Level 3: Experiments

Stage Six- Bond

“I'm going to... talk a walk.”

Her last words to him still echoed in Takato's head. He had known Michi for more than a month, and never saw her as anything other than a strong and capable friend. There was just one exception- that final moment when she saw him with Mari. That was the only time he had ever seen her differently. Whether it was because of him or something that had come out of her conversation with Mima that day, Michi had been thrown off track. Now, she was serving as D-Reaper's source.

That last moment constantly replayed in Takato's head as he lied, alone, in one of the designated break rooms. His only visitor had been Matt, who assured Takato that what happened to Michi was nobody's fault. But what did Matt know? He didn't go to Japan with Takato and Michi. He wasn't in that hotel room either. Although Takato didn't know what triggered Michi to be in such distress, he was confident that regular “New York” Michi, the one that existed before he entered her life, would not have been in enough pain to be useful to D-Reaper.

Takato heard a knock on the door, but didn't respond. Nobody understood what he was going through, therefore there was no point in anyone attempting to comfort him. The door opened anyway; he continued to stare at the ceiling without bothering to see who entered.

“Takato?” he heard the faint voice and recognized it as Jeri's. She shut the door behind her. “Are you going to be okay?”

Her presence didn't help. It only served to remind him that Michi was simply case number two. He was still directly responsible for Jeri becoming the source the first time. She had told him countless times that she didn't blame him for what had happened, but never denied the fact that he could have prevented it. Between everything that had happened since then, there was also no way to deny that Jeri's life had basically been ruined by the experience. That reminded Takato that even if Michi were to be saved, she would have similar hardships afterwards.

“I don't think so,” he mumbled.

Jeri dropped to her knees next to him, but he didn't dare look up at her. He had enough trouble dealing with the second girl he helped doom, he didn't want the first.

Without saying a word, Jeri leaned forward and embraced him. She held her head up, though, using her right hand to guide his head onto her shoulder.

“This isn't your fault,” she whispered into his ear, “It isn't anybody's fault. This happened for a reason.”

He wanted so much to close his eyes and feel better, but he couldn't believe her. Jeri could never fully absolve him after she became the source; she knew nothing about Michi or her situation.

“You didn't know her,” he said, softly but with a firm edge to his words, “The way she sounded, she just wanted to come with me for fun. I should have said no. She wasn't prepared for all of this.”

Jeri closed her eyes and shook her head, but what surprised Takato was the serene smile on her face. “No... she wasn't. I also remember how she looked that night at the hotel.”

Takato's eyes opened wider. He had forgotten who else was in that hotel room- Mari. It seemed like a different reality, but it was real and only a week ago that he and Jeri were known as Koji and Mari.

“Even if it was you and I that brought out the darkness in her, we didn't put it there. Just by looking at her, I could tell that it was something she had been suppressing for a long time. I don't know what it is, but that is feeding D-Reaper. It would have come out eventually. It's just unfortunate that it happened now.”

He couldn't fully grasp what Jeri was trying to insinuate, but her words still made an impact. He leaned back and looked up at her. Her smile had vanished long ago, but even her straight face beamed something that surprised Takato- confidence. Right or wrong, Jeri was certain about her thoughts on Michi, and determined to make Takato realize the same thing. That strength, more than the words or gestures themselves, touched him.

He let his head fall into her shoulder again. “So what now?” he whispered.

Gently stroking his hair, she calmly answered, “Now you sleep. The world will still be here when you wake up. We'll make sure of it.”

True, this whole mess would also still be here when he woke up, but at the moment he didn't care. He wanted to fall back and fall asleep, but he couldn't: he couldn't let go of any force to let himself fall back because he wasn't exerting any to begin with. Jeri was holding him up.

He looked up again. Confident or not, supporting him or not, she was still in pain. How could she not be with everything going on? “Sorry I brought you here. Sorry to put you through this again.”

She shook her head as a faint tear fell. “No... you were right. No matter what this world has done to us, or what will happen to it, it's my home. I belong here.”

Jeri closed her eyes and tilted her head slightly to her right. As she leaned forward, Takato felt himself finally falling backwards. His eyes gravitated towards the ceiling as her lips met his. He did not move, he did not blink, and for one brief moment he did not think. His mind was clear as his head met the floor, still cushioned by Jeri's hand.

She released herself from the kiss and stared him in the eyes. Takato could not tell whether she was still in pain- his mind was clear.

“We belong here,” she whispered as he drifted off to sleep.

In the other break room, Riley lied on the couch, in no better shape than Takato. She, too, had a companion- Matt, who had been silently sitting at her feet for the longest time. She watched him, intently, waiting for him to turn to her and say something uplifting. Only every time he turned, one look at her sent him away again.

Riley didn't need his body language to tell her that he and the other Chosen were flustered by the turn of events. After drawing them here and doing her best to convince them that this whole operation was infallible, she couldn't possibly face them now. Riley hadn't counted on another source, and while she wouldn't describe their chances as hopeless, they were certainly facing an uphill battle now. She already felt guilty enough for bringing the group in and trapping them here; hearing it directly from them, especially the few that never liked her much to begin with, was too much.

Matt was the exception. While he said nothing, and seemed as dismayed as her over everything, she was still glad to have him there. Whatever Sora or Tai had felt about their brief escapade decades ago, Matt certainly had done his best to turn on his charm and Riley had done little to prevent herself from falling for it. It was ultimately a minor side note in both of their lives, but she was still comforted by the presence of one familiar and friendly face in the room with her.

He still wasn't speaking, though, and it was beginning to bother Riley. She knew he wasn't the most outgoing person, and she had always been a little attracted to that side of him, but it was starting to get ridiculous. Her mind was too overwhelmed and too exhausted to take any sort of a leadership role, but by entering the room Matt had nominated himself to either snap her out of it or take charge himself. He was doing neither, and for a moment that bothered her almost as much as any poor girl stuck inside D-Reaper.

“Well, are you going to say anything or not?” She finally caught herself saying.

He blinked. “I was all set to come in here and chew you out about this whole thing and blame you for letting that thing get Michi and everything... but I can't.”

“Michi? She's the source?” Riley sat up and stared at him as he eyed the ground.

“Takato went in and found out.” He shook his head. “I don't know what to make of it.”

The magnitude finally sank in and she began to fall. She clutched the back of the couch on the way down. “Ken and Yolei were supposed to be watching her,” she mumbled.

“Don't worry about it,” he muttered.

“What do you mean? That's your daughter.”

“And we're going to get her back. That much is given.”

Riley was amazed that Matt could seem so complacent over this. Whether it was the twelve years of separation, the quiet confidence that she would be rescued or the general ignorance of what was really happening to Michi, Riley was still calmed by Matt's cool attitude over this. He was right: it didn't change the situation- only increased the stakes.

“I'm really sorry I pulled you all into this,” she said.

As he shook his head, Riley noticed a small smile creep on his face. “You know, I don't believe that this world could be dismissed as some sort of rebellious science experiment,” he said, “I mean, this world is as real as it gets. And Digimon are here and interacting with really good kids. If this place is responsible for creating Takato and Rika and them, I can see why you find it so special. It's definitely worth saving.”

For a moment, Riley found herself smiling. It was hard not to; he had echoed almost all of her feelings. At the same time, though, it didn't solve the main problem:

“Think the rest of them will buy that?”

“They already do. Takato really made an impression on us, and we're all too stubborn to mope around and let the world end. It's just a matter of boosting their spirits.”

Riley sighed. She had always been about planning and execution. Boosting morale was never her strong point; that was more Tally's department.

