Author's Note: Okay, we all know that Alice pretty much makes no sense, so just for the sake of everyone's sanity, I'm assuming for the sake of the story that she is in fact Dolphin's granddaughter and a normal human being who just happens to be a victim of the laws of anime that say that children never look anything like their parents.
Alice McCoy knew it was very wrong of her to be jealous of her new friends. Intellectually, she knew there was nothing worse for a friendship than to be envying the very people she was supposed to be closest to, but it was hard to help it. She liked the Tamers very much, and over the last few weeks, she had actually gotten to be good friends with a few of them. She'd taken to gentle Juri immediately, and the girl seemed to return her affection. Likewise, she admired proud, independent Ruki. Now that the danger was over, her father had been spending a lot of time catching up with his old college friend, Mr. Lee, so of course she had been seeing a lot of Jenrya and Shuichon. In fact, she hadn't yet met a Tamer she didn't like, but on days like today...
"You know, it really was great seeing those kids get back together with their Digimon," her father was saying as they drove home.
"It was nice," answered Alice. She managed to sound like she believed it. It had been nice, in a way, and she was glad it was all done and taken care of. Once Takato had found the gateway, the Monster Makers and their helpers from Hypnos had swung into action to help the kids and their partners be reunited. Finding the Digimon and retrieving them had been an adventure in itself, but they'd finally returned home today, with much rejoicing on nearly everyone's part. Everyone had been so happy.
*But my Digimon isn't coming home.*
Alice frowned at herself. Well, of course her Digimon wasn't coming home, because she didn't have a Digimon. Spending an afternoon with an artificial dog hardly qualified her as a Tamer. She'd barely been with Dobermon long enough to get to know him; certainly she didn't have any claim on him, even if his destiny hadn't been to live only long enough to fulfil his purpose.
*But I liked him,* she thought stubbornly. *He was a nice Digimon, and a good friend. He deserved better than that.*
Well, who said anyone ever got what they deserved? Leomon hadn't deserved to die, and Juri didn't deserve any of what she'd been put through. Alice told herself she should be thankful she'd gotten off so easily... but it was hard to be thankful when she knew very well that even Juri still had some kind of Digimon with her. The ordeal with the D-Reaper had fostered a close friendship between her and Culumon, Guilmon adored her, and Impmon was as fiercely protective of her as he was of his own Tamers. None of the Digimon had formed that kind of friendship with Alice.
*No one but Dobermon.* Alice sighed deeply. *Why do I miss him so much when I only knew him a few hours?*
"Are you all right, honey?" her father asked.
"I'm fine," she said. "I'm just really tired. It's been a long day... emotional, too."
"I know what you mean," Mr. McCoy replied. "I'm looking forward to dinner and a hot bath and some sleep."
"Those all sound like good ideas," she said. "I think I'm just going to go to my room and relax a while. You don't mind, do you?"
"No, not at all. You go ahead and do whatever you want."
As soon as she got home, Alice went to her room, shut the door, and settled down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She needed a span of time to do some thinking without anyone bothering her. If today had proven anything, it was that she just wasn't going to be happy until she got her Digimon back. Never mind that he was never intended to be hers; he just was, and all the plans of the digital gods weren't going to change that. Of course, the situation as it stood didn't look very changeable, either...
Alice's train of thought stopped and backed up. The digital gods... they had created Dobermon, hadn't they? He had told her he wasn't a natural Digimon, but one created fully formed to fulfil the purpose of the digi-gods. Surely if they could create him once, they could re- create him now? She considered a moment. It seemed to her that they probably could, but that wasn't the real question. She remembered what she'd been told about the phoenix god's disgust at the idea of humans and Digimon mixing, and she didn't think he'd be very approving of having her walk up to him and demand to have Dobermon given to her.
*Unfortunately, there isn't any choice,* she thought.
Quietly, she got up and tiptoed out of her room. She could hear the sound of water running - her father had started his bath, and probably wouldn't be coming out for a while. The sound of rattling dishes and something sizzling told her that dinner was being cooked, meaning her mother was going to be preoccupied as well. In short, no one would notice her until she was already gone.
"All right, Alice," she said softly, "let's see if you're brave enough to face the wrath of the gods."
The sun had set by the time Alice reached the park, covering everything in mysterious blue shadows that gave her a chill in the pit of her stomach. The place that was so cheerful and welcoming by daylight now had all the hospitality of a cemetery, and she was beginning to wonder if maybe she had made a mistake. She scowled at herself. How was she supposed to go searching for the most powerful things in the Digital World when she was scared of being alone in the dark? Berating herself, she walked silently up the path that led to Guilmon's shed, hoping the dinosaur wouldn't be in residence. She had a notion he would have gone home to his partner's house - she was sure she'd heard Takato saying something about how his parents had baked a small mountain of bread to welcome their son's friend home. Surely he'd still be at the bakery. The shed should be completely empty. Even so, she moved as quietly as she could as she neared the door, her heart racing.
"And just where do you think you're going?"
Alice gasped in surprise and turned around, looking frantically for the source of the voice.
"Who said that?" she called. "Come out and show yourself!"
"I'm in here," said the voice. Out of the shadows emerged a teenaged boy, followed closely by a small purple dragon.
"Ryo," she said. "You gave me a fright!"
"Good," he said. "Maybe that will teach you to show up where you don't belong. You're Alice McCoy, aren't you? Does your dad know you're out here?"
"No. Does yours?"
"Yes. What are you doing out here at night?"
"You tell me first."
Ryo sighed. "If you must know, I'm guarding the gate so nobody sneaks through it who's not a Tamer. The only reason I'm allowed to camp out here now is on the condition that I don't try to sneak through myself. It looks like posting a guard out here was a good idea, too. You're trying to sneak in, aren't you?"
Alice blushed. "That's none of your business."
"It is tonight. I'm not supposed to let anyone into the Digital World, and that includes you. Don't you know how dangerous it is? You don't even have a Digimon to protect you."
