Disclaimer: Digimon is the intellectual property of Bandai. I intend no copyright infringement with this work. This is merely a product of my enjoyment in Digimon.

Summary: Wars were waged with innocence and young hearts were twisted into weapons. Small hands painted blood on the walls and the dancing feet of children left trails of life's color in their wake. The dreams of childhood were so bright it softened the darkness of it all.

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With Hands Stained Red
Chapter 2
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≈ 1954 – ENIAC

Ryo paused before the entrance of ENIAC's crystal chamber, swaying and cradling the Digitama in his arms (either to protect or to crush, he wasn't sure) closer to his chest. He just wanted to crumple in on himself and give way to weeks and months of built up agony – let himself be weak and cry. There hadn't been much of him since the D-1 Tournament, though it was months behind him now. He'd become so faded…. No one could possibly be whole after fighting four wars all on top of each other. The break between them had been shorter and shorter, until the third and fourth wars had blurred together until he couldn't tell the difference and it kept him slightly saner too think of them as the same conflict rather than two different ones he'd fought back-to-back.

How much time had he spent on fighting? The twisting the flow of time of the wars passed in only minutes to Earth's point of view, but it'd been weeks. Months. …Years? All while he'd remained twelve. He wasn't certain anymore. Ryo stubbornly clung to what traces of the amnesia he could to put a blur on everything. It still hurt, but it was numbed a little. He could step back from the memories and have room to remember without wanting to scream.

His eyes burned, but Ryo swallowed and bit his tongue in an effort to hold back the tears. This wasn't the time for them. This was supposed to be a victorious return.

But all the Digimon that had followed him were gone. He stood alone with only a silent egg as company. Either ENIAC or Atanasoff had sent his army home or the same had been done by virtue of Zeed-Millenniumon's defeat, similar to the first two wars.

…If what had happened to the Wicked God and Monodramon could be called a victory.

Ryo didn't feel victorious. Monodramon had sounded triumphant when he'd forced the Jogress. The Small Dragon had seemed so certain it was the only way for either of them to be with Ryo, even if it meant loosing himself in the process. Zeed-Millenniumon had to have wanted to be his partner.

Though for the life of him, Ryo couldn't figure out why. He should've noticed somehow, about the connection between him and the Wicked God. He hadn't though. Surely, there'd been signs…. Besides the obvious, how else would Monodramon pay for his blindness? Did Zeed-Millenniumon hate him, if he hadn't already? Could he have circumvented the wars if he'd paid a little more attention?

How much suffering, least of all his own, was he responsible for?

Ryo straightened his posture and shifted the Digitama into the crook of his left arm and partially supported by his worn out shoulder bag, letting his semi-crippled right arm rest at his side. It was a permanent reminder of the second war; the injury had occurred when Millenniumon had split the Digital World. It had healed without a scar thanks to Piccolomon's remedies, but it'd lost grip strength. Not enough to be noticeable upon going home, fortunately. He couldn't have explained it.

Perhaps that had been karma coming back to pay him some of what he was owed for his follies.

He entered the ENIAC's chamber, barely taking in the sight of the place. Over the crystal pedestal, centered at the far end of the room, the two rings around the sphere of light tilted forwards in what Ryo had come to recognize as acknowledgement. He approached the pedestal, which was a good nine feet in height and forced him to look up and remain several feet away so he didn't get a crick.

The chamber echoed with the ENIAC's electronic voice, "Thank you, Ryo. Peace has been restored. The past and the future have been aligned and regained their normal flow."

He lowered his head, "I don't deserve any thanks. It was all Monodramon. I could only go through the motions of war."

The rings tilted around the light. Ryo wondered if the ENIAC was studying him…or perhaps sighing, if he dared assign a more human mode of expression to the host computer.

"With the trauma you have suffered in the past, this is understandable," the ENIAC said. "You could have refused."

"I don't think I would have…even if my head hadn't been such a mess when I got here," he replied. His arms tightened around the Digitama. A bitter laugh passed his lips. His head was still a mess and Ryo didn't know what it would take to be okay again.

A panel appeared on the ENIAC's pedestal, which jutted out and swiveled to the side. Ryo stared at the revealed gap, confused, and looked up at the glowing light.

"Place the Digitama within," the Digital World's host computer instructed as it registered the young human's confusion, "It will incubate for a time and meet you later."

Ryo continued to stare in silence for another few seconds before stepping forwards and then pausing, lowering his eyes, "And…where will I go?"

It was a valid enough question, much as he hated it. Ryo half wanted to just go home and rest…but he didn't think it would be all that safe. Not after the Holy Beasts had tried to have him killed by rigging the Temple Millenniumon had been in to collapse and explode. He wasn't sure how he could cope with his parents or (perhaps more importantly) with Ken. The…clone of the 'Digimon Kaiser' haunted him. Zeed-Millenniumon had never been one to show him lies…shrouded truths, perhaps, but he wouldn't have believed open ones. And his parents…. How could they understand – how could he explain so they could understand?

"…I'm afraid that is impossible. Millenniumon's world was positioned within a major point in time for your native reality and you were years younger than you should have been when you went to face him," ENIAC explained. "To try and send you to your proper point in time there would cause irreparable damage to the fabric of time. You will need to wait at least until the year Two-Thousand-and-Four for safety's sake."

Ryo ran his right hand down the side of the egg, but did not speak or move to place the egg within the pillar.

"You may always speak freely before me, Ryo," the ENIAC encouraged. "I hold a role equivalent to a 'god', but I am not such a creature as described in human mythologies. I cannot divine your thoughts."

"Then…what would be the purpose of separating from this Digitama now?" he asked. "It's obvious that Millenniumon is my responsibility and Monodramon sacrificed himself to stop the fighting. Wouldn't risking another war reduce the meaning of what he did?

"Monodramon is still in the Digitama," ENIAC said. His words were…as gentle as an electronically generated voice could get. Ryo glanced up in surprise. "You can hear it in the middle of the egg as surely as I feel it, Ryo."

The boy pressed an ear to the surface of the gold and purple Digitama. Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump…. Regular and steady….

"…A heartbeat," he murmured.

"The heart that beats is the right one," the ENIAC assured.

"And which one is the right heart? My partner's or my friend's?" he demanded with an uncharacteristic anger. He bit his tongue, flushing, and swallowed the fury though bitterness replaced it, "I know the chances and all the most probable variations of the Digimon that will hatch out of this egg. It's just…strange…hearing you argue for something that's not cold, hard code."

"I would not separate you two were it not absolutely necessary, Ryo," the ENIAC said. "Perhaps I request the impossible, but I will ask that you trust me in this."

Trust.

Consciously, he shifted his weight off his right leg, listening for the almost inaudible creak of Nanomon's brace hidden beneath the pant leg. Being hamstrung had been so far from an accident that he couldn't have remembered incorrectly even if he'd wanted to. He might allow the Holy Beasts were only trying to eliminate a dangerous enemy rather than continue to use a stopgap measure which only promised future trouble, but that didn't mean he could forgive the attempt to kill him.

"It's necessary?" Ryo asked. If it weren't for the amnesia, he wasn't sure if he could've come to trust Monodramon….

"Were it not, I would send the Digitama with you," the ENIAC said.

Ryo couldn't hear a lie, but how did one detect a falsehood in an electronic voice? How much did he trust the god-machine? Monodramon wouldn't have doubted nor needed reconfirmation. He could picture the Small Dragon grinning up at him and saying, "He said we'd meet again, so we will." Millenniumon would be…obvious, leaving a trail of destruction impossible to mistake for another's handiwork so Ryo could find him easily, regardless of the ENIAC's intentions.

Finally, he stepped forwards, sliding the Digitama into the open gap. There was a flash of light from behind that signaled the opening of a space-time causeway. The ENIAC's were considerably more tolerable than the one he'd been pulled through by Zeed-Millenniumon, but that one hadn't been to any particular realm within space or time. He was fortunate to end up somewhere sensible, even if it was the past, rather than some place where the sky was green and people walked on their hands or something.

Ryo turned halfway to the portal, eyes still locked on the egg as he forced one foot into the causeway.

"Farewell, Ryo," the ENIAC bade. Blue eyes flickered from the egg, to the orb of light, and then back to the Digitama. The boy pulled his remaining foot to the other side of the portal and the causeway closed.

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? ?, ? – Unknown Location, Unknown World

Another human's perceptions of how long they'd remained in the space-time causeway would've blurred. Ryo counted eighty-five seconds from entry to exit. He glanced around, finding himself in the middle of a park somewhere. The causeway was gone.

His first breath chilled his lungs and he could see his breath when he let it out. It was winter…wherever he was. That was something. It was nighttime and there was a drizzle coming down. Was he someplace with rainy winters?

Ryo rubbed at his arms to try and keep his warmth up as the chill began settling in, grimacing.

