TK stared anxiously over the plains, watching for any sign of movement. The last he had heard, his friends had all scattered to the four corners of the Digital World on a dangerous mission, and he really had no idea how they were doing now. He squinted, looking up at the rusty sky and wondering if it should really be so dark at this time of day. Hadn't the sun only risen a few hours? Surely it should have stayed light a while longer, especially now that the doors had closed. And was that pale shape over there on the horizon really the moon? He scowled at it; if it was the moon, it looked a bit like it was coming apart, and that was definitely not good.
"Is that a shooting star?" asked Patamon. He, too, was staring at the moving bit of whiteness.
"I don't think so," TK answered, puzzled. "Wait a minute, it's starting to come clear. Is that...?"
"Is it what?" asked Patamon, flapping higher into the air for a better look.
"It is!" exulted TK. "Angewomon!"
The distant shape waved as it rocketed across the sky. Soon four glittering wings were discernable, supporting a humanoid woman of breathtaking beauty, and riding in her arms was Kari Kamiya. She waved, too, as she caught sight of TK.
"Glad to see you!" he called as they touched down. "Hi, Angewomon! Haven't seen you in a while... Seen any of the others?"
Kari grinned. "Now that you mention it... well, you'd better wait and see. Oh, and Snimon sends his regards."
"You met him?" asked TK.
"You could say that," she answered.
Moments later, there was the sound of rushing wings, and the two Digidestined looked up to see two more flying shapes cutting across the sky. They circled a few times, as if inviting their friends to admire them, before dropping to the ground. Atop the two winged things, a pair of riders could be seen. They seemed to be carrying on a spirited conversation with each other.
"...didn't have to deal with a blizzard," Davis was saying.
"Well, I had to fly through a thunderstorm!" Yolei retorted. "I got soaked to the skin, and that wind was freezing!"
"Yeah, you flew," he answered. "We had to walk."
"You mean I had to walk," said the 'mon carrying him.
"Well, it was still cold," Davis grumped.
"Veemon?" asked TK, looking up at Davis's carrier. Veemon had borne some resemblance to a dragon, but this had to be the genuine article, a clawed, winged, sharp-toothed and horned terror.
"ExVeemon," Davis corrected, grinning. "Champion level. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Awesome," agreed Kari. "And by the way, I'd like you to meet Angewomon, Gatomon's Ultimate form."
"Uh... Ultimate?" asked Davis. He stared at Angewomon, his eyes beginning to glaze over. Angewomon tossed her hair haughtily, but her partner got the distinct impression that she was winking behind her mask.
"Somebody smack him," Yolei muttered. Her mount obliged by flicking his wing at Davis, who, caught off-guard, lost his balance and fell off of ExVeemon's shoulder. Luckily, he landed on the soft grass, and sat up shaking his head.
"What are you doing down there?" asked ExVeemon, blinking at his partner in puzzlement. "I could have put you down if you'd asked."
TK laughed. "Yup, that's Veemon."
Yolei's partner, who had the form of a gigantic eagle with horns, bent down to lift Davis up by the scruff of his neck and set him back on his feet.
"Sorry," he said. "I do apologize. Are you all right?"
"That's got to be Hawkmon's Champion form," commented Kari. "No other 'mon I know has such good manners."
"This is Aquilamon," said Yolei proudly. "Isn't he the coolest?"
Aquilamon sat up a bit straighter and preened, looking pleased with himself. Yolei winked at her friends and added, "Of course, he's not nearly as cool as the thing Ken sent to give us a lift." Aquilamon deflated, and the other Digidestined stifled giggles.
Their laughter ended as they felt the ground shaking under their feet.
"What's that? An earthquake?" asked Davis, looking around nervously.
"I don't think it's an earthquake," TK replied. "I think it's... Cody!"
He turned and pointed, and the others followed his gaze to the horizon. Against the sky, they could see what appeared to be a small perambulating mountain. Every time it leaped, it's feet struck the ground with a force that made the earth shake.
"Fastest turtle I've ever seen," Davis muttered.
"It's not a turtle, it's a dinosaur," said Yolei.
"Whatever it is, it's coming in fast! Out of the way!" TK yelped.
Everyone scattered, just in time to avoid the charging 'mon. It skidded to a halt in the place where they had been standing, ploughing up furrows in the grassy earth as it attempted to overcome its momentum.
"Whoa, Ankylomon! Easy there!" Cody shouted, clinging to the creature's neck.
"Sorry!" it called back. "I'm not used to going that fast!"
"There you are!" called Davis. "I was wondering when you'd turn up. It's not like you to be late."
"It looks to me like we're the only ones in the group without wings," Cody replied. "How fast do you want us to go?"
"Well, you're here now," TK replied. "Did everyone get all their gates closed?"
There were nods from the others.
"We had to fight our way to this spring, and got jumped by a Spy on the way there," said Kari, fingering the scratches it had given her.
"We rode on a Yanmamon to this big plateau in the desert," Cody said.
"We went to the top of this huge mountain! You could see forever up there!"
"Veemon and I went to this glacier! There must have been four feet of snow up there!"
"Sounds like you guys had all the fun," said TK. "I just hung around here, mostly. But we did get it all done, and we're all together again. That's what matters."
"We're not all together," said Yolei. "Where's Ken?"
"Probably still where we left him," TK replied, turning his head to hide a blush. He was supposed to be keeping an eye on the Paladin while he was trancing, but he'd been so wrapped up with trying to channel enough energy to shut all his gates that he'd had no energy for anything else. "Let's go check up on him, and tell him the good news."
"And let's hurry," said Yolei, an edge of worry creeping into her voice. "Gennai said that trance thing was dangerous. He'd better be okay."
"He'll be fine," said Kari soothingly. "He's got Wormmon looking after him. What could go wrong?"
At that moment, a little green shape came bounding into view, panting with exertion. He skidded to a halt at Davis's feet and looked up at them all.
"Come quick!" he gasped. "Ken's in trouble! Hurry!"
"Trouble?" asked Yolei, stunned.
"Ask questions when we get there!" Davis retorted. He grabbed her wrist and started running, dragging her along until they were snatched up into the claws of their partners. Ankylomon wheeled around, nearly unseating Cody, while TK and Kari were scooped into the arms of a pair of angels. Somehow, though, the caterpillar traveled faster than any of them.
Within moments, they scrambled to a halt at the foot of the tree where they had left Ken sitting. He wasn't sitting there anymore, but lying sprawled on the ground, as if he'd made an effort to get up but had fallen. His skin, pale under normal conditions, was chalk white. He was not moving. The Digidestined moved jerkily towards him, torn between the instinct to rush up and shake him and fear for what they might discover if they did. Slowly, Kari went up to his side, touching his wrist, then his throat.
"Well?" asked Yolei. Her voice came out as a nervous squeak.
"His heart's beating... barely," Kari replied. "He's not breathing very well...What happened?"
"I don't know!" Wormmon wailed. "One minute he was fine, and then he cried out and... went like this. I can't shake him out of it. Do you think he's going to...?"
"He's not," said Davis firmly. Everyone stared at him. He didn't sound like he was trying to be comforting; he sounded like he was stating something so blatantly obvious that he was surprised no one realized it. Realizing he was being watched, he said, "Not if we don't let him."
"What do you mean?" asked TK.
"It's simple," Davis replied. "You heard what Gennai said."
He was met with puzzled looks. He gave a long sigh.
"Look," he said. "Gennai said that Ken could do this because he was connected to the Digital World so closely, right?"
There were reluctant nods.
"But he also said that we were connected, too, right?"
"I guess..." said TK reluctantly.
"So we can go... wherever he is... and get him back," said Davis. "It's simple."
There was a moment as everyone stared at him.
"You're nuts," said Yolei. "That won't work."
"Well, I'm going to try," said Davis. Glaring at them all, he dropped down next to Ken, setting his hands on the boy's shoulder. He knelt there, head bowed, eyes shut tight in concentration. For a moment, there was silence. The Digidestined glanced uneasily at each other. Then, slowly, Davis's expression shifted to one of surprise. So did the expressions of the people watching him.
"Do you see what I see?" asked Cody.
Dancing around Davis's fingers were tiny flickers of orange light, faint and wavering, but definitely there.
"Davis?" asked TK. "Are you... okay?"
"It's weird," the boy answered. "I can hear his heart beating... but it's so far away..."
"Let me help," said Kari. She knelt next to him, putting her hand on his. Instantly, the orange lights steadied, and were joined by a pearly pink glow. She surveyed the results with a nod, then turned to her friends. "What are you waiting for? Ken needs our help."
Yolei nodded and went to join them, and a pale purple shimmer was added to the mix. Cody and TK glanced at each other, then wandered over to join their friends, bringing forth a gleam of blue and gold. The lights grew brighter, filling their vision. For a brief instant, they thought they were seeing through the lights, as through a brilliantly lit window, seeing themselves and the whole world bound together in this multicolored, glowing fabric, and seeing the boy who was lost in it. Without even thinking about it, they reached out and pulled...
The light went out so suddenly it left them blinking, momentarily blinded. Under their touch, something was moving. They glanced down and saw Ken shaking his head, as if to clear it of a bad dream.
"Wha' happened?" he mumbled. Then he shook himself again and sat up, wide-eyed. "The Gate! Sam - he's going to get through - we've got to stop him..."
"Take it easy," said TK. "It's all right! We closed up the rips. Nothing's going to happen now."
"No!" said Ken. "You didn't see - he opened a Gate, a real one! He's going to get in! We've got to hurry!"
Davis shook his head. "You must have been having a nightmare or something. Wouldn't we have known if-"
There was a sudden rumbling in the earth that knocked everyone onto the ground. A ridge of trees on the horizon suddenly dropped into a chasm, sending up a cloud of dust and leaves. Something else rustled its way across the sky, something that looked like a cloud until they realized that it was not one thing, but many small black creatures, like bats. In the distance, thunder rumbled, and there appeared to be a wisp of fog inching its way into view.
"Okay," said Davis faintly. "I take that back."
Half-crazed, frightened, gasping for air, an exhausted figure staggered through the sands, struggling to continue what had once been a run. Now it was nothing more than a painful lurch, as his feet slipped on the uncertain ground and stumbled over half-buried stones. One hand clutched at a stitch in his side; the other was stretched out as if to grasp something just ahead of him. Somewhere along the line, his glasses has slipped off and been lost, but he had barely noticed. He was already half-blind from crying. He wouldn't have noticed anyway. All that was in his mind now was the instinct to get away, wherever that might be, far from whatever had brought him here in the first place.
Finally, Sam's strength gave out, and he collapsed onto a stone to catch his breath and assess his situation, to try to get his brain working again. The very idea made him laugh bitterly; just look where all his cleverness had gotten him! He was lost somewhere in a desert, not even knowing which direction he had come from or if he'd been walking in circles all this time. The sun seemed to be setting, turning the sand crimson, and a sharp sliver of a moon, tinted red by the sunset, hung in the dark sky. Soon it would be night, and he'd be here in complete darkness, with no one to help him.
*My worst nightmare,* he thought bleakly, staring at the sunset. *Everything I thought I was avoiding, and I was just getting closer to it. Even if I knew how to go home, I couldn't, and Jun will never forgive me for leaving her... assuming she lives...*
There weren't any tears left to cry, but his eyes burned painfully at the thought. How could he do something like that, leave an innocent girl to pay the price for his own stupidity. Hadn't he heard Arukenimon saying that there would be a use for Jun, that someone was going to be sacrificed? He should have been smart enough to realize... but instead, he'd just assumed he was too clever to let anyone fool him.
"I've lost everything," he whispered to the sunset. "Everything's gone..."
Only... not everything was gone. Something was trotting swiftly across the desert, gliding like a cloud, its ease of movement belying its ungainly shape. Without any evidence of fear, or even curiosity, it padded confidently up to Sam's side and stared at him.
"'Scuse me!" it chirped.
"Go away," muttered Sam.
The creature was not to be dissuaded. It pawed at Sam's leg, calling, "'Scuse me, 'scuse me!"
"I said, go away!" Sam snapped. "I need to think... there's got to be a way out of this..."
"Oh, shut up!"
Sam aimed a kick at the creature, sending it tumbling across the sand. The creature took the punishment stolidly, rolling over a few times before planting its feet again and walking back up to Sam's side. It set its paws firmly on Sam's knees and lifted itself up until they were face to face, and the boy's vision was suddenly filled by a pair of huge blue eyes.
"'SCUSE ME!" it shouted.
"What?" asked Sam, startled into replying.
"You've got a nightmare stuck in you," the creature replied.
"A... what?" answered Sam, mildly dazed. He recognized the creature now, the odd little thing that was always following his brother around - a Tapirmon, he thought it was called, the thing that had asked him to play with it once. He couldn't imagine how or why it had followed him here, but if it could help him...
