The city of Rom sat blanketed under a heavy cloud, darkening the peaceful Saturday afternoon with the promise of a stormy, gloomy weekend. Most people were already holed up in their homes on a day like this, making the streets of the apartment block that Hoshiko Yahari called home relatively quiet. Hoshiko herself was a rare exception, sitting with her PET and her purse on the stoop of a closed building a block from her own on the way back from the bus stop. The haze and humidity as it was didn't bother her too much. It even reminded her of her homeland a little. She wore a purple hooded windbreaker and was ready to head inside once it started raining, but until then she welcomed the chance to collect her thoughts in the fresh air with the sense of imminent cleansing hanging around her. She felt like it might give her a better shot at her task for the day out here than in her cluttered apartment.
It had been a long week for the young runaway. From the sudden leap to the big leagues of Official NetBattling to her navi becoming an unrecognizable shell of her former self, to her team's humiliating defeat in yesterday's mission, it wasn't making her new life any easier than in the WWW by any means. It would have been simpler to find a job with less responsibility and risk, but she had too much to atone for, plus responsibility and risk were her main qualifications already.
She had spent the last few hours shopping for new battlechips, which she now had spread out on the stoop next to her, arranged by what she thought might be useful in various situations. A major factor in her poor performance against Queen Majesty was that she was still using Ice Chan's folder and hadn't really tested Flamechick in battle. If she was going to be stuck with Flame, she might as well start from the ground up as if she had a brand new navi, which was essentially true.
Having spent so much time focusing on Ice, it was a little hard thinking about how to handle the opposite element. She used to see fire navis as easy opponents, so even when picking out plenty of fire chips that her new navi would be compatible with, all she could think about was how hopeless they would be against someone like Ice Chan. She knew she couldn't just stuff every fire chip she had into the folder and hope for the best, there had to be balance, it had to be tested, she needed practice.
She needed help.
Unfortunately, she couldn't get a hold of Darklight since she joined the team. He had told her over the phone that his time needed to be dedicated to Darkloid research. A mercenary didn't get days off, but then again, neither did Officials. She considered asking Moe for advice, but she was so new to the group and it embarrassed her to come off as so unprepared. For now, she was on her own.
"Um, hey...folder building?" A quiet voice snapped Hoshiko out of her conundrum. She hadn't noticed someone was walking by and had now stopped to chat. It was a girl about her age wearing a grey hoodie, smiling shyly. Hoshiko recognized her as one of her neighbors. They had passed each other in the stairs and on the street before, but this was the first time she heard her speak.
"Ah, hi. Nn. I guess it's kinda weird to be doing this outside, but I just felt like sitting out here for a moment." Hoshiko answered, slightly embarrassed.
"Oh, no, no I understand. I was kinda curious since I've seen you around and...y'know netbattling is cool and...umm, folder building is always fun. Uh, what kinda strategy are you going for?" The girl fidgeted around on the sidewalk, occasionally pulling her hands from her pockets to brush long, unkempt brown hair out of her eyes. She clearly wasn't very comfortable, but was making the effort to reach out to Hoshiko nonetheless.
"Hnn, I don't know. I just got a new navi and I need an all new setup, but fire types have never been my specialty..."
"Ahh, I get it. Well, don't worry about it too much. Fire's an easy element to build a folder around. You got plenty of Heatguns, right?"
Hoshiko blinked. "The...ones with the dog on them, right?" She held up a few HeatShot and Heat-V chips she got from the shop.
"Heh, yeah. How new are you to this?"
"I'm not! Really! I'm just more used to dealing with aqua types!" Hoshiko's face turned slightly red.
The girl stepped back and made a defensive gesture. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean it seriously. Anyway, if you have lots of those, same-coded of course, they all go really well together. Even though they're weak individually, you can easily get a Program Advance, and combine them with Grass, Plus, CopyDamage, and Prism to deliver instant deletes!"
Hoshiko sifted through her purchases to check how many of those she had on hand. It looked doable. "Wow, you know your stuff, don't you?"
"Oh. Well, y'know, it's a hobby..." She looked down at her feet and shrugged. She was now coming off as a geek that was just excited about sharing her interest with someone. Hoshiko understood and respected that.
"Well, thanks for the tip. You live in that building over there, right? Same as me?"
"Yeah! Name's Lyric, by the way."
"Hoshiko. I haven't been in town very long and I don't know many people to practice NetBattling with, and that's something I need these days. Would you like to compare notes sometimes?"
"S-sure! I could use a sparring partner myself!" Lyric pulled out her own PET. "Wanna trade contact info with a quick link-up?"
