A/N: Oh, you've got nothing to worry about there. Meiru's one of my favorite characters, and I always felt she had the potential to hold her own - she's one of the few characters besides the Net Savior trio to pull off an effective Program Advance, and nobody seemed to have a problem calling on her if need be! - and the show just ended before she had the chance to prove it. She never really had to, after all, with Netto there... his absence affects things interestingly, which is part of why this fic is so darned long. I really enjoy writing the five futurefic leads - there are even a couple of unfinished AUs of this fic (fanfics of a fanfic?) just from me derping around with them. :)

Hope your finals go or have gone well! And I can't say much about Black right now, except that his conversations with Kaita really are honest. (And also that WoYM might help a little there, and definitely has some of my favorite moments in the whole fic in it.)

Black was regretting his last move more and more as he kept running and his breath started to come out in shortening gasps. That kind of trick was beyond Alex's understanding; he would've been out of the tournament at least, turning the final into Pride versus Meiru at most. And he had no idea Alex would react so badly. He was starting to find that he didn't know normal people as well as he thought he did; first Kaita managing to get to him, and now this...

"Can I-"

Black nearly jumped out of his skin; he'd almost forgotten Atsuki could just pipe in on his implanted transmitter's frequency. He snaked his hand under his hair and up to behind his ear, where he pressed down the tiny button that would let him respond. "Not a chance," he said. "We're doing this old-school."

"If you weren't so damn slow, maybe you'd see how panicked everyone is," Atsuki said. "Who'd miss me? Besides, something that big could certainly intrude on some Garuu's territory, and..."

"When we need to show them what we're capable of, we will. There're four Navis to fight it, it's not anything to make a big deal out of," Black said impatiently. He then went for the only shot that would shut Atsuki up: "Besides, who's in charge of this mission, again?"

"Black, hurry it up!" Punk shouted from nearer the door. "You don't got time for messin' around!" Hoping his fellow Nova member wouldn't be up to anything, Black took a steadying breath and picked up the pace. He and Punk dashed through the double doors as a loud crash told them the dining room and the lobby had just become one big, partly ceiling-less room.

"Gamma!" Someone else, a well-fed man with straggly blonde hair, was staggering backwards out the door, neck craned. "Gamma, stop! It's me! It's Alex!"

"See?" Black wheezed. "I'm not the last one out, right? That counts for somethin'."

"Listen to me! I made a mistake! I didn't mean to hurt anyone! You scared them! That's all I wanted! You can stop!" Gamma's head turned to look down at his Operator.

"Get down!" Meiru yelled, yanking Alex away. A green beam tore through the ground, and Meiru and Alex both brought their arms in front of their faces to protect their eyes from the dirt that went flying in all directions. Black only bothered to cover his organic eye with one hand; his false one had taken worse than a few grains of sand before, and he wanted to keep an eye on Gamma in case the thing had built-in Area Steals.

"Gamma!" Alex yelled, earning him an annoyed look from Meiru. The Navi hadn't even turned, but Black didn't want to be anywhere near Alex when Gamma took another shot at His Royal Tubbiness. "I'm your Operator! We're supposed to be partners, right? Partners!"

Black shut his eye and shook his head, not believing what he was seeing. "Where were you in this partnership, Scialto-san?" he asked, mockingly polite. "Did Gamma have a say in this, or was it just you who liked him shut up in the basement, out of sight and out of mind unless you thought you needed him to fight?"

Meiru didn't even have to ask Black if he was lying. He could see her putting the pieces together, and soon she looked as disgusted as he was. "How do you know about this?" Alex asked, indignant.

"I like to scope out a place before I sleep in it," he said, shrugging. "Call it habit."

"Gamma!" The monstrous Navi's head turned again. Before Alex could try any more pleading, Roll clamped a hand over his mouth and helped Meiru drag him away from the ruins of the Castillo.

Black held out a hand to Meiru. She had a backpack and a messenger bag to manage along with Alex, and the poor girl looked frazzled. "Why not exchange one loser for another? I'm easier to drag."

Meiru tossed her head to get some of her hair out of her face. "I can't just leave him," she said, annoyed. Whether that was because of Alex or him, Black didn't know.

Gamma lowered a massive, knobby buster at the three. "I think you can," Black said. "One of these won't do it. Spreader, White Capsule, slot-in!" Punk's volley of blue shots whizzed past his Operator to hit the Gamma Buster, freezing it, but not the Navi's white-armored upper arm.

