Epilogue:

Piedmon's eyes gave only a flicker of life as he lay on his back, his entire being aching terribly. He had been thrown back into the damned digital world again, and he was weak… so very, very weak. His eyes seemed to have trouble focusing, and his every breath fought back against his attempt to draw it into his lungs. Everything seemed to blur in his vision. He had been beaten. Again.

"Arrrgh!" The scream that exploded from his throat echoed from the canyon walls, then died off into a weak gargling noise. "How?" he demanded, his voice raspy and failing. "Without their champions! Beaten by the babes of the group again!"

A pair of clean and sturdy white boots came to a halt inches in front of his face. With agonizing slowness the fallen clown looked up, right into the face of the youngest boy's holy champion, the Angemon. Piedmon slumped back to the ground, feeling unable to fight any longer. But then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught the blurred sight of his lone remaining sword. It was out of his reach, but it had been blown here with him. If he played his cards right…

The holy angel looked down. In one hand he carried his warrior's staff. In the other, what appeared to be a sleeping cat. The angel smiled a benediction as he looked down at Salamon. Finally, after all this time, she was getting some rest.

"So, have you come to put an end to me, warrior?" the clown asked, his hollow voice grating.

"Your end has already come." The statement was forthright. Not boastful. Not pleased. Only simple and factual.

"Yet still I am here."

"No. You are not." The clown looked at the other in confusion, the unfeeling tone of the words striking a chord of fear within his broken spirit. "You are simply an echo. A dream. A memory of what was. You were able to cheat your fate once because of the mistake of one of the children. That will not happen again." Then, with deliberate slowness and so as not to wake the sleeping feline, he placed his charge down and grabbed his holy staff with both hands, aiming at the sword which was standing upright, its blade buried in the ground.

"No!" hissed Piedmon. "You can't!" And before the Angemon could strike he leapt for the blade, fingers extended towards it. But the holy warrior only maintained the infuriatingly calm expression on his face, watching with disinterest as the hand of the clown passed right through the hilt of his weapon.

"You exist now only as spirit, Piedmon. Once your blade is gone, no one will ever hear from you or see you again. You may wander this and other worlds, seeking chances to cause mischief and harm while howling at the good that you witness and reveling in the evil, but it will avail you nothing. Those that have died have found rest, but you sought to cheat death and so for you, there will be none. Only a timeless, desperate longing for a world that will in time forget that you had ever existed."

"How… did this… happen?" the other howled past tears of rage, wanting nothing more than to leap at the holy creature and tear its throat out with the very nails of his fingers.

Angemon was unmoved by the clown's fury. "You underestimated them. Like others, you thought them too young to stand against you. You thought that Kari would die without the hope that you stole from her so long ago. You thought that T.K.'s strength would not be enough to sustain her, or that it would leave him broken if he could. And above all, you could not see the power within them because it is different than yours."

With those words and the spirit of the clown looking at him, mouth agape, the holy warrior swung his staff at the blade embedded in the ground. With a blinding flash it was snapped in two, and then the dark jester was gone from his sight. His small charge opened her eyes briefly and yawned. "What's happening?" she asked sleepily.

The angel smiled and picked her up, once again resting her in the bend of his arm. "Nothing to be concerned about, Salamon. Just making sure that this is all over." The other nodded briefly and went back to sleep.

The threat abated for all time, Angemon turned his gaze to the sky. Now it was time for he and Salamon, as well as T.K. and Kari, to rest and to regain their strength. He had a strong feeling that, unlike the jester, the worlds still had need of them.

*****

It was another warm, cloudy night in the real world when T.K. and Kari were finally able to be alone again. She was still limping heavily, and had spent much of the two days since the battle had been won leaning on his shoulders. Not that either of them minded. Joe had even been heard to say (before silenced by a sharp elbow from Sora) that her injury shouldn't have been bad enough to keep her from walking on it.

The pair were hand in hand now, watching the clouds drift lazily past the moon. "He still won't talk about it?" T.K. asked.

Kari shook her head. "But he apologizes to me every time we're in the same room together. The only other part that I've been able to get out of him is that he remembers all of it. Every single, terrible thing that he's done or thought during the whole two years, even if he couldn't control it. I think... I think it's done something awful to him, T.K."