"A - night - mare," repeated the Tapirmon, speaking slowly so Sam could understand him. "It's stuck in you. Right here." It nudged at Sam's chest, in the region of his heart. "Do you want me to take it out?"
Sam blinked. A nightmare? Stuck in his heart? Come to think of it, it certainly felt that way. The way the Tapirmon was staring at him was giving him a weird feeling of vertigo, but one that was not entirely unpleasant. It was as if he was about to fall off of something, but with hope that he would learn to fly...
"Yes, please," he heard himself saying.
"Okay!" said the Tapirmon happily. "Waking Dream!"
Suddenly, Sam felt himself surrounded by fog, through which dancing visions flashed...
... "I am the authority in this family, all right? What I say, goes. I am the talented one. I am the genius. You are just a worthless little runt taking up space, and Mom and Dad would have been better off if they'd never had you. You don't deserve that Digivice. It belongs to me..."
..."If I stayed here, you'd kill me, wouldn't you?"..."Maybe I would..."
..."The Digital World is mine by rights, and anyone who stands in my way will inevitably be met with defeat..."
..."I see what you are now - you'll do anything to get what you want. No one matters but you. You could never understand what I'm doing, what I'm working for. You never will. I'm sorry we have to share the same blood..."
The flashbacks went on and on, filling his mind with painful, echoing words - sometimes his own, cold and proud; sometimes his brother's, full of the strain that came from being forced to hate his own brother; memories of every moment that had led up to where he was now, lost and alone because of his own pride...
Then there was a noise, one that sounded oddly like a satisfied shlurp, and the visions cleared, leaving him staring only at a rather smug-looking Tapirmon.
"All better?" it asked.
"Um... yeah. Thanks," said Sam. He felt weirdly light and empty inside, as if he'd been hollowed out. "What just happened?"
"I took the nightmare away," Tapirmon explained patiently. "That was a bad one. It's been there for a long time, too. If you'd left it there much longer, it would have swallowed you up."
"I think it almost did. Thank you," Sam replied.
"Welcome," said the Tapirmon. "I was glad to help."
"Why?" asked Sam. "Why would you want to help me? All the horrible things I've done..."
"Doesn't matter," said Tapirmon, shaking his head. "I helped you because I'm the only one who could help you. You needed me... and I need you. I've been waiting a long time for you."
"You... what?" Sam asked, stunned. "You don't mean... are you...?"
"All my life," said the Tapirmon, "I knew there was someone out there who needed me. Now I've found you. You and I were meant to be together."
Sam stared. "I have a partner? Just like Ken and Davis and all of them? Then why couldn't I get in before? Why was something always keeping me out? ... Wait a minute, I think I know why? It's because I was trying to force my way in, wasn't it? If I had come in earlier, I would have hurt something... I already have, haven't I?"
Tapirmon nodded. Sam sighed, feeling stupider by the minute. At least this creature wasn't trying to spare his feelings - at the moment, that would have made him feel even worse about matters. He looked around again, studying the falling darkness and the barren desert, and began to feel panic setting in again. What was he going to do? He had to do something, but what? How?
"Are you frightened?" asked Tapirmon.
"Yes," said Sam.
"Look at me," the 'mon replied.
Too beaten down to be anything but obedient, Sam did as he was told, looking back into Tapirmon's fathomless blue eyes. They were looking right through him, seeing everything he'd ever done, every harsh word he'd spoken, every smug thought and selfish desire, and for a moment, Sam wanted to cringe away, shut his eyes and bury himself in the sand. Suddenly it was very important to him that this creature respect him, and how could it feel anything but loathing for the horrible person it was seeing? But somehow, he couldn't look away, and slowly he realized that Tapirmon didn't care at all what Sam had done in the past. He loved him, completely, and nothing else mattered. In the face of something so completely overwhelming and so undeserved, Sam discovered that he could cry again, after all, and he buried his face in his partner's fur, sobbing and trembling, while Tapirmon licked his face and whuffled soothingly into his ear.
"Help me," said Sam, in a small voice. "I'm lost. I don't know what to do."
"You'll have to decide that for yourself," Tapirmon replied. "Do you understand what your dream means?"
"The one about the desert?" asked Sam. He thought back to it - not difficult, given his surroundings. It was the nightmare that had plagued him every time he failed at something, every time he had ever felt insecure. "I was afraid, wasn't I? My parents were always so proud of me for the things I did, and everyone made such a big fuss over me... I thought that if I didn't live up to their standards, they wouldn't care about me anymore. I always had to be in control of everything everyone did. I was always so afraid that someone would do better than me, and that everyone would love them instead, and then my brother found the Digivice. I hated him, because he could do something I couldn't. Everyone in this world loved him. I wanted to take it all away. But I couldn't. I was so afraid..."
"But you don't have to be afraid anymore, Sam," said Tapirmon. "I'll always be here for you, no matter what."
"I know." He managed a feeble smiled. "Thanks. So... what are we going to do now?"
"I've taken away your nightmare," Tapirmon replied, "but it will come back again if you aren't careful."
Sam shuddered. "How do I keep that from happening?"
"The only way to keep bad dreams away," said Tapirmon, "is to fill your heart with good ones instead. Can you think of anything you want to do?"
"I... I want to make up for the things I've done," Sam replied. "I want to earn everyone's forgiveness, so Ken and I can be friends again." His eyes turned cold and certain. "And I want to find the people who led me to this, and pay them back for what they did to me, and my brother, and Jun."
"Then we should go find them," said Tapirmon.
"Yeah." Sam scanned the horizon. It was hard to see where anything was in the gathering shadows, and everything looked hazy without his glasses... or was that a real haze creeping across the sand? Sam had never thought to find fog in a desert before. "Do you know the way out of here?"
Tapirmon nodded. "Follow me." He seemed to consider. "Follow close. It's going to be dark."
Sam had a notion Tapirmon wasn't just talking about sunset. "I know. But it will be okay, won't it? If we stick close together?"
"If we stick close together, you won't get lost," Tapirmon agreed.
Sam nodded, and the two of them began to walk. The fog swept in, obscuring everything in grey vagueness, but still, Sam had never felt more confident.
Ken stared off into the encroaching fog, his eyes dark with something that looked suspiciously like fear.
"We've got to get out of here," he murmured, as much as if he were talking to himself than anyone else. "There's got to be something..." He tried to get to his feet, but Davis shoved him down again.
"And where do you think you're going?" he asked.
"I'm going to where I can be of use," Ken answered in his Paladin voice. "If Sam's made it this far, and he's brought those monsters of his with him, we have to go find him. Maybe we can overpower him before he gets too far."
Shoving off Davis's hand, he stood up and began marching away. He made it only a few steps before his legs trembled and gave out, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Wormmon scurried to his side.
"Ken, be careful!" he pleaded. "You're not strong enough to travel right now."
"But I've got to," Ken protested, trying to shove himself up again. Wormmon nudged his elbow, making his arm buckle and drop him again.
"Wormmon's right. You're wiped out right now," said TK. "You're also not thinking straight, if you think you're going to walk all the way to wherever Sam is. We've got Digimon, right?"
"Oh. Right," said Ken. He shook himself. "You're right, I'm not thinking straight. My head feels like it's full of fog. Whatever I just did, I don't think I'd better do it again for a while... preferably not within the next hundred years or so."
"You don't look so good," Yolei commented, coming to help him up. "Maybe you'd better sit this one out?"
Ken shook his head. "No. This is my fight more than anyone's. I am going." He crossed his arms and gave a glare that forbid any argument.
"Fine," said Cody. "Just don't tell the rest of us we can't come with you." He turned to Ankylomon, who obediently knelt down to let his partner scramble onto his back.
Ken took a breath, as if to argue, but another nudge from Wormmon made him release it again in a sigh. "You're right, you're right. Give me a lift, Wormmon?"
"Do you even have to ask?" the 'mon replied.
In a swirl of green light, Wormmon transformed into Stingmon, who held out a hand to help Ken onto his shoulder. Even so, it took TK and Davis's assistance to get him in place, looking pale and shaky but still determined. The others took one last check to be sure he was all right before returning to their own partners.
"So, where are we going?" asked Kari, settling herself in Angewomon's arms.
"Over there," said Ken, waving vaguely at the darkness that was gathering on the horizon. "Sorry I can't tell you more specifically. I got the flash just as I was pulling out of the trance, so all I saw was a glimpse... probably a good thing, too. If even a glimpse was enough to knock me cold, the full force..." He trailed off, shaking his head in a manner that indicated he'd rather not think about it.
"The east," said Cody. "The desert..." Someone, maybe his grandfather, had told him that deserts were symbolic places of spiritual battles. How appropriate, that they should have their final confrontation there.
*Because this is going to be final,* he thought as he watched his friends take off. *I can feel it inside. This can't go on as a stalemate any longer - one way or another, it's going to end today.*
Or was it tonight? Looking around, the Digidestined had to wonder. The sun appeared to have set, and a sliver of a moon was just visible low in the sky, as if even it didn't feel like coming too far out into the open. There were no stars, but an eerie light seemed to emanate from the fog itself, making it appear light even though it was next to impossible to see anything. Those whose partners were winged urged the 'mons to fly low, skimming over the sand. Davis squinted, trying to see clearly through the haze and shadows, glaring down at a rough formation of rocks. Suddenly, he kicked ExVeemon sharply.
"What'd you do that for?" the dragon growled.
"I said, go down! I thought I saw something."
"You should have said so, then," ExVeemon complained, but he did as he was told, swooping down until his tail was nearly dragging the ground. "I don't see a thing."
"That's because you passed it already. Turn around."
"What's he doing?" asked Ken, shooting an irritated look over his shoulder.
"I think he's spotted something," said Kari. "Turn around, Angewomon. Maybe he's found Sam... or at least a clue."
Curious, Aquilamon banked without being told, wheeling around to stare back in the direction they'd come from. From this angle, his eagle eyes picked out what he'd missed before: a huddled shape lying on the rough stone.
"I don't think that's Sam," he said, "but it's definitely human. I'm going in for a closer look."
Meanwhile, Davis had already gotten close enough to see. Before ExVeemon could realize what was happening, the boy had jumped down from his perch, landing ankle-deep in the sand and staggering into a run. He scampered up the rocks, ignoring the way their sharp edges cut at his hands, until he was standing only a few feet away from the motionless figure. He stopped and stared, his face going pale beneath his suntan. The other Digidestined landed next to him with a bit more alacrity.
"Davis, what's wrong?" asked Kari, coming to his side. "You look like you've seen a ghost." Then she got a closer look at what he was staring at. "What in the... Who is she?"
"She... she's my sister," said Davis. "Oh, God... Sam's killed my sister! I knew she would get in trouble if she followed him! I warned her! I warned her this would happen, and she wouldn't listen to me!"
Ken, meanwhile, had walked over to the unmoving girl and was busy inspecting her, checking her pulse and lifting her eyelids with all the composure of a doctor giving a routine checkup.
"Davis," he said, "I think you need to calm down."
"Calm down?" repeated Davis incredulously. "I do not need to calm down! I need to find that brother of yours and grind him into Samburgers! How can you sit there and tell me to be calm?"
"Because your sister isn't dead," said Ken.
"Oh," said Davis.
"She's definitely not in good shape, but she's not dead," Ken continued. "It looks like she's been here a while, though. If she's lasted this long, she's probably going to make it. I might even be able to help her, if I could figure out what's happened to her."
"Well, whatever Sam did, he's going to pay for it," Davis growled. "Nobody messes with my sister and gets away with it!"
"Sam didn't do that," said TK.
"Huh? How do you know?" asked Davis, surprised at the certainty in his tone.
Instead of replying, TK walked over to Jun's side and pointed. There were two small red marks on her neck, surrounded by dark smudges of dried blood.
"Sam couldn't have done that," he said. "He may be bad, but he's not a bloodsucker." His face clouded. "I don't know who could have done it, though..."
"There aren't any vampires in the Digital World, are there?" asked Yolei nervously.
"There shouldn't be," Kari replied. "I mean, he's dead, isn't he? We saw him die!"
"We saw who?" asked Cody, who had scurried up the rocks to join them.
"He was before your time," TK replied. "Before you became Digidestined, anyway. We had a problem with an evil vampire Digimon called Myotismon. We had a terrible battle defeating him. We lost a very good friend in the battle... but we did win, and he was destroyed."
"I heard about that," said Ken. "Vaguely, anyway. My family and I were out of town at the time, and nobody wanted to talk about it very much when we got back. It was just too much for people to handle, I think, having to admit that monsters and magic had been running rampant right in front of them. But he died outside the Digital World, didn't he? That means he couldn't have returned... unless..."
"Unless," TK finished, "he was slick enough to con somebody into opening a door for him. Someone who was so desperate to get in here that he'd go to any lengths to do it."