Just as Riley noticed that Matt still had that little smile, it vanished. Come to think of it, spirit had never been his forte either.

“So how do you boost their spirits with your daughter captive?” she asked, grimly.

“No idea,” he muttered, “I wish Tai were here.”

Riley turned away. As the only honest link between her and the Chosen, Tai would have been a great rally flag. However, as his wife, Riley had a different relationship with him than the other Chosen. This difference was significant here because of some very intense feelings she had about the MAXIS. Feelings she wasn't sure she wanted to share.

Matt shook his head and continued his thought. “He'd have us all convinced this was in the bag. That thing could be the size of Tokyo and he'd still think we were winning.”

“You know, in a way, Tai is here,” Riley said, choosing her words carefully. Matt turned to her, making her all the more nervous. “As you said, this world should have been exactly what Tai would have wanted. Between the attitudes of the Tamers and the way we're all trying to fight back against Yasuo...” She lost momentum suddenly and trailed off. She couldn't end with her true opinion. Instead, she concluded with a weak “Don't you think?”

Matt smiled again. “I can see where you're coming from. Yeah, Tai would like this place.” He stood up and didn't notice her frown. “So let's go save it.”

Riley sat up, still frowning. “I wish it were that easy. Unfortunately, most of our plans are currently useless now that D-Reaper has a source.”

“Your point?” Matt said, this time with a half-smile.

Riley stared back. It was a typically reckless statement; she would have lectured him on proper planning had she not been so charmed by it.

Leaning against the back wall, Matt explained: “Remember back at your wedding reception when I threw Sora at Tai to steal a dance with you?”

She opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. It certainly was a random flashback.

“I remember saying something along the lines of my feelings for you being just simple physical attraction, while Tai actually loved you.”

“Uh huh?” Riley replied, still not guessing at its relevance.

“I lied.” A broad smile flashed on Matt's face. “Riley, do you remember the way you ran Tai's campaign for Digital World ambassador? Nobody on Earth had a clue how a Digital World election was going to work, or even if it would work. And then you just charge in and help Tai run away with the thing.” Matt shrugged. “So we don't know what D-Reaper's capable of. It's never stopped you before.”

Riley smiled and stood up. He was right about all of that- she had always handled the unpredictable well. With a motivated support team of seven Chosen and five Tamers, she would just have to do it again.

Hugging him, she said, “Remember when you said that and I agreed with you? That you and I were just skin-deep?”

“Yeah?” he replied, releasing her. “Were you lying too?”

She headed to the door, turning back once to reply, “Not at the time.”

To Ken, an evening of fine dining didn't seem to be a fitting punishment for his mistakes. He was surrounded by lavishly-dressed people enjoying lavishly-expensive food, while he was still coming to terms with the fact that he had just delivered Mimi's stepdaughter to Yasuo.

In the midst of the whole mess, he had missed lunch. Therefore, he was famished, and sipped his wine impatiently as he waited for his wife.

Ken's present company was not distracting him very well. Davis and Maho Motomiya were also growing restless at the absence of Yolei, only they were showing it by trading equally benign stories with each other. Davis always managed to put some zest into his tales from atop the corporate ladder; Maho, on the other hand, was never much of a storyteller. The love of Davis's life turned out to be someone nobody had expected- a calm, rational and intelligent woman.

Unfortunately, compared to Davis she was also quite boring. Thankfully, as soon as Maho stopped talking, Davis jumped in. “Hey, is something bugging you?” he asked Ken.

Ken sighed. He didn't want to bring it up until Yolei had arrived, but he couldn't wait any longer: “Is there anything else about Koji and Michi that I should know about?”

Davis hesitated, then looked down at his drink. A chuckle escaped before he replied, “They are legit. Let's just leave it at that.”

It was the same answer Ken received when the two had arrived. “What do you mean by that, Davis? You know what kind of danger they would be in if they were up to something.”

Davis smiled. It was that trademark cocky smile that had won him so many admirers. “Exactly how it sounds, Ken. They are legit.” Nodding, he added, “They are legitimately up to something.”

Ken's eyes widened and he almost dropped his wine glass. Maho glanced at Davis, then buried her face in her hands.

“The whole reason Chiaki set that meeting up was for you to make sure they weren't up to something. We needed to know so we could stop them before they did anything risky,” Ken said.

Davis pointed to Ken, still smiling. “Here's the problem with that, Ken. What if they were up to something so awesome that it was worth the risk?”

Ken shook his head. His hand was also shaking. “Their lives are in danger. I don't see-”

“It's that awesome.”

Ken stopped shaking and leaned in. He needed to hear Davis explain this. Not that he doubted Davis's decision, but because the rationality was likely so profoundly insane that only Davis could have seen it.

“I wanted them to put their lives on the line. I told them they were. And they were happy to jump right in. That's how big this was.”

Ken sighed. “Okay... so what's the big secret?”

“Turns out there's still a few Chosen protecting the Digital World after all.”

Ken closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Davis may have tried to make it sound like a big revelation, but it wasn't the first time the issue had arisen. It seemed like a lot of build-up for old news.

“Are you talking about Kari and them?” Maho asked.

“Yep,” Davis replied, “Koji and Michi were delivering the news personally. Sorry I couldn't tell you, but I didn't want Yasuo to think you weren't telling him something.”

“Davis, we've all figured out by now that we haven't been getting the whole story,” Ken said, “The circumstances are too suspicious and Yasuo has been too paranoid. But do you really think spreading around a bunch of rumors again will help?”

“How about conclusive proof directly from the seven?”

“What, from before they were sent to New York?”

Davis smiled again. “How about straight from the Digital World?”

Ken planted both his hands on the table and leaned over it to face Davis. “They got a message through?”

“Better. They got Koji through.”

“How? We can't get anyone through the barrier; I can't imagine them being able to get anybody out.”

Davis shrugged. “Didn't ask. I don't sweat the details.” He tilted his head at his wife. “That's Maho's job.”

Maho chuckled. Ken sunk back in his seat and clutched his forehead again. “Davis, how do you know Koji was telling the truth? It's so unlikely. He could have been lying for any number of reasons.”

“True. For all we know, he could have been saying it just to get into Michi's pants,” Maho said, smiling at Davis. “Sounds like something you'd try.”

“Hey, no making fun of Davis without me!” The trio all found Yolei approaching the table. Surprisingly exuberant, she sat down next to Ken and smiled. “Sorry I'm late.”

“How did it go?” Ken asked, as he poured wine into her glass.

“Great,” Yolei boasted, before scrutinizing the bottle Ken was holding. “Maho, I thought you were keeping his checkbook under control. What's with this wine?”

Maho shrugged. “I couldn't stop him. We need to get together more often like this.”

As Yolei downed a healthy gulp of her drink, Davis asked her, “So where were you?”

“Oh...” Yolei chuckled and set her glass down, “I just had a lovely chat with Aya.”

Davis held up a hand. Although he smiled, he was definitely serious when he said, “If it was about a certain big revelation she and Mari heard last week, I already know.”

Yolei raised her eyebrows, her smile fading. “You already know about you-know-who not being you-know-what?”

Davis nodded. “And they're you-know-where? Old news to me.”

“So Aya found out from Michi and Koji?” Ken asked.

“Nope,” Yolei replied, taking another drink, “Turns out your online girlfriend Riley Kamiya was in town yesterday.”

Ken's eyes widened. Yolei didn't stop. “She had a boy with her, and Aya says Mari introduced him as Koji.”

“So Riley's involved with all this now?” Maho asked.

“Yeah, apparently.” Yolei huffed, “I don't like her doing this. Especially getting Michi involved.”

