Episode 34: O Green World

Nobody could sleep, even after the adrenaline had long worn off. They were tired, aching (even though the pain of their injuries had still not returned), and exhausted in both physical and emotional senses-- but rest was still hard to come by. As such, they sat in a rough semi-circle against the near wall of the ravine, discussing their course of action. The wind howled overhead, but it sounded hollow and distant.

Natalie hadn't said anything since her outburst earlier. She listened, she nodded along or shook her head when she needed to, but she had little to say. She had calmed down quickly, but nobody had been able to answer her question.

Why did everyone who helped them end up getting killed?
It was true that it had only really been two digimon -- Cygnetmon before, and Sienimon now -- but two was still enough to be the start of a pattern. It would have been one thing if they'd both been killed by digimon with a vendetta against them; but this time, it wasn't even that. It was simply the act of helping them that had put Sienimon in the line of danger.
And yes, he'd been an ass, but he hadn't deserved that.

But they didn't know the answer. They didn't know what they could do about it, or what they could do from here.

They merely had to make some kind of a plan. For all the good it had done them thus far-- they just had to make a plan.
A plan for the immediate future.
A plan for as far ahead as they could see.
They'd deal with the rest -- with the fallout -- when it happened, and not a moment before.

So that's what they did, sitting in the dark with the canyon walls acting like blinkers-- they looked as far ahead as they could, and it wasn't far.

"So the Shrine of the Norns," Brockmon explained, "is in the Hinterlands that lay beyond the Halo. There's a gap in the mountains due north of the temple," he gestured in what he assumed was the appropriate direction, "and then we follow the valley northbound from there. It's..." He paused, and searched for the phrasing, before he concluded with, "hard to miss, let's say."

"Sounds pretty straightforward. At least as straightforward as anything ever is 'round these parts, anyway," Desmon said, tilting her head. "And yet you don't sound too enthused about it, buddy-bear."

Brockmon pulled his lips back in a grimace-- just at the sentiment, since he had given up complaining about the appellation. "Yes, well. Knowing the way is one thing; getting there is another, and even if we do, we're not going to be welcome."

"We're not welcome anywhere," Gelermon pointed out.

"Yes, but there's a bit of a textural difference," Brockmon said tersely, "between 'being unwelcome in villages because we're criminals, and thus skirting around them', and 'attempting to walk straight into one of the most holy sites on the continent while being said criminals'."

Also a fair point.

"It sounds like a trap to me," Oremon said, folding his arms, and all eyes were on him in an instant, so he wasted no time continuing. "We're being told to waltz into a place where we're likely to be caught," he said, looking at the ground, "on the advice of someone who was very reluctant to explain anything. I don't feeling particularly confident in that."

"Call me crazy, but I agree with billy-goat gruff," Gelermon said, drumming her claws on the stone ground and ignoring Oremon's indignant grunt. "I'm thankful that he got us out, but mushroom boy wasn't exactly a beacon of transparency. Telling us to go waltzing into somewhere that's apparently going to be under pretty strict watch sounds pretty fishy to me."

"I'm not sure if I'm comfortable," Banmon said, tilting her head, "speaking ill of someone who just," and she paused to search for a tactful way to say what she meant, "... I mean... died helping us."

That fact took a moment to sink in, and the digimon and humans alike all looked away from each others' gazes. Again, Natalie's question burned in their minds.

"But what other options do we have?" Raumon said, after a moment. It was a rhetorical question. "We don't really have any other leads. It's the only real direction we've got."

A brief silence passed and uncomfortable glances were exchanged. More than one person had the same thought, but nobody wanted to say it out loud-- until someone did.

"I mean... we could call it a wash."
Natalie's voice was almost shocking after her period of silence-- let alone the shock of her actual words.

The following silence was far longer and far more uncomfortable than the one that preceded it.

"What do you mean?" Meghan said, pulling her knees to her chest, but they knew-- they all knew.

She meant they could just go home. There would be no better time to, now that they were out here where the cracks were forming. If they wanted to bail out, this may be their best -- their only -- chance to do so. With the weight of that knowledge on her, Natalie didn't answer immediately. She gathered her thoughts and pressed on as soon as she could.
"I just-- don't think we've done much good being here."

"But we're not going to do any good in the human world," Brockmon began, but Lily shushed him.

"Yeah, well-- I. Shit, I don't know," Natalie said uncertainly, shrugging one shoulder. "I just-- yeah, I don't know, it's just a thought." Her mouth felt very dry as she stumbled over words, and she pushed her hand into her hair only to nervously ruffle her own bangs and drop the hand again.

Raumon didn't say anything; he merely looked at his partner, then at the dusty ground.

None of them could deny that -- frankly -- they wanted to go home. Whatever they had expected to happen here in the Digital World, it had not been what they ended up getting. They'd come. They'd failed to do what they had come to do. Maybe they should quit before they got even more behind.
Maybe it would be best to just call it a wash before they screwed something up for someone else.

But even with that -- even with the knowledge of where they were -- it still hadn't felt like a real option, not even a long-shot, until someone said it out loud.
The wind whistled far above them.

"I think," Peter said carefully, standing up just as slowly as he spoke, "that maybe we should call it a day."

Nobody argued with that.

"I'll--" Natalie began to say, about to volunteer for the first watch, but Lily overrode her before she could get more than one word out.

"Like hell you will. Brockmon and I got first shift sitting up. Right?"
Brockmon grunted as Lily nudged him with the side of her foot, then nodded.


