Davis's fists clenched something cold, soft and crumbly. He slowly opened his eyes and saw hundreds of blades of gray grass. With a groan he pushed himself up onto his knees and looked around. His friends and he lay on a gentle hill surrounded by several pine trees, a pebbly trail leading through them. Above him a single bright light shone down from the deep, blue sky. He looked up and blinked for a moment, then his heart leaped into his throat; it was the sun. "Guys! GUYS!" he yelled, scrambling to his feet and grabbing TK, the nearest person. "Get up! C'mon!"

The others slowly pulled themselves up, groaning and stretching and trying not to fall over on the fresh ground. "Woah… where are we now?" Veemon asked as he pressed his toes into the grass.

"Is this the Digital World?" Yolei asked.

Armadillomon sniffed at the air. "Don't think so," he said. "Kinda smells like when we came back an' the others were campin'."

TK looked up at the mountain for a moment, a wave of familiarity and nostalgia washing over him. He knew where they were. "It's—" he began.

"Davis!" Tai's voice cut into their thoughts. They whirled around and saw Tai, the older kids, their Digimon, Jun, Yolei's siblings, and several sets of parents coming up the trail towards them, gawking in stunned silence. Tai's Digivice, as well as the others he could see, were glowing bright colors just as TK's and Kari's had. Davis's chest swelled with joy; they had come home. He struggled to think of something to say, something proud to announce their victory. "Uh… hey, guys," he managed with a small wave.

There was another moment of silence, and then Jun let out a scream and ran at him. Davis cringed and braced himself for the incoming tackle, then eased as he watched her scoop Veemon up and whirl him around. "Hiya, Jun!" Veemon laughed, "didja miss me?!"

"You're OK! You're OK!" Jun laughed and squeezed him against her body.

Davis rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, we're all fine," he said. "Easy, Jun, you're gonna—"

Suddenly her other arm was around his neck, yanking him against her in the first willing hug she had ever given him. "And you too, you big doofus!" she laughed. "I'm so happy!"

"Urk… she's really strong when she's happy," Veemon gurgled.

"T-tell me about it," Davis coughed. "Jun… Jun! Can't breathe!"

Tai chuckled and put a hand on Agumon's head. "Welcome back, you guys," he said. "We knew you'd do it!"

Izzy quietly nodded and smiled, squeezing the black computer in his arms.

The other relatives encircled the kids and pulled them into a squirming ball of joyful weeping and tight hugs. Yolei yelped as Momoe pulled her away from the group and then every member of her family closed in from all sides, ten arms grabbing at her at once. "Miyako!" they shouted happily. "Miyako!"

"Goodness!" Hawkmon coughed as he banged against their legs. "What was that about not feeling like you belonged?"

"Well, I sure do now!" Yolei laughed as she was jerked back and forth. "Hey, c'mon, guys! I need those arms!"

TK was also grabbed from both sides by his mother and Matt. "Thank God," Nancy said, weeping softly. "Thank God!…"

"You really scared us for a minute," Matt said, giving his little brother a gentle jab in the ribs. "What happened up there?"

"Well, I—" TK began, but suddenly his vision went white as something flopped over his eyes.

"Oh, wow!" Patamon chirped. "TK, look what it is!"

TK pulled away from his family and grabbed at it, and was shocked to see his white hat in his hands. Surprised, he looked up at the sky. "Did this fall all the way back down with us?" he asked.

"Yeah! It just came outta nowhere!" Patamon said.

TK looked at his hat for a moment again, then happily placed it back on his head. Sora and Mimi watched him, chuckling. "Lucky you," Sora said.

"And you didn't have to wait five years!" Mimi said.

As the others laughed and hugged and joked, Cody stood quietly with Armadillomon nearby, wondering if his mother and grandfather were all right back in the city. Then he saw Mr. Ishida and Mr. Takenouchi approaching him. "Are you all right, Cody?" Haruhiko asked.

"Yes, I'm fine, Mr. Takenouchi," he said with a quick bow. "Thanks for asking."

"It was pretty rough-and-tumble, but we all pulled through," Armadillomon said.

"Good… good," Hiroaki said, then coughed and looked at him anxiously. "So, uh… what happened?"

Haruhiko looked equally worried. "Yes… Is Yukio…?" he began.