Ken was just angry that if she was on the ground floor, Riley had never shared any information with him. With Yolei hearing the news from Aya, Ken was officially the last to know what was going on. However, he didn't feel that voicing this would be productive, and let the conversation pause as the waitress served the main course.

Before Yolei could comment on what Ken had ordered for her, he made another observation: “Honey, you said Koji was with Riley?”

Yolei turned to Ken, narrowing an eye. “Aya did, yeah. So he must have gotten out somehow.”

“Out from where?” Davis asked.

Ken sighed and explained, “Last week, Koji and Michi were separated by something. Chiaki found Michi and brought her to us, but she's been so distraught over the whole thing that we didn't get any information. I found out that Koji was picked up a day or two later, and Yasuo made us bring Michi in this morning.”

Davis's mouth fell open and he started to bow his head. “If he found out half of what they told you, she's in a lot of trouble right now,” Ken said, grimly.

“Wait... those two told you what was going on?” Yolei said, raising her voice a little too much. Enough for Maho to shush her.

Davis could only nod sadly. “Yeah. Koji said he was in the Digital World and had proof. Michi was just along for the ride, but she was definitely helping him out. I was going to tell you two after they left. Sorry.”

Yolei shook her head, but continued to stare at Davis. “You were trying to keep us safe from Yasuo, weren't you?” Davis nodded. Yolei continued, “I guess Mimi was too. Sounded like she organized this trip and didn't tell me squat.”

“Does Mimi know what happened to Michi?”

“No. I can't bear to tell her. Knowing her she'd jump on the first plane over here, take out all three of us and save Michi herself.”

“Even so, having her over here wouldn't be the worst thing,” Ken said, deliberately, “We have a boy who claims to have come from the Digital World and somehow escaped Yasuo. This is huge. We need to find Koji and Riley, and I think we'd be well-served having all four remaining Chosen here.”

“Well, finding Koji will be pretty hard at this point,” Yolei said, swirling the last few drops of wine around in her glass.

“Don't worry, I'll find them. If they're in Japan, I can-”

She shook her head. “They're not in Japan.” She leaned in towards Ken and smiled, silenty asking Ken to refill her glass. “The stuff about our friends in the Digital World? That wasn't the weird part.”

“There's more?” Davis asked, already interested.

Yolei raised an eyebrow at him. “Davis, did you bother to question how Koji got into the Digital World?”

Davis raised his hands, instantly defensive. “Look, Ken asked me the same thing and-”

“Aya told me,” Yolei proclaimed, silencing Davis and drawing curious looks from Ken and Maho. “Here's where it gets crazy.”

She waited for the three to lean in, then raised her glass and said, “Koji's from an alternate world.”

Ken and Davis leaned back, then looked at each other in disbelief. Maho simply stood there, raised her eyebrows and replied, “Excuse me?”

Davis let it sink in for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. I could see that.”

As Maho turned to Davis, her mouth agape, Yolei continued, “His real name is apparently Takato Matsuki.”

“Takato Matsuki? Why does that sound familiar?” Ken asked.

“Wasn't that a character in TK's book? The one I thought was based on me?” Davis said, ignoring his wife.

His wife bitterly replied, “Yes, but you also thought Takuya was based on you. You probably also thought Tai was based on you.”

Yolei chuckled, but continued to explain: “Apparently Izzy's old chums made this world to see if humans and Digimon could co-exist again. Somehow a gate to the Digital World opened, and Koji got through it and hooked up with the others.”

“Really?” Davis said slowly and loudly. Suddenly he was the one surprised. “So was that American professor guy, what was it, Bob? Was that his thing?”

“Rob,” Yolei corrected, with a nod, “But yes it was. Did you know about this world?”

Davis barely constrained a laugh. “Hell, I think I paid for it. This place is inside a computer or something, right?”

Yolei opened her mouth, then buried her face in her hand. “You mean you know about that too?”

“Not at all. I haven't talked to Rob about it in forever. Last time I checked, he said it wasn't going so well. For all I know, the project ended five years ago.”

“Well, Davis, are you still paying for it?” Ken asked.

Davis scoffed. “Damned if I know. You'll have to ask the person who writes my checks.”

He quickly turned to the person who wrote his checks. “Honey?”

Maho nodded. “You haven't told me to stop, so I keep sending them money. It's a tax write-off anyway, so what the heck?”

Davis shrugged. “There you go.”

“Riley probably sent Koji back then. So what about Michi?” Ken said to Yolei.

“Michi never came up,” Yolei replied, “But this at least tells us what we're dealing with.”

“Actually, it only helps if Yasuo and Michi are somehow tied to this world too,” Maho pointed out.

“Yasuo is. Aya says that's another reason he was looking for Koji. And Yasou's the kind of sleazeball that would use Michi to catch him.”

Ken cleared his throat. “That's getting into conjecture, which doesn't help. But even if Michi isn't involved with this place, the more we know about it, the more likely we are to use it to our advantage.”

“What, you thinking we can use that world to bring him down?” Davis asked, flashing a grin.

“Depends on what he's doing. If his involvement with this world is anything like his involvement with the Chosen, there could be something we can use to take him out of the picture and find Michi.”

“Like what?” Maho asked.

Ken looked at her for a moment. He didn't actually have an answer. His gut reaction, however, told him that if Koji was indeed incurring Yasuo's wrath somehow, that would likely involve some sort of criminal activity. Even if punishing him was an impossibility (this, after all, was the same person who had made Jim Kido disappear), catching him in the act could at least buy them some time.

To actually make a move against Yasuo, however, two things were clearly necessary: one was evidence of a crime; the second was enough courage to fight the establishment that had suppressed the lives of him and his friends for far too long.

“I don't know,” Ken finally answered, “But I just might be able wrestle the right information out of an old acquaintance.”

“Who?” Yolei asked.

Ken looked at his plate and grinned. “You guys probably don't know him. But if there's another world out there where kids are uniting with Digimon, I bet he'd know about it.”

Neither Mari nor Tally slept much that night. As with the previous night, they took shifts to be on call in case of an emergency in the MAXIS, but the idle world did more to cure their insomnia than cause it.

Mari's shift had been over for almost two hours, but she could only stare at the digital clock at the edge of her futon, counting the minutes past 4:00.

“400,” she whispered as time carried her further and further away from it.

Was it presumptuous of her to think she was the only one who could unleash the power of bio-merging upon the MAXIS? Mari had never been proven wrong: her sole mission had been to make the bio-merge a reality. Her method had been building enough of a bond with Dobermon to understand how to encode the ability into the world. She did reach a breakthrough while the Tamers were in the Digital World. Of course, as she had no contact with them, she had not known about them until after everything had ended.

In fact, while everybody had been scrambling and trying to deal with D-Reaper's rapid emergence in the real world, Mari had been preparing to take what she thought was the first leap. While the researchers fiddled with arks and communications devices, she was about to become one-half of the ultimate weapon. She had visions of what her bio-merge with Dobermon would look like, and was waiting for the right time to enter the fray.

The right time had arrived too soon, unfortunately. Her synch level with Dobermon was just shy of the necessary mark and the Tamers needed support immediately. Therefore, the first time they had faced the Tamers, all she had was a message. Dobermon had a purpose.

She had been researching ways to give the Tamers the ability to bio-merge in the real world. Before she could protest, Dobermon chose the simple solution: he had been created specifically for bio-merging, and sharing his data gave three others that ability. While Takato, Henry, and Rika suddenly had new life, Mari had suddenly lost part of hers. The Digimon she had loved and the chance to experience the phenomenon she had worked so hard to produce were both gone. As much as she wanted to show anger or resentment at the turn of events, she couldn't. In the end, it had all worked out so well.

