Once again, thank you followers new and old, as well as those who took the time to leave a review. Your patience has not been in vain. Though it's often difficult for me to find the time these days to sit down and really write, in between work and life, I do it because...well...this story is just plain fun. Way more fun than it should be, considering all the things that are starting to happen all at once...and where I chose to leave it this time.

Before that, however, I have two reviewer responses I wanted to address:

1) To the GUEST from last time (you know who you are): please never feel intimidated when I response, or feel like I'm being pressured in any way into changing things I don't want to! I'm fairly confident in my own stories, especially ones that I've been working on for so long, but I am ALWAYS open to critiques and suggestions as to how to either improve or simply make the story more enjoyable for my readers. And if it's something as simple as switching a few scene orders around...well, I'm certainly done far more drastic alterations between drafts in the past, so no worries there.

2) To rebirth-flame: Yes, this is primarily a gen fic with elements of Takeru/Hikari and Jou/Mimi. My two favorite digi-ships. Ken/Miyako is also a part of it, as is...a couple, subtle hint of others, though I don't want to elaborate further just yet at the risk of giving too much away too soon. And I'm so glad you like the Dark Crests! Admittedly, those were the hardest to me to work out because I didn't want to go with the usual "opposites" traits, but rather go for a more "corrupt" interpretation, combined with each actual character's personalities and flaws. Both as was originally portrayed in 02 canon, as well as how they've been influenced by their Crests (because, yes, the Dark Crests have a much stronger influence on their personalities than the Chosen's Crests, due to the nature of where they came from).


PANDORA'S BOX
(Episode
Seven - "Lykofos")


Nike was strong. Very strong. The grip she had on Koushiro's wrists was so deceptively tight that he was pretty sure she was going to leave a handprint-shaped bruise before the trip was over. Not only that, her legs were longer than his, with a much wider stride. Twice, he stumbled for no other reason than the fact that he could barely keep up with her pushing. She was impatient to the point of annoyance. Like it was his fault.

Then again, after the first ten minutes, he was already too out of breath to complain.

"In here." Two blessed words to his ears, as she steered him through a large door to their right. "Bia, check on the latest readings while I get him settled."

The young boy gave a wordless nod, slipping in ahead of them.

There was a large console along the far wall. The first thing that drew Koushiro's attention. Its screen was larger than the three of them combined, twice as wide, and displaying a series of symbols he recognized as Digital Code. They scrolled vertically along, moving both up and down, glowing a bright green against black. Whatever they said, they seemed to be of great interest to Bia; the young Dark Chosen was altering his gaze regularly between the screen and a small clipboard in his hands. Checking long enough to be certain before adding to his notes. His brows were furrowed, like whatever he saw was less than favorable.

Several seconds into his ritual, Koushiro understood why: dark green static overlapped the symbols for nearly a second, distorting them into something unrecognizable, before fading back into their usual pattern. Then reappeared. Then faded again. Twice more in the span of twenty seconds. Each time, Bia struck a single tally on his clipboard.

"Getting worse," he murmured at a volume Koushiro barely heard.

Before he could think to question—and the words were right on the tip of his tongue—Koushiro felt another strong push from behind, courtesy of his least favorite person in all the Digital World.

"Sit."

A command he wasn't given the time to voluntarily comply with before he was unceremoniously shoved into a cold, metal chair. His tailbone slammed against the hard back, sending a wave of pain up his spine. On top of that, the way his body had been twisted around at the last minute, one leg went flying upward, where it nearly hit the side arm rest.

"Now...wait just one minute!" He tried to protest in the midst of untangling himself. Even standing back up. "I'm not taking—"

A single hand was all it took to shove him right back into the chair. "Sit down and shut up already."

Koushrio had a sudden, compelling urge to not move from his new seat.

Within a matter of seconds, Nike's mood did a total turnaround. The fierce glare in her eyes was replaced by a satisfied twinkle, deep frown brightening into a smile that spoke of pleasure at his newfound sense of obedience. She sent him a wink that brought chills to his spine before turning and sauntering-(there was definitely some hip swaying in her movement. Not that...Koushiro was watching)-over to her younger companion. With the difference in their heights, she could rest her chin on top of his head in order to glance down at his writing.

She, too, seemed to understand everything on the monitor, because her eyes followed a similar pattern as Bia's. All the while, her brows furrowing in...concern? Confusion? Either way, it reaffirmed Koushiro's suspicions that the news was not good.

