Digimon re:CONNECT || Something wicked this way comes.

Episode 09: Fire in the Hole

"It's too hot," Raumon complained, laying spread eagle in the middle of Natalie's living room floor where the air was coolest.

"You weenie," Gelermon said, safe from her spot right in front of the fan and a smug smirk on her face.

"All my feathers are black," Raumon protested, "and your fur's mostly white. I don't reflect as much heat."

Natalie was holding down the fort while the rest of her family were out of town for the next couple days, and she, of course, used this opportunity to throw a WILD PARTY. 'Wild party' meant she invited over the rest of the squad, if they wanted, to come chill. To her surprise (and relief) all of them had agreed. Peter had showed up a bit late, having gotten off work, but this might have been for the better-- it gave him and Xander less time to get on each other's nerves.
July had just begun, and it wasn't just warm-- it was straight up hot, even as the afternoon gave way to the early evening. An oppressive humidity hung in the air, which meant that nobody was eager to hang out outside.

"Girls, girls, you're both pretty. Or both overheating, whichever," Desmon said from her comfortable perch on the back of an easy chair. Gelermon rolled her eyes; Raumon lifted his head and for a moment looked like he was going to offer a rebuttal, but he decided it wasn't worth it and flopped his head back down.

The humans were sitting on the floor, smack in the middle of a particularly vulgar party card game (you know the one)-- Peter had been so kind as to provide the physical copy of the game.
Banmon was curled underneath the side table, watching the happenings around her-- and hiding from the fan, which was on full blast, and she didn't like having her bandages whipped around by the air. Oremon was laying across the couch, arms behind his head and eyes closed. He wasn't asleep, and he still snorted grumpily when anyone poked him, but for the most part, he was content to listen.

The past couple weeks had been... well, let's say they had been good for team-building. This little meetup provided, Natalie thought, a pretty good point of reference; this was the first time since the Kabuterimon incident that all five (ten) of them had all been in the same place at the same time. Compared to then, the tone was so much more casual and comfortable, it was almost ridiculous.

For one, they had actually kind of graduated to a group of... friends? Not like they were rushing to call each other besties or anything, and their digimon tended to stay practically joined at the hip with their respective humans, but still, progress was progress, right? Right. Especially when them getting used to each other and willing to work together was doubly important-- digimon had not stopped rearing their ugly heads.

To recap:

There had been a phoenix called a Birdramon that Xander had refused, point blank, to have anything to do with (No, not again, no more kentucky fried goddamn chickens, I dealt with the goth version, this is on you), leaving Doctorimon to find a way to handle it without being able to fly up to its level, much to the plague doctor's chagrin. Frekimon, meanwhile, had had to deal with another bird, this one a giant chicken named Kokatorimon-- ground-bound, yes, but also able to petrify the wolf digimon in her tracks, and a late-arrival save from Banshemon had been the edge she had needed. Ibexmon had taken care of a feral digimon that had been rampaging towards the downtown; it had confusingly named Moosemon, despite its clearly being an elk, and Corymon had helped take down an enormous red beetle named Kuwagamon, even though she complained afterwards about how loud its buzzing wings had been.

There were a couple more, evening out to one or two a week; and, sure, we could likely go into detail on these-- but ultimately, they didn't gain any more insight than they had. Strigimon's tendency to go on had been an outlier, not a regular thing, and Ratamon was as slippery as ever. They saw him around now and then -- he would pop his head in when a digimon incident happened, as if just to check in and say hi, but nobody had had the chance to press him for information.

They had gone over what they knew time and time again, but without more information, they were running circles. The extent of what they knew -- or guessed at any rate, was this:
There was another world, if Ratamon was to be believed; it 'had seen better days', and was where Digimon were from. Alright, on board with that-- though the digimon, try as they might, couldn't remember anything before meeting their human friends, they had all conceded that this sounded more or less acceptable. The humans were still struggling with the reality of the idea, but it wasn't a new idea. After all, they all had their theories for their talking, shape-shifting monster friends. Moreover, Strigimon had mentioned refugees-- so they supposed that maybe their friends had escaped the not so great state of the world?

But that didn't explain Ratamon's "cracks", or what Strigimon had meant by her lofty claims of glory. It didn't explain the D-Rives at all, which infuriated Sam in particular to absolutely no end. It didn't explain what the Digital World was, or what state it was in, and most of the digimon they had dealt in the interrim hadn't been overflowing with information-- or at least, information that they were willing to share. Most of them had been either feral, or repeated the same monosyllabic found you shtick as most of their fellows.

The trend of digimon being nigh-impossible to catch on camera clearly had also continued, which was a great source of consternation for the news stations and various internet commentators. Sam had put forth the idea that maybe emergent digimon -- as he called them, a term which the others had absorbed through osmosis -- interfered with electronics in some way, but he couldn't figure how.

("What makes you think that?" Natalie had asked when Sam had proposed it.

"Mostly the fact that out of all of my total bullshit guesses, that one felt like it made the most sense," had been Sam's reluctant reply.)

In their own ways, they all had the distinct feeling that there were going to be significantly more questions than answers in the forseeable future. For now, all they could do was keep feral digimon from causing havoc, and protect themselves and each other when digimon with an agenda came knocking.
... and maybe get a round or two of a party game in here and there.

"'We're sorry, but the department of blank has rejected your request for blank," Meghan read off of the prompt card, before pausing. "... who played 'homeless people' and 'turning homeless people into wifi hotspots'?"