"I intend to remedy that," she answered levelly.
"Oh, is that what this is about?" asked Ryo. "Listen, kid - the Digital World isn't some supermarket where you can walk in and pick up a Digimon. You're going to get yourself killed."
"I'll be all right."
"You're not going. Turn around and go home."
"Why can't I go in? The others went in, and they came out all right."
"Yeah, most of them," Ryo replied. "Look, I don't want to hang around arguing with you all night. Go on home before your parents start to worry."
"I'm not going," she said, "and don't keep trying to tell me why I shouldn't. I know it's dangerous. I just have to go anyway. I can feel it, like something's pulling me. I have a partner waiting for me. He needs me. I have to find him, whether you want me to or not."
"Hm," said Ryo, thinking. "You know, if I let you get away with this, my dad's never going to trust me again... so when you get back you'd better tell them this wasn't my fault!"
Alice stared. "You're awfully easy to convince."
"Eh, well... the stakes weren't that high. My dad doesn't trust me much to begin with. Just do me a favor and don't get yourself killed, all right?"
"I won't. Thank you, Ryo."
"Good luck finding your partner," he said, as she hurried into the shadows of the shed. She barely heard him. She was already crawling and sliding down the hole, moving steadily toward the shifting digital light.
Morning dawned on the Digital World in its own distinctive way, peeling away the layers of darkness to show a pale blonde girl trudging across the ground. She had been walking all night, occasionally stopping to rest and close her eyes a bit, but never quite falling asleep. How could she sleep, alone in this strange world with who-knew-what out wandering around? Even more than that was the increasing sense that she was needed, that she had to keep going before her time ran out. She had no idea how many miles she had covered, and still the scenery hadn't changed. All she had to go on was a vague sense that she was getting closer. Her tired eyes fell to the ground, looking at nothing more than the earth at her feet as she walked. The rhythm of her footsteps was hypnotic, putting her into a trance, until she was nearly asleep on her feet.
She walked into something. Startled out of her daze, she looked up to see that there was a staircase standing out in the middle of nowhere, and she had walked right into one of the posts without seeing it. Now she backed up to give it a more thorough examination. It was a very beautiful thing, made of some pearly white substance that glittered prismatically in the bright daylight. When she ran her hand along the bannister, it felt warm to her touch. It went straight up into the sky, obscured at the top by clouds.
"A stairway to heaven?" she wondered. "If there ever was one, this is it. Rats. I don't want to climb stairs right now."
There didn't seem to be any help for it, though, as there didn't appear to be an elevator anywhere nearby. With a sigh of resignation, she began to climb. Fortunately, it wasn't as bad as she thought it would be. All those stairs were hard on her already tired legs, but the air was cooler and fresher the higher up she went. Whatever the staircase was made of, it made her fingers tingle where she touched it, and she felt as if an electric current were passing through her, renewing her energy just enough that she could keep going. Finally, she walked straight into the clouds, and the world disappeared into chilly whiteness for a moment. Then she reached the top, and all her weariness was forgotten.
Spreading out as far as she could see was a vast blue plain. At first, she thought it was water, but it was perfectly still and shiny as a mirror. She stepped onto it carefully and decided that if it wasn't crystal, it was something very like it. Looking around, she could even see an assortment of multifaceted stones sprouting up from the ground. The air here was cool and still, tingling with the same energy as the staircase.
"This must be the place," she said, looking around. "It looks just like the way they said the highest level looked. Now all I have to do is find the digital gods."
She laughed a little at herself. If only that was all she had to do! Just finding them was nothing next to talking to them... and even finding them was going to be trouble. They could be almost anywhere - even finding a bird the size of a house would be difficult with all this ground to cover.
She was just looking around trying to decide what would be the best direction to travel when a movement caught her eye. A small crowd of bright lights were soaring through the air, and she smiled as she guessed what they must be.
"Digi-Gnomes!" she exclaimed. "Hey, over here!"
The Gnomes heard her and veered in midair, coming to circle around her in a glowing, chattering crowd. One of them came and sat on her shoulder.
"Hello there," she said, tickling it under the chin. "Can you help me out?"
The Gnome chittered in what sounded like an encouraging way.
"Good. I really need to find the digital gods. Could you show me where they are?"
The Gnomes squealed with a single voice and swarmed on her, grabbing at her arms and her clothing and dragging her across the ground, making her run to keep up. When she stumbled, they caught her and held her up, and soon she learned that she could nearly slide on the smooth ground and let them pull her along. When the realized she wasn't going to hold them back, they picked up their pace, and the scenery rushed by as her hair tossed in the wind. Soon she could see something glowing green in the distance, and they seemed to be approaching it rapidly. Over the rush of air, she could hear another sound, a deep rumble, like a waterfall. It took her a few moments to realize that it really was a waterfall, and that she was now drawing closer to it at a breakneck speed, and there was no way to stop. The Gnomes dragged her over the edge, and she shrieked as she began to fall towards a vast black gulf.
Then something caught her, and she was not falling anymore, but rising, borne up by a small sea of chittering flying things. She laughed as the Gnomes carried her through the air and set her down gently on the other side.
"Thanks, Gnomes!" she called. The Gnomes chattered happily at her as they circled her one last time and flew away.
Alice sat down to take stock of her situation. She had left the blue plains behind and had now entered the green area, a place thick with plants and emerald-like crystals, looking more like something from a dream than anything that should actually be possible. She wasn't sure how she was supposed to find anything in all that dense jungle, and she wondered if perhaps the Gnomes had just been playing games with her when they brought her here. Feeling a bit dismayed, not to mention tired and shaky after the wild ride, she leaned back against a large rock to think about what she should do next.
The rock opened its eyes.
"What do you think you're doing?" said a deep voice.
Alice gave a squeal and jumped to her feet again, as she realized finding a digital god might be a little easier than she'd thought.
"I - I'm sorry," she stammered.
"You should be sorry," said Xuanwumon irritably. "It is not polite to go around leaning on people's noses."