Heaving a sigh, she straightened and placed both hands on her hips. Some of her hair fell into her eyes from the movement, so she blew a huff of air before finally reaching up to tuck the offending strands behind her ear. From there, she glanced around the room in search of something. Koushiro was certain she would return her attention to him, but whatever she was looking for, she didn't find.

"Perfecto," she declared dryly. "And just where the hell is Zelus? He was supposed to be right behind us."

Bia, who had yet to turn around, shrugged.

Nike rolled her eyes at his committal attitude before turning to storm right back out of the room. Koushiro couldn't be sure if she was deliberately being melodramatic about her exit, or if she was always like that. All he knew was that, as the echo of her footsteps slowly faded down the hall, the air in the room suddenly became a lot more breathable. He even allowed himself the weakest of grins when he heard the few choice words that made it back to the room: '..f he thinks I'm covering for his sorry...'

The silence that followed was...awkward, to say the least, but not unbearable. Bia still had his back turned, all but ignoring him. Briefly, Koushiro wondered if it would be possible for him to try getting up and sneaking out. He also wondered, on the other hand, what it was about those scrolling figures that had earned identical reactions from the two of them.

Escape. Ask. Escape. Ask. Escape-

"You can read Digital Code?" he asked.

Bia's whole body tensed up. His head lifted. The pen in his hand was gently placed at the top of the clipboard, securing into place with a soft click. The clipboard itself was placed on the console surface. Then, slowly, he turned around.

Koushiro shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

"Obviously." Somehow, the boy managed to make it sound both dull and condescending in tone. "You can't?"

"Well...no?"

"Hn. Some bearer of Knowledge."

"Hey!" Koushiro started to protest, whole body straightening. Bia met his gaze evenly, awaiting his argument. One second passed. Two. On the third, Koushiro realized...he had none. His mouth closed and he slumped back into the chair, arms folding across his chest. "There's...a reason for that. One which doesn't explain how you can. And...Nike, I'm guessing?" He felt uneasy saying the girl's name aloud, but he had a point to make. Once he was sure what exactly that point was.

"And you think I'm going to tell you just because you asked."

"...please?" He offered, along with a sheepish smile.

Bia inhaled once, deeply, before letting the air out in a single, controlled breath: "Whatever." He circled around the large table in the room, coming to stand a few meters in front of Koushiro. "We can read them because we can. Just like every other creature born in the Digital World. It's as simple as that."

Koushiro's eyes widened. "You were born here?"

Bia's expression didn't falter, but there was a certain glint in his eye at the question. A flicker, one that Koushiro might not have noticed if he hadn't been blatantly staring, that glanced downward just long enough that it had to be a reaction to the question.

"It doesn't matter."

Koushiro blinked once. Twice. "It...doesn't matter?"

"Not really."

Koushiro had experienced a lot of things since his return to the Digital World. The temporary loss of his shoe. The temporary loss of her person (and near sanity). Getting half blown up alongside his dearest friends while only halfway through the explanations they'd all been so desperately seeking. Waking up in a cold, dark dungeon with a hysterical Mimi fawning over him, only to be grabbed and Nike-handled by a girl that...honestly...frightened him a little. No, more than a little. In a way that not even the Dark Masters ever had.

But this? The cool look of apathy. The total lack of any reaction to what should have been a grossly important conversation. Talks of Digital Code and the boy's own possible origins. Fascinating subjects to anyone, he was sure, and this boy was telling him it didn't really matter?"

An irrational anger welled up inside, and he sat up straight in his chair. (Only the fear of Hike kept him from standing up right there and then. Just in case.)

"How can it not matter? How can any of this not matter? How can you not be curious about what all of this means? You're working directly for Dagomo-"

"The Master," came the (indifferent) correction.

"-Dagomon," Koushiro repeated, this time with deliberate emphasis on the viral Digimon's name. "Are you telling me you just blindly follow orders without ever stopping to wonder why he has you doing all of this?"

"Of course not." The initial response. Then a pause. Either realize the pitiful answer hadn't sounded quite as convincing as it was intended to be—certainly not enough to satisfy the Bearer of Knowledge—or else having to...actually think about what else he could offer in explanation. "The Master...is not meant to be underestimated or second-guessed. But I suspect even you knew that. He knows the depths of his power. He also knows his limitations, as well as the reason why he was banished to the Dark Realm."

