Scar Stories (c) DeskRage

Chapter 3

This could only end one way. Impmon snarled and braced himself, filling his hands with red flame. He wasn't alone in moving. Guilmon spat a sphere of fire at Puppetmon, who instinctively tried to lurch out of the way with a yelp—Guilmon's power was considerable for a rookie—and faltered mid-attack, only to recover quickly and swing out at him again. He missed Guilmon, but Renamon, who had been moving alongside the demon dinosaur into position to attack. Impmon gasped—the moment seemed to go in slow motion as Puppetmon's hammer hurtled towards Renamon's side, if it landed, it was going to be a direct hit,


Puppetmon caught his eye as soon as the scream tore itself from Impmon's throat. He sneered, and then—

A tiny voice cried out, "Puu!"

A viscous pink bubble ballooned outwards with a hiss of wind, crackling electricity.

"Nice one, MarineAngemon!"

MarineAngemon, normally bright-eyed and open faced was grimacing. The bubble swallowed the whole of the gate, pushing bigger and bigger and bigger, finally halting at the halfway point of the drawbridge. At that point, as far as Impmon could tell, it had swollen to form a protective sphere surrounding the whole fort.

Puppetmon, for his part, simply skipped backwards on the heads of his minions and halted at a safe distance.

Instead of retreating, or even stopping, he flung his hand out. Cherrymon took up the battle cry now, grinding the end of his staff into the mud.

"Go, Woodmon! Do exactly what I told you!"

To Impmon's horror, the Woodmon, after only a second, continued to inch forward. One of the bolder ones edged out to the front and brought his arms to bear.

"Branch Drain!" With that, he slammed the ends of his arms against MarineAngemon's barrier—

MarineAngemon cried out in surprise, a cry that soured with the edge of pain as the other Woodmon followed suit, each jamming their deadly claws up against the bubble-barrier.

MarineAngemon winced, crackles of greenish lighting whipping out over the surface of the bubble.

"How are they doing that?" Lopmon gasped.

"How are they not, it's their signature attack!" Terriermon gulped.

"MarineAngemon, can't you—I don't know, attack or something?" Impmon's voice was frustration as much as it was fear. He'd locked eyes with Puppetmon, and even through the barrier the tension was as thick and viscous as blood.

"No, MarineAngemon can't attack and defend at the same time," Guardromon wailed.

Guilmon lowered his body, his voice curling into a snarl. "We've been duped! This was Puppetmon's plan the whole time!"

Impmon started. Guilmon was right. Puppetmon had good reason to fear MarineAngemon. Even though the pixie Digimon was not as strong as Puppetmon—he just wasn't very…thick?...power-wise—MarineAngemon was really the only one who had even the slightest chance of being able to go toe to toe with him.

And now, Puppetmon had tied up the little Mega's power completely, because if the barrier failed…

"Get in!" MarineAngemon groaned. "I'll hold them off as long as I can."

"Nuts," Impmon snarled, clenching his fists. "Now what?"

"We think of something," Renamon touched his shoulder.

"And we'd better do it fast, for MarineAngemon's sake!"

"MarineAngemon—how long can you hold out?" Guilmon asked, his muzzle scrunched with worry.

MarineAngemon managed a pained chuckle. He opened one eye. Impmon swallowed. MarineAngemon's fur wasn't thick—it was light and feathery, and through it, Impmon cold already start to smell the sweat.

"Long enough," MarineAngemon assured them. "Go!"

The inside of the fort was chaos. The Steward was trying to comfort and rally his people at the same time—who, in the wake of the King's death were teetering (loudly) on the brink of hysteria—and he was trying to do it by yelling.

The results were mixed.

Some of the Geckomon had managed to calm down enough to start mobilizing and getting into their proper lines again or whatever and start beefing up the main gate with what was left of the rubble and whatever else was lying around. Others, mostly Otamamon who couldn't do much else, were trying to lift people's energy and spirits by passing out what remained of dinner, but given the grief and the terror at their doorstep, needless to say there were a lot of broken sake cups.

"Yeesh, can't they keep it down?" the grumble was out of his mouth before he could stop it and he immediately regretted it. The Geckomon King's death was his own freaking fault. Actually, this entire mess was his freaking fault. If he hadn't heard those two mushroom-eating fools in the forest, he and the others would have blown this place by this very morning, probably.

He slapped a hand to his face. Seriously, every situation ever seemed to turn to crap the instant he touched it. Why was that?

Karma, a mocking little voice in his head whispered.

Now I'm arguing with myself! A furious gurgle found its way out of his throat at the thought. It made him want to grind Terriermon's face into some concrete if they ever got out of this for bringing the stupid idea up in the first place. If Terriermon is right and karma is a thing, then I won't be the only one coming back a worm or something.

However, no one seemed to be paying much attention to him or his mutterings, and for once he was actually a little bit relieved.

"So, I'm pretty sure we've heard all the worst ideas already," Calumon moaned. "Can we start hearing the good ones, now, please?"

Cream puff had a point there. He, Renamon, Guilmon, Calumon, Lopmon and Terriermon (Guardromon had opted to stay outside with MarineAngemon, saying that it would be better for MarineAngemon's morale and he wasn't much of a strategist anyway. Impmon knew this wasn't true, and everyone else seemed to as well. More it was Guardromon's compassion and natural inclination to volunteer for the front lines alongside MarineAngemon, so they'd thanked him for that and promised him a good plan) sitting out a map of the territory that the Steward had given them. It was covered in marker scrawls that had been x-ed out one after the other to the point where it was pretty much indecipherable.

Plan after plan had been drawn up, and most of them were written along the lines of, "We digivolve and beat the bad guy!" or "We somehow manage to get out of here past all the Woodmon, get into the forest, convert Cherrymon and attack Puppetmon together and hope MarineAngemon hasn't completely exhausted himself by then!" One set of plans was either too bold, or too dependent on some seriously big "ifs".

Even with Calumon's help, without their Tamers, the best they'd be able to get to was Champion (they were pretty sure anyway. Calumon didn't even seen to know), and that would only buy them time at best. Actually, it might give them a chance against Cherrymon, but not with all those Woodmon surging about and certainly not against Puppetmon.

Personally, he would have liked the "too bold" set of plans more if he'd had a smidgen of the power necessary to pull them off, but either way, they were screwed. He drummed his fingers on the edges of the map, not really listening to the new plans getting tossed around. It reminded him of the one time in his life he'd played shogi* once (not a shining moment of his even for him, he didn't think he'd ever go near a fire hose or a cement mixer every again after that), but after he realized he was losing—and badly—he'd exploded and kicked the board across the street.

He stopped drumming his fingers. Kicked the board across the street. His eyes widened. He looked at the map, and then at the shuddering walls of the fort. How had this not occurred to him before?

"I got it!" he burst out, leaping to his feet. He was almost laughing with relief, but managed to contain himself.

"Well, what is it, genius?"

Impmon told them.

A moment's silence passed.

