Author: SilvorMoon PM
Megumi doesn't want the excitement to end, so when a Digimon who can grant wishes appears, she and her friends form Hypnos are swept into a new adventure.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure - Megumi O. & M. Yamaki - Words: 28,353 - Reviews: 15 - Favs: 14 - Follows: 1 - Published: 04-23-02 - Status: Complete - id: 738033
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Notes: The following takes place some time after the defeat of the D- Reaper. The Digimon have returned home, and everyone's settling down... so of course I come along and shake things up a bit. This is largely something I did for fun, so kindly forgive any impossibilities, OOC, or other silliness.
Megumi stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking up at the twin towers that stretched like a pair of reaching arms toward the sky, their windows glittering in the afternoon, and she felt a vague sense of wistfulness. It was hard to work at Hypnos without having some feelings for the place, whether good or bad. She herself had always come to work with a sense of adventure, sometimes excitement, sometimes trepidation, but always something that sent a little tingle up her spine when she stepped through the front doors. She'd never felt quite that same way about any other job, and she had to admit, she'd miss it a little now that it was gone.
Sighing, she stepped through the entrance for what would probably be the last time. Her brain was telling her that she was unequipped; she ought to be wearing her uniform and safety glasses, and habit wouldn't listen to reason when she told it those things were no longer necessary. After all, she wasn't going to work today, but only coming to collect a few things she'd left in her locker. Now that the Digital World threat was gone, there was no more need for Hypnos, and hence, no need for her. All that was left to do now was to pick up some personal items she'd left lying around and turn in her ID badge and key cards.
On the way to the locker room, she passed one of the other technicians, a young man she knew by face but not by name.
"Oh, hello, Miss Onodera," he greeted. "Come to help with the cleanup?"
"Cleanup?" she repeated.
"Well, you know most of the machines downstairs have to be dismantled," he said. "They're too dangerous to just be left lying around, and since we're the only ones who know what's down there and how it works, a few of us volunteered to help with the sensitive stuff."
"That sounds interesting," said Megumi. The idea of being helpful appealed to her; it would give her a bit of closure to watch the equipment going down.
"It is interesting. I was down there for a few hours - I'm taking a break now," the man replied. "You ought to go have a look. It might be the only time you ever see Mr. Yamaki with his shirtsleeves rolled up."
The idea of her buttoned-down boss doing any kind of manual labor was enough to make Megumi giggle. "Well, that's something I can't say I've seen before. And after the last few weeks, there aren't that many things left I haven't seen."
"You can say that again. I'm glad to have this whole thing over and done with," the technician said. "I'll be happy to have a nice normal desk job after this."
Megumi nodded, considering that one as she said her goodbyes and began walking toward the lab. She supposed she ought to agree with him, considering some of the terrible and terrifying things that had happened since they had first sent those children into the Digital World. Still, there was some childish part of her that had enjoyed living on the edge like that. The sense of being that close to something magical had been as exhilarating as it was frightening.
*Oh, if I had just been a few years younger, who's to say I wouldn't have joined them? I wouldn't have minded joining the fight, I don't think. Maybe.*
She reached the lab and found it swarming with workers. That was nothing unusual; Yamaki was the kind of boss who wouldn't tolerate his underlings standing around doing nothing. What was different was the fact that most of these workers had on casual clothes and were chatting and joking as they dismantled machines and hauled parts. As promised, even Yamaki himself was looking a few degrees less formal than usual, having set aside his jacket and tie. He was perched on one of the catwalks, keeping an eye on the proceedings and making sure none of his creations were being mistreated. Keeping company with him was another familiar face, and Megumi grinned.
"Reika!" she shouted. "Hey, Reika, down here!"
"Megumi! I didn't expect you to turn up here," Reika called back. "Come up and join us."
Megumi carefully scaled the steps and went to greet her co-worker. The two young women had their differences of personality, but in a place where they were never allowed to speak about their work to the outside world, they had come to depend on each other as confidants and supports when the going was difficult. It was no surprise that the two of them had become fast friends; there was something about helping save the world together that bonded people.
"I'm glad to see you again," said Megumi. "These last few days have been so crazy, I haven't known which way to turn. I wasn't sure when I'd ever catch up to you again."
"Same here," Reika replied, "only I've got it worse, because I'm with him all the time." She pointed in Yamaki's direction. "Once it got out what this Hypnos thing was all about, he's been pestered by the press like you wouldn't believe. He can deal with it, of course, but it's irritating."
"I'll bet. They've been bothering me, and I hardly did anything."
"You did plenty," said Reika.
"Not as much as those kids did," Megumi. "Though I think I'd rather be the one the papers bothered than some of them... So, what's going to happen to you two now that it's all over? Any future plans?"
"Immediate plans include a vacation," said Reika. "A long vacation, and I am going to make sure Prince Charming here relaxes if it kills him."
Yamaki did a good job of pretending he didn't hear her.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to do after this," he admitted. "I definitely intend to take some time off. After that... who knows? Though I don't foresee any problems with any of us getting new jobs. We helped save the world, after all. That's bound to look good on our resumes." His expression turned distant. "I am going to miss this place, though."
"So am I," said Megumi.
"I think we all will," said Reika. "Well, those of us who were in the thick of things. Maybe the ones who were on the fringes won't care, but for us..."
"We'll remember," Megumi said. "I hope I see you again sometime. We should try not to lose touch."
"I'm sure we won't," answered Reika. "Hey, listen - we're kind of busy right now, but would you like to meet me for lunch tomorrow? It might be the last free afternoon I have for a while."
"I'd love to. I'll give you a call, all right? I think I'm just going to be hanging around the house tomorrow - I haven't had a chance to clean it in ages."
Reika giggled. "I know what you mean. All right, then, it's a date."
"Great! See you tomorrow, then," Megumi replied. "I'm going to go get my stuff out of my locker. Do you need any extra help with the cleanup?"
"I think it's well taken care of," said Yamaki. "We erased most of the data on the computers this morning. Most of what's left now is heavy lifting - you probably wouldn't like it."
"No, I think I'll leave that to you tough guy types," she said. "Goodbye. Bye, Reika. Take good care of this old grouch - he needs it."
"Hey, don't you talk like that about my guy," said Reika in mock-offense. "He may be an old grouch, but at least he's my old grouch."
Megumi giggled, waved, and scampered off. Yamaki shook his head.
"Has she always been this way, and I just never noticed?" he asked.
"I don't know; aren't we all acting a little unusual lately?" Reika replied. "It comes from having the pressure stop all of a sudden."
"I suppose that's so," he said. "But just... do me a favor and don't talk about me like that. At least not where I can hear you."
She laughed, slipping her arms around him and leaning her head on his shoulder. "Poor old grouch."
Meanwhile, Megumi had taken the last of her belongings - nothing more than some assorted personal items, pens and pencils, and a couple of books she read over her lunch breaks - scooped them into a bag, and began walking home again. It was a pleasant day to be out, bright and sunny with a cool breeze blowing, lifting her spirits a bit. It was nice to know her friend was going to be all right. She'd spent enough lunch breaks swapping girl-talk with Reika to know that she would indeed take good care of her "old grouch." The two of them would probably even be happy together, though Megumi sometimes had to wonder how they put up with each other.
*But as for me?* she wondered. *I just don't know...*
She was pulled from her ruminations by the sound of bicycle wheels, and she turned to see a redheaded girl riding up the sidewalk. She skidded to a halt as she drew nearer.
"Hi!" Megumi greeted. As a second figure appeared out of nowhere, she added, "Hello, Renamon. Nice to see you two again."
Renamon, never one to waste words, bowed politely.
"I remember you," said Ruki, looking her over. "You're one of the Hypnos people. I wasn't expecting to see you."
"I'm just doing a little Spring cleaning," answered Megumi, holding up her bag as proof. "How about you? How is everyone?"
Ruki took a moment to give the question its due consideration. "We're okay. Some better than others, but... we're okay. We're all taking care of Juri, and she's starting to come around."
"That's good to hear," said Megumi. "I have to admit, I was a little worried about her. That was a lot for a little girl like her to deal with. I hope she's not being bothered too much - you know, by reporters and things."
"That's one thing we don't have to worry about," said Ruki, a steely glint coming into her eyes. "She was at my house a few days ago and some dumb photographers showed up. Mom went totally ballistic on them." She smiled, expression going distant. "I didn't know my mom was that cool."
"She gave them a few bruises and scrapes to remember, and she missed three days' worth of photo shoots because she had a black eye," answered Ruki, grinning. "I just might have to start admitting I'm related to her now."
"It sounds like she's in good hands," said Megumi, smiling a bit.
"Yeah," Ruki replied. "Man, it's hard to believe its all over. Feels like I only met Renamon yesterday."
"Over?" said Renamon, tilting her ears. "I don't think its completely over. I'm still here, am I not?"
Ruki smiled. "That's true. Life can never be ordinary when there's a Digimon around. Anyway, I gotta get home before mom and grandma start to worry about me. Sheesh, get lost in another dimension just once and people get all paranoid. See ya 'round!"
She waved and pedaled off, the golden fox following for a few bounds before abruptly phasing into the shadows and vanishing. Megumi watched a moment, then began walking again, letting her mind wander.
*It would be fun to have a Digimon,* she mused. *Wish I could have one. Too bad it's only kids. It would be nice to have something around to remind me things used to be exciting...*
On a whim, she decided not to go directly home. It was too nice a day to hang around indoors, so she turned her footsteps toward the park. It seemed like she was not the only one with the idea; there were plenty of children out playing games, flying kites, or just enjoying the fact that they weren't in school. She watched them play for a while, but eventually she tired of the noise and activity. She followed trail to less popular spaces, moving deep into the shelter of some cool green trees. When the bag she was carrying began to hurt her hand, she sat down at the edge of the path, putting aside her bag and leaning against the trunk of a sturdy oak. She daydreamed, watching the leaves shift overhead in a kaleidoscope of green and gold. It was cool and quiet there, and deeply peaceful. After a while, her eyes closed, and she dozed.
For a while, she entertained a strange dream - she was a Digimon Tamer, wandering the Digital World in search of something she couldn't remember. She wanted to ask what it was, but she knew if she spoke aloud, something terrible would happen. She walked across a landscape of crystal stones, searching. Suddenly, a fog rose around her, and in the fog was a door. She ran towards it, and...
Megumi sat up, startled, looking around for the source of the noise. She was sure she had heard a sound like something moderately heavy being dropped onto the twig- and leaf-covered ground. Had it been part of her dream? A few leaves floated down to earth. She picked one up. It was green, and freshly-broken, just as if something had fallen from the sky and through the branches just seconds ago. All right, so she wasn't imagining things, then. Something had fallen nearby. Where was it now?
She heard the sound of something rustling in the shrubbery, and she turned just in time to see something pinkish-red retreat into the safety of their leaves. Crawling on her hands and knees, she crept closer to it, peering into the bushes.
"All right," she said. "I know I saw you! Come on out!"
The bush rustled a little. Megumi thought it looked uncertain.
"It's okay," she said. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want a better look at you, that's all."
The bush rustled again. Very slowly, a creature stepped out. It was only about two feet tall, vaguely humanoid in appearance, mostly white except for red-pink gloves, boots, a ribbon of some sort around its neck, and a head covering that gave the impression of long antennae tipped with hearts that trailed almost to the ground. Hanging from the ribbon was a green crystal that glowed faintly. The creature looked at her with sparkling black eyes.
"A Digimon!" Megumi squeaked. "I knew it! What's your name?"
The Digimon shrugged and looked apologetic.
"You don't know?" asked Megumi, puzzled.
It shook its head and pointed to its throat.
"You can't talk?" she asked. "Not at all?"
It nodded sadly.
"Hm," said Megumi. "I wish I had one of those Arks like the kids have; that would tell me who you are. Hang on; maybe I have it written in my notes somewhere."
She went through her bag and pulled out a battered notebook, flipping rapidly through the pages as she scanned their contents.
"Aha!" she said. "This looks right. Puttimon, a fairy-type Digimon. Vaccine. Armored Digimon. Is that you?"
The Digimon nodded happily. Megumi grinned.
"Cool. I'm Megumi. Nice to meet you, Puttimon. What are you doing here? Oh, wait, you can't tell me. Hm. This is going to be complicated.... Oh, I know!"
Peering in the depths of her bag, she pulled out a half-empty box of chocolates.
"These have been around a while," she said, looking at them critically. "I was saving them for a special occasion, but I guess this will do. Here, try one."
Puttimon tiptoed closer and picked up one of the candies, looking at it curiously. He looked at her and pointed at it.
"It's food," she explained. She picked up one of the chocolates and popped it in her mouth. "See? You eat it. It's good."
The Digimon carefully put one of the candies in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. His eyes lit up, and he quickly went to work gobbling up the rest of the treats. When the box was empty, he turned back to her with a hopeful expression.
"Sorry," she said. "That's all I've got."
"You don't mind, huh? That's good. Maybe I can find something else for you later," she replied. "So, what are you doing in the real world? I thought all your troubles back home were supposed to be over."
The Digimon pantomimed searching for something, standing on his tiptoes and peering all around.
"Trying to find something?" she asked. "What kind of thing?"
Puttimon shook his head and shrugged.
"Too hard to explain, huh?" she interpreted. "Can I help?"
He thought that one over a bit. He shook his head.
"Oh. Too bad. Well, would you like to hang out with me a while anyway?"
He tilted his head and looked regretful.
"You would, but you can't. Okay, I understand. Too bad. You are a cute little guy."
Puttimon smiled shyly and blushed. He pointed at her.
"You like me, too? Thanks!" she answered. She sighed. "It's things like this that make me sorry I grew up. If I were a kid, maybe we could be partners. I wish I still could. I really do wish I could have a Digimon partner of my own to have adventures with."
A look flashed across Puttimon's face. Megumi couldn't place it, exactly - she wasn't sure she'd ever seen another look quite like it, some peculiar mingling of shock, hope, fear, and surprise all rolled into one stunned instant. Then it vanished, leaving him with his normal innocent expression.
"What was that all about?" Megumi asked. "Never mind, I'm not sure you could explain it. Did that mean you wouldn't have minded being my partner?"
Puttimon nodded shyly.
"Well, we can still be friends, can't we?" she asked.
He nodded again. Megumi beamed.
"That's great," she said. "This is really pretty cool, having you show up like this. I was just thinking how much I would like to have a few Digimon around, and here you are!"
Again Puttimon fixed her with that speculative look. He seemed to be making some intense mental calculations. Then he gave up with a shake of his head and a silent sigh.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
Puttimon rattled off a series of gestures while Megumi tried to understand. The most she could get out of it was that he had to find something, and apparently he would be in trouble if he didn't come up with it soon. She was surprised she could get that much out of it, but she was having strange flashbacks to her dream, the one of searching for something and being unable to speak...
"All right, I understand," she said. "Good luck finding your whatever-it-is. Come see me again sometime, okay?"
He looked down at his hands helplessly.
"You can't? Why not?"
More pointing and gestures.
"You have to go back to the Digital World, huh?" she answered, disappointed. "Oh. Well, it was nice meeting you, then. If you're ever back in the real world again, well... look for me."
Puttimon nodded. Then he leaped forward and hugged her quickly before darting off into the bushes again. Megumi stared, surprised. Then she smiled.
"Poor little guy," she said. "I sure hope he finds what he's looking for. Hm, maybe he'll find himself a real Tamer somewhere. I wonder why he couldn't talk? And what was he looking for, anyway?"
Still, much as she wondered, there was no real way she could ever find out. Resigning herself to that fact, she pulled herself to her feet and dusted the leaves off her clothing. A glance at the sky told her that evening was drawing near; she must have slept longer than she'd thought. Shouldering her bag, she started walking home.
Yamaki was quiet. This wasn't an unusual occurrence; he was never one to talk unless he had something worthwhile to say, but Reika knew him well enough to see the distance in his eyes and know his mind was somewhere far away. She sat down on the sofa next to him and leaned on his shoulder.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she said.