"Why was that?" Koushiro had already heard one version of the story; he wondered if there would be any discrepancies.

"As it stands now...as the Digital World has been since long before that day—the total corruption his presence would bring would spread until there was nothing left. The Digital World wouldn't just be infected. It would disintegrate. Total fragmentation."

Something Koushiro had suspected already, and yet...hearing the words spoken aloud, in Bia's trademark tone...he visibly shuddered. "Isn't that what he wants, though?"

"How could he rule if there's no world left to reign over?" Bia shook his head. "What he wants is his rightful place as Soreign. As should have been from the moment he first hatched."

Koushiro was forced to admit the boy's words made sense. Assuming, of course, that they were true. Dagomon was hardly the first to desire power. Devimon. Etemon. Myotismon. MetalSeadramon. Mugendramon. Pinnochimon. Piemon. Apocalymon. Hadn't they all, at their core, sought the same thing? And hadn't, each and every time, their grand schemes put the Digital World at risk. Apocalymon, especially, as he had been revealed to be the cause so much suffering. The Creation of the Dark Masters, who then twisted and warped the world to their liking, creating Spiral Mountain.

Oh, sure, they had been fairly honest about their evil intentions, but who was to say that Dagomon wasn't simply lying to his lackeys? How else would he have been able to lure humans—or beings that very strongly resembled humans—into doing his biding?

"To answer your next question," Bia continued, drawing Koushiou's attention from his inner musings. He gestured back towards the console, pausing only when he noticed the static appear again. He then rushed back over so he could record something more on the clipboard, but spoke up mid-writing: "That's why he needs you. Your Knowledge. He knows all about the gifts you Chosen were given when you helped reform the Digital World, and he knows what you are capable of. Once you're able to access the full of your powers, he can use your complete comprehension of the Base Code of the Digital World itself to rewrite its structure. Allow for his safe crossing over."

It was the access the full of your powers part that unnerved him more than the plan as a whole. Safe passage...if he hadn't known what he already did about Dagmon, it would have sounded almost...agreeable.

"But you can already read Digital Code," he pointed out.

"Can you understand every word of everything you read?"

"Well...yeah," Koushiro shrugged, as if that much should have been obvious.

Another flash in the younger boy's eye, and this time, Koushiro could have sword he saw hints of annoyance. Anotehr time, and he might have even found amusement in the sight.

"All the more reason to get you up to date on Digital Code. Which we will the moment Nike gets back."

Koushiro had never been more content in his life with postponing the learning of something.

o*0*o

"Angemon! Are you there?"

At the entrance of the cave, a sole figure sat. Body hunched over, using the staff in his hand for partial upper body support. He turned his helmeted head towards the voice and offered a tired smile.

Tailmon, in turn, broke away from the rest of the group in order to run the rest of the way on all fours. She made it to his heels before jumping up onto his lap, then using the momentum to scampering all the way up and around to his opposite shoulder. Her nose nuzzled against his cheek, a show of affection he was all too glad to return in the form of a soft pat of her head. Giving her a good scratch behind one ear, like he knew she enjoyed. But there was something else about the movement that caused her to pull away and stare up at him with a frown.

"You're moving more sluggish than before."

"And hello to you as well, dearest friend," the angle replied with a touch of sarcasm. "It's nothing. Now that you've returned, a little rest is all I need."

She wasn't convinced. "Are you sure?" Hers had been a natural evolution to her Adult form, and as such, her body was most comfortable in it. Not so with Angemon, whose surge of energy might not have been a mystery to her any longer, but was still a minor reason for concern. "There's no shame in letting yourself devolve back to Patamon. Even if you fall under again, I...I would watch over you."

Angemon's head tilted down as her eyes averted shyly, trying to send her a soft smile. All the years they had known one another, and she still was so hesitant to openly admit certain sentimentalities. It was...endearing, if not occasionally frustrating on his part. "I know you would."

A twig snapped just outside, drawing both their attentions away from the moment.

Taichi looked confused. Sora looked amused. Yamato looked as (outwardly) cool as ever, while Jou-

"Gomamon," his eyes trailed down at the sleeping Digimon by Angemon's feet.

Then again, Pukamon would have been more accurate, as his partner had since devolved back into his Baby form. Normally wide, shining eyes were tightly shut, body laying prone against what looked like a makeshift bed of leaves and moss. He could smell the moisture even from where he stood, indicating it had been set up relatively recently. The rest of Angemon's charges each had beds of their own as well. All of them reverted and clearly weakened, though otherwise physically unharmed. A little too still for their partners' liking.