The D-1 Tournament had started in early March. Had it been April by the time he'd faced Moon=Millenniumon? Not more than a couple of days in, if so. Precise trivia like that was still a little fuzzy. Either way, it had been spring. It was pretty cold out right now. How much time had he'd lost to the last two wars?

Ryo tilted his head to look upwards and saw no stars. For a moment, he panicked before remembering artificial lights drowned out natural starlight. He looked back down to the ground. Well, wherever he was, he needed shelter and soon. Maybe he'd run into a kōban officer or find a station and they could call his parents in this reality.

'If I have parents in this reality,' commented the part of his mind used to running probabilities and scenarios for combat. 'Would it be better if I didn't?' Ryo shuddered and looked upwards again, this time looking for buildings rather than for stars. (It was a sigh he'd lived in the Digital World for too long he put learning Earth astronomy on his to-do list for survival.)

In turning around, he found a hospital.

Its name was posted high-up on the right: Fukuoka General Hospital.

"I'm in Fukuoka? I'm on Kyushu?" he said aloud. The part of his brain normally assigned to run countermeasures against surprise attacks was failing to work. Dimly, he realized this was hardly a combat situation, but he couldn't seem to stop thinking in those terms. He'd become hardwired for warfare.

But this wasn't a battle.

Ryo blinked and gave himself a shake, moving across the park to the hospital. It wouldn't have been his first choice to get help, but he was helpless in a human world, though after everything, he could probably manage living homeless without too many serious mess-ups. He paused briefly across the street, looking around for some other option, a kōban or a….

…There was a police station right next door, just down a ways to his left on the same side as the hospital. He could see the gold emblem, lit up by a light placed on top of the overhang.

He breathed out in relief, crossing the street at the crosswalk with a group of older kids who were probably off to go clubbing or just milling about the nightlife from the way they were dressed. They stared at him, but ignored them, making sure to stay a few paces behind (letting people at his back sounded like an awful idea) when the pedestrian signal turned green and hummed out an electronic jingle.

He stuffed his hands into his pockets, finding a set of cards in his pockets he hadn't expected to have anymore, but comforting to have anyways, even if they were useless in the practical sense.

Ryo couldn't help but pause at the door, peering inside. There should be someone, unless they were out on call…no, he could see two men inside. He tested the door and it opened easily, so he headed inside, looking around and noting where everything was.

"Excuse me," he called, not going too far from the door.

The two men looked up and their eyes widened in alarm, both starting to come towards him. Ryo tensed, leaning against the door slightly. They stopped.

"What happened to you, kid?" the younger of the two officers asked. "You should've gone to the hospital. It's right there."

Ryo blinked, "What? I'm fine…I. I'm lost. I don't know how to get home. I know I'm in Fukuoka, but…."

"Have you not looked in a mirror recently, son?" the second, older cop said.

"Well, no, but…I just need to get home," Ryo said. "I don't know where that is…."

"You don't?" the younger cop blinked.

"…I think I lived in Tokyo," he shifted slightly, brain flipping rapidly through possible responses and landing on the memory of awakening in the past with no knowledge of who he was. "In a single-family residence somewhere…I…I don't remember. My head feels foggy and…," he looked down at the ground, "…I think my name is 'Ryo', which doesn't feel wrong… but it's what it says on the strap…so…I don't really…."

He let his voice trail off and forced himself to stay relaxed as the two men approached and coaxed him into sitting down on a bench. They took his fingerprints and a picture to run through the missing persons' database, asking if he remembered his birthday (it was November 30th, but he'd shrugged and said, "Later in the year…somewhere between August and December?"), if he remembered anything about his parents or guardians ("I think I lived with my mom and my dad, but…"), and how he got here if he thought he lived in Tokyo ("I just woke up in the park across the street…").

Since there weren't many questions one could ask an amnesiac, Ryo was eventually left alone with a cup of thin, but hot coffee and some candy thing that was way too much sugar and he honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. He hadn't needed to during ENIAC's time for whatever reason.

He fell asleep at some point after finished them off and awoke (not long later since it was still dark out unless he'd slept all day) to someone approaching him. He jerked upright, bringing up one arm across his chest defensively, instinctively searching for escapes and cover and gathering his legs underneath him to bolt…

"Ryo?"

His father's voice startled him into sitting down, accidentally crunching the empty paper cup when he brought his arm back down to balance him. He stared up at the black-haired man in bewilderment. It was his dad, alright, though he'd never seen Akiyama Eishi with facial hair.

He flinched and continued to stare up at the man who was his father, but not really.

"Ryo? Do you remember me?" the man knelt.

"I think I do," he said softly. "You look familiar." It wasn't a lie. Not really. He looked around the room, half-expecting to see his mother, but there was no one.

"Why did you leave the crash site?" his father-yet-not-his asked.

"Crash?" Ryo honestly didn't know. He couldn't know. Who was he replacing, really, and under what circumstances was he able to do so? "What crash?"

The man didn't answer him, just tugged the red newsboy cap off his head and stared at him, "That's probably why you can remember…. You and Yurie were in a car accident on New Year's Eve."

"Yurie?" he echoed. His mother's name was Anju. "What day is it now?"

"The fifth of January," his other-dad replied.

"What year?" Ryo asked.

"Two thousand."

Ryo swallowed, leaning back on the bench. He hadn't lost time. Rather, he'd gained at least three months – probably longer taking into account the last war, which he'd never managed to keep a very good time clock on that. That was something of a relief, but, "On New Year's Eve?"

"Yes," Eishi nodded.

New Year's Eve of 1999 had been the day he'd fought the first war with Millenniumon.

Ryo lowered his gaze, feeling cold, "I…I don't remember."

"Let's get you to the hospital," Eishi said, rising up from the crouch. "You look like you were in a plane crash rather than a car wreck."

"Sure," he murmured, standing up as well. Ryo followed Eishi out of the police station and out to a car in which a woman, pretty in the classical sense and had chocolate hair, waited for them. She had a bandage across her head and a bruise on one cheek. When she saw him, she clumsily climbed out of the passenger seat, right leg in a cast from the knee down.

"Ryo!" the woman pulled him into a hug when he got close enough. "You're safe! I thought I'd lost you."

"I…um," he flushed.

"Yurie, the crash left him with amnesia," Eishi said. "It's probably why he wandered off. We need to get him to Doctor Kondo."

"Oh, yes, let's go," Yurie said, getting back in while brushing away tears.

"Doctor Kondo?" he echoed.

"Family doctor, we live in Maidashi, Higashi," Eishi explained, opening the backseat door for the boy he believed was his son. "It's not far from here."

"Oh," Ryo slipped in behind Yurie, "but there's a hospital right there."

"Only if you want to be swarmed by the media within hours," the older Akiyama said, closing the car door.

"Media?" he echoed.

"You're a famous game player," Yurie said gently. "Though of one game in particular, a card game called Digimon. You really can't remember anything?"

"It's foggy…I thought I lived in Tokyo," he said. Finding out he was famous here was an unnecessary stress on top of figuring out who Yurie was supposed to be to him…and as a gamer? He liked games, yes, but he'd never thought the hobby could've made him famous. And…a Digimon game?

"You did five years ago," Yurie said gently as his father slid into the driver's seat. "It's going to be okay, Ryo-kun."

'I wish it could be,' he thought, pulling the seatbelt on, 'but I couldn't be so lucky to get an easy break in anything, can I? I probably don't deserve to have it easy.'

And he had to wait at least four years before he could go home safely. He really hoped whoever hatched out of the Digitama of Monodramon and Zeed-Millenniumon's Jogress found him soon. He didn't think he could take four years of living in the shoes of his other self.

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January 06, 2001, Saturday – Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

Ryo spent a full year in the alternate world before his partner came to him and almost didn't recognize him. Almost as disconcerting, Cyberdramon didn't recognize him either when he materialized out of the strange digital fog, sparkling with glittering pixels, in the corner of his hotel room in Tokyo. When Ryo stood from the bed, Ryo found his partner lunging at him with a snarl.

He lunged to the side, but Cyberdramon grabbed onto his right arm with his claws and he held back a cry as the talons sliced neatly through cloth and into skin. Old instincts, unused in a year, reared up and he grabbed his pocketknife out of his pocket. He pulled out the blade using his teeth and stabbed it at an opening in the armor near the wrist.

The cybernetic dragon snarled and jerked his claws back, tearing the knife out of Ryo's grip in the process.

"Dammit," he swore, dropping to his knees and clutching at the four markings along the underside of his arm and on along the back of his wrist. He looked up at Cyberdramon, who'd picked the knife out of his armor and dropped it.

He studied the Cyberdramon, wondering if it was different Digimon, but there were several unique scorings he recognized from Monodramon's Perfect form that had carried on the Jogress-child. It was his partner alright. The impulsive attack, however, seemed very much Millenniumon.