Cody understood what the men wanted to ask him, and he nodded with a sad sigh. "Yes," he said, "Mr. Oikawa is gone."

The men's shoulders sagged and they stared at nothing in particular, like the relatives of a patient who they just learned hadn't made it. Armadillomon's tail sagged. "We're real sorry," he said.

"We tried to talk to him," Cody said softly. "We did… but… he wouldn't…"

Haruhiko knelt down and put his hand on Cody's shoulder, a sad smile creasing his lips. "It's all right," he said quietly. "Our friend Yukio… well, you could say he died a long time ago. All that was left was his unhappiness and longing. So… thank you, Cody, for helping lay him to rest." He paused and swallowed, his eyes moistening. "I… I'm sure Mitsuo and Chidori would want to thank you, as well. Wouldn't you agree, Hiro?"

Cody looked over at Hiroaki and was surprised to see him smiling too, even though his eyes looked just as wet. As Haruhiko pulled away from him, his body shivered with the same strange mixture of peace and regret. He could only hope that his father would have been proud of what he had done… as he hoped Ken would be.

Tai laughed as he hugged his sister. "You guys are awesome!" he said.

Kari pursed her lips in thought. "I'm glad too, but… how did we escape?" she asked. "What happened?"

"It was very strange," Izzy said. "The Digital World vanished in a blinding light… and then our Digivices lit up and shot beams into the sky."

"Then they all came back down with a big old white bubble, and it landed up here," Agumon said, "and then we found you!"

"How about that!" Davis said, finally breaking free of Jun's grip. "Coach, you guys saved our asses again!"

Tai smiled. "Us? What about you?" he said. "You guys saved both worlds!"

Kari still looked pensive. "But why did that screen light up?" she asked. "I mean, if it hadn't showed us where to fly, we would have died."

"Yeah… it was pretty timely," Gatomon said. "Maybe Gennai turned it on?"

TK shook his head. "I don't have a clue," he said.

Veemon looked up at Davis. "Davith, did you see somethin' up there?" he asked. "I thought ya said somethin'."

Davis thought for a moment, then smiled at his partner and looked back up at the empty sky. It could have been just a glitch in the system, a breakdown of the computer's memory… but he knew who he had seen on the monitor for a second. And that second had been long enough for him to believe.

There were a few more minutes of laughing and hugging before Mr. Motomiya coughed loudly. "Well! Let's not stand around waiting to catch cold!" he said, clapping his son on the back. "Let's go home, huh?"

"Yeah, it's party time!" Gomamon said.

"Pork chops fer everybody!" Veemon laughed.

Chattering cheerfully, the group made its way back down the trail. As they reached the wooden rest stop, though, they saw that someone else was waiting for them. A hunched old man in a red and black outfit stood looking out on the landscape, his arms folded pensively behind his back. Izzy almost tripped on his own feet as he recognized him. "Gennai?" he asked.

Gennai turned and faced them, smiling widely. "So… this is what your world is like," he said, his head turning one way and then the other, though his bulbous eyes remained shut. "It's quite lovely… if a little cold."

"Um… well, it is winter," Sora said, for lack of anything else to say.

"Ah," Gennai said with a little nod, and took a step forward, his faced turned towards the adults. "And Hiroaki, Haruhiko… you're here too. It's good to see you again."

Mr. Takenouchi and Mr. Ishida looked at him with confusion. "Uh… hello?" Hiroaki said.

"Erm, yes," Haruhiko said, scratching his head. "Pardon me, but… do we know you, sir?"

Gennai paused for a minute, then chuckled. "Yes, I suppose we all look a bit older since the last time we met," he admitted, "but regardless, I'm pleased you're well."

As Haruhiko and Hiroaki looked to each other for some kind of clue, Biyomon cocked her head to the side like a puzzled dog. "Gennai, what're you doing here?" she asked.

"Shouldn't you be in the Digital World?" Gabumon asked. Suddenly his eyes widened in horrible thought. "Wait, is it—"

"Now, don't worry yourself," Gennai said, holding a hand up for silence. "That's why I've come: to congratulate you… all of you." He looked towards the younger kids and smiled again. "A job well done, my friends. You thwarted Oikawa's plans, and now the Digital World is at peace once again."

Davis and Yolei weren't quite sure what to say to the old man, but Cody bowed. "Thank you, Gennai," he said.

"Indeed," Hawkmon said, also bowing. "We were happy to assist."

