Level 3: Experiments

Stage Two- Ego

The ceaseless chatter from another room woke Takato up much earlier than he wanted. He was groggy, but whatever time it was, chatter meant activity and that meant the chance for progress. He rolled out of bed and readied his eyes for the influx of light that would enter when he opened the door. It blinded him anyway. Coupled with the fact that he was only half-awake, he was pretty disoriented as he stumbled into the office.

“What time is it?” he asked whoever was in there. Of course, he knew who it would be.

“Six,” Riley answered, “A bit early for you, isn't it? Tally and Mari are still asleep.” She made no mention of her own lack of sleep, evidenced by her reddened eyes and disheveled hair.

Takato heard a new, but familiar voice behind Riley. “Unbelievable...” His eyes came into focus on a pair of middle-aged men. The one who had spoken adjusted his glasses and walked up to Takato. “Nice to see you again Takato.”

“Thanks for helping us Rob,” Takato replied, still getting his bearings together. He had known Janyuu would be coming, but wasn't expecting Rob to show- or for them to be there that early in the morning.

Janyuu approached him next, leaning over in a silent awe and lifting Takato's chin up. “This is just incredible,” Janyuu murmured, “I don't know what to say.”

“How about 'I'm sorry'?” Takato muttered, a little louder than he had intended.

“I...” Janyuu replied in confusion. As the old researcher's head started to hang and he eyed the floor, Takato knew Janyuu was figuring it out. “I guess we do owe you an apology.”

Rob stepped in. “I hope you understand that any lies we may have told you were purely for your protection. I mean the truth would have been... devastating.” After staring at Takato for a moment, he added, “Like it is for you now.”

“Hearing it from Yasuo first didn't help matters much,” Riley said.

“Just send me home,” Takato snapped back, “I'm sick of this.”

Janyuu shook his head. “Well, like I told Tally, I'm not going to help you get back unless there's some way to stop D-Reaper.”

“So if there isn't a way you'd keep me here and just let your son die?”

“Takato, this isn't helping me,” Riley reprimanded him, “We need to find a way in before we explore any of our options. I don't need to hear you talk about dying because your friends are.”

“No, he's right.” Janyuu said, drawing surprised looks from Rob and Riley, “I've neglected my family in there as much as my family here.”

“That's why we need to stop D-Reaper,” Rob said, “Takato, you said you found a way into our Digital World?”

“Yeah,” Takato replied, “And don't ask me how. I'm sick of that question.”

“I don't care how. As long as it's true we still have a chance.”


TO: ichijouji@kenkeishicho.metro.tokyo.jp

FROM: RKngel@hotmail.com

You have Michi?

This was getting ridiculous. Ken was already fed up with the secrets. Whatever was going on between Yasuo and Riley, both were using Ken while keeping him oblivious to the details. He had already figured out that it had some connection to the Chosen: otherwise there would be no reason to keep Ken out of the loop. But what was it that everybody knew that Ken could not?

“Ken! Breakfast!” his wife shouted, climbing the stairs as Ken stared at the screen in his home office.

“I'm coming,” he mumbled, not moving.

Yolei didn't wait for him. She immediately noticed the troubled look on his face. “What are you doing? Checking your e-mail?”

“Uh huh.”

She read Riley's e-mail and turned to Ken with a puzzled look. “Who's that from?”

“Riley. She asked about Koji a couple days ago.”

Yolei put her hands on her hips. “Huh. She's a nice woman but she can't stop asking for trouble. I just hope she never gets it.” Shaking her head, she added, “So what are you going to say to her?”

“I'll tell her we have Michi, I guess.”

“That's it?”

“Doesn't sound like she wants to say much about all this. I guess I can ask but I don't expect to get many answers.”

“Try it. Couldn't hurt.”

'Not from this computer at least,' Ken thought, switching out of his work e-mail and typing a reply, affirming that they were looking after Michi but adding questions about what was going on and how the Chosen were involved with all of it.

Yolei set a hand on his shoulder. “Did you get anything out of Yasuo when you talked to him?”

Ken sent the reply, pushed his chair back and stood. As he and Yolei walked downstairs, he replied, “I overheard him talking about something called D-Reaper. I don't know if that has anything to do with this, but it seemed like it could.”

“D-Reaper... I know I've heard of that somewhere.”

“Me too. That's why I think there could be a link between it and Koji.”

Downstairs, the inviting smell of breakfast offered some comfort. Ken tried to relax and enjoy the meal, but as he started eating he noticed Michi was not at the table.

“Where's Michi?” he asked Chiaki

Chiaki didn't bother to swallow his food. “Still sleeping, I guess.”

“Has she said anything to you about what's going on?

Shaking his head, Chiaki washed it down with some tea and replied. “Nope. I don't know what happened but whatever Koji was doing, it really screwed her up. I mean, I told her that they caught him and she barely reacted.”

“I don't know if you should have told her that. It's not a big deal, but we need to be careful what we say to her. We need to get her as far away from this as possible.”

