Digital Shuffle
by Famira Damaris

Disclaimer: Don't own Digimon Tamers
Author's Note: Long chapter for reals. WHEW. For anyone interested, I threw together a playlist of instrumental songs for Digital Shuffle. They're songs I felt fit the characters/plot. PM me if you'd like it! A warning though: spoilers to the story will be in the playlist.

I'm also debating doing a Side Story for Rosemon – perhaps something detailing something during the Purges of the Digimon Adventure kids? I'd like to go more into Jyou/Zudomon and Mimi/Lilymon things.

Reviews are appreciated as always. And thank you for reading!

Archive: Go right on ahead.
Bold for implied feelings, mostly for the Juggernaut

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Digital Shuffle
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(Compromised)

Gargomon digivolved to Ultimate.

Ruki Makino couldn't believe it.

She kept replaying that afternoon in her head, trying to figure out just what Jenrya and Gargomon did right. It wasn't like nearly getting killed was enough to do it – they'd run into plenty of situations like that in the past and none of their Digimon busted out their Ultimate levels back then. Look at Odaiba! They barely scrapped out of there! And she hated to say it – someone had to - but Jenrya's strategy in that fight with Black Growlmon was terrible. His mind hadn't been where it should've, that much was obvious. Some of his card choices were all over the place.

Ruki chewed on that over dinner. Dinner was more powdered everything or packaged whatever. At this point she would've loved even her grandmother's oatmeal. After living in hiding for this long she started to get a new respect for cooked food.

"We'll do it too," Renamon said all of a sudden, sitting across from her. Renamon had that way of knowing what she was thinking and right now wasn't any different.

Ruki looked up. "I know."

Renamon regarded her thoughtfully and then dipped her snout. "If there's anyone who can help me get to Ultimate level, it's you. I…thought you should know."

Ruki flushed at that, not sure what to say. They weren't the lovey-dovey, touchy-feely partnership like Jenrya and Terriermon (or how Takato and Guilmon used to be), and she had no idea what to say to something like that. It was stupid to wonder why Jenrya got there first. Stupid to wonder if it was her who was the problem or if it was Renamon. Maybe wondering at all was holding them back. She knew second-guessing yourself all the time was one of the worst things you could do, even from her time when all she did was play in the card tournaments and it hadn't ever crossed her mind any of this could be real. Now the consequences were a whole lot bigger.

Renamon knew that too.

"Thanks, Renamon," Ruki said. It somehow didn't feel like enough, but she had no idea what more there was to say. "We better get back on patrol."

Patrol was something she felt was way more familiar. So far they'd been lucky and none of the enemy Digimon figured out where they were. That didn't mean they couldn't keep on the lookout for any scouts who might get lucky. After all the dust and debris from Black Growlmon's fight with Rapidmon, it couldn't hurt to do another pass in case anyone happened to see it and get curious. They'd done this enough that it was like second nature, Ruki heading out to the tunnel's entrance to meet Kyuubimon. She ran into her mom first.

Rumiko looked different. It took Ruki a second to realize why – it was the first time she'd seen her mom without makeup, not even eyeliner. The model gave an unconscious toss of her blond hair as she stepped forward, a scarf and hoodie in her hands. Both were a dark navy. Ruki had no idea where she got them, only that they looked like they were her size.

"Going out on patrol again?" Her mom asked.

Ruki nodded. She looked down as her mom plopped the scarf and jacket in her hands.

"I thought these would keep you warm," Rumiko said. Was it a trick of the light or was she blushing? "And they're dark, so they'll act like camouflage."

Ruki was taken aback. Ignoring the fact that Kyuubimon was a big yellow fox who kinda stood out, Ruki hadn't expected her mom to put that much thought into clothes for her. The Tamer felt her own cheeks starting to redden.

"Thanks. I'll wear them tonight," Ruki said. Out of all the clothes her mom bought her over the years, all the dresses and frilly skirts that were probably crushed under rubble by now, a ratty scarf and hoodie suddenly jumped out at her in a way everything else hadn't.

Maybe her mom saw it too. Her mouth quirked up in the beginnings of a tentative smile. Maybe they were starting to understand each other. Ruki hid her confused look by shoving on the hoodie and then wrapping the scarf around her. She even stood still as her mother reached out and adjusted the scarf, bringing it up so it could keep her mouth and nose warm. Rumiko gave her a warm pat on the shoulder. Somehow it felt right. Maybe one day they could get used to hugging.

"I'll see you went you get back."

Ruki nodded and turned, jogging to catch up to Kyuubimon outside. Who knew her mom could be…okay? She was taking this way way way better than Ruki could've ever predicted – better than Janyuu, even, and he'd already known about Digimon too! Kyuubimon looked up as her partner joined her.

"A new look?" Kyuubimon dipped her snout. "It fits you."

"Yeah, yeah," Ruki said, smiling behind her scarf.

They were about to leave when footsteps rang behind them. Ruki turned in time to see Reika Ootori.

"I'd like to come with you," she said. "If you don't mind."

Ruki exchanged looks with Kyuubimon. She did mind. "Why?"

"There's something I'd like to check." Reika rattled off a location – some tiny hole in the wall café Ruki never heard of. "Should be within your patrol range."

"Okay, fine. Don't fall off," warned Ruki. Normally she'd say no. But she could understand wanting to check for signs of life and from the sound of the woman's voice, the café had some kinda special meaning to her…enough that she wanted to put herself at risk to check it out.

Ruki hoisted herself easily onto Kyuubimon, Reika fumbling a bit after her, and held on as they took off. Most of Shinjuku was out of power but as they started the patrol, she could still see patches of the city that had lucked out, lights shining in far away buildings. At this point she had no idea what the government was doing, if they had any run-ins yet with the Council forces. How they'd explain Odaiba after this was all over. The military had to be out by now, the civilians banding together to support each other. Natural disasters were one thing, but somehow she doubted they would be prepared for a Digimon attack. Behind her, Reika was silent. When Ruki did glance over, she caught the Hypnos tech checking her cell phone.

The patrol circuit took them several miles out in an uneven circle, never by the same route they took the last times. Kyuubimon's breaths were steady as she bounded from street to fence to roof. The silence between them felt different. Ruki couldn't entirely explain it. It wasn't the same as it had been when they first started fighting together. Whatever between them wasn't like it was between the other Tamers and their Digimon. It was whatever it was.

They were about to turn around, with Reika's café as the last stop, when Kyuubimon suddenly paused.

"I smell another Digimon," she said quietly. Her snout wrinkled. "Relatively close too."

"We better check it out."

Ruki reached up to adjust her scarf as Kyuubimon zeroed in on the scent, her tails bobbing. Was this it? Were they going to have to find another hiding place? She tried not to think of moving all the families – especially if the Council might be looking for them after Odaiba. She was fully prepared to delete any intruders if it came to it and she knew Kyuubimon was on her side. The fact they had a passenger along for the ride didn't mean they could ignore trouble.

Kyuubimon reached the scent and immediately went on the attack. "Foxtail Inf - "

Her tails lit up one by one in quick succession, enough to see there were two intruders: a small, familiar looking Digimon and what looked an awful lot like a human's shadow.

"Wait!" A man's voice called out.

Kyuubimon's tails snuffed out as she landed in front of the intruders, her snout pulled back in snarl exposing delicate but sharp fangs. Ruki didn't jump off just yet. So far they hadn't had any incidents with the Council using humans as shields, but you never knew. Reika's hands were tight around her as she sat up like she'd been shot.