There was silence for a moment.
"So," said Ken at last. "My brother finally met his match. Well," he said, taking on a brisk tone, "the first thing to do is try to help this girl recover. It shouldn't be too difficult - Piximon taught me a little about medicines, in case I ever needed to heal myself."
Davis nodded, remembering the medicine Ken had given him after his run-in with the Glitch. "So you can make her better, right?"
"I can try. It looks like she's not bleeding anymore, so she'll probably be just fine once her strength returns. Let's see if I have something..." He began fishing through his pockets and came up with a small vial full of greenish liquid, which he tipped carefully down her throat. Then he went to work wiping off the wounds as best he could and carefully tied his scarf around her neck as a makeshift bandage.
"Best I can do," he said. "I suppose now we just wait and see what happens."
"Should we wake her up?" asked Davis, looking worriedly down at her. "I don't like the way she looks, lying there like that."
"She needs her rest," said Ken sternly. "She's lost blood. The last thing she needs is to be up running around."
"We said the same thing to you," Davis muttered.
Just then, there was a small cough, and Jun began to twitch.
"Ow..." she whimpered. She pressed a hand to her throat, encountered the scarf, and opened her eyes in puzzlement. "Wha... what happened? Where am I?"
"Jun!" Davis exclaimed. He flung himself at his sister and hugged her. "You're alive!"
"Quit that!" Ken scolded. "You're going to hurt her!"
"What's going on?" asked Jun, still blinking her eyes dazedly. Then she sat up straight in sudden shock. "Sam! Where is he?"
"It's okay, he's gone now," said Kari soothingly. "Nobody's going to hurt you."
"But what about Sam? That thing is going to get him!" Jun babbled fearfully.
"What thing?" asked Ken.
Jun shivered. "Myotismon."
"So he is back," said Angewomon.
Jun looked up and saw a number of large, otherworldly creatures looking down at her, and she began trying to back away in panic. She didn't get very far, though, and toppled over, trembling.
"Don't let those things near me!" she shrieked.
"Calm down!" Ken snapped. "They aren't going to hurt anyone... yet. Not if you cooperate and tell us what's going on. How did Myotismon come back to life?"
"I don't know," said Jun miserably. "Those monsters did something. Re-energized him somehow... but he doesn't have his strength back yet, he said. He's going to do that, and then he's going back to our world. He tricked Sam into helping - he didn't know. You aren't going to hurt him, are you?"
Ken looked away and didn't answer. "So Myotismon's alive, but he doesn't have his full strength back yet. That's good. If we can find him, we might have a shot at stopping him before he gets too powerful. Do you have any idea where he went?"
"No," said Jun, her eyes wide and frightened.
"I do," said Angewomon. "If he wants to go back to the real world, there's only one place he could be heading: back to the place his castle used to be."
"Why there?" asked TK. "The palace is gone, isn't it?"
"True," said Ken, "but there's still a lot of power focused on that spot. Years of dark magic leave their mark on a place. I've never set foot there, myself. The only Digimon who live there are the worst of the Virus types, the kind who would gladly kill even me if they could. Myotismon could rebuild his strength there, and then reopen the gateway back to your world... But how is he going to open another Gate?"
"It won't be hard. Not for him. He researched the making of Gates for years," said Angewomon coldly. "There are places where our two worlds press closer to each other than in other places... weak spots in the fabric of reality. He made his fortress right on top of one. He always did think he was too good for this world," she added bitterly.
"Kind of like Sam," Cody murmured, "only Sam thought he was too good for our world."
Ankylomon shrugged. "The grass is always greener..."
"How does she know so much?" asked Ken, staring speculatively up at Angewomon.
"She knew him. Long story," Kari replied. "Right now, it's more important to stop Myotismon, right?"
"True," said Ken. "We'd better hurry. Who knows how much of a head start Myotismon's had?"
"Yeah, we'd better get moving," TK replied. "The last battle was way too close. I want to nip this thing in the bud this time." He began heading back toward Angemon, preparing to take off again.
"You aren't going to leave me here alone, are you?" Jun wailed.
"No, I guess we'd better not," said Davis. "Come on, Jun, you can ride with me!" He took her arm and began trying to lead her toward ExVeemon, who turned his scaly head to stare at her curiously. Jun's eyes widened.
"You want me to ride on that?" she exclaimed.
"Well, you've got to ride on something, unless you want to walk all the way there," Davis replied. "Come on, it's perfectly safe. ExVeemon's my pal."
"I-if you say so," she said. With her brother's help, she climbed uncertainly into ExVeemon's huge hands, letting him cradle her like a baby while her brother rode on the dragon's shoulder.
"See, it's perfectly safe," Davis said.
"Just tell me when it's over," Jun replied, screwing her eyes closed tight.
"Hang on," ExVeemon rumbled. "We're lifting off!"
They shot up into the air. Now that they knew exactly where they were going, they soared up above the fog, moving as swiftly as they could, following Angewomon's bright shape. Stingmon hovered a bit behind, and Ken didn't make any effort to speed him up. He was content to let his partner choose the course for a while, and take the opportunity for some rest and thought. The mind-traveling episode and its resulting narrow escape had tired him. Now he closed his eyes, blotting out a view of a velvet sky studded with a few timid stars and a fluffy floor of mist below, and let his mind wander where it would. Inevitably, it made its way to Sam.
*I hardly believe it's true,* he thought. *All this time, I thought it was just Sam being arrogant... Someone's been messing with his mind the whole time. I should have seen it - he went away from me, and when he came back, he was full of ideas about conspiracies, thinking I'd been plotting against him, ready to kill me. I should have known something had happened to him... but I was too young to know, and too frightened to think about it. I should have seen he had to have someone helping him, providing him with information. He couldn't have figured it all out by himself, no matter how clever he was. But he was threatening me before he went to the hospital. How much of all this was his idea, and how much was Myotismon's? And what's become of Sam now that Myotismon has what he wants?*
He didn't have an answer, and his tired brain was in no shape to look for one. Despite his best efforts, his head nodded, and he dropped off into sleep.
"I'm not so sure about this."
Arukenimon glanced over her shoulder at Mummymon. He was hovering somewhat closer to her than usual, though she wasn't sure whether that was because he wanted to protect her or vice versa. For once, she agreed with him. She wasn't enjoying the current situation one bit, enough so that she was actually grateful for her companion's close proximity. If nothing else, if something attacked from behind, it would get him first.
It was very hard not to get the feeling that something was going to do just that. The hapless monsters were following their master through what appeared to be an endless sea of swirling fog, through which they could vaguely make out dark shifting shapes. Myotismon, of course, was not bothered by any of this. He glided through the fog with an easy grace, soundlessly and tirelessly. Where he went, the bats followed, fluttering out of the darkness with high pitched shrieks. One of them stopped to perch on Myotismon's hand, and he caressed the top of its head as if it were a cat instead of a fanged creature of the night. It chittered at him happily, then fluttered off again, zipping past Arukenimon's face and making her jump backwards in alarm, letting out an involuntary shriek. Myotismon turned to sneer at her, his pointed teeth glittering even in the uncertain light.
"Having problems, Arukenimon?" he asked.
"Nothing I can't handle," she retorted, shooting a warning glance at Mummymon, who seemed to want to comfort her.
"Good," said Myotismon. "I'd hate to think you were getting frightened."
"Humph. Not likely," she said.
"Then you won't mind if I leave you behind, will you?" asked Myotismon.
"You obviously didn't hear me," he replied, his voice deadly calm. "I have important work to do, and I don't need to be bothered by those Digidestined brats. Someone needs to slow them down when they come... and they are going to come. They're nothing if not persistent. Of course, I would ask you to destroy them entirely, but that is obviously beyond your abilities. Just do what you can, and I'll take care of them myself later."
"But..." Arukenimon began, and stopped; she wasn't sure whether to respond to the insult or protest the situation in general.
"I have made myself clear," said Myotismon. He raised his head, staring off at something that only he could see. "They'll be here soon. Stay and watch for them."
With that, he rose up into the air and became lost in the fog. As soon as he was gone, the fog began to lift as well, leaving his henchmons standing alone on what looked suspiciously like the middle of nowhere. All that could be seen in any direction was an expanse of flat, cracked earth, with only a few small rocks and plants to enliven it. In the dark, it was difficult to see where the earth left off and the black sky began, except that the ground didn't have stars. If they had been hoping for somewhere to hide until everything had blown over, they were sadly mistaken. Arukenimon looked up at the now-clear sky and noticed shapes winking past the stars and a rumble that could only come from the pounding of very large feet heading in her direction.
"Did you ever get the feeling you were being set up?" she muttered.
"I get the feeling we ought to get out of here," Mummymon replied. "Three against one isn't my kind of odds."
Arukenimon shot him a look, as if surprised he could figure the odds in his head, but all she said was, "We can take them. They're Champions, with maybe one Ultimate thrown in. The odds are even enough."
*And once we've destroyed them, maybe Lord Myotismon will show us a little respect,* she thought. *I'll show him to talk down to me!*
"Maybe," said Mummymon, staring up at the sky. The flying shapes seemed to have noticed them, and appeared to be having a conference about what to do about it. "But have you noticed - one of those 'mon's is the one that destroyed Lord Myotismon before. I don't mean to argue with you, darling, but I'd really feel better if we were somewhere else."
"Where?" she replied, gesturing around at the empty landscape. "I don't know about you, but I'm certainly not about to let myself be tracked like a rabbit. We're going to stand and fight. Show some guts! Are you a man or a monster?"
Mummymon hung his head. "Some of both, I guess."
*I wish he hadn't said that,* thought Arukenimon irritably. Myotismon's sneers about where they had come from were still hovering around in the back of her head. It was a bit difficult having gone through all of her (admittedly short) life thinking she was one thing just to be told that she was really something else. It was entirely disconcerting to be told that half of her was the same sort of creature as these children they were trying to destroy, and even worse for a creature who had always believed herself to be purely evil to be told that hidden somewhere in her were those same human qualities she'd always sneered at.
*I'll prove him wrong!* she thought stubbornly. *I want no part of these human creatures, and I'll prove it by destroying them all!*
Meanwhile, the Digidestined soared in tight circles, looking down at the red and blue dots on the dark horizon.
"Hey, Ken," said Stingmon, prodding his sleeping partner, "look down there."
"Huh?" said Ken drowsily, shaking his head. Then he came fully awake, glancing down in the direction his partner was pointing. "What do you suppose those are? They don't look like any kind of Digimon I know."
"I remember them," said Kari. "Those are Sam's helpers. After that spider-lady tried to eat me, I'd remember her anywhere!"
"They're here?" asked Jun, opening her eyes a crack to look down. She sat up in surprise. "You're right, that's them! What are they doing? And where's Sam? If they've hurt him..."
"No sign of him anywhere," said Ken, sounding disappointed. "But if these two are mixed up in Myotismon's dealings, we should probably deal with them. I'm not leaving monsters running around in my Digital World!"
"But the first order of business is to get rid of Myotismon," TK pointed out. "We have to deal with him fast, before he has time to muster his strength. If we have to face him at full power..." He trailed off and shuddered.
"TK's right," said Yolei. "We'll take care of the big guy first, and then you can come back and clean up his lackeys. They won't put up much of a fight without their boss around, anyway."
"That's true," Ken answered. "Fine. But we're coming back to look for them as soon as we're done with Myotismon... Well, maybe with some time to rest our 'mons first."
The other Digidestined nodded and urged their partners onward... only to be distracted by the sound of a small explosion. Looking toward the sound, they noticed a large yellow shape had moved onto the field, and the smaller shapes were throwing bright lights at it that didn't look pleasant.
"Oh, no," TK moaned. "We forgot Cody!"
"We're really going to have to find some way to give his partner wings," Ken sighed. "Oh, well. Looks like we're going to have a chance to warm up before the big fight. Everyone down!"
There was a rush of wind as several large objects dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of the battlefield. They found Ankylomon with his neck and legs wrapped by a number of tough red threads that refused to break no matter how much he struggled. Mummymon was shooting off bursts of light from his laser, and Cody had his head ducked down in an attempt to avoid being shot. So far, he was managing, he there wasn't much hope that he could go on like that for long when the range was this close.
"Spiking Strike!" shouted Stingmon, and the threads snapped and dissolved as his glowing saber slashed through them.
"What took you so long?" Cody called.
"We were going to just pass by them," said TK, shrugging apologetically.
"Well, I wasn't given that option," answered Cody.
"So you finally decided to come down and join us," said Arukenimon. "How nice of you. Pity you won't be able to stay long."
"Big words from an insect," said Aquilamon, eyeing her speculatively and clicking his sharp beak.
The spider-woman feigned insult. "Insect? I'm an arachnid. But of course I can't expect much intelligence from you, since you were foolish enough to tangle with us in the first place. And speaking of tangles... Spider Thread!"