Yolei nodded. “You shouldn't get too involved with this either Chiaki. We don't know what's going on right now. I'm nervous enough about Ken investigating this. But I don't want you to talk about this with Michi. Talk about other stuff. Please.”

Chiaki cracked a smile. “She doesn't want to talk. Period. I don't know what's wrong with her. I won't talk about it if you don't want, but I just wish we could help somehow.”

“We are helping. We're keeping her out of this mess. The sooner we can get her back to New York the better.” Adding a sigh, Yolei said, “As for her mental state, she'll have to pull herself out of this on her own. All we can do is keep her safe while she does.”


While Janyuu and Riley tore through data on their terminals, Rob sat back, watching them. Each pursued a different angle to get around Yamaki's defenses. But Rob was busy brainstorming more logistical issues in his head. The last one had been on his mind for a few minutes before posing it to the other two.

“Besides Takato, is anybody thinking of actually going in there?”

“Somebody needs to go in to help them,” Riley answered, “I was planning on it.”

“How can we ensure that you get out safely? We're working on opening a temporary gate. I don't want you to get trapped in there.”

It took a moment, but Riley stopped. She turned to Rob, eyes wide, trying to frame a response. She eventually came up with one: “Please work on that.”

“Nice you see you haven't completely lost it,” Janyuu cracked.

“I just don't want to have to go through this again,” Riley said, turning back to the computer.

“I don't suppose Takato can get back here once he goes in?”

“Nope,” Rob answered, “Once he's back inside, he's basically reset himself. And something created in the MAXIS stays in the MAXIS. Which is why I'm so interested in his entry to the Digital World.”

Neither responded. They were back at work. Rob sighed and approached his designated terminal. It was a difficult process because they really had no idea how close they were to breaking through. There were only a finite number of security measures available; with as much inside information as the three had, they were bound to crack them eventually. It was just a matter of when, and how long they could afford to spend on this step.

The next forty-five minutes passed quickly as the three silently immersed themselves in their work. Rob was busy trying to step back and view the entire MAXIS mainframe, trying to identify weaknesses based on other MAXIS servers on the system. Riley was working on the inside, using what little access they had to scope out the abandoned Hypnos program. Janyuu was attacking head on. Neither Rob nor Riley noticed when he leaned back- but they almost jumped out of their seats when Janyuu asked, “Riley, can you attempt to log on to your Hypnos account from there?

“Why?” she asked, eager.

“Just trying something...”

Riley's breath shortened as she administered the simple task of a few keystrokes. “Done,” she concluded, adding a jab at the Enter key for emphasis.

“And?” Rob asked.

Riley's face lit up as the Hypnos control panel appeared on the screen. “I'm in,” she said, marveling at the realm of options before her.

“And in five seconds you'll have access to the gate. Once it's open on your side, we can open it from ours,” Janyuu added as he entered a few commands on his terminal.

“They must not be using Hypnos as a connector. It's untouched.”

Rob stood and leaned in over Riley's shoulder. “Is that it? Are you in?”

“Tally!” Riley shouted.

Janyuu turned around. “All we need to do is keep Riley logged on. And I can make sure of that from here.”

Riley remained fixated on her screen as she entered the area controlling the access terminal to the MAXIS. A double click from her mouse and they could upload into the system.

“Hold on Riley. Once you click that, the game's on. As soon as Yamaki checks the system he'd be onto us. Let's wait until we're ready to go.”

“Right...” Riley let go of the mouse as Tally burst in.

“What happened?”

“We're in. Or at least we will be.”

Janyuu explained, “I hacked into the Hypnos administration center. Since it's been down for years, it was left virtually unguarded. Riley has access from the inside. I have access from the outside. As long as we don't do anything blatant until we're ready to, we're set.”

Tally's face formed a broad smile. “That's amazing. How did-”

She was interrupted by a buzz from Riley's computer. The four looked at it immediately, three of them suddenly apprehensive.

Not Riley; she snatched the mouse and fired up a program. “E-mail,” she whispered.

After everyone sighed in relief, they noticed that Riley was still focused on the screen, zoned into her inbox as much as she had been concentrating on her hacking.

“What's wrong? You get e-mail all the time.” Tally asked.

Riley darted her head at Tally. “Not from my main account.”

“Oh.” Tally immediately dropped the subject.

Janyuu stood. “Well, why don't you check that and get back to us? I think we've earned a break.”

“Yeah,” Rob replied with a nod, “Then we need to figure out what to do once you go in.”

“I think I'm already there...” Riley mumbled.


Takato nodded in grim acceptance as he heard the news. That didn't bode well with the others. After hours of digging through files and programs, they had been hoping for him to be a little more excited.

“Aren't you happy? We can get you in,” Tally said, setting an arm on his shoulder during lunch.

“It's a start,” Takato replied, eyes on the ground. “But this is just what I have to do. The real goal is-”

“We're getting there,” Janyuu blurted, “Don't worry. We'll find something.”

“Have you been having any luck?” Mari asked.