The group slept in the mouth of the tunnel they had emerged from, now that they were sure it had gone quiet. It simply felt safer than sleeping in the open, even down here. It was hardly the most comfortable of arrangements, but they had grown more or less used to it in the last few days. Some of the Digimon volunteered themselves as pillows, and everyone put forth their jackets and vests and any other piece of clothing that could be spared got co-opted and laid out in a makeshift tarp for the cause of providing some cushioning from the hard ground. This entire process was practically ritualistic by now.

But honestly, at some point, the exhaustion hits so hard that any surface that is vaguely horozontal and not completely comprised of hornets will suffice to sleep on.

Lily ultimately traded the watch shift off to Peter, who traded to Meghan-- who was supposed to wake Natalie, but instead she had tagged off to Sam. By the time Sam's shift was coming to a close, the night around them was at its darkest, preparing to hail in the dawn, or what was going to have to pass for it around these parts; Xander was the last one up to bat.

"Oi," Xander said, stepping out of the cave with his hands in his pockets. "Were you actually going to wake me up?"

Sam reacted with a bit of a start; he had been staring at his D-Rive, as though it would provide any new insight. He was seated on a small boulder, using the fact that it took an effort to stay upright and not fall off the rock as a ploy to stay awake.
Gelermon lay on the ground next to him. She was much less dedicated than her partner, and she was half-asleep; give her a break, it was extremely boring, and moreover, see previous statement about any vaguely horozontal surface. She cracked an eye open as Xander approached, snorted, and didn't bother getting up properly. She merely opened her eyes fully, gradually.

"Morning," Desmon said much more cheerfully, albeit a little bit sleepily, as she followed hot on her partner's heels.

"Ah. Right. Yeah, cool," Sam said, standing up slowly, sliding off of the rock, and Xander gave him an odd look-- as if he had just remembered something. Xander didn't say anything for a moment, until Sam prompted: "... can I help you?"

"Before you go pass out," Xander said, and he reached down to his leg. Sam was momentarily (and extremely) confused.
One of Xander's numerous accessories was a length of blue plaid cloth fastened lopsidedly around his waist; it was safety-pinned in place, but maneuvered to look like it was simply held in place. He undid it now, and held it out to Sam in an offering. "Probably too little too late now, but, I don't fuckin' know, for if you move too fast and rip your stomach open again. It's not exactly sterile, but," one-shouldered shrug, "better than nothing."
It was a bit dusty, a bit ragged, but indeed, long enough to wrap around Sam's midsection.

Sam stared blankly at Xander for a moment.

"What," Xander said flatly, still holding the strip of fabric out with a stiff arm.

"You're just not exactly the sort of person I'd be expecting to be prepared for this."

Xander half-shrugged again. "Yeah, well. Bandmate got stabbed by a drunk guy in the pit at another band's show once. Sucked. Had to cancel a gig that week. Got a cool scar out of it, though. You learn how to jury-rig bandages in a damn hurry."
Sam curled his lip into a sort of sardonic smirk, but upon looking, he saw no trace that Xander was even remotely kidding-- and that he was also missing the strip of cloth that was usually tied around his knee, revealing a substantial rip in the jeans.
After a moment, Sam reached out and took the length of cloth.

"Well. Thanks?" he said a little awkwardly, genuinely grateful but also not sure how one is supposed to respond to this sort of information, let alone this kind of offering.

Xander grunted, which Sam was perfectly happy to take as a you're welcome.

"Who are you and what have you done with Xander?" Desmon ribbed, nudging Xander in the legs with her elbow. He ignored her, crossing over to the boulder and taking a seat where Sam had been a moment before.

"Shut it."

Sam debated about asking what Xander thought about staying or going, but he swallowed that curiosity down and retreated into the mouth of the tunnel to sleep, with Gelermon close behind.
He glanced around. He thought for certain that he saw the strip of fabric that was missing from around Xander's knee wrapped around Meghan's ankle, but it was dark, and he couldn't be sure.

(He definitely didn't notice that Natalie was awake.)


If anyone had been hoping that their situation would be any better in the morning, they would have been disappointed. This is, of course, a moot point; nobody was so optimistic. The first rays of grey light that found their way down into the ravine brought with them no solace, no bright ideas, nor even any fewer mixed feelings.

Natalie said nothing of the fact that they didn't wake her up to take a shift on watch.

They determined, after a small amount of back-and-forth, that they would at least start to move towards the north. Judging by their D-Rive maps, their escape tunnel had dropped them a bit to the south of where they had started; they would have to double back past the temple again, which nobody was thrilled about, but regardless of what they chose to do -- go or stay -- they would have a little while to decide.

It would, unsurprisingly, come to Desmon and Banmon to help them get back up to the surface, but they were both feeling much more up to the task now than they would have been yesterday. They could probably have found a way up on foot-- but god, who wanted to climb up a steep rock face? Not them-- even if they hadn't been injured already.

"How is everyone feeling?" Brockmon said, glancing to the humans in particular. Raumon and Natalie were busying themselves with something that was not immediately apparent to the others, against the wall of the canyon, but everyone else took a quick inventory of themselves.

"I mean, I'm not about to run a marathon," Lily said, gingerly touching a couple fingers to the whereabouts of her ribs; she braced herself to feel a shooting pain, but no such pain happened, "but I'm pretty sure I'm fine. Enough. If my rib is piercing my lung I'm at least not feeling it yet."

"That's the spirit," Sam deadpanned.