Red cables shot from her wrists, one set wrapping around Aquilamon and binding his wings. The others latched onto ExVeemon, and he roared as he struggled to free his arms.
"Jun!" Davis yelped. His sister had been caught in the webbing as well, and was trying desperately to wrestle her way out. "Hang on, I'm coming!"
Davis slid down and landed carefully next to her, gripping her shoulders and trying to heave her through a small gap in the threads. Realizing she wasn't completely trapped, Jun quit panicking and held still long enough for Davis to get her hands free, and then assisted in getting herself loose.
"You okay?" Davis asked.
"Fine," she replied. "Thanks. I always knew that woman couldn't be trusted."
"Yeah, well, just hang back and watch us work," her brother answered. "She'll be digital dust before you know it."
"You've made a big mistake, lady" said TK. "What are you going to do now that your hands are bound?"
"Huh?" Arukenimon glanced down, realizing belatedly that she was as tied to her captives as they were to her.
"Bad move," said Ken, nodding. "Now see what these insects you sneer at can really do. Stingmon?"
"I'm all over it," the wasp-mon replied. "Spiking Strike!"
"Get 'em, Angemon!" TK urged.
"Gladly. Hand of... ow!" Angemon stumbled backwards in midair as a bolt of red and white light struck his hand, blocking his attack.
"If you mess with her, you'd better be prepared to take me on as well," said Mummymon, hefting his laser significantly. "Snake Bandage!" Strips of white cloth shot through the air, wrapping around Angemon's wings, and he cried out as he tumbled from the sky to collide with the hard ground. TK had to dash to avoid being flattened by him.
Arukenimon calmly faced the green warrior that was hurtling toward her.
"Acid Mist," she hissed, and spat out a cloud of green smoke that engulfed Stingmon and his rider. Both of them were overcome by fits of coughing, blinded by the stinging haze. The wasp managed a rough landing, lurching to the ground on all fours, and Ken was thrown off with a jolt that made his teeth rattle, but he was too busy trying to find air to breathe to worry about anything else.
"You can't do that to my friends!" Ankylomon bellowed. He lowered his head and charged like a bull with the intent of squashing the deformed creatures in his path. At the last second, he paused and spun in place, directing all his momentum into the spiked club on his tai. "Tail Hammer!"
Mummymon ducked and shouted, "Snake Bandage!"
The bandages wrapped themselves around Ankylomon's tail, and Mummymon gave them a powerful jerk. Ankylomon suddenly felt his momentum being used against him as he was hauled off his feet and lobbed several yards across the ground. Mummymon looked mildly impressed with himself.
"I didn't know I could do that," he said.
"Five down," said Arukenimon. "Any other takers?"
"I'll try," said Angewomon. "You will be punished for this! Celestial Arrow!"
The green mist rose again, obscuring Angewomon's vision and spoiling her aim. The arrow flew through the air several yards off its mark, putting a crater in an innocent chunk of earth. At the same time, a number of bandages shot out of the haze and wrapped around her arms and wings. She tried desperately to stay aloft, but she was being reeled in like a fish. She hit the ground, and Kari had no choice but to go along with her, landing painfully and crying out in shock and dismay.
"We work so well together," said Mummymon, surveying the battlefield with satisfaction. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"The middle of a battle is no place for you to start getting mushy," Arukenimon muttered.
"But why not?" asked Mummymon. "I mean, it's over, isn't it?"
It certainly looked that way. The ground was littered with bound and weakened Digimon, some being tended to by a worried Digidestined, but even those were having difficulties after being dropped from the sky and sprayed with toxic fog. Arukenimon allowed herself a smile. This would show her master what she was made of.
"It's not over," said an unexpected voice.
"Huh?" Several people and Digimon looked up in search of the sound. What they saw was a bedraggled looking boy and a funny-looking little Digimon standing defiantly at the fringes of the chaos, looking down at them all.
"Sam?" Ken yelped. "Tapirmon?" He wasn't sure which of them he was more surprised to see.
"So," said Arukenimon, narrowing her eyes. "You've decided to come back after all. That was very foolish of you. What have you got there, reinforcements? Or have you decided you want to be a Digidestined yourself? Dangerous looking partner you've got."
Sam gave her a small smile. "You'd be surprised. He's tougher than he looks. Smart, too. You wouldn't believe what he's taught me."
"Oh, really?" she sneered. "A Digimon genius to go with the human one? How cute."
"These aren't nice people, Sam," Tapirmon said, staring at Arukenimon and Mummymon with his eyes narrowed.
"I know," Sam replied. "Believe me, I know."
"And what do you mean by that?" asked Arukenimon. "We gave you just what you wanted. You wanted to get away from the world; we took you away. You wanted to come to the Digital World, and here you are. What have you asked of us that we haven't given you?"
"Nothing," Sam sighed, "but you always made sure I asked for the wrong things. Thanks to you, the last three years of my life have been a living nightmare."
"Nightmare?" asked Tapirmon eagerly.
"Yes," said Sam. "A nightmare. This woman - this creature gave me my nightmares. Well, she can have them back!"
Tapirmon nodded and turned his blazing blue eyes on Arukenimon. She suddenly got the feeling she shouldn't have teased the creature. For a moment, she got the feeling those eyes were looking straight through her soul.
"What - what's he going to do?" she stammered, backing away fearfully.
"Waking Dream!" Tapirmon shouted.
Something dark rose up, a swirling cloud of purple-black fog, glinting with the suggestion of evil eyes, with flashes of bloody red and endless emptiness. It was hovered briefly, then shot toward Arukenimon like a hungry beast would leap on its prey, and she let out a drawn out scream of mortal terror. At the same instant, the red threads vanished, and Mummymon was startled into releasing his bonds on the angels.
"Now!" Sam shouted at them. "While they're distracted - attack her now!"
Nobody needed any other encouragement. For a moment, the field was full of flying attacks and a swirl of smoke and dust. Then there was silence, and everyone watched and waited to see what would happen next.
The smoke cleared. In the middle of a scorched ring of earth stood Mummymon, looking very confused and worried, staring down at what was left of Arukenimon. She'd reverted to human form and lay crumpled on the ground, her clothing scorched, her hair in disarray. She moaned and twitched faintly, but it was obvious she didn't have the strength to rise.
"And what about you?" asked TK, glaring at Mummymon. "Are you going to give up, or would you rather end up like your friend?"
"If I were you, I'd hit the road," Davis advised. "I think our Digimon are a little ticked."
Mummymon glanced up at the number of unfriendly faces surrounding, looked down at his beloved, and decided that discretion was definitely the better part of valor. With as much care as he could manage under the circumstances, he lifted Arukenimon's battered form and sprinted off into the darkness.
"Should we let him get away?" Ken wondered.
"It'll be all right," said Sam. "Mummymon won't cause too much trouble without Arukenimon to egg him on. He's not so bad, as monsters go - almost friendly at times."
Tapirmon nodded. "He only dreams about her."
The two brothers looked at each other, uneasy.
"Sam..." Ken began.
"Sam!" Jun squealed. She launched herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face against his shoulder. "I was so worried about you! I woke up in that strange place, and you were gone... I was so sure they'd killed you... Oh, Sam..." She broke down crying tears of relief, and Sam stroked her hair.
"It's okay, really," he assured her. "See, I'm not hurt or anything. I just had something I needed to do, but I'm back now. Jun, I'm so sorry I left you. If anything had happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself. I shouldn't have run away, but I was so scared and confused, I didn't know what I was doing... Jun, can you forgive me?"
"Of course. I'm just glad you're all right."
"Me, too. I'm not going to leave you again."
The two of them hugged each other, oblivious to the fact that more than one set of eyes was fastened on them. Tapirmon sniffled and pawed a happy tear out of his eye. Davis stared, slack-jawed.
"Holy cow," he muttered. "I do not believe this... Sam's in love with my sister!"
"If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..." Ken agreed. "Sam - hey, Sam! I hate to break this up, but... we need to talk, and we need to do it now."
"You're right," Sam sighed. "Jun, do you mind?"
She shook her head and allowed him to slip out of her embrace. Sam turned and took a step toward his brother, the two of them with their violet eyes locked on each other.
"You have some explaining to do," said Ken quietly.
"I know," Sam answered, "and some apologizing. I don't know where to begin... Ken, I was wrong. You're not going to believe that, are you? I mean, believe that I mean it. I realize now what a mistake I made."
"And when did this realization come?" asked Ken, his voice flat and emotionless. "When you figured out someone had fooled you into doing his dirty work? Are you trying to undo your mistakes now to try to save face?"
"No!" Sam protested. "It's not like that at all. Well, maybe. I was angry when I found out I'd been tricked. And then, when I realized someone I cared about had been hurt because of my mistakes, I started to feel guilty, but it was only because I thought I'd been stupid for being tricked. I didn't see how wrong I was until I found this little guy... or maybe I should say he found me." He turned to smile down at Tapirmon, who cuddled up against his leg affectionately.
"I know him," said Ken. "Tapirmon, you went looking for Sam? Why?"
"He needed me," Tapirmon answered simply. "I've been looking for him a long time."
Sam nodded. "When he looked into my eyes, it was like he was seeing everything I was... and I was suddenly seeing myself through his eyes. I saw and heard it all, Ken. Every wrong thing I've done since the day that Digivice came out of my computer. And then, when he told me he cared for me anyway, that he'd been waiting for me all his life..." He raised his hands in a bemused gesture. "I can't explain it."
"I understand," said Ken. "When you meet your partner, it does something to you. You're never the same afterwards."
"It makes you want to do anything to protect them," Sam replied. "Even... devote your whole life to protecting their world? Is that what you've been doing, Ken? Is that what the Paladin is all about?"
"Yes," Ken answered. "I thought you could never understand..."
"I do now," Sam replied. "Ken, I know this is stupid of me to say, but... I'm sorry. I'm sorrier than I can put into words. I know I'm not worthy of your forgiveness, but I'm going to try to make this up to you." He paused, waiting for a response. Ken seemed to be waiting for him to go on, so he sighed and said, "Are we ever going to be able to trust each other again?"
"I don't know," said Ken slowly. "It won't be easy."
Sam hung his head. "I know."
"But we can try."
Sam looked up, startled. Then he smiled.
"Thanks, Ken," he said. "That means a lot to me."
There was a sudden rush, as if of thunder, and the stars were suddenly blotted out by millions of fluttering wings. The Digidestined looked up to see thousands of bats winging their way across the sky.
"'The sky will be darkened by the wings of many bats,'" TK quoted grimly. "Guys, I don't like this at all. We'd better move."
"Right," said Ken, nodding. "Hey, Sam... ever ridden a Digimon before?"
"No, but I get the feeling I'm going to," he replied. He gazed up at Stingmon, who had come to loom over both of them. "Wow, this guy's a lot bigger in real life."
Ken couldn't suppress a grin. "Faster, too. You'd better hang on tight, Sam. You're in for the ride of your life."
TK watched the brothers and Tapirmon scampering onto the back of the great wasp, and he smiled a bit.
"You know," he commented to Cody, "I think I'm glad he's on our side, now."
"So am I," said Cody seriously, looking up at the dark sky. "I have a feeling we're going to need all the friends we can get tonight."
Arukenimon came awake with a gasp and stared around her, wide-eyed in fright. She couldn't see anything, which, considering the circumstances, was almost a relief. It meant that she had been dreaming, after all, dreaming of being lost and alone in an endless red desert and knowing that she'd never find her way out, that she was going to die there and no one would ever notice or care. Compared to that, simply waking up to find herself in an unidentified dark space wasn't so bad.
Where was she? She couldn't remember how she had come to be there, which was regrettable - she couldn't remember what she had doing recently, but she had a feeling she wouldn't be doing it again for a while. Every muscle in her body felt like she'd been beaten with large rocks, and now that she was awake, she was becoming conscious of a dull headache. Even so, she managed to pry her eyes open wide enough to get a good look around.
It was very dark, but not as completely dark as she'd first though. There was a candle flickering on a desk a few feet away, but it had burned so low that if she had wakened only a few minutes earlier, she would have found herself in total blackness. As it was, she could make out the walls of some kind of cave, the walls and floor smoothed out a bit to make it more hospitable. The candlelight revealed the shapes of some scattered bits of furniture - there a chair, and something that could have been a table, but nothing definite. She was half-sitting, propped up against something she couldn't see, and someone had pulled a patchwork blanket over her. For the moment, she appeared to be safe and fairly comfortable, which was good, because she didn't think she could go anywhere if she tried. She resettled a bit, intending to go back to sleep, and suddenly realized that what she was leaning on was breathing. She let out a yelp of surprise, and whatever she was resting against grunted.
"Sorry, must have dozed off," Mummymon muttered sleepily. Then he jolted fully awake. "Darling, you're awake! You're alive! Are you all right? Say something!"