“We've got a few theories we want to test out first. Hopefully Riley will finish that soon,” Rob replied.

Nothing fazed Takato. As exciting as their achievement was, at the moment it merely carried him to certain death. Tally patted his shoulder. She knew he wasn't going to change his mind, but felt better knowing that Takato didn't want this to be a suicide mission.

"We'll make sure to have Dwayne say goodbye to your friends," she said, hoping to find some way to reassure him.

"All of them? What about Michi and Mari? I don't even know that they're okay."

Tally ignored Mari's scoff upon hearing the name. "Riley's trying to find out. Hopefully she'll have some good news to pass on."

Riley did not come out for another hour. The lunch break ended and Tally, Mari, Janyuu and Takato resigned to the living room. Rob had to leave to speak at his convention. Although Janyuu and Tally both had checked in on Riley, they had met with the same response: it was a matter of waiting.

When Riley finally exited, she refused to answer any of their questions. Tally and Takato followed her into the kitchen, where Riley grabbed her jacket.

"I'm going to Odaiba," Riley announced. Immediately, Tally and Takato's questions shifted to where and why.

Riley stared at Takato for a while before answering. "You don't need to know that right now."

"I do." Tally remained firm, forcing her hand on the door to the garage. "Riley, you know as well as I do that heading back into Tokyo is dangerous. I'm sure you've got a good reason. I need to know what it is."

Riley's stare shifted to Tally, but the younger woman won out. Riley answered: "I need to see the other Mari."

"What?" Takato and Tally both replied.

"I thought you said she wasn't important," added Tally.

"She is now," Riley said, momentarily glancing at Takato, "Let's just leave it at that."

"If you're going to see Mari, I'm going with," Takato said, "I need to thank her, and to tell her goodbye, and..."

"It's too dangerous," Riley blurted, before trying to justify her statement with some babble about spies in the area.

"Come on Riley, you're going. It can't be any more dangerous for me to go too. We're staying out of Shinjuku, right?"

"The train might have to go through it."

By this time, Janyuu and Mari had entered the kitchen, both already picking up on the conversation. "Take my car," Janyuu said, handing Riley a set of keys.

"What exactly makes this girl significant, especially right before we enter?" Mari asked.

Tally nodded. Mari's suggestion made sense. "Yeah, if nothing else you can just tell me and I'll talk to her."

"No..." Riley replied, looking around the room with a slight tic in her eye. "I need to take care of this now. Before we go in."

"Then I'm going too," Takato demanded again, "Please, Riley, I know her. We trust each other. And besides, this is my chance to say goodbye to somebody. I know there's no chance of finding Michi, but..."

"Michi's with Yolei. I just got an e-mail confirming that. She's fine."

"That's good. But I still want to say goodbye."

Janyuu stepped forward and set a hand on Takato's shoulder. "There's no reason not to, Riley. If you have my car you won't get noticed and I'm sure you know how to handle yourself in Odaiba. Takato and this girl seem to have some sort of friendship. We can afford to let him see her one last time. It's the least we can do before sending him home."

Riley looked around. She wasn't winning anybody over. Finally, she forced the door open.

"Come on Takato," she muttered, "But don't point any fingers at me when you find out who she is."


Silence filled the trip to Odaiba. That suited Takato fine, as there were no battles against Yasuo's forces or long-winded explanations to be found. Yet it concerned him that Riley could drive the entire time without uttering a word. Takato didn't bother to ask anything. Given the way she resisted giving any information out back home, he knew there would be no point.

He had mixed feelings about seeing her again. She would be happy to see him, of course. And he would be happy to thank her and have a proper farewell. But the issue was bound to come up: she was not Mari Izumi. As much as it pained her to think otherwise, the truth would come out. Riley would make sure of it.

Riley remained silent until they reached the apartment door. As she knocked, she gave Takato a simple instruction: “Try not to make a scene.”

Before he could ask her what she meant, a woman answered the door. By all logic, it was Mrs. Izumi, but Takato knew nothing was certain in that apartment.

“Good afternoon Aya,” Riley said, with a curt nod.

Aya stepped back for a moment, frowning. “Riley?” Riley nodded again. “What are you doing here?”

“Mind if we come in? We need to talk.”

Aya backed away and let the two into the apartment. Immediately, her pseudo-daughter greeted the visitors. “Mari” hesitated for one second as she and Takato stared at each other. Then she jumped into his arms.

“Koji! I was so worried. What happened?”

“Mari, you know him?” Aya asked.

A little bashful, Mari stepped back and turned to her mother, still keeping her arms around Takato. “Mom, this is Koji. We just met this week.”

Takato's eyes fell to the ground. He was glad she was excited to see him, but he knew that wouldn't last. Not wanting to lie, he said, “Yeah. We had some things in common. Stuff we wanted to get out of our systems.”

After glaring at Mari for a few moments Riley turned to Aya. “Aya, mind if we talk about...” she tilted her head at Mari.

“Right,” Aya said, frowning.