Terriermon pursed his lips. "You know, normally, I'd say that's a horrible idea and I'm not surprised that you were the one to come up with it, but given our options…"

"It's so dumb that it's brilliant!" Calumon said, ears extending with hope.

"MarineAngemon is certain to be running out of time—we don't have the luxury of thinking of anything better!" Lopmon said.

"I hate to do that, but it may be the only thing that'll work," Renamon sighed.

Guilmon stood. "Right then. We'd better get moving. There isn't much time."

They had to run the plan by the Steward. Impmon didn't see why it mattered, seeing as they'd have to go through with it anyway, but in the end, the Geckomon sighed heavily.

"It can't be helped. We've endured worse. Go. And thank you."

He sent out two more Geckomon out just beyond the gate where MarineAngemon and Guardromon were holding the barrier. On the surface, they hoped it would appear to Puppetmon and his men that they were simply bolstering that outside guard—in reality, they were there to relay the plan to the other two partners.

Impmon winced inwardly. So much for the "good plan" they promised Guardromon. Actually, he was feeling sicker with every minute they had to wait—and not because he wanted to just get everything over with.

But it was a stupid, stupid, desperate plan.

He swallowed. The odds of that were looking good. His track record was the furthest thing from auspicious, and given what had happened over just the last forty-eight hours.

"Impmon, what's wrong?"

Impmon swung his head up to look at Renamon. No matter what kind of light they were in, her eyes were always bright, bright and piercing to the core. It was dark—the Steward was leading them to the "back door" of the fort, so to speak. Guilmon was leading, with Terriermon, Lopmon and Calumon trailing, and with Impmon and Renamon bringing up the rear.

He stopped, resting his hand on the rough stone wall. He figured a front at this point would be well…pointless.

"I'm sorry," he groaned, face in hands. "We wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for me."

Renamon sighed, a heavy, almost rasping sound.

"No, really! I'm not just—look, if I hadn't heard those stupid Geckomon, we wouldn't have gotten dragged into this whole Puppetmon nightmare, and we'd have been outta this crappy forest in just the next day. It's because of me that the Geckomon King spoke and then Puppetmon killed him to make a point. You shoulda seen the way he looked at me, Renamon. I've brought this all down on everyone's heads." His voice, previously starting out borderline hysterical had weakened to something resembling a whisper. "I'm nothing but a bundle of mistakes."

Renamon had never wanted to smack Impmon more than in that moment. For a heartbeat, a froth of frustration boiled in her guts, making her whiskers twitch—but her sense got the better of her and a wave of compassion calmed the angry sea in her.

Absolutely nothing had gone right for Impmon in the last forty-eight hours. The same could be said of the last few months or so, in a way. Part of it was due to his own poor choices, but no one except these village-brained Geckomon condemned him as much as Impmon was condemning himself for what happened to Jeri, and indeed every tiny little effort he made that resulted in some kind of error.

But the thing was, he'd blinded himself to the good he'd wrought in their lives. She did not witness his return to his tiny Tamers, but certainly their reconciliation saved more than just his life.

She clenched her jaw. What brings people out of self-pity? Nothing—the person afflicted must climb out on their own strength.

She could help him realize the truth, but he had to choose to believe it.

"Impmon." Her voice was low, intense. He turned to look at her, eyes bleary and weak. "I am not the sum of my years of fighting in the Digital World—years spent destroying other Digimon and loading their data in order to become stronger. That part of me is past, and while it is a part of me, it is not me. You, in turn, are not the just the sum of your failures. And you are better than this. Stand up!"

Impmon, startled by the sudden force in her voice, flinched, tail stiffening. He may have responded, but the others had reached the foot of the stairs. Guilmon was poking his head around the corner.

"Are you guys okay?"

"Yes, coming," Renamon said, brushing past Impmon and leaving him to follow.

The water was freezing.

Impmon guessed it didn't matter, since it was about to get very, very hot.

The swim from the fort to the shore wasn't a long one. The bank was moist and soft under Impmon's hands as he scrambled out of the water, spitting and coughing. Guilmon's powerful wake kept sending water up his nose, so now his sinuses were stinging with it.

"You know, you don't have to be spitting out the water," Terriermon said.

"Yeah? Why's that?" Impmon retorted, but he never got his answer, since Renamon and Guilmon hissed them over to a clump of brush. Impmon tried not to shudder. He could hear the howling and screaming of the Woodmon all the way from here, and the distant muffled sound coupled with the very imminent task at hand threatening to choke him made it altogether disturbing.

"You ready, Calumon?" Guilmon asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be…" Calumon concentrated. Impmon waited with bated breath. He didn't really know much about Calumon's power to digivolve other Digimon, only that Calumon himself didn't seem to know that much about it. Reportedly, he'd never really thought much about it when he did it, except for once or twice, and then, he'd had some kind of outside leg-up—either a Tamer or some Digi-faeries or Gnomes or something.

He needn't have worried—a red light bloomed in Calumon's forehead.

Guilmon, Terriermon and Renamon each disappeared a blaze of gold-white light, and just watching their silhouettes morph and change sent a pain through Impmon that he knew, standing next to Lopmon, he wasn't alone in feeling.

The light cleared. Calumon fell over with a groan, but before he hit the ground, Kyuubimon braced the fall with her muzzle. "Thank you," she said.

"Thanks, Calumon," Growlmon added.

For a minute, Impmon couldn't help but stare. They were beautiful. Growlmon was huge, all heavy, solid muscle and rough, bulletproof hide and heat radiating from his belly that Impmon could feel even from here. Gargomon, smelling like combustion, also thick with muscle and substantial bone, a newly heavy hide and flame in his eyes. And Kyuubimon—she…Impmon didn't really have good words to describe her, but he got the distinct impression that there weren't a lot of Digimon out there whose forms reflected power and, well, beauty as well as hers did, and he wouldn't have really noticed or cared if the beauty in question wasn't related to her power. She was glossy fireproof fur, flaming feet and tailtips that cast a ghostly aura around her that dared an opponent to attack, and when she moved he got the impression of pure, shining steel wrapped in silk.

Had he never noticed this in them before, with anything but bitter envy, or bloodlust?

"Right, we've got to hurry! Puppetmon and Cherrymon probably saw that light, so we've got to move." Growlmon instructed. His voice dropped, and there was a tiny, game smile that gave an edge to his voice that for some reason, prompted a strange inspiration, a calm that things may in fact be okay. He made eye contact with Impmon, before addressing the whole group. "We can do this! Remember, make sure to leave the gap in front of the fort."

"Yeah, can't say we didn't give those bullies a chance!" Gargomon said. Growlmon nodded as Lopmon grabbed a stick and climbed onto his back. Calumon, for his part had climbed onto Kyuubimon's back.

Growlmon gave a nod. "Let's go!"

With that, he whirled around and released a blast of white-hot flame into the forest. The foliage seemed to go up with a strange creaking noise, as if protesting the injustice of a second destruction, before crumbling into bits of flaming charcoal and spreading the flame with an ashy gasp.

