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The Long Way Home

Part One: Hell's Half Acre

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Author's Note: Takes place sometime after "A New Digitude."

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They were out there.

Red-eyed digimon running silently through the woods, sniffing out her trail like wolves on the scent of blood. Prowling swiftly through the heavy black underbrush, unchecked by the trees stabbing upwards to the sky like spears, their movements liquid and unhindered thanks to a long familiarity with the territory. Things with claws, with powerful crushing arms and mouths like a drawer full of steak knives. They were stronger than her, she knew that for certain, and they were probably smarter than her as well. They knew these woods and the stretch of barren fields beyond them like she knew the layout of her room back home. They were fresh and well rested, aggressive and angry and searching for an outlet for their rage in the mindless manner of most abused slaves.

She, on the other hand, was exhausted, hurt, hopelessly lost and staggering blindly through thick undergrowth that spitefully lashed at her shaking legs with every stumbling step she took. Her eyes were swimming with sweat, her hair a tangled nest of bark and bits of broken off twigs, her face and neck a roadmap of angry red scratches. She was bone cold, wet, and hungry as all hell. She was out of breath, out of luck, and out of friends to help her. She was in a very, very foul mood.

She was also carrying her very unconscious chum on her back. His arms were wrapped loosely around her neck and his legs dangled down from the crooks of her elbows. His face was pressed against the junction where her neck met her right shoulder, his eyes mercifully closed, blissfully unaware of the heroic spectacle she was making of herself. And as she resoundedly cursed the bloody hunting pack of digimon ghosting somewhere at her heels and their bloody awful prick of a master and the bloody miserable stretch of stinking woods at large, she saved a few unfriendly words of damnation for the unwelcome freeloader on her back as well. The rotten little fink was a lot heavier than he looked, dammit.

Slipping on the loose soil, she reeled forward when one of her boots crunched through some dead branches and then disappeared beneath a layer of liquid black mud. Spitting out a swarm of very unladylike phrases as she frantically shifted her weight to prevent her comatose load from blithely sliding off into the underbrush, she reared back and yanked the foot out of the offending sinkhole hard. It pulled free with a wet sucking noise that set her teeth on edge, and she stared at the dripping appendage and its lovely wafting smell of the swamp with a long look of loathing.

Oh. How nice. Nature just seemed to be full of these delightful little surprises.

With a deeply frustrated growl, she risked a pause and carelessly juggled the boy on her back until she could wipe at her brow with the back of one hand. While it was there, she scrubbed the fingers through her hair at the nape of her neck as well, relieving a maddening itch that had been irritating her for hours. Plucking out a few of the larger twigs tangled up in the lavender mass, she gave them a dirty look and then hurled them off into the black forest. Settling herself into a state of forced resignation over the fact that there was absolutely nothing she could do about the mud squelching unpleasantly between the toes of one foot, she leaned back and squinted peevishly about her to take stock of her surroundings.

The dark and uninviting copse of trees seemed to stretch on for miles, rows of smooth black trunks radiating out across the landscape in all directions. Far overhead the branches and fir needles wove together into a thick mat of foliage, through which very little moonlight filtered down. As a result the woods were filled with a dim, dusky light that shifted and faded without warning, laying a patchwork quilt of shadows. Beneath her feet the forest floor was a soft carpet of dead needles, from which emerald ferns curled up daintily and buzzed with tiny insects. The air was deathly still and cool and damp against her skin, dust motes swirling sluggishly through the atmosphere like mayflies. Whenever a breeze blew in from the sloughs it brought with it the rich smell of mud and rotting vegetation.

Shifting on her feet uneasily, she tilted back her head and stared up listlessly at the scraps of sky visible through the high canopy overhead. The deep blue of the sky was still looking a little wan, the scattering of stars pale; she guessed that she still had a half hour at the most to wait out before dawn began its inevitable march across the eastern horizon. That was good - after being relentlessly chased down by faceless terrors in the dark hours of the early morning, being relentlessly chased down by faceless terrors in the sunny afternoon could only be an improvement of her current situation.

At that grim thought, she twisted where she stood and gave the woods around her a fearful scrutiny. It was the fact that she couldn't see any sign of their pursuers that bothered her the most. The only indication of life that she could spot was the painfully obvious trail she was leaving behind her. Bent and snapped off branches and crumpled foliage wove a dark path back through the undergrowth, a silent traitor pointing a finger directly towards her. As much as she scowled at it she knew that there was very little that could be done about it. Stealthy ninja of the wild open wilderness she wasn't.

An involuntary shiver slipped down the length of her spine as strange whispers of sound began to drift in around her from the forest, like the keen of a frog or the yodel of a faraway bird. Twigs snapped for no apparent reason, thin retorts of noise that echoed and re-echoed off into gloomy unseen distances. Underbrush rattled sharply with a suddenness that was electrifying; things pattered off through the tangles of tall grass. Water lapped gently, while a breeze breathed along the tops of the trees and spun loose needles down into her hair and her clothing. She shuddered at the light, prickling touch.

They could see her; track her as easily through the woods as a hunting dog does a grouse. She couldn't see them but she knew they were out there regardless.

She was no fool.

The weight of the boy collapsed on her back was beginning to bow her over again, and she grimaced as the aching muscles in her shoulders began to protest, the pain momentarily dispersing her fears. Squaring off her feet and hoisting him a little further up her back with a shrug and a grunt, she glowered out at the woods ahead of her with a look of calculating determination.

Okay. Right. The East was behind her, the West directly ahead. There was no point in standing around and gaping like a goggle-eyed idiot when she had work to do, might as well press on to morning like the trooper that she was, yadda yadda, life's a never ending Mardi Gras. Taking a firm grip over the unconscious boy's knees, she set her jaw stubbornly and began to push and thrash her way through the brush again, desperately ignoring the way the branches raked across her face.

From some far off distance a bird cried, a lost and lonely sound. When the forest closed over again there was nothing to be seen.


****


Like a faithful family dog curled up nose to tail on a snowy doorstep in the middle of a midnight blizzard, abandoned to the elements outside, Wormmon silently awaited the arrival of his master.

Well, granted, there were actually quite a few dissimilarities between that picturesque scene of unwavering loyalty and his actual situation. For one thing, he was just an ugly, creeping little caterpillar rather than a wholesome and huggable pooch. And he wasn't adorably curled nose to tail so much as huddled into a fearful cocoon, a curiously protective gesture, gazing out with wide eyes shimmering with dread at the shadowed room about him and its uncaring wall of neon blue monitors. Against all psychical evidence he knew with absolute certainty that those awful screens were staring down at him with open accusation, unblinking celluloid eyes glowing silently in the darkness, as if questioning by just what right he, a mere menial servant, had dared taken up residence in his master's chair.

Oh yes, there was that too. Although the snowy step in the night was actually the seat of the Digimon Emperor's throne, it was by no means less dangerous to his health. A slow demise spent out on a cold slab of concrete and the frayed leftovers of a welcome mat while your life was smothered out beneath a suffocating blanket of ice and snow and hypothermia meant precious little on the Avoidable Evil Scale when compared to facing the blast furnace that was the Emperor's temper. Especially when he found out that someone else had been sitting in His Chair.

Between the two evils, Wormmon was very aware of which presented the clearest danger.

The digimon shuddered. If Ken were to somehow discover that Wormmon - disgusting, slithering, detested Wormmon - spent the hours of his absence in the digital world coiled up on his chair like a whipped and lonely dog on the forbidden living room couch, there would be ten kinds of holy hell to pay. He knew that his human didn't like being touched, and evidently that strict rule extended to all of his personal possessions as well.

He couldn't really understand why his master hated to see the digimon come into contact with any part of him or his property, Wormmon reflected with a deeply injured air. It wasn't as if he… he… shed, or anything.

It wasn't even as if it were a special chair. It was simple and straightforward, an office chair with raised arms, much too smooth and much too sleek and much too black to ever make one feel very much at ease in it. Like the rest of the room it had been pared down to the barest of essentials that made it what it was, all unneeded and useless luxuries stripped away, leaving it utilitarian and unimaginative. It was a chair you did work in, and was not built with petty comforts for the terminally lazy in mind. All on its own, the chair commanded no special respect. It was just that, a chair. Wormmon had slept on patches of the fortress' cold metal floor that made a more pleasant resting place.

But it was Ken's chair, and in the end that was all that really mattered to him.

Wasn't it?

Oh, he just didn't know anymore. While most of him cringed at the thought of crossing the strict line that his master had drawn defining unquestioning obedience to the formality of the relationship between him and his slaves, a tiny little part of him with a tiny little voice buried far away in his breed still wistfully yearned for the casual contact that even a lowly pet received. It wasn't a wise voice; it was wild and defiant, and there was nothing cagey about it at all. Since Ken was loath to touch him anymore, save to strike him in anger, he had taken to spending the long nights sorrowfully curled up in his master's seat, after the Emperor had returned to his home in the real world, just to bask in the fading memory that the most important person in his life had once been there.

And he dreamed, and in those dreams he remembered a young boy with gentle blue eyes and a kind face. A boy who had once loved him, and whom he still faithfully loved as any good digimon should.

It was an incredibly depressing thing to contemplate.

Wormmon shivered, and curled a little tighter into himself. The horrible fortress and its lingering chill of winter had leeched out any warmth left pooled in the chair during the midnight hours, the same way it leeched out all traces of light and hope and simple humanity and then bled a little hate into the shrivelled wound left behind ...

Even without the blizzard and the snow and the icy winds, the fortress was as cold as a meat locker and just about as hospitable. It was a massive and elaborate maze of black passages and chambers, boxed atop each other like combs in a hive, all frosted over with sterile phosphorus illumination. Lines of light ran along the metal walls as thinly and quickly as mercury. They traced out complex mathematical patterns of construction etched into the surface before being swiftly absorbed into the all-pervading gloom. A brittle chill that felt straight from a tomb breathed its way along the halls; for reasons Wormmon had never really understood, his master insisted that the impersonally low temperature be maintained at all times. It had to do with computers, or something. Oh, he couldn't remember why exactly - Ken had only explained it to him once, with a look on his face that made it painfully clear that if he had no intention of broaching the subject again without using the whip as a visual aid. Any number of protests that Wormmon had raised in the past regarding the chill and his master's health had met with a gruesome death, until fear of the boy's temper had finally outweighed his concern.