As the elders went into the kitchen, Mari led Takato by the hand into the living room, asking “Koji” to fill her in on what happened. Takato went through almost every detail: his capture, his sessions with Yasuo and his escape were covered thoroughly. But when he got to the part about planning his trip home, he fell silent. He didn't know what to say to her without first revealing the truth behind their identities.

“I'm so relieved that you got out of there, Koji. I'm glad I could help you. I suppose you're going back home now, aren't you, Koji?”

“Yeah,” Takato mumbled. Every time she called him 'Koji' it pained him. It was a reminder of his own false identity, making him remember that she too was not who she said she was.

“Well, good luck back in New York, Koji. Let's keep in touch somehow,” she whispered, kissing him on the cheek.

“I'm not going back to New York,” he said, “That's not where I'm from.”

She turned very quiet, finally murmuring “I see.”

“It's the place I lived before I went into the Digital World.”

She leaned closer, her eyes lighting up. “Is that in Japan? Maybe we can...”

He ended that immediately. “It is in Japan, but... not this Japan.” Rather than try to phrase it, he just admitted the facts: “I'm not from this world. And my name's not Koji.”

“Yes it is,” she responded immediately.

That caught him off guard. She continued to stare at him, nodding and repeating: “You are Koji. Please say you are Koji.”

Her behavior was starting to bewilder Takato. It was one thing to stand behind her own false identity. But he could not understand why she wouldn't accept his confession.

Rather than let it get to him, Takato carried on. He placed his hand on hers, looked her in the eye, and slowly continued. “I can't lie about this any more. Especially not to you. I had to pretend to be someone else.” She turned away. He put a hand on her chin and gently forced her eyes to meet his. “It was the only way I could stay here. But that's over now, and now you have to accept the truth. I am not Koji.” She forced her eyes shut, clenched her teeth and turned away as he finished: “My real name is Takato Matsuki.”

By now, tears were starting to fall. Takato really wanted to be sympathetic. He was prepared to deliver bad news. But his identity wasn't it. This was supposed to be a formality- his way of coming clean before the truly devastating part.

She shook her head, and through exasperated breaths pleaded, “No. Please say you're Koji. Koji's real. Takato isn't.”

Takato almost lashed out, but stood up and turned away before doing anything rash. He had heard far too much talk about Takato not being real. Hearing it from her appalled him. After taking a moment to calm down he said, “I wasn't trying to deceive you. If anyone had found out who I really was, I'd be in a lot of trouble. Now I am.”

“Koji... no...”

Takato turned around. Now she was openly crying, her hands clenched in fists as she bent over, trying not to look at him. He was almost in disbelief at how hard she was taking this. Still, he figured he had to bite the bullet and get to the worst part.

“Hey... I know this is tough, but you have to learn the truth,” he said, kneeling, trying to face her, “As bad as it is to hear that, that's not the worst of it.”

“No... please,” she managed to squeak out.

Takato couldn't help but get a little choked up, but he again forced her to look at him: “I'm sorry, but you are not Mari Izumi.”

Although she closed her eyes again and turned away, she didn't seem to take the news any harder. Judging by the way she reacted to the first revelation, Takato had expected her to scream in agony and collapse after hearing the second. But her stream of tears just continued. Apparently this was the depth of her distress.

As he set a hand on her shoulder, she continued to plead: “Please. I need to be Mari. You need to be Koji. Please be Koji.”

Now, in spite of himself, Takato was getting mad. Her fretting over not knowing who she was understandable. But she seemed more upset over who he was. As much as he wanted to help her through this, that really bothered him.

“Look, I know it's hard, but you have to know. Maybe you can still try to be Mari. I... I can't tell you not to.” Takato sighed. It would trouble him a little if she continued to live the lie, but he'd rather see her happy. But as for his identity: “But I can't be Koji any more. I need to be Takato. I want to be Takato.”

“No...”

“Yes, I do.” He tried not to sound stern, but had trouble controlling his frustration, “I am Takato Matsuki. And I'm going back to Takato Matsuki's world. I know I had some bad experiences, but I also had many good ones. I'll get to see my old friends and...”

He stopped. Her head was shaking even harder than before. She continued to look down, mumbling, “No, no... it was just an illusion. All just a bad dream...”

Takato backed away, as the combination of her ranting and the memories in his head collided. In the aftermath, he no longer saw Mari Izumi. He didn't see a girl pretending to be Mari Izumi. The crying woman before him was somebody else entirely.

Every question he had about her was suddenly answered. Her alleged trip to the Digital World. The instant connection between them. Why Riley didn't want him to go along. Takato had discovered her true identity, and his stomach began to churn.

“Oh God...”


Aya leaned against the counter and folded her arms. She glanced at the door to the living room before looking at Riley.

“What do you want to know?” she asked.

Riley was a little shaken by how blunt Aya was. Normally friendly and selfless, the Aya that Riley remembered was nowhere in sight. Whatever was going on with the family, Aya's defenses were already up.