"How does it look? The Digital World, I mean," Kari asked.

Gennai's smile faded a little. "I'm sorry to say that it's little more than an empty husk now, since Oikawa siphoned so much data out of it," he said. "It will take quite some time to recover."

Izzy looked down at the computer in his hands, then carried it over to the old man. "We managed to recover this from Oikawa's hideout," he said, putting it on the ground. "The data stored on it should speed up the recovery."

Gennai looked down in surprise, then smiled and grabbed Izzy's shoulder. "You children never disappoint," he said happily. "Yes, that should help things along considerably!"

"Whew… that's a relief," Tai said.

"So, did you want us to come back and help fix things up, like before?" Yolei asked.

Gennai looked at them and was silent for a moment, then sighed. "Unfortunately, along with the congratulations I have to convey bad news," he said. "With Oikawa's programming influence gone, the Digital Gate has been destroyed and the worlds have become desynchronized. Time is flowing normally there again; that is to say, far faster than here in your world."

Yolei blinked. "How is that bad news?" she asked.

"If anything, it means we can spend more time there," Hawkmon said.

Gennai's moustache seemed to droop as he shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said. "Since the Digital World is now free of outside influence, the Order has decided that it will be sealed off from this world." He paused and shifted his weight before adding, more quietly: "permanently."

An icy silence blew through the crowd. Tai's mouth hung open. Kari dropped her Digivice. Matt's eye twitched. "What?! Why?!" he demanded.

"Yukio Oikawa schemed to tear the Digital World apart and remake it for himself," Gennai went on, his eyebrows knotting. "As a result of his actions, many Digimon now bear a hatred of humans; you experienced it yourself in the form of the Resistance." He sighed and shook his head. "Neither side is ready or willing to accept the other yet. So they must be kept separate."

"But… but that was just Oikawa!" Mimi said, her fists balling and her voice jumping an octave. "We're not all like that!"

"Yeah, you can't do this just because of him!" Palmon said.

"Even if Oikawa was working alone, the Order believes that others who would think and act just like him still exist… in both worlds," Gennai said, his face showing that he wasn't happy with the words coming out of his mouth. "The memories of Dagomon and even Myotismon are still fresh in their minds. They've decided to err on the side of caution, for the safety of both forms of life."

The kids scrambled to argue or object, but Gennai just slowly shook his head at the balls of protesting syllables they coughed out. Finally, Kari swallowed. "Will they ever open it again?" she asked.

Gennai hesitated, turned and looked up at the sky. "Perhaps one day, when they decide that both worlds have matured and changed, they may open a path again," he said, "but… I can't promise that will be during any of your lifetimes."

Cody and Armadillomon shared horrified looks. "No…" Cody whispered.

"Ya mean… I'll never see Cody again?!" Armadillomon asked.

"B-but… but…" Mimi whimpered as her eyes spilled over. "We just met again! And now you're saying?!…"

"This isn't fair!" Palmon shouted, her green eyes also welling up with tears.

"I know, Palmon…" Gennai said, then turned to Tai. "And I hate to add to it, but… I also have to ask one last sacrifice from you original Digidestined: please give me the eight restored Crests."

Matt glared at him. "It's bad enough you're taking our friends, but you want our Crests too?" he asked.

Sora clamped her fingers tightly around her Crest, biting her lip. "Why do you want them?" she asked.

"The power of the four Digital Gods will be used to make the seal around the Digital World," Gennai said. "That should be strong enough to keep trouble from getting in… and also coming out."

Agumon frowned. "I bet Zhuqiaomon's laughing his butt off at us right now," he muttered to Tai.

"Well, at least he's getting what he wanted," Tai said, slowly taking his Crest out of his coat, "so I guess we even made him happy." He hesitated a moment, rubbing the glowing orange plastic between his fingertips one last time, then placed it in Gennai's waiting palm with a sad sigh. "Come on, guys," he said.

The others silently came up and gave their Crests to the old man. Davis watched them with another layer of misery greasing his throat; he knew those Crests meant something important to his older friends, and being asked to part with them was rubbing salt in an already fresh wound.

TK was the last to surrender his Crest, regarding it for another second before placing it on top of Matt's in Gennai's palm. Gennai looked at the handful of glowing trinkets and smiled sadly at him. "Thank you," he said as he closed his fist and put it behind his back. "Now… go and say your goodbyes. We have to leave soon."