With a ragged little sigh, the caterpillar stared moodily out into the darkened room, towards a single hallway beaming off into depths unknown. All too often Wormmon found himself in that familiar situation, with his heartfelt pleas falling on the deaf ears of a callously indifferent master. Ken had cared once - he really had! - but that had been a long, long time ago. Perhaps he had forgotten how to since then. And the more time he spent in the digital world the further away he drew from his digimon partner, alone and untouchable, like a dead tree standing stark against the sky.

Of course, that didn't mean that Wormmon would just give up trying. Not by a long shot. Maybe… maybe things would change for the better. He still had time left. Yes, he thought, his antennae perking up slightly. Yes, he had to keep trying. He just had to. So long as weekends like this one kept coming up, where for two whole days the Emperor's agenda spread itself out like a hidden blackjack hand, he still had the opportunity to try and help his master find his way.

A weekend meant two things. First of all, it meant that he would be seeing a lot of his beloved Ken, for the boy would have nearly forty-eight hours away from school at his availability. He knew that Ken infinitely preferred to spend his time in the digital world rather than his own, for unhappy reasons that tore at Wormmon's heart. He had developed an unsettling fixation with his new domain, one quite out of character with the kind boy that the little digimon could still just remember, and as a result spent every waking hour he could afford warily lording over it. Like the long line of tyrants before him, he wasn't particularly comfortable with the idea of leaving his territory for any length of time. Wormmon suspected that the very thought that something might happen in the digital world behind his back chafed at his master considerably.

Weekends were therefore considered nothing short of a godsend. And while the majority of the two days would be spent in a fit of restless production as legions of black spires were created and sent marching grimly across the digital landscape, it also left Wormmon with a little time to simply sit back and admire the personality at work that had so overshadowed everything else in his life.

Oh, to be certain he'd caught sight of the Digidestined humans his master was fighting and they were quite splendid to look at as well, with their two long legs and exotic costumes and opposable thumbs. Unlike Ken, Wormmon had no grudge against them. In fact, he thought that on whole they were rather nice people.

Of course, he couldn't claim to be the digimon of a single one of those caring children, could he? Fate worked in strange ways. No, he knew to whom his loyalty and devotion truly lay, even if it wasn't returned and only rarely acknowledged. There was something curiously hypnotic about his master in that respect, like the mesmerizing sight of a cobra rearing up out of the dry grass. Ken was blessed with will and determination, pride and power, intelligence and grace, both an academic and an athlete. Could he be found at fault if he, lowly wormlike Wormmon, saw something to be admired in a person like that? Even if it meant that he would be abused and beaten time and time over again, he just couldn't bring himself to break the link he had, however slim and insignificant, to that incredible force of spirit. Loosing that connection to his master would be as painful as severing a limb.

On the other hand, a weekend meant a dangerous amount of time spent in the presence of the Digimon Emperor as well. Wherever one persona went, the other was destined to follow. The Emperor was also a genius and an athlete, the very same soccer star that his beloved Ken was. Although in his case, combined with his explosive disposition and penchant for heavy-handed doses of cruelty, it made him more of a person inclined in body and temperament to kick a puppy through plate glass window, rather than any sort of kind and quiet intellectual.

Wormmon loved Ken. He really did. But he feared the boy that was the Emperor.

His antennae suddenly stood up at attention, immediately acting on instincts of self-preservation. For a minute he sat up in the chair stock-still and quivering, every sense stretched painfully keen as he sought out whatever little scrap of sound had somehow inadvertently sparked off his early warning impulses. All was still and quiet, the darkness of the fortress yielding up no traces of life that he could consciously sense out-

Fuelled by panic, it took him barely the space between seconds to roll onto his feet and hurl himself out of the chair. Scuttling to the doorway leading out to the hall as fast as his legs could carry him, he only just made it in time to greet his master as the Digimon Emperor strode into the room, the tread of his heels a strident ring against the metal floor and his cape a proud blue banner rippling out behind him.

The fact that the picture perfect image of villainous decisiveness he made was somewhat spoilt by the irritable thunderclouds crowding his face and the eggshell blue coffee mug held firmly in one hand was, Wormmon felt, something hardly worth pointing out. Devoted to his late night schedule of strategic plotting as he was, Ken could hardly be considered an enthusiastic morning riser and seemed to regard the early hours with as much offended distaste as he did the Digidestined.

"Good morning, master," the caterpillar said humbly, falling into step beside the bleary-eyed young ruler and following at a distance that was close enough to be loyal and far enough to be respectful. "I hope you're feeling well today."

"Nng," the Emperor grunted intelligently, before taking a long swig of coffee.

Served black, of course. Some plucky, poetic types might attempt to describe the hot drink as being as dark and as bitter as the soul of the Emperor himself.

In actuality, it was only Folgers medium blend. Ken had long since learned that for a schedule that demanded as many of his precious midnight hours as he could possible allot, a shot of black coffee in the early morning was just the sharp kick to a consciousness fogged with sleep that his system needed. He had neither the time nor the patience for lethargy.

Wormmon, shuffling hesitantly behind his master as the black haired boy moodily threw himself into his chair with his arms and legs sprawled akimbo, drew a safe distance away from the immediate striking range of the Emperor's feet and tried again. "I have some good news for you this morning, master. It should cheer you up right away."

"Good news" being a relative term, of course. There was little doubt in his mind that his master would be pleased with news of the outcome of the incident that had taken place in the very heart of his empire during the earliest hours of the morning. The other children involved, he reasoned mournfully, couldn't be very happy about what happened. Their digimon certainly wouldn't. And they seemed like such nice kids, too.

It really was a shame.

His coherence reinstated with a dose of hot coffee, the Emperor spared his digimon a single black look, harsh neon light reflecting sharply off his glasses and casting a thin nimbus along the edge of his pale face. "That's debatable," he growled. "This better not have anything to do with those new spires. I didn't spend all that time building those things for the Digidestined to go to idiotic lengths to knock them down overnight."

"Oh no," Wormmon assured him hastily. "No, the control spires are all fine, Master."

"Small mercies," the boy muttered, half to himself. Raising the mug to his mouth, thin plumes of warm vapour drifting up from the liquid inside to frame his face, he gave the caterpillar a suspicious sideways look without turning his head. "So, what happened?"

The caterpillar winced inwardly and scuffled his feet on the floor as he cast about for a good way of phrasing the news. The idea that his Ken was going to derive such pleasure from someone else's misfortune and misery sickened him considerably. At that very moment it also suddenly occurred to him that his own hesitation to speak might be interpreted as stalling by more volatile tempers among them, and the cold clutch of dread seized hold of his heart. With a mental grimace he meekly lifted his eyes up to his master in what he hoped was an oblique glance. The expression he spotted on the Emperor's face suggested that the boy was rapidly kennelling Patience and was about two steps away from unleashing Wrath.

At least the whip was nowhere in sight. Yet.

"Whatever it is you have to say, just go ahead and spit it out!" the Emperor snapped peevishly. "I didn't haul myself out of bed on a Saturday morning just to sit around and wait for a worm to gather up his nerve! What's this news of yours?"

Defeated, and with a heavy heart, Wormmon told him.

The Emperor stared down at him incredulously as the significance of what the digimon had just reported sank in. Leaning back heavily, he stared off into empty space for the duration of a minute as if fascinated by a scene being played out beyond it, wide eyed and as still as a statue. An incredibly evil grin began to steal over his face and he slowly, deliberately placed the coffee mug down on the arm of the chair. For the first time that morning he looked directly down at his digimon, and Wormmon felt a familiar thrill race through him as that blue-eyed gaze locked with his own.

"Is that true?" he breathed.

"Every word, Master," Wormmon replied glumly, entranced despite his fear. "I saw the whole thing from this room."

Settling back into his chair, the Emperor pushed up his glasses with one gloved finger and grinned broadly at the room at large, his good humour miraculously restored. Almost as an afterthought, he kicked up one foot until it was propped up comfortably on the opposite knee, the folds of his cape falling like drapes around his body. His eyes gleamed. "My, isn't that a sad story? Looks like the mice stuck their heads out too far and got them chopped off. This is too good to be true. I only wish I had been here this morning to point and laugh at the spectacle those idiots made of themselves myself."

"You probably would have enjoyed it," Wormmon sighed.

"Damn straight," his master agreed readily, sniggering. Then he arched an eyebrow and glanced back down at the dejected little digimon. "Are you absolutely certain that five went in and only three made it back out?"

"Oh yes, very sure," the caterpillar said. "I made sure to count them all very carefully."

"We're any of my spires damaged?"

"I- I don't think so, no."

The Emperor snorted derisively. "How stupid can you get? You'd think they'd be happy pegging away at the fringe territory, but no, it looks like they got a little over ambitious and fell into something way over their heads. Even I never would have guessed that they'd be suicidal enough to try attacking a point dug that far in."

"I guess they're not as smart as you are when it comes to this sort of business, Master," Wormmon said brightly, smelling out an opportunity to earn some well deserved brownie points.

Surprisingly, his master chose to ignore the comment and instead maintained an eerie silence. He set his elbow on one of the chair arms and cupped his chin in his palm, his brow creased in thought as plans of strategy marched across his mind. After a moment he said, "Do I have any Gazimon downstairs that I can send out?"

Wormmon blinked once. "I think I saw a couple of them this morning already in the area," he said.

"Excellent. I'm assuming that those fools ran into one of the Tyrannomon patrols, then."

Although it didn't sound very much like a question, the caterpillar nodded anyway.

"Better and better."

The Emperor clapped his hands together once so sharply that Wormmon jumped back, and then stood abruptly.

"Let's go dig up a Tuskmon, shall we? I'd like to take a little trip out to see those spires myself. Oh, and you're coming with me. I want you to tell me absolutely everything that happened when we get there, right down to the smallest detail."