After giving up on finding a place to sit in the room, Riley tried to compose herself. She had worked nonstop to send Takato home. Now that that part of the job was over, she was starting to feel her body react to the lack of sleep. But this was just as essential.

But this was just as essential, and she had to be frank with Aya. “You know that girl's not your daughter. I want to know why you don't seem to care.”

Aya's head drooped slightly, then she nodded. “You know in almost three years you're the first person to notice. How'd you find out?”

“First, the details. Why are you passing her off as Mari?”

“Can I trust you? This is something I've told Mari never to tell anybody.”

“I know her story about the Digital World. I want to know how she ended up with you.”

Aya's face turned white for a moment as she looked up at Riley. “How did you-”

“You first, Aya.” Riley wasn't trying to be rude, but she needed to hear the right thing before giving away the key details.

Aya sighed and explained, “She came to me and said that she had been to the Digital World, and that Izzy helped her get back. Furthermore, she was convinced that she was Mari Izumi. Now, you're right: I could tell that she wasn't really Mari. But I had no idea who this girl was, or what Yasuo would do to her if he got word of her story.”

“So you basically played along?”

“Mari had been gone for a few years by then and I was losing hope. I guess...” She bit her lip, but took a breath and finished, “I guess with Izzy and Mari gone I needed the company. Somebody to be with. Somebody to call me Mom.

“I told her not to say anything about her Digital World story, and she didn't. She had trouble keeping that bottled up, but I think it would have been tougher for her to live as somebody other than Mari. Say what you want about it, but it worked. She had a home and I had a daughter.”

Riley shook her head. As much of a mess as it had created, she had to admit it made sense.

“Riley, I love her like she really was Mari. And I know what Yasuo would do if he ever discovered her story. I'm pretty sure he sent some goons to question her but she kept her mouth shut. Now I trust that you can keep quiet about this?”

Rather than respond, Riley went straight to her end of the bargain: “Her real name is Jeri Katou. Her story about the Digital World is true. The only question I have is how she became convinced that she was Mari Izumi.”

“I'm not sure. I mean, she does resemble Mari.”

Riley nodded. Their faces were similar and Mari's hair was only a shade redder. But that alone shouldn't have fooled anyone.

“But... Jeri was it?” Riley nodded again. “Jeri's behavior is completely unlike Mari. Mari definitely took after her father. Jeri...” Aya looked at the door to the living room. “...she's more like me. For a while I was afraid that it really was Mari and something happened to her.”

Riley stifled a chuckle. “Well, something happened to her, but that shouldn't have an impact on who she thinks she is.”

Aya didn't react. She continued to stare the door. “Riley...” she murmured, turning to face her old friend, “You just said that story about the Digital World is true?”

“Yes.”

Aya took a step forward. “So Izzy is alive?”

Riley was surprised for a moment. She had figured Aya already knew, or that Jeri had told her about Takato's visit. It wasn't something Riley liked confirming herself, but she forced a nod and said, “Yeah. All of them are in the Digital World.”

Aya's face lit up. “You mean it?” She sighed, her smile remaining. Aya took a deep breath and nodded. “That's so good to hear. You know, I had always hoped that that part of the story was true.” She chuckled a bit.

Riley pointed to the living room. “The kid I'm here with was also in the Digital World. His name's Takato. He had been contacting each of the families to deliver the news. That's why he and Jeri know each other.”

“Wow. Hate to think what would happen if Yasuo found out.”

“He already knows.” Riley paused as Aya let out a brief gasp. “Yasuo caught Takato somewhere in that process. Tally and I got him out of there, but Takato, and by extension Jeri, are in a lot of danger right now. That's why I'm here. If Yasuo finds out that Jeri's here, he would have no problem killing her on sight. We need to get her to safety.”

“How are Jeri and Takato connected? Or is it just that they both got into the Digital World?” Aya asked; her curious tone suggested that she was beyond mere concern for Jeri and now taking an interest in the details.

Riley did not like divulging unnecessary information, but figured doing so was easier than dodging the question. Besides, Aya was harmless. “Are you familiar at all with the MAXIS program?”

Aya raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Yeah, I've read a few things about it. The program running all those long-term research projects? Let's see... the Medical Actuality... something something.”

“Info Simulation,” Riley answered, “Some of Izzy's friends used it for an experiment attempting to reintroduce Digimon to society.”

“Ooh. How'd it turn out?”

“I'd prefer not to get into it. Point is...” Riley extended a hand to the living room, “Two of the simulated beings from it are in your living room.”

Aya's smile fell instantly. She creaked the door open, catching a glimpse of the pair.

“Ineffable...” Aya whispered.

Riley stepped forward in order to see what the two were doing. Jeri was crying. Takato was trying to talk to her. Exactly what Riley had feared. She set a hand on Aya's shoulder and said, “Aya. Thank you for taking care of her for these years. But given the situation, I hope you understand that she's not safe here.”

Aya nodded. “Will I ever see her again?”