Sora knelt down beside the prone form of Pyocomon, resisting the urge to reach out and touch her. Uncertain of what might happen if she did. It was only a small comfort to see the slow, rhythmic movement of her body indicating breath.

"Tailmon told us what happened," Taichi spoke up as he stared down at Koromon. Trying to remember if he had ever seen his partner sleep so soundly without being cuddled by his then four-year-old sister. "But...I still wasn't expecting..."

"Are they okay?" Yamato questioned. Unlike Sora, he had no issues with placing a hand on Tunomon's head. For all the good it did.

Tailmon and Angemon shared an uncertain glance.

"If we didn't know better, we would have thought they were sleeping this whole time."

"Do you know how to wake them up?" Sora wanted to know. When she finally tore her eyes away from Pyocomon long enough to look look at them, her eyes were glossy with the threat of tears.

Angemon shook his head. "There's only one power we've found that can fight off the Dark Influence." He held up his wrist, indicating the Holy Ring banded around it. Beside him, Tailmon's similar talisman glinted in the dim lighting as she swished her tail around habitually. "So far, it seems to be enough to keep myself and Tailmon and a very few selection of others from falling under the corruption, as well as the protective sleep shielding our friends...but, unfortunately, we've done everything we could to figure out how to share that power, and nothing's worked."

"We couldn't risk taking ours off," Tailmon added. "If we fell under too, there'd be no one left."

"So you kept watch over them." Sora smiled gratefully at the pair.

"What else could we do? They...they were our friends."

"They still are," Taichi corrected her, finally crouching down. Not knowing what else to do, he poked at Koromon's sleeping form with his index finger. Then again. Sora send him a look of exasperation, but he ignored her in favor of more poking. "There has to be something. A word or a trick, maybe. I can't imagine the Guardians would give them this kind of protection without a way to-"

His body gave a slight jerk from the awkwardness of the position. Not enough to completely lose his balance, but more than enough to jostle the digivice clipped to the waistline of his pants. It fell, bouncing off Koromon on the way to the ground.

A bright light began to shine from its screen.

Koromon stirred. One eye opened. Lips parted.

"...Tai...chi..."

Everyone in the room stared in slack-jawed aw. One could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed as Kormon slowly stirred himself back into a state of consciousness...just in time for his stomach to rumble loud enough for Dagomon himself to hear.

"...did anybody bring lunch?"

o*0*o

Hikari felt her head droop twice inside of a minute.

She wanted to fall back asleep. Mimi had sobbed herself back into a state of unconsciousness not long after their abductors had made off with Koushiro. No doubt exhausted from her intense healing session, combined with the emotional devastation of their ongoing state. Even Takeru had succumbed to the urge not too long after, unable to continue running on pure adrenaline. Theri last meal had been...she couldn't remember how long. Half a day, maybe? Maybe more.

Hunger pains wracked her stomach, but they were nothing compared to the burning sensation in her eyes. Not to mention, each time her body started to get comfortable, either an awkward piece of the wall behind her would jab into her spine, or else she would start to hear the sound of water drops in the distance.

Her hand gripped Takeru's that much tighter. There was no squeeze back this time. She closed her eyes and instead tried to focus on the quiet. Those drips...they had to be in her mind. Dagomon wouldn't call her like this. It wouldn't make sense.

The door to the prison room opened with a loud creak, and Hikari felt her breath catch in her throat. She was so startled that she forgot to feign sleeping with the others as a figure emerged. A painfully familiar one.

"Daisuke-kun," she murmured, voice betraying her weariness.

"You keep calling me that." Unlike before, the boy's voice was neither annoyed nor suspicious. More like...confused. "Why?"

Only one response came to mind: "Because it's your name."

Maybe it was the exhaustion, but Hikari would have thought the answer was obvious. Yet, 'Daisuke' seemed even more confused than before. At the same time, however, his arms folded across his chest, head tilting to one side and lips pursed together in contemplation. Everything from the position, to his mannerisms, to his speech...he looked so much like the Daisuke she knew.

And if he wasn't, then he was a frighteningly accurate copy.

After a few seconds, he seemed to come to some inner conclusion. He even nodded to himself. Stepping forward, he bent down and reached for the chains around her ankle.

