WARNING: This is for Cynthia's REALLY weird couples contest. That means there's some really weird stuff going on. More specifically, that means the guys chase the guys, the girls chase the girls, and the humans and Digimon chase each other. If you can't handle that, please don't read any further, and please don't flame me. I'm fully aware that I'm dodging around the limits of common sense, and I don't really care, so it won't do either of us any good for you to fuss at me. Are we clear? Good. Anyone who's still reading, enjoy!
The Digital World didn't seem to realize that summer was over. Back in the real world, the temperature was gradually but irresistibly cooler, and every breath of wind told the citizens of Tokyo that fall was getting settled in for a long stay. A few of the more sensitive trees had already begun to drop their leaves in preparation for their yearly sleep. However, all that was a world away, and Kari was in a day with all the warmth and softness of early spring. The trees were a brilliant green, some of them still filled with blossoms, the grass was like velvet, and flowers filled the air with fragrance. The young Digidestined of Light leaned back on the side of a hill, bathing in the golden sunshine.
"I wish we didn't have to fight today," she sighed. "It would be so nice if we could just stay here and relax. It's so nice here."
"Only until we finish lunch," said TK, ever practical. "We have a lot of Control Spires to destroy today. If we give Ken any time at all, he'll just build us a bunch of new ones."
"Well, I like it here," said Daisuke. He always liked everything Kari liked... whether he actually liked it or not. "I wouldn't mind hanging out a while."
"Eat while you're hanging out," Iori suggested. "Lunch is ready!"
"Sounds like a great idea to me!" Armadillomon agreed. He made a dive for the food his partner had been setting out, and the other Digimon followed his example.
"Hey, save some for us!" Miyako shouted, trying to wade through the melee.
"First come, first served!" said Veemon, absconding with a sandwich and a can of cola.
TK laughed. "These guys act like we haven't fed them in a week!"
Kari nodded absently and watched the chaos. She wasn't really hungry; she felt like she could just live off of the sweet air and sunshine, like a flower, so she let her friends wrestle the Digimon for their lunch. Idly, she noted that Daisuke didn't seem that interested in lunch, either, and was roaming around the landscape as if bored with the whole thing. That was unusual; she would have expected him to be the first to join the fray. Instead, he seemed to be more interested in poking through the weeds. She watched him for a while until she began to get the uneasy feeling that he was watching her watch him, and she sat back and closed her eyes. The last thing she needed was to give Daisuke any ideas about her being interested in him.
*I have enough to do trying to keep down the rumors that I'm seeing TK. I can't imagine what people would do if they thought I liked Daisuke. Why can't anyone figure out that just because I'm friends with a guy doesn't mean I'm dating him? So far, I don't think I've ever seen anyone I'd want to go out with.*
A moment later, she was roused again by someone shaking her shoulder. She looked up and saw Daisuke kneeling next to her, offering a bouquet.
"Flowers," he explained. "You said you didn't want to leave, so I got you some to take with you."
"Oh," she said, startled. She had a little trouble convincing her hand to accept the offering. "Thanks, Daisuke. That was very thoughtful of you."
"Really?" asked the boy, looking pleased. "Thanks, Kari!"
Kari nodded. "But you should have been getting your food. It looks like the Digimon have just about eaten it all."
"They what?" Daisuke looked over at the picnic blanket, where his friends had already done a good job of clearing away most of the food. "Hey, that's not fair! Save some for me!"
He dashed over to join his friends, and Kari watched the performance. She looked down at the bunch of flowers she'd been given, a little handheld rainbow, colors and scents more perfect than jewels or perfume.
*I guess I should be flattered,* she mused. *All the guys I know seem to like me. Maybe I should be thankful. Sooner or later, one of them has got to be what I'm looking for.*
"Save some for me, too!" she called, and hurried to join her friends, firmly clutching the bouquet.
Meanwhile, somewhere distant and hidden, the Digimon Emperor kept watch over his realm. As far as he was concerned, the Digital World and everything in it, even such peculiar humans as chose to cross its borders, were his property to do what he liked with. The performance with the flowers grated on him; not only were the flowers not Daisuke's to give, but the boy wasn't free to give himself.
"What do you think of that little charade?" he said, barely even turning his head to address his audience of one.
"Think of what?" asked Wormmon, looking up at Ken from his place at the young Emperor's feet. He hadn't been paying attention to the monitors. Ken was in a comparatively relaxed mood, enough that the little caterpillar could sit close by, actually in the boy's line of sight, without fear of being scolded, and he'd been enjoying the privilege.
"The way that Motomiya boy is carrying on," said Ken, waving one gloved hand at a monitor. It showed an image of Daisuke and Kari sitting next to each other at the edge of a picnic blanket, and the girl had a bunch of flowers resting in her lap. The pair smiled and blushed at each other frequently. "It disgusts me. It just turns my stomach to see him drooling and fawning over her like she was something special. There's nothing that great about her, is there?"
"No, I guess not," said Wormmon, puzzled.
The Emperor turned to give his companion an icy glare. "You guess?"
"I mean, of course there isn't," Wormmon answered quickly. "She's certainly not as great as you are, Master."
The boy sat back in his throne again, mollified. "You're right. I am greater. I'm so much greater there can be no comparison. How can he even look at her, that giggling little debutante, that bleached little stick with her pasty skin and those ditchwater eyes and that mousy hair... she's nothing next to me. He's seen me - how could he possibly rather have her than me?"
"You're absolutely right," said Wormmon, "but maybe... well, I thought human boys were supposed to like human girls. Isn't that how it works?"
The Emperor waved a hand irritably. "Shows what you know. That's a mere social convention, something common little minds force on the masses." He reached out to touch the nearest screen, tracing the line of Daisuke's cheek. "He never had a chance to learn... but I'm willing to teach him. Once I get him out of the influence of his so-called friends and under my wing, he just might change his mind. If not..." He shrugged. "If not, I'll change it for him."
"What are you going to do?" asked the little caterpillar.
"The first thing to do is start removing distractions," said Ken. He stabbed a finger at the screen, where Kari was laughing with Daisuke over something. "Starting with her."
"You mean... get rid of her like... get rid of her?"
"What are you sounding so horrified about?" Ken snapped. "You knew from the beginning what my objectives were and you agreed to follow me. You aren't going to back out now, are you?"
Wormmon shook his head. "No, Master. I'm never going to leave you. You know that."
"Yeah, well, lucky me," said Ken sarcastically. "If I lose everything else, at least I'll have a crawly bug on my side. Wonderful. On the whole, I'd rather have that cute redhead."
He turned his attention back to the monitors, smiling as the beginnings of a plan began to unfold themselves in his mind.
The e-mail was from Daisuke, and that immediately put Kari on alert. Messages from him could only be one of two things: word of danger in the Digital World, or yet another of his ceaseless attempts to get her to go out with him. It remained only to open the letter and see which kind of trouble it would be today. Kari stared at it for a while until her better instincts got the better of her. Daisuke could be a pain at times, but he was a good kid, and if he was in trouble, she had a duty to her friend and teammate to help him out. She opened her mail.
Hey, Kari, it read, I need your help! Veemon and I decided to go to the DigiWorld early this morning and maybe knock down a few Spires before lunch, but now we've run into a couple of ringed Digimon, and we can't handle them alone! We're hiding from them for now, but we could really use your help!
Kari frowned at the letter. So, Daisuke had gone to a dark area alone? That sounded like something he would do; he wasn't afraid of anything, whether he should be or not.
"Maybe this will teach him something," she sighed. "All right, hang on, Daisuke. We're on our way! Come on, Gatomon, we've got to get to the computer lab."
She sprinted to the school, not even trying to hide the fact that the little furry animal that followed her wasn't from Earth. None of the people they passed turned their heads; the girl and the Digimon were nothing more than blurs as they rushed down the street. Trusting in that invisibility of speed, they hurried into the empty school and down the hallways, slowing only when they reached the computer lab.
"Come on, come on!" Kari muttered at a computer, waiting for it to boot up. "Why can't the computer get some faster computers? ... There we go!"
The computer flared to life, and a window opened up, something a bit more like a real window than the normal video graphic boxes: the gateway to the Digital World. Kari made a quick scan of the map and found the blinking light that indicated a Digivice's signal. She was intrigued to see that it was very close to the area they had been working on yesterday.
*But I thought we got rid of all the Control Spires in that area,* she thought, puzzled. Still, some of the nearby squares were still black, so she reassured herself by thinking that of course Daisuke would run to a clear area when he was seeking safety. Or maybe he had just gotten lost - with Daisuke, one never knew! She opened the gate and went through.
The meadow was just as she had left it, an ocean of flowers and a few graceful trees here and there. The only things marring the landscape were a few shattered heaps of black stone, all that was left of Ken's Dark Spires. However, there didn't seem to be any living things besides plants.
"Daisuke! Daisuke, where are you?" she shouted. "It's me, Kari!"
"Ah, good. Just the person I was waiting for."
Kari and Gatomon spun around, looking for the speaker. He wasn't hard to find; he stood a short distance away, leaning against a tree and looking pleased with himself.
"Ken," Gatomon hissed.
"The one and only," the boy replied with a mocking bow. "So nice to see you again."
"What have you done to Daisuke?" Kari demanded. "Spill, or we'll make you sorry!"
"What have I done?" repeated Ken with an amused chuckle. "I haven't done anything to him yet, much as I'd love to. I haven't been near him all day. He's not even in the Digital World, as far as I know."
"But - but the e-mail," Kari stammered. "I saw his signal!"
"You're so easily deluded," Ken sneered. "You forget, you people aren't the only ones with Digivices. I just left you a little blip to track down... and if I can't hack into a simple thing like an e-mail program then I don't deserve to call myself the Digimon Emperor."
"You don't deserve that anyway," snapped Kari. "Gatomon, let's teach this guy a lesson!"
"What do you think you're going to do, attack me?" Ken asked. "What a simple-minded tactic. I'm not amused."
"Oh yeah? Well, maybe this will amuse you!"
Kari took out her D-3, preparing to even the odds a bit. Before she could say anything else, however, Ken's wrist flicked, and his whip flashed across the space between them. Kari felt the impact as it struck her wrist, and her D-3 slipped out of her hand. A split second later, the pain hit, sharp enough to bring tears to Kari's eyes, and she folded up clutching at the wound. A thin trickle of blood slipped through her fingers.
"That's enough of that," said Ken. "You are not here to fight me, little girl. You are here to be punished."
"What did she ever do to you?" Gatomon demanded.
"She's a thief," said Ken coldly, "and probably a lot of other things I wouldn't mention in front of children. People like that deserve to be punished, and you will not interfere."
"We'll see about that! Lightning Paw!"
"Not so fast!"
Gatomon leaped, and the whip cracked again. Gatomon tumbled out of the air with a red welt down her side and fell down twitching. Ken kicked her a few times until she was still, and then walked over to Kari. She glared at him, pale-faced with pain and rage.
"Don't you hurt Gatomon," she said.
"Fine, I won't," Ken answered. "I'm really more interested in hurting you, anyway. Hold still."
The whip came down, this time striking Kari's shoulder. She tried to dodge the next strike, but the dodge turned into a stumble, and then a fall. Then all she could do was curl up into a ball and feel the lash hitting her back again and again, hear the snap of leather against her fragile skin and the rush of blood in her ears. Tears stung her eyes and rolled down her face, and her stomach heaved, rebelling against the pain that was worse than anything she'd ever felt. Over the tumult inside of her, she thought she heard someone screaming far away, someone who screamed with her voice.
Ken grinned, getting into his stride. This was more fun than he thought it would be! It occurred to him that he'd never actually hurt a human being before, not like this. Well, he'd been hurt enough when he was young, and now it was payback time. He wasn't the helpless little boy Ken anymore, getting ignored by his parents and slapped around by his brother for taking what was rightfully his; he was the Digimon Emperor, and he had all the power now, to do whatever he wished. He went on with his beating, getting deeper into his role, thinking, This is for insulting me. This is for keeping Daisuke from me. This is for standing up to me. This is for trying to keep me from my destiny. This is for destroying my Spires. This is for breaking my rings. She wasn't even crying much anymore, now, just making a little whimpering noise like a dying puppy. He scowled at her. How dare she give up just when he was enjoying himself? Then again, he didn't really want to kill her now; even he didn't feel comfortable with the idea of killing someone with his own hands. He was just beginning to wonder if he should stop for a while when a shadow fell over him. The boy emperor turned around to see who was rude enough to interrupt his fun, and found himself looking up at a Digimon he had never seen before.
Kari, realizing dimly that the beating had stopped, managed to raise her head and look. Blearily, she could make out a female figure, but one far more perfect than any mere human could ever hope to possess. Every curve of her body was flawless, and she dressed to display it to maximum advantage. She wore a pair of thigh-high black boots that fit like a second skin before peeling away like the petals of a flower, a matching pair of long red gloves, and a red bodysuit that could have been painted on. A pair of vines crossed her chest and spiraled down her arms. Draped over her shoulders and falling to her feet was a long cloak, leaf green and lined with white-silver, billowing around her like wings. Her long golden hair was bound up in a garland of roses. Her chin was perfectly sculpted, her lips a brilliant ruby... and that was as far as her face went. The rest of it seemed to have phased into the bud of a red rose just beginning to open.
*An angel?* Kari thought dimly. She wondered if it had come to take her away. Then she passed out. No one seemed to notice.
"If it isn't the Purple Emperor," said the rose-woman, looking haughtily down on Ken. "Did anyone ever tell you, little butterfly, that I don't approve of insects like you in my garden? Particularly ones who molest innocent little blossoms like that one there."
"How dare you speak to me in that tone of voice!" Ken spluttered. "Who do you think you are, you overgrown pansy?"
"I am Rosemon, Queen of Floradell," she replied, "and in this part of the Digital World, it is I who hold the authority, so I suggest you flutter on home and find someone who will take you seriously."
Ken gritted his teeth and shot Rosemon a death look. "You are going to pay for that! You have exactly five seconds to get down on your knees and apologize to me, or I'll make what I did to the girl look comfortable!"
"Oh, really?" Rosemon made a show of yawning and buffing her nails against her bodice.
Ken felt a growl rising out of his throat. With a flick of the wrist, he produced one of his Dark Spirals and threw it at the flower Digimon. It locked itself around her arm, and she looked down at it in mild interest.
"And what is this supposed to do?" she asked.
"It - it's supposed to make you obey me!"