Hoshiko nodded and within seconds their PETs were acquainted with each other. Lyric's navi was browsing the net, so only Flamechick got to join the introduction for the time being. They sat and talked for a few more minutes, during which Hoshiko learned that Lyric worked from home and didn't get out much. It showed. It was nothing Hoshiko couldn't relate to though.
Eventually, the clouds lived up to their promise and the rain started coming down. Lyric and Hoshiko continued talking as they picked up, put their hoods up, and walked back to their building. "Your navi may not say much, but I can tell she's reliable. The folder strategy we talked about will work great with her abilities." Lyric assured her new friend.
"Yeah...though I'm hoping it won't be permanent. I'm trying to figure out how to change her back to my old navi..." Hoshiko said despondently.
Lyric contemplated for a moment. "Oh...well, if you can't...and more importantly, if Flamechick doesn't want to change back, it would probably be better to get used to it, y'know? Sometimes you need to accept change. It could be for the better."
"That's not...well, you're sort of right." Hoshiko acknowledged the need to move on, but couldn't shake the feeling that the situation was wrong. "I at least need to get her memories back. The survival of Ice Chan's personality and the time we shared is more important to me than what she looks like or which chips I have to use."
"That's good. I'm sure there's a way to do that at least. I'll try to help in any way I can."
"I'm not sure there's anything you can do. No offense." Hoshiko shrugged as they entered the building and prepared to split ways.
"Well, we'll see, won't we? See you around!" Lyric smiled and waved before shuffling off towards her floor.
"See you!" Hoshiko sighed and continued to her own room. Meeting Lyric had given her a new feeling of ease. Maybe there was hope for her new life after all. Suddenly, the week didn't seem so long.
"Shou has arrived!" exclaimed a boisterous young spike-haired man as he stepped off the bus onto the rainy streets of downtown Rom.
"Yeah, you've been saying that everywhere we've arrived since we left Choina." The gruff voice of Beastman spoke from the PET holstered to his side.
The boy laughed and whipped out the PET with a flourish. "It's true though. Now where are we meeting your friends?"
"Just find somewhere comfortable to hang out while I'm jacked in. There aren't any other operators to meet here, so I'll take it from there."
Shou strode confidently through the street. He was on a mission for justice, something for which he would travel halfway around the world. Only a couple months ago he received the PET in gratitude from a fellow traveler he rescued from a pack of viscous monkeys. The fact it was Shou that released the monkeys from the zoo as a joke didn't matter to the other boy, particularly since Shou didn't tell him. All that mattered was that the traveler and his navi had both been searching to start new lives, and they decided that a resourceful adventurer like Shou was the perfect new partner for the bombastic Beastman.
As Beastman got to know his new operator, he could tell he was actually a little unhinged. While he talked a lot about seeking out and battling injustice like some kind of swashbuckling superhero, he only ever seemed to cause trouble wherever he went. It gave Beastman plenty of action either way, so he wasn't complaining. His operation style was decidedly hands-off, and that suited Beastman as well, as he was growing to cherish the freedom to fight using primarily his own power.
Shou came across a restaurant district and snapped his fingers. "A net café has been spotted! Perfect. The journey has left me hungry, and I welcome the opportunity to rest and recharge at no cost."
"No cost, huh?" Beastman responded, knowing what was coming.
"As a reward for heroically ridding their system of their persistent virus infiltration, they will provide me with whatever I need."
"Alright, understood. Just find me some place secluded nearby to jack in and call some viruses over..."
Beastman's natural affinity with viruses and his developing skill in training and breeding them proved convenient for a simple con that helped pay for a good chunk of Shou's travel expenses. While it wasn't unheard of for netcriminals to release virus bombs on businesses to get what they want, whether by extortion, by force, or by trickery, Shou and Beastman had refined the act well by a combination of stealth and theatricality to make it work almost every time. It especially helped that Beastman had the awareness and means to populate the mark's system with viruses local to the area gradually enough that the owners had no reason to suspect it was anything other than a natural surge in viral activity.
Within half an hour, the net café sent the call out to the Request Boards, and then Shou conveniently arrived to save the day. Beastman's speed and power had cleared out the entire infection within minutes and the café was back in business, and Shou was enjoying a burger, drink, and online access on the house.
"Justice has been served!" Shou said triumphantly while laying back in the couch at the back of the store.
"Sure, sure." Beastman growled while wiping Garuu remains from his claws. "Sit tight then, I've got a meeting to get to."
"Have fun, partner!"
Beastman crossed the Rom network in leaps and bounds, heading through the sector formerly known as the "snow area", and landing just inside the entrance to the Undernet. Three other navis were standing on the platform when he arrived through the warp: Plantman, Bubbleman, and Burstgirl.