“I don't know.” At that, Aya turned to face Riley. “Depending on the circumstances, she may go with Takato back into the MAXIS. If she doesn't, I'll certainly try to send her back here.”

“Thanks Riley,” Aya said softly. She blinked and added, “Oh, and if you do see Mari, the real one I mean... could you please have her let me know she's all right?”

Riley let a chuckle escape from her nose. There was no level of futility in Aya's request; somehow, she knew Mari was involved with this.

“I will.”


At the moment, Takato could barely stand to look at her. The best and worst memories of his previous life rolled into one sobbing mess on the couch. He wanted to deny it. He wanted to find some way to believe that it wasn't true. But that would have made him as bad as her. It was definitely her; the pieces fit too well.

“You went in after me... didn't you?”

He didn't hear a response. It didn't matter; he already knew the answer. She wasn't supposed to have done it. She wasn't supposed to care that much.

Takato spun around. She hadn't moved from the couch. “Why'd you follow me?”

Still no answer. He stepped forward, putting his hands on her shoulders. Louder, he asked again: “Why, Jeri?!”

“That was just a... just a...”

“No it wasn't!! Why won't you accept that?!”

“Please,” she whimpered, “I don't want to be Jeri.”

“You have to be,” Takato said, a little calmer, “You don't have a choice.” He let go of her shoulders. “Now tell me: why did you go in? You were fine back there. You had that other kid. You were happy.”

“No... we broke up.”

Takato's hand balled into a fist. “What? He... broke up with you?”

She nodded. For a brief moment, Takato's anger was directed at someone else. “Well when we get back I'm going to tell him...”

“No...”she sniffled, “Terry helped me escape.”

“Whatever.” Shaking his head, Takato turned around and took a few steps away. This was too much for him. It was too easy to believe that everybody had abandoned him. Why else would he have left for the Digital World to begin with? If he had known that his departure would lead to her jumping in right after him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. And after everything he had been through and all the trouble he was causing in his world, the last thing he needed was another reason to regret it all.

“What do you mean when we get back?”

Her question interrupted his thoughts. He turned back around. She still looked miserable, but at least had stopped crying. “We're going Jeri,” he answered, “Today.”

“What?”

“You're coming with us. We're going home.”

She jumped off the couch. “But I don't want to leave here.”

Takato remained firm. “Doesn't matter. You can't stay.”

“But Koji...”

“TAKATO!!”

Jeri stepped back and stood there, motionless for the longest time. Before Takato could consider regretting his outburst, Riley and Aya came in from the other room. Aya immediately wrapped her arms around Jeri.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Riley, meanwhile, turned to Takato. “Getting re-acquainted?” Takato couldn't tell if she was joking.

“Mom, do I really have to go?” Jeri asked.

Aya did not react. Finally, she separated herself from the embrace and looked Jeri in the eye. Sadly, she nodded. “Yes. You're not safe here.”

“But...”

“I'm sorry, but they say you're in a lot of danger right now.”

“I don't want to go back home,” Jeri said, looking past her mother at Takato, who merely frowned and folded his arms.

“You're not necessarily going home, Jeri.” Riley's comment drew looks from both Takato and Jeri. Takato for the first part. Jeri because she heard the name again. “Right now, that may put you into even more danger. We don't want that.”

“No, she's going back with us,” Takato insisted.

Riley turned to him, clearly unhappy with his “Takato, we can't jump to a decision here. Especially with her.”

“I don't care. There's no point in me going back if she's still here.”

Riley was quick to retort with a slightly raised voice. “There's no point in you going back period if there's nothing to go back to.”

Takato refused to respond. He had already established why he was going, and there was no point in making the same argument to justify Jeri tagging along.

Aya knelt. She lowered her voice, but Takato and Riley could still hear it. “Listen, this is too important to take chances. I want you to go with them.”

“But Mom, I'm not...” Jeri's desperation was setting in. She couldn't finish.

“That doesn't matter. Right now what matters is who everybody thinks you are. And if that's not Mari, you won't be safe here. Let's go in your room and talk about this.”

Jeri nodded and they left Riley to continue berating Takato. “Look, I understand that you don't want to live at the expense of your friends. But we don't even know if we have a fighting chance yet. I'm not going to let you drag someone else down too. If Jeri wants to live with the knowledge that you and everybody else are dead, she can go ahead and try.”

“So you agree that she should go back?” Takato replied.

“I didn't-” Riley stopped and looked away angrily. Takato resisted the urge to smirk; he could tell she saw things his way. “There are far too many factors to consider. Maybe it would be a good idea to have her along, maybe not. But she's not responsible for any of this. And I'm not forcing anyone to risk their lives.”

Takato stood firm. “We're going to beat this. She's going to help us. Whether she wants to or not.”

Riley shook her head and fell into the couch. Her head fell back against the top of the couch and she stared at the ceiling for a few moments. Then her eyes began to close as exhaustion began to set in. Takato knew she had gotten maybe one good night of sleep since learning about his capture. She was working far too hard to be capable of handling any additional stress. Takato was still adamant about Jeri going along, but in doing so he was causing nothing but problems for Riley.