"They saw the opportunity, and they took it," Peter said, stroking his chin.

Natalie grinned. It had been her play.
(She won the round.)

***

It was a bit later on in the night; the sun had started to go down, making things less heinously hot, and they had had a truly disgusting amount of Chinese takeout delivered. With the temperature coming down to tolerable levels, they had migrated up to the roof of the building, as it was a bit less cramped for five people and five digimon. Though they briefly considered digging out the motley collection of lawn chairs, they as a group decided it wasn't worth the effort, and were generally content to sit on the roof as it was.

The humans were engaged in a truly fascinating, horrible discussion, and the digimon could only sit by and watch in awe as they ate their own food.

"All I'm saying is that the reason nobody goes swimming in lakes," Natalie was in the middle of asserting, gesturing with her chopsticks, "is at least 75% the fact that nobody wants to risk finding a dead body someone dumped there."

"Finding a dead body is just a risk we all have to take sometimes," Peter said, in such a flat and matter of fact tone that it was difficult to tell whether or not he was joking-- but then again, that was how he said everything.

"Okay wow," Sam said in the ensuing beat of silence, right before Peter smirked, shrugged one shoulder, and resumed eating.

Xander, however, had a different take, which he used to pick up the conversation. "No, the reason nobody goes swimming in lakes has nothing to do with dead bodies, it's just that lakes are fucking gross."

"Partially because of all the dead bodies," Sam interjected; Xander rolled his eyes, and Gelermon, to the side, snickered loudly.

"I thought they sank people in the river, not lakes?" Meghan said, tapping her chin in thought, and then paused for a beat. "Or was that a country song...?"

"The point is that natural bodies of water are full of corpses," Natalie concluded decisively, nodding sagely, and there was a moment of silence as they considered this.

And then Meghan said, "what about the ocean?"

"Humans have the weirdest conversations," Oremon muttered, still struggling with chopsticks but his pride demanding he not give in and use a fork, no matter how many times Meghan suggested he try another utensil.

For all it was a... fascinating conversation, though, Raumon took something else out of it as he watched the humans (particularly Natalie) discuss the pros and cons of dumping bodies in the ocean as they sat up here on the roof where, from his and Nat's perspective, all of this had really started.

If he was being honest -- and he never had intents of being otherwise, of course -- he was kind of surprised at how much better Natalie's mood had been since all of this started with the start of summer break. Sure, some of it had just been that immediately before all of this, finals had been eating her soul, as finals tend to do, but that hadn't been all of it.

It didn't start in December, when Raumon's gut feeling about Natalie's then-boyfriend had proved correct, but that certainly had put a bad spin on the entire spring semester. She had already been feeling stressed out, Raumon knew, with the expectations her parents were placing on her--

(Which Raumon, frankly, thought were stupid, even if he wouldn't be so bold as to say so to their faces. Nat's grades were fine as far as he knew, just because she wasn't pulling straight-As without effort like she had in highschool and the first part of her freshman year didn't mean she was in some kind of crisis--)

And it was certainly a curious fact that, once the dust had settled, it almost felt like all of this had been the best mood booster she'd had in years.

Raumon was sure there was something to be said about that, but he couldn't place what. No doubt at least a part of it was the having people she could invite over without Raumon having to hide in the bedroom, or worse, closet.
...
No lie, he appreciated this, too, even if this was questionable dinner conversation.

So caught up was he in this train of thought that he didn't notice Desmon sloooooowly reaching over to steal one his crab puffs.

"... the ocean is literally the world's largest cemetery," Sam said, because this conversation was still happening for some godforsaken reason.

"No, because it has a lot of animals that do cleanup," Meghan reasoned.

Sam shook his head. "Doesn't mean there's not dead bodies."

"Yes it does," Xander said, "because they eat the bodies, and there's not a cemetery without bodies. Supposing for a second that there are bodies in lakes, lakes would be worse."

Peter, having a practical biological imperative to contradict Xander, cut in: "What, do the animals in lakes not eat bodies?"

"The only animals in lakes are, like, sad fish," said Meghan.

"Alligators?" Sam suggested.

"We live in the pacific northwest," Xander said.

Sam shrugged. "You didn't say it had to be local lakes."

Natalie rejoined: "Moose, then."

"Moose don't live in lakes, though?" Meghan said, furrowing her brow.

"Are you really willing to take that risk?" Natalie's tone was as serious as a heart attack, but the grin on her face belied her amusement.

***

After everyone had cleared out of Natalie's home, with only empty takeout containers left in memoriam, Raumon was helping Natalie to clean up. It wasn't late late, 11:30 at the worst, but three out of four visiting humans had work the next day. (When asked, Sam shrugged and said he had nowhere to be -- like, ever -- but he felt weird creeping around someone else's place for too long, so he took his leave when everyone else did.)

"I'd say that went pretty well," Raumon prompted as he finished tying off a garbage bag that almost felt bigger than he was.

"Universe: five billion and three," Natalie said with no small amount of irony in her voice, "Natalie: one."

"Well, it's a start," Raumon said.

"Damn straight it is," she said, nodding with a smile.

***

The next day, early in the afternoon, Natalie's phone went off with message notifications. She didn't immediately notice it, as she was smack in the middle of a nervous-energy-fueled cleaning of her room, but luckily, Raumon was on-hand to notice when the phone's vibrations rattled against the wood of the nightstand.

