Prologue

"Slow down, Netto! This isn't a race!"

The boy with the blue bandana chomped on a rice ball. "Good food should be eaten quickly, Meiru."

"I'm glad you like it," said the redhead, "but at this rate you'll choke!"

He devoured another rice ball. "How many did you bring?"

"A dozen."

Netto peeked around the picnic basket at the last box lunch. "There are only three left."

"And who do you think ate them all?"

"I did?"

"You did."

"Well…you're not that hungry, are you?"

"You think I brought all this food just for me?"

"Good point." A third (or rather, tenth) rice ball disappeared in his mouth.

"That doesn't mean you should have more!" Meiru protested.

"But I'm hungry!"

"You're always hungry!"

As their operators squabbled over lunch, Rockman and Roll sat atop the picnic blanket, projected (at a fraction of their virtual size) into the real world thanks to their Link PETs. When the four had arrived, the navis struggled to find an appealing view of the landscape—after all, they had blades of grass to compete with.

Then again, the view was not what they were here for.

As Netto and Meiru continued their arguing game (in Rockman's mind it was most certainly a game, one with simple rules: the first one to apologize loses; Netto would irritate Meiru, and Meiru would stockpile her anger for one spectacular outburst, and either Netto would get scared that he had pushed Meiru too far, or Meiru would explode and apologize), Rockman watched the kids at the playground below, and Roll slept beside him.

It's a shame she's still tired, but she deserves a rest.

"Aup aup aup." A bipedal, virtual dog plopped himself next to Rockman and gnawed on a gigantic bone.

"Where did you get that, Rush?" Rockman said, but the virus paid him no heed. As the binary bone dropped to the ground with a thud, Rush bit and gnashed his teeth on every last square inch of it. In the battle of dog versus bone, however, this round was a draw. Or at best, it was a pyrrhic victory for Rush, who collapsed next to the digital femur on the way to dreamland.

"It's okay, Rush," Rockman said. "You deserve a rest, too."

They all deserved a rest, but for Rockman, this was rest enough. These were moments not to be missed.

"Hmm?" The pink navi in his arms yawned and stretched. She blinked, and her eyes cleared. And they met his gaze. "Rockman!"

No, that was a moment not to be missed. That was a moment he hoped never to miss for the rest of his days.

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing. Good morning, Roll-chan."

"It's still morning? I was worried I'd sleep through all of lunch."

"I'm surprised you slept through all of that."

Roll sprang to her feet and peered over the picnic basket. There, she bore witness to a flurry of finger-pointing, and she shrank from screeching voices. She scurried behind the picnic basket, back to Rockman's side. "Do you think—"

"Don't worry. Netto-kun's about to give up."

"Meiru-chan always wins."

"Always."

"You're just a pig!" Meiru cried.

"And you're just trying to get me fat!"

"You don't make it hard!"

"You don't have to feed me!"

"I wanted to go on a picnic!"

"A picnic is fine, but you don't have to bring food!"

"That's the point of a picnic! Are you saying you don't want to go on picnics with me?"

There was the trap. Netto's face paled as he fumbled for an answer. "I…didn't…say…"

"Good. Now sit!"

Netto hit the ground and sat upright, straight as a board. Stiff and tense, he could not have noticed Meiru's suppressed grin as she unpacked another box lunch. "Why don't you try the takoyaki?"

As expected, this snapped Netto out of his trace. He eyed the fried octopus dumpling as she raised it to his mouth. And before he could say anything in protest, his mouth was stuffed with it.

Not that he would protest against tasty food. "It's delicious, Meiru! How did you do it?"

As Roll and Meiru giggled, Rockman sighed. "Netto-kun, you're terribly predictable."

"I am not predictable, Rockman!" He swallowed another dumpling. "I'm…hungry."

"Hungry still!"

"Netto-kun? Meiru-chan?"

All eyes came off the food and the friendly ribbing and landed on the passer-by before them: a tall, stringy man he was, but his stood firm on the ground, as if rooted to the earth, as if nothing could move him.

"Nakamura-hakase!" Netto said. Rockman and the others stood to greet the professor. It was strange to see him so…calm. Even though the wind rustled through the trees, which swayed and bent under the force of the rushing air, Nakamura-hakase never wavered, like he had found his rock to stand on, to lean on.

Rockman knew something about that.

"Eh?" Roll said. "Imi-chan?"

A young navi sat perched atop Nakamura's shoulder. Dressed in white with a conical hat, her green hair flowed over her shoulders and to her feet. She cocked her head upon hearing her name. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

"These are friends of mine," Nakamura said. "Hikari Netto and Rockman, Sakurai Meiru and Roll, and Rush. Say hello to everyone, Imi."

"Ah!" Imi said. "Good morning, everyone! It's nice to meet you!"

"It's nice to meet you, too, Imi-chan," Rockman said.