"I'm all right," she said, exhaustion in every syllable. "What happened?"
"You don't remember?" he asked. "You were attacked."
"Just about everything."
"Figures," she sighed. "I certainly feel that way."
Mummymon nodded. "We were winning the battle, and suddenly Sam came back with a Tapirmon that shot a dream at you, and once it attacked, everyone else did, too."
"A dream..." she repeated thoughtfully. Now she remembered Sam's words to her. Was she doomed to carry sixteen years of bad dreams with her now?
"Then you passed out," he continued, "so I brought you here, where I could take care of you."
"Yes, it's quite obvious that was exactly what was on your mind when you brought me here," she answered dryly.
Mummymon suddenly remembered exactly what the situation was and blushed furiously.
"This isn't what it looks like," he said. "I was going to leave you alone, really. I knew you'd want me to, but... you must have been having nightmares or something. You kept calling out, and you wouldn't be quiet unless I was with you, so I just stayed and watched you sleep. You looked so beautiful in the candlelight... I'm sorry. That wasn't the right thing to say, was it?"
"It's all right."
"I don't mean to, but sometimes it just slips out, and-"
"It's all right. Really."
Arukenimon nodded, remembering the fear of being left alone. "In fact, I think I just might possibly be a little glad to see you."
His eyes misted over. "I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me!"
"Yeah, well..." she muttered. "How long have we been here?"
"I don't know. Several hours, maybe. It must have been a long time, for me to fall asleep like that. I never thought I'd get tired of looking at you..." He cringed, as if expecting to be slapped for that, but she ignored him.
"If its been that long, anything could have happened out there," she said thoughtfully.
"I suppose either Myotismon's been destroyed, or the Digidestined have," Mummymon answered.
"Not a good choice, either way," Arukenimon replied. "If Myotismon finds us, he'll destroy us for failing him. If the Digidestined find us, they'll destroy us because we served Myotismon. Either way, we're in trouble."
"We'll just have to make sure we're not found," he said confidently.
"And how are we going to do that?" Perhaps it was only exhaustion that took away the bite the remark normally would have had.
"Well, we could stay here."
"This is a safe place. I've hidden it well - no one will find us here, even if they look. We can stay here until you're well, and maybe by then all of this will have blown over."
Arukenimon thought that over for a while.
"Yes," she said slowly, "I think that might just be a solution."
"You don't have to worry," he assured her. "I'll always protect you. You know that."
"Yes, I know," she answered. She sighed. "Someday I'm going to figure out whether Myotismon was right."
"About us - what we are. I heard him say we had the same weaknesses as the human he created us from. All this time, I thought I was meant to be a creature like him, without any capability for friendship or love..."
"How can you possibly doubt," said Mummymon, "that I love you?"
"I don't suppose I can," she replied.
There was an expectant silence. Arukenimon sighed.
"You want me to say it back, don't you?" she asked.
Mummymon blushed. "Well, it would be nice..."
"Well, it's not going to happen," she snapped.
He cringed. "I refuse to believe that."
"I can't say it because that's not the kind of person I am," she replied. "It's not in my nature to say things like that. I've lived too long as a creature of darkness to admit any feeling. If I didn't care, it would be all right to say it - after all, I'd be lying, and that's acceptable. But if I did care, I couldn't hurt you by lying to you. Which is why I'm not going to say anything at all."
Mummymon's brow furrowed as he tried to puzzle that out. "Hey, wait a minute, doesn't that mean-"
Even as he spoke, the candle sputtered and died out. There was also a sudden end to conversation - but by that point, it didn't matter anymore, and they might have been in trouble, but they certainly didn't feel that way.
Jun looked down from her lofty perch, watching miles of dark scenery roll away beneath her. She seemed to have gotten used to this mode of transport, enough that, had the circumstances been less grave, she might have even been enjoying herself. Even so, she felt awed by what she was looking at.
"This really was a beautiful world, wasn't it?" she said quietly.
"It will be again, once we get rid of that Myotismon guy," Davis replied. "Don't worry; Ken and Yolei can fix anything he does."
"I guess," Jun replied. Her eyes raised, looking out in front of them, where she could just pick out Stingmon's dark green form against the sky. His passengers looked to be deep in conversation with each other. "You know, no matter what Sam said about it, I think he really did miss his brother."
"Hm," said Davis noncommitally.
"Davis... there's a possibility you might not come out of this alive, isn't there?"
"Yeah. So?" Davis replied.
"So, I was just thinking... I heard what Sam said to Ken, and I was thinking, I was wrong about a few things, too, wasn't I?"
"Yeah, well, it was no big deal," said Davis.
"Yes, it was. It doesn't matter what Sam told me, I still did things I shouldn't have done. I shouldn't have stolen from you. I should have listened when you tried to explain. I could have helped destroy all this without even knowing what I'm doing. I'm sorry."
"You should be," said Davis.
"Davis! I'm trying to be nice here!"
"And I'm kidding!" he replied. "What's gotten into you all of a sudden?"
"Just watching those two." She waved vaguely up at Sam and Ken. "Thinking what it would be like if I lost you the way they lost each other. I don't want that to happen. You may be a bratty little brother, but you're all I've got."
"Thanks. You're pretty tolerable, for an annoying big sister," answered Davis, grinning. "Glad you finally saw things my way."
"Yeah... These monsters are actually pretty nice, aren't they?"
"Hey, I'm not just nice, I'm awesome!" ExVeemon asserted.
Jun giggled a bit, but the look in her eyes was still distant.
"You really could get hurt when you do this, couldn't you?" she asked.
"We could. It's happened before," Davis replied, rubbing at the scar on his leg.
"Is that where you got that?" Jun asked. "I knew it couldn't really have been a motorcycle accident."
"I got on the wrong side of one of Sam's critters. They're not very friendly," Davis replied.
"Well, anyway, I was just thinking about what it would be like if something happened to you, and I just wanted you to know... well, you do know, don't you?"
"Yeah," said Davis, smiling a bit. "I feel the same way about you, Jun."
Jun looked off at the horizon, where haze had built up to the size of storm clouds, full of dark moving shapes.
"This is going to be big," she said.
Davis nodded. "You can say that again."
"I wish I had a Digimon," Jun replied. "Then I could do something to help. I don't like just sitting on the sidelines like this."
"Just believe," Davis replied. "Believe we're going to win, and we will!"
"That's easy for you to say," she replied.
"That's because I'm right," said Davis.
Jun sighed and looked at the ever-nearing clouds. "I sure hope so."
Meanwhile, Sam and Ken were also inspecting the looming dome of fog.
"Something bad is down there," Tapirmon remarked.
"Obviously," Ken replied. "We may not be psychic, but give us a little credit!"
"We won't be able to see our hands in front of our faces in all that," Stingmon commented. "How are we going to fight?"
"Oh, we'll be able to see Myotismon when he's ready to fight with us," Sam replied. "I get the impression he's a real show-off - worse than I ever was. He'll want to try to make an impression on us before he actually does anything."
"Typical," Ken sighed. "Well, I guess there's no turning back. Start taking us down, Stingmon."
"I hope you know I don't like this one bit," said Stingmon, obediently going into a slow dive.
"Neither do I," answered Ken.
There was time only to draw one last breath of clean air before they were surrounded in smothering fog. It was icy cold, permeating clothing, fur, and feathers, choking them all as they tried to breathe water vapor. Ken blinked furiously, trying to clear his vision, eyes burning with the cold. He could feel droplets building on his skin and Stingmon's carapace, and a shiver began rising from deep inside him. The cold and darkness built up until he felt they were dropping straight into the heart of a void, sure the air would freeze into ice around them, and still they dropped, until...
Thud. Stingmon came to a sudden stop, staggering a bit as ground suddenly appeared beneath his feet. All around them, muffled by the fog, he could hear other Digimon coming to a halt, and a shuffling off to his right indicated that Ankylomon was skidding to a halt, panting a bit from his long run.
"We're here, I think," said Ken, just to hear a voice in the darkness. Far from any light, there was nothing around him but dark grey. He could see nothing but Stingmon's head and shoulders and a pair of silhouettes that were Sam and Tapirmon. Their eyes glinted oddly in the semidarkness.
"Where's here?" called TK's voice.
"Well, there ought to be a forest here," answered Ken uncertainly, "but with things as they are..."
"We're close," said Tapirmon. "I feel a presence."
"What kind?" Sam asked. "Is it Myotismon?"
"It is empty," the 'mon answered. His voice quaked, and Sam stroked him; he was shivering uncontrollably. "It is... unhallowed. It is opposite of everything I am."
"That's Myotismon," Sam nodded. "Something that takes dreams and gives only nightmares..."
"Are you still harping on that?"
Everyone jumped; the voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, out of the all-pervasive fog. Then the clouds lifted, growing slowly more transparent, until a figure stepped into view, standing proudly before them with his arms crossed casually across his chest, a smirk playing across his face.
"So, you've decided to show yourself," said TK. "Not too bright of you, considering what we did to you last time."
"But that was last time," Myotismon replied. "Last time, as I recall, there were eight of you. I see only six Digidestined, most of whom are partnered to creatures who have scarcely been at the Champion level for a few hours. No Tags, no Crests, not even those silly eggs of yours, and no Gennai around to advise you. If you're wise, you'll surrender now, while you still can. I might even let you live."
"Live for what?" asked Ken. "I'd rather die than live in the kind of world you'd rule."
"Oh, would you?" Myotismon asked. "I suppose you all feel that way? Yes? Then let me grant your wish!"
There was a roar like thunder as the air was suddenly filled with rustling bat's wings, and everyone ducked as the fanged creatures swooped over their heads, filling the air with their tiny, ear-piercing shrieks. Head covered, Ken risked looking up to see what Myotismon was doing, and found him so obscured by fluttering dark shapes that he was impossible to see, but even over the rushing noise, he could hear a boom of laughter as the cloud of darkness grew larger and larger...
Suddenly, the noise stopped. The Digidestined raised their heads... raised them until they were looking high up in the air, for in the place where Myotismon had been before, there was now a huge machine-like construction unlike anything they'd seen before. It was an impossible blending of mechanic and organic, seemingly all plates of sharp-edged metal, but there were slavering mouths full of wicked teeth mounted on its shoulders, along with great umbrella wings, and it held a sharp scorpion's tail at ready. Worst of all, its face was a horrible mutation of Myotismon's, turning his coldly handsome visage into a mask of insanity.
"What is that?" asked Kari, staring in horror.
"I don't know," Ken replied. "I was hoping someone could tell me."
"Impressed?" said the monstrosity. "You should be. Foolish children, to talk rather than fight! You've only given me the chance to gather my full powers. Behold my supreme evolution - Malo Myotismon!"
"I think I liked the old look better," said Yolei.
"Oh? But you haven't seen what I can do," purred the creature. "I can give you your dreams, you know. I know the deepest desires of your heart, and I can make all of them come to life."
"That's not true," said Kari. "You don't give anyone anything but trouble."
"You don't believe me?" he asked. "Then just watch!"
And the fog rolled in, and there was nothing to be seen, nothing to be heard, nothing left but thoughts that swirled like rushing water until all sense of time and space was lost...
The sun shone down brightly on the gathered crowds, making every color shine its brightest. Davis swept a hand across his brow, wiping away the sweat that threatened to trickle into his eyes. He was panting a little from exertion - after all, he'd been playing hard all morning - but at the moment, he felt like he could go on for a few more hours. It was halftime, now, just enough time to get a swig of water from his sports bottle before hitting the field again.
The whistle sounded, calling them back into play, and Davis went jogging into position. Wait a minute - jogging? He looked down at his leg, at the place where his scar should have been. It was gone. How in the... Never mind, no time to think about it, not when a game was beginning. He was the captain of the team, after all, and he had to concentrate on the game. He stepped up to the middle of the field to prepare for the kickoff. He looked into his opponent's eyes and saw a glint of fear in them. Davis suppressed a smirk; there was nothing easier to beat than a sportsman afraid to play the game.
The whistle sounded again, and Davis shot into action, stealing the ball away easily and streaking toward the end of the field. Other players appeared before him, but he dodged around them as if they were standing still. The wind rushed by him, and he felt a surge of euphoria as he realized that it wasn't wind at all - it was just that he was moving so fast. He'd left the rest of the team behind already, but who needed them? He was nearing the goal, preparing for a kick... he scored, and the crowd went wild. He closed his eyes, grinning triumphantly as they chanted his name...
Yolei paused to admire her reflection in a window as she walked past the shop. She had to admit, she was looking particularly good today. Naturally, she looked good every day, but this was one of those days when everything seemed to be going her way. Not a single blemish appeared to mar her perfect skin; every hair was in place. She flashed a brilliant smile at herself as she continued down the street.