"Ah, is that it? Well, it's not working very well, is it?" Rosemon casually slipped off the Spiral and snapped it in half, tossing the bits over her shoulder. She smiled sweetly at Ken's bug- eyed look. "You've never met a Mega before, have you? You'll find we're considerably more than little butterflies can handle. Go away before I decide to clip your wings."
Ken lashed at her in a blind fury, but even the speed of his whip was no match for her reflexes. She sprang into the air with her cloak billowing around her like wings, letting her hover several feet above the ground.
The vine that wrapped around her arm extended and snaked toward the petrified boy, cracking across his wrist as he slashed at Kari, only this whip had thorns on it that bit his skin. He tried to claw it away, but it had already retreated. Then it struck again, this time wrapping around his arm and tightening, letting the thorns dig deep into his skin, drawing blood, and he screamed. Rosemon watched dispassionately for a moment, then shrugged and let him go. He stood there, panting and clutching at his wounds with red dripping through his gloves, staining his royal garb.
"I should beat you senseless, like you did to the girl," said Rosemon, "but I don't think my compatriots would approve. Perhaps another time. Go now, before I change my mind."
"You haven't heard the last of me," Ken rasped. "You've seen what I do to the people who offend me. Somehow, someday, I'll make that happen to you. Until then..." He turned and staggered off into the trees.
A moment later, Kari was awakened by a feeling of rising into the air, wind blowing through her hair and over her damp clothing. All around her was a feeling of warmth and a scent of flowers. She stirred a little and tried to open her eyes.
"Be still, little blossom," someone said. "You're hurt, and you need to rest. I'm taking you to my home, where you'll be safe. Have no fear - you're safe as long as you're with me. I won't let anyone hurt you again."
Kari sighed, finding a small smile working its way across her face even in her pain. The voice was the sweetest she had ever heard, and hearing it sent a comfortable warmth through her. She did feel safe, warm and safe and sleepy, and she closed her eyes again. Rosemon smiled as she felt the girl relax into sleep.
"Pretty little blossom," she murmured. "That's right, sleep. I will take care of you from now on."
It had become very quiet in Ken's base. Everyone knew that the boy emperor had gone out to do something, and there were murmurs that whatever it was had gone badly wrong, even worse than the fiasco with Greymon. Ken had dismissed all of his servants to their own dark holes in the wall, and he had retreated to his own chambers with only Wormmon for company. He had set aside the torn and stained clothes he'd had worn, and was now relaxing as best he could in a tub of warm water and scented bubbles with his injured arm hanging over the side. Wormmon skittered around on the floor, popping in and out of the room carrying things.
"Would you hurry it up?" snapped Ken. "My arm is killing me."
"I'm coming!" Wormmon called back. He wiggled into the room again, carefully balancing a tray between his four front pods. He set it down on a low stool, and, dipping a clean cloth into the water, began dabbing at Ken's wounds.
"Careful! That stings," Ken whimpered.
"Sorry." Wormmon's antennae drooped. "I'm being as careful as I can. What happened?"
"I got on the wrong side of the wrong Digimon," said Ken. "That's all you need to know about it."
"Poor Master," said Wormmon sympathetically. "I know how it feels."
Ken shot a look at the worm but refrained from commenting. Wormmon finished his cleaning in silence and went to work with medicines and bandages, while Ken tilted his head back and closed his eyes, welcoming the relief the little Digimon's ministrations brought. There were times when he could almost bring himself to be grateful for the creature; Wormmon might not have been good for much, but the few things he could do, he did well. The little caterpillar was more adept with his ten pods than most people were with their ten fingers, and Ken barely felt it as Wormmon dabbed ointment on the worst of the thorn perforations and bound them up in clean gauze. The medicine felt cool and soothing, freeing Ken's mind for other matters.
"Is that better?" asked Wormmon eagerly.
The emperor flexed his arm and was pleased to see that it moved almost painlessly.
"It'll do," he said, sitting back and closing his eyes again.
"Oh, good." Wormmon scuttled around some more, and Ken heard the sound of glass clinking on metal. Then there was a scuffle as the worm climbed up on a tabletop, and the faint scent of something aromatic drifted across Ken's nose.
"Drink this," Wormmon encouraged.
Ken opened one eye enough to see the caterpillar offering him a glass of something. It smelled good enough, so he reached out and took it with his good hand and sipped at it. The stuff tasted like some kind of fruit juice, but there was another, more herbal taste underneath it, and he looked at Wormmon quizzically.
"Who made this?" Ken asked.
Wormmon shrugged. "I did. You should drink it. You've lost blood, and this will help you get your strength back."
Ken nodded and went back to sipping the drink. There were reasons why he let Wormmon cook for him, and the main one wasn't that the worm was surprisingly good at it, but because he was the only creature alive that Ken was sure wouldn't try to poison him at a time like this, when his strength and defenses were down. If someone suggested that Wormmon might ever try to hurt Ken, the boy would have taken the idea with the same attitude he would have taken hearing the sun rose in the south.
*Even when I do bring Daisuke over to my side, I'll keep Wormmon around,* he decided. *Of course, I'll never tell him he's the only one I can trust. Huh, the Emperor of the Digital World depending on a worm for anything... that's not the kind of thing you let get around.*
"Hey, Wormmon," he said, "what do you know about Floradell?"
"Is that where you've been?" Wormmon asked. "You shouldn't go there. It's not safe."
"Yes, I know," said Ken dryly. "You could have told me that before I left."
"But you didn't tell me you were going there... and you never listen to me when I tell you things anyway."
"Don't talk back to me," Ken snapped. "And you still haven't answered the question. What's so special about Floradell?"
"It's where the Queen of the Flowers has her palace," Wormmon explained. "She rules over the plant Digimon who live there. She's also the leader of the Union of Light. She's very powerful, and she has a bad temper."
"Does she look like a cross between a woman and a flower?" Ken asked.
"Yes. She's called Rosemon. Did you see her?"
"You could say that," muttered Ken. "What about this Union of Light? I hadn't heard about that."
"They try to keep themselves secret, but things get around," said Wormmon vaguely. "Especially with the servants - you know how they talk. Do you remember the Dark Masters?"
"Of course I do. I did my homework before I started raising my empire, you know."
Wormmon nodded. "Yes, you were always good at homework. Anyway, when the Dark Masters were destroyed, a few of the other Digimon decided it would be a good thing to have some good Digimon replace them - Vaccine and Data types. That's what the Union of Light is: four Mega Digimon who look after the areas that the Dark Masters used to control."
"And Rosemon is their leader? A good Digimon on the level of Piedmon? Sounds like trouble," Ken mused. "She's very powerful, that's for sure. Very powerful and very clever and very influential. Someone like that would make a servant even better than Metal Greymon. Hmm."
"She's not going to want to serve you. I hear she's very proud," said Wormmon.
"Oh, she'll serve me, and she'll do it willingly," Ken replied. "Nothing else will make up for what she did to me. I won't be content with just ringing her. I want her to succumb to my will on her own. And I can make her do it, too."
"How are you going to do that?" asked Wormmon uneasily.
"Oh, I can do it," Ken said. "You've been very useful to me today, Wormmon. I might just let you hang around and watch. Then you'll see. When I'm done, I'll have all four Megas of the Union of Light wrapped around my fingers." He sighed, his eyes shining. "The things I could do with that kind of power..."
Wormmon only shrugged. He had absolute faith that Ken could do anything he put his brilliant mind to, but somehow, he didn't think it would be that easy.
Kari awoke with the smell of flowers all around her and a soft light shining on her face. The air was still and quiet, and the tiny sounds that did make it to her ears were gentle ones: a gurgle of water, a rustle like wind through the grass, and the distant chirps of birds. A sense of peace hung over it all, an uplifting feeling like the moment you realize that spring really is coming, and Kari found herself smiling. She tried to stretch her sleep-stiff muscles, and the memory of what had happened to her came back with a flare of pain, and she cried out.
"Be still," said an unfamiliar voice. "Her Majesty said you were supposed to be resting."
Kari opened her eyes and looked around. She was in a room of some sort, but what kind, she had no idea. More than anything else, it looked as if a huge flower had been turned upside- down to make a tent. Sun shone through the silky white petals, and a globe of golden light hung where the center of the flower would be. Kari was resting on something like a great curved leaf lined with soft, sweet-smelling grasses. The other furniture, what there was of it, was similarly organic - an oddly shaped mushroom stood in lieu of a chair, and a larger, flatter one looked like a table. The floor was nothing but an even spread of grass. There was also a bubbling spring on one side of the room, splashing cheerfully. Oddly enough, there didn't seem to be a door anywhere, but there must have been one for Kari to get inside, not to mention a set of three Floramon that were keeping her company.
"Where... where am I?" Kari said slowly. Her throat hurt from screaming so much, and it was hard to talk.
"This is Floradell," said one of the Floramon. "You're in the palace of the queen."
"The queen?" she repeated. "Was she the one who rescued me from Ken?"
The Floramon shrugged. "She didn't tell us where you came from. She just said you were hurt and needed tending. Are you all right? Is there anything we can do for you? Queen Rosemon said anything you wanted, we should do for you, so ask whatever you want."
"I could use something to drink," said Kari replied. She tried to sit up again, realizing as she did so that her shirt was missing. Instead, she had been bound up in bandages until she looked like a mummy. The movement sent up a faint scent of herbs. "And maybe some clothes."
"We had to get rid of the shirt," said one of the other Floramon. "It was all ripped to shreds. I don't think we could have ever fixed it. Maybe we can find something else around here somewhere. Can you wait?"
"I guess so," Kari replied. She wasn't entirely sure she could dress herself in her current state, anyway. In the meantime, she had never felt really uncomfortable with the idea of Digimon seeing her unclothed, particularly the ones who looked more plant or animal than human, and the bandages were covering enough.
"Why don't you take a bath while you wait?" another Floramon suggested, pointing at the gurgling spring. "You don't need clothes for that. It'll be good for you."
Kari didn't see anything wrong with that line of reasoning, so while the other two Floramon went off to look for the things she'd requested, the third helped her get undressed and provided her with an assortment of soaps and shampoos and soft cloths. The water in the spring was not, as she had feared, cold; in fact, it was just as warm as her tub back home, and it soothed away her aches and pains. Splashing around with fragrant bubbles up to her chin while her appointed servant gently washed her wounds, she decided that even if she had no idea where she was or what she was going to do next, there were definitely worse situations she could have landed in.
After a few moments had gone by, there was a commotion outside, and Kari glimpsed shadows moving around on the other side of the flower petal walls. One of them was definitely a Floramon shape, but the other one...
"Announcing her highness, Queen Rosemon!" the Floramon announced.
The petals parted, as if on their own accord, and the queen herself stepped into the room. Both Floramon present bowed respectfully, but all Kari could do was stare. She had thought dimly that the angel she'd seen rescuing her had been a product of her imagination, or at least greatly enhanced by her dreams. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Here in her own element, without the shroud of fury over her, she radiated a beauty and gentleness that made Kari's breath catch in her throat. She suddenly felt disheveled and awkward, and she fought the urge to dunk her head under the water and hide.
"Ah, I see my servants have been taking good care of you," said Rosemon, smiling. "They have, haven't they? Is everything to your liking?"
"Everything's fine," said Kari, trying not to blush.
"It's all right, little blossom. You don't have to be embarrassed. If I bother you, I'll go away until you've finished, but I would prefer to stay and talk for a while."
"I don't mind, really," said Kari. Truth be told, she was feeling a little nervous, but she put it down to knowing she was in the presence of a very powerful Digimon, and that she was in an unprotected state. Anyway, it was Rosemon's home, so it behooved the girl to be accommodating.
"Good." Rosmon snapped her fingers, and the Floramon that had accompanied her handed over a tray with a pair of glasses. She took one in either hand. "Thank you. That will be all. I will tend to the girl for a while, and you can go help the others prepare."
"As you wish, my lady," said both Floramon in unison.
They scampered for the wall, and again in parted to let them out. Rosemon went to kneel at the side of the spring and passed one of the goblets to Kari, and the girl took it with the arm that was less battered than the other and inspected the drink. It looked more or less like apple juice, but it smelled, like everything else in this place, of flowers.
"I'm not sure what your kind's tastes are like," said Rosemon, "but I thought you might like that. Most people like sweet things, don't they?"
Kari tried the concoction, and her eyes went wide in surprise. The stuff was sweet as honey, but not cloying, just cold and refreshing. The taste was a complex one, reminding her in turns lilies and violets and roses.
"This is good!" she said in approval.
Rosemon smiled, looking flattered. "I'm glad you like it. I so seldom entertain guests these days, I find it hard to know how to provide for them. I have few friends, only my servants, who need little more than sun and water to live."
"You must be lonely," said Kari.
The flower queen's smile faded a bit. "It is true that solitude becomes wearying to me at times. That makes you all the more welcome here. I have the feeling that you will fit well in my home."
"Thank you," Kari. "I'm honored."
"Think nothing of it," Rosemon replied. "I will enjoy your company... and it pleases me to have robbed the Purple Emperor of his target."
"Purple Emperor... You mean Ken?"
"If that is what he calls himself. I call him the Purple Emperor - the butterfly king. That is all he is - a show of color but little strength." Rosemon's voice went briefly cold. "Given my way, I would crush him now, but my allies wish to wait and watch a while longer."
"You don't think Ken is powerful?" asked Kari, shocked. "But look at all he's done!"
"A lord who holds his subjects through magic and trickery is no true ruler," said Rosemon tersely. "My servants follow me because they respect my judgement and my strength. I have faced the Emperor, and I came out unscathed. I also gave him a sample of the way you felt."
Kari considered that one for a while. It seemed her new friend had a different definition of power than the one she was used to. Never mind that the Digimon Emperor commanded monsters twenty times his size; since Ken was not a formidable fighter on his own, it seemed Rosemon didn't think of him as a threat. Then again, the fact that she had faced Ken and not come out of the encounter with a Ring or a Spiral on her was impressive enough. Considering the shape Kari herself was in...
"Where's Gatomon?" she said suddenly.
"Hm?" Rosemon looked startled.
"Gatomon. My Digimon partner. Where is she? The Emperor didn't get her, did he?"
"I was unaware that you had such a partner," said Rosemon, frowning a bit. "However, when the boy left, he left alone. Do not worry; I will tell my servants to search for her and bring her here to you. In the meantime, I will send correspondence to your friends, to let them know you are safe. Is that satisfactory?"
"That will be fine. Thank you," said Kari, put at rest again. There was something about Rosemon's manner that she found reassuring; somehow it didn't enter her mind that the flower queen wouldn't honor her word.