He barely fit into the room, Ryo mused. Cyberdramon was too tall to stand at his full height, his wings folded down, and his tail curved to the side and forwards. He ignored the blood he smeared on the bedside table as he stood up. There was much more on the floor and he was already feeling lightheaded. Cyberdramon growled at him, deep and rumbling, but he didn't attack.

Ryo grabbed a pillow off the bed and took off the case, dropping back to his knees. Cautiously, he reached for the knife and was surprised when he was allowed to take it. He tore the pillowcase into strips for bandages, bending over his arm and using his teeth to tighten the strands.

He sat back up, eyeing his partner. Finally, he bit his lip, shoulders sagging, "I guess you hate me after all, don't you…?"

The floor creaked loudly as the dragon stepped forwards, pushing his muzzle towards his injured limb, sniffing at the blood. Ryo was too dizzy to protest and even leaned against the helmet, eyes closing, "Why are you here?"

"I cannot evolve," Cyberdramon rumbled, a deep frustration in his voice. "You're the one I have been seeking for so long."

It was a shock to hear such a different voice emerge from the dragon's throat. It was closer to Millenniumon's dual-toned voice than Monodramon's voice in the form. Ryo's heart sank a little, "Am I really?"

"I did not mean to strike," Cyberdramon said, tone turning contrite. "Not at you."

"Oh, okay," he murmured. It was such a stupid statement, but his vision was starting fade and he couldn't completely control what came out of his mouth anymore. "Take me home, Millenniumon. I'm tired of being here."

He should be asking for a hospital. But all thoughts concerning his surrogate family, the competition he was meant to attend, and the fuss that would probably be caused by all the blood he was leaving behind. None of it mattered now. He just wanted away from this world. It was painful living here amongst familiar people who were strangers and strangers who were supposed to mean something to him.

Despite being hurt, Ryo felt safe enough with his partner and let himself black out.

Cyberdramon wondered at the other name the little human had used as he picked up the boy. The red fluid coming out of his arm had an overpowering smell…but it was soothing in comparison to the innumerable other smells. He stepped backwards into the Digital Field, returning to the Digital World with as little effort as it had taken to leave, maneuvering through the levels of protection between the two worlds until he emerged in the skies over a desert called the Arechi Plane.

Unfurling his wings, he flew towards what he loosely termed as 'home'. He hadn't been permitted inside Amser's walls in a long time due to other fits of incoherent, uncontrollable violence, but they would take the boy and ensure he recovered. They had never denied him help when he'd needed it.

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? ?, 2001 – Amser, Arechi Plane, South Digital World

Ryo stared over the desert expanse, sitting on top of the wall surrounding Amser. He'd recovered a few days ago, but his caretakers were being careful with him. They didn't know much about humans. He had bothered one of the Digimon into giving him a ride to the walls. He wanted to see the city he was in from above.

Well, he'd taken in that sight already. Amser was a beautiful place, with a large palace in its center that was called Sablier Tower and looked like a tilted hourglass partially buried into the earth and propped up by a unique stand, cast in gold and filled with glittering mottled turquoise-cyan-sapphire sand. Now he was looking for his partner…though he found the ever shifting sands of Arechi Plane to be a far more captivating sight than the city.

The desert constantly changed. There was always something new to look at…some new shape as the winds built up and tore down the dunes. He could only look at Amser from so many angles before he could see it in all its forms…it was beautiful and brightly colored, but stagnant. The desert never looked the same way twice. A city only breathed when it was lived in, but Arechi didn't need inhabitants to be alive.

Ryo sat on the edge of the wall, so mesmerized by Arechi's living landscape that he didn't notice the gentle whir and soft beating of wings partially powered by cybernetics until Cyberdramon's muzzle nudged his feet.

He glanced down, surprised. His lips parted, but he found he couldn't think of anything to say. The cybernetic dragon didn't say anything either. So they just sat there in silence, looking at one another. It seemed enough for the Perfect. Cyberdramon gave his feet another gentle nudge before he flew off.

"It's time to head back, Ryo," said the Black-Gaogamon who was his assigned 'escort'. Ryo nodded and pulled his legs up over the wall's edge, saying nothing of the encounter with his partner. He was well aware Cyberdramon was too unstable to permit inside the walls of the city. His flight near the top of the city walls would probably make a few nervous.

While he knew the instability was from Millenniumon's Jogress parentage, the common belief in Amser's citizens was Cyberdramon's data had been tampered with by Virus-attribute Digimon while still in the Digitama and left as the sole survivor of a once flourishing tribe. The Justimon lineage had been well-known for going into a berserker mode whenever Virus-attribute Digimon were around. Cyberdramon seemed to only go into a fit over the presence of Digimon as strong as or stronger than himself…when there seemed to be a reason at all.

He still had two years to go before there was any possibility of the Holy Beasts learning about Zeed-Millenniumon's fate. It was an excellent cover – especially since he hadn't made it up himself and was based on an actual event that had occurred within the last twenty years of Digital time. Frankly, it couldn't be proven to be false unless he told the truth or the Jogress broke down.

Ryo planned to make use of the story for as long as he could.

When the Tailmon in charge of his recovery finally pronounced him as fit as she could guess for a human (and admittedly, he wasn't the easiest of patients), Ryo's first stop was to head for the nearest gate near where Cyberdramon was supposed to hang out. The Dinohumon and Yaksamon on duty were reluctant to let him out, but eventually let him go if he promised to be back in an hour. It wasn't like he was going to be out of shouting range either.

Ryo decided he didn't like the reluctance. There just seemed to be something off about it. It wasn't as if he were a citizen…so it seemed more logical for them to give him a fuss about getting back in rather than getting out.

If it wasn't for the fact he had only his game deck in his pocket, his pocketknife, and the clothes on his back, he might consider telling Cyberdramon they needed to split from Amser. Though the usual concerns of food and water didn't need to be attended to in this Digital World, he could still tire and fall sick from the elements if he wasn't careful.

His clothing was poorly suited to any kind of lifestyle in the Digital World – never mind the desert – since it was winter wear and he'd already torn off the dark blue sweater's long sleeves and was considering butchering his pants at the knees…even though he'd rather not expose his brace to the elements. The jeans weren't light enough.

"You finally came," Cyberdramon's voice interrupted his planning.

"The Tailmon healer taking care of me only released me today," he explained, approaching the rough lean-to, made from slabs of rocks, which provided Cyberdramon his shelter. There was a large boulder a few feet out from the lean-to, which would shield it from winds that direction. "I haven't been able to go anywhere without an escort."

Cyberdramon stood up, tail lashing in impatience, "When are we leaving?"

"Soon as I get better clothing for wandering places like Arechi," Ryo promised. He pulled out his card deck and leaned against the wall. "I've got a lot of these that are useless to us at your level. Think I could trade them here?"

The Cyborg lowered his head to take a look at what Ryo showed him, "What are they?"

"Cards for enhancements or power boosts," he explained. "The Digimon cards would let you use an ability you'd have no way of using normally…if we had a D-arc for me to scan them through…and I'm not sure where I'd get ahold of one."

"…You might be able to trade them," Cyberdramon answered. "If you go to the right Digimon. There are shops you might be able to trade these more portrait-like cards for a few coins…or a straight trade. There are some that might offer a coin or two for the curiosity of them if you make them sound interesting enough."

"…That shouldn't take all day," Ryo murmured. "Well…maybe most of it."

Cyberdramon leaned forwards, touching his visor to Ryo's forehead. His breath hitched a little, because the gesture was very much something Monodramon would've done whenever he was being reassuring…only now it seemed a gesture of emphasis.

"I do not like to wait," the Cyborg rumbled, his breath hot across Ryo's face. "If you do not return within three days, I will come for you again."

"I understand," he murmured, sliding the deck back into his pocket and touching the large jaw lightly with his fingertips. Perhaps the gesture was a promise now?

He realized now Cyberdramon hadn't known him after all. The bond connecting them had led the Digimon to him. The psyches of Zeed-Millenniumon and Monodramon created such a conflict in the cybernetic dragon, his memories were either buried deep or badly corrupted.

Ryo turned and headed back to the city gates. He wanted to get the necessary out of the way so he could disappear off into the wilderness with Cyberdramon. Neither of them was suited to communal lifestyles – one due to uncontrollable temperament and the other due to abuse and lack of socialization.

He'd succeeded in trading for pair of light cargo pants, a long-sleeved thin shirt, and a bandana in the first two days. He was contemplating trying to barter for some armor to put over his right arm. He'd lost even more grip strength in it due to Cyberdramon's claws and there were scars this time. He wanted to have something over the limb to compensate for its weakness. Turning his arm into a defensive shield should suffice.