Hikari reflexively flinched back.

"I'm not going to hurt you." His lower lip stuck out at her reaction. Pouting. Like he was offended. "I'm just trying to take the chains off, okay?"

"Why?"

His shoulders slumped. It was then Hikari realized he wasn't offended at all. He was actually hurt at her continued suspicion towards him (no matter how warranted they were). "Because I want to show you something."

There was only so far back into the wall she could press herself. With nowhere else to go, she had no choice but to let him undo the shackle lock. It was either that, or kick him in the face while his head was lowered. Something she...couldn't bring herself to entertain the thought of, let alone actually do. But then the tightness around her ankle was suddenly gone, and her attention switched to rubbing at the raw skin around her ankles.

"There. No chains." He stood, grinning. Like he had just done her some huge favor and was waiting for a verbal reward. "Now...come with me? Please?"

She was set to turn him down. Remind him of everything he'd and his fellow so-called Dark Chosen had already done. Why should she trust him? Let him take her away from Takeru and Mimi...and for what? Because he wanted to show her something? How stupid did he think she was?

The words made it all the way to her throat before they got stuck; her eyes met his, and in them, Hikari saw something she hadn't been expecting. She saw sincerity. Eyes that were darker in color than she remembered them being, though that could have been a trick of the shadows. What wasn't a trick was the way he was looking at her. Or the way his feet shuffled a little awkwardly beneath him as he extended a hand her way. The way...the way his heart felt.

Hopeful.

She was so taken aback by the realization that, without breaking eye contact, she accepted his hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet. Her legs were weak from having been on the ground for so long, and her knees nearly buckled beneath her own weight. Daisuke held on that much tighter. Patient and understanding. Letting him use her as a partial support until she was ready. Not once did he come close to hurting her, even accidentally.

"Come on," he said, leading her out of the dungeon with, perhaps, the most Daisuke-like expression yet. That smug grin she had come to know of her friend best in all the time she'd known him. Confident. Happy.

Sparing one last look back towards the sleeping form on her friends—her eyes lingering that much more on Takeru's face—Hikari followed. If this really was Daisuke after all, then...maybe...just maybe...

o*0*o

"That one?"

"No."

"That one, then?"

"You're just guessing."

"Well, obviously. So was I right?"

"No."

"How about-"

"I already told you I was done answering your pointless questions."

"Oh, come on. You said you wanted my help, right?"

Bia raised an eyebrow. It was the closest thing to a facial reaction Koushiro had gotten out of him in more than ten minutes: "You know, most captives would be a lot more reluctant to go along with their abductor's plans."

"I never said I was going along with it," Koushiro pointed out.

"Then why are you still asking me?"

Koushiro paused just long enough to offer a shrug. "Curiosity?"

Bia took a long moment to inhale. Deep. He closed his eyes, one of which had started to twitch, before letting out a slow, long exhale.

"I withdraw my previous statement. If there's anybody who deserves that Crest of Knowledge, it's an annoying busybody like you."

"...thank you?" Koushiro responded, uncertain, making it sound more like a question.

Just then, Nike appeared in the doorway. The look on her face could have frozen an iceberg; she looked as if she were going to start screaming. Her shoulders were tight, her brows were furrowed, and her lips were pressed tightly together in a thin line. She glared straight ahead, at neither Koushiro nor Bia, but at some invisible presence neither of them could see. The two boys shared a glance between them. If she noticed, she said nothing.

But then, just as before, her mood abruptly changed into something far more passive. She even waved a dismissive hand in the air as she reentered.

"Our loyal companion seems to have gone M.I.A for the time being, along with Light, so we're just going to have to do this without him. Feel free to back me up when I tell the Master what-"

"Hikari-san's missing?" Koushiro cut her off, eyes wide.

"Oh, relax." Nike insisted. "He's not going to hurt her. We're not evil, you know."

Not only did Koushiro shoot her a disbelieving Look, but so did Bia.

"...okay. Fine. We are." She rolled her eyes. Semantics, in her opinion. And just when did the two of them start agreeing on things? "But I meant what I said. Even if he didn't have some sort of weird thing for her—which I will never understand, by the way—we have direct orders from the Master. None of you are to be harmed."

"You tried to kill Jou-senpai," Koushiro reminded her.