"I'm very sorry," said Alice again. "I didn't realize I was. Please excuse me."
She made a deep bow before the turtle god. His two heads studied her, looked at each other inquisitively, then looked back at her.
"You are a human," the head she hadn't been leaning on said accusingly.
"And not one of those Tamer children," said the other. "What are you doing here in this holy place?"
"I was looking for you," Alice answered. "All of you. I have a favor to ask that only one of you can grant."
"A human seeks the aid of the rulers of the Digital World?" said Xuanwumon. "You must be very brave or very foolish."
"A little of both, I think," she answered nervously. She yawned. "Excuse me, sir, um, kami-sama. I'm so tired. I've been walking all night and all morning..."
"Poor little thing," said the head furthest from her. "I don't know what you're searching for, Earth-child, but whatever it is, you must want it very badly."
"More than anything," she answered, trying to stifle another yawn.
"What do you think?" said one head to the other.
"Why not?" it replied. "We have nothing better to do today."
"You'll help me?" asked Alice, hope lighting up her tired eyes.
"We can try," Xuanwumon replied. "Come, Earth-child. We will take you to the others."
One of the heads gestured towards the tree on his back, and with a little scrambling (which the turtle god bore patiently) she managed to latch hold of a root and clamber aboard. She settled herself safely at the base of the tree, and Xuanwumon began a slow, lumbering walk that rocked her back and forth like a boat on a gentle sea. Lulled by the nurturing presence of the master of Earth, she dropped off to sleep.
"...done it this time. I thought you had a little bit of sense, but clearly I was..."
"...not doing any harm. I don't see..."
"...as if we didn't have enough to do without..."
"...bound to have a good reason..."
Alice came slowly awake to the sound of conversation, distant and muffled. She had the feeling it was probably important. Maybe she ought to get up and see what was going on. She opened her eyes and found herself lying on top of a flat purplish rock several feet high. Larger rocks sprouted here and there, blocking her vision and leaving her feeling walled in. The voices came from just beyond the rocks. Moving quietly so as not to attract their attention, she scrambled down the side of the stone and went to see what was going on.
She had already formed the thought in the back of her mind that she was hearing the voices of the four digital gods, but actually seeing them was still a surprise. Walking around a double bend between two of the craggy stones, she found herself looking into a bowl-shaped valley, its most remarkable features being the four Digimon sitting around its perimeter. The red phoenix Zhuqiaomon was perched at the top of one of the spiky rocks, glaring down at Xuanwumon, his anger flaring around him in a nimbus of red light. On the opposite side of the hollow, the tiger Baihumon sprawled leisurely on the ground like a lazy cat, while the dragon Qinglongmon was coiled in the basin of a small waterfall surrounded by mysterious blue and white mists. He seemed to be trying to get Zhuqiaomon to calm down.
"I'm sure Xaunwumon thought he was acting for the best," he said. "Look at it this way. Would you rather her be here where we can keep an eye on her, or out wandering around unsupervised?"
"I'd rather she not be here at all," said Zhuqiaomon irritably. "At least those other children managed to accomplish something useful. All this one is here for is to beg us for favors."
"We don't know what she wants," Baihumon commented.
"Nothing good," the phoenix muttered. "We ought to get rid of her before she causes any trouble."
"Perhaps we should ask her what she wants first," Xaunwumon said. "She's right over there, after all."
Alice suddenly found five sets of ageless eyes fastened on her, with expressions ranging from curious to openly hostile.
"Humph," said Zhuqiaomon. "What are you doing eavesdropping on us? This is a private conversation, human."
"You were talking about me," she said. "Don't I have the right to know what you're saying about me?"
"She has a point there," said Qinglongmon.
"Let her have her say," Xaunwumon added. "She seems like a nice enough human, as far as they go."
"That's not very far," Zhuqiaomon muttered. "Well, human? What do you have to say for yourself? What brings you all this way?"
She took a deep breath and let it force the words out: "I want Dobermon back."
"Dobermon?" Baihumon rumbled. "What possible use could you have for him?"
"I want him to be my partner," Alice replied.
Zhuqiaomon snorted. "Impossible! See, I told you she wanted nothing good. Just another human coming through trying to tame one of us, as if we were animals."
"No!" said Alice. "It's not like that at all. Dobermon was my friend. When he came to the real world, I helped to guide him on his mission, and he protected me. We were a team. I miss him now, so I came to ask you to bring him back so we can keep on being a team."
"A nice speech, human, but I'm not convinced," Zhuqiaomon replied. "Humans have never wanted Digimon as anything but toys and pets, to be battled against each other for their Tamer's glory. Just because a handful of them managed to do something good doesn't convince me that your species is worthwhile. Humans like you do not deserve the privilege of a Digimon partner."
"How do you know?" she demanded. "You don't know anything about humans. If you did, you'd know better. There are bad humans, just like there are bad Digimon, but most of them are good. I'd say the life of the weakest baby Digimon is worth as much as the most powerful human's, and the life of the lowest human is worth as much as your life."
"She has high ideals," Qinglongmon commented. "You're right, Xuanwumon, I think this one really is all right."
"It doesn't matter," said Zhuqiaomon; he sounded sulky. "Even if I agreed with her - which I don't - I still wouldn't give her what she's asking."
"Why not?" asked Alice.
"That's none of your business," the phoenix replied.
"Don't listen to him," said Xuanwumon. "He just doesn't want to admit that he can't do it. Isn't that right?"
"Humph! Neither can you."
"Child," said Qinglongmon, "what you ask is impossible. Dobermon is gone, his data scattered. We cannot bring him back."
"But - but you were the ones who created him," she said. "Can't you do it again?"
"In a sense," Baihumon answered. "We could copy the code used to create him and make a copy, but it wouldn't be the Dobermon you know. He would remember nothing about you, and you would mean nothing to him."
"Oh," she said, hanging her head. "I see."
"There is a way," said Xuanwumon.
Everyone turned to stare at him.