Impmon swallowed, lighting his fingers. No turning back now.

"Impmon, with me!" Kyuubimon said, bounding away.

"You got it," he responded, leaping after her.

"Is it just me or should we have run into trouble by now?" Gargomon panted. He couldn't' well wipe at the sweat that was starting to run down his forehead and around his eyes—he didn't have hands to do that with. The heat from the fire they'd seeded was eating up the forest like candy, breaking it into a million crackly pieces before it collapsed into a pile of smoldering ash.

"Are you complaining?" Lopmon asked as she tossed yet another torch into a previously unlit section of forest.

Growlmon stopped, snorting dark vapors from his nose as he cast about. He tensed, eyes widening. "I think Puppetmon found them!"

Well, there had been about a fifty-fifty chance of that happening…wait—

"Hold on a sec, are you telling me you can hear them screaming over all of this from way over here!"

"We've got to help them!"

"I'm afraid, that's where I've got to stop you."

Cherrymon seemed to materialize out of the burning haze with the crunch of breaking foliage.

Gargomon snorted and brought his arms to bear. "And here I was thinking it was about time we ran into something nasty!"

"We can take him!" Growlmon snarled.

"I'm afraid you're sadly mistaken. I may not have meant business when I dealt with your cowardly little friend, but I can assure you, the gloves, metaphorically speaking, are off. Your little plan to burn us down with the forest was a bold move, I'll give you that, but time, I'm afraid is not on your side my friends."

"Oh yeah? Big talk from a lump of firewood! It may take a little bit, but you're going down with this forest sooner or later if you don't take a hike and fast! Gargo-laser!" he charged towards Cherrymon, guns blazing—this rush of power and energy and bloodlust familiar and friendly, except—

Henry wasn't here—

That realization almost caused him to falter. Instead, he channeled it into a furious bellow and made as if to slam the side of his heavy arm into Cherrymon's face.

"Cherry Bomb!" a rain of explosions threw him backwards with a cry.

Cherrymon literally seemed to shake the damage off, motioning at the smoke with his staff and grinning that nasty grin of his.

"That may be," he raised all six of his arms, arching his fingers like claws, "But even if I do, it'll be long after Puppetmon takes care of your little friends. And long after I've loaded the three of you. Vine Attack!"

Several vines whipped out of Cherrymon's canopy—about as big and heavy as a fire hose and packing about the same punch, too, and slammed Growlmon full in the face, wrapping around his muzzle and smashing him into the ground.

Gargomon sprang to his aid, followed up by Lopmon, only to find himself flying in the opposite direction courtesy of another crippling blow that sent him crashing into the remains of a charred tree.

He rolled to his feet. Cherrymon might be strong, but he was sure in his heart that they would beat him. He had Henry to think of, after all! To fail here would be irresponsible.

But if Puppetmon really had found Renamon and Impmon already, and they had this stupid creep in the way, whether they could defeat Cherrymon or not was irrelevant—

Renamon and Impmon would be dead in a few minutes, and he, Lopmon and Growlmon wouldn't have much longer when the Mega came to call.

And to think that hoping that the forest would burn down faster than these guys could beat them was their best plan.

"I've had enough of this!" he said it almost to himself as much as he was talking to Cherrymon as he dashed the thoughts from his mind. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but this fight, right, here, right now.

That was all they'd ever had.

The heat from the flames pressing in from behind while the foliage that wasn't quite yet burning slapped and scratched at him as he practically flew through the trees, setting fire to everything he touched.

Below, Kyuubimon's Fox Tail Inferno hurled fireballs in all directions, seeding little flames in her wake. Calumon was doing his best simply to hang on.

There was a strange giddiness that lent more energy to his heels. It was only a matter of time before they ran into Cherrymon or Puppetmon. The other group would have to try and stand and fight because they weren't as fast, but at least they had the ability to do several times more damage and continue to spread the flames.

He and Renamon had nothing but their speed to protect them, which was by design—they would cover much more ground. But just the thought of playing hell-tag with a crazy Mega was enough to make him feel like he was already breathing helium.

But hadn't they faced way worse odds before? They'd come out of that all right, right?

Well, sheer dumb luck was half of it. They haven't had a lot of that lately.

But as they set fires and continued to run, he couldn't help but remember the day he first digivolved to Blast Mode. He'd thought he was running to his death then, too, but that had been no reason not to act—something in that feeling, combined with the love of his Tamers had created the power that transformed him…

"Puppet Pummel!"

There was an explosion and a howl of pain. Kyuubimon flew by in a blur of yellow and fire. A hail of bark and charcoal flew into Impmon's face. The blast of heat that followed knocked him right out of the tree, landing him in a heap on the ground.

He scrambled upright, and looked at Kyuubimon, who was struggling to her feet. But she was shaking badly on her right side only, her fur blackened with the effects of the explosion. Not a direct hit, thank goodness.

"That's about as far as you'll be going today," Puppetmon said, stalking out of the shadows. He whirled his hammer around, clearing a space without flame as he came, his red eyes practically glowing in the firelight.

Calumon made a small, frightened noise, his grip tightening on Kyuubimon's fur.

Impmon grit his teeth, letting the bile of fear and battle-rush build in his throat. With Puppetmon directly in their way, running away was going to be difficult, if not downright impossible. So much for hell-tag.

"You'd better not take another step, ugly," he snarled, "Or we'll digivolve again—"

"What kind of idiot do you take me for?" Puppetmon hurled the x-shaped thing on his back at Impmon, who managed to dodge enough to escape a direct blow, but it was like getting clipped by a speeding car and Impmon soon found himself eating dirt.

He spat out a mouthful of mud, just as Pupetmon grabbed him by the ear and dragged him upright. "I'm certainly a lot smarter than you." Dangling painfully from his ear, Impmon squinted his eyes back open. Puppetmon's face was weird and twisted—His nose was slightly off center and the wood around his mouth was strangely warped. His eyes were crazy, and the texture of his woody skin was cracked and rough. He was, if anything, like an extremely ugly, murderous, half-finished puppet. "I knew that you not all of you had digivolved, and the ones that could couldn't have gone past Champion level. Otherwise—" he suddenly hurled Impmon back down to the ground and stomped on his back, crushing the air out of him with a wheeze that almost prevented Impmon from hearing the rest, "—you wouldn't have gone through the trouble of hiding—it—in—the—first—place!" each of those last words were accentuated by a stomp, and for a minute, Impmon through he might pass out.

However, Kyuubimon jumped in with a cry.

"Dragon Wheel!" A blur of blue flame hurled itself into Puppetmon and sent him thudding to the ground in a clatter, freeing Impmon long enough to crawl away—just in time for Puppetmon to rebound. Kyuubimon's attack may have sent him spinning, but be leaped up—freakishly fast—and grabbed the ruff of Kyuubimon's fur and buried his face into the area around her shoulder.

It was a split second later, with a metallic drilling growl and Kyuubimon's scream that he realized what happened.