"How's your leg doing?" Xander asked, glancing at Meghan; she experimentally put a bit of weight on it and winced, and Oremon was quick to provide support to lean on to take that weight right off it. (Xander rolled his eyes imperceptibly.)

"We'll just have to ride for as long as we can, I suppose," Peter said, tapping his chin. "If that's alright," he appended, looking to Oremon, Gelermon, and Brockmon. Nobody voiced any outstanding concerns.

"We're all rested and ready to go, then? Ain't it great what a good night's rest can do for you?" Desmon said, stretching her wings to their full span and her hands above her head. "Of course, I wouldn't know, since I've been sleeping on rocks for a week. Just, you know, it's fun to imagine, right?"
Nobody was laughing at her riffs, which was absolutely to be expected. There was a sort of awkward tension that hung over everyone, like everyone had something to say but didn't want to actually say it.

But anyway, Desmon was right in some regards, at least; she and Banmon had no trouble evolving to their champion forms, joining forces to carry their less flight-gifted group members up and out of the ravine a couple at a time.

Sooner than later, Raumon and Natalie were the only ones left, and Corymon made one last trip down to retrieve them.

"All aboard," she chirrupped; the last pair got to their feet, dusting their hands off as they turned, without much in the way of commentary, to take Corymon's offer and clamber onto her back. As they rose, leaving their little makeshift camp behind, the only apparent sign that any of them had been there was the small circle of deliberately-placed stones left outside the mouth of the tunnel.


Back up on the surface, the sun was rising steadily to the east, cold light cutting through the dusty skies to cast long shadows on the sandy ground. They were still in the crater basin that surrounded the temple; the crater's lip rose off the ground miles in the distance, a slightly dimmer band against a dim sky. The cracked spires, poking out of the ground just a few miles away and still taller than anything else in the vicinity, roughly marked north. The broken towers had felt ominous enough before; but now, standing proud as though nothing had happened underneath them, they were imbued with a sense of dread, like simply passing them by would awaken the staticky dragon they had fought against yesterday (or worse, as images of those squirming bright-white leeches forced their way back into the collective memory), but they didn't have much of a choice.

It felt like they were both too far from and too close to everything, all at once.

As Natalie and Raumon disembarked from Corymon's back, a stark-white crack split the space between the sky and the ground in the middle distance, a silent thunderbolt frozen in time before it disappeared with a twist of space. The wind howled to punctuate it, and a moment later, Meghan was the one to speak and break the quiet.

"So what's the plan?"

"... why are you looking at me?" Natalie said, because indeed Meghan -- and several of the others -- were looking to her; Natalie was struck by a strange sense of deja vu. (Almost like they'd had a conversation quite like this one just yesterday.)
Meghan didn't have an answer, and she coughed awkwardly, glancing away, so Natalie had to fill the space herself. "It's not like my plans have all worked out so great, so you don't need to ask me. I've got as much plan as any of you, you know?"

"Yeah, but--" Meghan began, then cut herself off with a quiet hum. The rest of her question was plain to see, even if she didn't voice it.
But was she still going to say they should try to catch the next interdimensional tear in space bound for home?
(Wasn't she going to lead them?)

The silence that followed was only a few seconds long, but it was aching-- and worse, the kind of silence where nobody wants to make eye contact.

"Let's get moving," Meghan blurted out before it could stretch out too long. "I mean. You know. Maybe?" She immediately seemed to regret her outburst and she averted her eyes to gaze quite intently up at the dusty sky.

"Let's," Oremon said with a nod, and a flash of orange light later, he took on his champion form. Green and black light were quick to follow as Frekimon and Melemon took form.

They would have a while to decide what they wanted to do. There were still miles where the cracks were spawning, and they didn't exactly know how to predict them, anyway.
Standing around only made it more awkward, anyway. As the sun emerged fully over the distant, dusty horizon, they began to move again.


Surprisingly enough, no plans were forthcoming, but at least they were moving.

They swung wide around the sunken temple, and they couldn't shake the impression that the ground below them felt less secure than it had. Maybe it was just because now they knew the sprawling system of tunnels and rooms and stairways that spidered out under their feet, spreading out in the darkness, with that burning red crystal sneaking its way through the empty space.

Every so often, a crack would split the sky, or the space between the sky and the ground. A shining tear that lingered, frozen in time, for only a few minutes, before the physical world seemed to knit the wound back together.
Even if they decided to go home, how were they supposed to predict when they'd have a chance? They didn't linger long enough for anything but snap decisions, and there didn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to where and when they appeared.

But digimon seemed to know. Not every time, certainly, but once in a while -- as they had seen on the way out -- they could spy a dark shape on the move towards a crack that had formed. They sprung out of hiding, in canyons and hidden in archways of forced-upward rock, and made beelines for the shining threads.
What happened after that? Who could say.

It was still mid-morning (though it felt much longer, in the way that awkward silences always make time seem to last forever) when something happened. They were making what light conversation they could, though it was shallow at best.

"All I'm saying is that--" Xander was saying, in response to a comment from Peter, but without warning, he cut off, and not in a way that sounded like he was doing it on purpose. Nobody had the chance to respond to it, though, because they felt the same thing that had cut Xander off: it felt like the atmosphere had vanished for a split second. Their lungs seared burning-hot as the air was ripped away from them and something fuzzy and unpleasant surged to their heads, casting all of then -- human and digimon alike -- into a lightheaded daze. The world swam around them, like twelve pairs of eyes were going out of focus in perfect sync-- but it wasn't their eyes. Space itself was twisting.