The clock was almost approaching five. Mari could only accept the truth- Dobermon was gone, taking with him the power to grant the bio-merge, especially to his own partner. The moment five o'clock struck, Mari accepted the fact that sleep was no longer an option. She decided to take over for Tally and consume whatever information the MAXIS had to offer. Mari sat up and pulled herself out of the futon. As her bare feet eased along the carpet towards the door, she heard a soft moan on the other side of the room. Turning around, Mari saw that Tally had already deserted her post and was tucked into her bed, clutching a pillow as she faced away from the door.

“TK...” she mumbled.

Somehow, Mari knew that Tally was awake too, worrying about something equally important.

Yet, somehow Mari smiled.

The din of whirring cooling fans and flashing indicator lights made Mari feel more comfortable. As intent as she was on following the recent developments in the MAXIS, the soothing warmth of technology lulled Mari to sleep.

The smell of coffee and a tap on the shoulder woke her a few hours later. After rubbing her eyes and recalling where she was, Mari nodded and accepted the steaming mug from Tally.

“Sorry I left my post,” Tally said, “But nothing was happening and I just couldn't keep my eyes open.”

Mari sipped her coffee without responding. She wasn't about to judge Tally; she had tried to follow the action and still fell asleep. Although she had initially found it surprising that Rika and Kazu alone could keep D-Reaper in check, the lack of any serious momentum for either side (and the lack of any visuals of the battle) failed to keep Mari entertained for long.

Now the indicators continued to suggest that Renamon and Andromon were fighting. Only somewhere during Mari's nap, Leomon and Veemon must have joined in. Despite the added firepower, the battle was still at a standstill.

“Anything interesting?” Tally asked.

Mari took another drink. “No. Michi slept peacefully.” Despite her lack of emotion in the statement, it was a noticeable and hopefully useful trait- Michi appeared to be a content sleeper. Had she encountered a bout of nightmares, D-Reaper would have probably overwhelmed the entire resistance before dawn.

Tally leaned against the door and drank from her own cup. Casually, she asked, “What do you think their chances are?”

Mari was equally casual in her reply. “Over the long term, it doesn't draw as much energy from Michi as it did Jeri. Unless it finds some way of torturing her, I doubt it can last against a sustained assault.”

Tally frowned. “Torture? How can you say that so lightly?”

“Whatever it used against Jeri worked. Therefore-”

“That's not what I mean. Now that they know she's in there, Matt and Sora won't keep her in for long. They'll come up with some big rescue operation and once Michi's safe the rest is easy.”

“They already tried,” Mari replied, “Yesterday evening, remember? I doubt it was a coincidence that the captive's mother was the one with the spiking synch level.”

Tally paused and glanced at the monitors. “I suppose. But one lost battle doesn't mean anything.”

“It means the bond between Sora and her daughter was not enough. Therefore, to answer your question- their chances are not good.

In frustration, Tally raised her voice a notch. “But you just said D-Reaper wouldn't last against a sustained assault. How's that not good?”

Mari turned to the screen listing the synch levels. “They are too driven by emotion to consider a sustained assault. They want Michi out now, and their desperate rescue attempts will be their undoing.”

Tally scoffed. “So get online and tell Riley.” She added, bitterly, “I'm sure she'd love telling that to Sora.”

Mari pulled her chair up to the computer. “This is all conjecture. The only way to gauge D-Reaper properly is to be there in person. Or perhaps Riley knows this and the others aren't listening.”

“If you're trying to suggest that we're pretty useless right now, I agree. But there's not much we can do besides telling Riley any information we have.”

“Unless the key is a different parent/child combination.”

It took a moment for Tally to figure it out, but her heavy sigh made it clear that she did. “You want to go in, don't you?”

Mari set her hands on the keyboard. She thought about abandoning the conversation in favor of a round of routine system checks, but she couldn't force her fingers to move.

“It's unfair that my father and his companions are in there fighting while we have to sit and watch.”

“We're also not going to die if we lose,” replied Tally.

“Exactly. Thus making it unfair. We should be standing alongside them. Don't you feel the same way?”

Mari looked Tally in the eyes. Tally quickly averted them and asked “Now who's too driven by emotion?”

“If everybody inside is going to be, why shouldn't I?” Mari replied, downright defiant.

Tally cracked a smile. “For starters, there's no way in. You'd go straight to Hypnos HQ, which is pretty much a dead zone now.”

This got Mari's fingers moving. A quick perusal of the Hypnos system yielded no results, and Tally picked up on that.

“If you're looking for a way to move the gate, forget it. Riley encrypted the Hypnos system extensively. There's no way to change the parameters without the right clearance.”

Mari stopped and again turned to Tally. This time, she added a faint smile. Tally backed away.

“You have clearance from Hypnos, right?”

“Forget it, Mari. I didn't want Takato to go in that deathtrap. I'm not helping you.”

“My father is in that deathtrap.”

Tally held her ground. “Still.”

“Your husband is in that deathtrap.”

Tally glared at Mari, who continued, “We are in the same predicament. You want to be in there as much as I do. And I see no reason why we can't enter together.”

Their eyes remained locked on each other until Tally began to squirm and said, “Promise to quit acting up and start thinking straight once we get inside?”

“I plan to win alongside my father, not die with him.”

Finally, Tally shrugged. “I'll call Janyuu.”


Tally nodded and opened the door. “Somebody's got to keep an eye on this place while we're gone.”

It wasn't until Ken knocked on the door that he realized the chances he was taking. As confident as he had seemed at dinner the night before, the ensuing hours reminded him of how many things could go wrong. For starters, he wasn't sure if the right person was home. If he was, there was also the question of whether Ken could convince him to share enough information.

After the first knock went unanswered, he tried again. Whatever the risk, he was here and was determined to at least try to see his plan through. He heard a latch slide open and the doorknob turn. Ken stepped back and took a deep breath: there was no turning back now.

The young man who answered the door raised a suspicious eyebrow at Ken, but Ken was too dumbstruck to make anything of it. Ken had not seen Ryo in decades, but Ken was surprised at how much he had not changed.

“Ryo Akiyama? I work with your father. My name's Ken Ichijouji, may I come in?” Ken did his best to sound professional, despite the knowledge that this very action marked the beginning of the end of his career.

“Ken Ichijouji?” Ryo repeated, scanning Ken up and down, “You mean Digimon Emperor Ken Ichijouji?”

Ken gritted his teeth; even after almost forty years, he still didn't like that title. However, he convinced himself that Ryo digging up the old memory would prove beneficial and carried on.

“Yeah. Funny you mention that. May I come in?”

Ryo snickered. “If you're looking for Dad, he's at the office.”

“Actually, I was looking for you, Ryo.”

“Me? Why?” Ryo asked, pointing to himself.

“I'll explain inside.”

Ryo thought it over for a moment, but swung the door open and let Ken inside. The Akiyama residence was larger than Ken's house, but Yasuo apparently kept a modest, modern décor. As such, beyond the fact that most of the furnishings were bigger, there was little to suggest that it was the home of one of the most powerful men in Japan. In fact, the whole place seemed a bit too spacious for Ken; he still preferred his and Yolei's house.

Ryo closed the front door and sat down on the couch. “So, Mr. Detective, what are you investigating?”

Ken found a chair across the room and answered, “Let's just say it's a missing persons case. A personal matter, but very serious nonetheless.”

Ryo frowned. “What, and you think Dad has something to do with it?”

Ken sighed, but couldn't say anything. As interesting as Ryo's past had been, his present loyalty was still probably to Yasuo.