"Just trying to adjust myself," he answered. "I know it's been over for weeks now, but I still can't get used to it."
"Get used to what?"
"Everything being over," he said. "There was a time I thought I would have given anything to see it done and over with, but now that I'm here..."
"You'll get used to it. Just give it time."
"I wish I had your optimism," said Yamaki, sighing. "That wasn't just a job to me, Reika. For years, that place was my life. It meant more to me than anything else, and it's gone. I don't know what I'm going to do now. I know I can get work somewhere else, but it won't mean anything, not like that place did. I've lost my purpose. What am I going to do? I need more than just a day-to-day desk job, and I don't know where to get it."
"I think I understand," she said softly.
"How could you?"
"Well, I can't know exactly how you're feeling, but I can imagine," she said. "Hypnos meant a lot to me, too, you know. I know it's got to be hurting you even worse than it does for me. Believe it or not, I do know how much it meant to you." She sighed, leaning closer and closing her eyes. "I think that was what first drew me to you, that intensity and passion. I'd hate to see you lose it."
"Hm," he said, giving her a speculative glance around the edges of his glasses. "Well, I can think of one thing I'll always be passionate about..."
"Always? How about now?"
"Maybe," she said. "All this talk about things ending makes me feel lonely. I want someone close to me."
"Well, if that's what you really want..."
The talk then turned to less depressing matters, and after a while, to nothing being said at all.
Evenings were always quiet at the Onodera residence, and tonight was only an exception by being even quieter than usual. Megumi was in a thoughtful mood as she washed her dinner dishes and went through her evening routine. As she'd said to Reika, her apartment was showing the neglect that came from not having a lot of time and energy to devote to it, and she considered trying to clean it. She picked up some random bits of trash and tossed some dirty laundry into a hamper, but her heart wasn't in it. Soon she gave up. Instead, she picked out a book and flopped down on her bed to do some reading.
Outside, something sat on her windowsill looking in at her. It didn't matter that her room was several storeys up; this particular intruder wasn't bothered by trivialities like heights. Puttimon had wandered the city for most of the day, searching diligently for something he wasn't entirely sure he'd recognize if he saw. After a while, he'd given up trying. Something else had been on his mind, and, inexorably, he'd followed his instincts back here, to keep watch over the human woman. As the time passed and she turned the pages of her book, he kept a constant, silent vigil.
*She's not the one,* he told himself sternly. *She'll never do. You were told to find a child. You should get back to work; there's still plenty of time to find one.*
He sighed. He didn't really like this job at all - or anything else about his current situation. He did like the woman, though. She'd been kind to him, something he didn't have much experience with. If he'd known humans were such nice creatures, he would have been even less inclined to do this job.
*Come to think of it, I don't really want her to be the one. She wouldn't like it any more than I do.* He peered wistfully through the window; inside, the woman had finally tired of her reading and had dozed off again. *I want to do something nice for her. That will make me feel better. She gave me a gift; I'll give her something, too. I think it will work for her.*
He tapped her window lightly, and it opened itself just wide enough for a small Digimon to crawl through. He hopped lightly to the floor and tiptoed over to her bedside. The book had slipped from her fingers and landed half-open at her side; Puttimon could see an illustration of a knight rescuing a beautiful damsel. Megumi was smiling faintly, lost in some pleasant dream. He wondered what she was dreaming about. Closing his eyes, he placed a hand on her forehead, touching the other to the green crystal around his neck.
It seemed to Megumi that a presence entered her dreams - not an unfamiliar or unpleasant one, but something that felt more like meeting someone who had been her best friend when she was very small, someone she couldn't remember perfectly but cared deeply for just the same. He was whispering to her.
"Make a wish," he said. "Any wish you want, whatever your heart desires most, and it will be granted."
"I wish... I wish the adventure didn't have to end. I wish I could have an adventure, just for me. I wish I could be a Digimon Tamer and have a partner of my own, and we could go to the Digital World together."
In the real world, Puttimon's eyes snapped open with surprise, just as the crystal in his hand began to glow brilliantly. As both of them began to disappear, he thought, *This wasn't what I had in mind.*
The sunlight shining on her eyelids made Megumi think she must have been sleeping a long time. Oh, well, it wouldn't hurt her to lie still a little longer. She wasn't working right now; she could sleep in if she wanted to. Except... something about her bed didn't feel quite right. She didn't remember it being quite so prickly. Nor could she understand why she'd been sleeping with her clothes on.
She opened her eyes. The first thing she saw were waving tree branches, rearranging the pattern of sky and clouds that she could see through the leaves. At first, she thought she was back at the park. Then she let her head turn a bit and caught sight of something strange, a gigantic orb hanging in the sky, shining like a jewel never could. She sat up with a start.
"What the heck?" she exclaimed.
There was a rustling noise, and she looked around to see Puttimon standing nearby. He seemed to be glad to see her awake.
"So I didn't dream you," she said. "Am I in the Digital World?"
"How did I get here?"
He pointed at himself and looked guilty. Megumi frowned.
"You brought me here? How? Why?"
In reply, the little Digimon went through a complicated series of gestures, trying desperately to communicate before finally throwing up his hands in frustration. He looked apologetic. Megumi sighed.
"Just too complicated for words, huh?" she said. "Too bad. It would be nice to know what's going on, and I feel like you know. I wish you could explain it to me."
Puttimon sighed. "I wish I could, too.... Huh?"
For a moment, the 'mon looked utterly flabbergasted. Then he gave a high-pitched squeal of delight and flung himself at Megumi, hugging her tightly.
"Thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!" he exclaimed. "I am going to love you forever for this!"
"What? What did I do?" she asked.
He blinked at her. "Can't you tell?"
"Um, sort of..." she said. "How come you can talk all of a sudden?"
"Because you wished it," Puttimon explained.
"But that doesn't make any sense. Things don't happen just because you wish for them. Life doesn't work that way."
"Maybe not where you come from. It's different here," Puttimon explained. "Sometimes things do happen because you wish them, here. Especially with me."
"Do the things you wish come true?" Megumi asked.
He shook his head. "Not the things I wish. Other things. That's what I do. This..." He tapped the green crystal. "Grants wishes. That's why you're here. I wanted to do something for you to repay you for your kindness, and you wished that you could come here. I wish you hadn't, though."
"Why?" she asked. "I think it's great! I always wanted to see this place for myself!"
"But it's not safe," said Puttimon. He frowned. "Oh, dear, I don't like this at all, this is very bad..."
"Why is it bad?"
"Because you're in danger!" Puttimon replied. "I'm sorry I ever got you into this. Please forgive me; I never meant for anything bad to happen to you!"
"It's not your fault," she said soothingly.
"Yes it is," he said. He sighed. "I guess I'd better confess. Okay, here goes... I'm the servant of an evil Digimon."
"What, you?" Megumi exclaimed. "But - but you're so little and cute! You seem so nice..."
"Hey, it wasn't my idea!" he protested. "I was forced! My master is a Digimon called Demon, a Digimon of the most powerful class. Too powerful, actually - there's not much left that can challenge him anymore. He went to the Sovereigns themselves and asked them to make him one of them, but they turned him down. He's determined to make them sorry. He captured me when he heard of my powers, but I can only grant the wishes of a pure heart; my magic's no good to him." Puttimon sighed. "He didn't like it when I told him that. He didn't like what he heard, so he took away my voice. I haven't been able to say a word in ages!"
"That's cruel," said Megumi.
"You said it," Puttimon said. "Anyway, he told me if I wanted my voice back, I had to do him a favor in return. He'd heard the legends that a human's wish can make things happen in the Digital World, so he sent me to your world to find a human with a pure heart and lure her back to him, so he could convince her to wish whatever he wanted for him."
"And you brought back me," said Megumi.
"No!" Puttimon protested. "I didn't want it to be you, really! You're such a nice human. I didn't want to see Demon hurt you. I was going to look for someone else, but you wished yourself here, so I had to stay and protect you. I didn't want you to be hurt just because I was being silly and sentimental."
Megumi looked thoughtful. "So, what happens now? I guess I ought to wish myself home again..."
"Do you really want to go home?"
"No, not really..."
Puttimon shrugged. "If you don't want it, you can't wish it."
"I guess that makes sense," she said. "Well. Looks like I'm stuck. I suppose I ought to be worried more about that, but... I wished for an adventure, and here it is!"
"Don't worry," said Puttimon. "I got you into this mess, and I'll get you out of it. The most important thing we've got to do is make sure Demon doesn't find you. We'll find a safe place for you to hide, and then I'll go back and finish my job. Once that's done, I'll come back for you."
"You ought to stand up to that Demon person," said Megumi. "He doesn't need to be in charge of the Digital World; he'd just mess it all up."
Puttimon shuddered. "Me? Stand up to him? I'm just an Armor Digimon, and not even a very strong one. If I picked a fight with him, he'd do a lot worse than just take my voice away."
"Then just don't go back. Come with me," she said. "You have your voice back; you don't need him anymore."
"Hmm," said Puttimon, thinking. "Maybe... If we went to one of the other levels... He hasn't left his home level in years. If we went far enough away, he might not be able to find us again. But we'll have to hurry. It takes a long time to get to the next level, and he's probably already wondering where I am."
"Let's hurry, then," Megumi replied. "I want to see the Digital World!"
"Right this way!" answered Puttimon. "Um, by the way... you wouldn't happen to have any more of that stuff you gave me last time, would you?"
"Chocolate? Nope. Sorry. You wouldn't happen to have a decent pair of shoes, would you?" Megumi replied, looking down at her feet.
"Sorry, but no," Puttimon answered.
"Well, I wish we had both!"
Puttimon grinned and waved his hands, producing Megumi's walking shoes and a box of candy out of thin air. Megumi giggled.
"I could get used to hanging out with you," she said.
"Same here," answered Puttimon, "especially if there's chocolate involved!"
Laughing, Megumi set out, following her new friend.
No one would have called Yamaki an expert in the ways of women, but he did at least know that when two of them got together for lunch, you probably shouldn't expect them to come back within the next couple of hours. Knowing that, he had opted to take himself out to lunch, and had returned expecting to find the apartment empty. Instead, he found Reika sitting at the table, looking restless.
"Did you get back early?" he asked.
"She never called," Reika answered. "I don't understand it. It's not like her to forget something like this."
"Maybe something came up," he suggested.
"If something came up, she would have called and said so," Reika answered. "I tried calling her, but nobody answered. I'm a little worried."
"I'm sure there's some logical explanation," said Yamaki. "When did you call?"
"About an hour ago. Do you think I should try again?"
"It couldn't hurt."
She went to the phone and dialed a number. When no one answered after a few moments, she hung up and tried a different number, with the same result. She put down the phone with a frown.
"No answer from her home phone or her cell phone," she said. "I don't like this, Mitsuo. She wouldn't have broken a date for no good reason, and she would have told me if something came up. Even if she'd gone out, she would have had her cell phone with her."
"Hm. You're right; that does sound unlike her," he answered, frowning a bit himself. "I wonder if we shouldn't check up on her, just to make sure everything is all right."
"Can we? It would make me feel so much better," said Reika. "All this chaos lately has made me paranoid."
"Do you know where she lives? Fine, let's go."
It was a tense drive to Megumi's apartment. Reika led the way up to her friend's living quarters and knocked on the front door.
"Hello? Anyone home?" she called. "That's funny, she said she'd be staying home cleaning today."
Just out of curiosity, she tested the doorknob and found the door unlocked. Hesitantly, she walked into the apartment. It was perfectly quiet inside.
"Looks like she's out," Yamaki commented. "I hope no one catches us snooping around in here; they'll think we're robbing the place."
Reika was only half paying attention. She was exploring the kitchen, and had come up with a discovery.
"I don't think she's out," she said. "Not on purpose, anyway. Or unless she left in such a hurry that she couldn't even eat breakfast."
"Hm? What do you mean by that?"
Instead of answering, Reika pointed. Sitting on the counter was an automated coffee machine, one of the type that brews a specified amount at a particular time every morning. A cup of cold coffee was sitting in place, waiting patiently for someone to have the inclination to drink it even though it was long past its prime.
"All right, that's suspicious," Yamaki said. "Not inexplicable, but taken with everything else... I'm going to look and see if anything else is out of place."
Suiting action to words, he went up the hall to begin inspecting some of the other rooms. Reika prowled around the living room, but everything seemed to be in order, other than the mess. She reflected with grim humor that Megumi had been right about needing to clean; she couldn't tell if the place had been ransacked or just let go too long.
Just as she was thinking that, there came a call from another room.
"Reika," said Yamaki, "I think you need to come look at this."
Puzzled, she followed the sound of his voice, wondering just what he had found. He didn't sound worried enough to have found something really terrible; he only sounded startled, even amazed, and she knew there shouldn't be too many things left that would amaze him.
Entering Megumi's bedroom, she didn't immediately see anything that would be a cause for alarm. There was further evidence of domestic mess, though it was a little cleaner here, as if she'd started on the promised housework. The bed appeared to have been slept in, or at least on, and hadn't been made, putting the time of Megumi's disappearance sometime between yesterday evening and early that morning. The window was open, and Reika had a sudden irrational image of someone crawling through and kidnaping her... but how would they do that on the sixth floor of a building? However, that wasn't what Yamaki was looking at. He was staring fixedly at what looked like a perfectly ordinary blank spot on the wall.
"What is it?" Reika asked.
Yamaki didn't answer. Instead, he reached out a hand to touch the wall... but instead of touching, it went straight through it in a shimmer of gold lights. He held it there a moment, then withdrew it.
"I think you were right to be worried," he said.
"You have a gift for understatement," Reika replied. "Is that what I think it is?"
"It does bear a resemblance to a digital gateway, but that isn't entirely certain," he said. "We would have to test it to be sure... to just rush in would be incredibly dangerous. It would be better to find someone who would know for sure. We should send someone else..."
He trailed off. The words weren't saying what he wanted to say, and they both knew it.
"We're going, aren't we?" said Reika. "I know we shouldn't, but we are."
"We must be crazy," he agreed. "There's no telling where that thing leads. If we go in, we may never come back."
"Maybe that's why we're going."
There wasn't an answer for that. They looked at each other uneasily for a moment. Then they stepped through, and the door slid silently and invisibly shut behind them.
"... and that place over there, that's where all the best mushrooms grow. It's good for a quick meal, but nearly as good as that chocolate stuff. And over there, that's a fishpond - a lot of Pichimon hang out over there..."
Megumi half-listened as her Digimon friend hopped along ahead of her, giving her a running commentary on the scenery. He had obviously missed having a voice, and now he was putting it to full use, babbling nonstop. She didn't mind. A lot of what he said was interesting - he was knowledgeable about the Digital World and its scenery, whereas she knew almost nothing. She had wanted to explore here; now not only had she gotten her wish, but she had gotten a tour guide into the bargain! She glanced at him as he scampered over a pile of rocks and smiled. He seemed to be having such a good time.
*I'm glad he's getting away from that Demon guy,* she thought. *He's such a nice little Digimon. He doesn't deserve that kind of trouble.*
"Hey, Puttimon, how far do you think it is to the next level?" asked Megumi.
Puttimon paused in his scampering to consider. "Depends. Do we want to go up or down?"
"Up," she answered after thinking it over. She had the feeling, somehow, that an evil thing would have more trouble moving up in rank than down. Hadn't someone told her that the highest levels belonged to the four Sovereigns? Surely they wouldn't want something like Demon wandering around on their plane. "The more up the better."
"Up. You got it," Puttimon replied. "I don't get to go up there much. Always wanted to, though. Hear the scenery is beautiful. If we're going to be on the run, we might as well do it somewhere where there's some scenery."
Megumi laughed. "You're not serious."
"Nope!" Puttimon agreed. "It's not in my nature to be serious. I'm a creature of light and air, a free spirit. Nothing can hold me back or tie me down... That looks good on paper, but it doesn't always work out in real life. There are nets that can catch the wind, you know."
"Like that Demon thing?" she hazarded.
Puttimon nodded. "That's one. Anything that's really powerful could probably hold me back for a while."