Before they could even blink, the air rushed back into their lungs, and the world snapped back into order-- and a hundred feet away, or even less, a searing-bright crack had shot down like a lightning-bolt, bridging the dusty sky and the dustier ground with a single razor-thin thread.

"Shit!" was not the way Xander had intended to finish his sentence, but it was, indeed, all he was saying now.

There was no chance to make a decision-- of course there wasn't. Even if they'd wanted to, even if they'd unanimously decided to bail and go home, the very sight so close to them rooted them to where they stood, skidding to stops and seizing up.

They were the only ones who seemed to have this problem, though. From beyond an outcropping of rock off to their right and maybe fifty feet ahead, a gaggle of shapes began to move, as the crack that had stopped them in their tracks was their signal to move. They were four small digimon, looking like rookie-levels, though it was hard to get a good look at them as they scrambled towards the crack. It was not unlike the sight they had seen just yesterday on the approach.

(Maybe it was that fresh memory, of having seen a digimon seem to be torn apart just yesterday, that made them freeze.)

The gaggle of digimon did not hesitate, though. They ran full tilt, though one seemed to lag behind-- a large caterpillar of sorts, it was unable to scurry along as fast as the others. One of the digimon, a rocky bipedal creature, looked over its shoulder, seeming prepared to help.
It shouted something-- it was hard to make out what over the wind. The digimon who had turned its head hesitated, then followed after the first two, leaving the fourth behind.
In a matter of moments, the first three digimon had crossed the distance and had vanished with a flash of white static. The last seemed to realize that it was going too slow, and began to quit while it was ahead (so to speak) rather than try to catch up now-- or maybe the slowdown was because it had caught sight of the group. Either way, it slowed down to a bare skitter, coming to a stop.

It was the right decision; in a few seconds, well before the caterpillar would have been able to make it through, the air twisted, and again their lungs burned bright for a moment. In an instant, the crack vanished. The wind howled. A small green caterpillar stood alone, antennae twitching, stock-still and staring at them.

It didn't seem hostile -- if it were, it definitely knew that it was outnumbered -- but it was hard not to feel a little awkward, standing there in the aftermath with only distant wind for soundtrack.

It looked around nervously and then took off for the outcropping it had been hiding in, shuffling along as quick as its little legs could take it (which wasn't very).

"Is it stranded now?" Meghan asked of nobody in particular, frowning; Ibexmon made a snorting noise, not of derision, but of a sort of wordless suppose so.

"Well, it seemed to know where to be to be close by when one of the cracks formed," Peter said. "It'll probably just try to find another one."

"And then get flung to some godforsaken other part of the city and be separated from the rest of its party, yeah," Xander drawled. Staying together was not exactly high on the list of things that happened when someone passed through cracks.

"That's assuming the others even make it through intact," Melemon added.

"You guys really, really suck at being positive," Lily said flatly, giving Melemon a gentle thwap (that he did not even feel) upside the back of the head which got a chuckle out of a few of the group -- a little dry, a little ironic, but it was something. She glanced at Meghan. "I'm sure they're fine."

Meghan frowned deeper, though, not assuaged by what she felt was a cheap sentiment. As they began to move again, she glanced towards the rock, she swore she saw the the caterpillar staring intently at them, but when she looked twice, it had withdrawn again.

She didn't have to wait long for an answer, though; as they drew closer -- just a matter of moments to clear the tiny distance -- the little green caterpillar emerged again, and it began to skitter perpendicular with their path.

It was making a valiant effort, but it had once again overestimated its own speed, and was in no way going to intersect their path.

It didn't seem threatening. They weren't in a rush-- they didn't know where they were going, exactly.
Ibexmon, in the lead -- and at a nudge in the side courtesy of Meghan's knee -- slowed to a stop, and Frekimon and Melemon followed suit. The caterpillar looked almost relieved as it closed in on them.

It was small, and green, with antennae half as long as its body and a big magenta claw on every body segment. It stared at them with big blue eyes as it came to a stop before them.

"... can we help you?" Raumon said after a moment, when nobody else was forthcoming, but the caterpillar wasn't looking at him.

"I know you," the caterpillar said slowly, pointing an indicating claw at Xander and Peter (and their respective partners) in turn before she paused to consider her phrasing. "You were the ones who fought Dagomon."

That had been only a week ago.

Hell of a week.

When the caterpillar saw the glimmer of recognition in their eyes, she glanced to the others. "I'm Wormmon," she said. "You must be... the others?" She glanced over each of them in turn, and paused with slight consternation at Melemon, not recognizing him, but she did not linger on that.

"Fortunately or otherwise," Frekimon said with a flick of her tail.

"Were those other digimon you were with also...?" Banmon asked, peering over her partner's shoulder. She gestured with one scarf-like hand, trailing off.

"Villagers?" Wormmon said; when Banmon nodded, she nodded back.

"It looks like you just barely missed that crack," Lily said, glancing over to where it had been mere minutes before. "That's rough."

But Wormmon didn't seem too worried-- or at least, no more worried; there was a sort of unease to the way she held herself in general, though that may have been the fact that she was standing opposite six digimon who until the past week or so she had every reason to be afraid of.
"I'll just... wait for another," she said, affecting more confidence than she felt and only half-succeeding at it.

About half of the group practically jumped to attention, but nobody was sure how to breech the subject.

Leave it to Raumon to do the diplomacy.