Yolei watched Mimi and Palmon descend into blubbering tears as they grabbed each other and felt her own heart start to quake. Then she looked over at Sora and Biyomon, who were hugging and talking, but looked nowhere near as upset. She looked at Tai and Agumon, who were hugging and laughing; then at Matt and Gabumon, who just stood together quietly; and even at Kari and Gatomon who clutched hands and smiled, Kari's whistle returned to its place around the cat's neck. Mimi and Palmon were the odd ones in the group. Her chest clenched with sad confusion. "Sora, aren't you sad?" she asked her. "He said the gate's closing forever!"

She was surprised to see Sora was smiling through her few tears when she turned to her. "Yeah," Sora said, "but… well, if there's one thing we've learned about the Digital World, 'forever' may not be as long as you think."

"Yeah, one second we're there, the next we show up here again!" Biyomon said. "So… you never know!"

Yolei and Hawkmon looked at each other, then Yolei swallowed with a terrible thought. Sora was confident she might see Biyomon again, but… "Wait… why do YOU have to go, too?" she asked.

"I… I don't know," Hawkmon admitted, looking down at his wings. "We're not your average Digimon… nor truthfully Digimon at all."

Davis looked at Veemon and realized what Hawkmon meant. "Damn, you're right," he said, turning to Gennai. "Hey Gennai, what happens to Veemon and the others?"

Veemon swallowed hard. "Y-yeah… we ain't getting dumped in the recycle bin, are we?" he asked.

Gennai regarded them for a second, then shook his head and gave a quiet laugh. "No… no. That's actually one good bit of news I have for you," he said. "After all, with Oikawa gone, there's no one who could take control of them again… and it can't be ignored that you did save both worlds…" He paused and nodded. "I was able to pull a few strings, and convince the Order to let your partners be integrated into the Digital World's code."

The older kids gasped excitedly. Yolei's eyes widened. "Oh, my God…" she whispered, clutching Hawkmon's wing. "Th-thank you, Gennai!"

Davis scratched his head. "Uh… you wanna run that by me again?" he asked.

"It's good news, Davis," Izzy said. "He said that they're going to let Veemon, Hawkmon and Armadillomon become real Digimon."

"Well, I wouldn't use that term, exactly," Gennai said, pulling at his moustache. "Considering the mutations they've gone through since Oikawa made them—the power they absorbed from the Crests, for example—they're as much 'Digimon' as the rest. We're just giving them a place to call home."

Cody sighed and gave Armadillomon a sad smile. "At least there's that," he said. "Even without us, you'll live on in the Digital World."

Armadillomon sighed and shook his head. "I'd rather stick around here with you, Cody; I don't know the Digital World so well," he said.

"Don't worry," Gomamon said, scooting over to him and patting him on the shell, "we'll show ya the ropes!"

"You won't believe all the food there is!" Tentomon said.

Even though he still looked sad, Armadillomon's eyes flashed at the mention of food. Gennai chuckled. "Seems like it won't be all bad, eh?" he said. "Now, please, say your goodbyes, as well."

Yolei knelt down, clasped Hawkmon by the wings and took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to find the right words. "Hawkmon… thanks," she said. "Thanks for being there for me, in spite of all the dumb stuff I did."

Hawkmon nodded, his usually stoic eyes starting to turn misty. "It was an honor, Yolei," he said. "Just remember to keep your room tidy. Even if I didn't care for the personality changes, I appreciated the clean floor."

Yolei bit her lip, then pulled him into a tight hug. "I'll leave your nest in the corner, just in case!" she whispered, her voice cracking along with his spine. Hawkmon gurgled and wheezed in her bear-like grip, trying hard to both hug her back and stay conscious.

Armadillomon looked up at Cody and sighed. "Guess this is it, pardner," he said. "I'm gonna—" He stopped as Cody knelt down and gripped the fur around his head, locking intense eyes with him. "Uh… what're you doin'?" he asked.

"I… I want to burn your image into my mind," Cody said. "Your eyes, your nose, your fur, the sound of your voice… I never want to forget you."

Armadillomon stayed with his face locked to Cody's for a few more seconds, then he weakly shook his head and looked away. "Cody, c'mon, this's weird," he said. "I mean, even if I forget what you look like, I'm always gonna remember what I learned from bein' with ya, and how ya made me feel… 'cuz yer my best friend."