When she unlocked her phone, she was greeted with a trio of messages from Sam.

hey
emergent on my radar. looks like it heading southwest-ish? that general direction
im heading after it. will have it under control but if you want to make a guest appearance feel free

That was as good as an outright invitation, coming from them. (She could practically hear Gelermon, in her head, objecting to the idea of them needing help, and Sam completely ignoring her.)

"I'm guessing," Raumon said, watching her expression as she read the messages and cutting through her thoughts, "that it's a digimon?"

"Am I that easy to read?" Natalie said, putting her free hand akimbo.

"Just a little," Raumon said with a cheerful shrug. He took the liberty of grabbing Natalie's D-Rive off of her nightstand and tossed it to her. She caught it and stuck her tongue out at him. He pulled a face right back, and Natalie rolled her eyes.

Before this stupid-face-making exchange could escalate, she minimized Raumon into her D-Rive, and then shifted her attention over to her phone.
on it, she messaged Sam back as she grabbed her keys off the hook, grabbed her bag, and was out the door.

***

Raumon, who re-emerged and generously offered his services as navigator once they were safely in Natalie's car, alerted Nat as soon as the D-Rive lit up and a dot appeared on the radar. It took a moment for Raumon to get the info box to pop up, since the D-Rive's touch screen wasn't really calibrated to work with his claws, but with a little bit of forcing he was able to read it off:
Snimon, champion level.

Before it got too close, though, it stopped moving. This wasn't too surprising; they hadn't expected it to full on stop conveniently in, say, the park, just to make their lives easier.

He did not, however, notice an important detail: there was now a second dot on the radar, almost completely overlapped with Snimon's.

***

They had tried their best to drag this darn thing somewhere it wouldn't cause too much damage; judging by the giant slashes torn in the chain-link fence and the blade marks on all the concrete, they had made a wise decision.

Here, underneath this overpass, among the scrubby grass and the mud, was as close to a safe location as they were going to get.

"Shitomon! Watch out!" the young man yelled to his digimon partner before casting a look around to make sure that nobody else was around.

Shitomon was an odd little digimon, to be sure. She most resembled a rabbit-- a very, very strange rabbit -- but far stranger than her was the fact that she was fighting a giant praying mantis with scythes for arms.

"Twin Sickles!" the mantis -- Snimon -- yelled, slashing its blades through the air and releasing a pair of pink, crescent-shaped blades of energy that flew right towards the little digimon.

Shitomon yelped as she leapt out of the way, flaring her wing-like ears out to catch the air. As she drifted back down, she called an attack:
"Light Shot!" Light swirled around her open mouth, gathering into a little sphere, which she then spat out at Snimon. It hit the big bug with about as much impact as a rotten tomato.
As her feet touched the ground again, she whipped around to look at her human partner. "No good! Mind giving me a hand?"

"Slamming Attack!"

"Eep!" Shitomon yelped as Snimon decided to get a bit more physical, rushing at her blades-first. Shitomon leapt to the side, leaving Snimon to slash at the ground instead, kicking up a cloud of dirt and grass. "Now'd be a good time, Ryan!"

Ryan nodded resolutely, holding up his red D-Rive as it began to glow.

***

Sam had arrived first; he had parked in a dead-end street nearby, and was just checking his radar when Natalie came jogging around the corner. He hailed her over with a hand wave, and inclined his head. Their radars had led them to an underpass next to a storage facility, and between them and the digimon in question was a chain link fence reinforced with black canvas that had been vandalized extensively. This served to block their view entirely, which, paired with the sound of cars on the overpass, made it difficult to get a read on what was happening.

"I figured you'd come," he said as soon as Natalie came close enough to be heard.

"Not like I'm doing anything else," Natalie said with a one-shouldered shrug, but she grinned lopsidedly.

"Story of my life," Sam muttered. "I was just trying to find a way to get through," he said, jerking a thumb at the obstruction in question.

"I mean, we could just hop the fence," Natalie suggested, utterly nonchalantly. ... it sounded like this wasn't the first time she'd done such a thing, and Sam was about to ask a series of fascinating questions, but he opted out of it when she continued, "but that might not go over so well."

"Yeah, no, call it a hunch," Sam said, shaking his head. "We could go around it, or--" he stopped mid-sentence as he noticed something a little ways down from them.
"Well," he said, "if I was doubting if it was here, I'm not anymore."
See, what he had seen was a huge gash torn in the chain-link and the canvas-- like something had torn straight through it, almost bizarrely cleanly, carving out a decent-sized chunk of fence.

"I wonder why on earth it stopped here...?" Natalie muttered, walking over to where it had ripped the fence and peering through, but her field of view was woefully limited by the obstruction of a large concrete pillar and the limited angle.

Sam huffed a not-quite laugh as he followed her over. "Wouldn't I like to know."

"One way to find out?" Natalie grinned, gesturing in an after you motion.

"The things this digimon bullshit has led me to," Sam mumbled as he ducked down to slip through the hole in the fence, woefully aware that they were basically going in blind here.
Once inside, though, they got quite an eyeful-- they hadn't just walked in on the digimon, they had walked in on a full-fledged fight.

It was hard to follow what was going on-- a big tan digimon was fighting a big green one; the first one seemed to have feathery wings, or maybe they were ears, or maybe they were hands? It was really hard to get a good look at it, between the obstructions and the shadows. But the green one-- the green one was a bug, and had no hands at all, but giant scythe-blades in place of its forearms. That was hard to miss.