Ryo confirmed Ken's fears: “Even if I did know something, I'm not ratting him out, okay?”

Ken nodded, trying to come up with the best way to proceed. Again, the reference to the Digimon Emperor helped. “How much do you know about the Chosen?”

Ryo smiled. “My Dad's not a fan of them, but between you and me- what you guys did back then was pretty impressive.” Ken managed a smile as Ryo added, “I'm pretty up on the digi-destined: read both books. Loved the cartoon too.”

“Cartoon?” Ken replied, suddenly curious.

A brief gasp escaped Ryo as he panicked for a moment. “Uh... Frontier, I mean.” Ken nodded, sated by the explanation. “You know you kinda resemble Koichi.”

Ignoring the remark, Ken continued, “The reason I ask is because I'm looking for Matt and Sora's daughter. Her name's Michi.”

Ryo narrowed his eyes. “Why would I know anything about her?”

“Unfortunately, it may have something to do with Yasuo's dealings. Therefore I'm asking you, as somebody who might be sympathetic to the Chosen, to help us out.”

Raising a hand, and his voice, Ryo said, “Look Ken, I think you guys are cool and all, but don't expect me to help you out just because of that. If if Dad did something to her, and even if I knew about it, I'm not going to turn on him because of something you did forty years ago. After all, I've known Dad all my life. We've just met.”

In spite of himself, Ken smiled brightly. He couldn't have phrased it better.

“Ryo... little trivia question for you: in my first trip to the Digital World, I traveled with another boy. We had a few adventures, ending with a battle with an enemy Digimon. When we defeated him, he unleashed a number of dark spores at us. One was headed straight for this other boy, but I dove in front of him and took it in the neck, creating the Digimon Emperor.”

Ryo stared back with a raised eyebrow, a little dumbfounded. “And?”

“What was the name of that boy?”

Suddenly uncertain of the conversation, Ryo looked around aimlessly. He sighed and walked out of the room. “Hold on...”

With Ryo gone, Ken stretched out in the chair. He was unusually smug, and he typically wasn't one to reveal information in such a dramatic fashion, but if Ryo was such a fan of the Chosen, this was the best way to do it.

He patiently waited the five minutes it took for Ryo come back downstairs with a hardcover copy of TK's book. One page had been flipped open and Ryo was poring over it.

Finally, he slammed the book shut and looked up at Ken. “His name isn't listed anywhere in here. Is this a trick question?”

Ken folded his arms and stared Ryo in the eyes. “His name was Ryo Akiyama.”

The book fell to the floor as Ryo went numb for a moment. He attempted to get his mouth working again, but all he could manage was “M... me?” Ryo's eyes fell down to the legendary bestseller spread open on the floor.

“Seems hard to believe, but trust me- I was there. That was definitely you. You were one of the original digi-destined. A Chosen.”

His eyes still on the book, Ryo mumbled, “Somehow I believe it.” Falling back into the couch, he nodded.

“All I had been told was that I was some Digiworld orphan that was returned to my real family after I died in there.” Ryo spoke clearly now, but still with a nostalgic air. “I should have known it was something bigger than that.”

Ken nodded. In truth, the “Digiworld orphan” story was likely true; Ryo's stubborn refusal to leave the world in the 2010's had been both legendary and quite aggravating to Digimon experts. His death in 2020 had been deemed a fair comeuppance by more than a few researchers. Ken wisely didn't mention any of this to Ryo.

Instead, he drove the point home: “You may not remember your previous life, but it definitely has an impact- you're still as captivated by Digimon as you were then, and given how rebellious you were, I doubt that's changed either.”

“Still not a good reason to turn on Dad though.”

Ken sighed and cracked a light smile. “Okay, here's one- as I said, about 40 years ago we were in the Digital World together and I took a dark spore heading in your direction. I turn into a monster and you end up delaying adulthood for thirty years.” His smile grew as he stood and stared down at Ryo. “Way I see it, Ryo- you owe me a favor.”

Ryo stiffened as he looked up at Ken. His head drooped as he sighed. “Okay, but how do you know I can even help?”

“Given your interest in Digimon, call it a hunch. Know anything about a kid named either Koji Mathews or Takato Matsuki?”

Ryo's head snapped back up at Ken. “Takato?!” he exclaimed.

Despite the breakthrough, Ken resisted the urge to smile. “You know him?”

“Know him?” Ryo sat back and folded his arms. “He gave me a concussion last week. How do you know about Takato?”

“You first, Ryo. I know he's from another world, I know he was caught by Yasuo and later escaped, and I'm hoping that he can help lead me to Michi.” Ken sat back down, still watching the now wide-eyed ex-Tamer. “I want you to fill in the blanks.”

“So he got out after all...” Ryo turned away and took another deep breath. “What is it about him that keeps making me the good guy in the end?”

Ken raised an eyebrow. “I hope that's not a problem. There are lives on the line.”

“Besides mine after Dad's through with me?” Ryo turned back to Ken, then cracked a smile. “Anyway, about this other world...”

Ken sat back and listened as he finally got the explanation he was looking for.

They survived the night.

As basic an accomplishment as it was, it encouraged Riley immensely. Despite Michi's presence, D-Reaper was mostly stagnant through the night- a very good sign. Now, after forcing herself into a few hours of sleep, Riley could see good reason to have hope. As long as Michi was present, battling D-Reaper would be an uphill battle. Lasting the night though, especially with only Rika and Kazu's Digimon mobilized, suggested that success was at least feasible.

Furthermore, Jeri and Takato had joined in somewhere during the night. While the Chosen had all attempted to get some sleep, the Tamers still held their guard. Riley smiled as she realized that Matt was right: these kids were special.

“You're in a good mood.” Riley frowned as she heard a bitter voice, recognizing it immediately as Sora's. She was eyeing the computers as she drank some coffee.

“D-Reaper was inactive overnight. That's a good sign- means it isn't drawing as much energy as it could be.”

“Are we any closer to getting Michi back?” Sora asked, not impressed.

Riley sighed; she hadn't worked a rescue operation into her plans yet, but there was no reason not to. “If we fight it off for another day, we should be able to attempt something tonight.” She turned to Sora, who looked down and nodded. “Why don't you and Matt save your energy for a big strike tonight?”


Leaning back in her chair, Riley yawned. D-Reaper wasn't appearing as strong as initially thought, Sora was momentarily sated, and they now had a tentative rescue plan. Riley knew her feeling of confidence was probably ill-founded, but she let herself have it anyway. After all the misery surrounding the D-Reaper gaining a source, optimism felt damn good, justifiable or not.

All Sora noticed was the yawn. “Didn't sleep much?” she asked, sounding suspicious.

Riley ignored the indirect allegation she drew from the question and answered sincerely, “I haven't slept much all week.”

Sora narrowed an eye. “How long have you been trying to save this place?”

“Since the day Izzy sent Takato to the real world.”

A pause- Riley relished Sora's astonishment. She did not, however, like Sora's reply: “Why? I mean Takato certainly made an impression on us, but why work so hard to sustain a failed experiment?”

Riley almost never explained her full motive for going to such lengths for this world. Even Tally and Mari didn't know the whole story. Given the reason, telling Sora was absolutely out of the question.

“Well, why did you agree to help out?” Riley asked instead, “Matt and Joe gave you every reason not to, and from what I hear two of you did vote against the idea.”

Sora slumped into a chair and after propping her elbows on the console, rested her chin on her hands. “If I said why, you'd probably dislike me even more.”

Riley formed a wry smile. “I doubt that's possible.”

“It's just that... besides wanting to help Takato and all... I felt like if I didn't try to help out here, I'd somehow be letting down Tai.”