"In the meantime, you must rest here. You have been badly injured, and it will be bad for you to travel," said Rosemon. "While you are here, my home will be your home. The servants will obey you as they would me. Anything you ask for will be brought to you."
Kari blushed. "I don't really think-"
"Are you going to argue with the queen?" asked Rosemon. She smiled to show she was teasing, and Kari giggled.
"I guess not. Thank you. You're very kind."
"I am never kind," Rosemon corrected. "I'm a wildflower, a Mega Data Digimon. I was born with both soft petals and thorns. I do what I prefer to do, not what is dictated by good or evil. Whatever I do is for my own reasons. If you understand this, you will do well here."
Kari nodded. "I understand. I'll try not to get on your bad side."
"You won't," Rosemon assured her. "I see what you are, the gentle blossom. You will do nothing that will offend anyone, only provide sweetness and light."
Kari blushed, and the flower queen smiled at her. In the silence that followed, they became aware of a pair of shadows moving outside the walls of the room, silhouettes that were discernable as a pair of Floramon carrying something. Rosemon took that as her cue.
"I will leave you now to rest and recover," she said. "Remember, if there is anything you require for comfort or amusement, you need only ask. Goodbye, little blossom. Find me again when you are feeling better."
The flower queen rose gracefully, as if gravity itself couldn't command her, and walked through the walls, which parted obediently for her. Kari got a glimpse of a long, leaf-lined corridor before the petals closed again. She continued to watch, trying to follow the queen's shadow as it slowly faded from view. Rosemon sensed this, and smiled to herself.
*She will stay,* she thought to herself, *for now, at least, and for now is only the first of the moments that make up forever.*
The Digidestined wandered over the grassy plains, looking this way and that for some sign of life.
"You're sure this is where it happened?" asked TK. "It looks like every other patch of grass to me."
"It was here," said Gatomon. "I know where Kari's been. I know her scent, and she was definitely here a while ago... and now she's not."
"Ken must have taken her. That's the only possible explanation," said Daisuke. "Man, everyone is after her!"
"What's the matter, can't take the competition?" asked Veemon.
"Hey, I can take on any competition, especially from that so called Emperor!" Daisuke snapped.
"Earth to Daisuke!" Miyako snapped. "This isn't about competing over a girl! One of your friends could be in danger!"
"She's right, you know," said Iori. "Quit showing off and get to work already!"
"Oh, all right," Daisuke grumped. He turned and stomped off, fuming, staring at the ground in annoyance. Then he stopped in mid-step. He backed up, nearly running over Veemon.
"Hey, watch where you're going!" the little dragon yelped.
Daisuke ignored him. He was looking down at a particular patch of grass that seemed to be an odd color, even for Digital World grass.
"Hey, guys, I think you'd better have a look at this," he called.
Immediately, he was surrounded by a small crowd, all of which became instantly interested in the plant life. The grass was crushed in a small space, as if something had been crouching there, and it was splattered with drops of something reddish-black. Gatomon twitched her whiskers as she ran her sensitive nose over the blotches.
"Is that what I think it is?" asked Miyako; she sounded a bit queasy.
"It's blood!" said Gatomon, horrified. "This is Kari's - I know her scent! If... if anything's happened to her..."
"Don't panic!" TK ordered. "As far as we know, she's still alive, and you won't do her any good by breaking down. Just stay calm."
"How do you expect me to stay calm?" Gatomon snapped. "Kari's out there hurting somewhere! She could be dying, and all you can say is-"
"Shh! Listen!" said Iori. "I hear something!"
Everyone was quiet. Over the quiet plains, something was moving with a rapid thud-thud-thud of footfalls. Even as they turned to the horizon, looking for the source of the sound, a speeding creature came into view. TK recognized it at once. He'd seen one once before, and had less than pleasant memories of it. Now he could clearly pick out the shape of a round-bodied, wingless brown bird, whose long, strong legs were carrying it swiftly towards the group. On its head, it wore a little blue cap, beneath which sprouted a number of spiky leaves, giving the impression of hair. In its slender beak, it carried a bit of folded paper. It skidded to a neat halt in front of the Digidestined and handed the paper to Daisuke, who nearly dropped it.
"Kiwi's delivery service!" the Kiwimon announced.
"Oh. Gee, thanks," said Daisuke, still a bit stunned.
As the other Digidestined crowded in closer for a look, Daisuke began fumbling the paper open. It was, he noticed, very good paper, thick yellowy stuff that he associated with the upperclass, and it was sealed with a bit of green wax with an image of a blooming rose stamped into it. He undid it with some difficulty and found himself looking at a few rows of graceful handwriting. He read them aloud.
"Digidestined, it may have come to your attention that you have lost a member of your party. I write to inform you that you need not fear for her welfare. She is alive and safe, but suffering from serious injuries that render her unfit to travel. I have given her shelter within my home, and will release her when she has regained her strength. I ask you not to come looking for her; she was just barely saved from the Digimon Emperor, and while she is hidden from his sight while she is here, he will most certainly be watching you, and your arrival here may bring on his. Rest assured that she will be returned to you safely as soon as she is able. Sincerely, Queen Rosemon of Floradell."
"Rosemon?" TK repeated. "Why haven't we heard of this Queen Rosemon?"
"She probably didn't want you to," said Patamon. "She likes to keep to herself. She takes care of her subjects and leaves everyone else alone."
"Then why would she rescue Kari?" Iori wondered.
"Queen Rosemon doesn't like the Emperor," the Kiwimon offered. "The queen considers this part of the Digital World to be her property, and she'll do whatever she can to foil his plans while he's in her domain. And she seems to have taken a liking to the girl. Don't worry. There's nowhere as safe as Floradell if Queen Rosemon wants to protect something."
Gatomon pouted. It was an odd expression on a cat.
"I ought to be able to be with her," she complained. "We're not supposed to be apart, especially when she's in trouble. It's not right."
"Queen Rosemon says she's not to be disturbed by anyone," said the Kiwimon stiffly. "Your friend is not in trouble; she is being well taken care of and is perfectly comfortable. No one will get in until the queen gives permission. You ought to be grateful she's doing this at all. Would you prefer she left your friend to bleed to death?"
"No, but-" Gatomon tried to object
"I am returning to the queen," said the Kiwimon. "Can I carry back any messages?"
TK stepped in before the white cat could voice any more complaints.
"Tell her we're thankful for her help," he said, "and tell her to let us know as soon as she's willing to let us see Kari again. Tell her it's important that Kari have Gatomon nearby."
The Kiwimon nodded. "I shall. Good day."
It bowed low, bending its graceful neck to each of them in turn, and then went sprinting away again. Everyone watched it go, feeling oddly unsettled.
"Man, that was weird," said Daisuke, glaring down at the note as if it were personally responsible for all the trouble.
"I don't like it at all," said Gatomon.
"Well, look at it this way," said Miyako, trying to be helpful. "Kari's safe right now - probably safer than she would be if she was here with us. It doesn't sound like that Rosemon would let anyone get past her. And that thing said she likes Kari. She'll take good care of her."
"That's what I don't like," Gatomon replied. "She won't let anyone in. She won't let Kari out. She might take good care of her, but a golden collar is still a collar. She's taken Kari prisoner."
There were no mirrors in the flower room, but her reflection in the pool showed Kari all she needed to know. Once Rosemon had departed, the Floramon servants had stayed busy assisting Kari with everything they could, just as if she were a queen herself. They shampooed her hair with soaps that smelled of wildflowers, and then dried her carefully with soft cloths. Once they'd dressed her wounds, binding them with clean gauze and cool herbal salves, they went to work dressing the rest of her. Somewhere, they'd managed to come up with a sleek white gown made of filmy, nearly transparent material. She felt it must have been made of flower petals itself, for it was so soft and light that she barely felt it touching her battered skin, and it swirled around her ankles like smoke when she walked. To top it all off, they'd crowned her hair with a wreath of lilies. Now she admired her reflection in the spring and smiled. She looked like she belonged here, now. The white dress's simple elegance made her feel as if she were as a much a lily flower as the queen was a rose.
"Is that all right, my lady?" asked one of the deferential Floramon.
"It's fine, thanks," Kari replied.
"Can we get you anything else?" asked another eagerly.
Kari smiled at it. "No, that's all right. I thought I'd like to look around a bit... how do I get out of here?"
"Just walk," said the Floramon, giving a shrug. It illustrated, taking a few steps toward the wall. Just before it was about to walk into it, the petals suddenly parted, revealing an opening. Just beyond it was a green hallway that seemed to be made of huge blades of grass, bent into arches as their tips intertwined.
"There's nothing to it," the Floramon said. It smiled shyly. "It does take a while to learn where all the doors are, though."
Kari laughed at that, and followed the flowers out into the hallway. They went with her a short distance, just as far as the next bend in the corridor, where it branched away in different directions. Once there, they excused themselves, saying they had other duties to attend to, and then scattered. That was fine with Kari. Rosemon had given her permission to go wherever she would, and she was inclined to do some exploring as long as she had the chance.
As it turned out, the explorations were enjoyable. It was like being in a theme park where everything had been built to a colossal scale, with grasses, flowers, and mushrooms growing two or more stories high. She did not, as she feared she would, blunder into walls searching for a door. Any time she tried to pass through a spot with no hallway beyond it, she would instead walk out into a garden. The trees and flowers grew to normal sizes there, and all of them ran rampant within the boundaries dictated by their larger cousins. From there, she could chose another flower-room and walk back inside again. From time to time, she'd encounter one or more of the palace's inhabitants, which came in the form of every kind of plant Digimon imaginable, ranging from birdlike Deramon, lumbering Jagamon, and even a family of dainty Lilymon who served as Rosemon's personal attendants. Everything was overlaid with the sweet scent of flowers, the lazy drone of bees, and a sense of peace. It was also, Kari discovered, an easy place to get lost.
After several minutes of aimless rambling, Kari began to get the feeling it was about time to turn back. She had, after all, been badly injured only a short while ago, and all that walking had left her tired. More than that, though, she was getting the feeling that the rooms she had entered were really no place for someone like herself. It was not that they were any less beautiful or inviting - if anything, they were even more so - but there was something about them that told her that one did not enter them lightly. The grass she'd been walking on had gradually given way to rich emerald moss, and the white flowers had shifted to pink. The furnishings were starting to look like real furniture, not just oddly-shaped mushrooms. There was even a fountain in one room, made in the shape of a lily spilling nectar into a lily-pond. Everything was very still and quiet; she'd seen no living things besides herself for some time.
It was definitely time to go back to her rooms, but how did she do that? Which way did she turn? She couldn't remember how many times she'd changed direction or how many gardens she'd walked across, and everything around her looked very much the same. There wasn't even anyone she could ask for directions. Hesitantly, she began making her way up a hallway, hoping that it led, if not to her rooms, then at least to somewhere less off-limits.
Suddenly, a tiger jumped out at her. Kari yelped, staggering backwards in surprise. It was so completely unexpected that for a moment, she couldn't even work up a sense of fear. Why, in this maze of pure plant life, was something so mammalian as a tiger stalking around? It looked utterly out of place, even more so when she realized that this was no ordinary tiger. It stood taller than her, its eyes well above the top of her head. Its head was shaped like that of a bird of prey, complete with a hooked beak beneath a metal helmet. It held a pair of huge dragon's wings on its back, partly open with feathers bristling in anger. Its tail ended in what appeared to be an eyeless snake's head, which seemed to be darting around of its own initiative, hissing at things and darting out its tongue. Its front legs were scaled and tipped with eagle's talons. It roared at her, showing off an impressive set of teeth, and began creeping for her. Kari forgot all about being startled and went straight into petrified fear.
"What," said the creature, in a low, growling voice, "are you doing here?"
"I - I - I," Kari squeaked. Her voice seemed to have left her; the beast's golden eyes were putting her into a frozen trance.
"You are trespassing," the thing snarled. "You seek to spy on our secret council!"
"I'm lost," said Kari. "I came here by mistake!"
"No one could wander into Rosemon's palace by mistake," said the beast.
Kari opened her mouth to try to explain to a snarling animal ten times her size that it hadn't quite understood her. Fortunately, she didn't have to.
"Gryphonmon!" snapped an authoritative voice. "What are you doing, harassing an innocent child?"
For a fearsome conglomeration of scales, wings, claws, and teeth, it was remarkable how much Gryphonmon could look like a frightened kitten.
"Ah - my queen," he stammered. "I - I thought..."
"No you didn't," Rosemon replied. "If you had, you would have known that nothing enters this place without my permission. At the very least, you should have known that no one can give adequate explanations with you frightening them senseless."
Gryphonmon seemed almost hurt by this. He turned to Kari, fixing his enormous eyes on her.
"Am I truly frightening?" he asked.
Kari managed a timid nod.
"Well, then. We must correct that."
There was a blurry moment, and Kari blinked rapidly as everything around her seemed to warp. Then it was over, and the monster was gone. In its place stood a human man... or at least, almost human. There was no doubt that he was at least mostly human, for his entire wardrobe seemed to amount to a scrap of striped fur tied around his waist, covering him to about mid thigh. The rest of his anatomy was bare, and more impressive than the richest clothing would have been. He looked like he could easily crush stone with his bare hands. He still wore the wings on his back, and that, added to his air of power and his piercing, still hawklike eyes, gave him the look of some angel of vengeance. He was easily the most attractive man Kari had ever laid eyes on.
*Miyako would be having fits,* she mused. *How come I don't feel a thing?*
"We must have a formal introduction," said Gryphonmon. "My queen, would you do the honors?"
The set of Rosemon's lips said she clearly would rather not, but she consented to take a few steps closer to place herself between Gryphonmon and Kari.
"Gryphonmon, this is Kari, one of the Digidestined humans," she said. "I recently rescued her from the so-called Emperor, and she recovers from her injuries here."
"Ah." Kari wasn't sure why, but Gryphonmon had a look of puzzlement, even hurt, in his eyes. Rosemon either didn't see it or purposely ignored it.
"Kari, this is Gryphonmon," she continued. "He and I, plus two others, make up the Council of Light. We meet here this afternoon to discuss the way our world is faring, and what we might do about it. Would you care to join us?"
"Now, wait just a minute!" said Gryphonmon. "You can't just be inviting in anyone who wanders along! This is for us four alone."
"Yes, and you'd prefer it to be us three... or two," answered Rosemon. Gryphonmon winced; Rosemon seemed to carry verbal thorns as well as real ones. "Yes, you would dearly love for it to be only two. But it won't be. Furthermore, this girl has a right to be there. Did I not just say that she is one of those who protect our world?"