"What do you mean?"asked Zhuqiaomon. "There is no way. It can't be done."
"Not by us," the turtle replied, "but another might. Dobermon was lost in the Real World. He didn't die like a Digimon normally does, so his data was never absorbed. It is still scattered in the Real world, and under the right conditions, it could be regathered."
"It won't happen," said Zhuqiaomon. "She's not up to it."
"I'll do it," Alice asserted. "I don't care what it is, I'll do it."
"It won't hurt to let her try," said Baihumon with a flick of his tail. "It could be amusing to watch."
"If it will get her to leave us alone," Zhuqiaomon grumped, "we might as well get it over with."
"Very well," said Qinglongmon. He shifted his gaze to the girl. "What is your name, human child?"
"Alice. Alice McCoy."
"Alice, if you would truly have your friend returned to you, you must embark upon a quest. All living things are bound by the four elements: Earth, Fire, Wind, and Water. Life is brought forth in four aspects: Heart, Body, Mind, and Spirit. To revive your lost friend, you must bring together these aspects in exactly the right way. You will find each lost article somewhere in your world. For the purity and freedom of his spirit, you must first seek the holy water. Here."
A swirl of blue-white mist rose up from the earth and coalesced into the form of a beautiful blue glass bottle with a crystal stopper. Alice lifted it up to admire it, watching the way the light flowed over it, making it shimmer like the surface of a lake.
"I have no speeches or gifts for you, human," Zhuqiaomon said. "All I will tell you is this: fire is the element of force and protection. To restore life and power to his body, you must seek an element of fire that you can hold in your hand."
"Child, the element of Earth is the element of the heart," said Xuanwumon, quietly. "Sometimes the feelings of the heart are painful. To restore Dobermon's heart, you will need a drop of the blood of one of those he is a part of."
"Blood?" Alice repeated, "but-"
Before she could protest, a swirl of green light appeared at her feet, resolving itself into a knife in a leather sheaf. Its handle appeared to be made of the same black material as Xuanwumon's shell, and when she drew the blade, it flashed razor sharp. With a sigh, she sheathed it again and clipped it resignedly to her belt.
"This is an unusual quest you are undertaking, human," said Baihumon. "I am the master of the winds, and I have seen the winds of time blow many things through both worlds. My memory is long, but I have no memory of this being done before. Nevertheless, it is memory you must appeal to. To finish your quest, you must capture the essence of memory."
White mists gathered, and out of them fell a shiny silver pocket watch on a long chain. It landed in Alice's hand, and she closed her fingers around it, feeling how smooth it was, and how icy cold. The hands were slender and ornately curled like wisps of smoke, ticking slowly around a face marked with stars instead of numbers. If she tilted it just right, she thought she could catch a glimpse of something shining inside it.
"That is a timer," said Baihumon. "It is linked to what is left of Dobermon's DigiCore - his life force. As long as his spirit still survives, it will continue to tick. However, when the hands reach the apex, the clock will stop, and Dobermon will be beyond recovery."
Alice stared at the clock. "This isn't a lot of time."
Zhuqiaomon shrugged his wings, looking bored. "You're the one who decided to wait a month and more before coming to look for him."
"It wasn't my fault!" she said. "The door wasn't open until a little while ago."
"Well, the door is open now," Zhuqiaomon replied. "I invite you to use it. I tire of your presence. Go on your quest and leave us in peace. Begone!"
A swirl of red light rose up around her, lots of spinning red light that wrapped around her and tossed her crazily like a leaf in a high wind. When it stopped, she was lying on the ground in the park, watching the last remnants of a digital field break up and drift away. She sat up, shaking her head dazedly, and checked to make sure she still had all her belongings. The watch was still safely clutched in one hand, the bottle in the other, and the knife was still at her belt. Good. She slipped the treasures into her pockets and set out.
*Holy water, fire that can be held in the hand, the essence of memory... that's a tall order,* she thought. *But I can do it. I have to, for Dobermon's sake.*
She looked down at the watch. If it ran the same way normal Earth clocks ran, she had approximately six hours in which to find these apparently impossible items. Where should she even begin? She walked slowly through the park, wracking her brain for ideas.
"I know!" she said. "The place to begin is always at the beginning."
She began to run, rushing back to the place where it started, back when she first saw the creature that would rearrange her life, back to where they first met...
It was a cloudy, overcast day, the kind that made everyone's spirits run a little lower. The girls at Alice's school were subdued today, mostly eating their lunches in silence. Alice didn't mind the silence - it really wasn't that much different from any other day, for her. She was not a sociable person by nature, and coming to Japan hadn't been an easy thing for her. Her father had spent a few years there, and he'd managed to teach her the language, but that didn't make it much easier to communicate. The girls here were friendly towards her, but she hadn't bonded with anyone here. She wasn't even sure she wanted to. After a while, people began to get the feeling that she didn't really want to be friends with anyone, and had left her to sit alone in her own corner.
*I want to go home.*
Alice sighed; try as she might, it was hard not to let that thought slip by. It wasn't just the strangeness of the language and the culture. She was used to the flat, arid planes of Arizona, and this country felt alien to her in both its empty mountainsides and teeming cities. There was just nothing here that felt welcoming to her, and homesickness was inevitable. More than anything, she wanted to go back where she belonged, but home was far over the ocean. Her father had told her that this stay would probably be only for a few months at most, but she had seen how excited he was to be with his old friends, reviving a project he'd thought was lost, and she was beginning to wonder if he might never want to go back to America.
*It wouldn't be so bad,* she thought, *if there was just one person I could really talk to... or if I had something here that meant something to me, the way Dad does. Instead I'm stuck in school taking classes I only half-understand.*
She sighed, wishing her classes could hurry up and be over, even though it was only the middle of the day. She didn't see why they had to have classes at all, when there were other parts of the city that were in the process of being engulfed by a red blob. It seemed ridiculous, but the decree had been that as long as they were out of immediate danger, they might as well go to school.