"Why are we going, Master?" Wormmon asked, perplexed.

The Emperor humoured him with a thin-lipped smile. "In case you hadn't done some very simple mathematics already, three from five leaves two behind. If the Gazimon haven't hunted them down yet, then I've got some vermin to chase out of my property."


****


They were bruised and bloodied, but not quite beaten.

But they only just scraped past.

The blond boy relaxed the fingers of one hand long enough to run it across his brow, scratching the skin just beneath the elastic band of his hat, then buried them deeply back into his digimon's mane. As exhausted as he was, and no matter just how much his aching muscles protested, he wasn't about to hazard loosening up his grip entirely just to allow for some small creature comforts. The digital landscape was an awfully long way down after all, and was whistling past them with unsettling speed, trees little more than long dark speed lines. He had faith in his partner's seemingly supernatural ability to save him from harm should he weaken and fall, but not quite that much faith, especially when the digimon was already burdened down with two other passengers.

Angels were quite capable of performing those kinds of miracles. He wasn't entirely sure what a mythical flying horse could do.

Sweat was trickling down into his eyes in a maddening fashion, but he didn't dare wipe at it.

He hoped it was sweat, anyway.

Oh please, let it be sweat.

Ahead of him the western sky was a single band of twilight blue, lightly speckled over with stars. Pale yellow light was beginning to wash over the countryside beneath them, flooding in from the east to fill the hills and valleys with long violet shadows. Without turning around he knew that the sun had finally broken over the top of the horizon; he could feel its warmth against the skin of his neck, just above the collar of his shirt. While the days and nights of the digital world sometimes seemed to operate on a schedule quite unlike the real world's, you could still always trust both the dusk and the dawn to put in an appearance sooner or later.

He shivered briefly. The wind knifing through his clothing had yet to warm, and still carried with it a touch of the night's icy chill. He and the others had been awake and roaming across the digital world since the early hours of the morning, long before the sun had risen, trusting in the cover of night to mask their flight over the dangerous borders of the Emperor's domain. Unfortunately, that darkness had not only cleverly hidden them from the eyes of their enemies, but frozen them straight to the bone as well. As much as he appreciated the altogether lovely sight the dawn brought with it, all cotton candy pink skies and crisp gold leaf clouds, he would be very happy to see the sun reach the top of its climb.

Something caught his attention from the corner of his eye and he glanced to the side, squinting as the laborious beat of his digimon's feathered wings fanned the air around his face. Flying well out to the side and little behind was a familiar great white winged cat with a woman's face, a holy beast digimon. In the early morning light she almost seemed to glow, looking very luminous against the backdrop of blue sky. Even at that distance he could dimly make out a trio of figures clinging to her back, two children and one small digimon, all three nearly hidden behind her wings. The pale-faced girl seated at the front with her hands pressed against the digimon's neck looked just about as tired as he was, he noted wryly.

Come to think of it, the entire lot of them were all looking pretty ragged at the moment he amended with a grimace. The golden armour of the digimon beneath him was scorched with long lines of black ash; large tufts of yellow feathers had been torn out of his wings. The other flying digimon didn't seem to be in much better shape. When the pair digivolved back into Patamon and Gatomon, they would likely sleep off the rest of the afternoon, he reasoned. No matter how desperate their situation had become, he didn't suppose he could blame them if they needed a rest when they arrived back in safe territory. He wasn't feeling particularly well himself, and even the vaguest memory of what had happened in the early hours that morning made him feel sick all over. It was a hollow, painful feeling, like being punched in the gut on an empty stomach.

Even worse was the impression that he had suddenly been dropped in the middle of a great ocean and told to swim for the shore. It was an elusive, hazy sensation of panic, warning him of a danger he couldn't quite feel out but was quietly flooding over his head regardless, almost as if he were drowning but hadn't spotted the bubbles yet. And he could't see it because it wasn't really there, and he couldn't fight it because it didn't really exist in the first place. It was unseen and untouchable, and yet everywhere. It bothered him a great deal that he couldn't put a finger on what was making him so uneasy. He liked to consider himself a sensible and logical sort of person; the indefinite had always made him uncomfortable.

Allowing himself the luxury of a private scowl, he shook his head to clear it. No matter what, it wouldn't do to let the others see him like this, hesitant and afraid. He supposed that recent events had left him in charge of the remains of their little group. They were depending on him now. Not matter what, he in turn had to make sure that they all kept their wits about them and their heads above water.

He blinked, a sudden chill running through him at that unbidden thought.

Any further fears were abruptly jarred aside when Pegasmon's smooth, level flight was suddenly disrupted. The digimon's wings flapped heavily, and he began to sharply peel off towards the south. The blond boy nearly yelped aloud in surprise when he felt a pair of sharp claws dig a panicked hold onto his sides in response, and he had to shift his weight gently until the digimon clinging to his back seemed to get the point and released his death grip.

"My apologies," Pegasmon rumbled. "I've found a suitable place to touch down by that river below us. We're completely clear of the Emperor's territory now and there are no black spires in sight, so it should be a safe place to land and regroup. If, of course, that's all right with you, TK."

Any words he wanted to shout would have been whipped away with the wind, so TK had to settle with patting one hand against the digimon's neck as an affirmative. Pesasmon bobbed his head once in reply, then banked off into a broad circle and began his slow descent. His fingers twined tightly into the digimon's mane, the blond boy could only hope that his friend and her digimon had spotted them and were following their downward spiral back to earth. The wind rushing past filled his eyes with icy tears and he had to blink them back long enough to give himself a good look at the landscape auguring up to meet them.

No sooner had the flying horse flared scant feet above the ground and alighted on all four hooves than his form was dissolving, shrinking. Familiar with the transformation as he was, TK lithely leapt down from his back and hit the earth with practiced ease even as Patamon wearily dropped into the grass. As the blond boy trotted over to his exhausted digimon, he heard two more thumps reverberating along the ground behind him.

"Oh dear," Hawkmon sighed, hauling himself up into an upright position and placing one wing against the side of his head dramatically. "It's not that I wish to seem like an ungrateful pig and complain, my boy, but that was a little abrupt."

Veemon, lying stretched out along his side, took a much longer time to right himself and when he did he simply stared down at his feet and said nothing.

"Sorry," Patamon wheezed. He smiled up weakly at his human's expression of concern.

Hawkmon graciously waved it aside. "No worries," he said urbanely. "I do appreciate the lift, after all."

With his digimon cradled gently in his arms, TK pushed himself to his feet and looked around. "Where's Kari and the others?" he said.

"Right behind us," Hawkmon said. "Isn't that right, Veemon?"

When the blue digimon didn't reply, he cocked an eye and sadly shook his head.

As Nerfertimon and Kari touched down several metres away, the blond boy took the opportunity to look about himself with a critical eye. A narrow river weaved its way off into the south; he could just see the ragged banks and the swiftly running water from where he was standing. The ground was soft and grassy and sloped gently down towards it. A little ways to the north he could spot a tall grove of silver and green trees, and beyond that a long belt of dark pines running off to the east and west. He was very pleased to note that there wasn't a single black spire nearby to mar the skyline. His partner had indeed chosen a sensible place to land. It seemed highly unlikely that they would be attacked again in a peaceful place like this.

At that thought a memory struck him, and he balled his free hand up into his shirtsleeve and pressed the bunched fabric anxiously against his forehead. When he pulled it away the material came back stained with sweat and grime, but no blood. With a sigh of relief he shook his hand out of his sleeve and swept off his hat, then beat it against his thigh to kick up a dusty tempo. A jostled Patamon opened one eye and gave him an amused look, then sighed softly and buried his nose beneath the boy's elbow.

"Boy, Veemon," TK said lightly, smiling down at his friend's digimon. "If you ever evolve into a form with wings, we're going to have to take you up and log on some flying hours before you try going solo. I thought you were going to rupture something when you grabbed a hold of me like that up there."

His friendly smile creased with sympathy when the digimon, too far gone in his own world of misery, failed to even lift his head. He was sagged over his chest like a half empty burlap sack, his legs splayed out in front of him as he listlessly traced out aimless patterns in the dirt with the claw of one finger.

TK was still regarding the desolate creature with a mixture of pity and sadness when he heard the sound of feet cropping through the grass from someplace behind him. Swivelling around slightly, he soon spotted an uncharacteristically sombre Kari unsteadily picking her way towards him, her hair mussed and her pale face smudged with dirt. Gatomon was an undignified puddle of feline limbs in her arms, ears and tail drooping dismally and her blue eyes half slitted.

He glanced further behind the approaching pair and quickly caught sight of Cody sitting a short distance away, right in the middle of an unflattering yawn. The young boy was sprawled out in the grass and staring up impassively at the sky, his arms propped out behind him. His large golden digimon had draped himself limply over his lap like a worn out dog, lazy eyes still guardedly watching over their surroundings. Cody, TK noticed, seemed to be the best off of all three of them, although his nice, neat shirt had been torn from shoulder to hip from a blow that had fortunately not met with skin. It was a frightening discrepancy to his usual pressed and orderly manner of dressing. In TK's eyes, it stood out just as painfully as an open wound.

He pressed his lips together grimly and turned to face Kari. "Are you okay?"

She nodded. "We all are, more or less. Poor Gatomon and Patamon are going to be out of it for a while though, I think."

At that comment the cat digimon gazed up at her balefully and sniffed. "Don't be silly," she said. "After a quick nap I'll be back on my feet and back in the fight. Just you watch."

"Right," Kari said agreeably, with a smile. "But just so you know, I won't be asking you to wake up anytime soon."

At Gatomon's wounded look the two children exchanged grins.

"Patamon's already out like a light," TK remarked. "And the other three seem pretty tired as well, not to mention the lot of us." His face fell and after a pause he added in a low voice, "We're going to have to stop and think about what we're going to do now."

The slim, brown haired girl shrugged as well as she could with an armload of exhausted cat. "What else can we do?" she said, an odd edge to her words. "We have to go back. We have to. There can't be any doubt about that."