Cody hesitated, then let go of his partner. "Yes… you're right," he agreed. "Those are the important things. I'll never forget what you taught me, either."

Armadillomon smiled. "Yeah, see, you got it," he said. "Now how 'bout a hug?"

His eyes starting to run, Cody nodded and pulled Armadillomon close. Even through his hard shell, Armadillomon could feel the warmth rush over him like a blanket, and he smiled even wider.

Davis swallowed and looked at Veemon, who watched him with searching eyes. He had so many things he wanted to say, and yet he couldn't puzzle out what should come first; it was all so sudden his brain was clicking like a stuck clock. "Well…" he began.

Suddenly Veemon flew up and away from him, mashed against Jun's bosom as she howled and wailed. "Hey! I was talkin' to him!" Davis snapped.

"It's not fair!" Jun yelled. "I don't want you to go!"

Veemon looked like he was having trouble breathing, and yet didn't seem to mind. "Urk… I'm gonna… oof… miss you too, Jun!" he coughed as his face moved in and out of her coat.

She turned to Gennai, her eyes bubbling over with tears. "Why? Why can't he stay with us?!" she yelled. "I can take care of him! Daisuke and I can keep him safe! He'll never get in trouble again, I SWEAR!"

The old man raised a surprised eyebrow for a moment, then sighed and dipped his head. "I'm sorry… this isn't left to me… no matter how much I wish it were," he said.

Her pleas denied, Jun could only squeeze Veemon again,putting her forehead against his as she wept bitterly. She suddenly felt his hands squeeze her back, the side of Veemon's head rubbing against her, causing her mouth to twist into a small smile. Then she noticed Gennai had walked close to her, a happier smile on his face. "W… w-what?" she asked, her eyes still watering.

"The way you're acting, young lady… it gives me hope for the future," Gennai said.

"R-really?" she whimpered.

"When there are more humans in this world like you, who can love Digimon even without being chosen children," he went on, "I think the worlds really will be able to reach out to each other once more."

Jun sniffled again, then looked down at Veemon. "I… I hope so," she said.

"An' there's gotta be Digimon who'd love humans too!" Veemon said. "I mean, who could hate Jun's boobs?"

Jun's eyes bulged as she stared down at him, and then she broke into bawling again, kissing his forehead between gasping, gurgling sobs. Veemon managed a few gasps of his own from her wailing embrace. "Best… hugs… ever!…" he wheezed.

The others stood dumbfounded. "Wow," Joe said.

"He can say just about anything and get away with it, can't he?" Tentomon asked.

"He really knows how to ruin a mood," Yolei sighed, seemingly unaware of her own death grip on Hawkmon.

"Isn't that what he's best at?" Matt said, smirking as he walked up beside Jun and tugged her shoulder. "C'mon, Jun… Davis has to say goodbye to Veemon, too."

Jun stalled for one last moment, gave Veemon a final squeeze, and then slowly put him back on the ground. Trying hard to keep her weeping silent, she managed another small smile as she rubbed her gloves across her eyes.

Veemon coughed a few times, then straightened up and looked at Davis. They stared at each other for several moments of uneasy silence. "I… this's happening so fast," Davis finally said, pulling at his goggles. "I don't believe it… I don't really want to."

"Yeah," Veemon agreed, equally tongue-tied. "Guess we're gonna hafta take a rain check on that trip around the world, huh?"

"Yeah…" Davis said.

Several moments passed with no words from either. Yolei finally lost her temper and stamped her foot. "Come ON!" she yelled, making them both flinch. "You might never see each other again! SAY something!"

Davis winced, then looked at his partner. "She's right," he muttered.

Veemon hesitated, then gave Davis one of his best smiles. "Well, Davith, even if wasn't s'posed to be a real Digimon, I'm as happy as one now," he said, "'An' that's 'cuz I got you as a partner! You're the best!"

Davis's chest tightened and he sucked in air. "Get over here, you!" he said, grabbing Veemon and pulling him into a tight hug.

Veemon squeezed back, his mind suddenly registering something important. "This's the first time you ever hugged me, Davith," he whispered in his partner's ear. "And y'know what? You're pretty good at it."

Davis pulled back and looked at him in surprise. "Really?" he asked.