The only problem with the idea of armor was having it made. The cost of the clothing was more than he expected, because he had to have it made then and there. Digimon, if they had clothing or armor, evolved with it. The fabrics in Amser were normally made into draperies, bed sheets, and other items that decorated homes. At least the Witchmon who owned a home apparel store was interested enough in his clothing that she didn't charge him extra for the extra work. She just asked if she could keep his old things in exchange, which was fine with him.

Armor might have to come later. Cyberdramon would likely be able to help him find interesting things he could trade. Odd bobbles and trinkets were of decent value…and he'd pawned as many of the cards he didn't care to keep a hold of. The only ones he hung onto were the ones he'd had at the end of the last war with Millenniumon (the only constants in his decks).

Despite not needing to eat or drink, there were restaurants, cafés, and snack vendors. Food seemed like a luxury item…so perhaps something rare that would keep on a trip. The trick was finding out how much value (or lack thereof) a trade item had.

Ryo was discussing prices with a Kongoumon blacksmith for a custom piece. If he could find the material himself, it would be less expensive. Enough extra material might even cover the total cost. It was something to consider.

"Ryo?"

He turned to face the Hanumon who'd spoken, eyeing the Beast Man warily. The yellow-furred ape-liked Digimon didn't seem threatening, just eyeing him in return with a friendlier curiosity.

"Yeah?" he asked finally. He didn't let his guard down.

"The Lady of Amser would like to grant you an audience," Hanumon responded. "I'm to take you to Sablier Tower."

He hadn't asked for anything of the sort, but the phrasing made it seem to every-mon in earshot that he had. Displeased, Ryo nodded and kept the seeds of anger buried too deep to show. He said a goodbye to the Kongoumon and let Hanumon lead him away.

"Who is the Lady of Amser?" Ryo asked. "I haven't really heard her name yet…."

"Her name is Shakamon," Hanumon replied.

The name was unfamiliar, but it wasn't as if Bandai back in the Real World had a card for every Digimon that existed. There were lists of cards and some species he knew existed they didn't have. The Digital World evolved at a rate far faster than anything a children's entertainment company could dictate.

The entrance of Sablier Tower was a pair of bright gold doors. He stared at the entrance in confusion, because emblazoned across them was the Crest of Desire in his double-ended scythe-like shape, crossed through the staff by three curved lines with the scythe tips curving around to the back of the other blade, reminding him of a misshaped yin-yang.

The Crest of Desire was Zeed-Millenniumon's emblem. The emblem also, Ryo realize, belonged to him as well. What was their Crest sigil doing on the doors of the tower?

Ryo started to feel antsy. He hadn't given much thought to Sablier Tower's shape. The Digital World did all sort of strange things, but now he knew he needed to consider a bit more where he was. It was only a shallow reassurance that he knew where the Wicked God's location was. There was still a full day before Cyberdramon would come for him if he didn't go to the Cyborg first.

He passed through the doors with a pensive look. There wasn't much activity on this level: just a few Digimon mingling in the area or heading upwards on the elevators.

"We go up?" Ryo asked.

Hanumon shook his head, "Upstairs are living areas for the Digimon who work in Sablier Tower. We go down to meet Shakamon."

There were stairs and lifts upwards, but he couldn't see anything that looked like a downwards passage. Hanumon led him over to a space of wall. It didn't look special, but a section of it slid upwards with a great rumbling. The door was thick and heavy-looking. It baffled Ryo, who was certain the walls weren't that thick…but the Digital World was full of such tricks involving space.

He'd gotten used to living in a world ruled by physics, it seemed.

Sablier Tower, however, spread out underneath a fair chunk of Amser rather than go straight down. He wasn't sure how far down they'd gone. When the elevator opened up, Ryo had to stay close on Hanumon's heels. Digimon were everywhere down here, rushing to and fro. It was packed enough to make him irritable. He hated subways too. Maybe he was a little claustrophobic…only instead of getting panicked from enclosed quarters, he got short-tempered.

So it was a relief when they finally arrived at their destination…somewhat.

Shakamon was an Ultimate, so her presence was like walking into an invisible wall made out of steel. Hanumon immediately bowed in respect, but Ryo pushed aside the instinct to kowtow and strode up to the Digimon. She was surprisingly small for her level. She was only about thrice him in height. The dark-skinned Digimon wore gold and was dressed in monk-like garments. A mask covered the top of her face and also bound up her long white hair into a high ponytail. Her physique was a little on the masculine side, which wasn't unusual. Digimon were technically genderless.

A ball of softly glowing light was cradled in her palms and she sat cross-legged in the air over what appeared to be a small sun. Circling her were golden orbs bearing number in kanji: one through sixteen. She had a large, solid golden halo of sorts floating behind her with hole through the center, emblazoned to look like a sun.

"I hear you decided to grant me an audience, Lady Shakamon," Ryo hissed finally, letting his anger rise. "Funny, because I don't recall making a request to see you at all."

The Hanumon, behind him now, and several other Digimon working in the area gasped and stared in shock. The rest murmured angrily and glowered at him for his disrespect.

Shakamon seemed unconcerned and took a moment to dismiss all those in the room but for a single Nanomon, "Forgive me, but I needed you to come."

"I've had enough of being manipulated," Ryo snapped. "It'd better be a damn good reason."

"You mean to go away with the Cyberdramon that lives just outside the walls," Shakamon said. "This is dangerous. You know little about this Digital World."

Ryo stared at the Ultimate Digimon in suspicion, "This Digital World, Lady Shakamon?"

Shakamon gave him an amused smile, "You been to Qinglongmon's territory…and the Digital World as it was once before the Dividing, but you have never set foot in Zhuqiaomon's territory, which you are now in."

"So each Holy Beast has his own little network globe?" Ryo asked. "With its own Real World attached?"

"Baihumon and Xuanwumon share a reality," Shakamon said, "but otherwise, yes."

Ryo did understand the gist of what Shakamon was telling him, "How do you know all that? Assuming this…Dividing was even real…."

"Once, Akiyama Ryo, you knew me as the Atanasoff," Shakamon said. Ryo went rigid, blue eyes widening. "Once the Five Holy Beasts and their partners came and caused the Dividing, there was less reason for me to stay as I once was. The ENIAC and I are defunct in our godhood now, though the ENIAC remains as he was to keep ultimate governance over the Digital Worlds' systems."

"Partners!" Ryo blew up again, not caring if Shakamon was telling the truth or not about her identity. "Those bastards have partners?" And they'd made him kill his own over and over!

"They are different from the standards they've created for their idea of Chosen – and even those vary from territory to territory," Shakamon said. "They were 'first', so to speak, and the Holy Beasts are mostly distant from their humans. Zhuqiaomon outright despises his."

"Like that comforts!" Ryo snapped bitterly. He folded his arms, staring up at the new form of one of his old masters. Then, as rapidly as he erupted, the fire in him seemed to die and his shoulders sagged. "What do you want with me, Shakamon? I just want to go. How do I know you say who you say you are?"

"I can vouch for Lady Shakamon, Ryo," the Nanomon turned from its workstation. Ryo started, because he recognized the voice. This Nanomon was the one he'd known in the past; he'd helped Ryo understand the modification cards and plan strategies and combinations. His body was different, but the voice was the same. "How is your brace holding up? It's been shorter for you than it's been for me, but I do believe you are taller!"

"Well…my doctor had to rig it a bit when I got a few inches…and I'm still not done growing actually," he admitted. "You're made out of a different metal?"

"In order to last the eons, I have had to transfer my mind to new memory cards now and again," Nanomon said. "I managed to obtain some Chrome Digizoid at one point to build a body I don't have to replace as often as I must my circuitry."

"So…Shakamon here used be the Atanasoff?" Ryo asked, glancing up at the patient Ultimate. Funny that. He'd always pegged both the god-computers to have more masculine qualities.

"Indeed, she once was. You can trust her, Ryo," Nanomon assured. "She's kept safe Monodramon and Zeed-Millenniumon's egg safe all this while."

He stiffened, glancing between the Ultimate and Perfect Digimon. After a while, Ryo nodded, "Alright, Shakamon. I'm listening."

"Without a Digivice, you and Cyberdramon will die," Shakamon cautioned.

"I've never owned a Digivice," Ryo said in disgust. "If I have one of my own, Gennai and my old masters probably hid it from me."

"And they would have," Shakamon said. She floated forwards, closing one hand and then opening it, "If the ENIAC had not rerouted it to me upon its creation."

Ryo stared at the basic white model. Like Taichi's Digivice. He reached out slowly, almost afraid to touch it and find it to be an illusion…a cruel joke…but his fingers touched it and he snatched it away from Shakamon.

"And this," the Ultimate said. She closed her palm and opened it again. This time, it was a Crest inserted into a Tag. It was an antique gold color and he didn't need to see the etching to know it was the Crest of Desire. Ryo was a little more reluctant to take this artifact, but he did so, tucking it into his pocket without looking at it. The Digivice he examined more closely.

It was no D-Arc, but it was his.