"Watch where yer aiming that thing, Fox Face!" A familiar voice snapped.

"Impmon?" Kyuubimon couldn't hide her surprise.

"Nah, it's the Tooth Fairy. 'Course it's me!" Impmon shielded his paw as he lit up a fireball, just enough to give them some light to see by and hopefully not enough to go broadcasting their presence.

Ruki glanced at Impmon, then at the man with him. The human was another adult, a tall blond guy who had a pair of sunglasses perched on his head. He was still dressed in a rumpled business suit that had seen better days, grime and dust coating it so thick he could easily go camo. If he was shell-shocked at a Digimon running around with him, he sure wasn't showing it. Right now he just looked dirty, hungry, and tired. The stress lines in his face were pronounced in the weak firelight.

"What're you doing here? Who's this?" Ruki demanded.

"I'm Yamaki," the human said.

"That's my boss," Reika said at the exact same time.

"Lousy boss y'got there," Impmon added.

Yamaki shot Impmon a stare – a look Ruki thought bordered more toward a resigned glare than anything else. "I used to head Hypnos. We're here to help end this."

"You've got a lot of explaining to do," Ruki said. "We better get under cover."

She didn't offer Yamaki or Impmon a ride on Kyuubimon. Her partner already had enough passengers and as far as Ruki was concerned, if they'd walked this far, it wouldn't kill them to walk the rest of the way. To their credit neither of them complained. In fact, both of them kept quiet, scanning the area for any ambush signs. She could practically sense the questions radiating out from Kyuubimon, but the Digimon kept silent, her ears perked forward, her blue eyes sliding over to Impmon silently every now and then. Impmon might not have been their biggest fan, but he'd also come to them about the whole Kaminmon/Takato thing, so…

It occurred to her that maybe Reika knew all along Yamaki and Impmon were on the way. Or maybe it was just her boss only, because Ruki remembered Reika sounded actually surprised; maybe Impmon was the last person she expected to see buddying it up with the leader of an anti-Digimon organization. It suddenly made sense why Reika had been insistent about passing by that café.

"Next time you want something, you tell us," Ruki said without turning around.

"Of course," Reika didn't sound guilty at all.

Kyuubimon led the way back to the hideout, the tunnel entrance gaping open, the red emergency lights on as usual. Her ears flicked back.

"You humans go on without us," Kyuubimon's head swung toward Impmon. "I believe we have some catching up to do."

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Reika wasn't sure what she felt when she saw Yamaki alive. Relief, she supposed. Something else, warm like she'd rolled herself in a blanket. Her cheeks flushed as her face stilled. Her very nerves seemed to come alive and sing.

It took her a second to realize she missed him. She missed him more than she thought possible. When she met Yamaki's eyes for that second before Ruki herded them back, she saw her expression mirrored back at her.

Whatever happened to her boss out there, Yamaki wasn't the same man he was before.

"I didn't expect 'company' to mean a Digimon," Reika remarked when they were alone at last.

Yamaki ran his hand through his blonde hair and shrugged. "It's a long story. I'll tell the others and catch up while I'm at it." He paused, for the first time in awhile looking out of his depth. He peered at Reika. "You look good."

"Thank you, sir," Reika said dryly, her mouth quirking up. "Can't say the same about you."

Yamaki snorted. "I'm dying for a bath and dinner. Impmon's borderline incompetent at finding food. It's a miracle he didn't starve before all of this."

"I'll see what I can do," said Reika. She turned to leave, taking that as a "professional suggestion", when Yamaki reached out and caught her by the crook of her elbow. "Sir?"

"That can wait." Yamaki's voice turned gentle. "It's good you're safe. I wasn't sure if you'd be in a position to get my message."

Reika blinked, startled. If she didn't know better, she'd say he was worried about her, and not just because she needed to vouch for him to the Tamers. The way he touched her arm felt different to all those other times. Once he let slip he'd been married, long ago. Reika found herself wondering if he used to touch his ex-wife that way. It felt intimate in a way the sex hadn't. The surprising thing was, thinking about it, she didn't mind. Reika didn't pull away.

"I waited for you as long as I could," Reika said, turning back toward her boss. "They told us you were transferred to London. Mr. Lee and I refused to believe that."

Yamaki's eye's flickered at the mention of Janyuu Lee's name, but he didn't jump to business immediately. What came next was unexpected.

"Thank you."

Reika stared, her lips pursed in surprise. She tried to remember a time he'd ever said those two words and couldn't.

"Anyway," Yamaki coughed. He seemed to realize he was dangerously close to wearing his heart on his sleeve. "Let's get caught up to speed and we'll work from there. Looks like Hypnos got downgraded to us two."

Reika nodded. They didn't even have access to the Yuggoth program. That said, she almost didn't mind it was just the two of them.

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Mitsuo Yamaki was cool in Ryo's book. Smart, on his toes, tried to shoot Vajramon and redefined the word "paranoid"?

He liked the guy already.

That didn't change the fact Ryo was starting to wilt in the back where he sat behind everyone else who showed up for show-and-tell here. Ryo knew he should sit through the entire briefing with Yamaki, but for some reason he couldn't help yawning behind his hand. His eyes kept drooping. Usually he worked the insomnia thing like a pro but sometimes it'd hit him how incredibly tired he was, out of nowhere. He couldn't remember having the problem in the Digital World; they'd only started when he woke up back in that hospital after Cyberdramon attacked him. Ryo told himself he was still getting used to sleeping under a normal sky and his internal clock was screwed.

Ryo hid another yawn, Jenrya shooting him a look. Terriermon rolled his eyes from his perch on his human's head.

"I'm paying attention," Ryo whispered back.

"You look like you're ready to pass out."

Ryo shook his head. "I'm okay."

He managed to hold it off a little while longer. The episode was getting pretty bad, Ryo barely able to concentrate, his eyes fluttering. Every now and then he'd come up and catch bits and pieces – he got Yamaki's story about being dumped outside Tokyo's barrier and then next thing he knew, Impmon and him figured a way past it and were ninjaing through Tokyo like a bunch of badasses. Jenrya was staring now. So maybe Ryo wasn't fooling him.

"What's wrong with you?"

Ryo reached up to rub at his eyes, keeping his voice low. "Sue me, I get tired sometimes."

"I'll fill you in on the rest," Jenrya said, frowning. "Go to bed."

At this point he was exhausted enough to shut up and take it. Ryo ducked out of the supply room, unaware of Rosemon watching him. Somehow he managed to stumble back to his bed – well, his crappy excuse for bed, more like a nest – and flopped into the blankets and comforters.

Another nightmare came.

Something was happening.

Digimon loaded down with equipment and weapons ran past him without a second glance, rounding the corner of the palace gardens and disappearing. Some of the bigger ones got in a head start trampling the hedges, the blue leaves ground into mud that clung to HD4-R's feet as he wandered in to watch them. HD4-R had to reach out and grab the next soldier who charged past, catching the Devidramon by the wrist and almost bowling the two of them over as the other Digimon trooped past without stopping. She was a runt by her species' standards but that didn't stop her from towering over him by several feet. Devidramon's misshapen head swiveled as the soldier rounded on him with a snarl, her wings stiff with rage.