"How?" he said, gesturing with one claw. "They seem random to me-- us," he said, and a few of the party -- primarily Sam and Melemon -- nodded. "Aren't they?"

Wormmon tilted her head questioningly, as though the answer were obvious.
"No?" she said. "There's a couple a day right around here." She paused and twitched her antennae. "Not in the exact same place every time. But. Close enough to here. A few hundred yards in any direction. If you know what to look for, you know?" She paused, and wiggled one of her short little legs. "I just... well, you know." Couldn't exactly move super fast. Would have to try again. Wait. Hope nothing came along.

Before this could really sink in, she asked a question of her own:
"Why are you here?"
Just as she had seemed genuinely confused that they didn't know about the cracks, Wormmon didn't seem to mean it as an accusation, but it was still hard to answer-- and there were so many ways to take it.

"Great question," Natalie said flatly.

"We had--" Raumon said, picking up from his partner, and then he paused, not sure how to describe it. "We had something to do out here."

"And you got it done?" Wormmon prompted, tilting her head.

A couple of them mulled over how to answer that, but Desmon was first to the finish. "Let's say yes," she said, before anyone else could.

Wormmon was quick with the questions in return. "So are you trying to leave again?" Again, it wasn't a particularly mean-spirited question, but it felt razor-sharp, even when she softened it with, "To the human world?", as if it weren't clear.

"... we're not entirely sure, to be honest with you," Meghan said after a moment.

"We're lowkey trying to figure out where to go from here, in more ways than one," Sam said, shrugging one shoulder.

"Well, it's where I'd go, and the only reason I'd stay out here," Wormmon said matter-of-factly-- obviously it was where she'd go, it was where she was trying to go. "Mikemon said there's the only digimon that survive are gonna be the ones that get out now."

"Change of heart, all of a sudden," Peter said; he couldn't help but think of how long the calico's village had seemed to have held out, only for her to make this kind of judgment call now.

"Where's she, then?" Xander said, folding his arms. "Already on the other side or what?"

Wormmon looked off to the south as though she could see all the way to the far-off sea. "No. I-- I mean. She said she's not going to go until all of us have made it across or--" She paused, not wanting to say it. "Well. Until we've all tried our best to make it across."
Maybe not so much of a change of heart, after all.
"Anyway I thought-- if you were also on your way out. I thought I recognized the bat and the ghost and those two," she indicated Peter and Xander again. "You helped us before. I thought maybe if you were going to leave too, I could--"

"That we could give you a hand," Lily finished.

"Well, since I don't really have any of my own," Wormmon said, holding up both of her single-digit forelimb claws.

"Boo," Desmon said, sticking her tongue out at the joke, but smiling nonetheless.

"We can't really sit around just waiting for a crack," Peter said. "If we're going to start heading north, I'm going to assume time is of the essence."

"That's assuming we're going to go with what Si--" Ibexmon began, then blanched. "What we were advised to do," he said, a bit more diplomatically.

"Well, are we?" Frekimon said.

A beat of silence.

"Can you please stop looking at me after you ask that?" Natalie murmured, because indeed, a few of them had instinctively looked to her, and Wormmon had followed suit.

Raumon glanced at his partner and frowned, but he looked to Wormmon again. "How long is it usually, between cracks?" he said.

At least there was information to be gained, and if they had been waiting for a sign to go home, perhaps this was it.
Or at the very least, it was a chance to help someone.


Wormmon shared what information she could about how to tell where a crack was going to appear-- which they did every couple of hours, though some of them were far out of reach.
She said that you could see distortions in the clouds if you looked closely, subtle shifts that might be accountable to the wind if you weren't paying very close attention. Not every "flicker" (as she called it) was a crack about to form; but every crack was preceded by flickers. They happened in certain places more than others, and you simply had to know the landmarks -- some places were out in the dust with miles around of nothing, whereas some had landmarks, like the outcropping of stone.

How had she figured this out? Villagers who had ventured out and come back. The past months, so much had been changing-- they couldn't afford not to know.
How many had she set out with? Maybe a quarter. Another third had set out before them, in groups or alone. A few had stayed back with Mikemon, even as she had urged them to go.
How many of the ones that Wormmon set out with made it to cracks?

No answer.

It had only been a week.

They stood by and sat around one face of the the outcropping of rock-- it was larger than it had seemed, and actually provided decent shelter from the wind-- at least, from certain directions. The digimon were all back to their basic forms, not wanting to expend the effort of staying evolved when they were just standing around-- even if it was getting easier and easier to maintain their champion levels, which was a blessing. Wormmon was keeping her eyes on the sky. Everyone else just took the opportunity to think.

Which meant it was quiet. Very quiet.


"How you guys think the others are doing back on the home front?" Lily said out of nowhere, a prompt just to start conversation. "Like, do you think the city is still standing, or do you guys figure the angel brigade has razed the place?"

"Others?" Wormmon said then, which necessitated a brief -- very brief -- recollection of who Shitomon and company were; she reacted with mild interest, but did not express a great amount of familiarity with the digimon who had followed them back at the time of the severing.
But she also didn't recognize Brockmon, so she was quick to accept there was a great deal she didn't know.
She contemplated this, seemed to think hard about it, but had nothing to say.

But with everyone on the same page, Desmon spoke her piece: "I'm sure they're doing--" she began, then paused. "Well, 'fine' may be a strong word," she said, and grinned. "They probably haven't burned the city down yet, but you can never tell with these kinds of things."