With a gasp, Riley felt her face turn white. There were many reasons she had never explained her motives to anyone- being singled out as a delusional zealot was the main one. Perhaps she was reading more into Sora's answer than she should have, but Riley suddenly felt a camaraderie that almost erased their catty little feud.

Sora read Riley's face much differently and angrily added, “Listen, you can interpret that however you want, but just remember that Tai and I-”

“You feel him too?” Riley didn't interrupt so much as she wasn't listening.

Sora stared back, a little uncertain how to respond. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Never mind.” Finally, Riley decided to drop the subject. Even if Sora did share Riley's premonitions, she wasn't somebody Riley wanted to discuss them with.

Instead, Riley changed the subject. “Who made coffee?”

Sora looked down at the coffee mug next to the computer, as if suddenly reminded of its presence. “Kari. Should still be some upstairs.”

That brought Riley out of her seat. “Smells really good. I need to wake up.”

She left Sora at the controls and began to walk out. Before she could make it to the door, Sora called out, “Riley?”

Had it been anyone else, the concerned tone would have worried Riley. As it came from Sora, it did more to aggravate. “What?” Riley replied, suddenly really wanting that coffee.

Sora was staring at the monitor in front of her. “I think one of those agents is forming.”

“Uh huh,” Riley huffed as she approached, “How would you know?”

“I may not be an expert hacker like you or Izzy, but I'm not computer illiterate,” Sora replied, equally bitter, “There's definitely something forming here.”

Riley glanced at the monitor; one look was all she needed before she swore under her breath. Partially for the fact that Sora was right, primarily because the overnight lull was apparently over and D-Reaper felt like getting serious again.

“Is that where the Tamers are battling?” Sora asked.

Another glance and Riley responded, “Doesn't look like it. Call the Tamers and tell them not to engage it. We'll send some fresh troops after it.”

“Right,” Sora affirmed as she reached for a cell phone.

Upstairs, Riley mercifully found not only the coffee, but that she had several options to go after the newly-formed agent. She gave Izzy and Henry the job and downed her coffee as they retrieved their Digimon.

With caffeine in her system and firepower at the ready, she led the group back to the control room. The first thing that Riley noticed was that Sora had moved to a different seat and was now typing on Riley's laptop.

“What are you doing?!” she shouted angrily. The laptop was Riley's only connection to the real world; that made it off-limits.

Sora dismissed Riley's concern with a curious stare. “Janyuu Wong is trying to get a hold of you. I thought TK's wife was your main contact.”

“She is.” Riley motioned for Sora to get out of the chair. She did, and Riley quickly took her spot.

“It's Dad?” Henry asked.

Riley stared at the screen. The IM conversation used Tally's screen name, but Janyuu had clearly identified himself in his brief chat with Sora.

“Yeah... wonder what he wants.”

“He said something about some more help coming your way,” Sora answered.

“That's unlikely.” As Riley started typing, she called out. “Tentomon, go outside and try to see where exactly the agent's emerging. Henry, go with him and figure out what we're dealing with this time.”

Henry protested, “But if that's Dad, I kinda want to talk to him about-”

“Later, Henry. Something tells me this isn't a courtesy call,” Sora replied.

“Come on, Henry,” Tentomon said. Henry nodded and followed the Digimon outside.

By that time, Riley had already gotten word from Janyuu: Mari and Tally were heading in.

The news was confusing more than anything else. Riley took her type to type a reply, but after thirty seconds of idling over the keyboard, all she could manage was “Why?”

“What is it?” Izzy asked.

Before she could answer, Janyuu replied, “Look at who else you have in there. Did you expect them to stay here and watch?”

“Is he talking about Tally?” Sora's voice startled Riley, who immediately glared at the woman looking over her shoulder.

“Yeah, he says she and Mari are coming.” Riley mumbled.

“M... Mari?” Izzy stammered. Rather than attempt to address the swirling emotions Izzy was surely having, Riley focused on the more important issue- getting them to headquarters. Of course, that created one serious logistical issue...

“Wait, if they're coming in from the real world, wouldn't they show up in the tower?”

Sora nailed it, but Riley didn't react at first. Both Mari and Tally knew that appearing at the original Hypnos center meant certain death by now. Family issues or not, they weren't that foolish. Riley logged onto a different computer and started typing fervently. In less than five seconds, her face erupted into a broad smile.

“Ha! Tally changed the access point. They're arriving about five blocks east of here. Smart.”

“I can get them,” Sora said.

Riley was about to oblige when Henry re-entered, his scouting report complete: “It's almost developed. Looks like it's that tall red thing- the one with the eyes all over the place and could shoot beams and, uh... you know the one.”

Despite the clumsy description, Riley did. The strength of that particular agent also meant that the Izumi reunion would have to wait until daddy got off work.

“Thanks, Henry. Izzy- this is a tough one. We'll take care of Mari, just handle the agent.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Izzy replied. He turned to Henry. “Where is it?”

Izzy's Digimon flew in with the answer: “It's about five blocks east of here. Better hurry, it looks like it's almost developed.”

The dreadful silence that followed Tentomon's answer was short, broken almost immediately when Izzy sprinted out of the room, grabbing Henry on the way.

“Oh God...” Despite the coffee, Riley was suddenly exhausted again. Alone, Tally and Mari arriving was an annoyance- a forgivable and tolerable one at that. In a matter of seconds, it had escalated into a full-blown crisis, and Riley was by no means ready to deal with it. She looked over at Sora, desperate to find some sort of sympathy.

The menacing glare Sora returned wasn't it. Instead, Sora began to march out of the room.

“Where are you going?” Riley asked through an exasperated sigh.

“That thing already has my little girl,” Sora declared, “I'm not letting it get Izzy's.”

Despite regular visits back when she was living inside the MAXIS, Tally found the department store she and Mari had landed in to be quite creepy. With the store closed since the city's evacuation, only the dull red exit sign lights provided any illumination, aside from the natural light winding its way in from the storefront windows. That light did little to encourage as it threw shadows of mannequins along the back walls.

Mari was right at home. “Excellent placement. Nearby but not in immediate danger, and certain to be near a running computer network,” she said, staring at a point-of-service counter, with its computer-register in standby mode.

“Let's just get out of here and meet up with the others,” Tally replied, leading the way out.

Using her memories of the store along with the little light they had, she led Mari to the front door. Tally was startled by the security alarm that blared as they exited, but she was sure that given the situation they were not likely to be arrested for shoplifting.

They felt the ominous presence of D-Reaper immediately. Even with no visible chaos in sight, the streets were dark, the sky was overcast, and empty streets were just too out of place in downtown Shinjuku.

“How long before they arrive?” Mari asked.

“Don't worry about it. Janyuu told Riley we were coming and I know Riley will look up the exact entry point. They'll be here.” All the same, Tally did wish she had a better idea where operation headquarters was. They figured it was about five blocks to the west, but without knowing exactly they were better off staying close to the entry point.

Until the ground started beneath a loud rumbling sound.

“What was that?” Tally asked, looking around to find any possible source nearby.

Mari glanced once to the left, once to the right, then once at Tally. “Perhaps the sounds from the battle are drifting this way.”

It seemed feasible, although the noise sounded too close. “Still, we'd better stay inside until they get here.”

“Not with that alarm. If any agent did arrive, that siren's a dinner bell. Let's find a safer location.”

Another rumbling greeted them as they eased their way down the street. The sound persisted and grew louder as they began to break into a jog. As Mari started into a run, Tally could no longer contain her urge to look back: the agent walking behind them was as tall as most of the buildings, covered in a putrid combination of eyes, arms, tentacles and chaos. Tally screamed, bringing Mari to stop and face the Paratice Head.