"Yes, but..." Gryphonmon began, and then couldn't seem to think of any way to end the sentence. He changed his mind. "Rosemon, how important to you is this child?"
"A great deal more important than you," she answered. "Go to the council room. I will be in the courtyard, awaiting the others."
Gryphonmon bowed stiffly. With his head lowered to her level, Kari was certain she saw him shoot a look in her direction, one of distrust and dislike. Then he turned and marched off, radiating hurt dignity.
"What was that all about?" asked Kari, as Rosemon began leading her off in the other direction.
"I have had disagreements with Gryphonmon," the queen replied. "Yet he is of the council, so I may not bring my disputes with him into the open. I would prefer to simply have done with him, but the others would disapprove, and I cannot afford to offend them. Be cautious around him."
"He wouldn't hurt me, would he?" asked Kari nervously.
"Not now that I have told him you are mine," answered Rosemon soothingly. "He will do anything for me but leave me in peace. And yet, I believe he will be unpleasant to you if he can. He is prone to be jealous of my friends."
"Oh. Because you like me and not him."
"Precisely. You understand well, little blossom. Tell me, how did you manage to stray so far from your rooms? I did not believe you would come this far, or I would have warned you away."
"I got lost," said Kari, "and I couldn't find my way back."
Rosemon gave her a warm smile. "It's all right, blossom, nothing to worry about. You've done nothing wrong. Come! You will like my other visitors, I think, and they will be arriving shortly. Have you found your way into my private garden yet? No? Then you'll be impressed."
Kari was. She should have known that somewhere in this vast complex there would have to be a rose garden, but even if she had guessed, she still wouldn't have imagined anything like this. What she was led to was a maze of rosebushes - a true maze, with walls higher than Rosemon's head. They were standing at the front entrance, a noble arch of flowers rising high into the air. There were more blooms than leaves here, so the walls were a rainbow of soft colors, and the perfumes ran rampant.
The girl wanted to stand and stare a bit, but Rosemon led her confidently onward, into the twisting, turning maze. It was not like any maze Kari had ever seen, which had always had their turns laid out with right angles. This maze was organic; it twisted and turned like the path of a vine, turning and looping back on itself. Here and there, little nooks and bowers offered themselves, with benches or clumps of flowers or fountains. Kari would have gotten thoroughly lost in minutes, but Rosemon knew exactly where she was going. She made her way up and down the paths, ducking through arches and passing through curtains of trailing vines. At last, they rounded a corner and stepped into the heart of the maze.
The first thought to go through Kari's head was to think that they had somehow wound their way out of the palace entirely. Then she saw the dark tops of shrubs somewhere at the far edge of the field - for this was an actual field, not just a neat little garden, but carefully cultivated to bring out all of its natural beauty. Multicolored wildflowers alternated with waving grasses. A few graceful trees stood here and there, trailing their branches in the waters of a laughing brook. Butterflies hovered in rainbow clouds. Then Kari spotted other moving shapes, and she giggled a bit; and handful of Kiwimon were hurrying around the perimeter, busily pruning the rosebushes in preparation for the incoming guests. Rosemon cleared her throat, and they scuttled for the exits with their heads down in shame.
"It seems my servants wanted to sleep in today," Rosemon remarked. "So, how do you like my garden?"
"It's lovely," said Kari, in complete honesty. There was something more to it than just the natural beauty; the sense of drowsy peace that hung over all the palace seemed twice as strong here, giving her the feeling that nothing bad would ever happen again as long as she stayed there...
"It is the heart of the palace," said Rosemon. "It was planted here first, and the rest of the compound grew around it. Few are allowed here. Only myself, my fellow councilors, and the servants who attend to it."
"I'm honored to be here, then," answered Kari politely.
Rosemon gave her an oblique look. It was hard to say how she was doing it, as she lacked visible eyes, but Kari suddenly got the feeling of being looked at with... amusement? Or something else?
"I have given you permission to be wherever you want in this palace," she replied. "The common rooms, the rooms of state, even here in the Heart itself."
Kari didn't know what to say to that, so she said nothing at all. Fortunately, the uneasiness couldn't last long, not here in this place of dreamlike calm. She drifted away from Rosemon's side and began exploring the garden in more detail, enjoying the feel of the soft grass on her bare feet and admiring the myriad of flowers. The butterflies were interested in her, swirling around her and alighting on her fingers, making her laugh. Rosemon sat at the base of one of the trees, smiling as she watched her young friend's enjoyment.
Suddenly, a shadow fell over the garden, briefly blotting out the sun. Kari looked up, visions of Ken's AirDramon flashing through her mind... but it wasn't an AirDramon, or even anything remotely dragonlike at all. It was a bird, looking as huge as a jet liner and golden as the sun as it soared by. It made another pass over the garden before dropping gracefully onto the wide expanse of lawn. For a moment it sat there, looking a bit like a huge golden statue of an eagle - no, not an eagle, Kari corrected herself, but a Phoenix - except that its eyes were moving, looking from her to Rosemon and back again. Then it fluttered its wings, becoming lost in a diminishing swirl of feathers, until it had shrunk down to human size and shape. Now he was no longer a golden bird, but a golden man, dressed in sweeping robes the color of his feathers, with a long cloak that still gave the impression of wings when he moved. His hair was golden, too, as were his eyes, and his skin was lightly tanned, as if bronzed by the sun. He was nowhere as young or handsome as Gryphonmon - there were streaks of silver mixed with the gold of his hair and lines around his eyes - but Kari found she liked him a lot better anyway. He carried an air of calmness with him, not the drowsy calm of the garden, but the cool, sharp, undisturbed peace of mountaintops. She had the feeling that this person knew a great deal, and also that he could be trusted to use that knowledge wisely.
"Welcome, Phoenixmon," said Rosemon, rising gracefully from her seat at the base of the tree. "I trust your flight was pleasant?"
"Well enough," Phoenixmon replied. "And you, Rosemon? I sense an aura of change about you. Something has happened to you, very recently."
"Nothing, save that I have taken in a human," Rosemon replied. "And there can be no doubts that the situation is neither momentous nor permanent."
"No doubt," said Phoenixmon. He turned to Kari. "And you are Hikari Kamiya, one of the Digidestined children. Greetings."
"You know me?" asked Kari, startled.
"Phoenixmon is one of the oldest creatures in the Digital World," said Rosemon, "and is noted for his clear vision. There is very little he does not know."
"Oh," said Kari. "Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Phoenixmon."
"And I am honored indeed to meet the Child of Light face to face," Phoenixmon replied. "I hope that we shall become friends."
"So do I," Kari replied, and smiled at him. The expression on the bird-man's face was a kindly one, and she had no doubts that he was being nothing but honest.
"Have the others arrived yet?" he asked, turning to Rosemon.
She shook her head. "Gryphonmon is here already, waiting. I have received word that Marine Angemon is going to be late. As usual."
"As usual," Phoenixmon echoed. "His power and heart can't be disputed, but I never met such an irresponsible Mega."
Rosemon shrugged. "I believe he thinks that nothing can hurt him at this point."
"He may be right, too," Phoenixmon answered, with a hint of a smile. "And what of you and Gryphonmon? Have you yet worked out your differences?"
"No. Nor do I have any desire to," Rosemon answered.
"Why not? Wouldn't you rather the four of us were able to work peaceably with each other?"
"Yes," Rosemon replied. "However, the only way he's willing to settle this dispute is if I give in to his wishes, which I will not do. Therefore, I prefer to have disputes."
"Sadly true," Phoenixmon sighed. "I could speak to him, if you'd like."
"If he won't listen to me, he certainly won't listen to you," Rosemon replied. "Come. Since our aquatic friend chooses to be late, we can start without him."
Phoenixmon seemed inclined to linger. "Have you invited the young lady to the meeting? She may find it educational."
"Rosemon said I could come," said Kari, who was getting tired of being left out of the conversation.
"So I did. Have you objections?" Rosemon answered, giving Phoenixmon a challenging look.
"No. Why should I object?"
"Gryphonmon said it was none of her business."
"Gryphonmon is self-centered in many respects. You might give him some credit for seeing things you wish to hide."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" There was nothing in her tone, but the air around Rosemon seemed to grow colder.
Phoenixmon leveled a look. "If you don't want to put it into words, I won't either. But you and I both know you are being dishonest."
Rosemon shrugged. "Honesty is not one of my primary virtues. I do what suits me. You know that."
"I do," Phoenixmon sighed. "Very well. We will hold council."
Kari found herself being led along again, trailing behind Rosemon, with Phoenixmon behind her. She felt oddly sandwiched and wondered why Phoenixmon didn't step up a bit. He was clearly her superior here, and yet she felt he was purposely hanging back. However, the difficulties only lasted a few brief moments before Rosemon glanced over her shoulder. She seemed to notice that something was wrong, for she stopped to pull Kari to her side, slipping her arm around her waist, letting her be wrapped in the queen's flowing cloak.
"Is that better?" she asked.
"Yes," said Kari. Actually, "better," wasn't the word she would have chosen. It was definitely different, though. Being this close to Rosemon gave her a funny feeling of tingly warmth spreading through her, stirring up a desire for something she couldn't even explain. But it was nice, she decided. With Rosemon's arm around her, she felt warm and protected and wanted. She closed her eyes without even thinking about it, letting herself become lost in this strange new sensation...
"So there you are."
Kari jumped. She hadn't thought they'd walked even far enough to get out of the maze, but she must have lost track of time completely, because now they were in a room she didn't recognize. It was another one of the flower rooms, not white or pink like the others were, but a deep, rich red. No sunlight could be seen shining through the petals, giving Kari the notion that this was a very private place. There was a table in the middle of the room, made of a great brown mushroom, and a few chairs, and nothing else. Gryphonmon was sitting at one of the chairs, and he was looking very annoyed. He gave each of the newcomers individual withering looks. Rosemon simply tilted her chin up a few more degrees and turned her head, while Phoenixmon returned a disapproving look of his own, but Kari couldn't help feeling uncomfortable. After all, Gryphonmon was a very dangerous Digimon, and she had no doubts that he was only being this polite to her because he knew Rosemon would be angry if he was outright rude. However, if she were to meet him outside Rosemon's palace, on Gryphonmon's own territory....
"There you are," he said. "What took so long? And where is Marine Angemon?"
"He has not yet arrived," Rosemon replied. "Playing somewhere, I don't doubt."
"Well, now that you mention it..."
Everyone looked up as a new voice cut into the discussion, if "cut" was the right word. There was something about the voice that suggested water, laughing water, like a splashing mountain stream but infinitely more animated. Even through the thick red walls, Kari could see something bright glowing outside, trying to get in, and she forgot her worries in the face of curiosity. She'd encountered a few angels in her time, and was wondering what this one would be like. Magna Angemon had been impressive enough, but seeing a full-fledged Mega angel would be something impressive, she thought.
Therefore, she was surprised when Rosemon finally sighed and waved a hand at the walls, convincing them to part and admit a most remarkable newcomer. It looked, Kari decided, like a cartoonist's idea of what a Gomamon would look like if it died and went to heaven. It had the same general size and shape as a Gomamon, but it was a pale, luminous shade of pink and equipped with filmy wings. It did not have a halo, but it did have a kind of golden collar around its neck, from which dangled a medallion of a red heart. There was a very ephemeral look to it, the way its tail and wings seemed to shade off into air, but its blue eyes were very present and aware, sparkling with mischief. Kari only got a brief look at it as it fluttered around the room a few times, laughing, and then dropped to the ground and was obscured in pearly pink smoke. When she could see it again, it had shifted into human form, taking the shape of a boy younger than herself, whose white-blonde hair still had a faint pink cast, and whose clothing, though not much different than something her friends would wear, seemed to be made of the same stuff as his wings.
"Hi!" he chirped, waving at all of them. "Did you miss me?"
"Something like that," Gryphonmon sighed.
Marine Angemon was not paying attention to Gryphonmon. He was walking circles around Kari, looking at her from all angles.
"You're not a Digimon," he commented. "Where did you come from?"
"She's a human," said Rosemon tartly. "She's here under my protection, I'm tired of explaining it, and I'm tired of your antics already. Sit down and let's finish this."
They sat down, or tried to. The attempt degenerated into a tense game of musical chairs. Kari got the feeling her presence was throwing off what had once been a carefully calculated seating arrangement, and everyone was using it as an excuse to try to rearrange themselves. Rosemon seemed to want Kari sitting next to her, while staying as far as possible from Gryphonmon. Gryphonmon wanted to sit next to Rosemon and kept trying to covertly shove Kari off to the side, while Phoenixmon kept trying to intervene. Marine Angemon didn't seem to care where he got to sit, so long as no one else got to be where they wanted to. Fortunately, they seemed for the most part to be too well bred to let the game go on for too long, and they eventually settled down. Kari wound up sitting between Rosemon and Phoenixmon, which would have been her preferred arrangement anyway. Gryphonmon was wedged between Phoenixmon and Marine Angemon, and he didn't seem to be liking it at all.
"I call this meeting of the Council of Light to order," said Rosemon. "Has anyone anything new to report?"
"The same as usual," said Gryphonmon glumly, "only worse. The Emperor is becoming more ambitious with his building. When he began, there was only one of his Control Spires to an area; now he'll build dozens of them in a row just to have them there. Many of my people have fallen to the Dark Rings."
"My spies watch over the high mountains," said Phoenixmon seriously. "They say they've seen that which appears to be a mountain, and yet it moves - flies in the air, they said, and where it passes, the Spires and Rings appear in its wake."
"Strange things have been happening in the oceans," said Marine Angemon, sounding more puzzled than worried. "Dark waters have been seen, they say. Someone saw a Dragomon lurking where none have ever been seen. Very strange."
"I saw the Emperor himself this very day," Rosemon replied. "He has spilled blood on my ground. Unfortunately, not all of it was his own, though I did make sure he at least contributed a little."
"You are too violent," said Phoenixmon. "Our enemy is not the sort who can be battled physically, not completely."
"I don't see why not," Rosemon replied. "He is only one very small human. The four of us together could infiltrate his fortress easily and crush him like the insect he is."
"I agree with Rosemon," said Gryphonmon. "The Emperor cannot be reasoned with. The longer we let him live, the more innocent Digimon will be killed or enslaved, until finally the damage will have spread so far that nothing we can do will be enough to reverse it."
"What damage?" asked Marine Angemon. "I haven't seen much damage. The most he's done is enslave a few creatures. They'll be set free as soon as the Emperor's gone. Where's the damage?"