"Fuck!" Sam hissed, stumbling backwards into the fence and nearly crashing into Natalie.

"Twin Sickles!" the bug yelled, slashing its blades through the air. A pair of crescent-shaped energy blades, bright pink in colour, flew at the tan one.

"Holy Charge!" the tan one yelled right back, and its entire body was surrounded by a blinding white light, making it even harder to make out the details. It threw itself at the bug-- the pink blades of energy dissipated harmlessly against its body as it rushed its enemy, and the light exploded when it made contact.

The big green bug roared as it began to pixellate, and in a familiar sight indeed, it burst into motes of light, leaving only the strange, strange tan digimon standing there.
And then--

And then that digimon was consumed by red-tinted light as a young man's voice yelled something indistinct-- Sam couldn't quite make out the words, but he was transfixed as the big tan digimon turned into a smaller one. In a moment's notice, there stood a little tan rabbit of sorts, with ears so long they dragged on the ground and a red scarf around its neck.

With it no longer in the way, they could see that opposite them, among the wrecked concrete and scrubby grass, was was a young man. He looked more or less around their age; he was tallish and blonde, with a scruffy soul patch on his chin and sunglasses pushed up onto his forehead. His tanktop showed off the faux-tribal tattoo that took up a good half of his left shoulder and upper arm, and held tightly in his hand was an unmistakable little device.

The first word that leapt to Sam's mind was douchey, but admittedly, he may have been biased.

The stranger had a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face as he looked at Sam-- one they knew well from wearing it more than once. It was the oh god, how much did you see? expression.

The little digimon didn't notice its audience at first. It was looking at the young man and making to walk towards him, before it looked where he was looking, and it froze in place. It stood in awkward stillness for a few seconds, until it vanished in a burst of red light, minimized into the stranger's D-Rive.

Sam's mind was already on fire with possibilities, with theories, with what the fuck-- but a larger part of him considered retreating through the fence and pretending he hadn't seen anything. As he slipped his D-Rive into his pocket, Natalie beside him surreptitiously tucked hers into her bag.

"It can't be," Natalie muttered to herself, a creeping sense of dread in her voice.

"Hey-- uh--" the new young man said, holding up his hands in an I can explain sort of gesture, before he paused and the unmistakable look of recognition dawned on him. "Nat?" he asked, disbelief in his voice, but the kind of disbelief that comes from a vaguely unpleasant surprise.

Behind him, Sam heard Natalie made a muffled noise that he could swear would have been a scream if she had opened her mouth the slightest bit, but instead just kind of came out like a disgruntled MMMM. If Natalie's apparently good mood had been nixed any harder, it would have made a whooshing noise as it went.

Sam got the sinking feeling that he was missing something.

What else was new?

The young man half-jogged over to them, and Sam took a half-step backwards, but Natalie stood shock-still as if rooted in place.
"Hiiii, Ryan," she said, the tone of her voice indicating that she could think of at least 200 places she'd rather be right now, and at least one of those places was neck deep in spiders. (She sounded like she'd rather be anywhere else, that is to say.)

Ryan, now that he was at closer range, once again held up his hands in the same gesture as before. "See, I know what you're thinking, but there is a perfectly logical explanation--"

"That sounds familiar," Natalie muttered under her breath, but put on a brave face. Luckily, Ryan didn't seem to hear her.

"So if you could try not losing your mind for three seconds, then I can--" Ryan said, but Natalie didn't wait for him to finish saying he'd explain, let alone actually let him explain.

"Actually, we were-- in a hurry," Natalie said, coming up with a weak explanation on the spot. "Thought cutting through here might be a time-saver, but we don't really have the time to spare."

(If she hadn't come up with an exucse, Sam was going to, because he had no intention of telling this guy that they were in the same monster-filled boat... though Sam realized, after a moment of thought, that he'd have thought Natalie would be the type to see someone else with a Digimon and a D-Rive and try to bring them into the fold, if her treatment of him when they had first met had been any indication There was clearly something at play here.)

"So we've really got to be on our way, sorry, have to have you explain it to me later," she continued, turning on her heel and crouching back down to go through the fence from whence they had come. She had barely stopped to breathe, let alone let this guy get a word in edgewise.
Sam blinked a couple times, looked Ryan up and down, and said nothing as he turned and followed suit with Natalie.

From behind them, Ryan didn't bother lowering his voice as he muttered to himself: "Why are women so fucking crazy, I swear."
Sam could almost feel how much Natalie wanted to swing around, run back, and deck him; he admired her self-control.

"So, uh," he said, after they retreated back through the fence and were safely on the other side -- in fact, he waited until they were most of the way back across the street to ask, "what was that about?" Natalie would have answered, but she was smack in the middle of trying to process this, and Sam's speaking up seemed to be the impetus for the dam to break.

"What the hell!" Natalie blurted, digging her fingers into her hair as she walked ahead of Sam. "I can't believe he-- when the hell did that happen!?"

"I'm going to take a wild stab in the dark and guess that you know Douchebag McShades back there?"

Instead of replying, Natalie channelled all of her energy into kicking a crumpled beer can that someone had littered on the ground, sending it flying with surprising force. It clattered into a wall, and Natalie seethed for a moment, before she relaxed -- at least, partially -- with a heavy sigh.