“I'm sorry. You were right. I shouldn't have come along.”

She didn't move. For a second, Takato thought she hadn't heard him. Then came the reply: “It's okay. Imagine the argument waiting for us back in Tachikawa. At least I know where you stand. Wait until Tally and Mari weigh in.”

Takato let her have the last word. Jeri and Aya were returning anyway. Jeri had a fresh streak of tears on her face as she entered the room, carrying a small duffel bag with “Mari” written neatly on one end.


The group back in Tachikawa was surprised by the new addition to the team- more for the fact that Jeri and Aya had pulled it off than anything else. Riley was in no mood to elaborate on her lengthy explanation. As soon as she finished, she asked Tally if she had gotten a new e-mail. Riley was in the office the moment Tally nodded.

Takato noticed that the genuine Mari said little. She remained on the couch as Tally, Janyuu and Rob marveled at the other “simulated being” that had broken through. But Mari did not move, and stared straight ahead at the dark television screen.

After the initial shock, Tally was the first to smile. “Leave it to Aya to have a surprise for us.”

“So what do we do with her?”

“She's going in, too,” Takato stated, drawing unhappy looks from Tally and Janyuu. He knew this argument was bound to happen again and was already prepared for it.

“I don't know if that's such a good idea,” Tally said.

“Doesn't matter.”

“Takato let's think about this. I understand your thought process, but your world may not be the safest place right now,” Janyuu said.

Takato shook his head. They still lacked faith. “Look, we can beat this. I know we can.”

“Well, Riley's seeing about that. But I don't know if having...” Tally stopped and looked at Jeri, who had been silent the whole time. Smiling, she said, “Jeri, why don't you have a seat in the living room? Let us know if you need anything.”

“Okay,” Jeri said. Takato barely heard her. She squeezed past Tally and Janyuu, and sat on the couch next to Mari. Mari did not acknowledge her.

“Like I was saying...” Tally lowered her voice, taking a second glance at Jeri to make sure she was out of earshot, “If we are going up against D-Reaper, call me crazy, but I don't think it's the worst idea in the world to keep Jeri away from that thing.”

Slightly offended, Takato asked, “You don't trust us to keep her safe?”

Janyuu shook his head. “At this point, we can't rely on anything. It's great that we have a plan, but you know something will go wrong, and I don't want it to be at her expense.”

“Besides, what does Jeri think?” Tally asked.

Takato pushed past Tally and headed into the living room. “I don't care what Jeri thinks,” he said as he sat in the chair.

Tally followed immediately. “Listen, Takato, you can be as gung-ho as you want about this, but not everybody is willing to sacrifice their lives. I really want to help you, but I have no intention of dying. And I'd be surprised if Riley didn't feel the same way.”

Sounding a little calmer than Tally, Janyuu said, “Try to understand that once you go in there, you and Jeri can't go back. If we lose, you two are history.”

“I agree with Takato. She too should go in,” Mari said suddenly. Takato, Tally and Janyuu all looked at her as soon as she made the sudden comment. Jeri did not.

“Why do you say that?”

“One of our biggest problems last time was the lack of knowledge about D-Reaper. Certainly our combined experiences with it will help us overcome it a second time. And who knows D-Reaper better than anybody else?” Mari turned to the answer. Jeri continued to face forward, although her breathing got deeper and her eyebrows furrowed a little.

“That's asking a bit much,” Tally said, “I mean maybe Jeri doesn't want to remember what she went through.” As she faced Jeri, she asked, “I imagine that was a pretty bad experience for you, right?”

Everybody stared at Jeri, waiting for a response. None came.

“I'll take that as a yes,” Tally said.

Straightening his glasses, Janyuu attempted to offer some rationality. “Well, unless she really wants to go in, I say we keep her here. If we really need inside information, she can work with whoever is staying here.”

“No. She has to come with us,” Takato insisted. He just wanted this to be over, one way or another, “I know that we can do this, and I know that Jeri can help. But if not, I don't want any remnants of it. I know you think that if one of us stays alive you're accomplishing something. But I can't be Takato here, and she can't be Jeri. So what's the point? Win or lose- I just want to make things right.”

As he looked around the room, nobody seemed to react. Mari and Jeri still stared blankly. Janyuu tried not to make eye contact with Takato. Tally was facing away from the group. After a few seconds, she turned around, suddenly furious.

“Who gives a damn about making things right?!” Her outburst caught everybody off guard; even Mari and Jeri broke out of their trances and looked up at the fuming woman as she walked up to Takato. “Listen Takato, we aren't here to make things right! We aren't trying to restore order. That's what Yasuo wants! 'Right' means you never existed. 'Right' means Jeri never existed. 'Right' means that my husband and Mari's father are stuck in exile for eternity!” Takato had never seen Tally this angry. Her entire face was contorted in ways he didn't think she was capable of. “I could not care less about making this right, Takato. That's not what your world's about. Your world was our chance to make things better. And if that's not possible, then forgive me for trying to keep a couple people alive.”