"How does a navi so fast end up being so late?" Plantman asked rhetorically, crossing his arms and leaning back against his own rooted and stiffened vines.
"Sorry about that. I had business to attend to with my operator." Beastman shrugged, not very sincere in his apology.
"What's the deal with this new op anyway? What happened to Jake?"
"Not much to say about that, really. Jake wanted to concentrate on his new delivery business that wouldn't leave much for a navi that was all about tearing things apart to do. So he gave me away. We weren't very close to begin with, so whatever."
"Aw, don't say that. I bet he misses you." Burstgirl said reassuringly before turning slightly downcast. "I still miss my operator...I hope you can at least keep in touch with him."
Beastman was taken off-guard by the girl's emotion. "Uh, yeah I guess. I dunno, from where I stand, you autonavis seem to have a pretty good deal."
"Yeah, being effectively homeless is great, blub." Bubbleman responded sarcastically. "I hope you get the chance to try it sometime."
"Yeah! So do I!" Beastman barked back, mocking Bubbleman's mockery of his own capacity for independence.
"Please boys, let's not get carried away like we did yesterday." said Burst, stepping between the others.
"I don't know how you think yesterday's battle got started, but...that wasn't anything like it, blub." Bubbleman sighed, clutching his temple. Burstgirl's naivité stuck out like a sore fin in this group of ex-WWW/ex-AH thugs.
"Let's just get on to business." Plantman cut in. "Bubbleman, your Darkloid pals are cutting in on my territory...and apparently they're working towards some kind of net-wide apocalypse, which is also pretty bad, I guess."
Beastman growled softly. "I just don't like the idea of Desertman being all crazy and mean like you were yesterday, Bubs. We owe it to him to bring him to his senses!"
Bubbleman nodded. "As much as I hate the idea of going back in there, someone has to put a stop to the Darkloids, and since I know where to find them, it may as well be us, blub." He proclaimed with a grim tone. He was reluctant to admit he was skeptical any of them would survive the attempt, but he knew there was no point in running from it.
"By the way, what happened to Flame?" Beastman asked. "Shouldn't he have popped out of Gamma along with you and Desert?"
"Yeah, but you're too late to do anything about it blub. Officials managed to delete his Darked-up, tanked-up self three days ago. Metalman too. I wish I could say Desert and Bowl were all that was left, but once we reach their base, I'm afraid there's a little more to it than that, blub."
"This sounds like a deeply personal matter between you and your old friends." Burstgirl surmised. "Are you sure I wouldn't be intruding?"
"Why are you even here in the first place?" Beastman asked incredulously.
"I was wondering that myself." Plantman concurred.
"She's our secret weapon, blub!" Bubbleman explained. "Dealing with Dark power is no easy feat, but she managed to purify me without even trying! That's too big to ignore, blub. She may be important to our survival."
"Ah, thank you. I'll try not to let you down." Burst smiled. "After what we went through yesterday, I'm not about to abandon you anyway. I wouldn't give you a new lease on life only let you throw it away by venturing into a place like this alone."
"Oh...Blub...I didn't think of that...thanks...blub..." Bubble would deny he had an ulterior motive in keeping this non-combat, soft-hearted navi around, but he could tell from Beast and Plant's heavy-lidded expressions that they weren't buying it.
"Whatever. If we're all on the same page and fully charged, I say we get going." Plantman suggested. "How far is it?"
"That's the tricky part, blub. With Desert's new powers it's like he's everywhere in the Undernet. If we take a direct line to the place, he'll catch us like fish in a net. The only way I can think to get the drop on them is to take the high road...slow and steady...then drop in on them without touching the ground."
Plant was getting agitated. "Seriously? What am I supposed to do then? I can't fly."
Burst snapped her fingers. "I can help with that!" and with a gesture, small bubbles formed beneath Plantman's feet, lifting him off the ground. He was a little surprised, but quickly regained his annoyed composure.
"Great." Plant remarked sarcastically. "Will this work, at least?"
"Mehhh, we'll know if space doesn't start bending around us. It may take a few hours to safely travel the whole way though."
Beastman looked up. "Yo Shou, this may be a bit longer than I thought...go find a motel or convince an old shut-in you're their grandson or whatever it is you do."
"Huh, I just realized, does Nijubu know Desert's alive, so to speak?" asked Plant.
Bubble shrugged. "I don't see how he could...and if we're gonna let him know it might as well wait until after he's back to normal, right blub?"
"Makes sense to me. Come on." Beastman rallied. Held aloft on a cloud of bubbles, the four navis floated slowly into the dark Undernet sky. "By the way guys...it feels great to team up again."