"YOU—! " he pitched to his feet and hurled a fireball, but it had about the same effect as throwing Pop Rocks.

"Stop it!" Calumon had descended on Puppetmon's head and was pulling at his had. "Let her go!" his voice was practically a sob. Puppetmon responded by dropping Kyuubimon—her blood dripping off his nose and disappearing into red points of data—and swatting at Calumon like a troublesome fly. Calumon, who was very light, went soaring into the burning forest with a cry.

"Calu—" Impmon barely got half the name before stars burst into his vision as a solid wooden fist slammed into the side of his head. He tried to get to his feet, elbows wobbling, but that effort only prompted a vicious kick.

He slid to the ground in a heap against a tree trunk, trying not to breathe. Something in his ribs didn't feel right anymore. Didn't end up mattering. He opened his eyes, just in time to see Puppetmon in his face and holding a small, sharp, blackened piece of wood. Impmon gasped involuntarily when he realized what Puppetmon was going to do, air used immediately afterward as a strangled scream ripped its way out of his throat—as Puppetmon drove the wood into Impmon's shoulder and pinned him to the freaking tree.

"You're the saddest thing I've ever seen," Puppetmon hissed, leaning into Impmon's face, who couldn't even look him in the eye, doubled over with agony as he was. "You're a Digimon who made it to Mega. The scars on your back are proof of that. But for some reason, you feel bad about it."

"You don't know anything about me," Impmon wheezed. "But I know that whatever sick freak put you together clearly didn't give a dirty diaper when—"

Kyuubimon by this time had recovered and attacked again, but Puppetmon simply brought out his cross-thing out again. Kyuuibimon dodged, hurling nine balls of ghost-blue flame.

Puppetmon caught her directly in the chest with a hammer, and sent her crumpling to the ground.


Kyuubimon didn't even feel the blow at first—more like heard the sickening thunder of metal slamming into her flesh, the low thunder of the scorching explosion that fired, all up and down her body. And then the pain, a deep, throbbing pain and ricocheted through her body like a bullet seeking death.

She was lying in the dirt, just now feeling its pressure against her face. And she knew, just by the fact that she was still breathing, that she had been very lucky.

Her body spasmed unpleasantly. Her power bled away in a hiss of light, leaving behind Renamon. She fell back against the ground, seeing stars.

She's suffered worse than this before, right? Hadn't she gotten up from injuries far more grievous, pain far more intense? And yet, for the moment, this moment, even though she could hear someone screaming her name, she could not find the strength to stand up immediately.

Her strength wasn't here.

A sudden hole opened up in the area underneath Renamon's heart. It felt like all her insides were falling straight into it, leaving in their place a yawning abyss of pain, a need, a memory.

Rika...where are you?

"Sure I do. I know lots about you," Puppetmon said cheerfully, returning to the conversation as though nothing had happened. But everything had happened. Was Renamon still breathing? Sure, she had to be; otherwise she'd have dissolved by now—

"You've been to the Real World. You and these other clowns must therefore have Tamers to be able to digivolve."

"Why do you even want to go to the real world?" Impmon grunted, struggling against Puppetmon's grip and the pain of the shard pinning him to the tree. "You're already fully digivolved. You've got all the power you could ever want."

Puppetmon laughed. "Are you kidding? I don't need a Tamer. I want to knock down bigger sandcastles that the ones we've got here. This world," he drew out the next word, "is boring. And you are a guilty killer."

He made a strange face—his eyes lit up with a strange hysteria that if Impmon wasn't already afraid to die here, he was then, "And that is unforgivable."

He let Impmon go, and strode over to where Renamon was sprawled on the ground. "Hey!" Impmon called weakly, panic rising in his chest. He grabbed at the stake in his shoulder. He couldn't seem to get a good grip on it, slippery with his own blood, "Get back here, I ain't finished with you yet!"

"No," Puppetmon hissed at him. "You're a guilty killer. An anti-Digimon. And you even have a Tamer, and you can't digivolve because of your disgrace. Which is why, I am going to kill and load this foxy lady, and going to make you watch. That'll teach you. Then, I'm going to kill and load you. And," his voice took on a gleeful pitch.

Puppetmon spread his arms and looked up at the sky, which was rumbling with the threat of rain, "when I finish the rest of your friends, I'm going to go to the Real World. I have no idea how I'll do it," he jerked his head back towards Impmon, in that creepy, uncanny way that only a puppet can manage, "But when I get there, I am going to find your Tamer, and I'm going to kill him."

It was as if a bomb detonated in Impmon's stomach, setting fire to his limb. The image of Ai and Mako, reaching out for him was burning in his brain, blocking out almost all else. He'd promised himself—they'd all made a promise, that day—that they would be together again soon.

"But first, your lady friend here!"

He could not die here. And neither would anyone else. They didn't have the luxury of dying here. Lopmon had said this was their fate, their responsibility—their lives weren't their own anymore, and there was something as freeing as there was binding in that.

No one was going to die here.

They had promises to keep.

He hadn't succeeded at any major endeavor since getting here. But even then, that was never a reason not to act.

Renamon's voice floated through his mind—You are not the sum of your failures.



He hadn't felt it in ages. A white rush of energy, like threads of light infusing and tightening in his soul seemed to push out to all of his limbs and give him the strength to stand. The energy seemed to flow out and suffuse his whole body and for a second there was nothing except that light. And in that second—

The outer of data that was Impmon frayed and sloughed off; taking with it that name, those little balls of fire, the tiny form with its fur, leaving behind the core that was him more than it was anything else. That core seemed to shudder and stretch and morph as more energy seemed to flood in. His limbs lengthened and solidified—three fingers tore into five claws sheathed in heavy gunmetal, four wings shuddered and burst from his back with a sensation that wasn't quite pain but still felt like fire.

His limbs, all seven, wings were long and sparking strength—and instead of fur, there was a new hide, pressing in on the dark, raging flame that was the power that was Beelzemon.

He roared with that familiar voice as the light faded and the vision cleared—cleared enough for him to see now a real fear in Puppetmon's eyes.

"It is good to be back!"

Gargomon skidded away from another one of Cherrymon's blasts, panting heavily. They were in trouble now. The fire was starting to close in on them as it was on Cherrymon, who was showing no signs of slowing down.

He didn't even want to think about what might be happening to Renamon and Impmon right now…

"Better give it up," Cherrymon grinned, making a rude "come on" gesture with his four auxiliary arms. "Your friends are probably—"

A sudden bright light flashed—for a second Gargomon thought that maybe the storm had finally come and the lightning was saying hello, but after turning, to see what Cherrymon and the others were gaping at, well…

There was just no mistaking that pillar of light. His jaw dropped, but triumph, as much as surprise built in his chest like the fizz in shook-up soda bottle. He laughed.

"I don't believe it!"

Lopmon gasped. "Could it be?"

Growlmon "I don't know how, but he did it!"