"Yes, I know him," Natalie said, and Sam wasn't surprised. "I'd much rather not, but what can you do?" Seeing Sam's still confused face, she groaned and ran a hand backwards through her hair. "We used to date and it didn't end well and why does he have a digimon."

Sam mouthed a long ohhhhhh. He was about to ask further questions, but it was at this moment that Raumon, unbidden, materialized out of Natalie's D-Rive. It seemed he couldn't keep his commentary in any longer, and he was positively bubbling over with things to say.

"HE HAS A DIGIMON!?" Raumon yelled, his voice taking on a slightly squawky, cracking quality that would have been hilarious if his anger weren't so apparent. "HIM? The clown prince of douchebaggery?!"

Sam suddenly felt distinctly glad that his borderline-hermit ways had precluded relationship drama, and relationships in general, but he felt it might be a bad idea to express this thought right now. He cast a look over his shoulder, back towards the overpass, and sighed.
"Something about this doesn't feel right."

Natalie sighed. "You're telling me." Beat. "Raumon, I'm gonna have to minimize you before anyone sees you, alright?"
Raumon nodded, but he still grumpily folded his arms right before he vanished.

Sam sighed, looking over at Natalie. "Look, my car's over here. Keep me updated if you find anything out, okay?"

***

After Natalie had gotten home, she was right back to cleaning, now fueled by annoyance. Now that the shock had worn off, she was mostly more confused than angry.

Luckily, Raumon was there to pick up the slack.

"I can't believe," Raumon said; he was sitting in his little nest, fuming, "that he has a digimon. He's a douchebag. How did we not notice?"

"Maybe it's a new thing?" Natalie offered as a suggestion -- after all, digimon were coming through, right? Maybe this was a new development? ... but thinking back, to back when they were dating, she could remember Ryan being evasive-- and she realized that maybe she hadn't realized were weird because she did them too. They had minimized their time spent actually at either of their homes whenever possible, even though Ryan had his own apartment; he had mentioned, sometimes, an otherwise-unnamed friend...
She could have sworn, too, that more than once she had heard something the size of a dog moving in the other room on a couple occasions when she was at his apartment, and he had just handwaved it off as the upstairs neighbors...

Dammit all.

It wasn't like they had understood any of this in the first place, but this was another uncomfortable spanner in the works. There was some reason all of them had D-Rives, right? If Ryan had one, were they going to have to start working together with him?
And if so, was she being selfish...?

From her nightstand, Natalie's phone buzzed with a messenger alert.

"If that's him," she said, picking a long-neglected mug off of her desk, "I'm going to throw either myself or my phone out the window. Jury is still out."
To her immense relief when she picked up her phone, it wasn't-- it was a ping from the group chat.

i for one am not signing any more people up for the goddamn power ranger squad was the message that incurred the alert, and you get one guess who that was courtsy of. (Spoilers: Xander.)
She and Sam had agreed that she'd break the news to the group chat, and she had done it simply-- simply had said that apparently her ex had a digimon and a D-Rive, and thankfully, nobody had really pried too much.

Why, I wonder, came from Peter, have we not seen hide nor hair of this before? I'd think if there was another person with a D-Rive they'd be dealing with emergents, judging by how many of them seem to have no trouble finding us.

Sam seemed to concur. thats what i was thinking. ive been looking on the usual places online-- not that we got a great look at it, but i havent seen anything of his digimon. no pictures, no news footage, not jack.

Before Natalie could thumb in a response to the conversation, her phone buzzed again, and she groaned, because lo and behold, this one was what she was dreading.

hey nat popped up at the top of her screen in the notification.

She opened up the text message history. This was not the first message from him. Above it:
saw you in the student union today, should have said hi from the middle of January; nat come on it's been like three months, are you still pissed? from the very start of March; and heyyyy from late May. All three preceded this message, all three unanswered.
(She realized all of a sudden that that last one had come in after the Digimon business had started. She frowned, before closing out of the texts.)

A few seconds later, her phone buzzed again with another message.
"Ignore it," Raumon advised, but Natalie huffed a frustrated breath, dropping onto her bed as she, against her better judgment, opened it. He waited for her to read it, before he asked: "What's he want?"

"I think he's saying he wants to meet up so he can explain himself about the digimon stuff," Natalie said, squinting at her phone. "I think."

"Ignore it," Raumon said again, folding his arms. "Bet you five bucks it'll be five minutes of him explaining that he has a digimon, and twenty five of him trying to guilt trip you again, and then I'm going to have to materialize and punch him in the face, and it'll be a huge scene."

As much as Natalie disliked Ryan, Raumon disliked him five times as much. It wasn't that Raumon had always hated him or anything, but over time, Ryan had dissolved every last bit of goodwill the little digimon had in him.

See, Natalie and Ryan had dated for... about eight months? Almost nine? And it had started out fine, but Ryan... whenever he did anything wrong, he found a way to blame anyone but himself-- and mysteriously often, things would end up being Natalie's fault somehow, even if he never explicitly pinned blame on her. He refused to take a hint when Natalie said she needed time alone to cool down after arguments, which only ever made things worse; this was, obviously, a habit he still had.

That in mind, you can imagine how well the breakup went-- and it wasn't even like they could completely avoid each other after the fact, as they frequently crossed paths on campus. Raumon was halfway sure that no small part of why Natalie was even remotely entertaining this idea now was because of that blame-throwing tendency.