Just then, something happened that not only put an end to Alice's glum musings, but the rest of the day's classes as well. A decorative fountain that stood in the center of the yard where the students were eating began to glow softly. As the level of light increased, rainbows began to dance through the water, twisting and weaving like ribbons in the wind. Several people stopped what they were doing to point and exclaim, but Alice only watched silently, her pale eyes growing wider and wider as she began to realize what was going on.
*Wait a minute, didn't Dad say something about this? The only thing I know of that could do this is a...*
There was a final burst of light, and the fountain blew apart completely, spraying water and bits of marble everywhere, making the closest students run for cover. Anyone who didn't run at that moment was treated to the sight of a dog the size of a horse leaping into the air to land in the middle of their schoolyard. He turned his head this way and that, sniffing the air and twitching his ears. He turned his red eyes on the remaining students, who stood frozen in fear or wonder. Then someone let out a shriek and bolted, and the others followed suit, fighting to get back into the safety of the school building... but Alice hung back.
"A Digimon," she murmured. "He must be. Is he... could he be mine?"
Very slowly, she began walking toward him. She had always loved dogs - she'd had one of her own, back home, a beautiful black Labrador that she'd had to leave in the care of a friend when she moved. Leaving him behind had been hard on her, but if she could befriend this creature, it might just make up for it. Fortunately she remembered how to deal with dogs, so she moved slowly and quietly towards him, pausing a short distance away and offering her hand to sniff. His ears pricked up, and he padded towards her, applying his cold wet nose to her fingers, running it up her arm to nuzzle her cheek. His warm breath tossed her hair, and his whiskers tickled her face, making her giggle.
"You have a good scent," he told her.
Alice smiled; coming from something that relied on his nose to inform him about the world, that was as good as being told she was beautiful. Her own nose was telling her that even if this was a magical creature from another world, he still smelled like a wet dog.
"So do you," she replied.
His stubby tail wagged, and he licked her cheek in friendly acceptance of the compliment.
"Are you a human child?" he asked.
"Yes, I am. My name is Alice. Who are you?"
"I am Dobermon," the dog-creature replied. "I have been sent to this world on a mission to find the children known as the Digimon Tamers. Are you one of them?"
Alice felt an inner twinge of pain and wrestled it down. "No. I wish I was, though."
"I must find them. It is urgent that I do so. The human and Digital world alike depends on it," said Dobermon. "If you know where they are, please tell me."
"They're in West Shinjuku," she replied. "That's a few miles from here."
Dobermon's ears drooped. "I am unfamiliar with your human world. I do not know this West Shinjuku you speak of. How can I find it? What does it look like?"
"Well, it's... kind of hard to explain," she said, trying and failing to think of a way to explain street addresses to a digital dog. Then, as inspiration struck, she said, "I could show you the way."
"It will be dangerous," said Dobermon. "I would not ask you to go into such danger."
"You said the world is going to be destroyed if you don't finish your mission. That sounds more dangerous than helping you find West Shinjuku," Alice replied. "Let me help you. I'm not afraid."
"Very well," Dobermon replied. "Thank you, Alice. Come, we must move quickly, and we will move faster if you ride."
He crouched on the muddy ground so that she could scramble onto his back, finding a perch in front of the spiked collar he wore. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and he rose to his feet again. In a single bound, he leaped over the schoolyard fence and went dashing up the street, with his human friend clinging tightly to him, leaving behind only a slowly expanding puddle in the place where a fountain used to be.
The schoolyard was empty when Alice arrived, leaving no one to see as she crept inside. Even so, she tried to keep a low profile, slipping through the shadows so that none of her classmates could see her from their places inside the school. The last thing she wanted now was to be diverted from her quest by getting caught skipping school. She only dared to come out into the open when she reached her goal.
A lot of things had been rebuilt in the aftermath of the D-Reaper battle, including the broken fountain. It had been replaced, and splashed merrily once more. Alice walked up to it and took out the bottle Qinglongmon had given her, dipping it into the basin and watching the water trickle in.
"One bottle of holy water," she whispered. She put the stopper in place, and the bottle lit up with the same pearly blue-white glow she'd seen surrounding the dragon god. She smiled.
"That was easy," she said, slipping the bottle back into her pocket. "If everything else is as easy as this, Dobermon will be back in no time. Now, what was the next thing I'm supposed to look for? Zhuqiaomon's riddle... something to do with fire... Oh, yeah. He said, an element of fire that can be held in the hand. Whatever that is."
She left the school grounds as quickly as she could and took to the streets again. Caught up in her memories, she found herself following the same route she and Dobermon had taken on their search for the Digimon Tamers. Just walking up the same streets brought back the incident in vivid detail. Even now, a month later, people were still doing repairs to the structures that the D-Reaper and its agents had damaged. She paused for a moment, watching the people at work, reflecting that not one of them knew how that damage had happened as well as she did.
Alice had never experienced anything like riding on Dobermon's back. She'd ridden a horse before, but that had been only a short walk around a paddock, the horse clopping lazily along as its owner led it on a halter. That was nothing in comparison to what Dobermon could do. He all but flew, soaring high into the air with each bound, covering a dozen yards at a leap before touching lightly to earth and surging towards the sky again. Alice quickly learned that there was no way to simply ride something that moved like that. She had to move with him, as if she were a part of him, rocking back and forth in time to his movements.
Then the rhythm of his footfalls was thrown off. Alice got just enough time to register a flash of something moving before the side of a building exploded, and Dobermon made a frantic twist in midair that nearly threw her off his back. He landed heavily, paws skidding on the pavement as he tried to turn and face his enemy. Alice clung tightly to his neck, trying not to fall. She felt a low growl vibrating in the dog's chest. Fearfully, she looked up to see what had attacked them.
Hovering over them was a... well, it looked more like a bird than anything else, but birds weren't supposed to be made out of something smooth an glossy as metal, or be able to hover in midair without so much as stirring a wingtip. For a moment, its flat black eyes landed on Alice, and she felt a shiver run through her as she realized the thing was intelligent - but that was all. It had no more kind feeling in it than a computer.