"Is there something else, then?"
"Yeah, there's something else," he said.
"What kind of thing?"
"Oh, you know," said Puttimon, hopping over a puddle. "Just stuff."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Stuff I don't want to talk about," he said. "Not until..."
"Until I'm ready to talk about it."
Megumi stared, wondering if she'd hurt the creature's feelings. Then she caught a sparkle in his dark eyes and laughed. "You're teasing me!"
"Yup! I do that too!" Puttimon laughed. "Seriously, there is another way to catch me, but I think that's just going to be my little secret until I'm ready to talk about it, 'kay?"
"Sure. I don't mind," she said. "Whenever you're ready."
"Great," said Puttimon. "You know, some people wouldn't rest until they found out. I've seen it happen. Everybody wants to catch a creature that grants wishes."
"What do I need to catch you for? You're my friend," Megumi replied.
Puttimon smiled brilliantly, eyes sparkling with mischief. Wheels started whirring in the back of Megumi's brain.
"Wait a minute," she said. "Wait just one minute, I think I've got it! Are you saying that-"
Her question was interrupted by a noise like thunder rolling through the air, giving her a brief sensation of being swept by a rising wave, and chills ran down her neck and arms though the air stayed warm. Puttimon's smile vanished.
"Hide!" he ordered.
Megumi looked around, trying to find a way of obeying, but her brain refused to process anything properly; the scenery was all blurring together in a way that made it hard to judge just where shelter might be. Was it just the fact that she was suddenly so frightened that made things look so confused, or... no, the air really was blurring, the way it did as waves of heat rose off of hot pavement. These waves weren't rising, though, they were circling, spinning in a dizzying vortex that made Megumi queasy just to watch. Then suddenly they weren't doing that either. Everything snapped in place with a force that nearly threw her off her feet, and she cringed, closing her eyes against the blast. She held the pose a moment. There was dead silence. Carefully, she opened her eyes. Something entirely unpleasant looked back at her.
The fact that her first impression of the thing was that it was bad was hard to merit. It didn't look that frightening, compared to the D-Reaper and its ilk. After seeing those, she shouldn't have been so bothered by this creature: a humanoid thing about ten feet tall, mostly shrouded in a long red robe. All that peeked out were a pair of ragged dark wings, horns, the tips of some claws, and icy blue eyes. Really not that bad, all things considered, so why did her brain feel like it was trying to ooze down her spinal column and escape?
"So, there you are," it said in a cold, brittle voice. "Did you really think you would escape me, Puttimon?"
"No, it's not like that, really!" he squeaked, trying to back away.
"It isn't?" Demon repeated, gliding closer. "Then perhaps you'd like to explain what you're doing with your voice back. I don't recall giving it to you."
"It was an accident," said Puttimon. "I didn't mean for it to happen! She just wished she knew what I was trying to say, and, well... this happened."
"I see," said Demon. "And what is she doing here? I told you specifically to bring me a child. This does not look like a child. This is an adult, Puttimon. Did you lose your eyesight as well as your voice, or have you just always been monumentally foolish?"
"That wasn't my doing, either. She wished to be here, and there was nothing I could do about it," Puttimon answered. Apparently trying to pull together some shreds of courage, he went on brashly, "You knew my nature when you caught me. Nobody ever said I was reliable - I can't help doing stuff like this. If I try, they just happen anyway. Besides, she's a good human, Demon. A human with a pure heart. That's just what you asked for. Her wishes work for me. You can use her."
Megumi felt more than saw that the beast's icy eyes had shifted from Puttimon to her; she felt them sweep over her like a cold wind.
"Inferior," he said. "No wonder you like her, Puttimon, she's just like you - some silly naive little butterfly of a creature whose thoughts reach no further than the next fifteen minutes. I want my wishes to last. That means I need someone with some staying power. This human is worthless to me. You will bring me another and do things right this time."
"And what about her?" asked Puttimon. "You're not going to hurt her, are you?"
"She is a distraction," Demon replied. "Humans do not belong in the Digital World. Her presence here would distract you from your greater work. She is going to be deleted."
"Oh, no you don't!" said Puttimon, jumping between Demon and Megumi. "No way are you deleting her! She's my friend, and you're not hurting her!"
"Stop me, then."
Puttimon made a motion with his hands, and a beam of pink light shot from his palms. "Heartner Beam!" Under his breath, he muttered, "Megumi, if you've got any good ideas, now's the time to use them!"
Megumi stared in panic. The pink light didn't seem to be doing anything more than annoying the Mega Digimon, and she had the feeling that any minute now it was going to be getting very angry. There was no way Puttimon could protect her, but he looked bound and determined to try.
*He looks so weak,* she thought, looking at her friend's innocent face fixed in determination. *I wish there was something I could do to help him...*
The instant she finished the thought, Puttimon's crystal began to glow. So did the air in the general vicinity of Megumi's left shoulder, and without thinking, she reached toward the light and grabbed it. Her hand closed on something solid, and she looked down to find what appeared to be a small mechanical object in her hand. It reminded her faintly of something, but she didn't have time to think about it now. What was important now was protecting her friend, so without really knowing what she was doing, she turned her new tool on her enemy and willed it to do something. Pink light shot out of it, much the same as the light from Puttimon's hands but stronger and brighter. Demon cringed away from it.
"Never mind," he snarled. "If you two want to make an enemy of me, so be it. I have greater concerns than one little Digimon and a stray human."
With a sickening warping of reality, Demon vanished. Megumi's knees gave out, and she dropped to the ground panting. Puttimon darted up to her side.
"Megumi, Megumi, are you okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said shakily. "Just... a little tired, that's all. How about you?"
"Bushed," he answered, dropping down on the ground next to her. "Hey, you were really something, though, you know that? What was with all that light? I didn't know you could do that."
"I didn't know I could do that, either," Megumi replied. She looked down at her hand, which still clutched the strange object she'd been carrying. Now that the danger was past, she finally had the energy to wonder what it was. She turned her hand over and looked.
"Wow," she said.
"What?" asked Puttimon, leaning over to see. Then, "Wow!"
Clutched in Megumi's hand was a device not far different from the D-Arks she'd seen the children use, it's only differences being a slight streamlining of the shape, lack of a slot for cards, and the fact that most of it was colored the same red-pink as Puttimon's garments. She stared at it. It just sat in her hand, glimmering faintly in the sunshine and the shimmering light of the Real World Sphere.
"A D-Ark?" she said. "But that... that isn't possible. I mean, only children..."
"You made a wish, didn't you?" said Puttimon quietly.
"Well, yeah," she said. "I did kind of wish that I could have a partner like you... and just now, I was wishing there was something I could do to help, and this showed up. Does this mean..." She turned the device over in her hands, as if trying to convince herself it was real. "Are we really partners?"
Puttimon bowed his head, suddenly shy. "If you want us to be... that would be nice."
"I'd like that," said Megumi. "I'd like it very much." For a moment, she was quiet. Then she asked, "Puttimon, what is the other way to catch you?"
He grinned. "There are two ways to catch a Butterflymon. One is to chase it with a net. The other is to set out some honey and wait."
"So you're saying the best way to catch you is make it so you don't want to leave me."
"Right," he said. "Looks like you did, too!"
Before Megumi could reply to that, Puttimon gave a joyous whoop and began dancing around in circles, spinning and turning handstands, singing, "I've got a Tamer, a Tamer, a Tamer!" until he finally got dizzy and fell over. Megumi laughed at him until she was breathless, and stretched out on the grass next to him, still giggling.
*I have to hand it to Demon on this one thing,* she said, looking at Puttimon. *We really are two of a kind.*
A shimmering hole in the air opened briefly, just long enough to spill its contents onto the ground. Then it sealed itself up, leaving the two humans who had just been deposited in the Digital World to fend for themselves. They pulled themselves to their feet, dusting leaves off their clothes and looking around.
"This," said Yamaki distastefully, "is an entirely inelegant way to travel."
"Well, it got us here," Reika replied. "Wherever here is. Is asking where we are a stupid question?"
"I think we could make a guess," answered Yamaki, glancing up at the sky. "That looks a lot like the Real World Sphere to me."
"So we are in the Digital World... but that doesn't tell us for sure that Megumi is here," said Reika thoughtfully. "And if she is here, we don't know where she's gone." She looked around; all she could see in any direction were millions of trees that all looked the same. There was no sign that a human had ever been there at all.
"She's here somewhere," said Yamaki. "Or she was."
"How do you know?"
He pointed. Sitting only a few feet away from where they were standing, partially obscured by low-growing plant life, was an ordinary pair of house slippers. Reika recognized them; she'd visited Megumi's home often enough to know what her friend's favorite pair looked like.
"All right," she said. "I'll accept that as evidence... Doesn't tell us much, though. I wonder what she's doing walking around without her slippers?"
"Well, they aren't very practical. Maybe she decided she was better off without them," Yamaki replied. "If nothing else, it's a point in the right direction."
Reika didn't think it was much, not in a world as vast as this one, but she didn't say as much. She had half a notion he was trying to reassure her, and her pointing out that there was a vast untracked wilderness in front of them with next to no way for them to navigate didn't seem like the right thing to say. Instead, she turned and looked speculatively off into the distance, looking for some sign that someone had passed by. In the shadows, something moved.
"What was that?" she said.
"What was what? I didn't see anything?"
"Take off your glasses and look! There's something out there."
Yamaki scowled and stared in the direction Reika was pointing. Now that she'd drawn his attention to it, he could see something that didn't look like it belonged.
"All right, I see you," he shouted at it. "Either come out and show yourself or go away! I'm warning you, if you try anything funny, I'll make you regret it."
There was a rustling, and something shuffled out of the shrubbery. "Shuffle" was the only word that could describe how it moved; its paws seemed a little oversized for it, and it didn't seem to know quite how to control them. It crept along with its head down, looking very much like it was trying to sink into the ground. In form, it had much in common with a dog, with a grey furry body, a long tail with a tuft of fur at the end, a short muzzle, and long floppy ears. There was a patch of white fur around one eye. It stopped a few feet away and gazed up at them ingratiatingly.
"A Gazimon," Reika commented.
"Not much of a Gazimon, if you ask me," Yamaki replied.
He'd seen the creatures a few times before, wandering around the city and getting into mischief. From what he could tell, it was common to the breed to enjoy causing trouble, and even after he'd corrected his stance on Digimon and the Digital World, he still hadn't felt much guilt over relieving the world of a few of them. Every one he'd ever seen had been very much the same, all with wickedly glinting eyes and long sharp claws. This one was at least a head smaller than its fellows had been, and didn't seem to be able to keep its ears from flopping on its face. It also didn't seem to like being evaluated; it was trying to shuffle back into the shadows to get away from Yamaki's stony glare.
"Hold still," he told it.
"Shorry, shorry," it lisped, its ears drooping even further.
"I think you're scaring it," said Reika. She knelt down until she was nearly on eye level with it. "Don't worry, little guy, we aren't going to hurt you."
"No?" he said hopefully.
"Of course not," she replied. "We're only here looking for our friend. Have you seen her?"
"Friend?" the Gazimon repeated. He looked all around. "What kind?"
"A human. Another woman," said Reika.
The Gazimon thought. "Nope. Haven't sheen nobody."
"Oh, well, it was a thought," said Reika. "Too bad, though."
"Shorry," he said, cringing even further. "Patch would help if he could..."
"Patch? Is that your name?" she asked. "I didn't know Digimon had names."
"They call me Patch," he said. He rubbed a paw over the white spot on his face. "Most Digimon look the shame, but Patch is different, sho he gets a name."
"I see," she said. "Well, thanks for trying, Patch. Sorry you couldn't help more."
"Wait a minute. Maybe he can," said Yamaki. He went and scooped up one of Megumi's mislaid slippers and offered it to Patch. "Here. Can you follow that scent?"
Patch accepted the foreign object with a look of surprise. He sniffed it cautiously, then sniffed around on the ground. His ears pricked up and his tail twitched like a beached fish.
"Here," he said, beckoning with one paw. "Thish way, thish way!"
The two humans followed after him as he dashed off into the forest, sniffing eagerly at the earth. He scrambled wildly along, tripping over roots and his own oversized paws, so that even though he looked like he was dashing at top speed, he wasn't actually making much headway. The humans didn't have to move at much more than a fast walk to keep up. The path they were taking seemed to move in more or less a straight line, swerving only because of trees and other obstacles.
"It's strange," Yamaki remarked as they walked.
"What is?" asked Reika, trying to scramble over the roots of an enormous tree.
"The way the path goes so straight," he replied. "You'd think if she was just wandering around, she wouldn't be going in a straight line. It's like she has a fixed destination in mind... but she couldn't. We don't know anything about this world. Where would she go?"
Reika felt a chill go down her spine. "There is another possibility?"
"Someone's leading her," said Reika. "She didn't just stumble into the Digital World by herself. Someone led her here. Someone or something came to her room last night, opened that portal, and brought her here. Someone's still leading her. I'm almost sure of it."
"That can be checked," Yamaki replied. "Gazimon! Patch, or whatever your name is. Come here - I want a word with you."
Patch scampered eagerly up to stop at Yamaki's feet, sitting back on his haunches and holding his front paws much like a dog begging for a treat, and Reika had to stifle a giggle.
"Yesh, shir?" the 'mon lisped.
"The scent you're following - is there someone else traveling with her?" Yamaki asked.
"Not sure. I'll check!"
Patch bounded back to the trail he'd been following and sniffed enthusiastically, flopping his ears and tail around in his eagerness.
"Shmell shomething," he informed them. "Shmellsh like... a Digimon!"
"I thought so," said Reika. "Can you tell what kind?"
He sniffed again. "Nope. Can't tell."
"Rats," Reika muttered.
Yamaki gave a philosophical shrug. "It wouldn't have changed anything if we knew."
"It would give us some idea what we were up against, anyway," Reika replied.
They continued walking. Gradually, the trees thinned out, turning into scrub and finally petering out into a wide range of grass. Patch paused in the shadow of a large bush and stared out at it.
"Don't wanna go out there," he said.
"You don't? Why not?" asked Yamaki. "It's only grass."
Patch cringed. "Shomeone'll shee me."
"Oh, for crying out loud," said Yamaki in disgust.
"You shouldn't go out there, either," Patch continued. "That'sh Demon'sh territory. He might not like it."
"Who's Demon?" Reika asked.
"He's a bad Digimon," said Patch, trying to fade more deeply into the shadows. "I don't go where he might shee me. Demon hatesh everyone."
"Do you think he might have something to do with Megumi disappearing?" Reika asked.
Patch shrugged. "It didn't shmell like him."
"Well, I doubt he would come down and do his dirty work for himself," said Yamaki. "He'd have some underling come do it for him."
Reika raised an eyebrow. "Speaking from experience, dear?"
He shot her a glare over the rims of his glasses. "Anyway, if that's the way she went, that's the way we're going, no matter what this Demon character has to say about it."
"You don't wanna do that," Patch warned.
"Yes we do," Yamaki answered. "Coming, Reika?"
"Hm? Oh, sure," she said. She bent down to pat Patch on the head. "Thanks for all your help, Patch. You're a nice little Digimon."
"Awwwww..." said Patch, as his tail nearly tied itself in a knot with joy.
Reika went to rejoin Yamaki, who had already gone a short distance and was now waiting impatiently for her.
"Are you quite finished?" he asked.
"I was just saying goodbye," she said.
"I don't see why you bother. Ridiculous little creature..."
"I thought he was cute," said Reika firmly.
Yamaki gave a snort that expressed his opinions of all things cute. They moved on.
At least journeying through the grass was easier than traveling through the forest; there was nothing to trip over or step on, just an endless smooth plane of green. That was a relief. Neither of them were in bad shape, but they weren't used to walking for hours on end, either, and they made their way slowly. Having lost the trail, they were now moving on some unspoken consensus toward the only visible landmark, something like an outcropping of rocks in the otherwise featureless expanse. As they drew closer, they could see that there were not only stones involved, but metal as well, flashing dully in the light of the Real World Sphere and the sourceless sunlight.