"Well, not as good as Jun, but still," Veemon said.

"You crazy little…" Davis muttered, resisting the urge to shake him and instead hugging him tighter.

A rainbow-colored pillar gently descended from the sky, causing Davis to drop Veemon as all the children and Digimon took a big step back. Gennai's smile faded, as he looked up at it."It's time," he said.

The air filled with choked sobs and whispered farewells as the children let go of their partners, who began a slow walk towards the pillar. Yolei reached out towards Hawkmon, then stopped and looked over at Cody, who gave her a tearful smile and a nod. Davis gave Veemon one last clap on the back and let him go. "See ya later, little buddy," he said."And look out for all these guys; they're gonna need it."

Veemon blinked a few times, then flashed a toothy grin and gave his partner a thumbs up."You too, big buddy!" he laughed before he walked away.

The eleven Digimon stepped into the glowing pillar and slowly began to float up. "W-woah!" Gomamon yelped as he flailed. "I forgot about this part!"

Armadillomon flailed and spun slowly around as his feet left the ground. "Aww, no, I think I'm gonna lose my lunch!" he yelped.

"We didn't get lunch!" Hawkmon retorted, his wings flapping uselessly in the rainbow's hold.

"When we get there, I'll take you to my favorite spot!" Agumon said.

Gennai raised a hand to the humans as he stepped into the light. "On behalf of the Order, I thank you for what you've done for the Digital World," he said, his own feet slowly lifting off the ground and Oikawa's computer floating behind him, "and as your friend… I wish you and your world the very best. Farewell."

With that, the twelve digital beings rose upwards like released balloons, waving and shouting to their partners. The kids and their families waved back, shouting the Digimon's names and multitudes of thanks. Davis could no longer hold his tears back, but still he smiled and laughed as he waved to Veemon, who waved back until he faded away into the light.

As the pillar began to disappear, eight glowing beams spread out from it across the sky and burst, coating it with a wash of beautiful rainbow energy that seeped down across the horizon like running bubble liquid. The Digidestined and their families gaped in awe at the spectacular sight, overcome with a rushing feeling of warmth as the brilliance dispersed. "It's so beautiful…" Nancy murmured, her hand finding Hiroaki's.

"It's like the sky itself is thanking us," Toshiko said. Haruhiko put a hand on her shoulder and pulled her closer.

Suddenly Davis felt his D3 shudder in his hand, and he looked down at it just in time to see its screen's warm light disappear. He pressed both buttons, but nothing happened, not even a beep. As he gave up, he saw Yolei and Cody poking at theirs with the same results; the D3s had become nothing but plastic paperweights. He looked up again at the beautiful colors in the sky, feeling the tears running off his cheeks.

A hand clasped his shoulder, and he turned around to find Tai and Kari staring at him, confident smiles on their faces. He blinked a few times and raised an eyebrow. "Coach? Kari? Aren't you sad?" he asked. "The Digital World's… it's shut now."

Kari closed her eyes and shook her head. Tai gently patted Davis on the back. "Yeah… but somehow I don't think it's over, you know?" he said, looking up at the sky. "We thought it was done after our first time, but look what happened; we all got to see them again. The Digital World works in ways we still don't know… but what I do know is that we're all Digidestined. Whatever's in store for that place, we're always going to be a part of it… and so are you," he looked down at the Digivice tightly clasped in his hand, his smile growing more and more confident. "Don't ever lose that Digivice, Davis. I'm sure they'll be back again someday… and when they do, it'll be like they never left. You'll see."

Davis stared down at his inert D3, Tai's words boring deep into his mind. Then he looked into the rainbow-laden sky, Veemon's face and laugh forming clearly in his mind. He looked over at Yolei, Cody, and the rest of his friends, all of them with tears in their eyes but smiles on their mouths, before wiping his own face across his sleeve and giving them a cocky, confident smile. "Hell yeah," he said quietly.

The rainbow faded into the endless blue of the sky, and a warm wind blew through the trees and across his face. Its scent carried the promise of an early spring.

… … …

August 1, 2028 A.D.

"Drink lots of water, and be home by six! Have fun!" Kari yelled out the door with a wave, then closed it and turned back to the air-conditioned comfort of the apartment with a sigh; another scorching day meant she would stay indoors and plan her classes for the fall. She thought about the set of children's books she usually went to and wondered if there were any good newer ones. Realizing she had a great source of information for those, she headed for TK's office. "Hey TK, do you—" she began.