"Thanks," he murmured. The former god-computer inclined her head.

Ryo attached the Digivice to his belt, "Is there anything else?"

"Nothing you probably can't learn on your own over time," Shakamon said. "Though you must beware. Many Digimon will target Cyberdramon because of a rumor well spread by Zhuqiaomon that devouring the data of a human's Digimon will allow them to go to the Digital World. Digimon do not endlessly recycle the way they do in the East. Zhuqiaomon believes if he must suffer having human defenders, then only the strongest will be used."

Ryo frowned. The Holy Beasts were all sorts of friendly, weren't they?

"What's this Dividing you mentioned earlier? I can understand from context somewhat," he said.

"There's much to tell…but the short version is Millenniumon's attacks on time have left space-time riddled with causeways. Sometimes, people or Digimon slip through. It's what happened when the Holy Beasts and their partners came through. The ENIAC and I were both dormant, storing power for when the ENIAC would be shut down in the human worlds," Shakamon said. "The humans and the Holy Beasts settled in for the long haul…and realized over discussions amongst themselves that most of them were from realities with differing histories. Even their Digital Worlds weren't the same. The Dividing happened after the creation of ARPANET."

Ryo grunted. That was all he really needed to know. He didn't want to know much about the Holy Beasts' pasts…or anything about their partners. It was a whole different sort of sting to know members of his own species had condoned the attempt to murder him.

"If you plan to leave, I should probably remake your brace for you," Nanomon said. "I'll add in adjusters this time to account for growth."

"How long will it take? Cyberdramon's expecting me tomorrow," he asked.

"I can have it to you tomorrow morning," Nanomon said. "I'll leave it with the guards at the gate, near where Cyberdramon lives."

Ryo let himself smile faintly, "Thanks."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
? – Narahas Desert, South Digital World

"What are these things?" Ryo asked, eyeing the tiny glowing flyers with some trepidation. They were smiling, happy little things with purple-blue markings on their bodies and an upside-down red triangle on their forehead. The wide smiles that took up half of their tiny heads didn't mean much to him.

"A basic, ancient form of Digital life," Cyberdramon said, "They're harmless."

Several of the creatures settled on Cyberdramon's back, giggling. The Perfect shrugged the creatures off. Ryo shooed away a pair that tried to come to rest on his shoulders. They began to follow him with curious, sad chirrups.

The young human stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling for his Crest. He'd boosted Cyberdramon's power with it a couple of times. Though he always gave plenty of energy to his partner so he could evolve, the cybernetic dragon had never managed to push into Ultimate, much to the erratic Digimon's frustration. Evolution and power were everything to Digimon.

Ryo felt a slight tug at his belt and whirled around, reaching for a thieving creature that had taken his Digivice, "Hey!"

The little creature crooned and dropped the artifact, vanishing. When Ryo caught it, it started to glow and shift shape.

He stared, stunned, as his Digivice turned into a D-Arc with a muted violet body and silver accents. The strap was black, "Huh…. How'd it do that?"

Cyberdramon lowered his head to look at the altered Digivice. Ryo stared at the cheerful critters with less reservation and more interest. He offered out his hand to one. It grabbed his fingers and shook his hand, giggling all the while.

Okay. Maybe these things were as friendly as they seemed.

"Thanks," he said, "I appreciate it."

The creature cooed and then the entire flock (or whatever their collective name was) soared away from the human and Digimon, vanishing in a glittering array of sparkles. Odd…the one that had transformed his Digivice had simply faded away….

Cyberdramon nudged him impatiently with his muzzle and then took off. Ryo stuffed his new Digivice into his empty pocket (the other held the five Device cards he'd held onto and his Crest) and ran after the cybernetic dragon. His stamina had gone through the roof since he started wandering with Cyberdramon. His partner often took off with less warning (sometimes in the middle of the night) and Ryo was left to haul after him.

Like now. At least he wasn't losing his shelter this time. Cyberdramon had taken off to fight during all kinds of storms: sandstorms, rainstorms, windstorms, snowstorms, hailstorms, and once a storm where the 'rain' was made up of pickles in sombreros and French fries that sprouted legs and ran off after hitting the ground.

When he passed the first gear jutting out of sand slowly turning white, Ryo realized they were heading towards the Time Dunes. Inwardly, he groaned, because this part of Narahas Desert was well-known to him and the only Digimon in the area strong enough to attract Cyberdramon's attention was Megadramon: the Time Dunes' so-called guardian.

The Dark Dragon was more insane than Cyberdramon, really, but the local tribes worshiped Megadramon as a protector deity. They believed if the gear towers ever stopped working, the world would eventually collapse, so Megadramon would awaken to destroy those that hurt the Great Clock (it was a tiny cuckoo clock) and restore order.

Ryo personally believed the gear towers were keeping Megadramon sealed in a deep slumber to keep it from going on the rampage that would destroy the world. The thing was more likely an evil menace some-mon sealed away, not a sleeping protector. Most likely, whoever had locked Megadramon up had convinced the locals the Dark Dragon was a guardian deity in a more effective attempt to keep other Digimon from attacking Megadramon to gain data to evolve.

Smart…but kind of annoying now.

It meant he had to pull Cyberdramon out of a rampage and that…was usually difficult. After he'd managed to locate enough metal, he'd made a visit back to Amser to get his arm-guard and shoulder pauldron made. Ryo had stuck his armored limb into Cyberdramon's mouth on more than one occasion since then and the armor was well-scuffed with claw and teeth marks (though not all came from his partner).

When Ryo caught up with his partner, the Cyborg had already dealt quite a bit of damage to Megadramon, "Stop, Cyberdramon! That's enough!"

His partner looked back at him and, unsurprisingly, ignored the command, "ERASE CLAW!" Tears in the fabric of space appeared where the dragon slashed his claws and hot white energy gathered in his palms before he released a stream of energy burst that left even more gaping holes in Megadramon's data.

Ryo withheld a sigh and walked forwards, taking out his D-Arc. He hadn't any time to explore any new features…but he hoped the unique programs Nanomon had installed hadn't been erased during the transformation.

"I said 'stop'!" He flicked the D-Arc and was relieved when the whip feature activated and a lash of bright white energy sprung out from the screen. The whip snapped around Cyberdramon's wrist and he jerked back on the D-Arc, "Enough! That's not the enemy you're looking for! Do you understand?"

Cyberdramon snarled with a deep frustration, tugging back, but it was a half-hearted pull that didn't pull him off his feet. Megadramon sank back below the snow-like sands of the Time Dunes and the Cyborg relented at last.

Ryo watched his partner sadly. Cyberdramon searched so hard for this unknown 'enemy'…. He didn't know the enemy was inside of his own head.

Ryo rubbed at his brow tiredly and realized Cyberdramon was staring at something over his shoulder. Letting out a breath, he turned to see who he was going to have to deal with. Some of the locals wouldn't be happy that the 'guardian' had been attacked at all.

He stared.

Three humans. Three Digimon. Two Digimon he knew…a Clockmon and Hagurumon who lived in one of the few established villages that acted as hubs for traveling tribes during ceremonies and parties. There was a Kyuubimon…the two male humans he didn't recognize, but the girl and the Kyuubimon were distantly familiar in a way that made him recall his last war with Millenniumon. Over the year, many of the temporary realties he'd visited in order to grow his army had become faded. He only remembered the main timeline events with any clarity.

Instinctively, he plastered a smile for the group and tried to remember his manners, "Quite the trouble, wasn't it? I'm Ryo. Nice to meet you."

His armor clacked as he grabbed the girl's hand and shook it. The girl just gave him a look that clearly said, 'What the hell…?' and took her hand back with a faint affirmative, looking away.

"Is everyone alright?" he asked. The lack of any sort of response from everyone – though the Kyuubimon nodded – was starting to unnerve him. Why was everyone so quiet? "You have to be careful. Some say: whoever loads the data of a Digimon who has a Tamer will be able to reach the Real World…and many believe it."

"We've heard," the girl snapped sourly.

"Oh? Good!" Ryo kept his smile up. Cyberdramon was now standing behind him, inspecting the small group of strangers closely. This was…awkward.

Fortunately, things didn't lapse into uncomfortable silence, because Clockmon spoke up, "Ryo! Hagurumon's not moving!"

"What?" Ryo turned to the pair, a short distance away and approached them. He dropped to his left knee and forced open Hagurumon's mouth. His partner occasionally needed maintenance on his mechanical parts, so Ryo knew his way about machinery fairly well. He used his new D-Arc's screen for light.

"Looks like he's missing a gear," he announced after a moment. He looked around the area, hoping to see it a top the sands. He gestured to the younger kids when he realized it must have gotten buried in the fuss. "Look around, would you?"

Without a sound (this was so awkward) the children and the Kyuubimon began shifting around in the sands, but it was the Digimon who eventually found the gear and dropped it into Ryo's hand, "Thanks."