"He finally got over himself, that's what!" Gargomon cackled, turning his (now empty, but who cared?) guns back on Cherrymon. Of course. Impmon was probably done being his usual drama queen self, and managed to figure out whatever machinations made him digivolve. Finally.

Ugh, actually, now that he thought about it, a sudden image popped into his head of Impmon dictating his awesomeness to them for the rest of the journey…Well, even if it came to that, Gargomon was sure he could slap some sense into him again if he had to.

Cherrymon blanched, inching backwards as much as he could without catching whatever excuse he had for a rear on fire. His expression reminded Gargomon of the face that Henry made when Terriermon had dangled a dead spider in his face that one time. However, he managed to compose himself enough to spit out, "Don't go gettin' any ideas—the fact is that there's still the three of you against the one of me, and that little pipsqueak's digivolving hasn't changed the fact that I'm still stronger!"

He didn't even believe it himself! Gargomon could practically taste the undercurrent of fear in Cherrymon's voice.

Growlmon stamped the ground with his foot, leaving huge gouges in the burning earth before unleashing a Pyro Blaster at Cherrymon, catching him in the branches. His voice was low, and his body practically hummed with renewed energy.

"I don't know about that. It looks to me like everything has changed. Dragon Slash!" he hacked at Cherrymon with his arm-blade, forcing the Tree Digimon to back into the flames.

Cherrymon howled and stampeded forward, vines snaking out, cherry bombs flying. Growlmon responded with a roar, "Time sure isn't on your side anymore! Pyro Sphere!"

Puppetmon took a step back, gripping his hammer defensively in front of him, not even bothering to mask the shock that lit his eyes up light the inside of a jack-o-lantern*.

"What is this? But—"a tree, barely held together by the remains of its bark burst from the heat inside, showering Puppetmon with flaming bits of wood.

"But nothing," Beelzemon snarled, flexing his claws and lashing his tail behind him. This substance, this coiled power—for a minute he found himself wishing that Puppetmon was just a little bigger, so that when he smashed his fist through that splintery body it would leave a bigger mark. "I ain't got no more words for you." He loved the way that he cast a huge shadow over Puppetmon. He couldn't help but grin! "You can still run, if you think you're fast enough."

What was that about hell-tag?

Puppetmon snarled at him, and purled his hammer. He made as though to strike at Beelzemon, but instead he fudged the attack so that it would hit the prone Renamon.

"Oh no, you don't!" Beelzemon snatched his gun and fired off three rounds in the blink of an eye, catching the wooden Digimon full on and hurling him into a tree so hard that the burning trunk broke in half on impact.

Several other trees crumpled and died with fiery hisses, falling down as Puppetmon rose, his eyes burning and lowered in a murderous stare. Beelzemon snarled, ready to lunge.

The world had been drained of true color—, black shadows, burning, blackening woods and the old, bloody look of the flames and licked at the skeletal forest and pumped granite colored smoke into the blackening, angry sky. All that remained was red.

That was fine with Beelzemon.

"You want to play rough?" Puppetmon challenged, spinning the hammer, "Then let's play!"

Beelzemon shifted, so that he was now providing a shield for Renamon. He flexed his claws.

"Bring it!"

Renamon groaned as she came to. Her skull felt like there was a crack running all down the side and her brains were leaking out, and all she could smell was burning. She blinked charcoal out of her eyes and tried to sit up. This proved to be a bad move initially—a jolt of pain rattled her body and surprised her with its intensity to the point where she felt back to the ground.

But she managed to forget it long enough to notice Beelzemon.

She gasped. "He—digivolved?"

"Renamon!" Calumon staggered out of the bush and threw himself on her side. He was light enough that it didn't hurt, but she could feel his big, thick tears seeping through her fur and stinging the burned skin beneath. "Thank goodness!"

Thank goodness…

A strange feeling had bubbled up inside her, a feeling she wasn't sure she really understood that prompted not only a sense of relief (not true relief, Beelzemon was still fighting for his life and theirs and the forest was coming down around their ears), but…

"Renamon, we'd better move!"

Something inside Impmon, something that had been badly broken was finally starting to heal, and with that knowledge a strange kind of pride warmed her heart.

Beelzemon thought he had Puppetmon on the run. His enemy was dodging bullets from his gun left and right, dancing like the stupid marionette he was. He might have brought his Corona Blaster to bear and finished the job if Puppetmon hadn't suddenly charged towards him.

This took Beelzemon aback—the other Mega hadn't done anything but retreat so far—, so much so that Puppetmon managed to hit him full in the face with his hammer. The blow and the explosion sent Beelzemon reeling to one side, but he thrashed his tail and wings and managed to keep upright, enough to mitigate the second blow. Puppetmon snarled in frustration. "No fair! Let me make it a bit more even!"

He struck Beelzemon's wings—one with the hammer and one with the x-shaped thing, sending black feathers flying.

Beelzemon growled in pain, blundering backwards, but using the momentum to bring his claws to bear.

"Darkness Claw!"

It was a lucky blow—he finally tore through that wooden cross thing with his claws, a blaze of purple energy sending Puppetmon tumbling backwards. He flapped his wings experimentally as the thing exploded into bits of data to an anguished cry from Puppetmon—they hurt, but he could and would fly.

"Puppet Pummel!"

This time, Beelzemon was ready for the blow. He caught the hammer in his claws—how could something so ridiculously tiny be so damn strong?—but the force behind it still pushed him back.

"I've had just about enough of that thing!" he grunted, pushing back harder and flinging his attacker off. Puppetmon landed lightly, rolling away from the bullet shaped crater in the ground where his head had been a second ago.

"I could say the same for that stupid toy gun of yours!" He made a flinging gesture at Beelzemon, who didn't notice anything…until he tried to attack.

It was as though he'd been dumped in half-dry concrete. He strained, muscles burning and twitching with the effort of trying to simply point his gun at the stupid puppet, but he couldn't move his four main limbs at all. He tried to flap his wings, shift his tail, anything, but as soon as he attempted that, all the strength binding him went back into his arms and legs.

"What is this!" All of his limbs seemed to be attached to these shining threads, each in turn attached to one of Puppetmon's fingers. His eyes widened as he realized what just happened.

Puppetmon laughed and twitched one of his fingers. No matter how he struggled, his gun arm swung around, and pointed at the spot where—

Renamon had been. Although, knowing her, she probably wasn't far—

"Where is she?" Puppetmon hissed. "Oh well. If she won't come out, I guess I'll just do this!" he moved his fingers again. Beelzemon's elbow wrenched painfully—he found himself pushing the barrel of his gun into his own chest, right over his heart. Panic sent a surge of adrenaline coursing through his veins like lighting. He battled Puppetmon's attempts to make him pull the trigger, grunting and straining with the effort, even managing to flap his wings a little bit and twitch his tail, but even he knew he couldn't hold out forever like this!—

"Beelzemon, fly!" Renamon shouted from somewhere in the burning trees. "He's having trouble controlling all of your limbs! Fly!"

