right back at Tai. "You don't understand a thing! Don't you know that Joe loved Mimi more than any of you did, and the other way around? She ran out to protect him and got hit first before any of us could do anything!"
"Well... I bet he coulda done SOMETHING..." said Tai weakly, "I bet... I don't get why... I just... I don't know."
He sighed. "How can we defeat Piedmon with only seven crests and digivices?"
"I have Mimi's," said Joe softly, and then, with conviction - "they'll react to me, I know they will."
"But, how -"
Matt interrupted. Joe hadn't taken offense at Tai's question - which had mostly been asked out of not knowing what else to say - but he did. "What sort of question is that, Tai?! Mimi's GONE and all you can think about is beating Piedmon? Get your priorities straight!"
"Hey, Matt, why don't you just - shut up!"
The two looked as if they were going to fight again.
"CUT IT OUT!" shouted TK.
Everyone suddenly looked at Joe. He had slumped to the ground, and was crying. Nobody had seen him cry before. They were all silent, watching him, feeling the same sickness in their hearts, although they could never feel it to the same degree as him.
And he cried, for the people he had disappointed, for the horror of fighting, for the smashed digi-egg, and most of all, for Mimi. The first and only person who had given him something. Beyond caring, beyond partnership, beyond teammates, beyond friendship, beyond trust, beyond love. She had trusted him with who she really was, and he had done the same with her. They had been linked.
He pressed his hand to his face, lips touching a wilting flower on his ring finger.
The two of them had discovered their power in each other.