"How dare you – " Devidramon cut herself off when she saw who it was, deflating. She had to crane her head to look down at him. The Champion's snout quivered as she sniffed instinctively. She snorted a hot breath into his face. "It's you. You weren't sent out like the others?"

"I'm the only one left," HD4-R said. "The other HDs were deleted. Killed," he amended, remembering that his Master wanted him to sound and act more human. Practice made perfect.

"You must be defective," Devidramon remarked. "Otherwise our Lord would've had a use for you by now."

HD4-R felt something then. He glared at the soldier, for the first time an ugly look crossing a face that had been as expressionless until now. Defective? Impossible. He thought his brothers must have been, if they were deleted by the Threat, and hearing that word from a lowly soldier was like…like…HD4-R didn't even have a word for it. The Human Behavior lessons with his Master had dwindled off to almost nothing now, leaving him unfinished. Not only that, he hadn't had any new brothers since the last ones went out on their mission. As far as the boy knew, there weren't any plans to continue HD production.

He really was the last one left. Maybe Master abandoned his HD project: it was the most logical conclusion after reviewing the past weeks.

"What's going on?" HD4-R's face smoothed out. "I know you. You're only a cook, you're not one of the soldiers."

His words were flat, missing any sarcasm. He only stated fact.

"ENIAC had a systems failure. The final battle with the Threat approaches. We're all going to war now!" Devidramon hefted her weapon, shouldering it. The cook bared her crooked fangs. Her four red eyes glowed fervently. "Maybe even you might get a go at Him like everyone else."

His internals went cold at that. There was a sort of finality to the way she talked. The more he thought about it, the more he burned to get a chance like all the others, that coldness solidifying into something even he recognized now as resolve. It was because of this Threat out there that his Master was still preoccupied, distant. Because of this great enemy that things weren't like they'd been before. It added up.

He wanted to do something. Get involved somehow. For a boy who wasn't used to wanting things without being ordered to, it was a strange experience. It was worth it if it would get his old Master back.

HD4-R did something unheard of: he acted on his own.

"Show me the files on the Threat. I want to see his face."

Devidramon protested. "But I'm supposed to report to my platoon!"

"Show me."

The standoff didn't last very long. HD4-R might not impress Devidramon but he had rank over her just because he'd been the Master's favorite up until now. That put you on a different level than most. Hissing, disgruntled, Devidramon led him out of the palace gardens to the closest server room. She didn't slow down to accommodate him, nor did he think to ask. This particular server room had a high ceiling that vaulted hundreds of feet up, digital lines running along the foundations and pulsing with data. The usual herd of tech Digimon was missing today. There was a high probability they were sent to the front already. Devidramon began to key up all the records for their enemy, stabbing at it with her claws and not bothering to hide the fact she wanted to get back to her platoon as soon as possible. Babysitting an obsolete relic didn't count as helping the war effort. The boy hadn't worked out yet he was offended.

He glanced at the blank screen as he waited. His reflection stared back impassively. Unlike Devidramon, HD4-R was wingless and skinny, a pink fleshy thing that was supposed to be the picture perfect copy of a human being. He wouldn't know – he hadn't seen a real live human before. According to Master, he could pass. His hair was brown, cropped shorter than HD3-DaiM's used to be. Like the past HD models, he had a flat face without fangs or fur or armor. The boy stared into his reflection's black eyes, then looked away.

HD4-R didn't feel one way or another looking at himself.

Devidramon hit the final command. "There. Our Master has lots of intel on the Threat. Everything from his past battle strategies to observed personal habits. Even got some brainwave scans if you're bored. Knock yourself out."

She hurried out before he could hit her with more requests, tucking in her wings so she could clear the door. HD4-R turned to watch Devidramon go before tilting his head to look at the records. The other HDs were most likely briefed on the exact same thing before they were killed. Until now he had no interest in learning anything about their enemy, not if Master didn't send him out. Now it seemed important that HD4-R catch up and catch up fast.

The screen lit up with the enemy's name.

RYO AKIYAMA

Underneath was a picture of the Threat. His own face stared back at him, blue eyes instead of black.

Ryo jerked awake with a gasp.

He rolled over on his side. Shock, pure and ugly. The very first time he'd really felt it, even if he didn't know what it was way back then. Trying to catch his breath, Ryo could still remember Devidramon's hide against his fingers (the scales had been surprisingly smooth and soft), the eerie glow of the holos in the server room. That strange pit clenching in his chest, growing larger and larger as it dawned on him that he wasn't the beloved anymore. Maybe he never was. There was someone else with his face out there…and Master cared enough about this "Ryo Akiyama" to throw everything he had at him, through time and space, wherever he would go.

Without realizing it, his hand had groped to his D-Arc and was now clutching it with a death grip. Ryo had to stop white-knuckling the thing. "His" D-Arc. It wasn't even his, was it?

This wasn't like the dreams before, where he was only left with a bad taste in his mouth. These he remembered.

Ryo wished he didn't.

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Ruki didn't notice Ryo leave – she only noticed when he wandered back in about an hour later. She turned her head slightly to track him, watching as the taller boy joined Jenrya. Totally predictable. Ryo sat down without saying anything, his mouth pursed, waving off whatever Jenrya asked him. Ruki rolled her eyes. She had no idea why Jenrya had a soft spot for gathering other Tamers to him: first Takato and now Ryo were glued to him like he was the best thing since sliced bread.

Then again, it was because of him they'd made it this far. Jenrya refused to back down from Takato and she'd found herself dragged along. Maybe Takato was her friend too. Of course she'd never tell the goofy kid that, it'd all go to his goggle-brained head!

Ruki shook her head, deciding she better pay attention to the briefing.

"We've been infiltrated by Digimon for years," Yamaki was saying. "As much as I don't want to admit it, they've got the jump on us with that kind of head start."

Janyuu Lee stood next to Yamaki, Reika on his other side. "At least we know where this Nagamora and Kincaid are based. You said Nagamora is Vajramon?"

"Yes. Since he's a Digimon, I assume Kincaid's the same deal. I didn't get chance to see her real form before I got booted out of my own organization," Yamaki's voice was steady, with a faint undertone of bitterness. "Recently they started fooling around with Hypnos's basement before those lights in the sky appeared. We think they've shanghaied the Juggernaut."

"It's probably how they're trying to open the barrier between our worlds," Janyuu said. "Given what we know, it makes sense."

"Then let's attack Hypnos," Ruki spoke up without raising her hand. She felt Renamon shift next to her. "It beats sitting on our butts waiting to get hit!"

She caught Yamaki glancing at her with a smile tugging at his mouth, so small you could miss it. Maybe he approved of her attitude. Ruki crossed her arms over her chest. Everyone's eyes were on her: Jenrya's, Ryo's, Rosemon's…her mom. Her mom. Ruki wasn't sure why she showed up at the meeting, only that she had and she was taking it way too well for a woman who flounced around in dresses for a living. Ruki tried to ignore the fact that her mom was looking right at her too.

"If they're putting that much effort into this Juggernaut, then it's got to be something they want. We take it away and we could set them back years. It beats trying to take down the barrier and hoping we get help out from the outside world."

Ruki paused for breath.

"Not that I'm saying we charge in head first," she shot a look at Jenrya, who shut his mouth. Yeah, she knew he'd protest and she beat down his objection before he could get it out. "Alice, what about the D-Reaper?"

"Last I heard from my grandfather, it's still on schedule. If we can delay Vajramon and Kincaid, then we should be able to make it. Between taking out this Juggernaut and the D-Reaper being put into place, I believe we could stop the Council's plans here."