"Where are you?" Puppetmon shrieked, suddenly forcing Beelzemon's arm out towards the trees again.

"Right here!" Renamon rocketed out of a tree just as it collapsed into a flaming heap of ash. The very tip of her tail and elbow fur was on fire, but she didn't seem to notice, eyes bright with pain and strength, "Diamond Storm!"

As the bright leaves of brilliant energy rained down on Puppetmon with the force of a hailstorm, she cried out to Beelzemon,


Beelzemon saw Puppetmon prepare some kind of attack to get back at Renamon and growled and affirmative. "You got it, toots!" With a growl, he launched himself into the sky, dragging Puppetmon with him with an incongruous clacking and howl of fury. The initial leap sent them high above into the dark smoke, but a few strokes of his powerful wings—Oh, how good it was to feel the air currents, and hear the low thrum of his wings against the air, to be able to consider the weight and strength of this new body and yet still be able to fly—they were well above the nightmare that was the forest, reducing it to a red-hot latticework from hell. Before Puppetmon could regain control, Beelzemon twisted sharply and raked his freed claws over the strings, now stretched taught between him and Puppetmon. They snapped like fishing line.

Puppetmon plummeted with a shriek, his hammer falling harmlessly away.

"Hmph!" Beelzemon dipped into a dive, catching up to Puppetmon in seconds and snatching him out of the air. "Don't think you're getting off that easy!" he hissed in his ear.

"What're you going to do? You're too guilty to—" Puppetmon started to spit back, but Beelzemon had heard enough. He hurled Puppetmon back up into the sky, and summoned his Corona Blaster. Its weight on his arm, and what it meant sent a tingle of energy coursing through him.

"You threatened Ai and Mako. If you think I'm going to let that go, then you've got another thing coming! CORONA BLASTER!"

It was over in a supernova of multicolored light and a tinny scream.

A sudden flash of lighting lit the world to white for a split second, followed by a furious peal of thunder.

There wasn't enough of Puppetmon to even hit the ground before his splintered remains dissipated into a trickle of bloody red stars to be carried away by the wind.

Cherrymon didn't normally feel pain. His hide was dead and dense—all but impervious to true pain. Impact was the bigger detriment in battle, with pain as little more than the after effect, ringing in the background.

He was in agony now.

These partner Digimon were right. The moment that rotten little defect digivolved, the time tables had been turned.

Flames licked and bit at his bark, cracking, burning, crumbling every inch of him, and burning their way inside to char his core from the inside out. His leaves dried and burst into flame, sending what was left of his foliage down in a snow of burning ash. He couldn't even breathe, all he could smell was smoke and the smell of his burning insides, which it of itself was almost more painful than the searing red destroying him from the outside. He couldn't even hear himself screaming anymore—could he even scream? His voice felt like it had been burned away.

He could barely see now. Even his vision was tainted by flame.

The battle was over. That strange red Digimon, Growlmon, and his loathsome companions had stepped back to watch him die. Did none of them have any mercy? No, wait, Growlmon was merely preparing to deliver the final blow, when a dark shape—tall, angular and ominous dropped out of the flaming sky.

All Cherrymon could make out were those eyes. Three of them, burning bright, jade green—a forest green—in that silhouette. They were strong now. Oh, those ghosts were still there, swirling around behind the fire in those eyes. But the heaviness that had bound that Impmon was gone.

Heh. He almost wanted to ask Beelzemon to be the one to finish him off, just to see if he could do it. He didn't have a voice. So, he bared his teeth at him in the best approximation of a grin, and pointing a flaming finger directly at Beelzemon.

But he didn't end up needing the coup de grace in the end. In the moment he locked eyes with Beelzemon, he dissolved.

The last thing he ever saw was green.

The next events passed in an exhausted blur.

Beelzemon took Renamon, Calumon and Lopmon into his claws and flew back towards the fort, with Guilmon and Gargomon following close behind. His very shadow passing over the horde of Woodmon bashing away at MarineAngemon's depleted barrier was enough to prompt them to clear a space.

He landed in front of the exhausted MarineAngemon and Guardromon, ignoring the gasps of surprise (and horror, from the Woodmon). As soon as he did, the barrier dissipated. He could hear MarineAngemon collapse with a sigh into Guardromon's hands.

After depositing Renamon and the others onto the ground, he stood up to his full height and flared out all four of his wings.

"Puppetmon and Cherrymon are dead. You've no reason to hang around this place anymore, so if you don't want to end up like that there forest, I suggest you clear outta here."

"We've left you a path to the North," Growlmon said. "But you'd better not think about coming back here again, or you'll be sorry."

The Woodmon, without their masters, didn't need even that much urging.

After that, Growlmon and Gargomon reverted back to their rookie forms. Just watching them go seemed to flip a switch in Beelzemon—

Already his strength was waning, and his form suddenly become very heavy, and very cumbersome, as if managing all these limbs and all this weight was too much. He fought it. There was at least one more thing he wanted to do, first.

He flew over to the dead tree that had smashed through the great hall. There were a few Geckmon around there, already trying to work to get it out of the way. They scattered at his approach, some even squealing in terror. Couldn't blame 'em. He knew what he looked like, and he knew it was frightening. In a way, he relished it, honestly.

He grabbed the tree in his claws, and with a grunt of effort, picked it up and hurled it back into the forest, where it collapsed with a heavy thud, taking a few of the tougher trees still standing with it.

The sky had it after that. As if on cue, the clouds opened up, and the rain they'd been threatening all day finally poured out with a strange kind of urgency, as if it was trying to calm the raging earth below. The water was surprisingly cold, or maybe his skin was just hot, but either way, it soaked past his clothes and chilled him to the bone, cooling whatever fire he had left in him—and with it, what remained of his strength.

That was okay, he guessed as it melted way in a soft golden light. His knees wobbled. He might have fallen, if not for someone's claws.

I don't need it right now.

The last thing his struggling consciousness saw, clear and warm in his mind's eyes, was a memory of Ai and Makoto's face grinning big toothy grins, bright eyes scrunched with the light of promise.

There were a couple of things that Impmon expected after it was all over, if not really consciously.

He expected that the Geckomon might throw a party after their victory—after all, they obviously were all that pomp and circumstance and stuff. He could see it now, him and Renamon and the others standing on that dais and regaling the stories of their battles—but especially his, because for once he could be the star for a good reason that didn't explode in his face (the last time this had happened was after rescuing Renamon and the others from that D-Reaper agent, and the "party" in the aftermath—a potluck dinner assembled by a bunch of human mothers and people he didn't know followed by a serious strategy talk and introductions, at least, on his part, and that had been kind of awkward). Even though he was tired, he was sure he could at least try to party.

He kind of expected that they might get to eat again, because who know when they'd get to next, and these guys obviously had food. The food and the party thing kind of went hand in hand.