"I'm not suggesting that we just turn our backs and leave them behind," TK said helplessly. "But this morning proved that we're going to have to be much more careful from now on, or we're just going to wind up in another awful mess. The Emperor's digimon will be expecting us the next time. We've got to regroup to replan our strategy in order to take that into consideration, or we'll just be walking right back into another patrol."

Kari inhaled once sharply and nodded her head. "I see where you're coming from. I know what you mean. You think we should head back to the real world first, to grab some food and a few hours sleep?"

"Yeah," he said unhappily, scuffing his feet through the grass. "I know it sounds kinda harsh, but..."

Her shoulders lifted and dropped noncommittally. "It can't be helped, I guess. It'll be a lot faster to find food at home than here. It's a lot less dangerous. Since they're stranded so far in the Emperor's territory, we should be able to track their digivices much more easily from the lab computers as well."

TK blinked and said, slowly, "You know, I hadn't thought of that. I hope they're still carrying them."

"Me too. If they lost them in the fight somehow, we could be in for a lot of trouble."

The pair fell into a well of moody silence, staring out across the digital landscape as the wind picked up and blew dry grass into their hair. Overhead the sky was blossoming into shades of indigo and pink, puffs of white clouds drifting along serenely on their own lazy paths. The sun was a golden globe above the horizon, its reflection sparkling brilliantly off the water of the river. Faraway mountains shimmered green and blue, looking very much like a pastel painting in the pale morning light. The breeze smelt sharply of ice and white pines.

TK flipped his hat back on while Kari swept grass out of her hair. "What are we going to tell their parents?" he said.

"The same thing we always do," Kari said. "Yolei is over at my house for the night, and Davis at yours."

The blond haired boy almost grinned at that thought. "I wonder what Davis would say to that idea," he said.

"He'd probably wish that it was the other way around," she replied dryly.

His answering laughter was genuine and good-natured, without a trace of rancour. Davis' indomitable crush on the pretty brown haired girl was hardly a well kept secret. Nevertheless, it didn't take long for his sombre mood to swiftly reassert itself, and the laughter soon died on his lips. He gave the digimon sleeping soundly in his arms a pensive look and then the inconsolable Veemon a long, unreadable stare. Narrowing his eyes thoughtfully, he finally sent them roaming out across the eastern horizon, as if charting out unseen vistas in his mind and committing them to memory for future exploration.

"I'm going to go scout ahead and try to find them," he said, suddenly inspired.

"No you're not," Kari replied.

At her unyielding, no nonsense tone he spun around on his heel, astonishment warring with exasperation for mastery of his face. Patamon grumbled something in his sleep as the motion stirred up his slumbering consciousness like a snow globe and pawed at the sleeve of the boy's shirt.

"Kari," TK said patiently. "If I go now, it'll take us that much less time to get to those two later. I can track them down and then send a message back with our location."

"You could," she agreed reasonably. "Providing you don't get killed by the Emperor's digimon first. It's much, much safer if we all go at the same time. Davis and Yolei are both-" She floundered briefly for the right word. "-Are both extremely determined people. They'll be able to hold out on their own a little longer while we get back up to fighting strength."

"What if one of them is hurt?" TK argued. "Or if one of them is-"

"You can't think like that," she said staunchly. "They're fine, and the cavalry is coming to help them. The whole thing, not one lone rider."

TK exhaled loudly and dropped his head to his chest, the gesture speaking a world of frustration. "Cody, you try talking to her."

The younger boy furrowed his brow meditatively, one hand idly scratching the top of his digimon's head. After a moment of studious contemplation he looked up and said, dryly, "Would you care to hear my thoughts on what we should be doing?"

Armadillomon nudged his head forward until it was pressing against Cody's lower arm, then nosed it underneath until it was wedged comfortably against the boy's side. "Of course we want to hear your opinion," he said loyally, before TK could reply. "I've always said that you have great opinions."

"No bias there," TK murmured, amused despite himself.

The digimon flashed him a broad grin but said nothing.

"I think we should all head back for the time being," Cody said firmly. He fixed a stern eye on TK. "That means you too. We aren't going to do anyone a world of good if we all collapse half way across the Emperor's territory. We've already lost two of our numbers in a strategic attack we can all now admit was not only a complete failure, but a costly one at that. Let's not lose another in the meantime, please."

"Consider my thoughts to run along the same line as Cody and Kari's," Hawkmon spoke up, without warning. They turned to face him. The hawk digimon had seated himself next to Davis' deeply depressed partner and was doing his best to rouse his spirits. "I'm sure that if Veemon were talking, he'd agree too."

"I wanna go find Davis," Veemon said.

Hawkmon slapped his back encouragingly. "Would you prefer to find him when you're half dead, hungry and exhausted, or on a full stomach and full of fight, old chap?"

"I don't care," the blue digimon said sullenly. "I just want to find Davis."

"And I want to find Yolei," Hawkmon said reassuringly, with a lot of forced cheer. "But I'd hate for her to see me in such a frightful state. And I'm sure it would sadden her greatly if I were to rush off like a fool and get myself killed on a hopeless rescue mission."

There was a long moment of silence. "Yeah," Veemon said finally, grudgingly. "I guess."

"Atta boy," Hawkmon cheered.

"So basically you're all telling me that I was right when I said that we should all go back to the real worid, but completely out in left field and a bit of an idiot to suggest going ahead alone to check things out first?" TK said, a touch testily. He scratched a place just behind one of Patamon's ears with the fingers of one hand and the little digimon rolled onto his back in his arms and all but purred in his sleep.

Kari glanced about the rest of the group with one eyebrow raised, then turned back to him and said, with aplomb, "That's pretty much it, yes."

"Now I know what Davis feels like when he gets outvoted," TK said, not a little sourly.

Kari offered him a sweet smile. "And just look at how used to it he got."


****


At first, it was just dark. A pleasant, quiet, agreeable darkness, soft and yielding like toffee and gentle and dry like a breath of fog into his face. It was a good, solid darkness that you could really log some decent sleeping time in, even better than the stuff you got when you closed your eyes at night. He could sense nothing more than a wide plane of black. It wasn't hurting him. If fact, he rather had the impression that it was more than happy to just let him alone, to drift aimlessly through it in utter peace and contentment.

Live and let live, he thought philosophically, and rolled over.

In a purely metaphorical sense, mind you.

Unfortunately, some incredibly rude bastard from beyond the haze of smoky blackness seemed intent on spoiling his state of blissfully sleepy tranquility, like a shrill and nagging mother on a rainy Monday morning. Insistent and obnoxious, it pressed in on him from all angles, remorselessly prodding at his unconsciousness with what felt like the mental equivalent of a hundred pointed sticks. He grabbed a good fistful of the darkness with intangible fingers and tried to pull it over his head like a pillow, desperately ignoring the unwelcome intruder. He tried rolling away from it, and when that didn't work he made a spirited attempt to flail back at his intrusive attacker with insubstantial arms.

All to no avail. He could see white cracks of light breaking through his lovely veil of darkness despite his best efforts, smashing his feeble struggles aside and flooding his consciousness with harsh self awareness. He fought back fiercely for a moment, and then sullenly decided it was easier to just give in.

To hell with that noise. Whatever jerk was on the other side and nattering at him was going to get his ass severely kicked in when he woke up.

Slowly, irritably, Davis cracked open his eyes. Then instantly wished that he hadn't.

"Ugh!" he grunted, his hands flying to his face as he pressed the heels of his palms tightly against his eyes. Detonations of pain exploded noisily across his skull at the sound, sending off a festive display of fireworks against the back of his eyelids. "My head!"

No doubt about it. Consciousness sucked.

Hesitantly peeling back his hands, he squinted up painfully at the hot white sky and waited for the red sparks to die back down into ugly black spots. When the spots finally faded away and his eyes adjusted to the new light levels, he lowered his hands back to his chest and very carefully sent his gaze rolling out over his unfamiliar surroundings to audit up the damage.

Enigmatically, he seemed to be looking up through a screen of little bottle green leaves. Beyond that there was a patchy spread of thick branches and fir needles, a leafy ceiling stretching so far above his head that it almost seemed to fade into the atmosphere. Just a little ways past he spotted a few bits of overcast sky, crowded with clouds the colour of old wine. Watery sunlight slanted down between the gaps in the foliage, and he could see motes of dust and tiny insects drifting through the beams. Grey tree trunks radiated upwards from all around him, receding to distances a long way above before exploding into crowns of dark emerald vegetation. As he fuzzily watched, a few dry orange needles detached themselves and lazily helicoptered down to earth.

He frowned. Beneath his head, right through his hair, he could feel an odd pricking sensation, as if thousands of little claws were digging into the skin of his scalp. The same scratchy feeling ran along the back of his legs as well, and something that felt like a big jagged rock was pressing most unpleasantly up into the small of his back. There was a certain heaviness to his chest that didn't bode well, and a massive headache seemed to be settling in comfortably somewhere behind his left eye. His eyes grew round with alarm as other minor aches and pains that had been lying dormant during his period of merciful unconsciousness began to report in for duty as well.

Whoa. He was flat on his back in a mystery woods in the middle of nowhere and his brain felt like it was going to violent explode through his eye sockets at any given moment. That seriously wasn't a good thing.

Davis catapulted up into a sitting position and got a face full of nature for his pains. Dead needles and dirt cascaded down his back.

"Bleagh," he spluttered, flailing helplessly at the invasive branches and spitting out a mouthful of leaves. "Bush!"

"Davis!" he heard a female voice shout in relief out some distance away.

He quickly reoriented himself and turned towards the sound. "Yolei?!"

Something gambolled up to his side like an overgrown puppy, feet showering him with woodsy bits of debris. It hit the ground beside him and a strong pair of hands was suddenly grabbing at his shoulders and shaking him hard. "Oh my god!" the voice squealed delightedly. "I'm so incredibly happy that you're not dead! You had me worried for a while there, you jerk!"

Davis swallowed heavily as a burst of sparks exploded white-hot across his vision, nausea burning tightly in his chest. "Oh yeah," he managed to work out queasily. "Not to be ungrateful, but you're going to be seeing a whole lot of something else if you don't leggo."