"Almost there," said Yamaki, just to break the silence. "It looks safe enough; we can stop there for a while."
"Good thing, too. Night's coming," said Reika. "Look, here it comes."
Sure enough, night was falling, rushing over the scenery in a long black curtain. Within moments, it caught up to them and covered the world in cool shadows. The image of a warm afternoon was suddenly replaced by the calm of early evening. A soft breeze blew by, making the grass ripple like satin. The Real World Sphere beamed softly down on everything like some strange alien moon.
"How lovely," said Reika. Yamaki nodded silently.
They reached the base of the rock formation, whatever it might be. Exploring it, they found that its shape was less like the pillar they had taken it to be at first, and more like a gigantic tree stump, with roots reaching out into the soil. Walking into the juncture of two of them gave a bit of a feeling of being safely ensconced in a cave. Reika sat down on a stone and took her shoes off, massaging her tired feet and enjoying the cool breeze. Rather to her surprise, Yamaki took off his jacket, folded it into a makeshift pillow, and stretched out on the grass.
"You look comfortable," she remarked.
"Why not? I've had hotel beds worse than this," he replied. "You should try it."
She went and settled down next to him, nestled at his side with the comfort that came from long familiarity.
"Yeah, this is nice," she said contentedly. "It's been a long time since we've had any time alone together. There's always been something - work hanging over our heads or the press hanging around - always something."
"Are you worried about your friend?"
"Am I?" she repeated. "I don't know. Intellectually, I guess I am. I mean, I know this place is dangerous and we don't know anything about it, but... I try to get around it, but I can't help feeling that somehow, everything is okay. Maybe it's just because things seem so peaceful here. It's soothing."
He nodded slowly. "I think I know what you mean. This is a good world, isn't it? It's not what I thought it was. This is truly beautiful."
"You know," she said, "we were planning on taking a vacation and getting away from it all... You don't get much more away than this."
"Just think," she continued, "for miles and miles around, there's no one but us. We're completely alone. Just you and me."
"There's a pleasant thought."
"You know what else I think?" she purred. "I think we should use our time wisely, don't you?"
"I think that's a very good idea."
She snuggled a little closer, nuzzling at his neck. "I've missed you, Mitsuo... and now I've finally got you all to myself."
He turned to meet her eyes and saw open invitation there. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
He reached for her, fully intending to kiss her and not stop until they thought of something better to do. Just as he was doing so, something roared above them a sound like a jet, tearing through the air with unbearable noise, making stones clatter down in a painful rain. Reika shrieked in alarm, and Yamaki leaped to his feet, swearing. He wasn't frightened yet; he was furious, and ready to give whoever was intruding on his private moment a piece of his mind. Then he looked up and thought he had better revise his plans somewhat.
Soaring through the air was a dragon, a villainous-looking thing with great steel wings and a long snakelike tail. Its claws were steel, too, if one could call them claws; they looked more like weapons of mass destruction had been mounted on the thing's arms. It wheeled in the air, bellowing its war cry, and turned to swoop at them again. The humans had to make a dive for the turf, narrowly missing being slashed by a wave of its talons. Stones cracked away from the wall to shower down on them, and Reika gave a cry as one struck her sharply on the back. The noise drew the dragon's attention, and it made its next sweep with its golden eyes fixed on her. Reika scrambled for an escape, but she was trapped between the spreading walls of the rock, and there was nowhere to run. She backed as best she could into the narrowest part of the crack, just barely avoiding the beast's claws.
"Hey, you!" Yamaki bellowed at the monster. "That's no way to treat a lady!"
He seized on a fist-sized stone and hurled it as hard as he could at the dragon's head. He was aiming for its unprotected eye, but his shout drew its attention, and the monster turned to see who had made the noise. The rock clanged harmlessly off its helmet, not even leaving a dent, but the dragon bellowed as if it had been mortally wounded. It turned on him and dove, roaring.
*That was bright,* said a detached voice in the back of Yamaki's mind. *Now what?*
He stared up at the monstrosity that was now circling over him, sizing him up. He didn't know what he was going to do now, and the realization of how helpless he was paralyzed him. Here was his worst nightmare come to life - a situation he had no control over, that all his strength and intelligence couldn't get him out of. The dragon dove, and Yamaki stared helplessly. He was going to die, and the woman he loved was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it...
"Hold it!" he shouted at the dragon, holding up his hands defensively.
Incredibly, the dragon held, screeching to an impossible halt and hovering a few feet above him. Yamaki stared, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. The creature was actually listening to him! Why? He looked up, staring into one of its yellow eyes, and was amazed to see fear reflected there - not just fear, but genuine terror. It was frightened almost to death, and he had a sudden intuition that it was afraid of him.
"Take it easy," he said to the dragon. "Just calm down. Calm down. Nobody's going to hurt you. Everything's okay, so just take it easy."
"Not... hurt?" the dragon asked slowly. Its voice was surprisingly high-pitched for such a large creature.
"That's right," answered Yamaki. "Nobody's going to hurt you. It's all right."
With a noise that sounded like relief, the dragon settled onto the grass in front of him, still watching him intently. Very slowly, Yamaki walked up to it and rested a hand on its snout. The metal was warm to the touch.
"It's all right," he said again. "You just relax."
The dragon did. It folded its wings and curled up its tail. As Yamaki continued talking to it, it closed its eyes and made a purring sound deep in its throat; it seemed to like the sound of his voice. A little uncertainly, he ran his hand across the smooth metal, and the dragon sighed peacefully.
"Mitsuo?" said Reika uncertainly.
"I think it's all right now," he answered, keeping his voice low. "Just stay quiet and don't make any sudden moves. I don't know why, but for some reason, it's scared half to death of us... or it was."
"Why would it be afraid of us?" Reika asked, staring at it. "That's a Gigadramon, isn't it? An Ultimate Virus? One of those shouldn't have to be afraid of anything."
She tried to take a step closer for a better look. Immediately, the dragon's eyes snapped open, and it jerked its head up, snorting smoke.
"Easy, easy!" Yamaki told it. "Relax, okay? It's only Reika; she's the gentlest person alive. She won't hurt you."
The Gigadramon looked at her inquisitively. "Won't hurt," it agreed, and lowered its head again.
"I don't think I'd better try to come near it," said Reika, giving it a wary look. "I wonder why it's acting this way? Doesn't he know he's fifty times our size?"
"I don't think he does," answered Yamaki. "If he does, it obviously doesn't matter. He still thinks we're capable of hurting him."
Gigadramon made a rumbling noise. Reika jumped.
"Don't you start, too," Yamaki told her. "He's only agreeing with me."
"You know what it's saying?"
"It's not saying anything. I just know what it means." An expression of puzzlement crossed his face. "Somehow. I don't think it really knows how to talk."
"Hmm," said Reika thoughtfully, looking up at the rocks. "Stay here a minute. I'm going to check on something."
She pulled on her shoes again and clambered onto one of the stone roots, carefully scaling its surface so she could walk along on the top. The climb wasn't too bad, with plenty of hand and footholds - really no more complicated than climbing on and off the observation decks at work had been. Even so, she was grateful she'd worn sensible shoes today.
"Reika, what do you think you're doing?" he shouted up at her. "You're going to fall and break your neck."
"No, I'm not. And don't distract me; this isn't as easy as it looks."
She reached a ledge and scrambled onto it, vanishing from sight. Yamaki stared nervously at the place she had been until Gigadramon sensed his emotions and began to fidget, and he had to turn his attention to calming the creature again. It seemed to have taken the idea that things were fine only as long as Yamaki thought they were, and settling it down helped soothe his own nerves a bit. A few minutes later, the tension was relieved by a shout.
"Mitsuo, come up here!" she called. "You've got to see this for yourself!"
Yamaki obeyed the call, scaling the rock until the Gigadramon decided to help and scooped him onto its head. He was startled, but adjusted quickly enough that by the time they reached the top, he was able to dismount as if the trip were exactly what he'd planned to do in the first place. He found Reika wandering around in what seemed to be a large crater, perhaps a dry lake or dead volcano. It was littered with rocks and bits of metal, most of which looked like nothing more than the contents of a scrap heap. There were a few bits that looked out of place, though, all of them smooth, mirror-bright, and slightly curved. Their edges were jagged, as if they'd been torn off of each other, and they rested in little clusters in the center of the crater.
"What's all this?" he asked, picking up a small shard of the shiny stuff. It wasn't like anything he'd ever encountered before; it looked like highly polished metal but felt like glass. It warmed quickly at his touch.
"Look around," said Reika. "Look at them. Don't they remind you of something?"
His first impulse was to say he wasn't reminded of anything but a pile of junk, but the look in Reika's eyes told him he'd be made a fool of if he did. He closed his eyes and tried to think, and a sudden strange memory bubbled up. Suddenly he was remembering vividly being back in his apartment at the kitchen table, sipping at his coffee and watching Reika make breakfast, deftly cracking eggs and tossing the shells into a dish.
"Eggs," he said. "These are eggshells, aren't they? And this is a nest, and that's..."
"A baby Gigadramon," said Reika.
"A baby? It's forty feet long!"
"I know. I'd hate to see its mother." A look of concern crossed her face. "Come to think of it, that's something to worry about. She's not going to like us up here messing with her baby."
Gigadramon whimpered, a mournful sound that made the hairs on the back of Reika's neck stand up. Yamaki murmured to it and stroked its nose, trying to calm it.
"I don't think she's coming back," he said quietly.
"Just think. Imagine a baby just hatched into the world with his brothers and sisters, and something comes along and attacks them. He's the only one to escape. He has to see the only creatures in the world he knows dying right in front of him and knows there's nothing he can do about it... No wonder he's afraid of everything that moves."
"Poor thing," said Reika. She looked around at the scattered eggshells. Grass was growing among them; they had been empty for weeks, at least. "Do you think that's really what happened to him?"
"I think so," he replied, as the dragon whimpered again. "It makes sense... Come on, old boy, buck up. You'll be all right."
Gigadramon whimpered again and tried to lean against Yamaki, nearly shoving him off his feet.
"What are we going to do with him?" asked Reika. "We can't keep him, can we?"
"Sure. Tell him that," Yamaki replied. "See if he'll listen."
Gigadramon, knowing what was being discussed, blew a challenging puff of smoke in her direction and made a grumbling noise. Yamaki stared at it.
"You can't be serious," he said.
"What does it say?" Reika asked.
"He wants me to protect him," answered Yamaki. "The thing is convinced it'll be safe if it's with me."
Reika tried not to giggle. "Well, you know, young animals do imprint sometimes... You're probably the first person to be kind to it in a long time, if anyone ever was at all."
"That doesn't mean I intend to spend the rest of my life babysitting the thing," Yamaki replied. Gigadramon whined, making him clap his hands to his ears. "Stop that! I didn't mean it like that, all right?"
"Mmnn?" it asked.
"You have to learn how to take care of yourself," he told it, "but I never said I was abandoning you."
"You didn't?" asked Reika, raising an eyebrow.
"No," he said, in a tone that forbid contradiction. "If he wants to stay with me, I'm not fool enough to try to make him leave."
Something in the air shimmered, and a ball of light came down to hover next to Yamaki. As if in a dream, he reached out and took it. The light vanished, leaving him holding a Digivice colored the same metallic purple as the Gigadramon. He stared at it.
"This... is technically impossible," he said.
"After everything you've said and done, you're complaining about impossibilities?" Reika replied.
Yamaki wasn't listening. He stared at the Gigadramon, then at the device, and then back to the Digimon. In a halting voice, he said, "Have I... tamed you?"
Gigadramon put out a long pink tongue and licked the side of his face, rearranging his hair.
"Argh! Bleh!" Yamaki hissed, wiping at his face. Reika laughed.
"Well, I guess that answers that!" she said.
"Lucky me," he muttered. "All the Digimon in the world I could get, and I'm stuck with the one with childhood traumas."
Gigadramon made a moaning noise and looked hurt.
"Oh, come on, I didn't mean it... Look, don't look at me like that, all right?" Yamaki stammered. "It's all right, okay? It's all right."
Reika watched with a faint smile as her lover went about soothing the dragon's hurt feelings. It was strange to see him showing his gentle nature; usually he was the ideal Japanese gentleman, never letting his true feelings show, always cool and collected unless he was truly angry. It was amazing how something like a firebreathing dragon could draw out his better qualities. Then again, she reflected, looking at the gentle giant he'd tamed, there wasn't that much difference between them. The dragon was calm now, and enjoying having its nose petted as its tamer continued to murmur soothing words. She didn't think she'd ever heard him use that tone with anyone but her... and it still wasn't exactly the same, she realized. After a moment, she decided what it reminded her of: a parent comforting their child after a nightmare. It seemed to have the same affect, too; within minutes, the dragon was fast asleep. Yamaki came over to rejoin his human partner.
"What are you smiling about?" he asked.
"Oh, I was just thinking," she said, "what a good father you're going to be for our children."
Yamaki winced. "Don't say things like that!"
"Why not? It's true," she said. "I can tell."
"I prefer to remain childless for a while, thank you," he said.
"Oh, well," she said, in tones of mock disappointment. "But there's always practice... unless you think the baby's going to wake up."
Yamaki glanced over at Gigadramon, who was snoring peacefully. He looked at Reika, and then back to Gigadramon. He sighed.
"Better not chance it," he said regretfully. "Imagine if he woke up!"
"That's true. You'd never be able to explain it so he'd understand. Oh, well," she said, sounding truly disappointed. "I guess this is practice, too, in a way. If we did have children, this would be just the problem we'd have, isn't it? Maybe you've got the right idea, after all."
"I never thought of that. I just never considered myself the type," he answered. "But maybe if they were yours, I wouldn't mind too much."
She looked at him in surprise. "Mitsuo, I think that has to be one of the sweetest things you've ever said to me."
"Don't get too used to it; I'd hate for you to get spoiled," he replied. "Come on. We might as well get some sleep. It's been a long day."
They found places on the ground that were reasonably comfortable and settled into each other's arms. Without opening his eyes, Gigadramon scooted closer to them, coiling himself in to a steely wall, leaving them neatly enclosed inside. Thus wrapped around each other, they all slept.
The lights turned on abruptly, and Megumi opened her eyes just in time to see the curtain of night rolling away. She stared at it, uncomprehending, until her memories of yesterday caught up with her. She rolled over, stretching carefully. She and Puttimon had traveled far the previous day, and various muscles were protesting the strain. When she could finally go no further, he'd led her to a small mossy clearing only a few feet in diameter, so tightly surrounded by trees and shrubs that it would have been next to impossible to see if Puttimon hadn't known it was there. Both of them had curled up on the soft ground and fallen asleep almost at once. Now she turned over to see her partner still snoozing, a beatific expression on his face.
*Just like a little angel,* she thought, grinning. *So peaceful. Well, we can't have that, can we?*
"Come on, wake up call!" she sang. "Were you planning to sleep all day?"
"Yes," he answered, not opening his eyes.
"Oh, come on, don't be like that," she said. "Wake up! It's a beautiful day!"
Puttimon moaned, yawning and stretching. "Have a heart! I'm beat. You did some heavy-duty wishing yesterday. I need to recover my strength."
"Aw, poor thing, I hadn't even thought of that," she answered, apologetic. She considered. "Would breakfast help, do you think?"
Puttimon sat up, eyes open wide. "Yeah!"
"Well, if you want it, you're going to have to get up and show me where it is," Megumi replied.
"Ohh, but I'm tired," Puttimon moaned, dropping back onto the moss in an attitude of utter defeat.
"Well, I don't even know what around here is safe to eat," Megumi answered reasonably. "Or even if it's edible. And if you're that tired, I can't wish it, either. Hey, I've got an idea - how about I carry you a while?"
"Yeah!" answered Puttimon, suddenly wide awake again.
"All right, then. You don't look like you'd be that heavy," Megumi replied. "You point, and I'll walk."
She knelt down, letting the Digimon scramble up onto her shoulders and sit there, wrapping his legs loosely around her neck so he wouldn't fall off. He grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged it gently.