As it continued to approach them, Tally wanted to run but found herself frozen to the concrete. Runnnig wasn't likely to help of course- Tally was slowed by both age and the Age-Reduction Surgery from years ago. She was no match for the towering agent.

Mari, unwilling to leave Tally behind, was also helpless to watch as the agent approached. As it drew in, its palm spread open in front of Tally, with dozens of eyes fixated on the human creature.

After scanning Tally up and down, Paratice Head spoke through Michi's voice: “State your name.”

Tally looked over at Mari, who looked back and nodded. Tally faced the agent again and answered, “Tally Onodera.”

“No record found. State your purpose.”

Tally was marginally offended that D-Reaper didn't recognize Michi's aunt, but let it go. After considering her answer carefully, she said, “Just visiting relatives.”

“A pointless task.” Without a word of explanation, the hand moved over to Mari and began the same routine: “State your name.”

“Mari Izumi,” Mari replied coldly.

As Paratice Head paused to process the name, Tally scoffed. “It didn't know me, it's not going to know you. Have you even met Michi before?”

Before Mari could answer, Paratice Head did: “Mari Izumi. Your purpose was to seduce Koji Mathews.”

In a rare instant, Mari was dumbfounded. “What?”

“Your purpose has been fulfilled. Therefore, it is my purpose to destroy you,” the agent concluded.

Mari's eyes widened as she started backpedaling. “Perhaps I should have said I was Alice.”

“Run, Mari!” Tally shouted as they both started sprinting down the street.

They were no match for the towering agent, however, and Mari didn't get thirty yards before Paratice Head's hand swooped down and grabbed her. Running parallel, Tally was helpless as the agent hoisted Mari higher. Tally panicked for a moment, but sighed as she saw their allies at the end of the block.

“Horn Buster!” MegaKabuterimon shouted, launching an attack at the agent's head. Although it appeared to only irritate Paratice Head, the bolt of energy was strong enough to force its arm to fall. As it approached Tally, Mari extended her arms out.

“Tally!” she shouted as Tally reached for, and clasped, Mari's hands.

Instead of squeezing Mari out, however, the hand rose higher, taking Tally with it. Tally released a breathless scream as she secured her grip on Mari. She almost lost it when she heard a round of gunfire strike Paratice Head, thankfully in the chest. Gargomon was shooting at it while Izzy and Henry jumped off MegaKabuterimon's back.

With Paratice Head distracted, Tally knew it was her chance to get Mari out of there. Unfortunately, the girl didn't budge.

“Too tight,” Mari gasped, “Besides, falling from here wouldn't be wise.”

Tally looked down; they were at least fifteen feet off the ground.

“Good point,” she replied breathlessly, just before a sudden jolt startled both of them.

It was an energy beam emitting from the agent's face, directly at the attacking Digimon. They both dodged skillfully, but in the few seconds while they were occupied, the agent turned its attention to the woman attempting to rescue its captive. Still clutching Mari, Tally could only watch and dangle as the other hand reached over and grabbed Tally, tearing her away from Mari.

Tally did the best she could to crawl around and prevent Paratice Head from closing its fist with her inside it. She never had time to realize that the agent had no such plans; it responded by flinging her to the side. Directly into the concrete wall of a building. Tally saw nothing, thought she heard someone screaming her name, and barely had time to comprehend the moment of unfathomable pain in every extremity of her body before she loss consciousness. As a result, she was the only one in the viscinity who didn't have to witness her falling and crashing onto the pavement.

From their safe vantage point almost a block away, Izzy and Henry saw the sickening sequence unfold in less than five seconds. Megakabuterimon attempted to dive in for the rescue, but Paratice Head engaged it, swiping at the Digimon with its free hand. Neither Izzy nor Henry could say anything as they stared, in shock, at the motionless woman down the street. Finally, Izzy turned away from Tally and up at his daughter, still in the agent's grasp. He took two steps towards Mari and whispered her name.

“Don't!” Henry yelled from behind. Izzy turned around to protest, but Henry was already by him and running down the street. “I'm faster,” the Tamer added.

With Gargomon giving his partner plenty of cover, Henry reached the battle quickly. The ultimate-level Megakabuterimon launched attack after attack at the agent, preventing Paratice Head from doing anything to Mari. Of course, as Mari was trapped in the hand of an agent throwing its arms about in defense, she was no closer to being rescued.

Which was where Henry and Gargomon came in. “As soon its arm is low enough and you have a clear shot, fire away. I'll catch her when she pops out,” Henry ordered.

The wait was short, but it felt devastating, especially as nobody could attend to Tally across the street. Henry looked back at Izzy, who was pacing back and forth while talking on a cell phone- calling for the medics no doubt. Henry tried to forget about Tally and looked up at the girl in the agent's hand. She was unhappy and darting her eyes between the agent's head and her motionless companion, but very conscious and very in need of rescue.

When the moment finally came, Gargomon sprayed a round of bullets at approximately the agent's wrist. Paratice Head reeled its arm back, then attempted to bring Mari into the line of fire. Luckily, the brief spray of fire hit only the agent's fingers, forcing the hand open for a split second. Long enough, as Mari fell through and down to the street, where Henry was waiting on his knees to catch her. He fell backward immediately from the weight of impact, but he brushed it off quickly and pulled her to the sidewalk.

“Are you all right?” Henry asked as he stopped under an awning that he deemed safe.

“Tally!” Mari shouted as she attempted to leap to her feet, held back by Henry's arms.

“Not while those two are going at it! We've already called for an ambulance.”

Unbefitting her black clothes and unorthodox eyes, she was entering a fit of hysterics. “But she-”

“If she's hurt that badly, there's not much we can do.” Henry continued to restrain her, pushing Mari off him and holding her down from the side. “We don't want you to get hurt either.”

He leaned forward and looked her in the eyes. Her eyes were moist, but she appeared to be calming down. Her breathing was less staggered and she gave up trying to push him aside. Finally, she sat up, leaned forward, and rested her head in his shoulder.

“Henry...” she whispered.

Henry could do little to comfort her. He himself was uncomfortable enough. He wanted to rush over and help Tally too, but now he was left to console this girl. Although he recognized her as the mysterious Alice who had helped the Tamers before, he had never formally met her. Yet she seemed capable of relaxing in his arms, as if she had known him all her life.

The battle, meanwhile, grew more intense as the tandem attack of MegaKabuterimon and Gargomon forced the agent to backpedal. It responded with another beam, putting the pair on the defensive, until a swipe of the arm knocked MegaKabuterimon backward. The giant beetle was unfazed and flew back in, but little progress was made.

While the two Digimon occupied Paratice Head, a third swept in and shouted, “Wing Blade!” Garudamon had arrived, and the unexpected attack struck Paratice Head in the face, disorienting it enough for MegaKabuterimon to launch a Horn Buster to further damage the agent, exposing the red cable connecting it to D-Reaper. A second Wing Blade was sufficient in cutting it and destroying the creature. Nobody celebrated. Nobody sighed in relief. Even before the agent's destruction, Izzy was running up to Tally. Sora, Mari and Henry were right behind him.

Once they reached Tally, they couldn't bare to look at her, or the pool of blood that had formed underneath her. As soon as he was close enough to see how bad it truly was, Izzy turned away, right at his daughter, now running across the street into his open arms. They embraced silently, but their miraculous reunion had quickly become insignificant.

Sora dropped to her knees in front of Tally. As she looked Tally over carefully, Sora's face scrunched, unsure if it was about to burst into tears or throw up.