To his profound relief the hands released him immediately. As he blinked about himself owlishly, a pale and worried face framed with tangled purple hair floated much too far into his personal space to make him feel very comfortable. "I'm sorry, I got a little carried away," it said sheepishly, and then added, fretfully, "How do you feel?"

"All right, I guess," he said, timidly leaning back away from it in as inoffensive a manner as possible. "Is that really you, Yolei?"

"You better believe it," she said with a wide grin. As his vision cleared his friend came into focus. Her clothing was ratty and torn, her glasses knocked askew and her face scratched and dirty, but her eyes were bright and clear and smiling. She was crouched on the balls of her feet beside him, her hands gripping her knees. As he looked about himself bemusedly he realised that they were sitting in the lee of a flowering bush. Its green leaves packed together to make a thick umbrella that nearly unfolded right over their heads. He could feels its roots running into the ground beneath his palms.

"I was getting really worried about you," Yolei continued, beaming. "You've been out cold for hours. That bump on the head must have been a nasty one. Do you remember anything that happened before?"

"What do I remember...?" he asked, faintly. He frowned and gingerly probed the back of his head with two fingers, expecting them to encounter the mother of all goose eggs at any moment. "I remember thinking that it would be a really great idea if we all went out this morning to try to knock out some of the control spires right in the middle of the Emperor's domain. Then I seem remember something along the lines of the bunch of us getting royally spanked by a lot of his Tyrannomons. And then hitting a tree, really hard."

Yolei grinned at him wryly and fell back on her haunches, her hands folding in her lap. Aftering hearing the touch of humour hedging his last comment, a lot of her concern for his health had melted away. That was just the way it was with Davis, she remarked wryly to herself. He was the sort of person that you could bash at all day with a big rock, and who would still bounce back full of fight after the thrashing. "Well, that's a relief," she said aloud. "You don't have amnesia, at any rate."

"Yay me," he replied sourly, wincing when he found a tender spot. A thought suddenly struck him and he looked down at the shallow hollow he'd been lying in. To his complete lack of surprise the rock was, indeed, a rock.

"Um," he said, his unfamiliarity with the situation making him hesitant. "Is there any particular reason why I was sleeping under a bush?"

She laughed and stretched out her legs, falling back on her hands. Davis noticed that her boots were scuffed and streaked with dried mud. "We're kinda fugitives on the run. I didn't want any of the Emperor's patrols to stumble on you while I was scouting things out, so I hid you a bit."

"'Scouting things out?'" he echoed. "Where are we, anyway?"

The tall girl gave him a long, speculative look. "Are you ready to feel really sick?"

"Oh man," Davis groaned, scrubbing his fingers rapidly through his hair. A shower of needles rained down into his lap. "I don't like where this is going."

Yolei's face twisted. Picking up a stray stick and crossing her legs, she began to draw a rough picture into the dry dirt between them.

Curious despite himself, Davis twisted his head around in order to get a better look at the image she was tracing out. "This better not be anything dirty," he said.

"Ha, ha," she said dryly, reasoning that the boy must be feeling better if he was up to joking around with her. Turning her concentration back to her scrawling in the dirt, she sketched out a large rectangle first and then a wide circle in its top right corner. In the background she could hear Davis flapping his jacket, and then him remarking, "Boy, this thing's sure seen better days. Aw nuts, and there's a big hole in the sleeve!"

"Eyes front," she said sternly. When he returned his attention back to her she pointed to the circle she'd just drawn with the end of the stick. "Okay, to answer your question, let's say this represents the Digimon Emperor's territory."

"Ugh," Davis said with a grimace. "I told you I didn't want to see anything dirty."

Yolei decided to not even dignify that one with a retort and continued. "And this-" She jabbed at the rectangle. "-Is the rest of the digital world. You've got one guess to figure out where we are."

Davis paled. "Geez, you're kidding?"

Her expression grave, Yolei judiciously lifted up one hand. "I never kid," she said with mock severity. Then she made a face. "Seriously, we're stranded right smack in the very middle of the largest bunch of areas that the Emperor has taken over. These woods are absolutely crawling with his slaves, all of whom seem to be out looking for us, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's built his stupid fortress or something around nearby. That's how far in we are. It's like Hell's half acre."

She viciously stabbed the stick into the centre of the circle to emphasize her point. It stood stock upright, pointing up to the sky.

The brown haired boy seated across from her, however, was studying the scenery about him with a doubtful eye, rubbing absently at the back of his neck with one hand. "Hold on a minute," he said. "This place totally doesn't look familiar. And I don't see any control spires."

"Actually, the place we originally attacked this morning is a couple miles north of here," Yolei admitted. "When we got separated from the others, I sort of panicked a bit and tried carrying you out myself. It doesn't look like I got very far, huh?"

Yolei looked shamefaced. Davis looked amazed.

"You carried me?" he said, staring. His face broke out into a giant, wobbly grin. "Aw, really?"

"Hauling groceries at the store makes you strong like ox," Yolei boasted, flexing her arms. Then she scratched at the back of her head as her proud expression deflated into sheepish one. Her hands fell back into her lap and she twiddled her fingers in a self conscious manner, her cheeks flaming. "'Sides, it wasn't like I was going to just, y'know, leave you there all unconscious and everything while everyone else was getting pummelled. Yeah?"

To cover up her embarrassment she leaned over and punched him chummily in the shoulder. "You know?"

He laughed awkwardly and punched her lightly back. "You're The Man, Yolei."

Recognising the stupid smile and gawky gesture as Davis' very roundabout way of saying thanks, she decided to let the whole thing just gracefully slide. Flashing him a quick smile instead, she critically looked back down at her drawing in the dirt and crossed her arms over her chest, assuming a businesslike air. "So, any ideas you'd like to throw forward on how we're getting back?"

"Easy," Davis said, a familiar swagger returning to his voice. He stretched hugely, grimaced when some sore muscles twinged, and rotated one arm to work out the kinks in it. "Find a gate and digiport our way outta here. Even the Emperor has to go back home sooner or later to beat up small children and drown kittens."

Yolei inhaled deeply, then let out her breath in a long, pained hiss. "Ooh," she said. She winced. "Yeah. About that."

"What?" the boy said warily.

The tall girl grinned weakly at him. "You see your backpack or mine anywhere around here?"

Davis stared at her blankly. An awkward moment of silence pealed out, like the little space of time existing before the guillotine's blade drops.

"I don't suppose," he finally said, clinging desperately to a thin lifeline of hope, "That you've got your digivice in your pants pocket?"

She shook her head, no.

"Ugh, that settles it," he grunted, clutching at his head with white-knuckled fingers. "My life officially sucks dead donkeys."

Yolei sighed. "Then I guess that means you're not carrying yours in your jacket, either."

Davis didn't deign to reply, and the conversation died a gruesome death as the pair morosely glowered off into the black belt of woods around them. Despite their mutual feelings of exasperation and petulant disappointment, the significance of that vast expanse of towering trees and dead underbrush hadn't lost its point on either one of them. They were both very much aware that, somewhere out in that forest, hunting packs of digimon slaves were silently stalking through the woodland, sniffing them out at their Emperor's command. It was a very sobering thing to contemplate, and it doused their good humour like a bucket of ice water over a fire.

Unsurprisingly, Davis was the first to break the grisly hush. "Well," he said, leaning back and slapping his hands on his knees. "I guess this means we're taking the long way home, eh?"

"Yup," Yolei replied tonelessly, staring down at the circle in the dirt. Absently, as if she hadn't realised she was doing it, she was chewing on a length of her hair. "If we just keep heading west, like I was doing before, I'm guessing we should make it out of the Emperor's territory in a couple days. Unless the others manage to find us first, of course."

"What do you suppose the chances of that happening are?"

Her eyes flicked up to his face. "With no digivices, no maps and us stranded right in the middle of nowhere? I dunno - pretty low, I guess. Besides, we all got pounded. I just hope that some of them managed to make it back in one piece, period."

"I don't suppose you've got Veemon or Hawkmon hidden under another bush, huh," Davis said moodily.

"Sorry, but I don't think I could have carried all three of you," she told him sardonically. "I'm not some sort of superbeing, you know."

"I hope Veemon's okay," the brown haired boy fretted, the comment soaring right on past him. "He took some pretty bad knocks. I hope Kari's okay too."

Yolei shrugged. "Veemon's got a hard head, same as you. And I'm sure that everyone's all right, and not just Kari."

"I didn't mean it like that, you know."

With another dispassionate shrug, the tall girl heavily rose to her feet. After a moment spent primly brushing needles and bits of bark off the back of her pants, she swept her hair back over her shoulder, straightened her glasses, squared off her feet like a soldier and gave the woods to the west an iron-eyed look of dogged determination that would have melted the heart of the most leathernecked drill sergeant.

"Come on," she said, her fists planted resolutely on her hips and a bit of mulish grit working into her voice. "We've got no food and no digivices and no digimon and nothing to defend ourselves with if we're attacked other than sticks and rocks, but we ain't beat yet. Let's get out of here before we make ourselves too depressed to move as well."

Davis scrambled to his feet with an amused grin, picking up on the obstinate tone on an instinctual level. His eyes glittered brightly over the furry white collar of his jacket. "Sure thing, Sergeant."

She turned back to face him and gave him a half-hearted evil eye, raising a bullying finger. "Don't mess with me, pal," she threatened. "Now that I know that when push comes to shove I can carry you a mile, I'm pretty sure I could throw you that far if I had to as well."


****


Kari couldn't remember a time when the school's computer lab had seemed so empty. So silent.

She sighed and kicked her legs aimlessly underneath her chair, the rubber soles of her shoes squeaking on the cold classroom floor. With her elbows on the desk and her hands cupped around a little paper cup filled with lukewarm fountain water, she moodily glowered down at the glowing square sitting just a little ways ahead of her. The screen met her glare and regarded her impassively back, bathing her face in sterile white light.

After a minute's worth of impotently staring down the monitor, Kari looked away first.

