Chapter 14: Coins for the Boatman
“That was a fantastic battle!” Meiru said, blushing slightly. “You and Blues were amazing!”
Netto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “We weren’t that great. Skullman took us by surprise at first.”
“You’re being too modest,” Yaito exclaimed.
“For once,” Blues muttered.
“Hey!” Netto cried, laughing a bit. “You always have to be critical, don’t you?”
They were walking down the hallway, headed for the restaurant area. They had been planning on a picnic outside, but a sudden rainstorm had put an end to the plan. Higure was with them and still in shock over the knowledge of Enzan’s thieving ways.
“I let a chip stealer clean my shop…” Higure mumbled.
“Can you prove he’s a thief?” Netto asked. “I mean, I know he’s a bad guy and all, but a chip thief…”
“We can’t prove anything, that’s the problem,” Tohru replied. “I had a great collection of chips my dad gave me for my birthday. I brought it to school once, and before lunchtime it was gone. Enzan had stopped netbattling months ago then, so no one believed me when I told them I had seen him skulking around by bag earlier that day. I know he stole them.”
“He took some of my chips,” Dekao said. “I couldn’t prove it, but I know it was him. He has this way of looking at you after he’s done something. You might not even know what he’s done yet, but if he gives you that look, you know he’s done something bad.”
“That’s not the worst thing!” Higure howled, cutting in on the conversation. “The worst thing is I let him borrow a rare chip!”
“What?” the others exclaimed as one.
“I felt sorry for him,” Higure explained. “He had begged me for use of the practice holo. In return, he’d clean the shop after I had closed. I can’t believe I fell for that!” He pressed his hands against his face.
“What kind of chip?” Netto asked, interested.
“Dream Aura!” Higure sobbed.
“Dream Aura?” Yaito repeated. “You’ll never see that chip again.”
“Why don’t you just ask him to give it back?” Meiru suggested. “After all, you did say he just borrowed it.”
“That’s no good,” Dekao said dismissively. “He’ll just say he lost it.”
Higure sobbed more. “That’s what I get for being soft-hearted!”
The group turned around to see a tall man standing behind them. He had long red hair and a goatee, and he was studying them intently.
“May we help you?” Meiru said politely.
“I’m looking for Hikari Enzan,” the man replied, his gaze resting on Netto. Something akin to hate flashed through his eyes, but it faded too quickly for Netto to figure it out. “My name is Hino Ken, and I’m an official in the N1 Grand Prix.”
“So what did he do, try to rip off the officials?” Dekao asked, snickering.
Hino Ken gave him a look. “Actually, word has reached us that someone was overheard making threats against him and his family. In order ensure the safety of all participants, we must follow up serious claims such as this and find out if it is genuine or not.”
“Ha!” Higure laughed. “He deserves what ever happens to him, that chip stealing liar!”
Hino Ken gave the man another one of his looks. He was very good at them, Netto noted. “Have you seen him lately?” the red-headed man asked.
“We saw him on the stands’ walkway a few minutes ago, after the match,” Yaito replied. “He was chased off by a couple of men.”
“What?” Hino Ken exclaimed. “What did these men look like?”
Yaito looked startled at his sudden intensity. “Well, one was tall, and the other had greasy hair,” she said.
Hino Ken swore loudly, surprising the group. “Those were the men overheard threatening him! Did you see which way they went?”
“W-we didn’t see which way t-they went,” Yaito replied, tripping over a few words.
The distant sound of someone screaming echoed down the hall, and everyone froze. Hino Ken took of like a shot a second later, the others following him.
-- -- --
Enzan’s vision exploded with bursts of light as the tall goon smashed his face in. He slammed into the wall behind him painfully, but his tight grip on Rockman’s PET never weakened. Blood was pouring from his nose and lip, and the flesh around his eye felt puffy. The tall goon stepped forward and buried his fist in Enzan’s stomach. Enzan gasped and fell to his knees.
The greasy goon laughed. “Let me have a shot,” he said, walking forward. Enzan barely had time to flinch before he was kicked in the head. He fell forward on his stomach, but he never let go of the PET to defend himself.
The tall goon brought both fists down on Enzan’s back and the boy cried out in agony. He was kicked in the side again, and the greasy goon stomped on his legs.
“This is fun,” one commented. Enzan’s head was swirling too much to distinguish who.
“What we need is a bat or something,” the other responded.
Enzan cried out as his back was pounded on again. Tears of pain poured from his eyes and blood trickled out of his mouth. A fist slammed painfully into his ear, making Enzan’s head spin. He was kicked in the side and his chip pack was dislodged from its carrier. Chips spilled out from the pack and spread out over the floor.
“Look at those!” one cried.