The last thing he expected was that they would be welcomed to stay until they recovered. Obviously, Guilmon would only accept because of Renamon's injuries, and maybe after one more day or so they'd leave to the disappointment of their hosts, who would be sad to see them leave. But it would be for the best—after all, Impmon was already raring to get out of here and get on their journey, but he certainly wouldn't mind at least one more trip to the bath…

Of course, later, he would mentally curse himself for a sleep-addled fool for these expectations, unconscious or not, because—hey!—reality was a-knocking, and it wasn't too friendly.

He was woken by an incredibly apologetic Guilmon just the next morning. He said he was sorry to wake him and Renamon, but it was probably not good to wait anymore. Confused and still sleepy, Impmon had followed, nursing the pounding headache you got after being startled awake and then getting up too fast.

Guilmon led him and Renamon a small room where the rest of their group was seated, each eating what looked like a bowl of rice with some vegetables. By now, Impmon was awake to notice that the keep was as quiet as a funeral house.

Of course it was. The King was dead, after all. He nearly slapped himself for the stupidity of his assumption that it would be otherwise, but instead just plopped down on the ground next to where Lopmon and Guardromon were. No one talked while they ate—and as they chewed their food (which was lukewarm and bland, making Impmon wonder if it had been left out for a while), they had stretched like a too-small piece of cling wrap over a too-big plate of leftovers.

Impmon finally had it.

"Okay, what's going on?"

The attending Geckomon, who were standing uncomfortably close to them as though they were anxious for them to hurry up and finish their stupid food swallowed, but none of them said anything. Impmon ground his chopsticks into his bowl. He was no expert in the realm of manners, but come on!

The second they all put their chopsticks down, the bowls were cleared away in the blink of an eye and the Steward, looking haggard, entered. All but two of the attendants exited the room, but Impmon could hear them, clustering around behind the rice paper doors to hear what he had to say. The Steward wrung his hands and glanced around shiftily. Seriously, they didn't stay in one spot for more than a second. When he didn't say anything, Guilmon tried to break the ice.

"So, um…we're all here now. What was it you wanted to say?" The Steward finally grew a spine and replied, still wringing his hands.

"We're all very grateful for your help for the last few days. Without you, this fort would be gone. I'm sure our King rests easy knowing it still stands, thanks to all of you."

"Will you be all right?"

"Yes, yes, reconstruction is in order, no one else was hurt, really…" he swallowed, "I trust you are all recovering well?"

Guilmon glanced over his shoulder, at Renamon, who straightened imperceptibly, and flicked her tail in a silent affirmation. Impmon frowned. He'd watched her as she ate. Her right arm was still a little shaky, and her steps as she'd followed him up from the room, were just the slightest bit out of beat. This said a lot, for Renamon. Still, she had been barely able to stand yesterday, so this was good. Another day or so and she'd probably be fine.

"Then, I think it's best that you all leave, today."

Impmon was the only one who gasped audibly, but everyone looked up in surprise. Terriermon prodded him to shut it, and for once he found himself taking the suggestion. Not for long, though, "But—" Renamon can't travel yet, he started to say, but Renamon herself blocked his speech with her arm, and nodded to the Steward. Guilmon was still too shocked to respond, so she took over.

"Understood. Thank you for your hospitality."

The Steward cringed. "Please understand. We're all very grateful, but…my people are in mourning right now. For the friends we've lost to the Chaos and," his eyes shifted to Impmon, "—and of course, our dearly beloved King. It's just that…"

Impmon held the Steward's eyes like a magnet, swallowing the bitter bile that rose in his throat. He wanted to blame them for being unfair jerks—ungrateful ones! They'd risked everything, and he had personally defeated Puppetmon! But in truth, as much as it spiked his hair to admit, he couldn't even blame them, because in their own way, they were right to fear him…and by extension, the others, he supposed. It didn't stop it from hurting though, especially since he was trying so damn hard to try and make up all that stuff.

In a way, you couldn't make it up, not really and not perfectly, because scars were forever. And that didn't stop it from hurting.

But…looking into that Geckomon's eyes, he found that at least for that moment, he didn't care what these slimy, spineless guys thought of him. But… he found that at least for that moment, he didn't care what these slimy, spineless guys thought of him. And in that moment, it was liberating.

He almost laughed in his face, but before he did, he noticed a shift in Guilmon's posture, after the demon dinosaur realized what the Steward (who hastily averted his gaze) was looking. It was small, but it was there.

"All right then. Bye." He immediately turned and left, quickly followed by everyone pretty much without comment, although the fact that Guardromon looked visibly disgusted had to count for something. He muttered something that sounded like, "Disgraceful!" under his breath, but maybe that was just Impmon's imagination.

"W-wait!" the Steward cried after them. "I didn't mean you had to leave at this very moment! Please, come—"

"Nah, it's better this way, I think I know what you meant," Guilmon said, "Good luck building your fort again!" as they walked, he bent down to speak t Impmon, who, kind of stunned at the display back there, hadn't said anything, "Don't worry, Impmon. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

"How's what?"

Guilmon grinned, "He doesn't know you."

"He's right," Guardromon added, "We're your teammates."

Impmon rubbed the side of his face. "Some world we live in, huh?"

Guilmon looked up at the sky. The globe that represented the Real World hummed and spun—so metallic and bright it seemed close enough to touch. "Well, hopefully not for too much longer. Let's go."

They paid their respects to the Geckomon King before leaving, crossing the drawbridge, and heading into the devastated forest.

The rain had kicked up almost as soon as they left, accompanied by a grumble from the sky. It wasn't stinging, lashing rain like what had dumped out of the clouds last night, nor was it bad enough to force them to seek shelter. Just a persistent, heavy drizzle that had them all soaked within about ten minutes of walking. In any case, this surprise storm transformed the previously flaming forest into a semi-swamp, with burned-out husks of trees and shattered stumps everywhere you looked. Already, the evidence of last night's struggle was getting washed away into bits of bark. But after about an hour's walk, there was one area that was unmistakable.

An irregular circle area had been all but cleared, the remnants of trees shattered into blasted bits even more so than the rest of the woods, and the ground was pockmarked with several large craters, now half-full of rainwater. In the middle of the circle was a large indented shape, and Impmon nearly fell into it.

It was actually his own footprint as Beelzemon. He blinked. He couldn't help but stare at it. He hadn't talked much about the fight. No one had really said much at all, preferring to march along in companiable silence and listen to the rain. A reprieve from the noisy chaos that had been the last few days, probably.

It had left Impmon with a lot of time to think. And he really didn't like the thoughts, either. Seeing this spot only brought all that junk to the fore. He clenched his fist, loosely. This was the spot where he'd killed Puppetmon.

Remembering him sent a shudder trailing down Impmon's back. For all Puppetmon's accusations and "guilty killer" stuff, he didn't regret or feel guilty in the slightest for blowing him to pieces.

What happened with Leomon would stay with him forever. There was no way he could ever stop feeling guilty about that. The context of Leomon's death—the betrayal of the only people who'd ever extended even the slightest hand of kindness—and what it had done to Jeri…no, that was wrong. It just was.