"Giddy up!" he ordered, giggling. "Hi, ho, Silver, and away!"
"You know," said Megumi. "I know one little girl who still drags her partner around by the ears sometimes. That might be easier for me."
Puttimon instantly became a model of propriety.
"All right, which way?" Megumi asked.
"Umm..." said Puttimon, rapping his fingers on the top of her head as he thought. "That way!"
"You sure?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm sure. There should be some berry bushes growing that way, and a stream. We can find something to eat there," Puttimon replied. "Maybe take a swim, too!"
"Or a bath," said Megumi, running a hand through her hair. "Too bad I didn't think to pack for this trip."
"We'll manage," said Puttimon. "I'll be able to help you with anything you need once I get my energy back... so hurry it up already!" he added, giving her hair an playful tug.
"And here I thought I was the one who tamed you," said Megumi. She set off.
The berry bushes were right where Puttimon said they would be, and the sweet fruit and cool stream water was good enough that Megumi decided to forgive her friend for his silliness. She picked a handful of berries and ate them slowly, finding she was not particularly hungry. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she remembered being told that the nature of the Digital World was that no one really needed to eat unless they really wanted to, so she let her partner get on with his meal and went to the river, thinking she could at least wash her face a little.
"What I wouldn't give for my shampoo," she said to herself.
Puttimon, busily stuffing his face with one hand, used the free one to pull the bottle of soap out of nowhere and tossed it to her. She grinned.
"Thanks, little guy," she said. "I'm going up behind those bushes to wash. Don't peek."
He looked at her innocently. "Why not?"
"Because," she said. "It's a human thing. Let me know if anyone's coming, okay?"
"Sure thing," he answered distractedly, and went back to his breakfast.
Megumi walked a little ways up the creek until she came to a circle of fluffy shrubbery that would hide just about anything. Slipping out of her clothing, she splashed into the water and set to work scrubbing herself clean. She would have preferred that the water be a few degrees warmer, but she didn't say anything. Judging by the way Puttimon talked, granting wishes cost him energy, and she didn't want to tire him out just for her own little whims. Besides, who knew what trying to make a stream warm would do to the local ecosystem? She made a mental resolution not to make any more wishes for anything she didn't honestly need.
*The last thing I need,* she thought, as she rinsed her hair, *is to let myself get turned into a spoiled brat on account of a Digimon with good intentions.*
She finished with her bath and went back to shore again, where she wiped herself dry as best she could and began pulling her clothes back on again. Just as she was about to go rejoin her partner, she heard a voice whispering, "Megumi? I don't think you ought to come out just yet."
"Huh? Why not?"
"There's someone here," said Puttimon. "Listen."
She was very quiet. Over the trickling of the stream, she could distantly hear a voice... no, a pair of voices. The second one was hard to hear, high pitched and hesitant, while the first was loud and raspy, reminding Megumi oddly of a used-car salesman with a bad sore throat. Puttimon beckoned for her to follow quietly, and she slipped after him.
A few yards away, screened by the trailing branches of a willow-like tree, Megumi could see what she recognized as a Floramon. It was talking to another Digimon she had never seen before, but judging by the expression on Puttimon's face, he had. More than anything, it reminded Megumi of the genies from storybooks, complete down to the turban. It had green skin and a leering expression that inspired less trust than any face she'd ever seen.
"Are you really sure about that?" the strange Digimon was saying greasily. "I'm telling you, you're missing out on the chance of a lifetime!"
"I really don't think so," said the Floramon, looking for a place to back away to. "I really don't need anything..."
"Now, come, come, come," the other 'mon replied, putting an arm over the flustered flower's shoulders. "There's no need to be shy. My dear friend, this is what I do! Nothing gives me more enjoyment than granting the wishes of other Digimon."
"Who is that guy?" Megumi whispered to Puttimon.
"Lampmon," he answered tensely. "My old rival."
"He looks like a real sleaze," Megumi replied.
"He is. He used to work for Demon for a while. He can grant wishes, but not the same way I can. His favorite thing to do is to talk people into wishing for things they don't really want and then laughing when the go wrong. Demon kept him around a while until he figured out he couldn't control him. Looks like he's still up to his old tricks."
Megumi looked back to the harrassed Floramon, who was now looking positively wilted as Lampmon continued his sales pitch. She felt sorry for it; just looking at Lampmon from this distance made her feel as if she'd brushed up against something slimy. She hated to think how the poor flower-mon felt having it touching her. Puttimon seemed to feel the same way as his partner.
"I'm going to put a stop to this," he said.
Seconds later, Lampmon was interrupted in his sales pitch as a third Digimon stepped into the clearing.
"Well, hello, Puttimon,"said Lampmon, with a smile that could only have been less friendly if it was dripping venom. "Haven't heard from you in a while. It's too bad we're no longer on speaking terms."
"Frankly, I never minded not being able to talk to you," Puttimon replied.
Lampmon goggled. "Well, this is a new development! I would have liked to see the hoops you jumped through to get your voice back. What did you do, get down before Demon and beg?"
"Please. You know me better than that," said Puttimon. "I got it back myself, thanks very much."
"You didn't," said Lampmon. "There's no way a little Armor Digimon like you could undo the work of a Mega on your own."
"Well, I did have help," Puttimon admitted. "From a good friend. Not like you'd understand the concept of a friend... or good, either, come to think of it."
"I don't need either, Armored. I have powers you'll never achieve," Lampmon said smugly.
"You'd be surprised what I can do," Puttimon said. "By the way, your Floramon got away."
"Huh?" Lampmon looked around to see that the Floramon had indeed vanished. He turned to glare at Puttimon. "Huh, you think you're so smart. Well, I'll show you. You're out of favor, upstart, and I'm back in. Demon has summoned me for a special mission - obviously something you can't handle."
"Fine, fine. Go run your errands, Mega. I don't care," Puttimon said. "Me, I'm a free 'mon, and that's a lot better than being evolved."
"Humph," said Lampmon. "You talk big, but I don't believe a word you say. You'll never be free of Demon. He's too strong for you."
"Believe what you wish," said Puttimon. "You'd better get going. Demon's waiting for you. You wouldn't like it if your master was annoyed with you, right?"
Lampmon muttered and growled, but didn't offer any rebuttals. He disappeared in a stream of garlicky-scented green smoke that blew away on the wind.
"Well, that was pleasant," said Puttimon. He shook himself as if he'd been doused in cold water. "Not."
"I'm glad he's gone," said Megumi. "I can see why you don't like him."
"Oh, we hate each other," Puttimon answered casually. "Always have. We just can't help it. We do the same thing, but we're so different in other ways... He's always trying to prove he's better than me. Just because he's an Mega and I'm just an Armored...."
"Can't you evolve?" she asked.
"Nope," he said, shaking his head sadly. "As far as I know, this is as far as my line goes. I'll always be an Armored, unless something really weird happens... Megumi, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? Sorry for what?"
"That you got stuck with me as a partner. You should have gotten someone who could evolve and be strong, so he could protect you. There's not much I can do for you. My attacks aren't much good for anything."
"Don't be like that," said Megumi. "I didn't choose you to be a warrior. I chose you to be my friend."
"Cross my heart," she said. "You want to know something funny? Right before I met you, I was dreaming about you... and then there you were. I think we're destined to be together. I wouldn't want to change that. I want you as my partner and no one else. Okay?"
Puttimon beamed. "Okay!" He laughed. "Actually, I don't care too much about evolving. Lampmon's a Mega, and he'll never have it as good as me. He's bound forever to his lamp and can never leave, and has to do the bidding of anyone who holds it. Me, I'm free, thanks to you. That's worth more to me than anything."
"That's the way to think," said Megumi, nodding encouragingly.
"Did I tell you yesterday that I loved you?"
"Yeah, you did," she answered, smiling.
"I love you today, too."
She blushed. "I love you too, Puttimon. Now come on, let's hit the road. This place still smells like a Lampmon."
"Yeah, let's go!" Puttimon cheered. "Piggy-back! Piggy-back!"
"No! You can walk now!"
"I know! It's just more fun if you carry me!"
"All right... but just for a little way."
Megumi scooped her partner up and let him settle on her shoulders, laughing with delight, because there was nothing more suited to his mercurial nature than getting carried away.
Demon was stirring in the heart of his shadowed palace. The home he'd had constructed for himself was impressive by any standards, but for him, it wasn't nearly enough. Whatever he might be able to collect in the way of luxuries, they still couldn't fill the void of dissatisfaction inside him. There had to be more out there, somewhere. He didn't even know what it was he was looking for, but he would move heaven and earth to find it if he had to. One thing he was sure of, though - he needed a human being. Only human beings had the powers of wishes. The only one he knew who could get him a human and utilize it properly was Puttimon, and Puttimon was gone. So...
"Lampmon, I have a job for you," he said, as the Digimon slunk into his presence. "I need you to go find Puttimon and bring him back."
"Huh?" said Lampmon.
"You heard me. Puttimon has decided that he no longer owes me allegiance. He has absconded with a human woman who belongs to me. I want both of them found and the woman either captured or destroyed, whatever is most convenient."
"What part of this do you not understand? You know what a human is like, yes?"
Lampmon nodded cautiously.
"And you know what a woman is like, yes?"
He nodded again.
"And I know you know what Puttimon is like."
"No buts. You will go and you will bring them back to me, or, failing that, delete them both."
"How do you phrase that?" asked Lampmon. "You know it has to be a wish before I can obey."
"Oh, all right! I wish that you go find Puttimon and the human woman and either delete them both or capture them. Is that clear enough for you?"
"Perfect, my lord," Lampmon replied. "I'm going right now."
He vanished in a swirl of green smoke. Demon watched him go with the first flickers of satisfaction he'd felt in a long time. Something inside him said that his time was drawing near. As clearly as if a voice had spoken in his ear, his instincts told him that soon, very soon, he'd be getting everything he wanted.
Morning had come early on the nest plateau, beginning when Gigadramon woke up with a snort from some dream, startling his humans awake more effectively than any alarm clock. It took them a moment to realize why they were lying on the ground, and why a scaly purple dragon was curled around them. Once memory had caught up to them and Gigadramon had been calmed down again, the two humans sat down and began trying to figure out what to do next.
"I would love to have a plan," said Yamaki. "Unfortunately, there's only but so much we can do while we're wandering around in a wilderness with no clue where we're going. Face it, we're looking for a needle in a digital haystack. A very large haystack with multiple levels, crawling with things that want to jump out of the shrubbery and eat us. Am I right?"
"Things like this make me wish there was coffee in the Digital World. You're always an insufferable grouch first thing in the morning," Reika said.
"All right, Little Miss Morning Person," he answered, "have you got any better ideas?"
"A few," she replied. "First off, Megumi was moving in a fairly straight line; we can probably assume that she'd continue moving in a straight line, so we can narrow our search to the area over there." She waved vaguely at the horizon.
"And your other ideas?"
"Just one," Reika said. "You've got wings now. Use them."
Yamaki looked at Gigadramon, who looked back placidly. It was clear it had no opinions on what was going on as long as everything was fine with Yamaki. He went up and consulted with it.
"Would you carry me?" he asked.
Gigadramon nodded agreeably.
"You promise not to drop me?"
"Not drop," Gigadramon assured him.
"Well, all right then," Yamaki replied.
Carefully, he took latched onto one of Gigadramon's wings and began hauling himself onto its shoulders, settling into a place between its horns. He felt a bit uneasy; he'd never ridden anything that didn't have an engine or at least wheels, and the experience was a bit unsettling. He didn't have much time to think about that, however, before Gigadramon gave his wings a mighty flap and began rising into the air. The ground dropped away abruptly, and Yamaki grabbed onto one of the dragon's horns to steady himself. However, once they had reached cruising altitude, he was able to cautiously let go and have a look around. From this angle, all he could see was an endless expanse of pure blue sky marked only by the shimmering Real World Sphere. He looked down. The entire level seemed to spread out below his feet, a vast field of emerald-satin grass and velvet dark forests. Enthralled, Yamaki stood up, taking off his dark glasses to clear his vision, and the vivid colors struck him with their full force. For a moment, he was everything he'd ever wanted to be, completely on top of the world.
*Mind on business,* he reminded himself, reluctantly pulling his thoughts together.
"Come on, Gigadramon," he said. "Let's see if we can get something useful accomplished."
Gigadramon nodded and flapped his wings, shooting forward like a jet, and - why not? There was no one up here to hear him - Yamaki gave a shout of exhiliration.
Nevertheless, when they finally returned to the ground, it was with a feeling of disappointment. Yamaki slid to the ground again and thanked his partner for the lift as Reika walked over to meet them.
"Any luck?" she said.
"Not a sign of them," Yamaki replied. "Or of anything else, either. That Patch creature must not have been exaggerating about how dangerous Demon is. I didn't see a single thing moving or flying the whole time. This whole valley is deserted."
"Well, where could she have gone, then?" Reika asked.
"Back to the woods, I think. They surround the entire valley, and they're too thick to see through from the air. Once I was sure there was no where else she could have hidden, I came back." He sighed. "Looks like you were right; the best we can do is make a guess and hope luck is with us."
"It's done well enough so far," she said. "Too bad, though - I really was hoping we could wrap this up quickly."
"Well, at least it won't take long to get to the other side of the valley. It didn't look far, even walking."
"Walking?" she repeated. Then she looked at Gigadramon, who was eyeing her with a wary expression. "Never mind. I know he only tolerates me because of you. I don't think I'd feel safe trying to ride him."
Yamaki heard a note of hurt in her voice and tried to comfort her.
"He'll get used to you," he said. "After all, he's only known you a few hours."
"I know," she said. She winced. "I'm a little jealous. I guess I just got used to being the only one in your life. It's going to take a little while adjusting to sharing you with an overgrown lizard."
"No overgrown lizard is ever going to take your place," he told her. "You're much prettier. And a better conversationalist."
She laughed a little. "All right, all right. I know you're not going to leave me... and he is a good partner for you. I wish I had one."
"Maybe you'll find one," he answered. "If I can, anyone can."
"Ouch! I didn't deserve that."
She giggled. "I'm teasing. You know that."
"I know when it's time to hit the road. Enough wasting time, already! Let's go."
They scrambled down the side of the rocks, with Gigadramon trying to be helpful and generally getting in the way. He seemed a bit sad to be leaving his nest, but Yamaki patiently explained to him the merits of getting out and seeing new sights. Gigadramon didn't look like he understood a word of the lecture, but he nevertheless seemed convinced that his partner knew what he was talking about. He glided placidly over the humans' heads, sending a long dark shadow skimming over the grass, not seeming to mind that they were moving at what, to him, was a snail's pace.
Keeping track of time was next to impossible in a world with no sun and not even the inconvenience of hunger to tell them when it was lunchtime, so Reika could only guess that it was approximately noon when they first caught sight of the forest. Just as Yamaki had said, it reached wide arms around the valley, encircling it with dark green for as far as the eye could see and promising shade and shelter to those who could reach it. The day had been warm, and they were both tired, so they picked up their pace. Soon, they arrived, and Yamaki called a halt.
"Take a breather," he said, taking a seat at the base of a tree. "I don't know about you, but my feet are killing me. These shoes were never meant for long-distance travel."
"I guess I could stand a break," she said. She picked back another likely-looking tree and leaned against it. "Ow!"
"Are you all right?"
She reached around and touched gingerly at her shoulder. "A rock hit me last night. I didn't notice it much then, but now I'm sore."
"Let me see."
She obediently scooted closer so he could make an inspection, listening as he tsk'ed in sympathy.
"No wonder it hurts," he said.
"Is it bad?"
"Not too bad. Not much more than a bit of cut, but it's deep. I'd feel better if you washed it next time we find any water. The last thing I want is you coming down with some strange Digital World disease."
"Computer virus," she suggested.
"Don't be cute when I'm trying to be serious."
"You don't have to worry about me. I'm not a damsel in distress," she replied.