Absently, she sipped at the water and shot a furtive glance at the clock on the wall. When the trio of exhausted Digidestined had arrived back at the labs, she had taken a little time out for herself to slip, unnoticed, out of the room and down the hall outside in search of a fountain. Luckily it was a Saturday, and save for her the school halls were devoid of life. Her throat had been quite parched after the morning's activities and fierce exertions, and the public water she ordinarily found bland and flavourless suddenly had never tasted quite so good.

The time on the wall read nine-thirty. TK had been gone for nearly twenty minutes.

She gazed about the room and swung her legs together impatiently, taking in everything but seeing nothing. Long banks of computers sat in orderly rows in front of her, their screens dark and chairs neatly pushed up in front of them. The blackboard still bore pink and white lines of chalk from the previous day's notes. Although the blinds were drawn the room was slowly filling with afternoon light; yellow strips of illumination fell across the room like bars. A lingering smell of dust and chemical cleaners hung in the air. Beyond the glass windowpanes she could just faintly make out the sound of human voices coming from the stores and houses across the street, and the chatter of sparrows alighting on the telephone wires.

She bit her lip. She... she would not look at the clock again.

So she looked down at Cody instead. Uncharacteristically, the young boy had been the first to fall asleep among the three of them, even beating out his worn out digimon. Although the hard floor of the classroom could hardly be considered a comfortable place to rest, Cody had not breathed a word of complaint. Instead, evidently coming to the conclusion that going back to his own home to catch a few hours of sleep in his own bed would have wasted precious time, he'd simply laid out his coat in the shadow of a desk, shrugged at her questioning look, and fallen asleep on it in minutes. Half curled, with his head pillowed on his arms, Chibimon and Poromon resting against the crook of his knees and Upamon snuggled up against his chest, the boy certainly looked dead to the word.

Her head dropped into the waiting palm of one hand, her hair falling partially across her face. TK had vanished shortly after their arrival, saying something about digging up some food for their digimon. With assurances that that he wouldn't be gone long, and that he was only running to a little grocery store across the street and a few blocks down from the school anyway, he'd dug some money out of a pocket in his sports bag, given her hand a quick, reassuring squeeze and quietly padded off towards the exit. Patamon hadn't woken once during his departure, and the digimon was snoring contentedly with Gatomon atop one of the lockers. The pair of rookies were tangled in a furry heap, and made for an amusing picture.

She smiled briefly at the sight, pointedly ignoring the ticking hands of the clock.

To distract herself, she let her mind drift towards thoughts of their missing companions. Her mouth bent into a small frown, her brow creasing sadly, the expression ripe with regret. It seemed terribly strange to not have either of the two around; both Yolei and Davis were the type of people that charged a room with energy when they stepped into it. She thought of the tall girl's lively and vivacious nature and the frown curved into a tiny smile; she thought of the brown haired boy's indomitable spirit and good cheer and the smile rolled up into a wry grin.

Kari rapped her fingers against her cheek and grinned off at a far wall.

Like pretty much all of their group, not to mention a good portion of the school's population, the slim girl was very much aware of Davis' boyish crush on her. At times it amused her; at other times in annoyed her greatly, particularly as the boy was hardly the type to go only part way in displaying his wide-eyed adoration. She had never resented him for his feelings towards her, but merely accepted it as one of those inevitable things that Life was inclined to spring on a person without warning. She also knew, however, that she would never be able to return his affections as he wished she would. No matter how much she liked him, he was just too much like her brother for her to ever regard him as anything more than a good friend.

And he was her friend. Oh, he was a clown and a show off and pigheaded as all hell, but Kari was never the sort of person to damn another just for the characteristics that made them who they were. Without his pride and bull headed stubbornness, his ceaseless energy and Irish Setter cheer, Davis would be... well, flat and stale and boring. He just wouldn't be Davis.

Although it sounded absolutely horrible, even in the privacy of her own mind, a little part of Kari was glad that it had been Davis and Yolei who had wound up stranded in the digital world, far behind enemy lines. Both of them could be as obstinate as mules when they set their hearts towards it, and neither were inclined to lie down under any sort of obstacle. Although Yolei made a habit of moaning and grousing bitterly under difficult or repellent situations, Kari knew from example that when the real crunch came, the tall girl refused to wilt and snapped back up again like a rubber band in the eye. Although she was likely complaining up a storm at the moment, Kari doubted that Yolei would ever really break under the pressure.

It was likewise with Davis. Although he did his fair share of griping, when it came down to the wire she had seen time and time again that the brown haired boy would inevitably be the first to spring forward in the face of adversity, to run the gauntlet of risks before his friends. Davis flew in the face of danger like an angry bee into a glass window, almost as if on instinct. She wondered if he even knew he was doing it on any conscious level.

She had admittedly been a little irritated when the boy had swiftly established himself as the leader of their motley pack. Both she and TK had a great deal more experience that he did in the digital world; granted, she could readily see her own faults and understand why she wouldn't fit the position well. Intelligent and level headed, TK had seemed the more logical choice. And yet along came this arrogant little upstart without a care or a clue, armed only with a stupid grin and a whole lot of charisma, and without a word of warning he'd been elected for the job right over their heads. Kari hadn't even been aware of a single ballot being cast.

Looking back, she was honest enough to acknowledge that she'd been quite mistaken about her impressions on his lack of qualifications for the task. What he lacked in experience he made up for in determination. After watching him hurl himself like a suicide at one peril after another and still come out grinning, one day it had suddenly become crystal clear just how he'd earned his position. Fascinated, you wanted to follow him, even if only to figure out just what the hell he was doing, even if you knew that he'd goofed somewhere along the line and was leading you straight into a world of trouble. Davis, she reasoned fondly, could lead a bunch of mice against a cat and have them convinced that they'd walk away from it without a scratch.

A door banged softly shut someplace behind her, and she heard the gentle tread of sneakers on a hard floor. She didn't need to turn around to know that it was TK.

She smiled up at the blond boy as he trooped over. "Any luck foraging?"

"You bet," he said, returning her smile. He hoisted up three grey plastic bags bulging with edibles and deposited them on the desk beside her. "A couple pounds of junk food for the digimon, dry cereal and juice for us. The clerk gave me the weirdest look when she saw me buying all that chocolate, but luckily was too polite to comment on it. You hungry?"

"Starving," she admitted, before her growling stomach could give her away.

"Same here," he said, hooking a chair by its leg with one ankle and drawing it towards him, beside Kari. "This morning was a little insane."

Kari pulled out a bag and turned it over in her hands, regarding it's label and contents with some surprise. "Conjac?" she said lightly, meeting his eyes and arching an eyebrow.

To TK's credit, he had the good grace to look properly shamefaced. He flushed and grinned and said, "Yeah, I'm developing a bit of a taste for the stuff."

Kari laughed and tossed it towards him without another word.

They ate for a while in studious silence.

"Um," TK finally said, hesitant to disturb the thready peace, "Shouldn't we be waking up the others?"

The brown haired girl deftly popped some cereal into her mouth and gently shook her head. "Let's give them five more minutes," she said. "They look like they could use all the sleep they can get. We've got a big, important job to do this afternoon and for the next couple days anyway. Five more minute can't hurt."

And she smiled a sad little smile.

"I'll watch the clock," she said.


******


Contrary to popular belief, Davis Motomiya was not a stupid person.

He could be called many other things, to be certain. Impatient and edgy, energetic and impulsive, stubborn and tenacious; such descriptions topped off his long list of personal characteristics, both good and bad, like foam on root beer. It took him a long time to understand things that fell underneath the category of mathematics or physics, subjects that just couldn't grab hold of his attention for any length of time, and he usually wound up quickly forgetting what he'd learned soon after anyway. He was blessed with a sharp, selective mind that restlessly flitted over a world filled with activity and was more than happy to just skim over all the boring little bits of it that failed to attract his interest. He tended to pick things up on an instinctual level rather than any sort of intellectual one, readily feeding on Life's lessons and absently dismissing those that came from any suspiciously authoritative figure, like his teachers or the police.

Some people could walk through a forest and identify every single genus of tree living within it. Davis, on the other hand, had been travelling through the same woods with Yolei for what felt like hours and was beginning to pick up, on some intuitive level, on patterns and colours and textures that all pointed out the unusual to him as clearly as a distinctively shaped leaf gave away its origin to another.

In short, he was beginning to notice things. Strange things.

With the unconscious agility of a well-practiced athlete, the brown haired boy easily vaulted up onto the heavy trunk of a long dead tree lying diagonally across his path. After swiftly gauging the width and the smoothness of the trunk and the grip his shoes were giving him over its surface, he lightly dashed up the mossy incline, his feet disturbing nightcrawlers and spiders from hidden cracks in the bark and sending them fluttering to the ground. When the tree forked at a point nearly thirty feet above the forest floor and the slope became too steep for him to navigate his way any further forward, the brush too thick to push through, he stopped and shuffled back around towards the direction he'd come from. Catching a quick grip over some branches to help balance himself carefully, his expression turned into one of vague satisfaction as his roving eyes surveyed the stretch of black woods spreading out far beneath him.

After a long time spent weaving through trees as tightly packed together as bristles on a brush, he'd finally stumbled onto a bit of a clearing in the woods. It wasn't very much of an opening, maybe only twelve feet in diameter, and the forest pressed in ominously on what little space there was. His tree slanted up from the earth and passed directly above it; the top of it ran up and lost itself in the woods. Sunlight filtering down from above painted splotchy patches of illumination across the ground. Snapped off branches looking bleached and bare lay scattered amidst the earth like the bones of a long devoured animal.

He admired the view from his lofty perch for a minute or two and then stared off into the copse of trees around him instead, his eyes narrowing in thought. The sight of long rows of solemn grey trunks, as smooth and oily and completely free of branches as a forest of telephone poles, met his eyes in every direction he looked in. The unusual symmetry to the forest he'd first noticed on an unconscious level when they'd begun their hike was now very plainly to be seen. Suspicions and memories began to converge and compare notes in his mind. He scratched the back of his neck and frowned. He was absolutely certain that something about this forest was looking damnably familiar-

When he heard the noisy sound of a heavy body crashing through the bushes, his eyes instinctively vectored in on the direction the sound had emanated from and he froze. After a minute of listening intently to twigs snapping unseen in the forest, he spotted Yolei breaking through the edge of the clearing and relaxation flowed back into his body. A spirit of mischief entered him; he waited until she was trudging heavily through the underbrush just beneath him and then lifted his fingers to his lips and blew a sharp, blasting whistle.