Suddenly, she noticed a gaggle of girls coming from the other direction, and her stomach clenched. She knew these girls; they went to her school, a grade above her, and all of them were wealthy, pretty, and popular. As far as Yolei could tell, they divided their time between shopping, cheerleading, and guy-hunting (all pastimes at which they excelled) and tormenting Yolei. They laughed at her for her hand-me-down, out-of-fashion clothes, for her oversized glasses, for her "unladylike" interests - what kind of girl would spend her time messing with computers and worrying about her grades when she could be messing with her hair and worrying about who to go on her next date with? Of course, they were quick to point out, since Yolei never had any options for dates...
"Yolei!" called one of the girls, picking up her pace. Her other followers looked up and spotted Yolei as well, and they all moved as one, swarming around her. Yolei looked around for some woodwork to fade into. None availed itself, so she put on the best smile and tried to act casual.
"Hi, Crystal," she said.
"Hi," the girl replied. "I'm so glad I ran into you! We've got this big test coming up in Trigonometry, and I just know I'll flunk if I don't get some help, and of course I thought of you. Would it be too much to ask if you'd tutor me for a few days? I know it would help me so much - you're so clever."
"Oh, um... sure!" said Yolei, startled.
"Thank you!" Crystal gushed. "You have no idea how much this means to me. By the way, I love your dress. Where did you get it?"
"Oh, this?" Yolei glanced down and realized that she really didn't know where it had come from. It was unfamiliar, and definitely better than anything she'd have gotten from her sisters. "I've had it for ages. I really can't remember."
"It looks so good on you," another girl gushed. "It's just right with your eyes. I wish I had your fashion sense."
The girls murmured to themselves, sounding like complimentary bees, and Yolei glowed, enjoying the praise. Funny how they should make such a sudden turnaround... but why shouldn't they? It was about time she got some appreciation.
"We were just on our way to the mall," one of them commented. "You wouldn't want to come along, would you?"
"I'd love to," Yolei replied, "but I don't have any..."
She trailed off. She normally avoided malls - she didn't make a whole lot, working part-time at her parents' store, but she had slipped her hand into her pocket and encountered what had felt suspiciously like a roll of bills. Where had that come from? Did it really matter.
"I mean - yes, I'd love to."
The girls gave a squeal of glee, drawing her into their circle, and she went along, smiling, basking in the warmth of their welcome...
Clouds scudded through the sky, far below Ken's feet. He stood at the peak of a mountain, looking down on the sunlit hills and valleys of the Digital World. Even from this height, every detail was clear to him: the crystal streams, the waving fields of grass, trees heavy with sweet fruit and flowers, and all Digimon at peace with one another. The Viruses were gone, vanished, destroyed by his own power. There was none here who could challenge the power of the Paladin, nor any who would want to. It was he and he alone who had made this world into a Utopia, where there would never be any danger or need. A breeze rushed by, ruffling his hair and tossing his cloak until it fluttered like wings behind him. Smiling, he turned away from the panorama of his world, dotted with the crystalline towers that kept all his creatures in line, and looked up at the palace he'd created for himself. Here at last was a home worthy of his power and talents... and with a palace to go with his absolute power, why not add a change of name? Why call himself the Paladin when there was nothing left to battle? He was a ruler now, and he fancied a new title, something along the lines of "king," or better yet, "emperor." Yes, he liked the sound of that: the Digimon Emperor...
Music echoed through the air, and TK hummed along happily. He'd always rather liked this song - it had been a bestseller for months, with everyone humming with it as it played on the radio. This was just a recording, blared over the speakers to keep the audience happy until the show started, but very soon, they'd be hearing it performed live. He glanced in the mirror, straightening his jacket and running a comb through his shining blonde hair, enjoying the exhilaration of opening night.
Just then, there was a knock on the dressing room door, and he turned around, curious. He went to open it a crack, peering out into the hallway, and was not surprised to find a handful of giggling girls, each of them clutching notebooks and pens. He grinned and opened the door wide.
"Hi, there!" he greeted. "Can I help you?"
"It's him!" someone squealed, and instantly, he was surrounded by chattering fans.
"One at a time!" he laughed, accepting the notepad that was thrust into his hand. He signed his name with a flourish, grinning at the girl who had handed it to him and getting a blush in return. She was strikingly pretty, he noted. Maybe he'd have to look her up later. After all, that was one of the privileges that came from being so popular and talented. Then again, there wasn't anyone in this particular bevy of admirers that wasn't at least attractive. He wondered, as he often had in the last few months, if he shouldn't point at least one of them in Matt's direction. There weren't many people who realized that he even had a brother these days...
Somewhere in the distance, a tiny waterfall trickled into a small pool, where red and white fish swum lazily past the fragrant water lilies. Blended in with the sound were the liquid notes of birds, calling to each other from the canopy of trees. The air was heavy with the scent of the flowers that bloomed in neat rectangular beds. The grass was clipped precisely; each bend in the road and each carefully sculpted bush had been made with mathematical exactness. At the center of it all, a boy sat in the Lotus position, perched on a smooth stone. He breathed deeply, taking in the place's drowsy calm. He didn't know how he'd come to be there, but he didn't really care, because he didn't really want to leave. Nothing bad would ever happen here. Nothing would ever go wrong, because here, at last, was absolute order...
Kari looked out over the ocean. It seemed to be full of black water, rising and falling like the sighs of a living thing, and the sky was a hazy grey. It was a dark and unfamiliar world, yet somehow, Kari felt absolutely confident. Walking proudly, she started to make her way along the beach.
Behind her, she heard a rustling, and she turned around. Rising up out of the water were the most disgusting creatures she had ever seen, humanoids with slimy, rotten-looking black skin, bulging eyes, and mouthfuls of misshapen teeth. They began tottering towards her, giggling and drooling, reaching out their flaccid hands to paw at her. She felt one brush up against her, leaving a trail of slime across her arm, but she did not recoil. There didn't seem to be any room in her for fright. Instead, anger boiled up in her - how dare these creatures try to bother her, the Child of Light?
"Get away from me!" she snapped. "Go back to where you came from!"
She raised her hand, and a wave of pink-white light flared from it, forcing the creatures to reel away in horror. They gibbered and shrieked, trying to hide themselves, but it was too late for them. The light seared their skin, burning them to ash. She watched the grey dust as it floated down onto the dark waters and rolled out to sea, feeling a strange sensation come over her.
*I didn't know I could do that,* she thought, staring down at her hands. *Do I have that much power over the darkness?*
She looked out to sea again. Somewhere in the distance, there was a rocky outcropping, too small to be called an island, and on that rock, she could make out the shapes of the people who had been protecting her all her life - Tai, TK, her parents, clinging to the rock, dripping with cold water, frightened and powerless. Kari made an impatient gesture at the water, and it obediently rolled away, leaving a long stretch of dry land. She watched it go, watched the clouds part and give way to sunlight, watched tiny flowers and blades of grass spring up from the barren sand. For once, the Darkness had no power over her - quite the opposite. For once, she had more power than anyone, and she would never need protection again...
Sam ambled down the street, looking around with a dazed expression. He had a vague notion he'd been somewhere else a minute ago, and he couldn't quite remember how he'd wound up here. Oh, well, something must have been on his mind - it was funny how you could wander around without realizing where you were going when you were thinking about something. He couldn't possibly have gotten too far from home; he'd just ask for directions.
"Excuse me," he called to the nearest passerby. "I need a little help..."
The man he'd called to turned to him with a startled expression.
"Hey, who do you think you are?" he asked.
"I - I'm Sam Ichijouji," he replied, taken aback. He wasn't used to people not knowing his name.
"Never heard of you," the man snapped. "Get out of my way, I'm late for work."
Taken aback, Sam obediently got out of the way and let the man go past. He stared - how could anyone have not heard of him? He'd appeared in the newspapers and even on TV on a regular basis. Could the man simply be ignorant? No, he was carrying a newspaper under his arm - if he ever read the things at all, he'd have to know Sam's name. Confused, Sam began to walk.
He didn't know how he ended up there, but he suddenly rounded a corner and ended up standing in front of his school. He wandered up the front steps and into the building, passing by one of his teachers on the way. She turned to give him a hard stare.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I... I just wanted to use the library," he said.
"Well, you'll have to go to the public one," the teacher replied. "This library is for students only."
"But - but I am a student! Don't you recognize me?" Sam asked.
"You're no student of mine," she replied. "I've never seen you before in my life... Hey, where are you going? You can't go in there!"
Sam wasn't listening. He was sprinting past her, barging into the office. Ignoring the outraged shouts of office staff members, he made a dive for one of the file cabinets, searching rapidly through the "I" file of student records. It was just as he'd suspected: his name wasn't there.
Suddenly, he felt a lightness come over him as he realized the truth - that somehow, the world had forgotten he even existed. He was completely, totally free - no more pressure, no more impossible ideals to live up to, no guilty secrets to atone for. He was starting over with a clean slate. He laughed aloud as he darted out of the room, not even listening to the shouts of the people he was leaving behind, caring only for the feel of fresh air and sunshine as he burst out the front doors, enjoying his first ever taste of total freedom...
Jun crouched, forgotten, in a shadow, glad for once that she was being ignored. She wasn't sure what this Malo Myotismon creature had done to her friends, but she didn't like the look of it at all. They were all standing as if frozen, staring off into nowhere with foolish smiles on their faces. Their Digimon hovered around them, calling to them, but none of them even noticed when they were prodded hard enough to hurt. The metal monstrosity loomed over all of them, watching as if this was all very entertaining, but any moment, he might decide he was bored with this game, and when he was bored with the Digidestined, he wouldn't need to keep them alive anymore.
*What am I going to do?* she wondered, feeling panic welling up inside her. *I can't wake them up, and there's nothing I can do to fight that horrible thing. I don't even have a Digimon partner like the rest of them do. What can I possibly do?*
Believe, said Davis's voice in her mind. Believe we're going to win, and we will!
Believe? At the moment, it seemed hard to believe anything except that her friends were about to be eaten by a metal-plated mess, but if that was the only advice she had to go on... well, it couldn't hurt. She closed her eyes, forcing herself to blot out the darkness, the cold, the looming presence that sneered down at her unmoving friends.
*We're not going to die,* she told herself sternly. *We have too much to live for. We have to survive, so Sam and Ken can be friends again, and so I can be with Sam, and with my brother, and so he can be with all his friends, and everyone can be with their Digimon. We're going to explore this world together, and we're going to do it without that Myotismon messing everything up. We're going to win, we're going to win, we're going to win...*
Malo Myotismon frowned suddenly, staring around into the shadows.
"Who's there?" he rumbled. "Who's doing that?"
"What? Does this bother you?" Jun shouted back. Half of her was screaming at her to keep her mouth shut, to stay hidden, but there was still the memory of a voice ringing in her head, telling her to believe, and real belief didn't have room for fear.
"You," he snarled, narrowing his eyes. "I thought I'd dealt with you. What are you doing here?"
"I'm here for my friends," she replied. "I don't know what you're doing to them, but you're not going to get away with it. They've come too far to be stopped by the likes of you."
"They've already been stopped," he said, but there was an undertone of uncertainty in his voice. "Even now, they wander in dreams, completely cut off from each other. They've forgotten the others even exist!"
Jun gave a snort of derisive laughter. "Do you think I believe that? I've only been with these people a few minutes, and I already know more than you do about them. You can't separate them. I know people, and I've never seen anyone with tighter bonds to each other than these people here. You can't break their bonds with each other. They care about each other too much... and I care too much about them to let you take them away."
Daisuke listened to the echoing cheers of the crowd, his hands raised in triumph, eyes closed as he savored his victory... but something was wrong. He opened his eyes again and looked around, scanning the stands. All around him, he saw faces, but not a single one he knew. Where were his friends? Where was his family? Looking around, he realized that he didn't even recognize the faces of his teammates. He was completely alone. That felt wrong. With a sudden flash of understanding, he realized what he was missing: no matter how alone a Digidestined was, he should never be without his partner. Where was Veemon?
"What am I doing out here?" he wondered. "I'm not supposed to be here showing off! I'm supposed to be saving the Digital World! What was I thinking?"
The crowd was still cheering, but it was nothing but a discordant noise, unpleasant and almost painful on his ears. All this attention, but no real companionship. The stadium, for all its crowds, looked strangely empty.
"This isn't what I want," said Daisuke.
Yolei laughed, swinging her shopping bags carelessly as she ambled down the walkways in the mall, escorted by her newfound friends. As they passed through one of the courtyards, her eye fell upon a small group of young men. She knew them from her school, too, and had spent her share of time watching each of them carefully. They were all older than her, athletic and attractive, and they were always accompanied by at least one female. The girl in question seemed to change once a month, but Yolei had never dared to hope that she might have such good luck... until now.