"Still, I have to worry about you sometimes, just on general principle," said Yamaki. He began searching around in his pockets and fished out his lighter and a cigarette. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all," she answered. "Just don't set a tree on fire or something."
"I know better than that, thank you."
He flicked the lighter a few times until the flame held steady. Gigadramon, who had settled on a patch of bare ground a short distance away, leaned closer for a better look as Yamaki lit his cigarette. The dragon sniffed curiously at the lighter. Its eyes lit up. Snaking out its long pink tongue, it slurped the lighter up and swallowed it. Yamaki goggled.
"Did you see that?" he exclaimed. "That thing ate my lighter!"
Reika giggled. "Well, I've been telling you to kick the habit. Now's a good time to start."
Yamaki shot a glare at Gigadramon, who burped a small cloud of smoke and looked utterly innocent.
"I guess you're right. Oh, well. Oddly enough, I have the funny feeling it's not going to matter. I only lit this out of habit," he said, gesturing with the cigarette. "I haven't felt like I needed one all day. I suppose data doesn't have to deal with problems like that."
"Well, good. Maybe your baby's done you a favor," said Reika.
"He's not my baby."
Gigadramon whimpered, forcing Yamaki to assure it he hadn't really meant what he said. Reika grinned.
"You know," she said, "I'm really not all that tired. I think I'm going to go scout the lay of the land, and see if maybe there's a creek around here or something."
"Don't wander off too far."
"I'll stay within screaming distance," Reika replied.
She began walking leisurely into the forest. When she paused to look back, she saw her lover busy trying to teach Gigadramon how to blow smoke rings. She grinned.
*I'll just let the boys bond a while,* she thought. She turned and walked into the cool shadows.
It was nice in the forest, a pleasant change from both the monotonous flatlands and the angular city, and she was happy for now just to take in the scenery. Doubtless she'd get tired of it after a while, or at least get used to it, but for now, it was beautiful. She'd lived all her life in the heart of Tokyo, and she'd never had the opportunity to do much more than take a stroll in a carefully cultivated park, surrounded by whatever hardy plants could stand up to the pollution and the strain of hundreds of people coming to them trying to get away from it all. She'd tried it a few times herself and found it refreshing, but now she knew she wasn't really getting away. This was away, as away as it was possible to get, to a whole other world where only a handful of humans had ever set foot. It was so peaceful...
Her mind wandered. Deep down at heart, she had always been a romantic, entertaining dreams of being a beautiful princess being swept off her feet by a white knight on his noble steed and carried off into the sunset. This was just the kind of setting for that kind of thing, and she let her imagination play with the idea for a while. She had accepted the fact that none of it was going to happen, but it was nice to pretend. Before she had met Yamaki, she'd entertained ideas (and what girl didn't?) of finding that perfect man who would send her love poetry and give her gifts and compliments for no reason at all and generally be romantic. It had taken her a while to adjust her mind to the fact that her Mitsuo was nothing like that, and furthermore, that she wouldn't want him to be. Not that he wasn't capable of being very sweet when he wanted to be (mostly when nobody was looking), but sometimes...
Reika jumped. She hadn't seen anything, and yet, there was a voice. She looked all around in confusion until her gaze fell on a nearby shrub that was rustling around, seemingly of its own accord.
"Who's there?" she asked warily.
A furry grey creature scampered out of the bushes and went to sit next to her, gazing up at her with doglike devotion. She reached down and patted him on the head, and his tail wagged with joy.
"Nice to see you again, little guy," she said. "What are you doing out here? I thought you didn't want to leave the forest."
"Didn't," he replied. "Patch went around. Was looking for you."
Patch nodded, his ears flopping around his face. "Wanted to help. Lady was nice to Patch. Patch came looking."
"That was nice of you," she said. "Well, I suppose I could stand some company. Want to walk with me a while?"
Patch did, so while Reika took her stroll, he shuffled along behind her, just like a loyal puppy. He didn't seem inclined to make conversation, but every time Reika made a comment, his ears would prick up.
"You know, I could get used to living in a place like this," she was saying. "It's so beautiful here, just like I always dreamed of... I wonder what Mitsuo thinks of it all? He's so good at hiding what he feels. I know him better than anyone else and I still have trouble figuring out what's going on in his mind. I know he loves me, and I do love him, but... just every once in a while, I start to wish..."
She trailed off. In the quiet forest, she had suddenly become aware of a sound. It was high pitched and melodic, like the sound of a flute or birdsong, and eerily beautiful. Without considering the dangers, she began to walk toward the sound.
She didn't see the stream until she stepped in it, as hypnotized as she was. Blinking, she looked around. In the middle of the forest, there was a mossy glen marked by a tumble of rocks, from which flowed a miniature waterfall that splashed and laughed its way down their sides, tossing up mists and thin rainbows. Beams of sunlight slipped through the sparse tree branches, making patches of moss glow vivid green. However, none of this was as breathtaking as the being that rested in the middle of the clearing.
It was a bird unlike anything she'd seen before, larger than a horse, proud and raptorial, with golden feathers that gleamed like the sun. Its eyes were surprisingly intelligent, hinting of ancient power and wisdom.
"So, you have come, fair maiden," it said. "I have been waiting for one such as you."
"You have?" she asked faintly. "Who are you? And why were you waiting for me?"
"I am Houhoumon, the great phoenix," he answered in his deep, majestic voice. "I have hidden in this forest for years, trying to protect it from Demon's evil reign. I can fight him, but I cannot defeat him. Our powers are too close to equal. I need someone to help me, someone like yourself - a maiden pure of heart."
"What do you mean?"
"I have sought you from afar and called you here to me," said Houhoumon. "I wish you to be my partner and aid me in my cause."
"I... I don't know if I can do that," she said. The air around her felt too warm; it was hard to breathe, and her heart was hammering in her chest, making her feel dizzy and weak.
"Why is that?"
"Because... I have commitments. I have a friend who needs me now... and I can't leave Mitsuo..."
"Who is this Mitsuo you speak of?"
"He's..." She couldn't get the words out. There just wasn't enough air to breathe, and she couldn't think.
There was a rippling in the air, and Houhoumon began to dwindle and change. Suddenly he was not a bird anymore, but a human man in golden armor, something straight out of a storybook, so handsome that he would have taken her breath away if she had any left to take. As it was, she could only stare as his sky-colored eyes caught and held hers.
"I know your heart, maiden," he said. "I know what you long for. Stay here with me, and I will make your dreams come true. You'll live like a princess. You'll never have any worries at all, never again..."
Mesmerized, she began to move towards him. At that moment, Patch barked, and she turned instinctively to look at him. The movement made the pain in her shoulder flare up again, and she winced.
"What is your problem?" Houhoumon demanded, shooting an angry glare at Patch. "Get out of here, you mangy cur!"
"He is not a mangy cur," Reika said angrily.
"He isn't worth defending," the man/Digimon replied. Reika was not convinced. With anger and pride contorting his face, he no longer looked remotely handsome, and she suddenly found herself wanting to be as far from him as possible.
"Yes he is," said Reika. "He came all this way to try to protect me, even though he's afraid of Demon. He's a good Digimon... and I don't think you are at all. Who do you think you are, trying to take me away from the people I love?"
"I'm doing you a favor," he answered loftily. "You'll be better off with me."
"Somehow, I don't think so," said Reika. "Personally, I'd rather have Patch as a partner than you."
Houhoumon gave her a nasty smile. "Is that your wish, then?"
"Yes, it is," she said.
"Very well, then - so be it!"
There was a puff of foul-smelling green smoke, and the man in golden armor was replaced by something far less pretty, a green-skinned and beturbaned genie that stood grinning at her.
"Now you see what I really am!" he said. "Lampmon, the granter of wishes! You could have had anything you wanted, girlie, but now you've made your wish and you're welcome to it! Presto!"
There was a noise like a thunderclap that rocked the glen, rattling the rocks of the waterfall and making the trees shake. Lampmon stumbled backwards, looking as if that was not at all what he'd expected to happen. A brilliant white light appeared before Reika, and she reached out and took it, her expression triumphant.
"The joke is on you, Lampmon," she said. "I don't regret my wish at all. Patch... teach him it's not nice to play tricks on people."
Patch sprang forward, snarling. A beam of light shot from Reika's Digivice, momentarily enveloping him. When he landed, he was no longer the little and helpless-looking creature she knew, but a snarling white wolf with blue tiger stripes.
"A Gururumon?" Lampmon spluttered. "I didn't know he could turn into one of those!"
"Well, now you do," Reika answered. "Are you going to go away quietly or see if he has any other surprises?"
"I can deal with some mangy Champion!" Lampmon asserted.
"You will not hurt my human," Gururumon rumbled. "Chaos Fire!"
Waves of azure fire rolled over the genie Digimon, and he shrieked in pain. That was enough to convince him he didn't want to hang around for a fight, and he vanished again in a swirl of smoke. Gururumon reverted back to his Rookie form and fell facedown on the ground. Reika rushed to his side.
"Patch, are you all right?" she asked.
"I digivolved!" he whispered, eyes shining.
"You certainly did!" she answered, hugging him tightly. "You saved me, Patch."
"Awww..." he said. "Was nothin'."
"Come on," said Reika. "I want to get out of this place now."
A few minutes later, Yamaki was surprised to hear the crash of someone rushing through the underbrush, and he stood up just in time to see Reika burst out of the forest. She threw herself into his arms, and he caught her and held her until he was convinced she wouldn't fall if he loosened his grip.
"Reika, what's wrong?" he asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"Tell me you love me," she said. "I need to hear it."
"You know I love you, Reika. If I don't say it, it's only because I don't know the words to express it," he answered. "Now, what happened?"
"I almost got lost, for a minute there. I almost didn't come back." She took a deep breath, marshaling her emotions. "Some Digimon tried to kidnap me, or worse. He tried to convince me to leave everyone and come with him... I only just barely got away. Patch saved me."
"Patch?" Looking a few feet away, Yamaki saw the little Gazimon lurking in the shrubbery, watching the emotional reunion with fascination.
"Lampmon - the thing that was trying to capture me - he had me under some kind of hypnosis," Reika explained. "Patch shocked me out of it. Then I said I wished he was my partner, and a Digivice showed up, and he evolved. Lampmon decided he didn't want me enough to fight for me and took off."
"You mean Patch is your partner now?" he asked, blinking in surprise.
"Looks that way," Reika replied. "And I'm glad. He risked his life to protect me. I'd have been a goner without him."
"I see," said Yamaki. "Patch, come here a minute."
Looking nervous, Patch shuffled out of the shrubbery to look up at him. "Yesh?"
"I suppose I owe you an apology," said Yamaki. "I seem to have underestimated your abilities. I'm deeply in your debt. Arigato gozaimasu." He made a polite bow.
"Awww..." said Patch, blushing furiously. His tail tied itself into a knot.
"I feel better now," said Reika. "So, what have you been doing while I was gone?"
Yamaki gave her one of his rare smiles. "Teaching Gigadramon tricks. Look what he's learned to do."
He rapped the dragon on the nose, and it snorted out a jet of flame. Casually, he touched a cigarette to the blaze and took a drag on it. Reika laughed.
"Showoff!" she said. "Only you would tame a ten-ton firebreathing dragon and use it as a cigarette lighter!"
"I needed a replacement," he said primly, "and I never settle for second best... That's why I stay with you."
She slipped her arms around him and leaned her head on his shoulder. "And why do I put up with you, hm? Tell me that."
"Animal magnetism," he answered. "If you were in it for personality, you'd have left a long time ago."
She laughed. "That must be it. Come on. I'm ready to get out of here."
"So am I. Say, Patch - do us a favor and see if you can pick up that trail again."
Patch sniffed the air eagerly and posed like a pointer hound. "This way!"
"Well, he is useful," Yamaki commented. "Let's get going."
They set out again, following Patch's lead. Reika kept to the rear of the party, turning things over in her mind, pondering her former fantasies and her current reality. Tromping through the wilderness with a dragon, a talking dog, and the last person she ever thought she'd care for... how could she ever have guessed life was leading to this? It certainly wasn't what she would have asked for, but somehow...
*Sometimes you get what you wish for,* she mused, *and then sometimes you get what you really want.*
Lampmon slunk back to Demon's palace, fuming, streaks of green smoke literally rising off his turban as he snarled in frustration. He'd had that human woman right in the palms of his hands, and she'd slipped away from him, all because of a silly little Gazimon. If only the creature hadn't been there! Then he could have taken the girl for his own, and maybe he'd finally have the power to escape Demon and do what he wanted, for a change. True, he probably could have fought the Gururumon off, but there wouldn't have been any point; the spell was broken, and he might never get another chance once she was aware of his tricks. No, he was going to have to back down and figure out some other course of action... but first, he had to report to Demon.
"Well?" the dark Digimon demanded, as Lampmon drifted into his throne room. "What happened? I see you haven't brought any prisoners."
"No, my lord," said Lampmon.
"A pity. I was hoping at least Puttimon could be brought back alive; it will be such an annoyance trying to find another one."
"I didn't destroy them, either, my lord," said Lampmon mechanically. He gritted his teeth; it would be so much easier if he could lie, but he had no choice but to be honest with the owner of his lamp.
"Have you failed me, then?"
"Yes, my lord."
"And how, pray tell, did you manage to do that?"
"Well, I found the girl," said Lampmon, "and I tried to spell her so she'd have no choice but to come with me. It was working just fine, too, until this mangy little runt of a Gazimon showed up and distracted her, and somehow she bonded with the thing and made it evolve..."
"Back up," Demon interrupted. "You say the woman bonded with the Gazimon? She tamed it?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Strange... What did this woman look like?"
"Oh, I don't know. All those humans look alike to me."
"Lampmon, I'm warning you..."
"All right, all right! She had long red hair, I remember that. Maybe kind of nice-looking, if you like humans."
"Red hair? You idiot! Not only did you not manage to capture her, you weren't even going after the right human!"
Lampmon scowled. "How was I supposed to know there was more than one?"
"I sent you to find Puttimon. I told you the woman would be with him. If the woman wasn't with Puttimon then you should have known it was the wrong one," said Demon. "You obviously weren't doing what I told you to do."
"You know that's not so. I'm incapable of not granting a wish once you make it," said Lampmon.
"Yes, but you are very capable of picking your own interpretation. Don't think I'm not wise to your tricks," said Demon. "You were up to something, weren't you? Speak!"
He threw a bolt of blue light at Lampmon, who cringed. The words came out painfully as he fought to keep them in.
"I was going to bring her back... you never told me what state she should be when I brought her... I was going to trick her... trick her into wishing that I was... Ow, stop it! ... That I was her partner. I was going to ... going to... use her to..." He was panting as the beam's intensity increased. In an agonized screech, he finished, "I was going to use her power to destroy you!"
The blue light became painfully brilliant, filling the whole room. There was an explosion, and the light went out, leaving behind nothing more than a few wisps of smoke, a scorched spot on the floor, and a few bits of green data that Demon quietly absorbed.
"Idiot," he said, as the last of the sparks vanished. "He'll never try that trick again... But now I'm left with a difficulty. I still need my servant back. I suppose there's no help for it. I'll have to go looking for Puttimon myself."
A data stream had come down to keep Megumi and Puttimon company as they walked. She watched it with interest; the young Tamers had described the phenomenon to her, but seeing it herself was something else again. The ones the children had described had been gigantic, fast moving beams of light, impossible to escape once they came too close, but this one was different. It was apparently not very powerful, as it was only a few feet wide and moving slowly, at a pace that Megumi could keep up with comfortably, and since they seemed to be going the same direction, she followed it. Puttimon seemed to find the thing amusing; he was dancing circles around it just to prove he could.
"Do you have any idea what this thing is?" Megumi asked him.
"It's a data stream," he said.
"I know that, but what is it?"
"Umm..." Puttimon stopped dancing for a moment to think, then yelped and jumped out of the way just before the stream could hit him. "They're a lot of trouble, I know that. They come from the Real World and rearrange things every once in a while. You know, move things all around."
"Data transfer," said Megumi thoughtfully. "If the Digital World is based on the data in the real world, then maybe the data streams happen when we're transferring data from one place to another, and that's why things move."