“Is Joe coming?” Sora asked.

“This is far beyond Joe,” Izzy replied gravely, “I went straight to...” his voice trailed off as he heard the urgent and rushed sirens behind him. He turned around as the ambulance flew down the street. He clutched Mari tightly as Henry waved them in.

The four fell silent as the paramedics raced to give Tally emergency first aid. Given the extent of her injuries, it was a seemingly-endless process, compounded by the devastating fall to put her spinal column at risk. She remained motionless as the paramedics lifted her and the stretcher towards the ambulance.

Mari broke away from her father for a moment to ask, “She's alive?”

“There's still hope,” one paramedic mumbled, more concerned with the task at hand, “If we can get her to the hospital in time.”

The workers were silent from then on as they finished loading her into the ambulance. The only major sound was the clap of the ambulance doors as they slammed shut. Once the doors were closed, the sirens wailed back to life, guiding the vessel back down the streets.

Mari too remained silent during the ordeal. As she watched her friend ride off to meet her fate, two hands fell upon her shoulder. She closed her eyes.

“Hi, Dad,” she whispered.

The hospital had only the bare minimum of staff present- the aftermath of the city-wide evacuation the Tamers had orchestrated. There was no lack of personnel on hand to attend to Tally, but the lobby seemed eerily quiet as Riley and TK waited for an update.

Riley sat forward, her face pressing against her clasped hands. Even when Janyuu had announced that Tally and Mari were entering and Henry had announced the Agent's location, Riley had never thought of the situation as anything more than unnecessary drama. She had never dreamed that this inconvenience could cost someone her life. Especially Tally's- in spite of all her sacrifice, even Riley wasn't willing to die for this world.

TK sat back in his chair, stone-faced and staring straight ahead. Riley could only imagine what was going through his mind: the marriage between him and Tally had always been rocky. Furthermore, twelve years of separation and his affair with Kari in the Digital World surely complicated his feelings. Still, he was her husband, and he didn't hesitate when Riley had asked him to come along.

As the doctor entered the room, neither stood at first. The doctor's head was lowered, refusing to make eye contact with either of them. Slowly, Riley and TK stood as he said, “Mr. Takaishi? Mrs. Kamiya?” Silence followed as he led them down the hall.

“How bad is she?” Riley asked.

The doctor stopped in front of a room and sighed. “The injuries are too extensive. Everything internally was damaged- bones, muscle, nervous system. She probably won't last the night.”

As Riley closed her eyes and fought off tears, he continued, “She is awake at the moment, so if you would like to see her, now's the time.”

He walked away, and Riley briefly considered asking him to elaborate, but TK opened the door and entered. Riley followed him in. There, Tally lied motionless on the bed, connected to several monitoring apparatuses, IV tubes, and a breathing machine. Riley turned away immediately, but TK approached the bed and looked into his wife's blinking eyes. Then he fell to his knees and put his hand over hers.

“Why?” he mumbled, “I don't understand. Why did you do all this?”

“TK...” Tally whispered, pausing to let the breathing machine inhale for her, “I did it because I wanted to.”

“But you never cared about all this. Why now?”

“Because you did. I thought that if I followed in your footsteps, I'd be able to find you.” Her pale lips formed a faint smile. “I was right.”

Riley stepped forward and set her palms on the bed. “Tally, I just wish you would have let us know before-”

“I don't regret it. I got what I came for. I am in no pain right now.” Tally's eyes rolled up and she blinked. “Whatever they shot me full of works great.”

“You might still pull through. Don't give up.”

“Either way... I'm good.”

TK lifted her hand up, ignoring the scrapes and bruises that had been left unrepaired. “Although I do wish I could feel that hand right now,” Tally said, before her eyelids began to fall.

“Tally, don't go,” Riley said. Immediately, Tally's eyes opened again. “I can't stand the thought of losing you like this.”

“It's okay. I just need a little rest. You should get some too; you're working too hard.”

Riley attempted to speak, but merely closed her eyes and nodded.

Tally continued, “Are Takato and Jeri all right?”

“They're fine. Jeri's doing much better.”

“Good. I told him not to let anything bad happen to them. That's harder than he makes it look.”

“Tally, I...” TK said, before trailing off. He sighed, then found his voice again, “I'm sorry for everything. For everything back then, for everything now. For everything you went through just to find me.”

“I know,” she whispered, before her eyelids gave way and she drifted off.

Her heart rate monitor still beeped at a slow clip, and neither Riley nor TK accepted it verbally, but they both somehow knew that Tally was not going to wake up. Riley walked away from the bed and fell into a chair in the corner. TK remained on his knees, holding Tally's hand.

“I still don't get it. Why did you two put yourselves through all this?”

With her head propped in her hand, Riley replied, softly, “In a time like this, I wonder the same thing. And still, it's right in front of us.”

TK released Tally's hand and turned around. “Even so, no matter what this world symbolizes, it's still just a fantasy. It's too naive to think that Digimon could ever be in the real world again. This world is just a dream. It's just...”

As he struggled to say the right world, it came to Riley. She wasn't afraid to share it. “It's just hope?”

TK looked away, shaking his head. “Is it worth dying for?”

“She didn't plan to die. We didn't work for seven years on this world only to have it kill us. If it was up to her, she and Mari would be back at headquarters right now having a laugh while helping us stop D-Reaper. She wasn't about to die for this world, and neither would I.”

“I guess I just find it hard to believe she and Mari would put themselves in this situation. This world is not safe. Surely they knew that before plunging in.”

“Of course they did. But whatever the reason for them entering, they thought it was worth the risk. Tally didn't make it... Mari did. After everything Yasuo did to us, she's back with her father.”

TK bit his lip as it began to sink in. “That's the reason?”

Riley nodded, turning once more to Tally. The beeping slowed further, until it was replaced with a steady, monotonous tone. Riley closed her eyes. “They had the same reason- they wanted to see their loved ones again.” She took a deep breath and added, “And that... I would die for.”

To Be Continued in Stage Seven- “Merge”

Author's Notes
Since it first arose in Level 1, the relationship between TK and Tally was always under the surface, and affecting their actions in more ways than they'd care to acknowledge. Tally's death, planned since the beginning, is not quite the culmination of this subplot (as we have yet to delve into TK's feelings), but it opens a lot of questions about her and Riley's motives. Since Level 3 seems to be centered around Riley more than Takato (although with so many stories to keep track of, keep in mind that Takato is the hub of them all), her story doesn't reach its full climax until the very end.

While it may seem like Takato was cut out of the last part of this stage, keep in mind who joined Rika and Kazu in battle. I think he'll be all right.

As the dinner scene was entertaining enough with Davis, Ken, and Yolei, I didn't feel the need to make Maho any kind of scene-stealing character. In fact, her frankness is a fun contrast to Davis. Those who remember “Odaiba Memorial Day” may note that I kept the tradition of naming Davis's significant others after anime characters voiced by Veemon's voice actress Junko Noda. Maho is her character in His & Her Circumstances.

I had been looking forward to the Ryo/Ken scene for a long time. Since I abandon the video game canon with Ryo in favor of a story that fits with the connection between the worlds, a reunion with Ken would be a little out of the ordinary. It's so easy to demonize Ryo because of his tentative support for Yasuo's side, but there is a familial relationship there that should be respected.

With Henry/Alice being a surprisingly popular alternate pairing in Tamers fandom, I was a little hesitant about making Henry's rescue too suggestive, but with the notion that Mari may or may not have a little childhood crush on Henry, I had to let it play out, especially if you recall her disappointment over the life of “real world” Henry.

This ends Level 3: Stage Six of The Connection.