Girl and bird stared at each other for only a fraction of a second, just long enough for each to understand the other for what it was. Then the bird raised it's head and let out a high-pitched trill. The shriek was cut off abruptly as Dobermon lunged forward, snapping at a long red cable that snaked away from the base of the bird's tail. It separated in a shower of sparks, and the bird gave a final wail before disintegrating.
"What was that?" asked Alice shakily.
"A spy. We've been seen," Dobermon answered. "They will come for us now. Alice, you should go now. Let me find my way myself, before you get hurt."
"I'm staying with you," she insisted.
Dobermon twisted his long neck so she could look into one of his eyes. She was surprised to see a kind of mystification there. "I do not understand."
"I'm not going to run off and leave you while you're in danger. It wouldn't be right."
Dobermon gave a puzzled twitch of his ears. "My master Zhuqiaomon told me that humans were selfish creatures, who treat Digimon only as playthings or tools of war."
"Well, he's wrong," said Alice stubbornly. "Digimon are friends."
"Hm," Dobermon answered thoughtfully. "That makes me feel better... about what I must do. My mission is not an easy one."
"I'll be here with you. I won't leave you," she said. "Dobermon?"
"When this is over... when you've finished what you have to do... do you think we could be partners? Like the Tamers and their Digimon?"
Dobermon lowered his head. "I wish it were possible."
"What? Why not? If it's because of that Zhuqiaomon-"
"It is because of what I am. I am not a true Digimon, but a created one - artificial. I was built for just one purpose, as a vessel, to carry the power the Digimon Tamers need and deliver it to them. I came into being only a short time ago, and when my purpose is fulfilled, I will leave again."
"You mean... you're going to die?"
"If that is what you call it."
"But that's not right! They shouldn't bring you to life just to kill you again!"
"If I don't, the world will be destroyed. Would that be right?"
There was a rushing noise. Dobermon raised his head, pricking his ears and sniffing the air.
"We've talked too long. They are coming. Hold on."
Dobermon lunged, and Alice clung so tightly to his neck that she was afraid she'd choke him. At the same moment, there was a tremendous explosion, and a thing burst through the wall of a building, scattering stone and glass in all directions. Dobermon hit the ground just seconds before the wreckage started raining down. In a smooth motion, just as if he'd practiced it, he spilled Alice from her perch and crouched over her, shielding her from the hail of debris. When it had cleared, he turned again to face the creature that had caused it.
Peering around Dobermon's legs, Alice could see a strange beast glaring at them. It had a hunched body, muscular but somehow awkward, as if not all the muscles had been attached in the right places. Its long legs terminated in sets of claws that raked the ground as it moved. The head attached to its short neck was thin and wedge-shaped, rather like a crocodile's and with the same sharp teeth.
"So," Dobermon rumbled, "you are capable of learning."
For a moment, Alice wondered what he was talking about. Then, as Dobermon and the monster neared each other, snarling and raising their hackles, she realized with a start that the creature bore a strange resemblance to Dobermon, like a statue made by an unskilled sculptor. The D-Reaper, it seemed, was trying to fight fire with fire.
The two dogs leapt at each other, jaws snapping. The demon-dog made a slash with its oversized claws, but Dobermon ducked and rolled, trying to sink his teeth into his enemy's leg. The other dog just barely managed to jump out of the way, and Dobermon scrambled back to his feet to dive at him again. He seemed to be trying to get to the red cable that snaked away from the base of the creature's spine, but it appeared to have learned from the fate of the spy-bird, and it wasn't taking any chances. Dobermon tried again and again to circle around, only to be faced every time by flashing claws or snapping jaws.
Suddenly, the demon-dog leapt forward, diving past Dobermon and towards the shadows where Alice was hiding. She stared, petrified, as the monster bore down on her, drool oozing past its razor-sharp teeth. It made one final lunge, jaws wide open, and she curled into a ball and waited for the impact.
It never came. Instead, there was a rush of paws, and Dobermon dove between them. The creature's jaws closed, not on Alice, but on Dobermon's spiked collar. It backed away, snarling and pawing at its mouth, which now seemed to be leaking bits of red-purple data. Dobermon took advantage of the creature's distraction to seize the red cable and bite through it. Unfortunately, this monster wasn't going to go down as easily as the spy-bird had; it flickered around the edges, but refused to disappear entirely. It turned on Dobermon, snarling wildly, foaming at the mouth. With a roar, it leaped into the air... and was met by a burst of light, as Dobermon shot a blast of fire from his mouth. The demon-dog gave a howl and vanished. Dobermon padded calmly back to Alice's side.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"You saved me," she whispered. "You could have died."
"So could you," Dobermon answered, "and yet you stay with me. I could do no less than protect you. Even if I can't stay by you for long, while I am still here, I will look after you... like a partner."
Tears stung at her eyes. "Dobermon..."
She hugged him tightly, and he licked her cheek until she was comforted again. Still shaking, she climbed onto his back again, and they continued on their journey.
Still and silent, Alice stood in the middle of the street, watching the workmen fixing the building that had shattered in the battle between Dobermon and the demon-dog. It had been shattered to bits in the monster's explosive appearance, and now there were dozens of workers with their drills and saws, setting things to rights again. She watched a man with a welder fill the air with sparks as he tried to seal two bits of metal together, and something tickled at the back of her mind. An element of fire that could be held in the hand... Metal was born of fire, brought forth from the superhot center of the earth. Fire tempered it, blended it, helped give it its form. It was the answer. But it wasn't just any old piece of metal; for Dobermon, it had to be something special. What had Zhuqiaomon said? An element of force and... and protection...
She knew what she needed. Excitedly, she checked her pockets. She still had a little money with her, good - she'd need it for what she had in mind. After all, her partner deserved the very best. Taking to her feet again, she began to run, heading for a nearby shopping center.