"It might be useful information," Natalie said, looking over at Raumon, and she could tell that he agreed, but he wasn't thrilled about this either, but... well, it didn't seem like anyone else was going to, right? She was the only one who really had a means to contact him, let alone the drive to do so...
"And I'll let you punch him if he starts up."

"I was already going to reluctantly agree anyway, but that does make me feel better."

***

Natalie frowned as she checked her phone. She had agreed -- after promising Raumon that he could deck him if he had to -- to meet up with Ryan at the city park, near the bridge, because she may as well meet him on her home turf if nothing else. The problem, of course: she had agreed to meet him fifteen minutes ago, and he was still nowhere to be seen.

"Why am I not surprised," she said to herself around the twenty-minute mark, sighing as she rested her arms on the rail of the bridge and looked around. As she peered into the shifting leaves of the trees, she swore -- for a moment -- she saw the familiar white shape and big pink-and-green eyes of Ratamon peering down at her out of the boughs.

"Nat!" a too-familiar voice called. Natalie turned to look to see Ryan approaching -- finally -- and as soon as she glanced back to where she had been looking, there was no little white digimon to be seen, and she wondered if she had actually seen him there or not.

She was kind of disappointed-- if it had been Ratamon, she could have asked him some questions. Sure, he'd probably be as evasive as ever, but...

"Hey," she said, raising a hand in halfhearted greeting, crossing to meet him so they were standing in the grass instead of on the bridge itself.

"You were in such a hurry earlier," Ryan said. Beat. "Who was that guy you were with, by the way?" Natalie already felt a sense of creeping dread.

"Sam? He's a friend of mine," she said, emphasizing the word friend. "I have those, sometimes."

"Huh. Friends, that's new," he remarked, stroking his chin, and Natalie's sense of creeping dread intensified, even as he tacked on a jovial, "joking!" It didn't make her feel better.

"What did you want to talk about?" Natalie prompted, trying to get this conversation on-track as quickly as possible. "I mean, I figure it had something to do with the giant monsters, correct me if I'm wrong."

"Right-- yeah. Thought I'd catch up, but, you know, guess not, whatever," he muttered that last bit, then rubbed the back of his head as he found his point again. "So you know those monster things that have been happening lately?"

"I've heard," Natalie said, trying her best to sound innocent and clueless. "You have something to do with them?"

Ryan paused for a moment, looking like he was choosing his words carefully. "Kind of yes, kind of no." Beat. "Do you promise not to freak out if I show you something?"

"That's a big question," Natalie said, folding her arms, but she had a feeling she knew what was coming. "I'll try."

"Ha ha," Ryan said, and from within his pocket, he pulled out a D-Rive. Up close, Natalie could see the details-- it was identical to hers, except red where hers was purple and, oddly, white where hers was black, and the little dangling silver charm on the end was a little feathered wing.
He cast a look over his shoulder, almost like he was making sure nobody was eavesdropping. "I figure you already saw this, so I can't dig myself any deeper," he said, and with a reddish flash, a digimon materialized between them.

"Hi!" the digimon said, holding one paw up as if to shake Natalie's hand. "I'm Shitomon!"

Shitomon was... an odd little digimon, now that Natalie was able to see her proper. She was mammalian, about three feet tall, with wing-like ears that were long enough to drag on the ground, with smaller, rounded, red-tipped nub-like horns further up her forehead. She was mostly tan, with the ends of those long ears and a patch on her tummy being a paler shade. Her eyes were big and golden yellow; her tail, small and fluffy. Her paws were red, and she wore a matching red-- was it a scarf or a bandana? A baggy collar of red fabric, let's say.

Natalie pretended to be surprised, shooting her eyebrows up as she knelt down to be more on eye level with the little creature. "This is what you had with you earlier?" she asked.

"Yeah," he said. "She's called a Digimon. That's what've been causing all the damage, lately. Not her, obviously, but other digimon. It's kind of complicated, it'd take a really long time to explain."

He was so quick to explain this, Natalie wondered briefly how many other people he'd gone telling. She didn't say any of this, though. "Huh," she said instead, looking back at Shitomon, and she held out a hand to shake her paw. "How long has this been a thing?" She had to try so hard not to roll her eyes-- it wasn't that complicated. (Okay, it was, but the basic gist of it wasn't.)

"I mean, the digimon have just been appearing in the city the past couple months," Ryan said, sounding quite proud of himself for being able to deliver this information, "but Shitomon, god, she's been around for ages... fifteen years I think?"

"Yep!" Shitomon said, proudly putting her hands on her hips.

The gears started going in Natalie's head. "Well, it's nice to meet you properly," she said, putting on a polite smile.

Shitomon smiled. "Likewise."
(Natalie suddenly got the uncomfortable feeling that Shitomon could tell she was faking surprise-- but was she just being paranoid? Who knew. Either way, she looked over at Ryan instead.)

"The reason I wanted to talk to you," he said, "is that earlier, I saw a digimon on my radar, that looked like it might have been following you. I just think you should be careful."

Natalie furrowed her brow, thinking of when Raumon had popped out of her D-Rive to complain. She stood up straight and looked at Ryan. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, digimon can be really dangerous, and I just don't think you'd want to get involved. I'm just saying, keep an eye out."

Natalie blinked slowly. "Um, what exactly am I keeping an eye out for?"