He took care when positioning the gear, worried the jagged mouth would clamp down and bite off his fingers if he moved carelessly. Instead, he left his right arm inside the mouth when he pushed the gear into place. Much as he predicted, the mouth clamped down.

One of the boys yelped and there were soft gasps, but Ryo just kept his fingers away from Hagurumon's now moving parts. In fact, he even smiled at the Child. "There we go! How do you feel?"

"Ah! Ihhs Eeo!" Hagurumon burst out excitedly with a loud clanking as his teeth clacked against Ryo's armor.

"Yup. You lost a gear," Ryo chuckled. "Mind letting my arm go now?"

"Oh!" Hagurumon stilled his jaw, permitting Ryo to extract his limb safely. "Thank you, Ryo! You're not hurt?"

"Nope," Ryo said cheerfully. He went over to the Great Clock, fishing out his pocket knife and flicking out the blade, "Now, let's put Megadramon back to sleep, shall we?"

He stabbed the knife in front of the second hand, preventing it from moving. The result was that the gears towers began moving again. Ryo worked the knife into the clock's face up to the hilt. He wasn't sure how the little cuckoo clock got 'fixed', but at least now it couldn't be unstuck accidentally.

"No, thank you! The world could've been destroyed," Clockmon said.

"Don't worry about it," he chuckled. "Look. You guys should head home. Give my regards and apologies to Kenkimon and the other villagers, would you?"

"Of course!" Clockmon beamed.

Cyberdramon huffed and Ryo glanced up at his partner, trying to read his mood about the situation. The two boys were standing uncomfortably close to the cybernetic dragon, but Cyberdramon seemed calm enough for the moment.

"Hey, Ryo?" Hagurumon asked. He looked back, withholding a twitch as he saw the blush on the Machine's face. "Will I reach the Real World someday?"

Ryo forced his smile to remain. (His face was getting tired.) He aimed for encouraging – kind of like at those card tournaments when younger kids told him they wanted to be as good a card player as he was, "When you're stronger, of course!"

"Will I meet a Tamer like you?" Hagurumon pressed.

"Someday," he said. He wished the conversation over and done with.

"Then I'll train really, really hard to become stronger!" the Child pronounced, "I promise!"

"Good luck," Ryo said.

"Goodbye, Cyberdramon," Hagurumon said cheerfully. He was one of the very few Digimon not at all intimidated by the Perfect, even though the twelve-foot-tall Cyborg was ignoring him.

Ryo waved goodbye to them, relieved that they were going. He'd made good acquaintances with a lot of tribes on various layers of the Digital World, but their awe of him was generally discomforting. As Hagurumon and Clockmon rambled together about how 'cool' he was, he thought he heard the girl mumbling under her breath about something.

Cyberdramon paced around the boys to join him, grabbing Ryo's right arm to inspect the armor. He didn't resist the treatment.

"Ah…it's…Ryo…wasn't it?" the boy wearing a visor cap finally piped up.

"Yes," he said, flicking his fingers lightly against Cyberdramon's muzzle when it came close enough for him to reach.

"Are you…Akiyama Ryo-san by any chance?" the boy in glasses asked.

"…That's right, but…," he trailed off when the two boys gave a cheer that pitched into a girly level.

…Crap.

Cyberdramon snorted and looked at the boys, trying to figure out why they'd suddenly screamed like that.

"What is it?" he asked. He was going to be sorry, though, he just knew it.

"It was totally worth coming to the Digital World, just for this!" Visor said. Both had clasped hands and were jumping up and down.

"We got to meet the legendary Tamer, Akiyama Ryo!" exclaimed Glasses. "He's so impressive!"

Cyberdramon looked down at him. Ryo forced another smile over his face and rubbed the back of his head, "I'm impressed myself…. I didn't expect run into other humans here."

"We're not the only ones!" Visor-boy said eagerly. "We came with several others, but we got separated from them by the data streams."

There were more kids running around the Digital World? How many of them had Digimon? These kids only had one to three humans, but the girl was the only Tamer in the bunch. This world wasn't an amusement park….

"…It'll be dark soon," Ryo said. "We need to find a campsite…but away from the Great Clock." He gestured to the little cuckoo clock.

"The…Great Clock?" the girl asked.

"Yup," he said. "The Great Clock which keeps time in motion! The tribes of the Time Dunes revere Megadramon as a guardian god…. Anyways…let's move. C'mon, Cyberdramon."

The dragon took off, kicking up the fine sand of the area and taking off to locate a place for them.

"Keep an eye out," Ryo instructed. "While there usually aren't a whole lot of Digimon that aren't a part of one of the tribes around here, it's not impossible some rogue will come along either."

"Right!" the boys shouted. The girl muttered something, but she and her partner followed along.

Cyberdramon found an area where there were few signs of travelers passing through and settled down long enough to mark the spot for them before taking off again and leaving.

"Where's he going?" Visor-boy asked.

"Looking for campfire materials," Ryo explained, plopping down on the ground. "He'll be back shortly."

The boys sat down on his right, but not to close. The girl sat across from him, leaning against her Kyuubimon once the Bewitching Beast settled herself behind her.

"So, what are your names?" Ryo asked, though in all likelihood, he was going to forget. Names and faces had become difficult to remember ever since he'd come to this world. "You know who I am and you've met Cyberdramon."

"I'm Shiota Hirokazu," Visor-boy said.

"I'm Kitagawa Kenta," Glasses added.

"Makino Ruki," the girl said shortly. "This is Kyuubimon."

"How many others were with you?" he asked.

"There's Takato, Guilmon, Jianliang, Terriermon, Juri, and Leomon," Kenta said.

One Digimon per human name…that was reassuring. If there'd been anymore non-partnered humans, he would've gathered them up to take to Amser for Shakamon to send home. The first couple of names in particular sounded familiar, like Ruki and Kyuubimon, only more so.

"We were separated by the data streams," Hirokazu added.

"Pesky things, aren't they? I've had that happen a couple times when I've been closer to the Real World," Ryo admitted. "Whenever it does happen, I just find a safe place to hole up in and wait for Cyberdramon to find me again. …There he is now."

"He's really cool," Kenta said softly. "You guys must be strong if he can stay at Perfect all the time."

"I don't know about that…. He was already a Perfect when he came for me in the Real World," Ryo said with a shrug. "His form's been stable a long time. I didn't have much to do with his current power…and I haven't been able to get him to Ultimate, like he wants."

Cyberdramon landed and dropped a pile of wood in the center of the group. Kyuubimon touched one of her tails to the wood and it burst into hot white flames before settling into the more regular orange and red.

"Well, I hope you find your friends soon," Ryo said.

"We're constantly lost though," Kenta admitted. "We don't know much about this place. We've been here for a couple of weeks now."

"Speaking of time…what's the month back home?" Ryo asked. "Time gets a little wonky here in the Digital World…depending on where you are in it."

"It's October," Kenta replied.

"Then…I've been here only ten months," Ryo sighed. He was hoping it'd been longer. He still had two years and a couple of months to get through before he could go back to his real home….

"I can't believe you've been here all this time," Kenta murmured.

"Why did you come to the Digital World, Ryo-san?" Hirokazu asked.

"For this guy," Ryo lied, nodding at Cyberdramon. The dragon wasn't very forthcoming in conversation in front of strangers anyways. "Cyberdramon...he's difficult to control. He's not the kind of Digimon who can live easily in a society either…and the Real World is disorienting for Digimon who just come through. Foreign sounds…foreign smells. Too much for most of them to take in easily…."

"You're really amazing, Ryo-san," Kenta sighed.

"That's right!" Hirokazu added enthusiastically. "Even if you say you aren't strong, it's obvious you and Cyberdramon have a really close bond! I only hope I have as close of a bond as that if I can find my own partner!"

Ryo's smile weakened slightly, but he didn't let it fade.

Ruki muttered something, but he couldn't hear her over the crackling flames between them.

"Are you upset, Ruki?" Kenta asked, blinking at the girl.

"Ruki did finish second in the D-1 Card Battle Tournament," Hirokazu said, jumping to his feet. "Ryo-san was the winner then, but this year, Ruki won and was called the Digimon Queen. …A lot of people said that was just because you disappeared this year, Ryo-san."

"Hey," Kenta tugged at his friend's pants.

Ryo went still, eyes snapping over to the girl who was trying to pretend he didn't exist. Well…that was mortifying. Apparently, he knew her from elsewhere rather than the fourth war….

"Are you saying he's a better card player than me?" Ruki snapped.

"Well, he was the Digimon King for years – you always came in second, right?" the visored boy snapped back.

Kenta looked up at the other boy in exasperation, "Hirokazu…."

"Ha! Why don't you try getting a little stronger before you criticize my strength?" Ruki demanded. "You've been nothing but a nuisance so far!'

"Uh…we've met in card tournaments?" Ryo said.