But Puppetmon. After what he did to Renamon, and threatening Ai and Mako—that was unforgivable. No one would ever walk away from that. He'd deserved it.

And yet…Impmon grabbed a handful of dirt and let it fall through his fingers, plopping into the puddle and disrupting his reflection. He'd deserved it, too. Back when he murdered Leomon.

"We're getting left behind." Renamon, slower than usual, was hanging towards the back, and had drifted to where Impmon was standing.

He sighed, looking up at the sky. A drop of rain fell into his eye. "What made us different? Puppetmon and me? I mean, if he deserved to die, so did I, right?""

Both of them had been completely crazy, bloodthirsty, and unrepentant—at least up until after Jeri had begged for his life. So what was it?

Renamon folded her arms, and followed his gaze into the sky. The Real World was still as clear as ever, no matter the weather, no matter the place, unblinking, bright and blue.

"I don't know. But I think that in a way, something in you did die that day." A smile crept into her voice, "Perhaps, karma or luck stepped in to save the rest."

She turned to follow the others. Impmon chased after her, yelling.

"I thought we were done with the karma stuff!"

But in truth, he had to wonder, how was Renamon so smart and wise—and at what point had they stopped needing any kind of lead in to their conversations?

"Of course, the rain stops as soon as my shift's over," Terriermon grumbled to himself as he wrung out his ears and schlepped wetly into the cave.

After the burned forest, they were in the grassy foothills of a series of gentle mountains, overlooking a big blue lake. In truth, they were a little less than a day's journey from the stupid Geckomon and their fort, but Renamon needed a little more time to recuperate (she hadn't said anything, but she didn't complain when Guilmon suggested they stop after finding a comfortable ledge with a scooped out indent that was barely a distant cousin of a normal cave, but to get out of the rain, it would do. Besides, from up here, they could see pretty much everything. Although Terriermon was pretty well sick of the Digital World. All he really wanted to see was Tokyo's polluted sky and tall buildings, because that's where Henry was, and that was the best thing in the worlds.

He shook his head. Anyway, he had to wake Impmon up now. Guardromon had already gotten up to relieve Guilmon and was waiting outside for him. He regarded the purple Virus type, who was comfortably wedged between Renamon and Lopmon, with MarineAngemon sleeping on his head.

Gingerly, he reached out and grabbed MarineAngemon as gently as he could, and put him between Renamon's furry ears instead. The little guy was so exhausted he didn't even budge. As for Impmon, well, he had to budge, whether he liked it or not.

"Impmon. Wakey-wakey." Terriermon reached out and prodded him in the shoulder. After a series of ear flicking and tail pulling, Terriermon finally decided to get serious.

"Get up, you lazy potato sack!" He pushed his claw against Impmon's belly, but that only had the effect of getting him to turn over on his side with a loud snore, exposing his scarred back to Terriermon, who frowned.

That's funny, Impmon's scars—they weren't nearly as pink and fat as they were just a few days ago. Hmmm…a devious little grin twitched at the corners of his mouth. He knew he really shouldn't, but those kinds of thoughts had never really stopped him in the past. Besides, it might be the only way to get Mr. Sensitive up before they all died of old age (if that was something Digimon could do, anyway?).

He poked Impmon's middle scar, holding his breath.

Nothing happened. Eh?

He proceeded to poke all of Impmon's spinal scars, and even ran his finger up and down his spine, with no interesting result. It was like playing a broken xylophone. Finally, he set his teeth and settled for a sharp, clawed jab in the middle of the back. He was almost surprised when Impmon woke with an irritated snuffling sound.

Terriermon ran a few paces away, putting his arms innocently behind his back. "Sorry, Impmon, but no amount of ear-flicking and tail pulling seemed to do it. You sleep like a brick!"

Impmon rubbed his face sleepily, eye unfocused and eyes raw with the truth that is the Half-Asleep-Confession-Type-Truth. "Whaddya mean? You musta been breathing on me, Terriermon, I barely felt that." He crawled out of the cave, scratching and yawning, leaving a stunned Terriermon in his wake.

Guardromon heard the commotion from the cave. Oh, leave it to Terriermon to continue to antagonize Impmon! Surely he meant well—well, Terriermon really seemed to mean mischief most of the time, but he did mean well, even then, Guardromon was pretty sure.

Impmon came out of the cave, rubbing his eyes. "Okay, okay, I'm awake. Hi, Guardromon."

He didn't sound upset. He was just staring out at the scenery. Still, best to make sure. Impmon had an awful time of it lately. It didn't take a genius to notice that his feelings had been hurt terribly upon leaving the Geckomon fort (he had been very disappointed, even in them). Especially in light of the character he actually had displayed over the past few days. Sure he was abrasive, rude and noisy, but Guardromon had seen for himself his true heart.

And he was probably tired about everyone pointing out his scars, but he guessed it didn't hurt to try.

"You know, there are certain kinds of wounds—defense wounds. I think that's what they're called when you protect someone, or try to do the right thing—"

Impmon stretched, tail twitching. "Guardromon, yeesh! You don't have to sugarcoat it anymore—you guys have done it so much I'm getting cavities just thinkin' about it. They are what they are, all right?" Impmon's voice was oddly flat—no, genuine. Guardromon wasn't sure if he'd ever heard Impmon speak without that spark of mild frustration or annoyance buzzing in his voice, even if he didn't mean it, but this was something new. But even more than the strangeness in his voice, he couldn't help but note a tiny smile on the little Digimon's face that he was certain Impmon didn't think he could see.

The End

A/N: I don't know if it shows, but I really, really like writing fight scenes. I wrote almost all of them in this chapter while listening to the "evolution" theme from the Digimon Tamers soundtrack and I totally indulged the bloodthirsty monster in me here. XD Sorry about that.

*shogi—pretty much the Japanese equivalent of chess

*jack-o-lantern—at first I was a little hesitant to use this simile, because I wasn't sure how well-known or celebrated Halloween and its associated traditions are in Japan. After some research, though, it turns out that Halloween decorations, including jack-o-lanterns, are very popular fall decorations in Japan (who knew?), so it's not completely out-of-place and Impmon may very well have seen one at some point.

Last thing thing buisness-wise, even though while this is a story mostly about Impmon, with an emphasis on interpersonal relationships in the group, I gave Renamon second listing because she had the second-most point of view scenes (Terriermon comes in third).

But HOT DAMN. This story was supposed to be short. This is a short NOVEL. Seriously, this thing is about a hundred and ten pages single-spaced in 11-point Calibri font. HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? I guess when I plotted the whole thing out and built my outline, I didn't really realize how much space I would need to do it the justice I figured it needed. In any case, writing it was super cathartic and honestly, a real blast. But I think for my next trick, I'll do something a little shorter and with a more comedic bent XD

As always, comments/criticisms are greatly appreciated! Thank you, dear readers, for sticking through this big fat beast, and I hope that you all had as much fun reading it as I had writing it!