The young boy nodded gravely, still staring out into nothingness. He had seen the same, haunted expression in the eyes of her older brother, and had been the recipient of many of Tai's apologies as well. But to the others, the dark-haired boy had said not a word. He had become little better than a recluse, shutting himself in his room with the shades drawn and not acknowledging the presence of his friends.

T.K. turned to look Kari in the face. Just beneath his left eye was a large, purple bruise that Piedmon's punch had brought about, and it made her heart swell with pride to remember the hopeless and heroic battle that he had fought on her behalf. It also made him look oddly more attractive to her, if she couldn't say just why. "Kari?"

"Hmm?"

"I... I wanted to talk to you about something else."

She smiled, reaching up and smoothing his golden hair out of his eyes. "I've been waiting for you to."

The corners of his mouth twitched at her touch, the feeling of her fingers in his hair being almost the most delightful sensation that he'd ever experienced. He never wanted it to end. "You'd think after everything that we'd just been through together, this would be the easy part. But it isn't. Caring for you, and holding you, and fighting for you all just seemed to come naturally. But somehow, talking about it just... isn't."

He took both of her hands, and sighed. "I want to tell you that I love you, Kari. But I don't know how. I don't want it to sound like something too stupid or babyish, like the boys at school make it sound, but I also don't want to make it sound too grown up, like what Matt told me about."

Her smile was bearing down on him with a warmth that was impossible to deny. "I think you did a fine job with it, T.K. But I'd heard it before, even if I didn't hear it quite well enough. You were saying it every time you stayed with me and kept me well without saying a word about how much it hurt you, or how tired it made you. You said it every time you told me that everything would be okay, when everybody else was telling me that it wouldn't. You risked everything for me, and it made me realize just how much I love you too."

The boy nodded, his eyes still troubled by something. "Kari...? Does that mean that I...? Are we...?"

Kari tried, unsuccessfully, to fight back a little giggle. "T.K., what? Spit it out."

T.K. was chewing on his bottom lip, his brow furrowed. "Does that mean I'm supposed to kiss you now? Or would that make you feel too weird?"

Now Kari's suppressed giggle threatened to become full-blown laughter. "Weird? T.K., I already kissed you once. Why would it make me feel weird?"

T.K. blinked in surprise. "You did?"

"You don't remember? Back at the park when Tai was standing over you?"

The boy concentrated for a moment, then shook his head sadly. She would have said he looked somewhat... huffy... as he stood there with his arms crossed. "And now I don't remember my first kiss."

Kari threw her arms around his neck and laughed gaily, the solemn mood of the night replaced one of delight that a missed kiss was now the biggest of the little boy's concerns. She felt like dancing with him, if only her ankle weren't still so sore. But then she forced a formal look onto her face. "Yes, T.K. You're supposed to kiss me now."

The boy glanced over at her with a clever smile, and his hair was in his eyes again. But then it didn't matter as he pulled her close and hugged her tightly, his nose pressing just to the side of her own as his lips brushed gently against hers.

Kari pulled the boy even closer as he broke off the kiss, pressing her face into the curve of his neck and finding it impossible to speak, so deep was the emotion on the moment. And as she looked up she found that there were tears in her eyes and that some had fallen on T.K.'s shirt. But none of that mattered. She didn't need to say anything; he knew how she felt. And she didn't mind crying; he had seen her as she really was, and that was really at that was important at the moment. Just the two of them... safe and together.

*****

But back at his house, Tai had no inclination of his sister's newfound joy. He sat alone in the corner of his bedroom with his knees pulled up against his chest, where even the light from the moon could not enter through his window to reach him. The boy was trembling violently; deluged with guilt and horror, terror and self-hatred. There was a look in his eyes that was haunted and said that he was reliving each of the last three years repeatedly in his mind.

A doctor might have said that he was in shock, as he neither moved nor spoke. He was trapped in a nightmare that had come to life and was replaying itself over and over again in his mind. But for him there was no consolation, and no waking to escape the dream that had become reality. And though he made no sound, as he sat a single tear formed in the corner of his eye and ran unchecked down his cheek... a tear that aimed straight for the boy's broken heart.

To be continued...

Again, thanks to my sister Cas for turning me on to this site, and much more thanks to kale for putting up with me and (finally) allowing me to post his writings.