A few minutes later, a shop clerk was somewhat surprised to see a pale young girl, looking rather flushed and sweaty, come up to the front desk and plunk a necklace down on the counter. It wasn't at all the kind of necklace she would have imagined such an ephemeral little girl would want; it was a thick leather band set with steel spikes, like a dog collar.
"Is this what you want?" he asked.
The little girl nodded. "Yes. It's a gift... for a very special friend."
"Ah. His birthday coming up?"
"Something like that."
Alice paid for the necklace and walked out of the store, happily swinging a white paper bag with its comforting weight inside. Once she was out of the shopping center, she slipped down an alley to admire her prize. The necklace was now shimmering with a faint red-orange light, just like the fires that hovered around Zhuqiaomon.
"Well, I'm glad I live up to your standards," she said, slipping the necklace back into the bag. "I'm halfway there, now. What am I looking for next? Hm."
She paused and thought. Two items left... one of them was the blood of someone Dobermon had become a part of. She shivered a little at that, thinking of the razor-sharp blade she carried. Someone would have to feel its edge, but who? The ones Dobermon had become a part of... wouldn't that mean the Tamers? Dobermon had given up his life so that the children could bio-merge with their partners; they still carried that power. She would have to find one of them and take a little of that power back, no matter how repulsive the idea was. Her hand strayed to the knife at her side, and she pulled it away quickly as if she'd been burned. She wouldn't think about that. Not yet.
All right, so she wasn't ready to go after that element yet. What else did she need? Water for spirit, fire for the body, and for the mind... for that, Buhaimon had said, she needed the essence of memory. What on earth could that be? It didn't sound like something you could put in your pocket and carry around.
With nothing better to do, she began wandering the streets again. As if to emphasize how fast her time was slipping away, a clock began to chime, and Alice looked up to stare at it. She remembered that clock; it stood at the top of a tower and looked down on the citizens of Tokyo. For a little while, it's shadow had offered a place to sit and rest. Now it was telling her that she was nearly out of time, but still, she couldn't resist the impulse to stop a while, to look at it, and remember...
Paw-weary and aching, Dobermon settled down onto the sidewalk to rest for a moment. He and Alice had been traveling for miles, dodging the agents of the D-Reaper at every turn. Now both of them were tired and bruised, and very glad for a moment of respite.
"I think we will be safe here for a moment," said Dobermon. "Nothing is coming. I hear only silence."
"Everyone is hiding from the D-Reaper," Alice replied. "All the humans have cleared out."
"We are coming close, then?"
"Yes. We should find them soon."
Dobermon lowered his head onto his paws. "Then my time is almost up."
"Don't talk like that," said Alice.
"I don't want to pretend it isn't going to happen," he said. "There would be no point in that. Things will happen as they were meant to."
"But I don't want you to go away."
Dobermon was silent for a moment. When he did answer, he spoke in a low voice that she had to strain to hear even in the silent street.
"When I first came into being," he said, "I did not mind that I was not going to live long. I knew very little of what it was like to be alive, only what my creators gave to me to aid me in my journey. I knew I was going to face a great evil, and that I would die fighting it, but I also knew that my work would do a great good, so I was pleased. I have only lived a few hours, but already I have learned great things. I have learned what it is to have a friend, and what it is to love someone. It is because of you that I know these things. I am very proud to have met you, and to have called you my partner."
Alice couldn't answer. Her throat had closed up painfully. The dog continued.
"Alice, when I am gone, I want you to do something for me."
"Anything," she whispered.
He raised his head, turning so he could look into her eyes. "Remember me."
"Promise me that you won't forget me. I don't want to go back to being nothing. As long as you remember me, there will still be something of me left in this world. Promise you'll keep me in your heart, so I don't have to die."
She looked at him and saw reflected in his eyes a mix of emotions that made him seem for a moment almost human. No dog on earth had ever worn that expression - a mixture of fear, hope, and love. She choked on a sob.
"I promise," she said. "I won't ever forget you, never. And I'll tell my family, and my friends, and everyone. I won't let anyone forget you."
Dobermon licked her cheek, stopping a tear before it could fall to the ground.
"I want it to be you," he said. "I know you'll keep your promise. You look like a human on the outside, but you have a dog's loyalty."
She smiled a little, trying to blink back her tears. "Thank you, Dobermon. I won't let you down."
Above their heads, the clock chimed the quarter-hour, reminding them both that time really was running out. Reluctantly, they got up and began moving again...
In front of the clock tower, Alice stood very still. She was watching the hands of the clock slide slowly around their track, thinking about memories and the passage of time. She wondered how the digital gods had known how much memory was a part of Dobermon, how important it had been to him. Somehow, the memory of his request made her feel a little better. Even if somehow, she didn't manage to complete her mission, she could at least keep that much of him alive. His physical presence might be gone, but his memory would last across time...
*Time? I wonder...*
Alice reached into her pocket and took out the pocket watch. This watch was time, Dobermon's time. This was the time she wanted to make last forever. Hadn't they said that the watch contained part of Dobermon's essence? What if...?
Even as she watched, the watch began to shine again, shimmering with a pale white light. Alice laughed a little.
"That was sneaky!" she scolded. It wasn't nice, she thought, for them to tell her to go looking for something she already had. Then again, she had been carrying Dobermon's memory with her the whole time, anyway.
She put the watch back in her pocket. Now there was only one item left, the one she'd least wanted to take. Resolutely, she unsheathed the knife and looked at it, watching it's gleaming-sharp blade flash in the sun. She tested its edge on her fingertip; it was honed to such a fine edge that no one would feel more than a hair's touch as it cut their skin. Even so, she couldn't help feeling that this wasn't going to be easy.
Jenrya Lee was taking his youngest sister for an outing, enjoying the pleasant sunshiny day as well as the company of their partners. Shuichon in particular was feeling exuberant, and it seemed likely that poor Lopmon might be strangled before the day was over. He was already complaining (though very quietly, so Shuichon couldn't hear) that he was sure he'd been bent out of shape from being hugged so much.