"If they did, I'm sure they have an excuse for how it was totally on the level and the right thing to do," Gelermon said with a snort; she was not yet ready to let go of her distaste for them, and it got a chuckle out of Xander and Desmon at the very least.

"Hey, even if they're bungling shit, at least they get to sleep in beds in between," Sam said as he leaned back against the rock. "Wish that were me. Sooner I get to sleep on something that isn't rock the better my life is gonna be."

"Almost sounds like you're in a hurry to get home," Peter said.

"What gave it away?" Sam said dryly. "I mean, shit, I still hate hiking. This entire experience has done nothing to assuage that. I may even have some sort of hiking-related trauma after this. I've certainly got a new goddamn hole in my stomach." He was joking, running his mouth a little, but there was a distinct unease in his voice. He paused, and rubbed the back of his head.
"And-- I don't know. Don't want my dad to get home to an empty house, you know."

"We'd have to be here a while before that became an issue," Peter said, though there was a certain irony in his voice. "Time dilation and all."

"Not what I meant," Sam said, and they both knew it. Gelermon nudged against his leg but said nothing.

"You on board with staying, then?" Xander said, looking at Peter.

Peter pressed his lips thin, debating how to respond. "Yes," he said after a moment, deciding to go with as neutral an answer as possible. Banmon nodded her head once, curling her long tail around Peter's shoulders to wordlessly show her agreement.

"Figures you do," Xander said, putting his hands in his pockets.

"I take it you're not, from your tone of voice?" Lily prompted.

"I mean, it doesn't matter that much to me one way or the other," Xander said, shrugging. "But I don't think we're doing a whole lot of good except putting out our own fires, so I'm not gonna die on the hill that we should stay here, especially if the douchebag brigade has to take care of the city in the meantime."

"Whether we're here or there, yeah," Desmon said, "it all comes out in the wash. And I'm starting to wish he could take a wash. Gettin' kinda ripe." To punctuate her point, she sniffed Xander's shirt obnoxiously; he rolled his eyes but did not dignify it with a response.

"Well... I think we ought to stay," Meghan piped up from where she was sitting.

"You're saying that after everything that happened with Oremon at the village?" Gelermon said, and Meghan frowned.

"Shut up," Oremon muttered.

"I'm just saying that it's pretty clear nobody wants us here except for freaks," Gelermon defended herself, remembering Raumon and Brockmon's filling-in of those lucky enough to have not paid witness to Narakamon.

"Doesn't mean we shouldn't try, I guess," Meghan said, pulling her knees to her chest. "And, you know, Sienimon said..."

"If we can trust him," Oremon said, but his partner quickly shot back at him.

"Well, I do."

Oremon opened his mouth, as though to say something, then shut it. "If that's what you think," he said, "then I'm in agreement."

"Quick turnaround," Gelermon said; Oremon glared back at her but said nothing more.

"I don't know if I trust what he said," Brockmon said, "but I've had enough sitting around and waiting, for my piece. I think we should stay."

"Which means he's been waiting for this ever since he started having second thoughts about the whole serving-eldritch-beast thing," Lily said, smiling thinly. "It's kind of what I was planning on doing, ya know?"

This went on for a little while; to record every back-and-forth would be exhausting. Xander and Sam were unwilling to pretend they didn't want to go home, at the very least. Peter brought up the D-Rives, that it would feel wrong to back out now when they clearly had them for a reason; Sam reasoned back that they had no reason to believe that even if that were the case, they had been expected to come to the Digital World in the first place. Xander pointed out that digimon were bailing out, and they weren't exactly doing a whole lot of good; Meghan responded that she wanted to try again anyway, and wouldn't be able to sleep at night without trying.
Lily and Brockmon were the only ones who were unshakable in the belief that they should stay; everyone else, though, was being pushed and pulled by each other's arguments.

And on the other hand: Natalie was the only one not putting her piece in.
She was sitting close, not apart from them at all, but she merely held her tongue. Raumon sat at her side, watching her carefully and weighing everyone's reasoning.

"Why are you guys arguing about this?" Wormmon asked, scurrying up beside Natalie.

Natalie was startled, but she quickly composed herself and looked to the caterpillar. "What do you mean?"

"Most of us don't want to be here. If you're this close to getting out, I can't imagine why you wouldn't." Again, she didn't seem to realize that she was making quite a big statement; she said it very factually.

Raumon and Natalie looked at each other. "It's complicated," Raumon said after a moment, and Wormmon tilted her head.

"I'd guess it'd have to be. But more to the point, I think you should make your decision quickly. I think a crack's about to form to the north, and if it is, I don't want to miss it."

The ripples in the sky -- which they only noticed upon their being pointed out -- were indeed shimmering, twisting the air in the sky a few hundred yards away in a way that they definitely would not have noticed without Wormmon pointing it out. The light of the sun was diffused by the clouds; the sun was just about at its zenith, meaning they had only been held up for an hour, an hour and a half at the most.

The morning had been tense, awkward, slow to get started; now, they jumped to attention, ready to go on a moment's notice. Natalie hoisted Wormmon up onto Melemon's back alongside Raumon, and they took off at a run. They had a few minutes to close the distance.

So they had a few minutes to make a judgment call if they were going to stay, if they were going to go, if they were going to just help this random digimon to whom they felt some sense of obligation, or if they were about to hop a one-way ticket back home.

(Not really, right? Like if they knew how to find the cracks, they could be prepared--)
(But it felt like if a decision was going to be made, it had to be made now.)