"I worry more about the Control Spires," said Phoenixmon. "There seems to be something in their very nature that is harmful, not only to Digimon, but the land itself. Their presence is a danger. Even our powers are hampered by them. We should be thankful the Digidestined Children are here to destroy them for us."
"Yes, but that's all they do," Gryphonmon rumbled. "They don't take any action against the Emperor; they only sit and try to undo what he's done, and don't have much success at it."
"They do a lot more than you've done," said Rosemon tartly. "They save us the trouble of having to do it, leaving us free to get to the root of the problem."
Around and around the table the discussion went, making Kari almost dizzy as she tried to keep up with the arguments. Rosemon and Gryphonmon both seemed to have the idea that the best thing to do would be to launch an all-out attack on the Digimon Emperor. Phoenixmon kept trying to talk them down, saying that he didn't feel the Emperor deserved the penalty of death, even that killing him would be more harmful overall than letting him be. Marine Angemon argued with both sides, seeming to think that the most interesting thing to do would be to wait a bit and see what would happen. Just when Kari was about to fall asleep out of sheer boredom, Rosemon rapped on the tabletop to call everyone's attention.
"It seems that, as usual, we cannot come to a consensus," she said. "Can we at least come to a temporary compromise?"
"If there must be compromise, let it be Marine Angemon's kind," said Phoenixmon. "Violent action will not solve this problem. Provoking wild beasts is not the way to calm them."
"In other words, we go back to waiting," Gryphonmon growled. "I'm getting sick of it. If you all refuse to be useful, I'll take matters into my own hands."
"That, you will not do," said Rosemon. "I agree with your sentiments, but we've agreed to act in concert or not at all. Defend your lands by any means you see fit, but you will take no drastic measures. Is that clear?"
"It is," he said grudgingly.
"Then we will wait," she said. "But not for long. Phoenixmon, I give you a month to come up with the peaceful solution you seem to want so much. If you in your wisdom can find none, then I believe we will have no choice but to fight."
"Your words are fair," said Phoenixmon. "I believe a solution will surface."
"Then this meeting is adjourned," Rosemon announced.
"Oh, good," said Marine Angemon. "This was getting dull. Goodbye!"
In a blink of pink light, he shifted back to Digimon form and flew out through the wall again. The other members of the council got up with more composure.
"Rosemon, might I speak to you privately for a moment?" asked Gryphonmon in a low rumble.
Rosemon sighed. "If I must. Kari, will you be all right by yourself for a little while?"
"I'll be fine," she replied.
"Good. I will return shortly," Rosemon replied.
She and Gryphonmon began to walk off together, arguing quietly. Kari caught snatches of words as they drifted off: "...don't see what the fuss is..." "...a human, of all things, a little girl..." "...perfectly innocent..." "...taking advantage of..."
"Would my lady care to walk with me?" asked Phoenixmon, pulling Kari out of her thoughts. She turned toward him quickly, aware that she'd been eavesdropping and feeling a bit embarrassed.
"I'd like that," she said.
"Good. There are things I believe you should know, things that I would rather not have to tell you when Queen Rosemon is listening." Phoenixmon bowed slightly, offering Kari his arm. With her hand resting on his sleeve like a shy butterfly, she let herself be led out into a garden.
"This will do," said Phoenixmon, looking around. "For all its beauty, I prefer the side garden's to the queen's private one. She tends to impress her will too heavily on some things. If she could, she would make everything be as she wills it, whether or not it wishes to be. So, what did you think of the council?"
"It was..." She paused, trying to think of something that wasn't uncomplimentary. "Not what I expected."
"A diplomatic answer," Phoenixmon replied. "For all our power, we get very little accomplished. Compromise is not something that comes easily to us."
"I am glad you talked them out of killing Ken. He's not very nice, but he doesn't deserve to die."
"I'm glad you agree," said Phoenixmon. "They see him only as a threat. I see him as being threatened."
"What do you mean?" asked Kari.
"I've seen animals driven to insanity by pain. The pain that drives the Emperor is very deep indeed. You've been told I see things beyond what is in front of me? Around the Emperor, I see a darkness that extends beyond himself. It goes far enough that even killing him won't extinguish it."
"Oh." Kari didn't know why, but she suddenly felt cold, even in the warm, sunlit garden. She decided to change the subject. "Why are Rosemon and Gryphonmon so angry at each other?"
"Ah, I'm glad you asked that," said Phoenixmon. "Were you going to ask next why Gryphonmon dislikes you so much? They are very much the same question."
"And what's the answer?"
"The answer is that Gryphonmon is, well... very emotionally entangled with the queen."
"You mean he's in love with her?" asked Kari.
"Nothing that simple. He does feel very strongly towards her - he's asked her more than once to marry him, but she refuses. She feels nothing for him and never will, and he knows this. He desires her and despises her in equal measures. They were friends, once, but now our queen feels that she must be eternally on guard, lest he think he might have a chance to win her, so she pushes him away again and again. He is jealous of you because he can see she cares about you in ways she will never care for him."
Kari blushed. "I don't think-"
"I know you don't," Phoenixmon replied. "You are an innocent creature. That puts you in danger. I would not feel right if I didn't warn you. Be on guard here. Some beauties are only skin deep. Rosemon has many admirable qualities, but just as many bad ones. Do not let yourself be lulled by the illusion of peace you'll find here, and be wary of Rosemon's powers. She has the ability to control what a person feels and thinks if they give her an opening, and as I said, she does not hesitate to use this power. I don't believe she would hurt you, not on purpose, but she might not have the sensitivity to realize what will hurt you. Do you understand?"
"Maybe," Kari answered. "But - but she's been so kind to me. I can't imagine her doing anything really bad..."
"True," said Phoenixmon. He stared at her a moment, his gaze oddly piercing, holding her eyes to his. "Hm. I think perhaps she won't make you do anything you don't want to do, but I think you should try to be aware of what you want. My advice to you is to stay as long as you need to recover from your injuries, but no longer."
Kari nodded. "All right."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," said Kari. "Really. I've got to go home to my friends anyway. They'll be worried about me."
"Fine," Phoenixmon replied. "Just keep that in mind. And now, I believe I must be returning to my home. My people have seen the Emperor's followers moving through my mountains, and I dislike leaving them alone for very long. Please give my regards to the Queen... I do not believe she will be in a good mood when she's done with Gryphonmon. You'll deal better with her than I will."
"If you say so," said Kari. "Goodbye, Phoenixmon."
"Goodbye, Child of Light. Farewell."
He swirled his cloak around him, becoming a golden bird once more. He dipped his head once in a final parting gesture, and then rose up into the air again, stirring up a wind that tossed the heads of the flowers and forced Kari to close her eyes against its force. When she could look up again, Phoenixmon was only a retreating light in the sky. Kari watched him go for a bit, wondering just why he'd seemed so intent on warning her. Warning her of what? As far as she could tell, Rosemon would never have hurt her for anything. What did Phoenixmon think was going to happen?
Kari sighed; it was all too much for her. She would just have to accept that Phoenixmon must have had his reasons, and he seemed to mean well. At least most of her advice was sensible. She would go home as soon as she was well again. Of course, badly as she'd been hurt, getting well could take a long time... and that wasn't, she thought, a bad thing at all.
Rosemon watched from a distance as her favorite flower basked in the sunlight that soaked the central garden. The girl had been living in the palace for almost a week now, and every day she seemed more at home. The servants all adored her for her quiet grace and gentle ways, and she in turn had befriended most of them, spending much of her time playing games with them. As her strength slowly returned, she had taken to exploring the flower queen's home, learning her way through the grassy tunnels and sunny meadows. She had even learned the way straight into the deepest garden, Rosemon's Heart Garden where the roses bloomed.
*Which is exactly where I want her,* Rosemon thought, smiling. *There is something about this girl that draws me, as a flower is drawn to the light. She is so pure, so innocent... I wonder what she would do if I tried to educate her?*
Kari had her eyes closed when Rosemon approached, so all she saw was a slight fading of the light as her shadow fell across her.
"Are you asleep, little blossom?" she asked.
"No," said Kari. In truth, she had been very close to dozing off. The drowsy peace that hung over all of Rosemon's palace was particularly strong here, and spending too much time in it made her feel pleasantly relaxed, warm and safe, as if she were just about to fall asleep in the arms of a loved one. Since she had to spend time resting and recovering anyway, she preferred to do it here.
"Would you mind if I joined you for a while?" Rosemon asked.
"Of course not," answered Kari, a bit surprised. "It's your garden."
"But it's your company. I would not take that if it were not offered," answered Rosemon, seating herself gracefully next to Kari.
"I like your company," said Kari.
"I'm flattered. I admit, I enjoy being near you as well. My comrades tell me I am too fierce, too harsh, but I feel peaceful when I am with you."
"Me, too. I've been so happy here... it's all like a dream."
"I am glad you feel that way," answered Rosemon. "Kari, how do you feel about me?"
"How do I feel about you? I don't know... You're really something special. You're so strong and so beautiful... I'll never be as beautiful as you."
"That's not so. Don't tell yourself that. I think you're very pretty. You're a very special girl." The flower queen was twining her fingers through Kari's hair, and the girl kept her eyes closed, enjoying the sensation, as well as the inner glow Rosemon's words were giving her. "You are the first person I've ever allowed into my heart. I would be happy to let you stay here forever."
"Forever?" Kari repeated. The word was bound to mean something - she was sure Rosemon had just said something important, but now it escaped her just what it might be. It didn't matter, anyway. All that mattered was that the flower queen wanted her near, that they were here in this warm, peaceful place where nothing would ever bother them again.
"That doesn't bother you, does it?" asked Rosemon gently.
"No," she answered. "I want to stay here with you."
"I'm glad." Rosemon paused for a moment, as if uncertain. "Would you mind if I...?"
She let the question hang. Instead, she ran her graceful fingers down Kari's cheek, tilting back her chin. Kari, still lost in a dreamy haze, couldn't even manage surprise as she felt Rosemon lean in to kiss her. For a moment, her touch was cool, like morning dew, but she warmed quickly as their lips met, and Kari's senses were overwhelmed with the warmth of the sunlight and the smell of roses. All she could manage to think was, *Oh. That explains a lot...* before her mind wandered away completely.
Someone was knocking at the door. A ringed Digimon paused in what it was doing and hesitated by the doorway, wondering what the best thing to do. While it hesitated, the person at the door knocked again, more insistently this time. The Digimon shrugged, decided it had nothing better to do, and opened the door a crack.
"Who goes there?" it asked.
"Kiwi's Delivery Service!" answered a Kiwimon on the other side.
"Ah!" said the servant, opening the door wide. "Come in! His highness has been waiting for you."
"I thought so," answered the Kiwimon. It stepped inside, removing its blue cap with one hind foot and tossing it aside. "He'll be glad to see me, I think. I have news for him."
"Right this way," the servant answered.
Within a few moments, Ken was watching the Kiwimon enter his control room and smirking to himself. He liked this Kiwimon. He hadn't even had to ring it - it had come to him willingly, asking to be put to work. This was an old follower of Puppetmon, always willing to support the cause of darkness. As the bird met Ken's eye, the boy did allow a slight smile to creep across his face. The Digidestined were such fools to believe that no Digimon could be naturally evil.
"I suppose you've been having fun living in the lap of luxury?" asked the emperor casually.
"I hardly call working as a servant the lap of luxury," Kiwimon replied. "Though I do overhear a few interesting things in the gardens."
"You had no trouble getting in?"
"None at all. Rosemon has other things on her mind than one stray in Digimon in her home. As far as she knows, I'm just a humble gardener... though one clever enough to find his way into her sanctum sanctorum."
"Oh? This sounds interesting."
"Trust me, it is. At the center of the flower queen's palace, there is a garden of roses, what Rosemon calls the Heart. I've seen her take a human child there not unlike the one she took from you. It was interesting to see."
"Was it? Do tell."
So the Kiwimon did. Ken didn't even bother to try not to smile.
Rosemon was in an unusually good mood as she went to her room for the night. Things were proceeding just as she wanted them to go. For now, she didn't intend to try anything too remarkable - she had sensed a moment of hesitation when she had first kissed the child, and though she had been able to get past it, the last thing she wanted was to frighten her away. What she needed to do now, she decided, was to proceed slowly, to give the girl time to get used to the idea of the two of them together, so that when she was grown and ready for true romance, she would never have any other idea but that she and Rosemon belonged together. The queen could wait. She could be patient if she needed to be, patient as the slow, questing roots that could break through the mighty stones. A few years was not so long to wait, and in the meantime, conducting the child's education would be pleasant enough.
*And then my loneliness will be over. How long have I waited to find someone like her, to bring me happiness and peace? I will not lose her, not for anything...*
Then she passed through the walls of her room to find someone was already waiting for her. Rosemon's mouth opened in surprise, but she could find nothing to say.
"Hello again," said Ken, flashing his superior grin. "Are you happy to see me again? No, you don't look happy. Maybe because you weren't expecting me? That was foolish of you. You should know that the Digimon Emperor doesn't forget an insult."
"How did you get in here?" Rosemon demanded.
Ken laughed. "You think too much of yourself. I'm a match for any Digimon, even you."
"Not if I flay you to fertilizer!"
"Try it, and I'll be gone before you can blink... and then be back. If I can get so easily into your rooms, think how easy it would be for me to get into somewhere less protected... a guest room, maybe. But that wouldn't frighten you, would it, rose queen? You wouldn't keep anything precious there, would you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Rosemon stiffly.
"Oh, don't you? I think you're lying," Ken replied. "You've taken something from me, Rosemon. There's a little human girl here. She sleeps in your best guest room in the southeast wing of your palace, guarded by nothing but three Floramon. Would you like me to be more specific? I know everything, right down to which side of the dresser she left her hairbrush. Her name is Hikari Kamiya, but I think you call her something else, some cute little nickname. What was it? Oh, yes - your little blossom. How sweet. How fitting. She's such a fragile little thing - shame if someone should step on her."
"Don't you dare threaten her," Rosemon hissed, reaching for her rapier. "You will do nothing to her, do you understand? I would never let an insect like you take her from me."
"An insect, am I? Then you admit that I could destroy your little garden?" answered Ken, smirking. "You're very amusing, do you know that? Let's get this straight right now - I know you're more than a match for me when it comes to brute strength. On the other hand, I've got you more than outmatched for wits. I have an agent here in your palace, someone you'll never be able to detect... someone who I have ordered to keep watch over your precious flower as she sleeps tonight. If you so much as scratch me, I'll contact him and have him kill her, and there will be nothing you can do about it, so you'd better listen to me."