Ruki shot him a frozen glower and he winced openly when she spat, "I can't remember anyone like you."

He probably deserved that…his inability to recall names or faces aside.

"Well…you guys need to get out of Narahas Desert, right?" Ryo tried to sidetrack the conversation. "Or the Digital World entirely?"

"We do need to consider how to get back home," Kenta said softly.

"I don't have specifics," Ryo admitted, "but I do know that the further up you go in the Digital World, the further away from the Real World you are. You have to go down, actually, to get closer. To get to another area, you need to find a staircase. Cyberdramon and I were making our way off Narahas…so you guys can tag along if you'd like."

"That's great!" Hirokazu exclaimed.

"Eh?" Kenta blinked.

The visored boy rolled his eyes, "What do you mean, 'eh'? You're coming, right?"

"Well…sure," the bespectacled boy mumbled, turning to Ruki, "What about you, Ruki?"

"Why? Just because your hero says we can't leave by going up, you believe him?" the girl stood up.

Ryo winced again, "I wouldn't lie about something like that. This world is dangerous, Makino-san. If you just wander around…unless Kyuubimon knows her way around, you'll get lost."

"You've been just wandering around for ten months," the girl shot back.

"Cyberdramon knows his way around and I've listened to the advice of other Digimon who know more," Ryo shook his head. "You've got good reason to be mad at me, Makino-san. But please, don't ignore what I say because of it."

"Have you even tried getting up there?" Ruki demanded.

"I'm not interested in leaving, so…no, I haven't," he admitted slowly.

"Then you can't know for certain," Ruki said, looking triumphant. She whirled away and called Kyuubimon after her. The boys remained.

"Is she always like that?" Ryo asked.

"Pretty much," Hirokazu snorted. Kenta shrugged weakly.

Ryo walked behind Hirokazu and Kenta, keeping himself firmly between the two boys and Cyberdramon. The Cyborg was getting pretty annoyed with both of them. Mostly from their company, but another good chuck of it was because of the…the singing.

They weren't ear-splitting awful, but they were a few notes away from being tone-deaf. Ryo was torn between amusement and concern. Cyberdramon didn't like sharing his company with other Digimon. The same was proved about humans. Ryo slowed slightly until he was walking just in front of his partner, reaching up a hand. Cyberdramon bent over and nudged his palm forcefully. He offered his partner a sympathetic pat.

The company was tiring on him too.

He'd contacted Nanomon after Hirokazu and Kenta had fallen asleep and gotten him to track the other half of their group so he could reunite them without any of them knowing about it. He couldn't do much for Ruki, but she should be fine. Ultimate-level Digimon were exceedingly rare and the two boys said she could evolve her Renamon to Perfect.

Hirokazu and Kenta suddenly stopped singing and ran ahead; eagerly yelling out to two other boys and a girl, accompanied by a Leomon, Terriermon…and the large red dinosaur must be Guilmon. He was big for a Child….

He recognized Guilmon's partner. He halted for a second. Zeed-Millenniumon had made a clone of this boy and sent it against him. Ryo felt the memories resurge. Guilmon had been one of his front-liners in the last war – the first Digimon he'd drafted. He'd borrowed the goggled boy's D-Arc…

A pity neither would remember him, since technically, they'd never met. Guilmon and Takato (that was his name) were one of the few Digimon-human partnerships he still had benevolent feelings about.

"This is the legendary Tamer, Akiyama Ryo-san!" Hirokazu shouted.

"Stop that," Ryo grinned to cover his unease, "you're exaggerating."

"You're the Digimon King?" Takato ran up to him excitedly, but he was quickly distracted by Cyberdramon's presence and pointed to the Digimon, who was several feet away from the rest of them. "Then that must mean…. Is he…?"

If anything, Cyberdramon seemed to fascinate the goggled boy more.

"Yes, that's my partner, Cyberdramon," Ryo introduced.

The boy ran past him, "Oh, wow! This is so cool!"

Cyberdramon snarled and the boy jumped back a step, "Did I upset him? I'm sorry…."

"Don't worry about it," Ryo said, moving to stand next to his partner and give the dragon a calming pat on the arm. This boy's enthusiasm about them was a little easier to bear. He was already backing off, looking embarrassed. "Cyberdramon's long since been looking for his enemy…and I couldn't let him go all out in his most recent fight because the other Digimon wasn't the one he was seeking."

To Ryo's surprise, Cyberdramon suddenly kneeled. He buried the surprise, pretended it was normal.

The kids got into a discussion about Ruki and why she was gone. He offered an apology, because even if Hirokazu had made Ruki's anger flare up, he had forgotten about her. They were quick to reassure him it wasn't really his fault, since Ruki had a strong personal pride and Hirokazu was tactless.

"Well, if just try to remain in an area you're familiar with, I'm sure you'll meet up with her again soon," Ryo said. "Also, I've been meaning to ask…. Why did you all come to the Digital World? It's not really the best vacation spot…."

The boy with the Terriermon – probably the one called Jianliang, making the girl 'Juri' – looked ready to speak, but Takato spoke first, "Have you seen a white, small Digimon?"

"White and small?" he echoed, thinking of the small flying critters that'd turned his Digivice into a D-Arc.

"He looks like this," the boy pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it to show him.

Ryo thought it kind of look related to the creatures he'd seen, but it obviously wasn't, "Hmm…I haven't seen him. I don't know of this Digimon either. What is he?"

"His name is Culumon…we think he's the key to the Digimon's evolution," the boy said.

"This guy is the key to evolution?" Ryo frowned and crossed his arms. The key to evolving a Digimon was either for a human to give his or her energy to his or her partner…or for the Digimon to gather enough data to do so on their own.

"He was taken by the Deva," Jianliang explained.

"Deva?" he echoed. The word was familiar to him. Shakamon had spoken of them to him during one of their meetings. They were servants of Zhuqiaomon, based on the Chinese Zodiac animals.

"This is one," Takato brought out a second sheet of paper. The Digimon on it was clearly the monkey. "We don't know why he kidnapped Culumon exactly, but he was always talking about 'the god of Digimon'."

"The Devas have caused quite a bit of damage to the Real World too," Jianliang said softly.

Ryo's frown deepened. The boy was giving him a searching look and it was strange, "How's Japan?"

"One of them destroyed Shinjuku's Meiji Street," the goggled boy said. "He was really hard to defeat."

"Meiji…I live in Kyushu," Ryo asked, "What's gone on there?"

"It's all been in Shinjuku," Takato assured grimly.

"I've been away for some time, so I was wondering about my family," Ryo offered in explanation. His relation to his surrogate family was strained, but he would be sorry if anything happened to them.

Kenta suddenly kicked up a ruckus, startling his friends and putting them on-guard against a group of nearby scarecrow-like Digimon.

"The Nohemon are harmless," Ryo assured, seeing how fast Terriermon and Guilmon's partners went on the defense. "They just stand there all the time."

"They're kind of creepy," the group's sole girl said.

"Well, I've got a permanent camp out here," Ryo said. "Why don't we go there? It's about to turn to night anyways…."

The kids were pretty impressed that his 'camp' was in a castle. Juri lamented Ruki's absence as she tested out the bed Cyberdramon was kneeling next to. Brave of her, really, what with the way the Perfect had growled at her friend before.

Jianliang was concerned about others living here, but Ryo assured him that no one did. Of course, he used that term loosely, not that they needed to know that. No mon used the beds of the room he showed them too.

The kids were grateful for real beds, on the whole, however. They'd been without civilized comforts for a while. The excitement and frustration of coming to the Digital World and being separated soon after had driven all thoughts of biological needs, but now they were remembering how they hadn't really eaten anything in some time even though they didn't feel very hungry.

"That's because biological processes stop here in the Digital World," Ryo told them. "You don't need food or water. You do need sleep for energy, but anything else? There's no reason to worry about where your next meal comes from unless you like the luxury."

"That's so weird!" Takato said.

"You'll get used to it," Ryo assured. "Anyways, I'm going to get some sleep."

"I think that's a good idea," Jianliang said. "We walked a long way today."

The girl moved with her Leomon to the other end of the room, where Takato stood. They eventually settled in whatever bed they wanted. Hopefully, tomorrow, Cyberdramon would decide to bolt after he showed them one of the staircases that led from plane to plane of the Digital World and he could separate from these kids and they could have their seclusion back.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~
August 18, 2002, Sunday – Taitō, Tokyo, Japan (South)

"So?" the cheerful Bandai Visual representative leaned forwards to the group of children (plus one teenager) sprawled out over couches and cushions. "What do you think?"

"I liked the theme song," Ryo spoke up, deciding to be the first to tread the dangerous waters of the Ocean of Saying Nice Things You Don't Mean Because It Doesn't Matter Even If You Don't. "And the animation is good too. I'm just a little confused about why my D-Arc is blue instead of the color of Monodramon's hide."