They skidded to a stop a little ways away from the shimmering in the sky, not wanting to risk being too close-- and then all they could do was wait, standing out in the open like this.
A crack might not open up at all. It might open up any minute. There was no way to tell.

"So what are we doing?" Sam said, glancing around. He averted his eyes to avoid looking too pointedly to Natalie.

Natalie, though, was the one who volunteered an answer. She climbed down from Melemon's back, Wormmon in her arms, and she set the caterpillar down on the ground.
"I don't think there's necessarily a we answer here," she said slowly.

"You mean we're splitting the party?" Desmon said, tilting her head from her vantage point riding piggyback on Xander's back.

Natalie paused, and looked at the ground, and nodded.
"If anyone wants to go home, I don't think it's going to do anyone any good to insist we all stay here. Or visa versa."

A moment of silence fell, as people dismounted from digimon backs; the digimon in their champion forms maintained the form, just in case, though in case of what was unclear.

"Well," Lily said, not disembarking from Melemon's back, "Brockmon and I are staying, for whatever that's worth." Melemon grunted and nodded.

"What are you going to do though...?" Banmon asked, looking at Natalie.

Natalie didn't answer. She looked to Raumon, as though he'd have an answer; he merely looked up at her and lifted a claw to grab her hand, a wordless reassurance that whatever she chose he would go along with it. She took it, and shrugged her other shoulder.
"I'm still working on that."

"Ain't we all," Frekimon murmured, nudging Sam's hand with her muzzle. He, too, was looking at the ground.

"You guys are weird," Wormmon said plainly, twitching her antennae.

"Preaching to the choir," Raumon said dryly, but he smiled a bit weakly.

Wormmon looked at them in turn. "... thank you for your help, though."

"We just took an hour out of our--" Xander began, but Wormmon shook her head.

"You also fought Dagomon. And presumably some other stuff, too. We might not have any villagers left to try to make it out if you hadn't."

Peter pushed his glasses up. "You also might not have had to deal with Dagomon if we hadn't shown up."

Wormmon was unfazed. "If it's not one thing, it's another." She twitched her antennae again. "But Mikemon said you were trying. She tried to act like she hadn't changed her mind, but I think she had."

"That doesn't account for the rest of us," Natalie said.

"You also helped me just now, which I appreciate," Wormmon pointed out.

The six pairs looked at each other, not quite sure what to do with that information.

There wasn't another living soul as far as they could see around them-- nothing flying in the sky, nothing threatening to come out of the earth. Nothing coming swinging, ready to fight.
Maybe that'd have been a change for the better if they had something to fight-- something distracting, the ability to put off making a choice.

Or maybe the crack wouldn't form. Maybe this would be a false alarm.

A whole lot of things could have happened, but none of them did.

It was worse up close-- they were maybe only ten, fifteen feet from the point that the air in front of them ripped in two, stealing their breath so quickly they felt as though they had been violently winded by a physical impact.
It was blinding-bright all of a sudden, and as the air rushed back into their lungs--

It was identical to the one they'd passed through to get here, except it was in the stark wild nothingness instead of in a town square. They'd seen this before, though of course the one Nithmon had created didn't rip the breath away from them. On the other hand, though, the one Nithmon created didn't shoot hundreds of feet into the air, nor did it seem to continue unfettered through the solid ground. It shone bright, the light pulsating gently. The air around it distorted in a way they hadn't been able to see from afar, not unlike how heated air around a flame distorts just-so.

They almost, for a split second at a time, thought they could see shapes-- buildings, then trees, then a chain-link fence, then a fuzzy humanlike shape -- but every time they tried to focus, it was gone, replaced by nothing but searing white and the dusty ground behind.

A strange sense of homesickness hit them, even those cursory glances tempting those who had decided they would stay.

But now they had seen what would happen if they hesitated.

Staring at that shining thread in the air, it felt like a moment of truth. Whoever wanted to go could go.

Wormmon was leading the charge on that front. She wasted no time, scurrying that short distance on her little legs, practically kicking up a dust-cloud behind her.
For a moment it almost seemed like she was going to depart without a word, but perhaps five feet away from the crack, she stopped and looked over her shoulder.
"Thanks!" she called, then reached out one big pink claw and in a flash of static, she was gone.

Congratulations, Natalie said to herself bitterly. You helped one -- a singular -- digimon.
"All aboard for home, then," is what she said out loud, her voice tight. "Now or never, yeah?"

Raumon, still holding Natalie's hand in one claw, squeezed gently.

Part of her wanted to go. A non-trivial part of her wanted to run forward, and she in fact stumbled a half-step forward before her brain caught up to her, froze her in place with indecision.
She saw, in her peripheral vision, a few people begin to move forward.

She couldn't bear to look; she didn't want to know who was making the choice, didn't want to let it influence her-- didn't want them to doubt themselves if they were going ahead with it. She shut her eyes and saw the burning light searing through her eyelids so bright that she could see it clearly even now.
She just had to do it.

She just had to make a decision-- for herself and Raumon, nobody else. Xander would probably take the chance, right? He'd never been one for playing hero-- and Sam just wanted to go home. She could understand that. Lily and Brockmon wouldn't go, she was sure of that, but she couldn't tell what Meghan or Peter had decided.
And what of her?

The sound of Sienimon's body smashing against the ceiling of the cave rang in her ears, and intermingled with Cygnetmon's cry of pain. Every digimon they'd fought, that had exploded into bloodless data, back in the human world-- the smell of burning flesh that surrounded Narakamon like a cloud. Her heart pounded so hard she couldn't hear anything else, and that throbbing leapt into her throat and beat out a rhythm there.