"What about Digimon bio-emerging to try again?" Ruki asked.

"Impossible if the D-Reaper fully operational. Nothing could get past it: the Digimon here couldn't go home and invaders wouldn't be able to bio-emerge."

"What about any other defectors?"

Rosemon stepped in, standing over Leomon and Juri seated next to her. "There may be more on the way, especially if they raided my Archives. Such destruction will drive Digimon to join our cause who were wavering before." The Royal Knight hesitated, not given to speaking about her past in front of this many. "The previous Chosen Children left a lasting impression on Digimon before they were…Purged. I wouldn't be surprised if some of those in the Digital World still harbor loyalties and were waiting for the right time."

"I don't think we should bank on an army of reinforcements," Yamaki remarked. He didn't seem to notice that invisible pressure radiating off the Mega in the room – or if he did, he was doing a good job pretending he didn't. "But Ruki Makino is right. I'm all for hitting Hypnos myself. If they're smart, they'll have the place well guarded. We need to find a way in without getting killed in the process."

"Rapidmon and I could scout around," Jenrya stepped in. "If we're lucky, we could try looking around for any defectors while we're at it."

"We can go too," Dobermon chimed up with that throaty growl of his. Alice nodded.

Rosemon was quiet for a moment. "I will do what I can. I also wish to find Zudomon. His assistance at Odaiba gives me hope he might be on the edge of defection as well."

Ruki could only wish. Having a Mega and two Ultimates on their side might really change things. While all this scouting around didn't sit well with her, she could see why they had to do it. Count her in.

"There's got to be real blueprints of the building. Data that Vajramon would normally keep close," Ruki said. "We should find out what else they stuck in there. If we're going to strike, we need to hit hard and hit right where it counts. They probably won't give us another chance to try again."

"Exactly," Yamaki said. He cleared his throat. "I'd like to talk to Mr. Lee and Ms. Ootori in the meantime."

That was the cue that the briefing so far was over. Ruki got up and shook out her arms and legs, which had fallen asleep in the meantime. Okay, so they weren't winning just yet and they had two more mouths to worry about but at the same time, it felt like today was one step closer than yesterday.

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Kaminmon hated this. He hated coming to this damned world; hated the alien sky; hated the pollution; hated the humans; hated that these particular humans were far too good at hiding and fighting back.

He wondered if the previous humans, the so-called Chosen Children, had been anything like these Tamers he now tracked.

If they were, suddenly he had a renewed respect for the Purges. No wonder the casualty rate against the Chosen Children had been so high! A part of him had assumed they were exaggerations.

"When are we gonna take a break? We're tired!" One of the Ogremon complained behind him as they halted. Ruins from the human buildings towered over them. Kaminmon's ear-wings twitched back toward the voice.

"What happened to your fighting spirit?" Kaminmon snapped. He turned, his eyes glowing blue in the shadows. "Or are you suggesting we turn around and tell our Mistress our feet were too sore?"

The lead Ogremon scowled. "I'm sayin' it's been way too long since we killed some humans! How close are we?"

"Closer."

"You said that yesterday."

Kaminmon tossed his mane irritably. "Our intel says they base most of their attacks out of this place called 'Shinjuku'. If you didn't notice, humans like to live in cramped, confined spaces. They could be anywhere in Shinjuku. We must narrow it down."

The Ogremon on the left grunted, the big one with a trio of scars slashing his left eye shut that distinguished him from the others. Three-Scar let his club down, the head of it hitting the ground with a clump. "Too bad we didn't nail 'em on that island. Thought for sure that'd do it."

Kaminmon didn't say anything to Three-Scar's remark. Not at first. It was dangerous, saying any doubts like that aloud. The Council's plans got them this far over the years. Ever since the Purges, they had only victories. To have a front row seat to such a colossal failure as Odaiba was shocking to the core. Even he had similar thoughts. Kaminmon shook his head doggedly.

"Humans have an aversion to dying like they're supposed to," Kaminmon said. He refused to entertain the idea that both Founder and Deceiver may have miscalculated.

"Or maybe if we used Chaosdramon X to waste this Shinjuku in the first place, we would've nailed the rats."

"What about that Mega? That Knight?" The leader Ogremon butted in. He jerked his ugly head up as if checking the skies, convinced Rosemon would drop in on their heads.

"Traitor!" Three-Scar spat at the ground.

Kaminmon was inclined to agree. "We don't have the forces to delete her yet." He went on before the Ogremon pack could say anything. "As much as I'd love to kill those brats and their traitorous pets, we're here for Black Growlmon."

As impossible as this mission seemed, getting away with Black Growlmon struck him as easier than trying to take on a Mega. With enough data he knew he could digivolve to Ultimate – he'd made sure he brought enough scouts with him to do just that if he had to, something he'd conveniently neglected to mention to these Ogremon – but digivolving didn't mean he could take on Rosemon. If it looked like he had to, then he would try anyway. Makuramon might even approve of his methods if he lived to tell her about them. Besides, after Odaiba's failure, it was the least he could do to make up for what he told those Rookies. No matter his own falling from his Mistress, Kaminmon refused to let those engineers' deletions be in vain.

Oddly enough his Mistress hadn't mentioned them at all.

Surely she remembered their sacrifice. He told herself she had to. Despite her temper, Makuramon was gentle, the kind to take in the lost and dying. After all, she'd saved him…it was just these days it was much harder to have the same faith. He blamed the Real World being a terrible influence.

Kaminmon let the Ogremon rest for a few minutes before he started urging them forward again.

"The human stench is fresher already," he rallied the troops. "Even if we don't find the Tamers and their camp today, I promise you can have some fun with any other humans we find."

That perked up the Ogremon. Three-Scar leered and lumbered back to his feet.

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The wind howled outside. Renamon ignored it as she watched Impmon scarf down his breakfast like he hadn't eaten in years, her snout twitching in quiet amusement.

"What made you change your mind?" She asked. "You with a Tamer?"

Impmon choked on his food. He pounded at his chest for a few startled seconds before he whirled on her, spraying crumbs. "He ain't my Tamer!"

"Is that so? Traveling with a human and protecting him?"

"We're only heading in the same direction, that's all!"

Renamon only smiled. Getting to here from outside Tokyo's barrier was a long trip. You didn't do that with "just" any human. Renamon turned her head to glance outside – leaves whipped up by the wind blew past, the stench of smoke thick in the air. Something was burning off in the distance. Something these days was always burning. It did make it more difficult to sense Digimon coming, unfortunately. Impmon finally finished scarfing down his breakfast with a sigh.

"So how come you can't digivolve to Ultimate, toots?" Impmon decided now was a good time to hit her with an uncomfortable question.

Renamon's eyes slid back to him, narrowed slightly. News traveled fast in these close quarters. "It's not something you can force. Why haven't you digivolved to Champion?" She retorted.

Impmon's cheeks burned a darker color. "Good point."

Renamon didn't let herself savor that small victory.

"It will happen when it happens. Ruki can do it," said Renamon.

"Humans are real funny." Impmon spent a lot of time complaining about his human "partner", but Renamon also noticed the odd little looks he also shot Yamaki. "I keep daydreamin' 'bout deckin' mine in the face."

Renamon caught that slip – that "my human" – but decided not to point it out for now. She nodded.

"They're individuals like us."

"Pains in the butt is more like it."