Ryan exhaled, rubbing the back of his head. "It's... kind of a long story? There's a handful of digimon that Shitomon has trying to find for a really long time. Apparently something changed recently, and there might be a lot of, you know, monster shit happening until we can take care of them--"

"What do you mean, take care of them?" Natalie blurted before she could stop herself. That bunch of digimon that he was referring to... with everything that they knew in mind, she was pretty sure that the bunch of digimon they're looking for was her group.

"Oh, well, it's kind of our thing," Ryan said, and Natalie could swear she felt the pressure in her head get thrown off from the exertion of not rolling her eyes. "When digimon are causing trouble, we've been fighting them and stopping them most of the time." That was rich.

"We? Like, you and Shitomon?" Natalie prompted.

"And a couple others, yeah," Ryan agreed nonchalantly, and that was certainly a vital piece of information, wasn't it. "But it's not just us."
Natalie frowned, and Ryan shrugged before continuing.
"You know, it's actually kind of complicated, but just take my word for it, okay? We're keeping a handle on it, and I just don't want you to get caught up in something like this. I figure you might go poking your nose in if I didn't clear it up for you."

"You know, you haven't been doing a very good job of taking care of it, then, if there's all these digimon attacks anyway," Natalie said, and she could tell by the way Ryan was looking at her funny that she may have given too much of her hand away.

"There's more to it than that," Ryan said, exasperated. "There's the feral ones, and we've got a handle on that, but some of the others are only trying to help, and then these digimon we're looking for start causing trouble with--"

"Oh my god," Natalie said-- she couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of that statement.

"What's with you?" Ryan said, raising an eyebrow. "I mean, look, I know you're still pissed at me for some reason, but that's no reason to--"

Seen here: the straw that broke the camel's back. She could take the condescension, she could take the subtle insults, she could even take his taking credit for taking care of digimon attacks, but she had limits.

"Oh, please forgive me for being pissed that you cheated on me!" Natalie snapped, taking the step forward and getting in Ryan's face, "for which, I remind you, you still haven't actually apologized--"

"Hey!" Shitomon barked, rearing down like she was getting ready to fight. "He's just trying to help, you'd think you could put that aside for--!"

"And now," unperturbed by Shitomon's attempted interruption, Natalie was on a roll, "you're going to come in here talking about things you don't know the first thing about, like you're some kind of magnanimous savior--"

Ryan put up his hands in a whoa-there gesture. "Holy shit, I was just trying to help, you don't have to go all psycho-bitch on me--"

And that was the straw that broke the camel's back, part two: electric boogaloo.

"Don't talk to her like that!" Raumon snapped as he materialized in a surge of purple light, causing both Ryan and Shitomon to stumble backwards.
In for a penny, in for a pound!

"What the--!?" Ryan yelped, but Shitomon, once she had a second to see Raumon clearly, had a moment of clarity so obvious it was visible on her face. This was, unfortunately, followed by something else.

"Light Shot!" she yelled, gathering up a ball of light in her mouth and spitting it at the other digimon.
Raumon jumped backwards, as did Natalie, and the sphere of light hit the ground, singing a bit of the grass but otherwise dissipating harmlessly.

"Him!" Shitomon said, turning to Ryan and pointing as Raumon. "That one! He's one of them!"

"Wh-- are you sure?" Ryan blurted, looking between Raumon and his partner. Shitomon nodded resolutely, and Raumon squinted at her-- and for a split second, realization dawned on him, but he didn't have much time to revel in it.

"Ear Pummel!" Shitomon cried. Her wing-like ears(-- were they really ears?) clenched into fists and she lunged at Raumon, delivering a one-two punch that caught the little bird off-guard, sending him tumbling backwards.

"Dark Ring!" Raumon yelled before he had even finished moving, and underneath Shitomon's feet a purplish-blackish spell-circle appeared. It surged with energy, and Shitomon yelped like she was standing on coals.

Shitomon leapt into the air, flaring her wing-ears out, and they caught the air, keeping her off the ground. She gathered energy in her mouth and fired it with a yell of, "Light Shot!"

Raumon stumbled out of the way of the little orb of light for the second time, and he feinted to the side as he rushed at Shitomon, who had just landed on the ground again. "Symptom Claw!" he yelled, slashing out at Shitomon with claws glowing purple, but she twisted out of the way.

It was rapidly becoming apparent that if it kept going the way it was, nothing was going to get done.

"Nat," Ryan said, because even now he couldn't help but give unsolicited advice, "you should maybe get out of the way real quick."

"Oh my god," Natalie said, but even as she did, she saw both Shitomon and Ryan's D-Rive begin to glow. She did take a half-step back, but with the river behind her, she didn't have much room in which to operate.

"Shitomon, drive evolve to..."

Shitomon's body grew becoming more sleek and enlongated; her legs grew into powerful haunches, and her arms grew in length as well, reaching almost to the ground. Her red markings disappeared as her fur lightened in shade. Feathery wings erupted from her back, and the odd little horns on her head split apart into red-tipped feathers. Gold jewelry chains settled around her forearms, and golden cuffs came to rest around her ankles. A red jewel, edged by gold, grew out of her chest just below where her red scarf still sat. Her tail grew longer and cat-like, and it, too, was tipped with a wing-like tuft. Her mostly-flat face grew into more of a rounded muzzle with tufted cheeks, and a strange design made up of four red triangles appeared on her forehead, practically glowing.