Davis was somewhat disappointed when the tall girl staunchly refused to be startled. She paused long enough to lean back and glare up at him instead, one hand shielding her eyes. Even from that distance he could see the dirty lines of sweat running down her face and the way her glasses were fogging over.

"Nice try, idiot" she growled. "Just how the heck do you keep managing to get so far ahead of me?"

He laughed, suddenly very glad that he was safely some twenty odd feet up in the air and she only at ground level. "It's called being in shape, Yolei."

Panting, she gave him a look that could have killed a cow at thirty paces. "You trying to tell me something, Davis?"

"Not a thing," he said with boyish innocence. "You're just imagining things."

"Right," she snorted loudly. "That must be it."

"Soccer tryouts for the girls' league are starting Monday, by the way," he chirped up, then did his best to scramble behind a thin barrier of branches when his friend began to scan the ground around her for a large rock.

Unlike her companion, who had made a typically astonishing recovering to his injury against all odds and now seemed to be regarding their whole miserable state of affairs as just the first step in a curious new adventure, Yolei was sore, tired, and beginning to harbour suspicions that they'd never see an end to the stinking woods. It just kept on going and going, as if someone with a perverse sense of humour was running point ahead of them and sadistically rolling out more of onto in their path as they walked along. The sight of all those tall, ashen trees and their green-needled tops, so dark as to almost be called black, was beginning to sicken her considerably. Even the brisk smell of pine needles and sap made her want to knot her fingers into her hair and scream aloud in frustration. Another hour of this scenery, she thought savagely to herself, and I'll snap completely and strangle someone.

As she glowered up sullenly at Davis' bright, shiny happy face, its owner looking remarkably spruce despite everything that had happened, she mentally added that she knew exactly who would be the first to fall beneath her mighty hands.

"Get down from there, Davis," she said aloud, crossly. "You're making me dizzy."

He grinned down at her impudently and shoved his hands back into the pockets of his cargo shorts in a gesture of nonchalance, balancing himself easily on the balls of his feet. "And that's coming from a girl with a flying digimon. Hey, have you noticed something weird about these trees?"

Behind her steamed up glasses, the tall girls eyes narrowed into venomous slits. Not only had she noticed something, but she'd started keeping a list in her head of all the things she found offensively bizarre about them. "Oh yeah," she said darkly, staring at the forest as if her hateful mental energies alone would be enough to make it burst into flames. "I've noticed all sorts of things about these stupid trees. Like the stupid way there doesn't seem to be a stupid end to all the stupid things! Stupid, stupid, stupid! Lousy nature!"

Davis looked down on her in surprise as her angry outburst peetered out, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Actually," he said mildly. "I was just wondering if you'd noticed that they all seem like they've been lined up in really straight rows. It almost looks like one of those forests you get when all the trees have been clear cut and then replanted by one of those big machines, you know?"

The tall girl sneered, eyes crinkling with crowfeet lines. "Oh, how nice," she said testily, the words sounding petty and childish even in her own ears. "The Digimon Emperor may be a crack-brained slave driver, but at least he's environmentally conscious. What's your point?"

He shrugged. "Just bringing up more proof that the digital world really is weird as hell."

Yolei opened her mouth for a waspish reply, and then snapped it shut and swallowed the insult on the tip of her tongue and let out all of her breath in an explosive rush instead. Her head drooped down wearily to her chest, her hair falling over her ears and across her face, strands sticking to the sweat on her forehead. It wouldn't do to pick a fight with Davis, no matter how much she wanted to spread her foul mood around. There was no point in both of them being grouchy and irritable, especially seeing as it looked as if they were going to be spending a whole of time in each other's company in the near future. She was dirty, hungry, and beginning to feel the first fingers of panic crawling over her heart, and despite his bravado he probably was too, but there was no advantage to be found in both of them being hostile as well.

She was vaguely conscious of Davis talking again. She lifted her head and was rather surprised to see that his expression had taken on an unusually contemplative cast, as if he were chewing over a particularly significant bit of inspiration.

"If it'll make you feel any happier," he was saying, scratching at his chin and gazing off into the woods. "I might have seen this place before, only from a long ways up. When we were flying above the area this morning I remember looking over at a forest like this one and thinking about how weird it looked from the sky, but only for a second or two. It was pretty dark anyway, so it might not have been this one we're in right here, but it had all the same trees in rows thing going on and everything."

The corners of the tall girl's mouth stretched down slowly as Davis' words rattled aimlessly through a long, dark tunnel in her mind without sparking off any real meaning. She pushed her hair back behind her ears and said, slowly, "Yeah, and...?"

His shoulders rose and dropped in an ambiguous shrug. "Well, it's probably nothing much, but before I saw it I remember that we passed over a really wide field first. We've been walking through this woods for hours, so we must be close to the edge by now."

Suddenly there was a beautiful bright beacon of light at the end of that tunnel. Against all anatomical evidence proving otherwise, an unseen orchestra in her heart began to peal out a joyous cacophony of bells and violins, drowning out the the despairing cries, her chest swelling outwards until it seemed fit to burst. "Really?" she said breathlessly, glittering eyes stretching wide as saucers as she clutched her trembling hands together over her breastbone. "You mean we'll finally be able to say goodbye to the Green Forest here?"

"Maybe," he said agreeably. He favoured her with a cheerful grin. "Feel better?"

"Enormously," she assured him wholeheartedly, a new injection of energy and resolve flooding back through her veins. She pumped her hands into fists and added, with vigour, "Yeah! Now, if you can top that off by figuring out a way to find us something to eat before I drop dead on my feet from starvation first, I'll worship you forever."

Davis, to whom the concept of scrounging up edible sustenance in wild open places meant finding a Snickers bar in an empty parking lot, was likewise perplexed. "I dunno," he said, raking his fingers through his hair and making a face. "Aren't we supposed to, like, strip berries off bushes and dig up roots and stuff?"

Yolei made a face. "Ugh, berries and roots? I'm all for eating healthy, but most of the greenery I like to eat isn't quite that fresh. And comes wrapped in plastic. And has been sprayed for caterpillars."

She picked something off a green branch closest to her and flicked it away in disgust. "Yuck!"

The brown haired boy, meanwhile, had carefully picked his way down from his roost and dropped back to the ground. Wandering over to a flowering bush at the edge of the clearing, he gave it an experimental jab with one finger and said, "Boy, it makes you wonder what His Imperial Majesty eats during all the time he spends here. For all we know, the guy dines on insects and tree bark."

"I kinda doubt that," Yolei replied dryly, but she was grinning broadly when she said it. The mental image his comment had conjured up in her mind was just too funny not to smile at. Davis, she noted wryly to herself, was uncommonly good at cheering people up when he put his mind to it. It was not a quality that many people could boast having.

Davis grinned at her. "I wonder how ticked off we'd make the jerk if we kicked off from starvation before he could catch us."

Yolei, who had already seen the Emperor's ego at work, could only give a snort of laughter in reply. At that moment her stomach chose to growl warningly, the sound rumbling up from an unhappily empty cavity in her gut. Wrapping her arms around her midsection with a look that was half longing, half embarrassed, she came to a quick decision and said, "Davis, when we get back home, I'm having you over for dinner at my place and we're getting my dad to cook up those steaks he's been saving in the freezer for a special occasion. They're huge, like-" She measured off a respectable distance between the span of her hands. "-This big. The size of dinner plates, I swear."

Her eyes grew dreamy. "Then we'll beg a couple pints of ice cream from the store and stuff ourselves stupid."

"You're on," he said. His expression was wistful. "And after that we'll go back to my place and I'll get my mom to cook us up this really amazing grilled chicken teriyaki she does. It's all lemony and garlicy and tastes so good and man, you'll love it. Chibimon practically turns into a big blue ball of drool whenever he smells it from my room and makes me ask for a second helping just to sneak back for him."

Yolei swooned. "Do you think we could just sit here awhile and dream up a smorgasbord for a while rather than go out and find some stick to chew on? Reality kinda sucks at the moment."

He flashed her another of his trademark Davis grins and, hands thrust back into his pockets, began to roam around the clearing. "Knock yourself out," he said. "I'm gonna see if I can get our bearings a little. Just save a little of that good imaginary stuff for me, willya?"

"First come first served," she said, and he laughed and ambled off. Smiling to herself, Yolei tilted back her head and smiled up at the sun.

Davis, she decided suddenly, really was a decent sort of fellow. Granted, she'd lost count of the number of times she and he had gone toe to toe over some silly little slight or another, squalling and flapping at each other like a pair of ruffled gulls. Like the time he'd cleverly dumped an entire bottle of pasting sparkles into her hair, and shortly after that when he found out that she'd sweetly swiped his white soccer uniform from his locker and washed it in a load with one of her red bandannas. Their history together as friends was littered with those sorts of incidents like a highway ditch was with syringes, a friendly tangle of good times with a little hidden prick of poison here and there. And although she'd come dangerously close to murdering him on a couple rare occasions, she didn't know anyone that could take a punch to the head better than Davis Motomiya.

She blinked as her train of thought scythed off the tracks and slammed into the station. No, wait, strike that last thought. The real Inoue Yolei didn't know anyone else that would so cheerfully put up with her many moods, her gunslinger temper and quirky disposition quite like Davis would. Unlike most of her other friends, who seemed to regard her eccentricities with amused lenience, the brown haired boy didn't just put up with them but went out of his way to incorporate them into his broad scope of extremely good humoured tolerance. For all of his own faults, she could always trust in Davis to shrug off those of his friends. He was remarkably forgiving for a guy who had once found his gym shorts tied into a big long line and festively decorating his homeroom ceiling like a streamer.

Not that Yolei would know anything about either that or a certain yearbook photo. Sent through a paper shredder, ran off thousands of copies - it was such a fine line.