Renamon shrugged. "And yet you're helping us instead of Vajramon and Kincaid. It's something to think about."

She stood up before Jenrya and Rapidmon came down the emergency tunnel. A part of her shared Ruki's concerns about digivolving to the next level and seeing Rapidmon only reminded her of those worries. The other Digimon's eyes slid over to her, shaded by all that green armor as he clanked next to his Tamer. She couldn't see his face, but somehow she sensed he was smiling at her.

"Thanks for holding down the fort," Jenrya said. "We'll be back in a few hours."

Rapidmon's laugh was muffled by his armor. "Sheesh! Only 'cause I gotta take it slow."

Jenrya paused to climb up onto Rapidmon's back, taking the time to belt himself to his partner. He gave Impmon and Renamon a wave before the two suddenly took off. Renamon blinked at the back draft blowing into her face. By the time the dust settled, Jenrya and Rapidmon were already specks in the distance. Impmon grunted, doing a bad job hiding his jealousy.

Renamon sighed.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

They had to be only a day or so away from zeroing in on the Tamers. Kaminmon was sure of it.

The fact they spotted one of the Tamers darting over head was proof.

Kaminmon flattened against the shadows with the Ogremon pack, watching as a green-armored beast zipped from rooftop to rooftop, moving almost too fast to follow. You could miss the human on his back if you didn't pay attention. Kaminmon hissed between his fangs. So one of them had digivolved to Ultimate, did they? This was news his Mistress needed to hear. He told himself he would report it personally once he had Black Growlmon in tow.

"Disgusting," Three-Scar snarled behind him. "Can't believe it's happening all over."

"Well, it is," Kaminmon was sarcastic. "Our focus is Black Growlmon. Now quiet down."

Kaminmon kept the group where it was, ignoring the grumbles and complaining. Hours later the Tamer came back and while they couldn't possibly keep up at the speed his Digimon moved, Kaminmon counted it as a step in the right direction. Over the next couple of days he spotted different Tamers spreading out and widening their scouting pattern. Rosemon, too, would take off sometimes, taking to the air and flying to where Odaiba used to be. It dawned on him that he could use this to his advantage – if he timed it right, he could strike at the Tamer's hideout while Rosemon and some of the others were away. It was better than trying to fight them all off, and as far as he could tell, none of the other Digimon reached Ultimate, just the green one.

Maybe this wasn't a suicide mission.

The weather in the meantime continued to flip-flop. Yesterday a heat wave beat down on them, the Ogremon's tongues lolling out as they panted. Now it snowed. Rosemon had been gone for two whole days, long enough to give Kaminmon the courage to test his luck and make his move against the Tamers. The green Digimon taking off that morning made his decision final.

"There might be other humans in there. They say humans can be almost as protective of their family units as Digimon," Kaminmon hissed. "We'll use them as hostages before we kill them."

Kaminmon shook off the layer of white powder on his snout. His snort came out in a cloud.

"Let's go."

The Ogremon pack followed him as he trotted toward where he last saw the Tamers. Passing through an unfinished construction zone, Kaminmon studied the huge tunnel before them. If he was a human, squishy and defenseless, he'd want big concrete walls on every side. This had to be it.

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The weather had been going haywire ever since more Digimon started to appear. Back when she'd been going to school, the other kids loved some snow days. These days? Yeah, right. Class was canceled for who knew how long. Ruki stamped her feet and threw on another layer of clothes, wishing she had gloves. The hoodie and scarf from her mom helped. It didn't stop her from getting antsy: Jenrya was suddenly scouting out a lot more now that he could go with Rapidmon. For someone being used to doing the majority of the scouting as the most experienced Tamer here, it was hard for Ruki to swallow. She tried to force it down. Once Jenrya and Rapidmon rolled in, it was their turn to go scouting.

They couldn't get back fast enough.

"Rosemon hasn't come back," Renamon said next to her partner, keeping her voice down. "She was due."

Ruki grunted. "Who knows with her? First she's helping us, then she's being all mysterious."

Maybe it sucked in the others and okay, so the Knight had helped them a lot at Odaiba. Without her, they probably would've got blown to kingdom come right there on Rainbow Bridge. That didn't mean Ruki felt like she should bend over backward for Rosemon like everyone else seemed to. If Rosemon really wants to help, she could start laying things out straight.

"Your mother is coming." Renamon said abruptly. She shifted to face back toward the tunnel. Rumiko approached them with an expression that almost made Ruki want to dig in her heels and headbutt right back: it was the exact same look Rumiko had when she tried to bully her into stuff like that stupid photoshoot.

Modeling was the last thing on her mom's mind.

"We want to help out more. You kids are working so hard and we'd like to pull our weight. I've already talked to Mrs. Matsuda about it," Rumiko added, tilting her chin stubbornly as if Ruki would say no.

Ruki didn't know what to say. "Aren't you scared you'll break a nail?" was on the tip of her tongue. "Like how?" She asked instead.

"Most of us aren't used to roughing it. We could use more clean clothes since we're running low, for starters. We'd like to go out on our own and help out with supply runs. Anyway, I think it would help Mrs. Matsuda to focus on something else, you know."

Ruki exchanged looks with Renamon. She hated to say it, but her mother had a point. They hadn't brought a whole lot of stuff with them and with so many people stuffed in together, it could get rank fast. And maybe she was right about Takato's mom.

She shrugged. "We'll come with you."

Rumiko beamed and rushed off to find Takato's mom. Ruki turned just in time to catch Renamon smiling to herself. Ruki grunted, trying to hide the urge to smile herself. Seemed like this whole thing was showing her different sides of people: Juri wasn't the girl she remembered now that Leomon was here, and look at Mom! I didn't know she had it in her. Too bad it took a digital disaster/invasion to show what she was really made of. Ruki went off to find Leomon and found Juri instead. She was a little skinnier than she remembered, the girl ditching that dog puppet and holding herself up taller.

"Hi, Ruki!" Juri said with a grin and a wave. Seemed like she was one of the few people still smiling these days. Maybe it was 'cause she was so new to all of this. She tilted her head as Ruki told her about the slight change in plans. "I'd love to take over guard duty!" Seeing the look Ruki shot her, Juri blushed. "It's, um, it's experience, right? I'm still working on being a Tamer."

Awhile ago, Ruki would've rolled her eyes at Juri, thinking she was playing at the game instead of realizing what was at stake here. Now it was different. Ruki hadn't talked that much with Ryo, but she caught him calling the whole thing between Leomon and Juri the "honeymoon" stage, like all Digimon partners and their humans went through it. Now Ruki really did roll her eyes.

She had Renamon digivolve before they set out, just in case. Her partner's paws began to melt the snow around her, the blue flames hissing. Rumiko looked up in awe at Kyuubimon, Mrs. Matsuda next to her.

"Are you sure it's okay?" Rumiko started to reach up to hoist herself onto Kyuubimon's back and then thought better of it, her outstretched hand hesitating. "Two adults won't be too much?"

Kyuubimon tilted her snout. "I think not."

"You're beautiful," Mrs. Matsuda blurted.

"Thank you," Kyuubimon said with a small, surprised laugh.

Ruki walked along Kyuubimon as they trotted out into the snow. She didn't say much, just listened, and it took her a few blocks down to realize that her mom wasn't chattering away about nothing like usual. She was trying to engage Takato's mom and, weirdly enough, it seemed to be working. Rumiko was very careful to avoid talking about her son – instead she launched into job war stories about modeling photoshoots and then turned it back on Mrs. Matsuda, asking about her bakery. Ruki took a few quick steps so she could walk at Kyuubimon's head.