The representative preened, "Oh, we thought fans of the 'Anode/Cathode Tamer', 'Tag Tamers', and 'D-1 Tamers' games would be too confused if we kept to the true colors."

"Ah," Ryo hummed, his discomfort spiking when the games staring himself as the main character were brought up. It had been something that his self from this world had agreed to long before he'd taken his other self's place. It was more than disturbing to think that someone 'thought up' his 'adventures'. The games were only loosely accurate, of course, but whoever was 'creating' the Digimon stories was annoyingly good at getting key points.

At least he'd been able to shoot down that fourth game in the works on the basis that with his amnesia he was too unsettled for a refreshing of his face in the public eyes when he barely knew it himself. As it was, it was painful watching the Digimon Adventure series even if the names, faces, and Digimon casted as the main characters were all wrong. The second Adventure series lost him a lot of sleep, wondering how close 'Shijin' was to Ken. The memory of Zeed-Millenniumon's clone was still strong.

"The voice actors are really good," Kenta piped up. "They almost sound like us. That's impressive."

The Bandai Rep beamed, glancing amongst the other children.

"I'm glad they stuck so close to how I created Guilmon," Takato said. He paused as a coughing fit came over him. "Can you pass on my thanks? I really appreciate it."

"Of course!" the rep nodded his head, looking to the other children.

Ruki shrugged, "It was alright, I guess." Her lack of enthusiasm didn't put a damper on the rep's own cheer. He was too much of a professional to let one downer get to him. "I'm just a little disappointed Ryo won't fall flat on his face in the ending because Doodlebug erased his Digimon-made brace out of existence."

Ryo absently rubbed his right leg and making the far inferior human-made brace he had now hidden under his pant leg creak a little, "You guys didn't know I was crippled until that moment either."

"You have Terriermon to a tee," Jianliang said, clearing his throat and cutting off one of Ruki and Ryo's 'arguments' (in which Ruki was the only one angry and Ryo was painfully oblivious).

"Well, I for one loved it," Hirokazu grinned.

"Me too!" Shaochung chimed in with a loud giggle.

Juri, however, remained silent. Some of the clips they'd been shown had involved Leomon and her imprisonment by the D-Reaper, so she had a sad, contemplative look on her face. Her friends had all been surprised when she'd agreed to let her testimony be used by Bandai for their biographical anime of events.

Granted, the parts involving Ryo when none of the others were around weren't accurate. No one needed to know Xuanwumon had really tried to kill him before Baihumon had returned from fighting the D-Reaper to intercept the attack and fast talk the North Holy Beast into letting him live. (Shakamon had told him Baihumon was more charitably inclined to him, but it was still surprising to see it.) Ryo had said nothing of Amser, Shakamon, or the fake history about Cyberdramon's corruption. He'd made his recital of his time in the Digital World as dull as possible and had asked his agent, Shitou Kaiko, to make Bandai keep his part in the show to a minimum.

The other kids deserved more spotlight anyways. He'd never meant to come back to this world, but staying when the Holy Beasts knew of his presence wouldn't have been wise. And then Doodlebug had made it impossible for him to go back to the Digital World and Ryo wasn't heartless enough to put this set of physical and digital worlds at risk just because he wanted to return home.

He could only hope Hypnos found a way to reconnect the two worlds within the next year or so. It was unlikely though. There was a lot of unease about the existence of the Digital World and no one seemed too eager to go rushing to explore it after the numerous attacks on Shinjuku by Digimon and the D-Reaper's incursion.

Ryo found it difficult to accept he could be here years longer than he'd planned or wanted to be.

"Ryo?" Jianliang's voice snapped him out of his musings and he looked over at the half-Chinese Tamer questioningly. "You zoned out."

"I apologize," Ryo said, forcing an apologetic smile onto his face. "What?"

"You remember the fourth Tamer game they had planned before the accident?" Kaiko asked, speaking up. "Watanabe-san was asked by the company to see if you were interested in letting it restart."

"Ah," Ryo hummed. His stomach flipped in nauseating loops and spins. "I…don't think it's a good idea. I wouldn't want it to overshadow the anime or get people confused, you know? The Tamers story is fiction. 'Digimon Tamers' is a real story and younger children that don't understand the difference between reality and fantasy so well might get confused."

"That's what some of the writers were saying. They'll be glad to hear you agree," Watanabe smiled. Ryo smiled back dimly.

The bullet was dodged…for the moment.

Kaiko, who'd taken up Takato and Juri as her own clients at Ryo's request, alongside the other two agents that worked for the rest of the Tamers, finished up the meeting with the Bandai representative and then they took their leave. Ryo was more than glad to be out of there and saying his goodbye to Ruki and Hirokazu, who were under one agent, and Jianliang, Shaochung, and Kenta, who were under the other agent. Each agent would take their own charges home.

"Are you okay, Ryo-kun?" Juri asked, leaning forwards in her seat. "You seemed…a little off towards the end."

"I don't like thinking about the accident. I never did manage to remember anything before waking up in the park across from Fukuoka General," Ryo lied. "The games were a touch unsettling for me at the time, so I stopped the fourth one from getting started. It was just supposed to be until I got better…but I never did."

Juri sat back after a moment, but Ryo didn't think she was satisfied. He could never tell her he understood her grief, but she seemed to understand he was able to relate…somehow. Oftentimes, when the Tamers gathered together, the two of them would sit on the sidelines and just be in the company of someone who could understand.

Takato rapped his fist against Ryo's shoulder and clucked his tongue in mock jealousy. Whatever usual tease about their odd connection he was going to say, however, was lost to a coughing fit. The oldest Tamer looked over his shoulder worriedly, "How long have you been sick, Takato?"

"He's had that cough for weeks," Juri said, clutching at her boyfriend's arm. "It won't go away." There was a deep fear in her eyes. It was unnervingly similar to her mother's illness' progression.

"Has Hypnos taken a look at you?" Kaiko piped up. She normally just let the kids talk around her as if she weren't there. "I know they ran those batteries of tests on you, Ryo, and the other two to make sure you were still healthy despite becoming a Digimon. Maybe there couldn't have been a problem then…."

"Have Ruki and Jian developed coughs?" Ryo asked. "I haven't been sick."

"No, they're fine…but Takato was the first to evolve to Ultimate with Guilmon," Juri said.

"I doubt it's got anything to do with Ultimate Matrix Evolution," Takato said. "Evolving with Guilmon feels like the most natural thing in the world to me. I think we'd have all gotten sick a long time ago if so, but I can suggest it to my folks. Mom's worried."

Ryo smiled to hide his jealousy. Evolving to Ultimate might be natural for Takato, Ruki, and Jianliang, but it had been difficult for him. Cyberdramon's mind was chaotic and disorganized and his craving to find his true enemy had nearly dragged Ryo's own mind down more than once as he wasn't the most stable person in the world either. They had needed to channel part of their power into simply maintaining Justimon's form, cutting their actual strength down to a third of what it should've been.

There was quite a bit about these Tamers he was jealous of. A normal relationship with sane Digimon was one thing. They'd also been able to choose to be partnered…Takato had even created his own choice of partner. Their families supported them. Ryo's true parents had never known and his other-father and stepmother had always expressed disapproval and discomfort about Monodramon (which was understandable, really).

"We're here, Takato-kun," Kaiko announced.

"Thank you for the ride, Shitou-san," Takato said as he climbed out of the car. "My parents appreciate all the work you do for me."

"You're welcome. I'll see you again," the agent smiled at the boy.

When they arrived at Juri's home, the girl gave Ryo a hug from behind before saying goodbye to their agent and getting out.

"They are so much easier to work with than you," Kaiko teased Ryo. The teenager snorted, closing his eyes for a moment.

"Hey, Kaiko-san? I've been thinking about talking to my dad about moving here to Shinjuku…just me, though, alone," Ryo said, dropping his usual 'Mr. Proper' attitude (as nicknamed by Ruki) that he generally maintained around everyone else. "I'd like to be closer to the others…. I just don't get along with the people at my school and I just can't retain anyone's names or their faces…. I don't think I'm ever going to remember. I don't think I can be whoever it is they remember me being. It's been nearly three years now."

Kaiko frowned at the young man. Ryo looked so depressed and angry. She knew his psychiatrist wasn't getting very far with him in their sessions anymore. Maybe a move would do him so good.

"You should talk to your therapist, but I think it's worth considering," Kaiko said.

"I will," Ryo said. "I promise."

If he was going to have to spend years longer than he wanted to in this world, he may as well pass the time in the most comfortable place he could find. Right now, 'comfortable' would be in Shinjuku near the other Tamers.

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With Hands Stained Red
Chapter 2
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Author's Notes: If the Crest of Desire has an official image, I don't know of it. As always, please leave reviews and criticisms. They are much appreciated and help me in the areas of both ego and skill.