Grinning smugly off into space as half forgotten memories began to companionably mingle and chat in the parlor of her mind, she entirely missed the way a restlessly roving Davis suddenly halted dead in his tracks and quivered like a bowstring after the arrow is shot. And distracted by images of happier times as she was, she certainly didn't notice the fear edging the boy's next words like a razor in a Halloween apple.

"Yolei," he said, slowly and carefully, as if each word were proceeding the offer of a cigarette and blindfold. "Um, just what sort of digimon did you say the Emperor had out hunting for us?"

Yolei shrugged, lazy unconcern for the present momentarily drugging up her system. "Dunno. Little bit of everything he's got, I guess. Why?"

There was a moment of dead silence before Davis said, his voice strangled, "How do you feel towards running at this moment?"

A streaker galloped through the party in her head. How odd.

Yolei blinked as her memories shrieked and scattered, her head clearing. "What on earth are you talking about, Davis?"

He backed up into her even as she was turning around to confront him, and she felt one of his hands seize convulsively over her wrist.

"The woods," he said. "The woods are absolutely full of Gazimon."

The effect was somewhat similar to the sensation of having a tray of ice cubes dumped down her pants. Yolei felt a heavy, cold block settle into her stomach. She had never felt so wide-awake and aware in her life, her senses seeming almost unbearably keen as the scene around her took on a kind of glassy brilliance. She could actually hear her heart crashing against her ribcage, the beads of sweat tricking down her cheeks and dripping from her chin, her breath rasping dryly in her throat. Hell, she could even hear the bones in her hand grind together like pestles as her finger spasmed into claws.

"Are you sure?" she breathed, the words barely a puff over her lips.

"Oh yeah," he said, with deer-in-the-headlights look. "I don't think trees grow red eyes on their own."

"Just great," Yolei muttered angrily, taking as step back as he did, her heart thudding in her chest. "Just perfect. Oh yeah, someone up there really likes us. Do you think they've spotted us yet?"

Davis' only reply was to stand perfectly still for the space of a second and stare off blankly into the woods. Then he spun on his heel and smashed into the underbrush at the edge of the clearing, dragging her to safety with him.

Yolei gasped as she was momentarily hurled off her feet by the rough motion, and she felt her breath catch painfully in her throat when she heard the sound of a hundred heavy bodies crash into the clearing behind them. Then there was a dreadful stretch of dangerous silence, and she knew that whatever had just pounced was now running mute in their wake, a pack of predators on the hunt. The retort of their approach thundered out along the ground, utterly noiseless and yet shaking the forest floor like the tremors of an earthquake.

Wrenching her wrist out of Davis' panicked grip and making a mental note to thank him later, Yolei stumbled briefly, caught herself before her knees skinned against the uneven ground, and threw herself forward into a dead run with a shot of fresh adrenaline singing through her veins. And as she fled she desperately tried to block out the thought that, without a whisper of warning, at any minute she'd be feeling a blast of hot breath against her neck, and then the impact of thousands of sharp claws into the muscles of her back. And it was just as it was before; it wasn't the fact that you could see them that was so terrifying, but the thought that you had absolutely no idea exactly where they were, or from just what dark corner of the woods they would pour out of when they finally caught up to you and dragged you down-

Although the brown haired soccer player was in much better shape than she was, her legs were longer than his and that, combined with the noxious fuel of fear she was feeding on, meant that she was soon able to draw even with him. Fortunately, for the most part the ground in this part of the forest was even and level, the earth hard packed and lending a good grip for her boots. She ran over it easily. Together, neck to neck and running flat out, the pair tore through the woods like a shotgun blast, ripping their way through the underbrush with the wind screaming shrilly in their ears and the long lines of trees little more than streaks of grey and black sliding past to either side. Neither one of them even bothered to try dodging the scrubby patches of bushes and dead tangles of branches scattered between the trees; it would waste too much precious time. Instead, they either leapt over them or ploughed straight through in an explosion of bark and leaves, their feet kicking up great clots of damp earth behind them.

During the morning hours they had plodded through nearly ten miles worth of woods. At a sprint, they easily gobbled up half of that distance in a matter of minutes, until Yolei nearly shrieked aloud in joy when she spotted a glimpse of yellow fields through the gaps in the dark forest ahead of her. At the sound of Davi's answering whoop she dredged up the last bit of energy still coughing through her system and threw it into whatever muscles were powering her flight, until her heart seemed as though it were going to burst through her chest or her ears or whatever and it no longer felt as though her feet were even touching the ground-

-And then realised that Davis was actually shouting for her to stop.

"Leg cramp!" he howled, and teetered off a ways to collapse against the closest tree.

Her instincts screaming at her, the tall girl slammed to a halt, skidding violently to avoid smashing into a tree. Her boots carved deep furrows into the earth as she spun on her heel to face whatever pursuers were approaching behind her, her arms flying up into a defensive position around her face and her hands balling up into feeble fists as a wheezing Yolei put her war-face on.

She felt like a bit of a fool when she saw that the woods were empty. The Gazimon had long vanished.

Bits of her brain seemed to be bumping into themselves over and over again as she gawked off into the great expanse of lonely forest extending out in all directions. Having expected the worst, the sight of absolute no horrible red-eyed monsters roaring out up of the underbrush smacked her sense out of alignment even more than an attack ever could have. Not even a single claw or jagged tooth could be seen for miles. The damn, detested woods seemed to mock her with its barrenness. All she could see were those thin grey trunks beaming off in perfect rows, their dark green canopies overhead still serenely dropping loose needles to the earthy floor. All she could hear was her own gasping breath, and the muffled sound of Davis cursing in pain off to one side.

Whatever dense little core of desperation had powered her flight through the woods chose that moment to give out entirely, and Yolei sank to the ground in exhausted relief.

"Where are the Gazimon?" she asked the woods at large, wild eyed and dreadfully bewildered.

Davis was awkwardly shaking out his leg as he limped up to her. His hair was streaked with sweat, and he was puffing heavily. His eyes followed out her gaze into the forest. "I dunno. They were following us closely most of the time, but when we started getting close to the edge of the woods they began to give up and disappear into the trees. It was like they were scared of something. Weird, eh?"

One of her eyes twitched. "So you're basically telling me that we ran that last half mile for nothing?!" Yolei bellowed in outrage, then folded up like a hinge when a cramp ripped through the muscles of her stomach.

"I'm just happy they're gone," Davis said, bending over to press his hands on his knees and staring down at the ground. After a moment he added, without straightening, "And yeah, it kinda looks that way."

"Why does life hate me?" the tall girl moaned and flopped over onto her back with her arms thrown tragically wide.

"Do you really want me to answer that?" she heard him pant.

"Don't test me, Davis," she growled. The thousands of little dead needles littering the ground and pricking up through the material of her shirt and into the skin of her back were irritating her enormously. Sweat and grime soaked her hairline in an infuriatingly itchy way, the ropey muscles of her calves ached abominably and her lungs throbbed like an abscessed tooth. Overall, Yolei felt miserably sore and fatigued and strung out and ready to spit nails.

With an uncommon display of wisdom beyond his years, the brown haired boy vouched it prudent to completely neglect to reply to the challenge lining her voice and fought to get his breath back instead. Disappointed that she wasn't going to get a good, cathartic fight with Davis out of her system, she took the time to glare up moodily at the sky, or what few scraps of it she could spot through the needled ceiling above. After a minute or so she cushioned her arms behind her head and absently banged her feet together. Some of her tension slowly eased away and soaked down into the earth beneath her. Her breathing evened out again. She hadn't really noticed it before, but the woods that previously seemed intent on driving her into the open arms of madness really did have their own air of peace and tranquility about them. The light streaming down from above was soft and pale, leaving shady patches rather than hard-edged shadows. And whenever the wind picked up, the tops of the pines far above rocked back and forth gently, their needles rustling together with a soothing sound.

Yolei felt her eyes grow lidded as she gazed up at the sight, the resonance of the forest swimming in around her. Shoot, if they weren't so hopelessly lost behind enemy lines without any salvation in sight at the present, she might have even found herself even enjoying the scenery a little-

A memory coughed politely and she suddenly flew back to her feet, scrabbling loosely in the soil. Standing on one leg some distance away and stretching out a muscle in his thigh, Davis gave her a surprised look as the purple haired girl looked about her in a wide-eyed fashion, and then dashed off between the trees a little ways. His expression grew curious and he slowly jogged after her when he saw the way her legs instantly jellied again, nearly pitching her face forward into a bush.

"What are you doing, Yolei?" he asked warily.

"Your field, Davis!" she replied, too excited to give much of a fig about the anaemic weakness of her knees. "I saw your field! We made it to the end of these stupid woods!"

"There, you see?" he said. "Running that half mile was a good thing after all."

"Shut up!" she told him gleefully, tottering off delightedly through the last few feet of treeline. "Never mind that! We're finally getting out of here!"

Davis might have given a ragged cheer at that news, but the tall girl was already mowing eagerly through the bushes ahead of him, too thrilled to really hear anything other than the sound of her own blood racing through her ears. Through the widening gaps in the trees she could easily make out the yellow shape of sloping open grasslands lying ahead of her, a very sweet sight after the miles and miles of black forest. Somehow she found the energy for one last sprint and, leaving Davis somewhere behind her, she smashed back the last few dead branches with her hands and feet and finally burst free from the tree line with a triumphant crow.

She stopped dead in her tracks. She put one hand against the trunk of a tree to steady herself. She stared.

"Oh my frigging god," Yolei said in awe.

Dimly, she heard the sound of Davis idly kicking up some leaves and then his footsteps swishing through the debris on the ground behind her.

"What?" his voice said. And then, "Whoa."

The field beyond the woods was full of black spires.



Part one out of the way. Onwards, to see I ever find the time to finish part too. But for now, I go sleep like the damned.

This is a buddy fic. I repeat, a buddy fic. There are no gremlins of romance removing the rivets from the wings of this airplane.

Incidentally, your humble author has also developed an unholy passion for Conjac Coconut Jelly, the damned delectable snack. It torments me with its tastiness.

All characters © Toei Animation. No rights reserved, but cold drinks occasionally served.