She gripped Raumon's claw, held her breath--

And did not move. She stood with her eyes closed, her feet rooted to the spot.

She stood like that for a whole minute-- a minute and a half. Every second ticked by agonizingly slow.
Then, after what felt like an eternity, the crack closed. She didn't have to look to know that. The air ripped out of her lungs for that split second as the atmosphere knitted itself back together. The light faded away, but the imprint was still left in the darkness on the back of her eyelids. The wind's lonely howl cut through the pounding of her heart.

Natalie took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

The only thing that was gone was the crack, though the rest of the party was staggered somewhat-- a few people had taken a few steps forward, but none had closed the distance.

Xander's back was turned, his eyes anywhere but on the others, with Desmon tugging at his hand. Meghan had a few stray tears streaked down her face -- Natalie hadn't realized before now how dusty they had become until she saw those tear-tracks clear as day -- and she stood against Ibexmon's side, the goat not having moved a muscle. Sam's hands were in his pockets, his eyes on his shoes, and Frekimon was heeling as best she could with her size, which meant she was practically wrapped around Sam. Peter stared to the sky, no expression on his face and Banmon around his shoulders.

Melemon stood resolute; Lily sat on his back still, smiling faintly.
"Northward ho?" she said, like she had expected this all along.


Wormmon felt sick and disoriented as she stumbled onto solid ground. Everywhere around her was a new kind of noise that she had never imagined, let alone heard, as cars and city sound surrounded her.
She was in a very green area -- something she had not seen for a very long time. A recently-broken bridge had once spanned a small creek.

She had made it to the other side intact.

She decided that, if she could, she was going to find those others that the refugees had mentioned-- both because they, if anyone, might be able to help her find her compatriots from the village, and because they may be interested to know the status of the refugees.

It was the least she could do, after all.


Though nobody said anything, they agreed wordlessly that they didn't need to pick or pry as to why nobody made the decision to leave. Maybe it was just that it was such short notice, so impulsive--
(Like the decision to come here hadn't been impulsive.)
Maybe it was the knowledge that now they knew how to look for cracks, so if they really had to, they could just venture all the way back out here and find their way home on their own later.

Who could say?

The mood was a little lighter than it had been that morning as they set out to the north. It was hardly jovial -- they had little to be jovial about -- but there was a little less tension, a little less awkward silence.

Natalie couldn't shake a little shame at the fact that she had been the one to suggest leaving, but a relief that she couldn't quite place that nobody -- not even her -- had actually followed through on it. It wasn't gone from her mind, and every crack in the distance felt almost lonely in a way; but nobody brought it up, nobody complained, either nobody regretted the choice or nobody was going to let on.

So that was something, at least.

And at least they were united in a plan, however modest of one. They were headed north, to the shrine of the Norns -- whatever the fuck that was.

But it was at least a choice. They'd made that choice. They'd had the chance to tap out, and that had to count for something.

They chose to lay low from a gaggle of digimon in the distance that seemed to be having very loud and violent beef with each other; they walked a mile or two in a shallow canyon to get away from a blast of strong wind that carried the dusty sand with it. They rode on when the sky grew dark, wanting to make up a little bit of their lost time-- but really, they wouldn't have been able to stop if they'd wanted to, as they had no places to stop that weren't out in the open. The further they went out, the fewer cracks they saw, and those that were were behind them, miles in the distance, or both.

They came to rest in a shallow overhang of rock in a shallow little dip in the ground, not deep or surrounded enough to be called a cave, but the shallow hills and rock provided enough shelter that the weren't going to argue about it.
Also not argued about was Natalie and Raumon taking the first watch.


"Hey," Meghan's voice shook Natalie out of a sort of daydream trance (even though it was, of course, not daytime) as she sat on the high ground to keep an eye on their surroundings. Nothing had happened at all; a few digimon had passed by in the distance, but they couldn't have been less interested in their little camp.

"You taking over?" Natalie said, looking to Meghan; she was limping a little bit again, and Oremon was helping support her as she walked.


"Do you need some," Raumon said, and wiggled his claws, "woogie healing magic? Is your leg hurting you?"

"I'd hate to make you do it just for me," Meghan said with a faint smile. "Wait until morning so you can top us all off, yeah?"

Raumon frowned a bit, but Meghan would not be swayed, so he nodded after a moment. "Makes sense."

Natalie stood up and Meghan took her place sitting down, but Natalie did not immediately take her leave. She lingered in a conspicuous sort of way, and Meghan looked up at her from the ground.
"I don't think anyone was ever really going to bail out," Meghan said in what she hoped was a conversational way.

"I don't know," Natalie said after a moment. "I was kind of prepared to."

"Good, because I was too, I just didn't want to say it in case it'd make you feel bad," Meghan said, almost blurted, then she looked quite embarrassed; but Natalie smiled, a little bittersweetly, and Meghan returned the expression. Oremon snorted.

"I mean, do we have room to talk," Raumon said. "We bailed out fifteen years ago."

"It's not the same," Oremon mumbled.

"I mean, is it really, though," Raumon said, gesturing vaguely with one claw.

"... yes," Oremon said flatly.

"Ruining my attempts to be deep."

Oremon snorted.

Natalie patted Raumon on the head and cast one more glance around.
"Come on," she said, and she and her partner retreated to get some goddamn sleep.

"Night," Meghan said in a whisper-yell.

"Night," Natalie returned in kind.


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