As soon as she finished, she walked away. Janyuu put a hand on her shoulder. Nobody dared to say anything in response- except for Riley, who burst out of the office and immediately looked at Tally. “Was that you, Tally?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Tally replied, suddenly meek, “Just had to get a few things off my chest.”

Janyuu continued to pat her on the shoulder. “It's okay, Tally. I can understand the kind of stress you're all going through.”

Takato remained unmoved by it all. He knew what he had to do, and no talk of changing the world was going to stop him. “Are we ready to go?” he asked Riley.

Riley was still watching Tally. “Uh...” She finally shook it off and turned to Takato, “Yeah. Everything's set to go. I figure we have about 18 hours to set up everything we need.”

Takato jumped out of the chair and walked up to Riley. “Then let's go.”

“So what about Jeri?” Tally asked.

“I don't feel like any more arguments,” Riley said, walking up to Jeri, “Jeri, it's your choice. I don't care either way. But I need to hear it from you.”

Jeri looked up at Riley. Nobody said a word as they waited for her response. Then it came: “What's the point of staying here? If I have to be Jeri Katou... I guess I have to be Jeri Katou.”

“You do not have to be Jeri Katou. You can stay here and Tally will figure something out for you.”

“But I can't be Mari Izumi?”

For that, Riley looked over at Mari, who answered with an emphatic “No.”

Riley continued to glare at Mari. “Does that mean you're going to be Mari?”

“Of course.”

“Then start acting like it and call your mother.”

Mari backed away as Riley turned back to Jeri. “So you're coming then?”

“If I can't be Mari, there's no reason to stay. I'll be Jeri.” Her voice remained low and she didn't look happy with the decision.

Riley took a deep breath, then extended a hand. “Okay. Let's go.”

After staring at the outstretched palm for a moment, Jeri gently placed her right hand on it. Joined by Takato, they went into the office area. Tally, Janyuu and Mari followed, with Tally and Janyuu taking their positions at the computers.

Riley took a laptop computer off the desk and with her free hand, directed Takato and Jeri to stand in front of her. Tally was already entering commands into the computer.

“Everything's good to go. I'm assuming you've got something in that laptop that can contact us?”

“Yes. I put everything I need on here. Just make sure the port stays open and let us know if you notice anything strange.”

Tally turned around and nodded, forcing her usual smile as she looked at Riley, “Take care, okay?”

Riley nodded in return. Tally then turned to Takato. He wasn't sure if she was still mad until she hugged him. That made it clear- she was. He could feel her frustration as she clutched him one last time.

“You too, Takato. Don't do anything stupid. If something bad happens to you or Jeri, I'm not going to forgive you.”

He could only bow his head and let her put everything into the embrace. Finally, she let go and returned to the computer.

Janyuu was next, but he merely set a hand on Takato's shoulder and said, “Good luck. I know we made a bit of a mess in there, but if anybody can clean it up, it's you and Riley.”

“Thanks,” Takato replied. D-Reaper was one thing, but explaining everything to his friends was going to be another feat entirely.

With a faint smile, Janyuu added, “I also hear you've gotten into the business of telling kids their parents aren't really dead...”

Takato returned the smile. “I'll tell them. I'm not sure if they'll believe me, but I'll tell them.”

“Thank you.”

Janyuu took his seat at one of the computers and he and Tally began entering code. After so many years, they still seemed to know exactly what to do. Takato felt Riley's hand on his shoulder, bringing him closer to her. He looked over at Jeri, silently facing forward, clutching her duffel bag. Riley was drawing her in too. They were soon immersed in a pale green light, and while his feet were still resting on the floor, Takato felt like he was moving.

“Close your eyes,” Riley said.

Takato did. He couldn't see the process, but he could certainly feel it. His hands began to go numb, then his arms. Pretty soon he felt his legs begin to go as well. He kept his eyes closed and braved the process as the rest of his body turned into data- back into data, just like when he started.

To Be Continued in Stage Three- “Return”


Author's Notes
I am not too worried about the response to the Takato/Jeri scene. It helps to know that most of the readers seem to be Rukato fans, or at least the most vocal ones. This stage may not go down as one of Takato's finer moments, but after everything that has happened to him, I'd be pissed too.

This is the first and only stage to share a name with one of the layers from Lain. I didn't realize that until watching the series again, and didn't like the idea of repeating actual titles (since stages are named in such a similar fashion). But it's just too appropriate for this chapter.

Aya would certainly not be a stranger to Riley. Although not necessary a computer expert, Aya certainly has an interest in the field and is no slouch in conversations. As a result, she's perfect for Izzy: she even has her own word. By the way, “ineffable” means indescribable.

There's a lot to be said about Tally and her little outburst, or Mari's complete lack of any compassion for Jeri. Neither of the two have really been looked at much. Believe me, I'm not done with them, even if they are staying behind.

This ends Level 3: Stage Two of The Connection.