Behind him, Blues surprised him by yelling, "Sonic Boom!" Black ducked, not trusting the red-armored Navi to miss him. Two blasts hit both of Gamma's shoulders, limiting his arms' movement.

"Ye of little faith," Enzan said, easily hauling Black up by the jacket. "As long as we keep Gamma occupied, Alex should be fine with the other finalists. They've taken cover in this part of the forest," he explained, indicating the trees behind them.

"That's no good, because it's not part of the forest," Black snapped. "It's just there to separate the Castillo from the first round competitors."

"I realize that," Enzan said. "But if there's-"

"There isn't. To get to the nearest tunnel entrance, they have to cross a quarter mile of flat plain and part of the forest, not to mention said tunnel is full of viruses and there's no telling how many are still in the forest. They're sitting ducks," Black explained.

"So we're going to have to distract Gamma until they've all made it across," Meiru said heavily, giving Alex a dark look.

"It gets better," said a new voice. Black was relieved to see a petite woman run up to the group, her slender, tutu-wearing Navi behind her. Following the two were Princess Pride and Knightman.

"Clara!" he said cheerfully. "I know them, they'll just fight me at every turn. Explain to them what all's going on so we can get started?"

"Why else would I be here?" she asked. "Pirou, take Alex to his beloved contestants. I'm sure they'll be glad to see him."

"Careful of his mouth," Roll warned as Pirou lightly stepped over. She seemed to pick up Alex with ease, whisking him away before he could make any more pleas to Gamma.

Clara began, "Gamma's always been unstable. The more Alex tried to upgrade him, the worse it got. He hasn't been safe to wake up for years. I don't know what Alex was thinking..." Her eyes darted over to Black, then back to the others. Black had to fight the urge to sigh in exasperation; had it really seemed like such a given that he would make it past Enzan? In the meantime, Gamma was beginning to stir, so Black sent Punk a second Spreader and White Capsule. The Navi aimed higher this time, peppering Gamma's upper body with paralysis-inducing buster shots. "There're only two real choices, and both of them involve the Catacombs." Pirou had returned. "Black, could you...?"

Black was glad to. "See, when Mr. Scialto first came up with this idea, he needed an easy way to check up on you guys. His family's been using-"

"There's a network of tunnels stretching through the whole island, and chances are the Dimensional Area Generator and whatever device he used to substantiate our Navis are down there somewhere," Enzan said, sounding far more interested in getting to the point. "The others can either get their Navis back out and help us delete Gamma or destroy the generator."

Black scowled. "You're no fun."

"Stay close," Clara was quietly telling Pirou. "We won't be long." As the dainty Navi turned to face the bulky beast towering above them, Clara told the four semifinalists, "I wouldn't wait around for something to happen. Without the Midis and Technos using the tunnels, it'll be overrun with viruses. It'll take a while to get anywhere."

"One of us could help you guard the other Operators," Meiru said, giving Black a pointed look.

Clara shook her head. "Alex may be an idiot, but Gamma's no joke. You're going to need all the help you can get."

A little reluctantly, Meiru said, "Okay."

Clara turned to Black next. "Have any White Capsules left?"

"Afraid not," he replied.

Clara nodded in understanding. "I'll keep Gamma paralyzed while you four take the others across. Then, I'll take over and get them to the tunnels. We'll see what happens from there." Above them, Gamma came unfrozen. It finally unleashed its charge, but Punk was ready with a Dream Aura. Over the thuds of Gamma stomping over to them, Clara yelled, "Move!"

0110110101100101011001010111 0100011010010110111001100111

"Excuse me! Can I have your attention?"

Kaita and Mary looked over at the four Operators and their Navis as Poipu announced, "We're going to cross into the forest, so find one of our Navis and stay close! The longer we're out there, the more danger you're all in, so we have to move fast!"

Mary looked petrified, and Kaita remembered her medical condition. "I'll stay right next to you. We'll be fine together, right?"

"She okay?" Dingo asked.

"It's her heart condition. She can't run," Kaita said.

"I'm sorry..." Mary said, looking at her feet.

Dingo tapped her on the shoulder, and she looked up, surprised. "Here, get on," he said, squatting so she could hold onto his shoulders. "Can't leave a friend behind, right?"