“They’re all common chips,” the other said, disgusted. “He’s got nothing of any worth—what’s this?”
Enzan saw something glint out of the corner of his good eye. Dream Aura! He shot his arm out and grabbed it before his attacker could.
“Hey, he’s a bit protective about that chip, isn’t he?” the greasy one said.
“Shut up, I think that was Dream Aura!” the tall one replied. He held his hand out to Enzan. “Hand it over, and we’ll leave you alone.”
“No!” Enzan managed to reply.
The tall man stood up. His face displayed no emotion as he stomped on Enzan’s wrist. Enzan screamed in pain. “Hand it over,” the goon said again. He twisted his foot, grounding it deeper into Enzan’s flesh.
The greasy man kicked Enzan in the side again. Enzan moaned and he felt his grip on the chip loosening. The tall man lost his patience and began to pry the battle chip out of Enzan’s hand.
Let the chip go, Enzan heard a voice say. It’s not worth your life.
No, it’s not mine, he argued back. I can’t let them take it!
“Give it!” the man yelled. He brought his foot down on Enzan’s wrist again. Enzan could hear the snap of bones breaking and finally let go of the chip. His world swirled and turned black as he lost consciousness.
“Gotcha!” the man said triumphantly.
“Hey, I heard someone coming!” the greasy goon cried. He ran, the tall man close on his heels.
“Stop right there!” Hino Ken roared. The two only ran faster, disappearing through a door to the outside. Hino Ken swore again, softer this time. No matter how much he chased them, he would never catch them. They were programs sent by Immersion, but why? Had they discovered something about Enzan that disturbed them?
Hino Ken walked toward the boy, pushing the scattered battle chips aside with his foot. He knelt and inspected the boy’s body carefully. After he was sure nothing serious was broken, he turned the Enzan over. He winced once he saw the white-haired boy’s face. Blood was splattered all over his face and leaked from his mouth and nose. One eye was blackened and there was a bruise surrounding a cut on the opposite cheek.
Hino Ken looked up at Yaito’s gasp and saw the group staring at him. “Don’t just stand there!” he roared. “You two!” He pointed at Netto and Dekao. “Call an ambulance! He could be bleeding internally!”
“Right!” Netto said. He and Dekao ran off to find a jack. If they plugged in, their navis could alert emergency services faster than they could on their own.
“As for the rest of you, gather up his battle chips. It was obvious he was robbed.” Hino Ken examined Enzan again. “Looks like his wrist is broken.”
Higure madly began to scoop up chips and look at them. “This isn’t it! Neither is this one!”
Tohru rolled his eyes as he picked up some in a corner. “Chip otaku,” he mumbled.
“It’s likely your rare chip was stolen by those creeps,” Hino Ken called to the panicking man. “His wrist is broken and it looks like they had to pry something from his hand.”
Higure gave off a low moan, and the red-haired N1 official gave him a disgusted look.
Hino Ken glanced back at the boy and noticed that Enzan was clutching his PET in his other arm. He tried to remove it, but the boy’s grip was like iron. “You’ll have to let go sometime, boy,” he said softly. “Your navi will be all right.”
Enzan didn’t stir, but his grip loosened enough for Hino Ken to slip the PET from his hand.
“Enzan-sama,” Rockman whimpered, immediately appearing on the screen. His pupils shrank with fear when he saw Hino Ken.
“Your operator has been hurt,” Hino Ken said quickly. “We’re getting him help now.”
“Is he going to be okay?” Rockman asked frantically.
“I don’t know,” Hino Ken admitted. He sighed. “I don’t know.”
-- -- --
Rockman was curled up into a ball, sobbing softly. It had been a few hours since Enzan had been beaten by those jerks. He had been rushed to the hospital, and the only thing Rockman knew was Enzan was currently being examined by doctors. He didn’t know what was going on with his operator now. Haruka had come to the hospital from her work, but she had barely glanced at him and had left his PET on a table in the waiting room. No one else had even spoken to him since. All he knew that Enzan was hurt badly and it was his fault.
A hand touched his shoulder and he flinched away. He didn’t deserve to be comforted. Not after what he had done.
“Leave me alone!” he cried.
“Rockman, it’s not your fault.”
“Yes it is!” Rockman snapped, his head shooting up to glare at the speaker. His eyes widened when he saw who it was. “Blues!”
Blues smiled. “Are you okay?”
“N-no,” Rockman sniffed, looking away. “Please go away. I’m not worth your time.”
“That’s not true,” another voice said. Rockman turned to see Roll kneeling next to him. The pink navi smiled at him brightly. “You’re a wonderful person, Rockman. We don’t want to see you sad.”