"I guess that makes as much sense as anything else," said Puttimon. "Whoever's transferring this one must not have much to say, do they?"
"Maybe it's just a short e-mail," Megumi suggested. "Anyway, I don't think I'd want to see one of the big ones. This little one's kind of pretty, though."
"The little ones are fun to play with," said Puttimon. He picked up a nearby rock and tossed it into the stream, watching it fall up and disappear.
"Can you use them for transportation?" Megumi asked.
Puttimon shrugged. "As long as you don't care too much where you're going. I got caught in a big one once and ended up traveling about four levels down. Landed right on top of a Tuskmon, and he wasn't happy at all. Took me a week to get back to where I was supposed to be."
"Well, I guess that's out of the question, then," Megumi sighed. "I'm getting really tired of walking, walking, walking."
"Don't worry," Puttimon assured her. "Once we make it to the next level, we can relax a bit."
"Good," said Megumi. "You know, there's just something about being here that makes me feel like I ought to be carrying a notepad and a video camera. I mean, that's all I did for months was study Digimon and the Digital World, and now I'm really here." She laughed a little. "I wonder what my friends from back home would think of me now? I bet they'd be having fits if they knew I was here... I bet they'd love to have a look around. I wish they were here so I could show them."
There was a noise like a crack of lighting, and Puttimon was hurled a few feet away, landing with a thud on the ground. He sat up and rubbed his head, and Megumi hurried to his side.
"Puttimon, are you okay?" she asked.
"Ow..." he said. "Don't do that!"
"I'm sorry. What did I do?"
"I'm not sure," said Puttimon, getting unsteadily to his feet. "Normally that happens when someone tries to wish for something they've already got. The power that should have gone into the wish bounces back on me instead. But I don't know how that could have happened this time, since there's no way your friends could..." He trailed off, thinking. "Or maybe they could."
"Huh?" said Megumi.
"Well, you weren't very specific when you made your wish; there was plenty of room for things to go wrong," Puttimon replied. "Or at least not the way you intended. It's possible that whatever door I pulled you through didn't close when we were done. And if your friends know about this place, and if they missed you and went to look for you, and if they found the door open..."
"You mean someone might have followed me here?" asked Megumi.
Puttimon shrugged. "Weirder things have happened!"
"Well, I wish we knew where they are now," Megumi answered.
Puttimon grinned. Holding up a finger, he spun in a small circle. As he turned, its tip began to glow, brighter and brighter, then fading. He turned back again to the point where the glow was brightest.
"That way," he said.
"That way? But that's the way we just came from!" Megumi protested. "We're going to have to turn around and go back!"
"Well, if they're looking for you, they're probably following you," Puttimon points out, "so naturally they'd be behind us."
"Oh, yeah, that's right," said Megumi. "Well, is there any easy way to get back where we came from?"
Puttimon looked speculatively at the data stream. "We could hitch a lift."
"But you said those things are impossible to predict," said Megumi. Then, realizing what he was talking about, she added, "Though I wish this one would take us in the right direction."
Just as she said that, Puttimon's crystal shimmered, and the beam swerved in place to engulf its traveling companions. Megumi felt herself wrapped in a rush of warm air, and heard Puttimon calling, "Going up!" And then they were.
The forest was coming to an end, the trees becoming smaller and thinner, the undergrowth becoming thicker as more light filtered down. A consultation with Gigadramon, who had been soaring above the dense forest, told them that there was no more shelter for quite some distance, and most of that was rough and rocky. Reika and Yamaki decided that it would be safest and most comfortable if they decided to camp where they were tonight instead of trying to push on any further.
"It's too bad we have to stop," Reika commented. "We could probably still travel a good distance before nightfall."
"True, but do you want to be caught out in the open after that?" Yamaki replied.
"Good point. At least we still know we're going in the right direction, and that she's safe... or was a while ago, anyway," said Reika.
A few miles back, Patch had found a bottle of shampoo sitting under a bush, and had determined that Megumi had been handling it. It seemed unlikely that Megumi would stop to take a bath if she'd felt she was in any danger; after several hours of hard walking, Reika had been tempted to follow her example. She decided it was more important to keep going, and now she was a little annoyed at having to make a stop now in the middle of nowhere. Still, there really wasn't much that could be done about it, so she went about making camp the best she could.
A short while later, they had managed to make a reasonably comfortable campground. Gigadramon had forcibly prepared a clearing for himself, clipping down a few trees and reducing them to firewood with a few snaps of his powerful steel claws. Most of that had been stacked and set aside, except for a bit that was turned into a campfire. Patch made himself useful by clearing away some of the sticks and underbrush, leaving a span of empty ground, on which Reika had piled soft leaves and grasses for makeshift bedding. By the time night came, they were well settled in. The Digimon dozed peacefully by the warm fire, while the humans relaxed a short distance away.
"I think this is the first time I've spent the night next to a campfire before," Reika commented. "It's really sort of romantic, don't you think?"
"Perhaps," he answered guardedly, giving her an oblique glance. After her earlier adventure, Reika had been inclined to hang closer to him than usual, and he thought he had a good idea where she was trying to lead the conversation. On the other hand, he wasn't eager to start anything if it was going to be a repeat of the previous night.
"What was that look for?" she asked.
"Nothing, really. I just think we ought to keep in mind that this is a precarious situation we're in. Twice already we've been attacked by stray Digimon; who's to say it won't happen again?"
"We'll be all right. We have protection, don't we?" She gestured at the Digimon. "If something that doesn't belong shows up, Patch will scent it."
"Hm," he said.
"It'll be okay," said Reika, sensing his defenses weakening. "Even around here, what are the odds of the same disaster happening twice?"
"Okay, maybe I'll buy that," he replied, "but what about Gigadramon? He won't let me out of his sight."
"Well, he's just going to have to get used to that. Besides, I have a little idea that might work, if you persuade him."
She whispered in his ear. He thought it over and nodded.
"That just might work," he said.
He got up and walked over to where Gigadramon was snoozing and tapped on his helmet to get his attention. He opened one eye to look at him.
"Reika and I are going to take a walk," he said. "I want you to stay right here, all right? Whatever you do, don't wander away from the campfire, because there might be dangerous things out there. Now, I'll be able to protect myself, but I want you to stay here where it's safe, all right?"
Gigadramon rumbled worriedly.
"It's all right," Yamaki assured him. "This dangerous creature-" He gestured at Patch. "- will be right here guarding you. He won't let anything hurt you."
Patch, hearing himself spoken highly of, bared his teeth and claws and did his best to look menacing. Yamaki's personal opinion was that he looked ridiculous, with his ears falling in his face like that, but Gigadramon appeared to be impressed. He settled back down but didn't close his eyes.
"It's okay," said Yamaki. "You just go on to sleep, and I'll be back by the time you wake up, all right?"
Gigadramon nodded and closed his eyes. However, just as Yamaki started to walk away, he opened them again.
"That's cheating," Yamaki told him firmly. "Go to sleep."
Gigadramon muttered and resettled himself. He yawned cavernously, showing off gleaming teeth and breathing a puff of smoke, and began to snore. Reika giggled.
"You're very persuasive," she told him.
"So are you. Why do you think I'm going through all this trouble?"
She tossed her hair flirtatiously. "Because I'm naturally irresistible. Come on, before he changes his mind again."
They slipped into the shadowed forest, wandering off in search of privacy. At first, they walked only to get out of hearing distance. Once they were sufficiently far away, they began searching for a suitable location. Reika found the perfect spot, a miniature clearing near a spring, a patch of soft mossy ground partially shielded by rocks, surrounded by trees and shrubs to muffle any sounds and discourage prying eyes. She lay down on the ground, stretching languorously and looking up at him with a playful expression that was all he needed to come join her.
"Now where did we leave off last night?" she said.
"Right about here, I think."
He drew her close and kissed her, cautiously at first, almost expecting that something had to show up and ruin things for him again... but nothing did, so he let the kiss deepen, feeling her respond wholeheartedly, becoming ever more intently aware of how warm and soft she felt next to him, how very good it was to be all alone with her....
She pulled away. "Did you hear something?"
"I didn't hear anything," he said. He tried to draw her back again, but she was stubbornly avoiding his grasp.
"No, I really think someone's out there... Listen, there it goes again!"
He listened, and sure enough, he could hear a voice in the distance.
"Hello? Is anybody there?"
"Megumi!" Reika shouted. "Megumi, over here!"
She got up and began hurrying in the direction of her friend's voice, with Yamaki following sulkily behind. They found Megumi rushing happily toward them with a pink and white Digimon in tow, lighting the way with a shimmering green orb.
"Reika!" Megumi squealed, rushing forward to hug her friend. "Thank goodness! I've been looking everywhere for you!"
"We've been looking for you, too," Reika replied.
"Out here in the dark? You shouldn't have been doing that. It's dangerous out here."
Reika blushed a little. "Well, that wasn't exactly what we were doing..."
"Hm?" said Megumi, looking puzzled. The Digimon mirrored her blank look.
"Megumi," said Yamaki crossly, "did anyone ever tell you what a wonderful sense of timing you have?"
"Now I know why."
"That's not nice," said Reika. "It's not her fault... Don't mind him," she told Megumi. "Things have been difficult lately, and he's a little frustrated."
"I am not frustrated," he said calmly, searching his pockets for a cigarette. "After everything that's happened, I have progressed beyond frustrated and am well on my way to becoming a raving lunatic." He felt around for his lighter, remembered it was gone, and scowled furiously.
"He's kidding," Reika told Megumi. "He just does it with a straight face so you can't prove it."
"Kidding? I'm not kidding. You wait until we're alone; then we'll see who's kidding."
Megumi was looking faintly alarmed. "Did I... interrupt something?"
"It's all right," said Reika. "It was really nothing."
Yamaki gave a sigh of exasperation, but all he said was, "I suppose we'd better get back to camp, or who knows what else will turn up."
They began trudging back to the campsite. Reika fell in step next to Yamaki and whispered to him, "If you think this is bad, just imagine what would have happened if she'd found us fifteen minutes later."
"If that had happened," he said, "it would have been obvious what was going on, and she would have gone away and left us in peace."
"Are these your friends?" asked the unfamiliar Digimon. "The lady is nice, but the guy's a real grouch. Are you sure these are who you wanted to find?"
"Don't mind Mr. Yamaki," said Megumi. "He's usually not this bad."
"If you say so," the little Digimon replied.
"Who is that, anyway?" asked Reika. "He's cute, whatever he is."
Megumi beamed with pride. "This is Puttimon. He's my partner! He's been protecting me from Demon, and he grants wishes!"
"No autographs, please!" said Puttimon, grinning and bowing theatrically. Reika laughed.
"He's great," she said. "I was wondering if you'd found a Digimon of your own."
"Oh? Does that mean you have?"
In response, Reika put her fingers to he lips and blew a shrill whistle. "Hey, Patch! Here, boy!"
There was a rustling in the underbrush, and a small shaggy form scampered out. He skidded to a halt at Reika's feet, nearly toppling over before finding his balance. He sat and gazed up at her adoringly.
"Wanted shomething?" he asked.
"I want you to meet my friend," Reika replied. "Patch, this is Megumi. Megumi, meet Patch."
"Aw, he's adorable!" Megumi gushed. She bent to scratch behind his ears, and he sighed blissfully.
"Oh, great," Yamaki muttered. "You left him alone, now." He hurried off in the direction of the campsite, leaving Megumi looking confused.
"What's the matter with him?" she asked.
"His partner," Reika explained. "It doesn't like being left alone."
"Mr. Yamaki has a partner?"
Reika laughed. "Just wait until you see it!"
They hurried to catch up to the other member of their little group. Soon they could see the flickering firelight ahead of them, and Megumi blinked as she stepped into the well-lit circle. For a moment, it was hard for her to see clearly. Then she spotted a large, looming shape, and she gave a gasp of alarm.
"What is that?" she blurted.
"My partner," Yamaki answered. He leaned casually against the Gigadramon's side, and it stirred, opening its gleaming golden eyes and flaring its steel wings. As its coils shifted, Megumi caught sight of its steel claws. It raised its head, staring at her with the tips of its teeth glinting reddish in the firelight. It growled faintly, but Yamaki quieted it with a word. Megumi stared, awed at the control he had over this fearsome beast. Then Gigadramon, sensing his tamer's pride, tried to return the sentiment by turning and nuzzling, shoving him off his feet and onto the ground. He stuck out his tongue and began licking his face affectionately.
"Eeyuch! Stop it! Let me go, you stupid brute!" Yamaki yelled, trying in vain to push the dragon away. Megumi laughed.
"Oh, it's so cute!" she squealed. "Can I pet it?"
"No," he said, finally managing to drag himself to his feet. "And he's not cute. You just wait until he grows up."
"When will that be?" asked Megumi.
"I have no idea. I've never raised one of these things before," Yamaki replied. "And I doubt I'll have the patience to do it more than once."
Gigadramon, meanwhile, was sizing up Megumi and Puttimon. It didn't seem to know quite what to make of them, and it blew rings of blue smoke in confusion.
"They're all right," Yamaki told him. "Megumi's completely harmless, and I'm certain she'll keep her whatever-it-is under control."
"That's Mr. Whatever-it-is to you," said Puttimon impudently.
"Then again, perhaps she won't."
"Don't be rude," Megumi scolded.
"He was rude first!"
"Apparently he's having a difficult night," said Megumi.
"Thank you for noticing. And now that I've had my evening ruined..."
Whatever he was going to say was interrupted as Gigadramon, feeling that Puttimon was offending his tamer, felt moved to defend Yamaki, snorting smoke and small bits of flame.
"Oh, stop that," said Yamaki. "You don't have to attack him just because he's being irritating."
"Mmnn?" said Gigadramon, not quite convinced.
"It's okay," Megumi told him. "Puttimon didn't mean anything by it. He's just like that. He didn't mean any harm."
Gigadramon looked at Yamaki to see if this woman really should be trusted. Yamaki nodded, so the dragon lowered his head and folded his wings. It didn't even flinch when she stepped closer to it, though it did rumble a bit when she brought her hand too near, and she quickly drew back.
"Sorry about that," Yamaki said, "but he's very high strung. He doesn't trust people, except for me."
"I see," said Megumi. "Why not?"
"It's a long story," he replied, "which I do not, at the moment, feel like telling."
"Are you going to spend the rest of the night being grumpy?" asked Reika.
"The way things are going, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't."
"Well, the night's not over yet. There's still time to pick up where we left off."
"There's no point in it; the mood's been broken."
"I'll fix it," said Reika.
"Go with her," said Megumi. "I don't care where you go or what you do, just go away. Otherwise I'm not going to be able to take the strain. I feel like some kind of voyeur, watching you two."
"Oh, all right," he said. "A walk would do my nerves some good, anyway. Mind the baby."
Reika took his hand and led him away, and Megumi sighed. She found a comfortable spot on the ground and let Puttimon curl up next to her.
"What's wrong with him, anyway?" Puttimon asked innocently.
"Oh, I'll tell you when you're older," Megumi replied.
Morning found Megumi surrounded by Digimon. She had fallen asleep with Puttimon settled comfortably at her side, so she had expected he would still be there when she woke up. What she had not counted on was that the other Digimon, realizing their partners weren't going to come back, they had sought her out for comfort instead. She woke up to find that Patch had draped himself over her feet and was snoring gently, while Gigadramon had coiled himself into a purple wall around her, pressing against her on one side and shading her with one wing. He was still sound asleep, and didn't even notice when she got up and climbed over his tail to freedom.
She was rather relieved to see that her cohorts had returned from their jaunt - after all, this was still a strange and potentially dangerous place - and were now sleeping peacefully next to the burned-out remains of the campfire. She decided against waking them up just yet, and opted instead to wake Puttimon and take him out looking for breakfast. Once she managed to convince him that it really was morning and he really couldn't sleep all day, he took her out into the forest and showed her where to find some more berry bushes and a few edible mushrooms and roots. By the time they returned, the others were awake and wandering around camp. Megumi was pleased to see that their moods were much improved, and they thanked her courteously for the meal. Whether they physically needed it or not, years of routine told them that they should have breakfast when they got up in the morning, and it was a comforting thing to have.