"We probably shouldn't go too far," Kyuubimon kept her voice down. "Something feels…off."

"Like how?"

"I can't say. With the snow like this, I can't sense other Digimon as well I normally could. The sooner we get back, the better."

Ruki was quiet for a moment. "Yeah."

There was a clothing store a few blocks away Ruki thought was close enough and (hopefully) had some stuff that hadn't been looted yet. If it had, they came out here for nothing…still, if there was anyone ever who could come up with clothes out of thin air, it was her mom, right?

The two women had wandered into the clothing store, picking their way through snow and rubble, when there was a scream and a roar back the way they came. Ruki jerked toward the sound just as the adults did. "That was Juri and Leomon!"

Rumiko and Mrs. Matsuda came running back through the snow, a half-full duffle bag slung over the taller woman's shoulder.

"Go on without us!" Rumiko shouted. "We'll catch up!"

Ruki nodded and hoisted herself on Kyuubimon's back. With a flurry of kicked up snow, they both raced back home.

It was only minutes before they reached their hideout. Ruki only needed a second to size up the situation, her hand sliding back to her hip for cards.

Kaminmon had his back to them, his wings glowing as he faced off against Leomon and Juri. One side of Juri's dress was wet like she took a fall into the snow, but fall or not, she was back on her feet and doing her best to help her partner. They'd tried their best to hold the tunnel but with the Ogremon swarming out of the snow drift and charging past Kaminmon, they were totally outnumbered. For some reason the Ogremon weren't dogpiling Leomon…in fact, they weren't fighting at all.

This wasn't gonna be easy, least of all because Kaminmon wised up and brought reinforcements and this wasn't just about picking the best card to slash; the Ogremon scattered meant she had to hunt them down one by one. Not only that, but Kaminmon himself was a way tougher customer than some Ogremon. How did he know where to find us? She stamped that thought down. It didn't matter. Ruki was already slashing her card:

"Digi-Modify! Hyper Speed, activate!"

Kyuubimon glowed from under her. With the Hyper Speed flowing through body, she barreled for Kaminmon for all she was worth, leaving Ruki to hang on and brace herself. Wind whistled in her ears. She could hear Kyuubimon's breathing, feel her soft fur against her face. For a split nanosecond Ruki could imagine it was the two of them and the wind.

They slammed into Kaminmon. Ruki felt the impact's shock travel right up her arms. The enemy Digimon barked out in angry surprise as Kyuubimon dug her claws into him and sent him sprawling. They went down in a heap with Kaminmon on the bottom, his hooves kicking. Smoke and the stench of burning flesh rose in the air from where Kyuubimon's claws pierced his mottled hide.

Ruki took that as her chance to jump off – and just in time, too, because now Kyuubimon and Kaminmon were rolling away, claws and teeth and hooves going at each other like there was no tomorrow. Her partner snapped at his neck with her fangs, trying to get in a position to release her fire into him at point-blank range, and Kaminmon was doing his best to try to disembowel her with his razor-sharp hooves. His wings snapped open, run-through with static as he tried to power his own attack.

"The wings! Get them!" Ruki yelled.

Kyuubimon didn't need to be told twice. Her head lowered, her fangs snapped onto one of Kaminmon's wings, and with a growl, she jerked her head sidewise. The wing tore right off the side of her enemy's skull, his other wing flickering as it lost the energy to attack. Kaminmon screeched in pain and rage. Data gushed as he kicked like a monster possessed, managed to worm his way out of Kyuubimon's grasp and, with a snap of his hooves, galloped out from under her and to freedom. Data continued to bleed out of the stump on his head as he quivered. The hide covering his flanks twitched.

"I knew I should've killed the both of you earlier!" Kaminmon's voice trembled with fury.

"Your mistake!"

Kaminmon laughed. It was a nasty sound, wheezing like he never learned how to breathe properly. "I'll take both you traitors and your human masters on. It won't matter! You're too late!"

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The Ogremon poured into the tunnel, tramping in one after the other and kicking aside boxes and blankets. Three-Scar led the way, his eyes reflecting the red emergency lights as he loped along. His breath came out in excited pants. Kaminmon said they couldn't kill any of these humans yet, but that didn't mean he had to handle 'em like they were fresh out of the digiegg either! With Kamimon busy out front with some of the Tamers, that left Three-Scar in charge, just the way he liked it: he pointed and several Ogremon peeled off to look for more humans.

He ran into his first one not long after – two male humans in a side room, a larger one with blue hair, a smaller one with brown hair and a scar under his eye. The smaller one started to bring out his Digivice, probably to summon his Digimon slave from wherever it wandered off to. Three-Scar didn't give him the chance. One swat of his club slammed him against the wall. The Digivice clattered to the floor and switched off. Three-Scar reached down and none-too-gently slung the stunned human over his shoulder. He turned on the older one with a snarl.

"Don't even think 'bout squealing for the others! You peep and I'll squeeze this one into pulp." Three-Scar was proud of himself. He'd remembered humans were particularly protective of the younger generation. Good thing he went after the Tamer first. He laid a meaty hand warningly on his hostage. "How many of you humans?"

The Ogremon had no idea he was talking with Janyuu Lee, one of his Makers. It wouldn't make a difference if he did. Janyuu's eyes went to Ryo, then back to Three-Scar. He swallowed. Anything less than the truth would give this monster an excuse to start having some fun. Janyuu raised his hands slowly.

"Thirteen," Janyuu found himself inwardly bracing for this to get uglier than it already was. "You do know we've got a Mega and an Ultimate on our side, don't you?"

Three-Scar chuffed in laughter. "So what? I don't see 'em, do you?"

Janyuu didn't say anything. He flinched at the sound of an explosion further down the tunnel.

One of the other Ogremon came trampling up behind Three-Scar. "We found more females and males!"

"Herd 'em out front like Kaminmon said!" Three-Scar was all for killing them on the spot, but he could see where Makuramon's ex-favorite was going with this plan. Round up the families and the Tamers would be drawn out, instead of trying to hole up in the tunnels. "What about Black Growlmon?"

"We're still looking. He wasn't with the others. And we're trying to drive out another of the Tamers from the tunnel – a female with a Dobermon."

"I'll take these out front." Three-Scar turned on the human. "You! Walk in front, hands up. No funny business!"

The human apparently knew better than to try anything. Janyuu did exactly as he was told. Three-Scar led the way back out, listening to the sounds of battle. They were joined by more Ogremon on the way, a few of them dragging their prisoners by the arms. One was stunned like Three-Scar's hostage. A human with purple hair limped along, her face pale as her leg dripped blood behind her, and Three-Scar almost wanted to slap the Ogremon who did that on the back. He didn't mind looking the other way when the rest of his pals got gung-ho.

They'd caught a Digimon slave at the same time, some Impmon with a bad attitude. Three-Scar could hear him cussing up a storm. If he wasn't such a runt, he'd even be impressed.

"Pipe down!" One of the Ogremon turned. He slugged the slave in the face. Impmon shut up real fast after that.

Three-Scar reached the end of the tunnel. The sounds of a fierce battle grew louder, Kaminmon's voice rising in a triumphant yell as he caught sight of his soldiers.