"Fine. I will listen," answered Rosemon. "What do you want?"
"Retribution. Payback," answered Ken. "No one makes a fool of me. No one spills the blood of an emperor without being punished. It's only because you can be of use to me that I'm giving you a chance to make up for your deeds instead of destroying everything you care about."
"You mean you're bargaining because you know I'm too powerful for you to destroy."
"Do you want me to use this?" asked Ken. He reached in his pocked and took out a telephone-like object, obviously some kind of communication device. "I don't like the girl. I would be more than happy to have her out of my life forever. I'd have no regrets seeing her die."
"I can see that," Rosemon sighed. "All right. So be it. I'll do whatever you say. Just let me keep the girl."
Ken laughed. "Keep her? You really think you own her in the first place? You are even more of a fool than I thought."
"What do you know about it?" asked Rosemon.
"I know because I've made a bit of a study. Here, have a look."
He offered Rosemon a flat bit of metal, roughly the size and shape of a thin book, and she took it as if she expected it to bite. Instead, it lit up, producing a small holographic image of doll- sized people moving across a flickering terrain. Rosemon watched as the recording played itself out, showing Kari talking to a blushing redheaded boy as he offered her flowers, and continued to watch as Kari accepted them and blushed back. Then the image blinked into something else. Kari was talking to a blonde, blue-eyed boy, handsome as humans went. They seemed to be having a good time together; they were both laughing. Blink - the image jumped again. Now Kari was reading in her room. The door opened, admitting an older boy with unruly brown hair. She exclaimed in surprise and delight, and leaped up to hug him.
"Gets around, doesn't she?" Ken commented.
"This is false," said Rosemon. "She is not like this... These images can't be real..."
"Every one of them is true," answered Ken. "The first one happened the same day we met." Of course, he didn't have to tell her that the boy in the last image was Kari's brother - she probably wouldn't have understood him if he'd told her - or that as far as he could tell, Kari had never had any interest in anyone except as a friend.
"Why do you show me this?" Rosemon demanded. "To taunt me? I have taught her how to forget. Her mind is clouded; she will think nothing of these people as long as she is here."
"Possible," said Ken. "But they will be thinking of her. Sooner or later, they'll get tired of waiting for her to come home."
"They won't find her here. I'm too well protected."
"I found her."
"Fine, then. What's your point? Or do you just enjoy taunting me?"
"Taunting people is always fun," said Ken, taking his box back. "but yes, I do have a reason for showing you this. These friends of the girl's are enemies of mine. They appear in this world from time to time with no reason but to annoy me. Unfortunately, they've proven very difficult to be rid of. I want them rendered harmless. At the moment, there are few things I want more. If you want to make up for what you've done..."
"You want me to destroy them?"
"Not all of them," said Ken. He toyed with the box, bringing back the image of Daisuke. "Do whatever you want with the rest of them. As long as they never bother me again, I don't care. Kill them, capture them, whatever... but this one is mine."
"Don't act so surprised. I'm not naive, you know. It's not as if you aren't doing the same thing. We're in this together."
"Don't count me in your league."
"Whatever you say. So - is it a deal?"
"I suppose it must be," Rosemon replied. "Do I have your word that once I've done this for you, you will leave the girl to me?"
"The girl is no concern of mine. As long as I never see her again, you can do whatever you please with her."
"Well, I'm so glad I have your permission," she answered. "Very well. I will capture the Digidestined and deliver them to you. Is that to your liking?"
"Superb. I'll be able to play with them a bit before I dispose of them," answered Ken. "Well, it has been just lovely doing business with you, Rosemon. I trust you'll be punctual in your delivery? You wouldn't want me to get impatient, you know."
"The next time they appear in this world, I will capture them," Rosemon answered, "provided nothing prevents me."
"You were ready enough to boast to me that you were more powerful than just about anything. I'm going to hold you to that. No excuses!"
"Fine, then! You'll have what you've asked for. Just... get out of my sight. And if the circumstances ever change, even for an instant..."
"At this moment, I am the one with the power. This is a bad time to be making threats."
"Look, I've agreed to everything you've asked. What more do you want?"
"To make you suffer, of course! That was the primary objective here, after all. The Digidestined are just icing on the cake. I'm having fun playing with you. If you want me to leave, you'd better ask nicely."
"Oh, all right. Would you please go away and leave me in peace?"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk! Such bad manners," said Ken. "That's no way to talk to an emperor. Maybe I should punish you for that, too? Ask again and do it right this time."
Rosemon stared at him, slowly realizing what it was he wanted. Every muscle trembling with anger and shame, she knelt down on the floor, bowing her head.
"Your Imperial Majesty, I beg leave to depart from your presence."
Ken laughed. "That's better! See, I knew you had it in you! I wish I had time to hang around and enjoy it, but I have things I need to be doing. Goodbye, Rosemon! I hope to see you again very soon. And keep your head down."
He prodded her with his foot, shoving her face down into the mossy floor. She stayed there, afraid to move for fear he'd heap even more abuse on her. Finally, she heard the rustling that meant the boy emperor had passed through the walls and gone. She held the pose a moment longer, then rose again, wiping the mud from her cheek, taking deep breaths to steady herself. When she was sure she was in control of herself again, she pulled a vine that rang a distant bell, and one of her Lillymon servants fluttered in.
"There is a spy in my palace," she said. "Search the grounds! I want him, her, or it found and exterminated! Go quickly, before it escapes."
"Yes, m'lady," the Lillymon replied, and buzzed out again.
With that accomplished, Rosemon turned and collapsed onto a chair, letting her nerves play themselves out in a fit of shivering. It was a few minutes before she could get her mind clear again, but by then, one thing was certain. Detestable as it was, she had no choice but to do the boy-emperor's will. She would capture these Digidestined and give them to him. Whatever he did with them was none of her business, but whatever happened, they would be removed from Kari's life forever, and that left her free to stay with Rosemon. That was the important thing. Rosemon would complete her mission, and show the girl there was nothing she would not do for her sake.
All the fun had gone out of smashing Control Spires. With Kari missing, the Digidestined had to fight the feeling that they were all wasting their time - why bother to take out the Spires when they knew they could never have large-scale success with a member missing? They had done everything they could think of to try to track her down, but the Digital World was a huge place, even when searching from the sky. Izzy had attempted to help out by putting his computer skills to work, and Miyako and Joe had both done what they could to assist in the search. So far, they had come up with nothing. In the end, they had been forced to admit that whatever had hidden Kari had done it so well that their own equipment didn't have a chance of locating her. They had fallen back on making searches on foot or wing whenever they could find the time and confining their Spire-destroying trips to areas close to the place where Kari had been lost, hoping to find some trace of her. However, as they days went by, everyone was becoming more despondent. Kari's parents stayed up all night worrying, Tai had accidentally destroyed his favorite soccer ball in a fit of frustration, TK was snapping at everyone, and the normally exuberant Miyako and Daisuke had sunk into silent gloom.
"I can't take much more of this," the boy sighed, watching without enthusiasm as Flamedramon took out a row of towers. "It's been days, and we haven't heard a word from Kari since that stupid Kiwi! We don't even know if she's alive, or..."
"Shh!" Miyako hissed, pointing at Gatomon.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry," said Daisuke, blushing. The white cat had been miserable since the disappearance of her partner. While she could survive and keep her strength well enough as long as she stayed in the Digital World, the pain of having lost Kari yet another time was wearing on her. The sparkle had gone out of her blue eyes, and her tail dragged the ground.
"She'll turn up," said Iori. "She has to. I mean, people just don't drop off the face of the world, do they?"
"Things can happen to them," TK answered grimly. "Wherever she is, we'll just have to hope we stumble onto her sooner or later... or that she gets away."
"I wonder what this Rosemon really has to do with it all?" Miyako mused. "I mean, I know the other 'mons say she's a good Digimon, but how do we know? She could be in league with Ken. She might not even be the one who took Kari away. There's nothing stopping Ken from sending us a Kiwimon to tell us someone else has her."
"I think I would have something to say about it if the emperor started using my name without permission."
The Digidestined and their partners looked up. Hovering above them was Rosemon, her cloak spread out like wings, on hand on her rapier and the other on her whip. Something in her stance told them all that if she'd had eyes, they would have been blazing.
"Someone please tell me that's an impostor," said Miyako.
"Sorry, Miyako," Digmon answered. "It looks an awful lot like the real thing to me."
"I'm real enough," retorted Rosemon. "Consider yourself officially warned. I don't intend to hurt you all, but I will if I have to. Come along quietly and things will be much easier."
"Not on your life!" TK answered; he looked glad to finally have something to take his frustrations out upon. "Rosemon or whoever you are, you're picking on the wrong people! You give us our friend back, and maybe we'll go easy on you!"
"The girl stays with me," said Rosemon. "As for the rest of you, if you will not do as I say, then we must fight. Prepare for battle!"
"You got it!" Daisuke shouted. "Flamedramon, go get her!"
"Can do! Fire Rocket!"
The fire dragon leaped into the air, fists blazing as he lobbed a volley of fireballs at the flower queen. She dodged them easily. With a swift crack of her whip, she wrapped him in a vine of thorns and slung him across the scenery, letting him crash into the heap of rubble that had been a Spire a few minutes ago. Before anyone could react, she dove at Daisuke, lashing out at him, and it was only his endless soccer practice that gave him the speed to dodge. The hem of his shirt tore as the whip slashed past him.
"Hey! What the heck do you think you're doing?" he shouted. "You're supposed to fight the Digimon, not me!"
"I have no interest in Digimon. I was told to capture the humans, and that's what I'm going to do," said Rosemon.
She threw her rapier at him, and it shot through the air in complete defiance of the laws of gravity to snag the collar of Daisuke's shirt. It dragged him several yards, finally burying itself into the side of a tree, letting him dangle with his feet five feet off the ground.
"You stay there," she told him over her shoulder. "I was supposed to take you alive."
"What about the rest of them?" he shouted, trying to pull himself free. All he managed was to put holes in his hands; the rapier was studded with needle-sharp thorns, and he quickly abandoned the attempt.
"If they resist, I'll have to kill them."
"I've got a better idea, lady," Miyako replied. "How about we send you back where you came from? Shurimon, attack!"
The samurai launched himself into the air, hovering level with Rosemon, making swift jabs with his blades. She parried them barehanded, apparently not even feeling their sharp edges. He threw them at her, only to have them caught and thrown back, striking him and sending him plummeting to the ground. When Miyako ran to comfort him, Rosemon threw a vine at them, binding them tightly.
"Two down. Who wants to be next?" she remarked.
"You leave them alone!" TK shouted. "What's the matter with you? You've already taken one of my best friends! Do you want the whole set, or what?"
"I'm not planning on keeping you," answered Rosemon. "You're to be delivered to the emperor. Hold still."
TK didn't even have time for a reaction; then he was wrapped in vines as well. Shock made him try to escape anyway, and he tripped and fell. Pegasusmon tried to land next to him, only to find his wings tied before he could even reach the ground. He fell, and she shock sent him flashing back to Patamon again, still tied up tight.
"This is not good..." said Iori, staring wide eyed at the battlefield... and at the creature that had just turned her attention to him.
"Get out of here," said Digmon, stepping between the two of them. His normally playful voice had taken on an edge of seriousness. "I'm not letting her get you! Just get out of here!"
"I can't leave without you!"
"You can go get the other Digidestined and come rescue us," Digmon answered, "but if she gets you, too, we're all done for!"
Rosemon hesitated, finding herself oddly fascinated by the argument. If she had been in the boy's shoes, seeing one of her servants about to be attacked and knowing she could do nothing to prevent it, she never would have hesitated to make an escape. Why did the boy care so much what happened to the creature? And for that matter, why hadn't all of the children left when they had the chance? They should have known she was a Mega, impossible for their Armored Digimon to defeat. Did they really care that much about their partners? About Kari? It seemed they were willing to go through as much for her as Rosemon was...
"This is more difficult than I thought," she said. "Look, I'm... I'm sorry about this, but it has to be done. If you were in my place, you'd understand."
Iori looked up, surprised by the sadness he heard in the Mega Digimon's voice. He'd never heard anyone working for Ken sound sad before. The moment he hesitated was a moment too long; in the next instant, he found himself bound up in vines like the rest of the Digidestined.
"And so it is done," said Rosemon. She gathered the ends of the vines together, collecting a bundle of Digidestined and Rookie Digimon and prepared to take off. She didn't notice a white blur slipping off into the bushes.
Kari sat in her room, trying to think. She needed to think. Why was thinking so hard? She'd never had a hard time with it before, but lately, it felt like she'd been walking around in a pink, flower-scented fog, and for all its pleasantness, she found herself rebelling against it. It had started when Rosemon had kissed her, and she had come back to her room that night wondering just why she hadn't been the least bit surprised. If she'd been at home, she would have been shocked out of her wits to find herself kissing a woman - a Digimon, at that! Because she knew that as surely as she'd been kissed, she'd responded. She had to admit, deep down, she had enjoyed it. She couldn't forget the feeling that came over her when the flower queen came near, the one that made her feel as if she'd melted inside. It would explain why she'd never felt any interest in the boys that had pursued her... but she wasn't used to thinking of herself in those terms. She'd never wanted to think of herself as something out of the ordinary, for all of being a Digidestined, but now that it was happening, she needed to think about it, and she couldn't. Every time she tried, she lapsed back into that foggy state of feeling that everything was really okay, and nothing needed to be thought about after all, which she knew deep down wasn't true. She'd also found that the deeper she went into Rosemon's palace, the more prevalent the feeling became. By the time she got to the Heart Garden, all she wanted to do was lie down and doze. That was wrong, and she was busy trying to figure out why. Every time a new idea occurred to her, she held on to it, slowly building up the stock of supplies that would become an answer.
*I don't even know how long I've been here,* she realized. *It feels like I've been here forever. I can barely remember where I came from. That's not right, either. I know I had a life before this, but it's all so vague...*
Just then, her attention was caught by a commotion somewhere in the distance, from the direction she knew the far walls of Rosemon's palace lay. That intrigued her; of all the walls in the complex, those were the only ones that would not open to let her through. Perhaps now would be her opportunity to find out what lay on the other side. She got up and began hurrying toward the noise.
Passing through a wall of grass, she found herself standing in a courtyard, where a small war seemed to have broken out. Floramon, Kiwimon, Mushroomon, and even a few Palmon all had ganged up on some other small Digimon, which was busy giving them all a sound thrashing. The little 'mon, whatever it was, was stronger than it looked, for it seemed to have already rendered several of the servants helpless. Even so, it was badly outnumbered, and there were scuffs in its fur that looked like a few of the attacks thrown at it had struck home. Despite its injuries, it fought in a way that said it was going to win or die trying.