"I am so glad things are finally starting to look up," said Reika, taking a bite out of some kind of fruit. It was completely unfamiliar, but whatever it was, it was delicious, the perfect thing for early in the morning.
"It seems that way," Yamaki replied. "What I want to know is, what do we do now? I think we ought to be just a little concerned about how we're going to get home. It isn't as if we have an Ark waiting to take us home. Even if we did, it wouldn't guarantee safe passage."
"Somebody underestimates my abilities," said Puttimon. "Or does he think I'm only good for providing food?"
"What's he talking about?" asked Yamaki.
"Himself," Megumi replied. "He's the one who brought me here."
"He was?" asked Reika. "What for?"
"Long story," said Puttimon.
"Well, it's not like we've got anything else to do today," Yamaki observed.
So Puttimon told them the story of Demon's attempts for power and his own subsequent enslavement, his search for a human with a pure heart, meeting Megumi, and the rest of their adventures to date. It was something of a rambling tale - Puttimon wasn't good at telling a story without getting off on tangents - but he finally got through with it, and waited to see what the reactions would be.
"You say you met a Lampmon?" asked Reika.
"The Lampmon. There's only one, as far as I know," Puttimon replied. "Good thing, too."
"And he said he was doing a mission for this Demon? I don't like the sound of that," said Yamaki. "What was he doing trying to capture Reika? Does he have some kind of plans for us?"
"Aw, I dunno," said Puttimon. "He might just be being a pain. He doesn't like anything that's different or anything that's out of his control - one of the reasons I tick him off so much." He looked thoughtfully at the Gigadramon. "Say, you guys haven't been to any of the other levels, have you?"
"No, we've been on this one the whole time," Yamaki answered. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I was just wondering," answered Puttimon blithely, "because of your Gigadramon. I hadn't thought there were any left in these parts. Demon doesn't like them. They were the only things on the level that were anywhere near as powerful as he was, and he thought they were big and ugly and stupid, so he came in one day and just wiped 'em all out. A whole nest of 'em - scariest thing I ever saw, with the mother screaming and the babies crying... Looks like he missed one, though."
A drop of blood fell to the ground; Yamaki was clenching his fists in fury, so tightly that his nails had pierced his skin. Gigadramon was growling, a low rumble that seemed to resonate in the earth itself. Reika was mildly alarmed.
"Calm down," she said. "There's no point in that. It's over, it's been over, there's nothing you can do about it now."
"Are you sure about that?" he replied. "We don't have to sit idly by and watch this time. We have the tools to fight back."
"No we don't," she replied. "We are not going out picking a fight with a Mega. It would be suicide. Just because we have a few Digimon with us doesn't mean we're equipped to go out and start a war."
"Hm," he said, not looking convinced.
"Look," she said, "if Demon can kill a full-grown Gigadramon, he can do the same to a baby. The smart thing to do is get out of here before any more trouble comes looking for us."
"We were heading for the upper levels before we found out you guys were here," Megumi offered. "Actually, we were almost there, but then we had to turn around..."
"Take the issue up with the Sovereigns," said Puttimon. "They don't like Demon much, after he tried to he tried to butt in on their little club. I could tell 'em a few stories that would make them wish they'd blown him to bits a long time ago. Even ol' Zhuqiaomon would listen if I told him Demon's been dragging unauthorized humans in here. He's still complaining about that last batch."
"I can't say I care very much for your Sovereigns," said Yamaki, "but I suppose if that's the only option we have..." He sighed. "I hate running away."
"You don't stand around trying to fight an avalanche," Reika retorted.
"If we're going, let's get going," was all he answered.
They set out, following Puttimon's lead. Megumi kept close to her partner, as did Patch, who seemed to have formed a friendly attachment to the Armored 'mon. Gigadramon had taken to the air again, leaving Yamaki and Reika able to talk in relative privacy.
"Do you think we'll be going home again soon?" she asked him.
"I don't know. Do you want to?"
"I can't decide. I know I should. We don't belong in this place. It's dangerous here."
"True," he answered. "But it hasn't been what I expected. I was braced for much worse than this. When we came here, I expected to not see Earth again for weeks. To be turning back now... it's a bit of a disappointment."
Quietly, Reika said, "There's not much to go home to, is there?"
"What? You think I'd rather stay here dodging monsters than go back to Earth?" he replied. "Well, maybe you're right. Maybe it's just that part of me that would like to go back to being a child, but... I find myself not wanting to leave this place."
A new voice said, "That could be arranged, you know."
Everyone jumped, and Puttimon cringed.
"Here we go again," he said.
Space warped, and Demon glided into sight, glaring at all of them with his icy blue eyes.
"You," said Megumi angrily. "What are you doing here? Why can't you leave us in peace?"
"What am I doing here? I'm here to show you that your little friend there isn't the only one who can grant wishes," answered Demon coolly. "I'm perfectly capable of making sure none of you ever leave this place."
"Why? What have we ever done to you?" asked Reika.
"You're trespassing on my level. That is a good enough excuse to eliminate you all... especially that thing," Demon added, giving Gigadramon a distasteful stare. "I'd thought I'd rid this place of those foul worms a long time ago."
"Perhaps he's come to return the favor," said Yamaki darkly. Gigadramon hovered above him, growling and breathing bits of flame.
"I don't like the looks of this," said Reika. Patch was snarling and raising his hackles, clearly preparing for a fight.
"Me neither," Megumi replied. "Puttimon, do something already!"
"What do you want me to do?" he replied. "My powers aren't much good for destroying things. If you want me to do something, you'd better think of something creative."
"Umm..." said Megumi, racking her brain. What kind of wish did you make in a situation like this? She wasn't sure Puttimon could really destroy Demon even if she wished it... and wasn't really that sure she wanted to wish that to begin with. She didn't really like the idea of being responsible for destroying another living thing, even Demon. She frowned for a moment. "Okay, I've got it!"
"Got what?" asked Puttimon.
Megumi beckoned him closer and whispered her idea to him.
"Whew!" he said. "That's a tall order!"
"Can you do it?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Not without help anyway."
"Help?" she repeated.
"Hey, we're talking about messing with the fundamental whatchamacallits of the universe here," Puttimon replied. "I'm good, but I'm not that good. You really want me to do that?"
"Yes," said Megumi.
"Well, then, I'd better get moving," he replied. "Hold the fort for me till I get back!"
"Hold it with what?" she said. "Hey, wait a minute - where are you going?"
"To get help!" Puttimon replied, and he scampered off and vanished.
"Well, that's a big help!" Megumi muttered. "Now what do we do?"
"We try to stall until he gets back," said Reika. "Patch! Some help here?"
"Rrready!" he growled.
There was a flash of light as the little Gazimon shifted to his higher form and dashed onto the battlefield. He dove at Demon, latching onto one of the creature's arms with his powerful jaws, only to be flung several yards through the air. He was just barely able to right himself before he hit the ground, his paws digging furrows in the earth as he landed.
"Foolish humans!" Demon sneered. "What chance do you think your ridiculous pets have against me?"
"Laugh while you can," answered Yamaki darkly. "I'm going to make you sorry you ever crossed paths with me. I'll see you ripped apart and your data scattered to the four winds!"
"We'll see about that! I think it's time I finished what I started. Prepare to see that monstrosity of yours elminated."
A bolt of dark fire flew at Gigadramon, who swooped and dodged it. He dove at Demon, claws unfolded and teeth bared, breathing plumes of blue-white flames that scorched the earth and withered nearby trees. Demon deflected it with a wave of one clawed hand, sending back a volley of glowing projectiles that exploded against Gigadramon's steel skin. The dragon gave an earsplitting bellow and fired a round rockets that flew at Demon, bursting in a colossal cloud of smoke.
"That's right, destroy him," Yamaki whispered. "Annihilate him! Attack until there's nothing left!"
Gigadramon seemed to hear him. He dove again and again, ignoring all injuries, and there was nothing audible over the sounds of his roars and the nonstop explosions. Yamaki watched, transfixed, and Reika did not like the look on his face. There was something wild there, something bordering on the possessed, as he and the dragon channeled each other's rage and fear. Reika ran and tugged at him.
"Mitsuo, snap out of it," she said.
"Let me be," he said, shrugging her off. "This is my fight."
"No, it's not!" Reika snapped. "You've got to stop this - you're out of control."
"I'm completely in control, now leave me alone!"
His response came so fast he never saw it coming. All he knew was that there was a loud crack, and he stagged backwards clutching at a red, stinging mark on his face.
"Ow!" he complained. "What did you do that for?"
"To get your attention," Reika retorted. "Look at you! Have you gone crazy? Don't you remember what happens when you lose control? Didn't Takato tell you? What if Gigadramon evolved while you were in that state? What do you think would happen? You'd get us all killed, that's what would happen!"
He shook himself, as if coming out of a bad dream. "You're right... What was I thinking?"
"You weren't," she snapped. "Now, let's stop this insanity and get out of here before-"
There wasn't time for either of them to look out, but they were saved anyway as Gururumon leaped at them, shoving them both roughly out of the way as a wild shot from someone - it was impossible in all the melee to tell who was shooting at who - fell from the sky. They all fell down in a tangled heap, and Gururumon scrambled free and began trying to help them to their feet.
"All right?" he inquired.
"I think so," said Reika. "I owe you another one, Patch."
There was another explosion, this time in the air, and it was answered by a scream of pain. All eyes turned to the sky in time to see Gigadramon hurtling downward. He hit the ground with a sickening crunch and lay still.
"Oh, no," said Yamaki. "Now what have I done? Gigadramon!"
He rushed to his partner's side. Much to his relief, the dragon's eyes slowly opened, and he made a feeble attempt to rub against his tamer's side.
"Mmmm?" he whimpered.
"It's all right," Yamaki told him, his voice shaking. "You did fine. Everything is all right."
"Pathetic," Demon muttered. "You're disgusting, getting so sentimental over a foil-plated worm. The world will be well rid of your presence."
He made an attempt to blast them both, but was distracted by a large white wolf that suddenly threw itself into Demon's face, requiring immediate attention. Megumi seized on the moment of distraction to join her friends.
"I think we need to head for cover," she said. "We're not going to get out of this one by fighting."
"But..." said Yamaki helplessly, gesturing at Gigadramon. The dragon was still trying to lever himself off the ground, but he barely had the strength to raise his head.
There was a snap like an electrical arc, and Gururumon gave a wail of pain as Demon's lightning hit him. He was thrown off his feet and skidded across the scorched ground, coming to a halt a few yards away from Reika's feet. She hurried to his side, and he moaned faintly as she knelt next to him. His fur was burned in several places, and his eyes seemed to be having trouble focusing.
"Looks like we can't leave now," said Reika bleakly. "We can't just walk off and leave our partners."
"Would you rather stay here and die?" asked Megumi.
There was a silence, and Megumi wished she hadn't said anything. She knew suddenly that yes, they would stay by their partners no matter what. Bad enough to lose a partner, as the girl Juri had done, but to know that they had run away and abandoned their Digimon to die...
*I couldn't live with myself if I did something like that to Puttimon,* Megumi thought. *Though he might have to put up with that himself, if he doesn't get here soon! Where is he?*
She was distracted by her thoughts by a sudden trill, and she felt a weight land on her head. She looked up and realized that there was something bright and glowing sitting on her, looking down at her with bright black eyes. A similar creature flew by, chittering happily to itself. Three more joined the first, swirling around like a school of glowing fish.
"What the...?" Yamaki exclaimed.
"Digi-gnomes!" yelped Megumi.
"Yup!" a voice giggled. "Hi, folks! Hope you don't mind that I brought a few friends!"
"What is all this?" Demon growled. He didn't seem to like the glowing creatures; he kept trying to back away from them, but they flew around him like moths around a flame.
"The Ancient Ones," said Puttimon, stepping into view. "You want to talk about wishes, these are the guys to talk to. They're here to do you a little favor."
"Whatever it is, I don't want it!" Demon said, looking desperately for an exit. There wasn't one. The Digi-gnomes were swirling around him so thickly, he was hidden by a wall of white.
"Sure you do," said Puttimon. "This is exactly what you wanted - a way to get wishes for yourself. Okay, guys, let's do it!"
Closing his eyes, he put his hands around his green crystal. Its light intensified, shooting out brilliant rays of light, and the Digi-gnomes caught it and spun it around themselves in a shimmering net. It whirled and twisted, growing brighter, and the humans had to shield their eyes from the radiance. There was a sound, like crystal ringing, that grew louder and louder until they were sure something had to break...
And then it was silent. They looked up in time to see the last of the Digi-gnomes soaring away, twittering to themselves. Puttimon lay exhausted and panting on the ground. A few feet away lay the limp remains of Demon.
"Is he...?" asked Reika.
"He shouldn't be," Megumi replied. "That's not what I wished for, anyway. Hey, you, wake up!"
Without any sign of fear, she walked up to Demon's side and prodded him with her foot. He rolled over, groaning faintly, and his hood fell away, revealing a human face. He opened his eyes and stared at her.
"I'm alive," he said dazedly. "What have you done to me?"
"Given you a lot better than you deserve," said Puttimon, coming over to join his tamer. "Wow, I never thought I'd be looking down at you."
"Impudent little..." Demon snarled. He tried to make a grab at Puttimon, but the little Digimon danced out of the way easily.
"Nope, can't do that!" he said. "You're a human now. All your powers are gone, and even I'm a match for you now."
"Why did you do this to me?" asked Demon. "Couldn't you have just killed me cleanly and been done with it? Or do you just want to make a spectacle of me?"
"No," said Megumi. "This is exactly what you wanted, isn't it? You wanted a chance to make your wishes come true, didn't you? You wanted a challenge - well, now you've got one. You're going to be sent to the human world, to someplace where you can have a chance to start again, and maybe - just maybe - you'll make a go of it. Otherwise, well... you don't deserve much better, anyway."
He blinked. "You're not going to destroy me?"
"No," Megumi replied. She leveled him a look. "Now do me a favor, and don't screw up."
"I'm tired of talking to this guy," said Puttimon. "Can we send him away now?"
"If you think you're up to it," Megumi replied.
"I can handle it," said Puttimon. "So long, Demon! Have fun in real life!"
He pressed a hand to his crystal again, and all that was left of Demon vanished in a swirl of gold light.
"Are you sure that was wise, Megumi?" asked Yamaki.
She shrugged. "No. But it's better than killing him. Who knows? Maybe he really will make a go of it. I just wanted to send him somewhere where he wouldn't do any damage."
"It's taken care of," said Puttimon. "That was what you wished for, anyway. With a little luck, he'll be okay."
"And what about the rest of us?" Reika wanted to know. "Aren't we going to go home?"
"I don't know," Yamaki replied. "Are we? Do we really want to?"
Reika looked around. Beyond the scorched battlefield, she could see trees and flowers, and an endless expanse of pure blue sky, with the Real World twinkling down on them. She looked back at their Digimon partners.
"It would be kind of hard to get your baby into the apartment," she said, smiling faintly.
"Right!" said Megumi. "I'm not ready to go home yet - I've barely had any adventures at all!"
"And I want my vacation," Yamaki whispered to Reika.
She laughed. "You'll have it! I can't say I've ever seen anywhere quite as secluded and picturesque as this... and we won't be able to say we're bored."
"Yeah, hang out with us a while! After all, you can go home," said Puttimon, taking a bow, "whenever you wish!"
"I think it's decided," said Yamaki. "After all, it would be a shame to leave so soon after we got here."
"Hey, Puttimon," said Reika, "you know your way around. Where should we go first?"
"Well, up is good, and down is interesting, and side to side has its merits," he said. "Megumi, pick a direction!"
"Mm.... that way!" she said, pointing and laughing.
"It's as good as any other way," said Yamaki. "All right. Let's go."
So they set out to see the world, and their adventures were all that they could have wished for.