As she settled into her new form, she resembled a very odd angelic dragon, covered in sleek tan and white fur and feathers, and Natalie finally got a good look at the digimon she had seen fighting Snimon.

"Malakhimon!"

"Oh, come on," Raumon said more to himself than to Natalie.

"Southern Cross!" Malakhimon cried, and four shining orbs of light appeared in the air in front of her. The orbs of light extended into rays, which intersected to form a shining cross. There was no time to admire it, though, because the moment it had formed, the cross-shape light fired like a beam.

Raumon tried to dodge out of the way, but he wasn't able to-- the light hit him and he yelled in pain, knocked down to a kneeling position.

"Raumon!" Natalie yelled, and before Malakhimon's beam of light had the chance to fade, Raumon began to glow in turn.

"Raumon, drive evolve to... Doctorimon!"

"Well, damn," Ryan said as the light faded, "guess you were right."

"As usual," Malakhimon preened.

"I don't particularly want to fight. Not you, anyway," Doctorimon said. The last part came as kind of an afterthought, as after a moment of realization, he'd really like to fight Ryan, but Malakhimon...

"Conveniently," Malkahimon said, "what you want doesn't particularly matter. Southern Cross!"

"Face of Judgment!" Doctorimon released a stream of black flames from his staff, and when the fire met the light, they seemed to cancel each other out, as if the black fire absorbed all of the white light. Though he had no visible eyes under his mask, he squinted-- was Malakhimon really so single-minded that she would attack him, even with their humans so close?

"What on earth is your problem?" Natalie said, looking over at Ryan.

"That digimon is dangerous!" Ryan said, gesturing at Doctorimon as the plague doctor leapt away so that Malakhimon's next attack wouldn't put the humans in the line of fire.

"We aren't even the ones causing damage!" Natalie said. "Just because we're on the scene and trying to stop destructive digimon doesn't mean--"

"This is more important than feral digimon," Ryan spat back. "He's dangerous! He's--"

They were cut off as Malakhimon and Doctorimon exchanged blow for blow, and it was hard not to get distracted for at least a half-a-second. Doctorimon was playing as defensively as he could, dodging attacks; Malakhimon, meanwhile, was trying to minimize the damage she did to the trees and the area around them, and it was like a strange, strange game of cat and mouse.

"He's what?" Natalie demanded, folding her arms at Ryan.

Ryan looked at her like she was stupid. "He's a refugee-- he's a criminal!"

Refugee-- that was the word that Strigimon had used, wasn't it? "Where the hell did you get that from? He's been my friend for fifteen years, the worst thing he's ever done is forgot to return a library book!"

They were cut off again by the digimon fighting.

"Holy Charge!" Malkhimon yelled, her body engulfed in light as she ran to tackle the smaller champion-level digimon, who had backed himself into a corner, with the trees behind him giving him fewer options to feint to.

"Black Bloom!" Doctorimon cried, producing a black rose and swiping it through the air, releasing a shower of razor-sharp black petals. Though they didn't stop Malakhimon, they did slow her down.
She powered through and smashed into Doctorimon, who was sent flying backwards, but the exertion and the shower of petals took their toll on Malakhimon. Even when the light of her attack faded, she was still glowing, and she began to shrink back down into Shitomon, looking quite a bit worse for the wear.

By the time he hit the ground, and was only feet from tumbling down the slope into the river, Doctorimon had begun to glow as well, and left Raumon in his wake.

Natalie and Ryan both glared at each other for a half-a-second, neither wanting to be the one to break eye contact, before both ran to their partners.
(Natalie couldn't deny the intense sense of relief she felt when defeat only led to Doctorimon returning to being Raumon, and not the pixellated explosion that happened to the other digimon they had fought.)

"Are you okay?" she asked quietly, and Raumon looked battered and scuffed.

"I'm fine," he said, though he groaned a little as he sat up and glanced around.
Some ways away, Ryan was picking Shitomon up into his arms. He appeared to be talking to her for a moment or two, and she responded, before Ryan pulled out his D-Rive one-handed and minimized her.

They could only wonder what they had said.

"I should minimize you, too," Natalie said, petting Raumon's head feathers. "At least until we can get back to my car. I have the feeling we're not going to be staying."

Raumon nodded, and in a moment's notice, he was safely minimized in Natalie's D-Rive.

"I don't think we have anything else to talk about," Ryan said, loud enough for Natalie to hear him, but she felt like that couldn't be farther from the truth.

"I guess we don't," she said right back, despite herself. She supposed that right now, communication was going to be ineffective at best, and she knew -- they both knew -- this wasn't going to be the last time they intersected.

"Dammit," Natalie muttered, looking at her D-Rive as she walked back to her car. "Dammit all to hell." When she looked over her shoulder back towards the river, Ryan had already taken off in another direction. Good riddance, she thought, and she mulled over what he had said as she unlocked her doors and climbed in, and as Raumon rematerialized in the shotgun seat.

"You okay?" she asked again.

"Yeah," Raumon said, even though he sounded like he'd had better days. "For a given value of okay," he added, which sounded closer to the truth, and Natalie sighed.

At least she had actually gotten some new information from this whole experience, which was more than she had really anticipated, but she wasn't sure how much better that would make her feel.
But she did know what would make the both of them feel at least a little better.

"Wanna get something to eat on the way back?"

"Don't I always?" Raumon said, cracking a half-smile, and Natalie smiled back.

EPISODE 09: CONNECTION INTERRUPTED

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