"What's going on out here?" shouted Kari over the melee.
There was instant silence; by now, all the servants had gotten used to treating Kari with the same deference they gave their queen. Her voice seemed to have some effect on the little Digimon, for it, too, stopped what it was doing to stare at her. Then it sprang.
"Kari!" Gatomon wailed, throwing herself at her partner, tears springing to her eyes. "I'm so glad I found you!"
"I... know you, don't I?" asked Kari. She felt as if someone were pulling open a rusty door in her head.
"You don't remember me?" Gatomon replied. "Kari, what did she do to you? How could you forget me?"
Kari let her eyes meet Gatomon's, and then blinked, as if waking up from a dream.
"Gatomon," she said. "Of course... How could I have forgotten? But... Rosemon told me she was going to send for you when I was feeling better. She never called? Never?"
Gatomon shook her head.
"But why? She's been so kind to me. Why wouldn't she let you come see me?"
"I think I've got some news you aren't going to like hearing," answered Gatomon. "Rosemon's in league with Ken. She just showed up a few hours ago and captured all the other Digidestined and took them to him. I only just managed to get away. I knew I had to find you somewhere. Kari, you're their only hope. We've got to get you out of here so we can try to help you."
"Rosemon? And Ken? But she wouldn't!" said Kari. Then she shook her head. "What am I saying? Of course she would. She's been messing with my mind. Why didn't I see it before? And after Phoenixmon warned me... But she didn't want me to see, did she?"
"What?" asked Gatomon, completely lost.
"Rosemon has powers to control people's minds," said Kari grimly. "Phoenixmon told me so. I'm starting to think she's been fogging my mind, so I wouldn't think about going home... so I'd do what she wanted me to and think it was all my own idea."
"The nerve of her! If I ever get my claws on her in a fair fight..."
"You're not going to go picking fights with her," said Kari. "She'd hurt you. But she won't hurt me. I'm going to go have a few words with her before I leave."
"But what about...?" Gatomon began, and then stopped, seeing the look in Kari's eyes. "All right. But make it fast, okay?"
Kari set out, making a beeline for Rosemon's chambers. The pink fog tried to set in on her, attempting to weaken her resolution, but Gatomon's presence seemed to protect her. She was nearly to her destination when she heard a familiar and unexpected voice. Rosemon seemed to be having a loud argument with someone, and the someone sounded suspiciously like Gryphonmon.
"...should have at least told me!" he was roaring.
"Told you what? What I do is my own business, Gryphonmon!"
"It is not your business! Attacking the Digidestined is everyone's business - and attacking them in my territory is my business! Do you know the chaos that's been going on since you took them? All of my followers think I knew about this, because I was fool enough to let myself get close to you! They want to know why I didn't do anything to stop you!"
"That's precisely why I didn't tell you! You have no idea what would have happened if I didn't..."
"I have a good guess what would have happened," Gryphonmon snarled. "My border patrols caught a suspicious looking Kiwimon last night, trying to make a run for it. He told us the whole thing. You've been making deals with the emperor!"
"I did it for Kari's sake!"
"You did it so you could get them out of the way! Don't think I can't see right through you, Rosemon, I've known you too long. You were determined to make a pet out of a little human girl, and they were in your way."
"That's not the way it was!"
"Yes it is! Admit it: you bargained with the emperor - you'd deliver the Digidestined to him if he'd let you keep the girl for yourself."
"No! You don't understand...!"
Kari stepped into the light. "I understand completely."
Gryphonmon stared. Rosemon gasped. Now that Kari was looking at her, she realized that there was something wrong with her. Her hair was in disarray; her skin looked pale; her face was drawn. Still, Kari was really too angry to care.
"Kari..." Rosemon managed. "How much did you just hear?"
"More than enough," said Kari. "How could you do this to me? I thought you were my friend, Rosemon. I cared about you, and this is how you treat me? I was stupid to ever believe you felt anything real for me."
"I did care about you. You can't know how much."
"If you really cared about me, why would you treat me like this? Why would you try to destroy everything I care about? You took what you wanted and never gave me any say in anything. Well, guess what?" she demanded, advancing on the flower queen. "I am not one of your servants to be pushed any way you want! I'm not a slave, that you can make bargains for me! I am Queen Kari, and I will not stand for it!"
Rosemon was backing away. In her anger, Kari seemed older, somehow. She nearly seemed to glow with her own light; her eyes were nothing like those of a little girl.
"I... I only wanted..." she said hesitantly.
"That's right," said Kari. "You only wanted. You never gave any thought for what I wanted. You should have given me a chance..." For the first time, the strength in her voice broke. "I could have learned to love you, if you'd just let me."
"You don't care for me at all, then?" asked Rosemon. She sounded like a little child.
"I don't know," said Kari. "I can't answer that right now. But I can't stay here anymore, not after what you've done."
"Then go," answered Rosemon, shoulders slumping. "I won't hold you any longer. The walls will open for you now. Goodbye... little blossom."
With that, Rosemon turned and hurried away, leaving a trail of rose petals in her wake. Kari knelt and picked on up, studying it.
"She's crying..." she realized.
Gatomon tugged at her hand. "Come on. Let's go."
Kari turned and began walking away, moving slowly, looking drained after her show of strength. Even as she was leaving, a heavy hand fell onto her shoulder. She turned around to see Gryphonmon standing behind her.
"And what do you want?" she asked.
"I just wanted to make sure we didn't part enemies," Gryphonmon answered. "That must have been difficult for you. I admire your courage."
"You aren't angry with me?" she asked.
"I don't suppose I am. I've known for a long time that I would never get what I wanted. It was just having it presented to me so irrefutably that hurt... but it isn't your fault. I'm sorry for mistreating you."
"You're forgiven," she answered. "You're not the only one who knows what it feels like to be hurt. Come on, Gatomon, let's get out of here. I don't want to be in this place anymore."
Gatomon nodded and took her partner's hand in her paw, leading her toward the exit. Kari stepped out of the palace and into the evening. The sun had just slipped below the horizon, leaving behind a streak of gold at the edge of the sky, and the rest of the heavens was a clear expanse of deep blue with a few glittering stars. An evening breeze brushed by to stir Kari's hair, fluttering the hems of her thin white dress. She shivered.
*I should have known it was all wrong,* she realized. *I was never meant to be a petted little princess. I'm a Digidestined, a warrior. How am I supposed to fight like this? I don't even have shoes anymore...*
"Well, we'll try," she said aloud. "Ready, Gatomon?"
"More than ready!" the little cat replied.
"All right, let's get back in this game! Digi-Armor energize!"
There was a flash of soft silvery flared from her Digivice, enveloping them both. When it cleared, Gatomon had become Nefertimon, starlight flashing from her glossy wings. More importantly, Kari found herself properly dressed as a Digidestined again. She smiled.
"This is more like it!" she said. It was amazing how much better having the right clothes made her feel. "Now, let's go find our friends!"
"The sooner the better," Nefertimon agreed. She knelt down long enough to let her partner scramble onto her back, and then the two of them rose into the air, becoming just another shining speck against the starry sky. Neither of them looked back on the place they had left, but if they had, they might have seen a lone Digimon woman looking up at them from the Heart Courtyard, watching them fade into the night.
A ray of light spilled across the faces of the captured Digidestined, harsh golden light that made them squint in sudden pain as the pitch blackness cracked. Framed by the light was the Emperor himself, his dark cloak streaming out behind him like the wings of some dark angel, his tinted glasses shining like red eyes. He laughed, looking down at his prisoners. Most of them were looking a bit battered - he had let his servants be as rough as they pleased in chaining up the unimportant prisoners. Only Daisuke was left unharmed; he was very thoroughly manacled to the wall, so that the most he could do was turn his head and wiggle his fingers and toes, but there wasn't a scratch on him except where he'd cut his hands trying to free himself from Rosemon's rapier, and even those wounds had been carefully bandaged. The others weren't so lucky. They were tied up in haphazard little bundles, their ankles and wrists bound painfully tight, most of them showing bruises or split lips. Their Digimon were in similar shape, each held captive by a metal collar that was almost too tight to allow breathing. The Digivices and D-Terminals were piled on a table, in plain view but out of reach. To Ken, the scene had all the elements of an enjoyable afternoon.
"Welcome, Digidestined," he said coolly, gliding into the room. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the company of Wormmon, who bounced along behind him looking apologetic. "I'm so pleased I could finally bring you into my home. Especially one of you," he added, with a glance in Daisuke's direction.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Daisuke scornfully.
Ken sauntered up to him, running his glove across the boy's cheek, tracing a raindrop's path down his chest, while Daisuke tried to squirm away from the touch. The Emperor laughed and leaned closer to him, whispering a single word: "Guess."
Daisuke spat in his face, and Ken backed away snarling.
"Be that way, then," he said. "Just keep in mind that you don't have a choice in this matter. You'll never escape me now. There's nothing left for you to do but decide whether you'll give in to me now or later."
"I have a choice, all right," Daisuke replied. "I'll die before I give in to you."
Ken didn't appear fazed by this remark. He shrugged. "You know, in her way, Rosemon is a clever creature. She has that girl of hers living in a pink fog right now, with nothing in her little head but amusing herself in the Rose Queen's gardens. She doesn't think of you at all anymore, do you know that? She's forgotten about everything but Rosemon. I'd do that to you if I could." He shook his head. "Unfortunately, I don't have her talent. I'll just have to teach you your lesson some other way."
"Like what?" Daisuke answered defiantly.
Ken smirked. "How much do you care about your little friends? And how well will you remember them if I get rid of them?"
The color went from Daisuke's face. "You wouldn't! That's murder!"
In reply, Ken turned and flicked his whip at TK, drawing a line of blood down the side of one arm.
"I'll do what I please," Ken replied. "Anyone who tries to get in my way will be punished. Is that understood?"
Daisuke choked, too angry to stay silent, equally afraid that whatever he wanted to say would bring on even more danger. The other Digidestined shot uneasy glances, looking from each other to Daisuke to Ken, all appearing as if they were considering saying something. Ken watched his reaction with amusement, wondering what the outcome would be. Right at this moment, he could just see the thoughts behind their eyes, Daisuke wondering if he could really stand to see his friends cut down to save his own soul, the Digidestined wondering if they dared encourage him to hold out while they suffered. It would be a great deal of fun to see who broke down first.
While Ken lurked in the darkness of his dungeon, someone else was slipping over the dome of his fortress by the light of the moon. Kari's D-3 had led her here, to this strange heap of flying stone. She regarded it with amazement. She'd always known Ken was capable of moving figurative mountains, but seeing a real one fly gave her a little shiver. If the Emperor could break the laws of gravity, what couldn't he do?
"We're going to have to be really careful," she told Nefertimon as they glided in for a landing. "There's no telling what kind of defenses Ken has."
"I'll tell you what kind - dangerous ones," Nefertimon replied.
Kari sighed. "Too right. But we've got to do this anyway. It's my fault they're here in the first place. If I had just taken a moment to think, to realize what was going on..."
"It's not your fault," said Nefertimon. She was prowling along the ramparts, carrying her partner through the shadows. "You were being manipulated."
"Yeah," Kari answered, her eyes distant. "I played right into Ken's plan... their plan."
A sob rose up from somewhere inside her. Rosemon and Ken... the thought made her feel sick. She'd thought Rosemon was so perfect, so proud, so beautiful, so graceful, so sweet. Even out here, with a cool night wind blowing the last traces of pink fog from her brain, she still got a shiver thinking about Rosemon's soft voice.
*I fell in love with her,* she admitted to herself. *It wasn't just her magic. I was stricken the first time I saw her, and what does she do in return? She tries to buy me, like I'm a thing, and she tries to pay with things that don't even belong to her. She never loved me, not really. She just wanted me, the way she'd want a piece of jewelry... or a toy. She just wanted to play with me...*
"Kari?" asked Nefertimon. "Are you all right, Kari?"
She took a deep breath. "I'll be fine. Come on, let's go."
A brief explanation led them to a door, which Nefertimon pried open with her powerful paws. Since no alarms appeared to go off, they decided it was probably safe. Nefertimon reverted back to Gatomon, and the two of them tiptoed inside. Actually, they need not have worried. At the moment, the master of the house was several floors below them, keeping an eye on his guests. He probably wouldn't have noticed if she'd fired off a cannon. Kari didn't know that, however. All she knew was that she was walking into the lair of the cobra, following the trail of those she'd unintentionally sent before her. Her heart hammered in her chest as she tiptoed along, trying to keep her footsteps from echoing in the metal hallways. Even Gatomon's soft fur whispered as it brushed the floor. No matter what they did, they could not move silently... but there was someone else who could, following like a shadow behind too people who never thought to look over their shoulders.
Deeper into the fortress they delved, leaving even the lights of the night behind, until the only light that could be seen were a few blinking lights on Kari's Digivice and the twinkling of Gatomon's eyes. For a while, they stumbled half-blind through the dark, holding on to each other for support. Then they became aware of another light in the distance, shining off the reflective walls. Pressing themselves against the wall, afraid to even breathe, the pair slipped closer to the light. What they found was a lantern sitting abandoned on the floor, shining brightly, giving them a view of the hallway, an open door, and the first few feet of a small room beyond. She could just make out her friends in various states of imprisonment, as well as the back of the Emperor, who seemed more interested in taunting his captives than in guarding himself. Wormmon lurked in a corner, watching silently with his soulful eyes. Ken had his whip in his hands, folded into a loop that he tapped against idly against his palm, glaring at each of his captives in turn and watching them flinch away. A few of them had blood on their faces or arms where they had already felt its touch.
*Because of me,* thought Kari, remembering how it had felt to have that whip used against her. *Well, it's going to stop.*
"Ken!" she snapped.
The force behind the word was enough to make the Emperor jump, and he whirled around to see who had spoken. What he saw was the Child of Light standing before him, her outline haloed by the lamp behind her, her eyes blazing. He narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth like an animal.
"You," he hissed. "How did you get here?"
"I go where I want, Ken," she answered, stepping slowly into the room. "I don't let anybody stop me from being with my friends. Not the Emperor. Not even a Mega Digimon. I won't forgive you for trying."
"Hmph. You think a lot of yourself, little girl," Ken sneered. "As if any of this was about you. You were simply an annoyance, one I thought I'd dealt with. Apparently you're one insect that is harder than usual to swat."