"Hi!" she called, waving at them. She watched smugly as their expressions lit up.
"Hi, Yolei," one of them called. He was the best of the lot, blue-eyed, sandy-haired, and spectacularly built. "I was hoping to run into you here."
"You were?" she replied.
"Yeah," he said, blushing a bit. "You know, there's a dance coming up in a few weeks, and I still haven't got a date yet. I was wondering, if someone hadn't already asked you, if you'd come with me. If you've already got someone, I'll understand, but I was really hoping..."
"I'd be glad to," she said, beaming.
"Really?" The young man looked as if all his dreams had come true. "That's fantastic! Say, are you free tonight? It would be nice if we could get to know each other a little better beforehand, and there's a good movie playing tonight."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea," she said.
He smiled warmly at her, and she didn't object at all as he slid his arm around her waist. The envious mutters that arose around her were almost too sweet to bear... and yet...
*Why do I feel like something's not right here?*
She tried to force the thought out of her mind, closing her eyes and snuggling closer to her catch... but a pair of eyes flashed across her memory, piercing amethyst orbs that burned into her mind, melting any other thoughts away. They seemed so familiar...
*Ken!* she realized. *That's what's wrong - I'm supposed to be with Ken... and with my partner Digimon, and all the other Digidestined! What's wrong is that I know what real love and friendship are like, and this isn't it!*
She leaped away, dropping her shopping bags, glaring at the people who'd been staring at her.
"Yolei, what's wrong?" asked the boy, looking hurt.
Yolei stared at him, and then beyond him at the fluttering airheads whose company she'd thought she'd been enjoying. It seemed so shallow and pointless now.
"This isn't what I want," she said.
The Emperor reclined on his throne, looking out the window. The palace was quiet - deadly quiet. Not a single thing stirred within its walls save the one who ruled it.
*It's so lonely here,* he thought. *Why is that? I thought I was supposed to have friends here. That's why I came here after Sam drove me away...*
His eyes roved again around the palace, and he suddenly wondered what in the world he was doing inside this block of stone. This wasn't his home! His home had always been with the Digimon who cared about him, with Wormmon... and where was Wormmon, anyway? How could he have ever allowed himself to be so foolish as to let himself be separated from his partner? And what about the Digidestined? For the first time in his life, didn't he have real human friends? What about his family? He was sure he remembered, now, that he'd made a promise to his father that he was going to go back to his home, his real home, and he was going to bring Sam with him. He was sure he remembered making up with Sam. He'd come so close to making his dream come true. What was he doing here now? Looking around now, he realized how much the palace looked like a prison, and realization began to dawn on him.
"This is all wrong," he said aloud. "This isn't what I want!"
TK escaped into his dressing room, slamming the door behind him, panting a bit. He'd had a narrow escape, and his clothes bore witness to that. His jacket had been stolen somewhere along the line, and he'd dimly seen a few screaming fans tearing it apart like lions fighting over a kill. His shirt was in tatters, and he had lost a shoe. Why had he ever thought he wanted any of this? It was enough to drive anyone crazy.
"I don't know how Matt stands this," he muttered. "Wait a minute, what am I saying? He never did any of this... did he? I was sure I remembered something about him being a rock star. I remember watching him, thinking that just once, I'd like to be the one everyone admired... But that's stupid! I'm a Digidestined! That's the most important thing in the world to me. Why would I want to be some rock star that everyone's going to forget next month?"
Then he paused, letting the truth of his words hit home, answering his own question.
"I don't," he said. "This isn't what I want."
The peace of Cody's garden was being disturbed, and he looked up in annoyance. Somewhere, out in that distant outer world, someone was raising a commotion, spoiling his concentration, destroying the illusion of serenity that had hovered around him.
*Illusion?* Cody wondered. *Where did that idea come from? Of course it's peaceful here. It's just what's going on outside that had all the problems. I wish it would all go away and leave me alone.*
But despite his wishes, the noise seemed to be growing louder, and Cody couldn't help but look up, trying to find the source of the noise. It was resolving itself into voices, now, voices that sounded vaguely familiar. They brought names to his mind: Davis, Yolei, Ken, all his Digidestined friends. They sounded frightened, angry... they needed his help. Another voice, a low rumble like a mountain given a voice, kept calling his name, begging him to come back. And wasn't that the voice of Sam? And Davis's sister was there, too, trying to rally the others. And over it all, there was a deep, booming voice that made Cody's skin crawl from the pure darkness of it. They were all there, but so far away...
"I've got to help them!" Cody realized, leaping to his feet. "I can't be hiding in here when there's work to be done! I should have known - there's no real peace anywhere when there's still evil lurking somewhere. Hang on, guys! I'm coming!"
He sprinted down the path, but the smooth sand seemed to be hiding treacherous rocks; the bushes that had seemed so neatly trimmed were reaching out branches to trap him, and the peaceful ponds had turned to bogs that sucked at his feet, trying to drag him under. He struggled against them, trying desperately to escape.
"Let me go!" he screamed, clawing at the clinging branches. "This isn't what I want!"
Kari stood amazed at the world she had created by her own hands. Slowly, she began walking out across the waves of grass and flowers that had only moments ago been an ocean of dark water, making her way toward the rock where she'd seen her family and friends. Even as she approached, one of the figures came climbing down to greet her. It was her brother, still looking cool and casual in his school uniform, smiling gently at her. She was puzzled to see a trace of sadness in his eyes.
"Kari," he said. "You rescued us."
"I did," she replied. "Aren't you happy?"
"Yeah, I guess I am," he said. "It's nice to know you can take care of yourself. I guess I don't have to worry about you anymore."
"You worried about me?" she asked. It seemed strange - why should anyone need to worry about her when she had such power?
"Well, of course I did!" Tai replied. "You're my little sister, aren't you? I worry because I love you. We all love you, don't you know that? We always wanted to be here for you... but it looks like you don't need us anymore."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"You can take care of yourself, can't you?" he replied. "You don't need anyone, anymore. Certainly not anyone as weak as us. You'll be better off on your own." He turned and began to walk away. "I'm going to miss you, Kari."
"Then don't leave me!" she shouted.
"No, don't feel sorry for me," answered Tai. "This is what you wanted, isn't it? To be so brave and strong that you'd never need to rely on anyone else? Don't let me spoil your dream for you."
"Tai, wait!" Kari protested, and she was startled to feel tears spilling down her cheeks. How could he leave her? He'd been there for her all her life. She needed him, needed all of her friends, needed her Digimon partner. This was crazy! She needed all of them, because they were a team. They were all meant to protect each other. Where had this false dream come from?
"Tai, come back, please," she begged. "This is wrong! This isn't what I want!"
Sam walked the streets of his city, enjoying his anonymity. It was wonderful to be able to mover around so invisibly, never having anyone even notice he was there. He didn't even have to go to school if he didn't feel like it! After all, nobody could make him go anywhere if they didn't even know he was alive. Maybe now was the time to strike out on a real adventure. He had plenty laid by in his bank account - he could withdraw that and go anywhere he wanted. Of course, first he'd have to go home and get some supplies...
He stopped short. Home? What was he thinking? He didn't have a home now! If he went to the place his parents lived, they wouldn't recognize him any more than anyone else did, and of course he wouldn't have a bank account. He didn't have anything right now, not even a friend he could call on to give him a place to sleep.
"This is ridiculous!" he said. "My dream was to make up with Ken and my parents, so we could be a family again! I want to earn Jun's forgiveness, and get to know all the Digidestined. I want real friends and a normal life. I don't want to be forgotten, I want to be forgiven! This isn't what I want!"
Jun stared in amazement. One minute, she'd felt certain that she'd pushed Malo Myotismon too far, and that she was about to die rather messily. In the next instant, there was a rush like a spring breeze, sweet and cleansing. In the next moment, the field was full of noise and activity, and Malo Myotismon was thoroughly distracted.
"Davis!" ExVeemon exclaimed, as his partner suddenly ran up and hugged him around the leg.
"Hey, there!" Davis shouted back. "Man, it's good to see you! For a minute there, I thought I'd lost you!"
Yolei dashed up and threw herself at Ken, who stared at her in surprise.
"What's gotten into you?" he asked.
"Just glad to see you," she said. "You wouldn't believe how confused I got for a minute there."
"I think I might. I've been thinking some weird things, myself," he replied. "For a little while, I had this notion I was an emperor, and there were all these glassy things, like dark spires..."
"There you guys are!" Cody called. "I thought I wasn't going to be able to reach you!"
"I thought you were leaving me," said Kari.
"I thought I'd left everyone," Sam added.
"I'm glad I got away from that!" TK was telling Angemon.
"Guys, you're okay!" Jun squealed. She tried to hug everyone at once, failed, and didn't care. Most of them, overcome by relief, were trying to do the same thing.
"What just happened?" asked Davis.
"We must have been dreaming," answered Yolei thoughtfully. "Just like that monster said - I'd always dreamed of being pretty and popular, and then suddenly it was like I was... but it was all wrong..."
"It's just like Tapirmon was saying," said Sam, who was busy trying to comfort his partner. "We've run up against the lord of nightmares."
"Lord of Nightmares?" Daisuke muttered. "I thought that was some other anime..."
"So, how'd we wake up?" asked Ken.
"I... I think that might have been me," said Jun shyly.
"Huh?" Davis shot a look at his sister. "How?"
"Just what you said," she replied. "I started thinking hard, making myself believe you would come out all right, and that monster thing started looking scared. He didn't like it at all, and when I realized it was working, then I really started believing, and next thing I knew, you were all awake."
"So," said Sam, smiling grimly. "The only way to fight bad dreams is with good ones... he doesn't like that we've beaten his little brain games, does he?"
Everyone turned to look at Malo Myotismon, realizing suddenly that he'd been suspiciously quiet all this time. Sam was right; he didn't look like he was liking the fact that the Digidestined had pulled themselves together. The expression on his face was pained, and he seemed to be gasping for air.
"Are you as weak as all that?" Davis taunted. "You're not so tough, if that's all you can do."
"You are fools," Malo Myotismon snarled. "You should have stayed in your dreams. You could have had everything you wanted, forever..."
"You're wrong," said Ken. "What we want, you can't give us. Things like love and friendship are outside your power, and that's what we really want."
"Is that so?" the monster sneered. "Then perhaps I should go for a more direct approach. You can't have your dreams if I crush your bodies!"
He whipped his tail around, it's sharp sting glittering with its own light, and the Digimon leaped in to defend their partners.
"Hit the decks!" TK advised, making a dash for the scant shelter of some rocks. "This is gonna get really ugly!"
Everyone did as they were told - after all, there wasn't much choice. They crouched there, huddled together, all of them staring out at the battle going on before their eyes. The angels flitted around over the battlefield, firing off blasts of light that burst against Malo Myotismon's armor. Ankylomon battered against the creature's legs, while ExVeemon and Aquilamon stood back and shot blasts of energy anywhere they saw an opening. Stingmon put his phenomenal speed to work, zipping around in a green blur and jabbing at anything resembling a weak spot. Even Tapirmon was trying to fight, spitting out wisps of pearly mist that went to hover around the enemy's head.
"What's he doing?" Sam asked Ken.
"I think he's throwing dreams - good dreams - at Malo Myotismon. But he shouldn't do that! It's not good for him. He gets his life from those dreams!"
"You mean he's trying to kill himself just to get rid of that monster?" asked Sam, lookign horrified. "I've gotta stop him!"
"But it's the only thing that's doing any good!" Kari pointed out.
It was true. Malo Myotismon didn't seem to even notice the other attacks, but the bright wisps of light were making him cringe away, slowly deepening the look of pain on his face.
"That doesn't matter! Tapirmon's just not strong enough to take on something that big!"
Before anyone could stop him, Sam sprinted out onto the battlefield and tackled Tapirmon.
"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded, trying to hold on to the wiggling 'mon. "You're going to get yourself hurt!"
"Let me go! Let me go!" Tapirmon yelped.
"No! I've just found you, and I'm not losing you now!"
The argument was interrupted by a booming laugh, and they looked up just in time to see Malo Myotismon give a flip of his wings, spreading brilliant crimson light over the landscaped. For a moment, everyone was blinded. Then the light cleared, revealing a heart-wrenching sight: the ground was strewn with small, limp bundles - six Rookie Digimon, moaning on the hard ground. The Digidestined got up to sprint to the sides of their partners.
"Hawkmon! Are you okay?"
"Veemon, say something!"
"Salamon! Come on, Salamon, wake up!"
"Wormmon! No, please, please be all right..."
"Speak to me, Armadillomon!"
"Patamon! Oh, no, not again..."
Malo Myotismon's laugh rang out over the destruction. "You see? You should have known it was pointless to try to face me! Now you'll see the true extent of my powers! This word and your world will be plunged into unending darkness, and I shall rule supreme!"