“B-but it’s all my fault!” Rockman protested. “Enzan-sama was—he was—he protected me! They said they were going to take me and he didn’t let them. And then they—then they—”
“It’s all right, Rockman,” Blues interrupted, his voice gentle. “Your operator obviously cared enough for you to protect you in that way. If anything happened to you, he would be crushed.”
Roll shot Blues a doubtful look over Rockman’s head, but Blues ignored it.
“D-do you really think so?” Rockman asked hopefully.
“I don’t know your operator well enough to be certain,” Blues said carefully. “But I know that’s what Netto-kun would do for me. Judging from what you’ve told me, I bet your operator feels the same way.”
Rockman hugged his knees and looked down at the floor. “Thank you for trying to help me,” he said softly. “Can I ask the two of you a favor?”
“Of course,” Blues said.
Rockman peered at the taller navi shyly. “Can you find out what’s going on with Enzan-sama? I just want to know if he’s okay.”
“I’ll ask Netto-kun to tell you immediately once we hear something,” Blues promised. “Right now they are still waiting to learn about him too.”
“They?” Rockman repeated.
“Dekao-kun has another match, so he went back to the Mega Float, but everyone else is here in the hospital waiting room,” Roll explained. With two bright flashes, Glyde and Iceman appeared.
“Rockman-san, how are you doing?” Glyde asked, looking down at the smaller navi with concern.
Rockman wiped at his eyes and stood up quickly. “I’m all right,” he said, looking at his feet.
“You’re not damaged in any way, are you?” Iceman asked.
“I’m fine,” Rockman mumbled, turning red. He wasn’t used to so much attention. Glyde immediately struck up a conversation about Internet servers, trying to distract Rockman from his operator’s plight. It seemed to work, for Rockman looked interested and occasionally interjected with a comment or question. Iceman joined in, talking animatedly about the servers he had dealt with.
Roll walked up to Blues and squeezed his arm gently. “That was nice of you,” she whispered. “Suggesting we check on him and trying to cheer him up.”
“I didn’t want to leave him miserable,” Blues admitted. He smiled at Roll. “I hate the idea of a navi being miserable because he’s worried about his operator.”
Roll blushed and looked away. Even though she could not see his eyes, his gaze seemed to be admiring.
“Your presence really helped,” Blues added. “It’s nice to be flattered by such a pretty navi.”
“You think I’m pretty?” Roll asked, her eyes lighting up.
“…And that rude program had the nerve to ask for my identification!” Glyde was saying. He made a dismissive gesture. “I had already given it to him five times before!”
Rockman laughed. “Aren’t all programs like that?” he asked. “They get confused so easily.”
“Hey, at least you don’t have to deal with them all the time,” Iceman put in. “When I work with Tohru’s father, I have to repeat instructions to them all day long. Five seconds after I give complete instructions to one, it comes right back asking for them again!”
“How do you know it’s the same one?” Blues asked. He slipped his arm out of Roll’s grip, but he gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze before walking toward the other navis.
Iceman shrugged. “You’re right. They all look the same.”
Rockman laughed again. He didn’t know why he felt so happy. He couldn’t remember being this happy before. It made no sense; his operator was in the hospital, Enzan’s condition unknown, and just a few minutes earlier Rockman had been feeling miserable. He couldn’t explain the happiness he felt now. All he knew was that he wanted this happiness to last a long, long time.
-- -- --
Enzan moaned. His head was killing him and his face ached, like someone had tried to rip the skin off of it with a dull razor. He tried to flex his hand, a dim memory coming to mind, and stopped in confusion when he realized he couldn’t feel it. Someone was crying, a soft, muffled sound, and he opened his eyes slowly to see who it was.
Hikari Haruka was sitting in a chair next to him, crying softly into her hands. Enzan realized he was lying on a bed, in what looked like a hospital room. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Haruka looked up with a gasp. She stared at him like he was a ghost. “Oh, Enzan!” she cried. She leaned forward and touched his forehead. “How do you feel?”
“Sore,” he admitted. Vague memories of what had happened entered his head. “Where’s Rockman?” he asked sharply, sitting up. That proved to be a mistake, for his head exploded with pain and the rest of his body ached in protest. He moaned and clutched at his head. It was then when he noticed the bandage on his arm. It was wrapped thickly around his hand and wrist, and he stared at it in horror.
“Enzan, are you all right?” Haruka cried, wrapping her arms around his back to support him.
“I feel awful,” Enzan groaned, closing his eyes against the pain. “What happened?”
“A bunch of punks decided they didn’t like your looks,” a deep voice said. “So they tried to change them forcefully.”
“Hino Ken?” Enzan asked, opening his eyes slightly.
The former World Three agent smiled grimly at him. “Your navi is all right, they didn’t get him. He’s with your friends. How do you feel?”
I have friends? Enzan blinked. “What do you want?” he demanded irritably.