TK looked up from his laptop with a startled yelp. Kari blinked a few times. "Sorry. I just…" she began, then she noticed the look in his eyes she had grown to recognize immediately: one of terror, shame and guilt, like a bad dog caught in the act. "What's wrong?" she asked.

TK took a few short breaths. "I… got an e-mail from my publisher," he mumbled. He seemed to sag as he slowly turned his laptop around. Kari walked up and looked at the screen, seeing a neatly typed message from the editor of Tokyo Original Ebooks International:

Dear Mr. Takaishi,

Thank you for submitting your manuscripts to us. We have read over both and have decided that your first version is our preferred choice for publishing, as it is our opinion that the second can not be considered for your target demographic of "young adult fiction."

We would like to schedule a meeting to determine…

Kari couldn't read any more; her vision swam as her temples throbbed. She looked at TK with furious eyes. "You sent the first one in?!" she whispered.

He sadly looked away. "Before you told me it was bad," he admitted quietly. "I… shouldn't have jumped the gun."

"Well, pull it back!" she snapped. "Tell them you changed your mind!"

"That's the one they want to publish, Kari," he said. "I can't make them use the other one."

Kari's face turned almost purple as a thousand obscenities jammed in her throat. "You… you…" she growled, her whole body convulsing and her knuckles turning white on the desk. TK grit his teeth and waited for a slap or even a punch, but Kari just straightened up and stood there, her fists shaking at her sides as her eyes stormed.

He slowly got up and reached out for her. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

She pulled away violently, glaring into his eyes. "When it comes out, you'll be saying that to everybody!" she snapped, and then she stormed out of the room.

"Kari! Wait!" He shouted as he ran out after her, but the sharp slam of the bedroom door told him he might be thrown through that wall she mentioned if he tried to talk to her. He sighed sadly, walked out of the apartment and leaned on the hot metal railing, staring at the wickedly white windows of the building across the street. He thought about what would happen with the story next. The publishers would hype it up, it would sell reasonably well thanks to the first set of books, and his family would be financially secure for several years; it was every writer's dream come true… But Kari was right. By sending the first draft, he had shunned the pain and the truths his friends and he had experienced. He had reduced their story to a work of fiction, the real story thrown to the winds.

He stared at the sidewalk below their apartment and sighed again, his mind starting to second-guess itself. Maybe it was for the best; all the pain and grief might be too much to throw at his young readers… He groaned and rubbed his temples. No, that was a terrible excuse. It was wrong, and it was disrespectful. Even if it was an unhappy story, it was still his story, their story… Ken's story.

He stewed in the sticky heat for several minutes before he noticed Kari standing next to him, her face far less colorful. "Oh…" was all he said.

She sighed and leaned on the railing next to him, her face more tired than angry. "You didn't think I'd take it so poorly, that first draft…" she said quietly.

"Once I started writing what really happened, I knew you were right," he said, "but by then…" He shook his head. "I could try sending it to other publishers, but it could be months, even years, before anyone picks it up."

She leaned heavily on the railing, squinting at the brightness of the hot concrete below. "By then, the damage will be done," she said.

His fingers anxiously rubbed the black metal as his spine sweat and his whole body shivered. "I wonder… if they'll ever talk to me again," he muttered.

"TK…" she uttered, trying to be empathetic, "they're our friends… our family… I'm… I'm sure they'll…" she trailed off, the uncertainty stopping her words. He grumbled and ran his fingers through his hair as he looked up at the empty blue sky.

Except the blue sky wasn't empty. At first he thought it was a trick of the heat, but after he blinked twice he realized there was a shimmering in the air; a gentle, flickering aurora which had no business being in the August sky, hovering in the direction of Mount Fuji. He swallowed his heart back and looked at Kari, whose gaping mouth told him she could also see it. "Do you think…?" he began to say.

Kari looked at him, her eyes flashing with wonder and the deepest of hopes. "You call the others," she said. "I'll start the car!"

She raced down the stairs, taking them two at a time as she went. TK ran back to his desk, grabbed his phone and mashed his finger across the numbers. As he waited for Davis to pick up, he trained his pleading eyes on the fluttering rainbow.

Perhaps there would be another story to write.

January 5, 2007

May 19, 2017

The End