"I'm not an insect," said Kari. "I'm a Queen in my own right, and a Digidestined. Now, let my friends go before this turns into a fight."
"A fight, hm?" Ken repeated. "Is that what you want? I'd be willing to teach you another lesson, if you'd like."
"What are you going to fight me with? Him?" asked Kari, glancing down at Wormmon. The little worm glared back at her with defiance; he might not have been much of a match for the Champion Gatomon, but he was willing to try.
Ken smirked. "That would be interesting to watch, wouldn't it? But no, I don't think that would be enough of a challenge for your partner. However, I seem to have four other Digimon right over there... and I also happen to have a few Dark Rings handy. How would you like to try fighting your friends' Digimon instead of mine?"
Kari hesitated, vivid memories of what had happened when Ken had captured her brother's partner. The thought of having four of her Digimon friends transformed into monsters before her eyes, with her all alone to fight them, gave her a shiver. Ken grinned.
"You don't like that, do you?" he purred. "No, I don't think you would like that at all. Well, too bad. You wanted your friends back, so take them! Ha!"
With a lighting movement, he cast for Dark Rings across the room, and Kari could only stare as they neared her friends' partners, who were trying to back into the wall in terror... but there was no need. Just before the Rings could touch them, something whizzed over Kari's shoulder and passed through the Rings, shattering them into bits of data before embedding itself in the wall. It took a moment for Kari to recognize it for what it was - a bit of green wood, tapered to a needle-sharp point and studded with thorns. Ken was quicker; he turned to glare at the interloper.
"Not you too," he snarled. "Stay out of this, flower queen. This is no longer any of your business."
"I will not stay out, butterfly emperor," answered Rosemon coldly, "and I believe this is my business. Don't argue with me, little boy. You know what I can do to you if you make me angry enough."
"Fine, then," said Ken, sounding disgruntled. "Take the girl, if you want her so much. Just keep her out of my way."
Kari turned to stare at Rosemon, feeling bitter anger twisting inside her. Had Rosemon come all this way just to bring her back to the palace like a runaway slave? The flower queen's head turned ever so slightly, just enough for Kari to get the feeling that Rosemon was looking back at her.
"I have not come for the girl," said Rosemon clearly. "My business here is the undoing of mistakes."
"What do you mean?" asked Ken, an edge of worry creeping into his voice.
"I never should have gotten involved with you," Rosemon answered. "I never should have agreed to your insane demands. I should not have debased myself to your level of tyranny and selfishness. That will be rectified. Now, let the Digidestined and their partners go."
"Wait a minute! Think about what you're asking!" Ken protested. "Don't you remember what I showed you? If you set these people free, they're going to take your little girl away from you and you'll never get her back again. Is that really what you want?"
"You are wrong," said Rosemon. "She is not mind that they can take her from me. I set her free. I advise you to do the same with your captives. Now."
"Not on your life!" Ken shouted back.
The next sound he made was a gasp as something slammed into him and drove him to the floor. He had been so distracted by Rosemon's appearance that Kari had been forgotten. Now she forcefully reminded him of her presence by tackling him. His head struck the floor, making him see stars, and he struggled to wrench himself free from this holy terror that was now clawing at his face and ripping at his hair.
"Help them!" Kari called wildly.
The Digimon didn't need any other encouragement. While Gatmon went to work picking the locks of her companions' collars with her sharp claws, Rosemon set about freeing the Digidestined, snapping the heavy chains apart as if they were no more than threads. It took only a few seconds to have them all free.
However, a few seconds were all Ken needed to get an edge. The powers of darkness within him gave him strength and reflexes beyond what a boy his age should have, and once his initial shock at being attacked wore off, his blazing intellect kicked in, showing him that his attacker had left herself open right there... Ken's hand moved like a striking snake, finding its target at Kari's throat, and she choked as she felt her supply of air being cut off. Laughing wickedly, the Emperor wrestled her to the floor, pressing down on her windpipe, watching her struggle for air.
"Don't anybody move," he said. "If anyone tries to leave this room, I'll crush her scrawny neck."
Everyone froze, staring. Kari lay very still, tugging futilely at Ken's hand, her face slowly reddening from lack of oxygen. Without the air to speak, all she could do was mouth the words, "Please help me..."
"Let her go," said Rosemon.
"Now why would I want to do that?" Ken replied. "I like seeing her like this. Besides, I thought you didn't want her anymore."
"Be careful, Emperor. My patience with you is very short."
"I don't think you're in any position to threaten," Ken replied. "Not unless you don't mind - aaah!"
Ken cried out as something flew across the room to wrap around his arm, spearing it with thorns. Rosemon jerked on her whip, and his hand was tugged away from Kari's throat, making him overbalance and fall on his face, striking it on the hard stone floor. Unrelenting, Rosemon hauled him in like a fish until he was dangling a few inches from the ground by his bleeding arm. He stared into her eyeless face and found nothing but ferocity there. He shuddered, whimpering.
"What are you going to do to me?" he whispered.
"I'm going to pay you back," she answered. "Tell me, butterfly - you undertook all this for the red-haired boy, didn't you?"
"Yes," he answered, hissing the word out as she jerked on the whip again.
"There is no profit in that," she said. "I have learned my lesson about taking love by force. Now I will make you learn, too. Set him free."
"Set him free. Renounce any claims you have on him, because you are not worthy to love."
"All right, all right!" he said. "He's free! I don't have any more claim on him! I won't target him any more! Do you hear that?" he added, twisting in Rosemon's grasp so that he could look at the Digidestined. "Get out of here! Get out!"
"Fine," said Rosemon. "That will do."
"Let me go, then."
"No," she said. "That is not enough to make up for everything you have done. I think you still deserve to be punished. I have always been of the conviction that the world would be better off without you. I don't see why I shouldn't kill you here and now."
There was a frozen moment. Ken, for once, was utterly silent, shivering. The Digidestined all stared at Rosemon, not daring to say a word to this angry, vengeful, deadly creature. However, something else seemed to be intervening on Ken's behalf. At the edge of Rosemon's line of sight, she could see a caterpillar sitting in the shadows, staring at his beaten master with tears spilling from his deep blue eyes. Rosemon sighed and loosened her grip, dropping Ken to the floor. He fell in an awkward heap, his cloak falling around him like the crushed wings of a dead butterfly.
"You are a very foolish creature," she said, "to demand love from someone who won't give it to you and not accept it where it is offered. I pity you."
With that, she turned and marched away, the Digidestined trailing behind her, leaving the Emperor to sit in a shocked heap. Wormmon scampered up to him, overwhelmed with relief.
"Master, are you all right?" he asked.
"That was too close," said Ken, voice hoarse with emotion. "I was sure I was going to die."
"I'm sorry, Ken."
"Sorry I didn't protect you."
"I didn't really expect you too."
"I should have," Wormmon insisted. "I let you get hurt."
It was true; Ken's face was raked with scratches, and a large bruise was forming on his cheek. His wounded arm bled profusely, staining his sleeve purple and slowly forming a small puddle on the floor.
"I'll be all right," said Ken. "I just need a moment to recover, that's all."
Wormmon shook his head sadly. "Poor Master. You've had a hard day. Here, let me help."
Somewhat to Ken's surprise, the caterpillar scampered up his uninjured arm and perched on his shoulder. With the tip of one pod, he gently brushed away a trickle of blood that was sliding down Ken's cheek like a tear drop. The Emperor was very still. The rose queen had told him someone loved him. Had she meant...?
Meanwhile, the Digidestined and their Digimon were following Rosemon through Ken's fortress, moving as swiftly as they could for the exits. Though there was nothing Ken could command that Rosemon couldn't handle, all of them simply wanted to be as far away from the scene of the mayhem. It was a tremendous relief to finally find themselves back in the light of a starry night and with their feet once again on solid ground. They looked up at the flying fortress as it floated by like a storm cloud and disappeared into the night.
"Man, am I ever glad that's over!" said Daisuke. "That was creepy. You were really great, though, Kari - the way you flew at Ken like that! You'd have been a great soccer player."
"Thanks, Daisuke," she said. She smiled a little, looking oddly sad.
"Hey, are you okay?" asked TK. "What happened to you, anyway? How did you escape?"
"I didn't escape," she answered. "Not really. Gatomon came to get me, but Rosemon set me free on her own." She tried to look at Rosemon and got the feeling her gaze was being avoided.
"Well, anyway, we're glad to have you back," said Miyako. "We all really missed you."
"Yeah, I'm glad to see you all again, too," Kari answered. "I just wasn't the same without you. Being away... it made me realize just how much I need you all - and love you, too."
"So," said Rosemon, "it is just as he said. Your heart has already been given. I have no place with you." She turned and began walking away.
"Rosemon, wait," said Kari. "Don't go yet. I have to ask you some things first."
"What is there to ask?"
"Well... I'd rather ask them in private, if nobody minds," Kari answered, looking apologetically toward her friends.
"Oh," said TK, his expression puzzled. "We'll... just be... over there somewhere, then. Come on, gang."
TK led the rest of the Digidestined away, leaving Kari alone with the flower queen. Rosemon regarded her with a look of confusion.
"I had thought we had nothing left to discuss," she said.
"We do now," Kari replied. "There are just so many things I still don't understand. Everything that's happened since I met you is like a dream. I know there's meaning in it somewhere, but I don't understand it... Why did you come back?"
"To help you, of course. Why else would I come?"
"I didn't think you would," said Kari. "I thought you and Ken worked together. I thought you would have been glad if he captured me."
"Never that," said Rosemon. "I care nothing for the Emperor. Didn't you know that?"
"Then why?!" Kari demanded. "Why would you sell my friends to him? How could you be so cruel as to try to buy me like a - like a thing, like they were things? How could you do that to me if you really cared about me?"
Her voice caught in her throat, and the began to sob, pressing her eyes shut against the hot tears... and then opened them again as she felt a hand touching her face.
"Please don't cry," said Rosemon softly. "Please believe me, I never wanted to make you cry."
"And why should I believe that?" Kari asked. "You don't care for what I feel."
"Yes, I do, Kari. I have never cared more for anyone than I care for you. I want you to be happy. Didn't I say I'd set you free?"
"But I am not very good at caring. I am not used to feeling anything for anyone, and when I do, I don't know how to behave. I only wanted to protect you and make you happy... I see now I did it the wrong way. I am sorry for that."
Kari looked unconvinced. "And what about my friends?"
"I had no choice in that matter," Rosemon replied. "Kari, the Emperor was threatening you. He found some way of getting a spy into my palace, and he threatened to have him kill you if I didn't obey him. You didn't see, Kari. You didn't see what he made me do... I had no choice..."
Her voice stopped on a plaintive note and died. Kari watched her for a moment, trying to sort through her emotions.
"You had a choice," she said. "You could have let me go."
Rosemon bowed her head. "I know. And so I have. If you never want to see me again, I will abide by your wishes. Just tell me... before all this happened... did you ever think you could care for me? Even a little?"
Kari made a small grimace. "That's just it. I do care about you... that's why it hurts so much..."
"Why does it have to hurt?" Rosemon asked. "Tell me. I'll do whatever it takes to make it right. I just want another chance."
"That's just it," said Kari. "We can't have a chance. Not yet. Not now. I still have too much I need to do here. As long as the Emperor is still fighting, I have to fight back. I'm a warrior, and there's no place for a warrior in your world."
"I see," she answered. "But... when everything is over, remember, there will always be room for one more flower in Floradell."
"I'll remember," Kari replied. "I'm sorry things didn't work out this time, Rosemon."
"As am I. Very sorry indeed." Shaking her head sadly, she turned. "I will go now. You should go back to your friends."
Without waiting to hear another word, she began walking away. Kari stared at her, feeling a deep pang of regret.
*I can't let her leave like this,* she thought. *Not until I tell her... tell her that...*
Rosemon was alerted by the sound of feet rapidly striking the ground, and she turned just in time to see Kari flinging herself at her, and she swept the girl up into her embrace, holding her close to her heart.
"Little blossom," she whispered softly, running her hand through the girl's hair.
"Rosemon," Kari answered. "You can't go yet. Not while I still have something to say."
"And what is that?"
"That I love you."
"I love you, too."
Kari closed her eyes, letting herself forget everything but the warmth of the embrace, and she did not resist when Rosemon gently raised the girl's chin so they could have one last kiss. Nor did they separate for quite some time. When at last the moment was over, they pulled away, feeling the fresh shock of cool night air on skin warmed by the touch of a loved one.
"I have to leave now," said Kari, "but I promise I'll be back. Someday, I'll be back."
"I'll be waiting," Rosemon replied. "Don't forget me."
"I won't," Kari promised. "Goodbye, Rosemon."
"Goodbye, my little blossom."
A few moments later, Kari rejoined her friends, and Gatomon padded up to take her hand in her paw.
"Is everything okay now?" asked TK.
"Yeah," she answered. "I think everything's okay now. Come on. Let's go home."
They went, trudging silently toward the nearest television to open a gate home. Kari was the last to leave, pausing just long enough to look at the trees and the moonlit sky, and to promise herself once again that someday this world would find peace, and so would she. She would come back.
In a small flower shop at the fringes of Tokyo, the man at the counter watched as a girl wandered up and down the aisles, eying the flowers. Each one was searched as if they might contain clues to lost treasure, and each one discarded. Finally, she found one that kept her staring for a long time. At last, she nodded and picked it up, carrying it to the counter.
"I'd like this one, please," she said.
"Are you sure?" asked the florist. The plant she had chosen was a miniature rose, one with blossoms red as blood. "Roses need a lot of attention, you know."
"I know," she answered. "That's why I want it."
"Oh," said the man, a bit puzzled. He leaned over for a better look at her. She looked like any other eleven year old girl in the city, but there was something about her eyes that made her look older and sadder than someone so young should look. He appraised the hope in them, and the way she held the flower pot cradled in her arms, and he nodded. She could be trusted to raise this rose right. He rang up the sale and watched her walk out of the shop with a spring in her step, smiling down at the rose...
*Almost as if she knew it from somewhere,* he thought. *Almost as if it's a long-lost lover.*
And meanwhile, far away, the rose queen tended over her kingdom and her subjects, who all said that they saw a difference in her. She was kinder, gentler, and more patient than she had ever been, slower to quarrel and quicker to compromise. Everyone found it easier to live around her. And yet, there was an element of sadness about her that no one really understood. Their only clue was a new habit she had formed. Every day she could be found in her Heart Garden, meditating quietly, keeping watch over a single white lily.