He threw his head back, raising his arms to the sky, and the Digidestined looked up to watch as the stars seemed to wink out one by one, blotted out by a shadow that was unlike anything they'd ever seen, a living, pulsing, jet-black mass. All the light around them seemed to vanish, leaving only vague silhouettes and the gleaming metal form of Malo Myotismon. Sam gave a moan.
"No! No, please, no... This can't be happening!"
"What? Did you think your pathetic little friends would win just because you were with them?" Malo Myotismon sneered. "It's time for you to realize you're not as clever as you think you are."
"I know that," said Sam grimly. He sighed. "I shouldn't have stopped you, should I, Tapirmon?"
The 'mon licked his fingers to assure him everything was okay, but Sam could feel his partner's weakness. A hand came down on his shoulder.
"You did the right thing," said Ken.
"You mean, for once in my life?" Sam replied.
"I mean you did the right thing a minute ago, when you came to save your partner. It's the kind of thing a real Digidestined would do."
"Well, it's not going to do us very much good now, is it?" asked Sam.
"That's right, despair!" Malo Myotismon said. "Foolish boy, don't you know you're no Digidestined? You're helping me even now! You've never lived a day in your life that wasn't ruled by fear, and from that your fear comes my power. Just by being what you are, you've given me new life, and because of you, this world is going to be destroyed!"
"No? How can you say that? I've already won!"
"No, you're wrong," said Sam. "I'm not afraid anymore. My fears are gone. Now all I've got are dreams. Maybe my Tapirmon can't fight you anymore, but I can. I have dreams, and I'm not letting you take them away from me."
"What kind of dreams could you possibly have?" asked Malo Myotismon. "I know your heart - you're selfish all the way to the bone."
"My dreams are to undo the harm I've done," said Sam. "There's nothing selfish in that. My dream is to have my brother back again, and to live with my family and have a normal life. My dream is to have friends like the Digidestined, and to be a real friend to them. And I dream about love, about sharing my life with someone who means more to me than life itself."
"And those are my dreams, too," said Ken. "It seems like we share the same heart after all, Sam."
Sam felt a smile come out of somewhere, even though there were suddenly tears in his eyes. "Too bad we figured it out too late."
He reached up his hand to take Ken's, intending to get up and meet the end standing proudly... but as their fingers touched, a golden light flared, dazzling them, and Malo Myotismon screamed.
"What is it?" asked Sam, staring.
"It's a Digimental," breathed Ken in awe. "I always thought it would take a miracle to bring us together. Instead it took us coming together to bring us a miracle! This is the lost Digimental of Miracles!"
"This is your Digimental?" asked Sam.
Ken shook his head. "It's ours... Let's put it to good use!"
He tossed the egg into the air, and it hovered there, shedding a golden glow over everything.
"Everyone concentrate on that egg!" Ken shouted. "If we can shut down a Gate, we can shut down this monster!"
"No!" bellowed Malo Myotismon. "Get that thing away from me!"
But it was no use; he seemed to be rooted to the spot. Ken and Sam stood glaring at him, hand in hand, looking suddenly a great deal like a stone wall. The others came out, one by one, to join them, Jun slipping her hand into Sam's, and Davis taking hers, and Kari taking his, and so on until they were connected in a circle, all of them looking up at the golden light. Their thoughts seemed to resonate, each perfectly in tune with the other's.
*We are going to win. Together we'll destroy this evil, because that has always been our dream!*
Malo Myotismon's bellowing rose into an earsplitting shriek of pure agony, and the golden light pulsed brighter and brighter, blotting out everything else, until, with one last, wrenching scream...
The light went out - but not entirely. The Digidestined and their friends were standing in a circle on a heap of broken slag, a pile of rock that stood in the middle of a pine forest. The sun beamed down cheerfully on them. The Digimental of Miracles was gone. So was Myotismon. For a moment, they stood in silence, staring.
"Yahoo!" whooped Davis, breaking the circle to run around in wild jubilation. "We did it, we did it, we did it!" He scooped Veemon up and whirled him around in a victory dance. A few of the onlookers began to giggle, and then laugh aloud as it hit them that Davis was right, and they had won. A spontaneous celebration broke out, with Digidestined hugging their partners, their siblings, their friends, and anyone else who came in range.
"Mind if I join the party?" inquired a voice.
Everyone looked up to see a swirl of pearly lights settling before them, and out of the light stepped Gennai, grinning jauntily.
"Who's that?" asked Jun, looking appreciative. Sam shot her a look, and Ken sighed and shook his head.
"You all have done remarkably well," said Gennai. "Better than I expected, even."
"You didn't think we were going to win?" asked Cody, scowling at him.
"I didn't say that!" Gennai protested. "I was just surprised at how well you pulled it off - all of you," he added, nodding to Sam and Jun. "Anyone would be impressed by the way you pulled together. If it hadn't been for your confidence in each other, you never would have been able to defeat Malo Myotismon."
"He is gone, isn't he?" asked Kari. "For good this time?"
"He's gone," Gennai replied, "returned to the Primordial Databank, for now."
"So he might come back?" asked Ken, frowning.
"Someday, years or centuries from now, but it will take him a very long time to achieve the kind of power you saw today again. Still, that's one of the reasons this place is going to require some kind of guardian."
"One of the reasons?" asked TK.
"Well, there is the small matter of a Gate," Gennai answered.
"The one I made?" asked Sam. "Won't it close?"
"I'm afraid not. The powers of the Digimental eggs have been used up," said Gennai. "The Digital World has been unseated by what was done to it; when it resettles, it will include the Gate as part of its structure. It will be as if it was always there. People from your world may be able to find it, and creatures from this world may seek to escape into your world. Someone will have to keep an eye on it, to make sure only those worthy can cross over. We'll need a guardian or two... and who better than the Ichijouji brothers?"
Ken and Sam both blushed, and Sam bowed his head.
"I'm not worthy," he answered.
"Not so," answered Gennai. "You proved yourself in your battle against Myotismon. Now, properly equipped, now, that might be a problem..."
He folded his hands for a moment, and when he opened them, he was holding a Digivice. He tossed it to Sam, who stared at it, wide-eyed.
"For me?" he asked. "But..."
"It's about time you got what you wanted," said Gennai. "I can't think of anyone who'll respect its use more. Besides, it'll help you take care of your Tapirmon."
"Hey, what about my sister?" Davis called. "Jun helped out too! If she hadn't been there, we might still be stuck in Myotismon's stupid dreams!"
Jun flushed. "It wasn't anything big..."
Gennai frowned a bit, thinking. Then he shrugged.
"Oh, why not?" he said. "Eight was always a good number for Digidestined - it worked last time, didn't it? Here."
He folded his hands again, this time producing a second Digivice, and a round white egg with blue polka-dots, which he offered to Jun.
"What's this?" she asked.
"It's a DigiEgg," he replied. "Take good care of it."
"I will," said Jun, blushing a brilliant pink. Davis nudged Sam with his elbow.
"You'd better keep an eye on her," he said. "I think she likes him."
"And that should take care of everything, shouldn't it?" finished Gennai. "You've all done an excellent job today. You should all be very proud of yourselves." He glanced up at the sky. "I think it's time for you all to go home now. I know of a couple of parents who are wondering where their children have gotten off to."
"You're right," said Ken. "I did sort of make a promise."
"And Paladins should keep their promises." He pointed at a space just beyond them, producing another swirl of opalescent lights. "That will return you to your own world. Thank you all, Digidestined."
The children waved goodbye to their friend, and then turned toward the portal and their own world, vanishing one by one in swirls of light.
The house was very quiet. Mr. Ichijouji sat in his living room, pretending to read a paper, but his eyes only brushed over the words without registering meaning. His wife had come home from the hospital that morning, but the reunion was less than joyful. She should have been coming home to a home with two children in it, not this empty, silent apartment. He watched, out of the corner of his eye, as she puttered around in the kitchen. He had asked her not to make any meals tonight, to take it easy. Now he didn't have the heart to point out to her that Sam wasn't going to be there in the morning to take that lunch he was packing to school. She was going to have to face it eventually, but for now, he could hardly take it himself. All he had to comfort him was a memory that might have been just a dream, a vision of a promise...
Suddenly, he raised his head. He could hear the sound of voices coming up the hall, children's voices, by the sound of it. It sounded a lot as if someone was having a party out there - voices were raised to high-pitched excitement, and laughter was an almost constant background. As they drew closer, the voices became distinct enough that he could hear what they were saying, and even Mrs. Ichijouji came out of her daze to listen.
"...think it's going to hatch?" asked a vaguely familiar voice.
"As far as I know, sometime within the next few minutes or the next few days. They don't stay as eggs for very long," answered a male voice knowledgeably.
"I bet it's going to be cute!" a female enthused. "You're so lucky! You're getting the best friend in the world."
"So, Ken," said another voice, another girl's, "I've never met your parents. Are the nice?"
"I really couldn't say. It's been so long since I've seen them... but I remember them being nice."
"They're nice," said another vaguely familiar voice, a boy's this time. "When I went to visit Sam, I met his mom. She was pretty nice to me until I busted Sam's computer... You aren't still mad at me about that, are you?"
"Davis, not only am I not mad at you for breaking it, I wouldn't care if you pushed the whole thing out the window!"
"Can I really? Cool!"
Mr. and Mrs. Ichijouji stared at each other for a moment, disbelief written on their faces. Then they rushed toward the door and out into the hall. Coming up from the other direction was a surprising group: eight children and seven assorted small animals, all of them chattering excitedly. Then the group caught sight of the Ichijoujis, and they stopped short. For a moment, they all looked at each other. Then two violet-eyed, blue-haired boys separated themselves from the crowd and flung themselves at their parents.
"Mom! Dad!" they shouted, hugging them tightly.
"Sam?" asked Mrs. Ichijouji timidly. "And... Ken? Can it really be you?"
"It's me, Mama," he answered, looking up at her with tears standing in his eyes. "Don't you recognize me?"
"It's really him," said Sam. "Believe me, I know."
She looked back at the boy who was gazing up at her, and she slowly smiled.
"It is you," she said quietly. "I can hardly believe it... my little boy's come back..."
"Not so little anymore," said Sam. "He's grown up quite a bit... no thanks to me."
Mr. Ichijouji was staring at Ken.
"I saw you!" he exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell me it was you?"
"I wanted to, Dad," he answered. "It just wasn't time. I still had things I needed to finish... but it's okay now. I'm back to stay."
"And so am I," Sam replied.
"Where on earth have you been all this time?" asked Mr. Ichijuoji, looking from one son to the other in confusion. "How could you leave? We were so worried - we thought you were dead!"
"Long story," said Sam. "Long, ugly story... but I guess I'd better tell it. You aren't going to believe it, but..."
"Hey, they'll believe it!" said Davis. "We have the Digimon as proof, don't we? And no going all gloomy just when the party's getting started! We'll all tell the story!"
"Digimon?" asked Mrs. Ichijouji. She stared, as if just noticing the collection of talking animals. "What on earth...?"
"Not on earth," Ken corrected. He held up his partner for her inspection. "Mom, this is Wormmon, my partner Digimon. He's from another world. He's been taking care of me all this time."
"This is your mother, Ken?" asked Wormmon. "I like her. She looks nice."
"Digimon," said Mr. Ichijouji. "I've heard that word. Someone told me a story about something that happened three years ago, about eight children with partner monsters... Do all of you...?"
"Well, not quite all of us," said TK matter-of-factly.
"Mine hasn't hatched yet," Jun replied. She smiled and stroked the egg fondly. "It will, soon, though. I can hardly wait! Hey, Sam, you'll be a godfather then!"
"Hey, Ken!" said Davis. "I just thought of something! If your brother marries my sister, will that make us brothers? Then you'll go from having no brothers to two! That'd be cool! ... On the other hand, I might end up with Yolei as a sister-in-law," he added, making a face.
"Watch it, smart-mouth!" Yolei snapped.
Just then, the egg, which Jun had been absently running her fingers over, split open in a burst of smoke, leaving her suddenly holding a tiny blue puffball with a miniature beak, a diminutive crest of feathers, and shiny black shoe-button eyes.
"Hi!" it chirped. "Are we having a party? Am I invited?"
"I think this is going to require a lot of explaining," said Mr. Ichjijouji. "Everyone come inside, please! I want to hear this story of yours."
So they all filed in, babbling happily, listening to Davis and Yolei trade insults, exclaiming over
Jun's new partner, hearing Sam begin, "Well, it all started with a computer game, and this thing called a
Digivice..." Ken smiled, feeling a sensation unlike anything he'd ever felt before washing over him. For a
moment, he couldn't quite find the name for it. Then he recognized it for what it was: real, undiluted joy,
the first he'd ever tasted. Here, surrounded by his family, his friends, all the people he loved most, he
had finally come home.