"Thank you," she said. Then, worried, she asked, "Are you sure? If I slowed you down..."

"Sure I'm sure," Dingo laughed. "Come on!" he told Kaita, and the two hurried over to where the other contestants were already gathered.

Meiru was at the front of the crowd, slowly surveying the group. "I think I see everyone," she noted. Kaita noticed that while all four Operators were in the front of the group, their Navis weren't with them. Blues was in front, Roll and Punk took either side, and Knightman protected the back.

Poipu did a count of her own, then said, "I'd say we're ready when you are." Sure enough, Kaita could see the twelve other contestants and Scialto, the large, blonde man who seemed to be the tournament's host.

More loudly, Meiru announced, "Okay, guys, we need you to stay close! We have to go across to the forest, and we can't stop right away if people fall behind! Our Navis are there in case Gamma catches up to us, but as long as we keep a steady pace, we won't have a problem!"

"She sure knows how to put a positive spin on things," someone muttered behind Kaita. "Didn't she say if you fall back, you get left to be squashed by that thing?" Now Kaita recognized the voice: it was Yumi's.

"This is scary," Kalama whispered to his right. "But it's a cool scary, isn't it, Beat?" The blue bird squawked in agreement. Kaita just thought it was scary. Though he liked Kalama, there were a lot of things they seemed to disagree on.

"Okay, let's head out!" Poipu called. Kaita was a little surprised when they moved out of the tree cover; he hadn't realized that it was already the middle of the afternoon. He looked back and saw the two red prongs of Gamma's helmet rising above the trees. "It's coming closer," he realized. But so was the forest's cover. The group made it in just as a figure ran out of the ring of trees. Moments later, those trees were lit on fire by a wide blast of green energy.

"That looks annoying," Meiru said. She and the other three Operators had gathered in the front of the crowd, their Navis nearby. The first figure, a blonde-haired, petite woman, was coming closer. A second figure came out of the trees. Meiru sucked in a breath; Kaita recognized her as Pirou, the Navi that had delivered Scialto to them, and she was staggering.

"That's not good," Black said. "Maybe I-"

"We have Recovery chips for that," Enzan said.

"No use trying to slack off!" Meiru added. "We're all fighting this thing together." Black shot the Net Saviors a dour look. "How about you save your energy for that instead of harassing us?"

"How about you keep being distracted, so I won't have to deal with you!" Black countered. "I could take care of this much more quickly on my own."

"Oh, sure," Meiru laughed. "Says the guy who would've lost against Enzan if he hadn't resorted to cheating?"

"It's not cheating," Black said, smirking. "It's thinking ahead. Something you've proven yourself completely incapable of."

"Since when?!" Meiru asked, her hands on her hips.

"Well, since now. Y'know, considering the situation we're in, it's really not that smart to be trying to argue with me," Black coolly pointed out. "Just saying." While Meiru fumed, Black glanced over at Enzan. "So, do you really think you'd have won?" he asked.

Kaita didn't expect Enzan to rise to the bait like Meiru had, and he wasn't surprised. "Here," the older Netbattler said the moment Pirou's Operator had joined them, handing over a Battlechip.

"Thanks," she said, slotting it in. Kaita saw a purple light shimmer around Pirou's body, a Recovery taking effect. With her injuries lessened, the Navi's pace quickened almost instantly. "You guys had better get started," she said. "Good luck." The four thanked her, then walked through the trees to face Gamma, their Navis just ahead of them. Once Pirou was at Clara's side, she said, "Okay, everyone! We need to head deeper in the forest, in this direction. Pirou's going to be our main source of protection from here on out, so we need to stay close." Everyone jumped as they heard a loud crack.

"I feel safer," Atsuki explained, holding a thick branch in his hand.

"Like that'll do anything against viruses. Show-off," Dingo muttered. Atsuki glanced over, but said nothing. Kaita doubted he'd heard anything; they were separated from him by a couple of people, and Dingo hadn't been that loud. "I'd stick near that Navi. Sound good to you?" he asked Mary.

"Definitely," she agreed. An explosion rocked the ground. "I hope we make it to the tunnels soon..."

"Yeah, it'll only get worse up here," Kaita said. He thought about the four who were guarding them by keeping Gamma from pursuit. They were all capable Netbattlers, but would even they be stopped by an opponent this big?