"It's over, Tamers! Turn and see your failure. Bring me Black Growlmon!"

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Once he got over the shock, HD4-Ryo went through every scrap of information in the server room, losing track of the hours. Everything about the original Ryo Akiyama he lapped up. After all that time taking it slow – or just existing, waiting for his Master to give him a purpose – and now it felt like it was rushing in fast, too fast. Dizzyingly fast. His head throbbed, forcing him to cradle his head. There was a lot to try to assimilate and all of it without the Master's guidance to streamline the process. Before it was carefully doling out information; efficient and clean and comfortable. Now he was clumsily trying to cram it all in.

Somehow he had to be better than the original.

He wasn't sure how yet. This planning and acting on his own stuff was new.

The problem was the files were intensive, week's worth of data, and the more he read about this Ryo's abilities, the more he realized they might not have weeks to begin with. Days, maybe. Devidramon said they were going after this Ryo Akiyama, only the probability of him rolling over and being defeated out on the field was pretty low, given his battle record. There was a much higher chance of him storming Master's palace with his Digimon army.

HD4-Ryo sat there, not even registering the screen dimming before him as it went to standby. Best to assume Ryo Akiyama was coming here…it was only a matter of when, not if.

He looked back at his reflection, touched his cheek. It felt different this time. Before it was just a face, a pink thing that didn't look like the Digimon. Now he looked at it and kept thinking back to the original Ryo, wondering what the database missed, what tics and mannerisms he might get wrong because intel hadn't picked up on it. Even his eyes were imperfect: a brown so deep it looked black, while Ryo Akiyama's eyes were supposed to be pale blue. Human Duplicates like HD4-Ryo were supposed to be as close as you could get to the original and until now, he'd believed it. Now he looked and only saw imperfection. It wasn't good enough. He wasn't good enough.

All he knew was thinking of that other Ryo coming here sent an unpleasant thrill up him.

He'd be deleted before he even got close enough to lay hands on the human. One of Ryo's Digimon would get him – "nail him" (HD4-Ryo had to remember to sound more human, more casual, now more than ever) – and that'd be it. Whatever he did, he needed to play it differently than his dead brothers. Learn from their mistakes.

Do it right.

HD4-Ryo got up and stumbled out of the server room. Whatever happened, he couldn't let this Ryo Akiyama have the Master – he'd get to him, no matter what it took. Make him see somehow that you didn't need the original.

It took a little bit longer this time to snap awake. Getting up close and personal with an Ogremon club might have something to do with it. When Ryo stirred, he found himself blinking up at Janyuu. His mouth had been moving, his eyes wide, and the sound didn't register at first. The ringing died down but didn't go away.

"Get up! Both of you, come on!"

Ryo didn't waste time asking what happened. Janyuu helped him to his feet. Getting love-tapped by an Ogremon? Yeah, he wouldn't recommend it. He didn't even know what he was thinking, jumping in front with his D-Arc like he was still a Tamer. Next to him, Yamaki was also staggering up, part of his blond hair matted red with blood. Apparently he took one for the team. Ryo was impressed. He looked around, forgetting Janyuu's hand on his arm.

They were huddled together in a group ringed by two Ogremon, another Ogremon stomping out of the snow with two more humans: Ruki's and Takato's moms. Shuichon huddled next to her dad, trying to clap a hand to her mouth as she cried. The rest of the Ogremon surrounded Dobermon and Leomon. In the center of it all was Kyuubimon and Ruki facing off against Kaminmon. They should've been kicking his butts across Shinjuku, except – oh jeez. Ryo's eyes went wide. Hostages. They were the hostages.

With them here, the Tamers couldn't fight.

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Oh no.

Ruki tried not to let her shock show on her face. Her family…everyone's families! She watched as Ogremon frog-marched her mom and Mrs. Matsuda to join the rest of the group. Kaminmon looked like the cat that caught the canary, looking even uglier now that he had everyone where he wanted them. Even Kyuubimon maiming him couldn't wipe the smile from twisting his snout.

"Here is how it will go: you will give me Black Growlmon, wherever you have hidden him, and we won't kill your families. If you fail, we will start one by one until you see reason."

Kyuubimon bristled. "Let them go!"

Kaminmon ignored her. He snapped at the closest Ogremon. "Start with one of the males."

Ogremon grinned and went to do as he was told. "Sure thing, boss."

He plodded toward the hostages.

"Exhaust Flame!"

A wall of white flame scorched past, forcing Juri and Leomon to throw themselves to the ground or be incinerated. One of the Ogremon got caught by the blast as Kaminmon danced away in the knick of time, the unlucky soldier howling as he exploded into data. Ruki's head whipped around.

Black Growlmon. He could've run away during the fighting but here he was, his pupil's contracted to slits as he flexed his claws. Another snort blew out a ring of fire, so hot it was colorless. It was all Ruki could do not to look right at the big gaping hole now in Kaminmon's defenses – all eyes were on Black Growlmon and if he could just keep them busy for a little while longer…

Kyuubimon's ears gave the barest of flicks as she read her partner's mind. Ruki's hand inched to her cards on her hip.

"Humans as hostages!" Black Growlmon sneered. "You think like a human!"

Kaminmon recovered his composure. The barb stung but the other Champion tried to hide it. "Come with us peacefully, or else!"

"You'll kill them? Torture them? None of them are my Tamer."

"You don't think I can't do it?" Kaminmon demanded. "I know how soft you slaves get about your masters and humankind."

"Where's Takato!?"

Kaminmon only glared at Black Growlmon. His tongue wormed out to wet his exposed fangs, the only sign of nervousness that betrayed him. Holding the Tamers' families hostage was one thing – Kaminmon banked on them caring too much to do anything stupid. Having a Digimon here who didn't give two shakes if these humans died and was willing to fight anyway threw Kaminmon off-balance.

Ruki slashed her card at the same time Black Growlmon charged Kaminmon, his Plasma Blades glowing.

"Kyuubimon! Digi-Modify! Cross Hitter, activate!"

"Leomon! Digi-Modify! Giga Hand, activate!"

"Dobermon! Digi-Modify! Missile Pod, activate!"

They tore through the Ogremon surrounding the hostages, cutting deep into the scouting party. There wouldn't be enough to hold down the prisoners and fight off the Tamers now. Realization dawned on Kaminmon's face as he burst into action. He planted a solid one-two kick with his hind-legs straight into Black Growlmon's face. His cloven hooves smashed into the other Champion's jaws. Kaminmon then spun around to attack the nearest Ogremon full force. The other monster didn't have time for anything more than a stupid expression of shock before he was deleted. Kaminmon uploaded his data and deleted another and another before his soldiers realized what he was doing. By then it was too late:

The light of digivolution glared in Ruki's face.

Unlike what she remembered of Rapidmon's, this one was different. Felt wrong somehow. Heat beat on her, hot as Black Growlmon's fire, the stench of sulfur and phosphorous hitting next. Ruki threw up her hand before she was blinded. What would Kaminmon's Ultimate form look like? Through the light new limbs twisted out with a pop-pop-pop of data turning into bone. His hide cracked open and rippled into segments of tiger-striped armor. Another head snaked up with convulsive jerks and splattered drool all over the place. More arms continued to writhe out. Her D-Arc decided now was a good time to tell her who they were dealing with:

Athmon
Ultimate Level
Demi-God Abomination

Athmon was the ugliest Digimon she'd ever seen and that was saying something. The Ultimate looked like an accident, like all the trash data in the world belched up and thrown into a blender with a Unimon and a Centaurmon, then left to rot for a week. Call it a hunch, but if the Ogremon were bad enough, somehow she had the feeling Athmon was even worse. Athmon rose up on his extra legs, the new arms and tentacles protruding from his armor to grasp several huge spears. Every time he moved, some kind of slime oozed out between the armor, like he was a giant, festering wound oozing pus.