"I don't see you trying to stop her," said Jenrya.
Lopmon blushed. "Oh, well... It's not that bad, really. I kind of missed getting hugged."
"I know what you mean," said Terriermon, from his safe perch on Jenrya's shoulder. "I even missed playing dress up!"
"And I missed being insulted on a regular basis," Jen added, patting his partner on the head. "Keeps me humble."
The little group strolled up the sidewalk, looking at what was left of the D-Reaper's trail of destruction and Vikararamon's earlier rampage. From where they stood, it was hard to tell anything had happened. In the last month, buildings had been repaired, power lines re-strung, and everything put back to normal. Once again, the Hypnos building looked proudly over the city, unmolested by any evil forces. Even the streets had been re-paved and repainted. However, a month's time wasn't enough to put everything back to rights.
"Look up there," said Jen, pointing. "See? Those men are fixing the bridge."
Shuichon put a rare halt to her activity to see where her brother was pointing.
"You had a big battle up there, right?" she asked. "That's why it's all broken."
"Right," Jen replied. "That was where we met Dobermon, and he gave us the power to bio-merge."
"Wow," said Shuichon, sounding impressed. She watched with wide eyes as the cranes hauled bars of steel and welders shot bursts of sparks into the air. "Can we stay and watch them a while? Can we?"
"Sure. My feet could use a rest. Come on, let's find a bench."
They strolled a short distance away and found a small grassy area with a bench, suitably located that they could still keep an eye on the action. True to her nature, Shuichon sat still and watched for a grand total of three minutes before getting bored and wandering off to play. The Digimon took off after her in an attempt to keep her out of trouble, but Jenrya opted to stay where he was. He stretched lazily and stared up at the sky, allowing his mind to wander. He might not have been so casual if he'd realized there was a desperate girl with a knife lurking in the shrubbery behind him.
Unseen, Alice hovered uncertainly in the shadows, her nerves feeling as jangly as a windchime in a hurricane, trying to steel herself for what she had to do. Only a few weeks ago, just a short distance from where she was now, Dobermon had passed part of his power into this very boy. Now she needed it back. This was the perfect opportunity. He couldn't see her, not with his back to her and his mind somewhere far away. She wasn't going to hurt him much - all she needed was a single drop of blood. He'd probably never feel it. If he did, he'd probably just assume he'd been scratched on a twig or something of that nature. He'd never known it had been inflicted by one of his friends. She'd never have to answer for this, because he'd never know. She tried to remind herself that this wasn't a great cost, that this was one of the people Dobermon had died for, so that he could be with his partner while she had to be alone. She had to do this, for Dobermon's sake... but she couldn't bring herself to hurt her friend. With her heart in her shoes, she slunk silently off.
*What's the matter with you, Alice? Are you going to let Dobermon die because you were too scared to help him?*
No, she wasn't. She wasn't scared; she just knew it was wrong to hurt her friend, no matter how little or for how good a reason. Dobermon wouldn't want to have his life bought with stolen blood.
*So just ask him. He'd probably give it to you, if you asked... but I can't ask him, either. I don't have the right to ask something like that from anyone... anyone but myself.*
She considered that. Why shouldn't she give her own blood? Because she hadn't been the one he'd given the power to... but that hadn't been what Xuanwumon had asked, had it? He'd said it would take the blood of someone Dobermon had become a part of. That power hadn't been part of Dobermon; it had just been something he'd been asked to carry, like so much heavy baggage. The real Dobermon had been the one who had carried her and fought to protect her, the one whose memory rested inside her. She was the one he had wanted to be a part of.
"All right," she said. "Let's see if I can do this."
She walked in the direction of the bridge. It was quiet there, now - the workmen seemed to have wandered off on a break. There were warning signs and chain link fence all around, but she managed to scramble past them all, walking out onto the half-repaired walkway where Dobermon's final journey had ended. There, she knelt on the ground and began setting out her precious cargo.
First came the blue bottle. She upended its contents, pouring them slowly onto the ground, where the crystal water spilled into a perfect circle, glowing softly with its own blue light. Into that, she set the collar, letting it rest in the exact center and shedding its own red fire. Inside the ring of the collar, she set the watch. Its hands showed that there were only a few minutes left to spare; if anything went wrong now, she'd never have another chance. Then she took out the knife.
"This is for you, Dobermon," she whispered.
Gritting her teeth, she ran the edge of the knife across her hand, drawing a thin red line and wetting the blade with crimson. It began to glow with a soft green light, and she smiled faintly. Holding the handle tightly with both hands, she drove it into the watch, freezing the progress of its hands forever.
There was a colossal flash as something brightly shining burst out of the watch with the force of a geyser, a hurricane, a volcano, an earthquake. It hung in midair, and as Alice stared, it slowly began to take on a form, and then solidarity and color. It turned to look at her.
"Alice?" he said hesitantly.
"Dobermon," she whispered.
With a joyful cry, she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and crying for joy. The comforting realness of his warm, wet tongue on her face convinced her that it wasn't a dream. She had done it. Dobermon had come back.
"I knew you wouldn't forget me," he said. "I knew if you didn't forget me, I wouldn't be lost."
"You were right," she said. "It was your memory that helped me find you. But you're not going to go away this time, are you?"
Dobermon's mouth opened in a dog grin. "Not this time. And if you want proof, I think you should look behind you."
"Hm?" Obediently, Alice turned around. The bottle, the watch, the collar, and the knife had vanished. In their place rested a small box, black as Dobermon's fur. Alice picked it up as if it would shatter like glass if she dropped it. Slowly, realization dawned on her, and her face split into a delighted smile.
"A D-Ark!" she cheered. "It's for real! We're really partners now!"
Dobermon barked for joy, and Alice laughed.
"Come on," she said. "I'd better get home before Dad has a fit. I want you to meet my family and the other Tamers. They'll be glad to see you back again."
"To your home?" asked Dobermon. "I don't know the way."
"Don't worry," said Alice, climbing onto his back. "I'm here to show you the way."