“Enzan, be nice!” Haruka scolded. “This man saved your life!”
“He did?” Enzan asked, amazed.
“Feeling that bad, huh?” Hino Ken chuckled. “It’s all right, Hikari-san. He’s still in some pain, so his rudeness can forgiven.” He walked toward the bed and stopped when he was standing next to it. “You have a mild concussion and many, many bruises,” he announced almost cheerfully. “You’re very fortunate. Your wrist is sprained and severely battered, but it should be in working order in a few days. You’ll be able to participate in the N1 Grand Prix without difficulty.”
“But I have a match tomorrow,” Enzan said.
“I’m an official in the tournament,” Hino Ken announced. “I made some adjustments to the schedule with the approval of the others. Everything will work out.”
“Thank the man, Enzan,” Haruka said as Enzan stared at Hino Ken. “He worked hard to make sure you have a good chance. Although I’m not sure I want you participating in the N1 anymore after this.”
“But I have to be in the N1!” Enzan cried.
“Hikari-san, your son is fit enough to go home,” Hino Ken said, interrupting. “Why don’t you go check him out of the hospital? I’d like to talk to him about today’s events to ensure they won’t happen again.”
“Of course,” Haruka said. She hugged Enzan gently before standing up. “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”
Enzan mumbled something that could have been a “yes.” Haruka quickly left the room, eager to get her son home. Enzan glared at Hino Ken as the red-headed man watched her leave.
“A nice woman,” Hino Ken commented.
“Spill it,” Enzan snapped. “You know what’s going on, and you know who I really am, don’t you?”
“If I told you,” Hino Ken replied, looking at Enzan, “They might kill you next time.”
Enzan was silent, studying the man. The words sounded like a threat, and Enzan wasn’t about to be pushed around.
Hino Ken sighed. “I’m here to warn you, Ijuuin Enzan.” He had put an emphasis on the name, and it had the intended effect. Enzan’s eyes went wide with shock. “You have to figure this out on your own,” Hino Ken continued. “I can’t help you anymore than I already have. They know you aren’t who you’re supposed to be. You have to be careful, or they’ll try to take you out. Do you understand?”
“No,” Enzan admitted.
“You will,” Hino Ken replied. “Just be careful. Don’t trust anyone, not even your net navi. And no matter what, don’t tell anyone what you know.” He turned to leave. “You won’t see me again. I’ve interfered too much for them to leave me be.”
“Wait!” Enzan cried, trying to stumble out of bed. His legs refused to do what he told them, and Hino Ken was gone before he was able to stand. Enzan swore. There went his last lead, and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. Enzan looked down and realized he had lost something else too.
“Where are my clothes?”
-- -- --
Hino Ken walked down the hallway, whistling tonelessly. He knew he didn’t have much time. The hallways were empty and dark, and he could feel them watching him.
“Hino Ken-sama, you shouldn’t have interfered with the programming,” Fireman said. “He was supposed to have a broken wrist and cracked ribs.”
“Commander Beef had it wrong,” Hino Ken replied. “From what I saw, Enzan may be our best hope at stopping Immersion and their NetWorld.”
“Do you think he’ll listen to your warning?” Fireman asked.
“I doubt it,” Hino Ken said cheerfully. “I wasn’t planning on him to, but I hope he uses more caution. He truly has no idea what he’s caught up in. Hopefully I made him think about it.”
The voice had come from behind him, and Hino Ken stopped in his tracks. “You’re late,” he commented. “I expected to be grabbed, thrown into whatever you have as a prison, and scolded profusely after I left the room.”
“You have interfered with our business.”
“I thought that was my job.” Hino Ken turned around, but there was no one behind him. The sexless voice continued to speak.
“We have learned you have ulterior motives for being here. You have been employed by those Net Agents to sabotage our plans. That is not acceptable.”
“You can’t prove that,” Hino Ken replied.
“On the contrary,” the voice said, becoming more feminine. It came from behind him, and Hino Ken whirled.
“Miyuki!” he gasped. Damn, I should have warned En—
That was as far as his thought got, for he lost consciousness a moment later. Miyuki’s crystal ball glowed in her hands, casting shadows on her face.
“Hino Ken-sama!” Fireman cried.
“He can no longer hear you,” Miyuki replied emotionlessly. “He will never be able to hear anyone again.”
Author’s note: The title refers to the Ancient Greek belief that coins must be placed on the eyes or in the mouth (varies from time to time) to pay the boatman who travels the River Styx, transporting the souls of the dead to the Underworld. If you cannot pay the boatman, you cannot pass into the Underworld. I intended it to refer to the sacrifice Hino Ken made to help Enzan. No action comes without consequence, whether it’s good or bad.