Salvia dripped down from Athmon's left head, ringed with a spider's set of eyes. "I should've done this a long time ago!"

"We waited for our Mistress to give us permission. We tried to be dutiful," Head 2's jaws dropped down in a silent laugh. Athmon's bulk heaved and quaked as the abomination towered over them. "But you scum forced our hand! We suppose we should thank you, but once we're through, there won't be anything left to thank! We'll finish this here and now!"

Kyuubimon stood her ground. "Get everyone else out of here!"

"I don't think so!"

Before Janyuu could herd the others away, one of Athmon's arms shot out into the crowd of humans. His claws easily plucked out Rumiko and dangled her in the air hundreds of feet up. Athmon's twin heads weaved together as he grinned. The eyelids on Head 1 nictitated sideways as he twitched and jerked, unable to contain his own new power.

"We'll start with this one, then!"

Black Growlmon's white mane raised in hackles as he reared his head back with the sound of furnace going off.

"Exhaust Flame!"

Ruki shouted at the same time. "Black Growlmon, don't!"

He ignored her. That he risked nailing her mom didn't even cross his mind. Ruki watched in horror as the flamethrower shot toward Athmon's arm. The Ultimate laughed and blocked the attack with one of his spears. The fire winked out into useless sparks. Athmon cackled, two voices blending together. One of the tentacles writhing off his back surged forward and wrapped around Black Growlmon's neck, lifting him like he weighed nothing, squeezing and squeezing until Black Growlmon's eyes rolled back. The other Digimon launched themselves at the Abomination.

Leomon lunged at Athmon. Miraculously he managed to get to one of the chinks in his armor, dodging through the claws and tentacles gunning for him, but when he tried to stab his sword in, he was horrified to find it simply slid of with a loud ping of metal. Dobermon was hot on Leomon's tail, his mouth opened in a snarl as he released his Schwartz Strahl. The beams lanced out and arced across one of Athmon's heads to cut a path through the falling snow. False after-images burned and flickered…and the only changes were lines of soot across that ugly mug. It didn't even tickle.

"Dobermon!" Alice was yelling from the ground. "Stromstärke!

"We think not!" One of Athmon's freakishly long claws bore down on Dobermon before he could release the EMP, slamming the smaller Digmon to the ground with a sickening thud. The rest of his claws shot out to take more hostages, coming up with Shuichon and Janyuu. "Pathetic! How you escaped Odaiba is beyond us!"

Ruki slashed her own card, doing her best to ignore Shuichon's screams. "Digi-Modify! Hyper Chip, activate!"

"Dragon Wheel!"

Kyuubimon hit the arm holding Shuichon with renewed power. Any other Digimon and the enemy would've been deleted on the spot. Today, though? Today wasn't their lucky day. Her attack wasn't enough to amputate Athmon's arm, only (barely) enough to make him flinch and drop the little girl. She didn't fall far before Leomon hurtled up to catch her. He set her back down on the ground before he darted back into the battle, Juri rushing to help Shuichon get under cover. Ruki didn't dare breathe a sigh of relief. Her mom and Janyuu were still up there!

Athmon reared back, holding his prisoners high above his heads.

The spikes on his back snapped up one by one in sequence like a countdown timer, vibrating with a low droning hum. "Trojan Impact!"

The disgusting liquid leaking from Athmon hardened and shot out in a wave toward the other Digimon. The area attack slammed into Dobermon and Leomon, sending them flying. When they fell, they didn't move. The only thing that told Ruki they were okay was the fact they hadn't dissolved into data. It didn't change the fact they were totally sitting ducks. "Okay" was relative.

Kyuubimon did everything she could to dance out of the way, but a tendril of the Trojan Impact still grazed her back leg, sending her staggering back toward her partner. "Ruki, we – "

Before Ruki could slash a card, Athmon's claws were suddenly around her. Her voice was choked off as she rocketed into the air, catching only a blurred impression of Kyuubimon's horrified expression. Her cards drifted to the snow below as Ruki struggled in Athmon's grip. Try as she might, she couldn't pull her arms free, even if it meant punching uselessly at Athmon's fingers. This high up she could see the others: Black Growlmon was already out cold, Janyuu having trouble breathing, and Rumiko doing her best to hold on. Her Mom's face was burned into her memory.

A guttural voice hissed.

"We tire of this. And it's clear you are the most experienced Tamer here - "

"Let her go!" Rumiko gasped from several feet higher up. "Please!"

Athmon laughed, Head 2 swinging toward Ruki for a closer look. "That female seems to care about you more than the others. We thought you looked similar."

"I suppose you are family," Head 1 hissed. A string of drool dripped down to sizzle in the churned-up snow. "It's only fitting you both die together!"

Athmon dropped Ruki. Being trussed up ten stories up suddenly didn't seem like it was that tall when you were falling like a rock.

Ruki squeezed her eyes shut. Kyuubimon could hear her. Save my mom! Save Jenrya's dad and everyone! Don't worry about me! What happened to her wasn't important; neither was digivolving or cards or anything. It all went out the window. Somehow Ruki felt her partner lunging up toward her. Hopefully she would make it to Mom in time. It wasn't as if she could save all three at once -

"Kyuubimon digivolve to…!"

"No!" Athmon's heads screamed as one.

The digivolution only took seconds, but it felt like so much longer. Ruki had never been at ground zero of one and it wasn't at all like she imagined. Beautiful warmth bathed her, made her sigh in pleasure. She could feel Renamon everywhere, hear that voice in her head, feel that love and drive to protect everyone she cared about. The next thing Ruki knew, she was tumbling out of the digivolution's light headfirst, the ground rushing up fast as time jittered back to normal. It hadn't snowed enough to cushion a fall like this. Ruki sucked in the instinctive breath to scream and found she couldn't. Nothing came out.

"I've got you!" A voice breathed over her head.

Ruki looked up. In her mind, she somehow knew who her rescuer was without the D-Arc chattering away.

Taomon gave one of those private smiles reserved only for her Tamer.

"You always will," Ruki gazed up at Taomon.

"Naturally."

Taomon landed lightly on her feet to set Ruki down, straightening to size up the situation. She was taller than Rapidmon, but the resemblance ended there. Robes covered her, her body digivolved to one that looked almost human if you ignored the fox's tail and the clawed hands peeking out of her clothes. Her eyes, though. Her eyes were the same: cold as ice and yet so warm. Now they hardened. Taomon stepped forward as her robes flapped – the very snow didn't seem to touch her, swirling to dance around her almost playfully. To Ruki, she looked invincible.

Athmon froze where he was, his remaining hostages still hanging in the air, for the moment forgotten. Even his heads stopped twitching, going almost unnaturally still. The only sign of movement was the steady drip of acidic saliva.

"Like you said, it's too late," Taomon said quietly.

To be continued…

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Unrelated but I've been playing Digimon Masters Online and Lord of the Rings Online. If you play either, hi! Other than that, usually bouncing around Plurk at timefreeze.