"You Chosen really hold a grudge, don't you?" Her heels clacked against the tile floor with a strange echo Koushiro was certain hadn't been there a moment before. Once she stood in front of his chair, she bent down in order to meet him at eye level, adding a smile so warm, he visibly shivered. "Let it go, already. I mean, when you stop to think about it, we're doing you a favor. You ike to learn, right? We want to teach you something. Really, it's a win-win from where you're sitting. Which, by the way, I thank you for not getting up like I asked."

Before Koushiro could think of a retort, she straightened and—giving his head a condescending pat—diverted her attention to the left. Bia appeared in his line of vision soon after, holding a small, circular object. Black, save for the silver markings all around the edge. More Digital Code. It appeared to be the circumference of Koushiro's head in size, with a band less than an inch thick. Two wires stuck out of ports on either side, and when he twisted his body enough to follow where they led, he saw them both disappear behind the console base.

When he turned back, the band was in Nike's hands. She reached up and placed it over his head. A perfect fit. That unnerved him more than anything else he'd seen.

"There. See? That wasn't so bad, was it? Worst case scenario, it might tickle your brain a little."

"Tickle my-?" He started to echo, before a switch somewhere behind him was flipped, and he realized what she meant: "Whoa."

The room—no, the World around him dulled. Twice, he blinked, thinking he was falling asleep or something, but...no, he was alert. As were all his senses. He could still hear the shuffling of Nike's and Bia's feet somewhere close by. The strange, added echoing effect that came with the former's helping him to distinguish between the two. Another blink, and they were in front of him again. Only they looked nothing like their typical selves. Instead, waves upon waves of Code strolled up and down two separate, unequally sized humanoid figures. Dark Green. Not like that of the distorted code he'd seen flickering across the monitor earlier.

He looked down. His own hands...there was that same code. Only not like theirs. For one, the symbols forming his own person glowed bright purple. And the symbols themselves were different. Stronger. Bolder. A wider variety of combinations and shapes. Stronger and bolder and much more complex. They read of a solid, physical, organic presence intertwined with energy from the Digital World itself. He could see all that now, and for the first time, he truly Understood what it all meant.

Just as he understood...for all their code told him, Nike and Bia might as well have been poorly rendered copies. Identical viral infections radiated so strongly that it was a wonder they didn't infect everything they touched. But the rest of the room continued to glow shapes of symbols in a significantly paler green. Almost greyish. They were objects, with only the console giving off inorganic energies that pulsed to the beat of his own heart. The rest were stationary and free of corruption.

Except for that brief flash he read over over the Console screen. And, now that he had the language of the Digital World essentially downloaded into his mind...he knew exactly what it was warning about. Really, once he read over it a second time, it seemed far too obvious. He would have kicked himself for not realizing sooner if he weren't still so taken with his new outlook.

"Prodigious," he breathed out. No other word seemed appropriate.

"You see it, then?" The shape of Bia asked him in between flickers of his own.

Koushiro nodded.

"What's it look like?" From behind his current field of vision, he heard Nike. She was circling him. Watching him from every angle possible. Like a hawk.

"Very...telling."

"Don't play the cryptic genius card with us," she snapped. The sound of a few keys clicking, followed by her shoes once more. The echo sounded...fainter, even though he was sure she was approaching. "What do you see? Do you know what's causing the Digital Disturbances?"

"I..." Then Nike came back into view. And he saw. "...oh."

"What do you mean 'oh'?" She wanted to know.

He didn't answer. Not at first. His eyes were wide and his mind was a whirl as he tried to take in the enormous amount of information. Details not only of her physical Code, but her emotions. Her memories. Her clothing and glasses—apparently, they weren't just a fashion choice after all—and...something he hadn't noticed at first. Or maybe he had, but he hadn't yet understood what it meant.

From Nike and Bia's point of view, he'd been glowing a bright purple from the moment the Dark Ring was placed on his crown. His body, but more so his eyes, until his pupils and irises and sclera were no longer distinguishable from one another. Those eyes were staring straight at Nike, his expression reading of...pity.

"I'm...I'm so sorry," he told her sadly.

The girl's brow furrowed in confusion, but before she could ask what he was sorry about—what it was he saw in her Code—she heard Bia gasp.

"Nike. You're...bleeding."

Only then did she realize the warn sensation trickling down her nose. Warm and wet. And the taste of copper. With one hand, she reached up and pressed two of her fingers to the area just above her upper lip. They came away red.

"...shit," she muttered darkly. Just before her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and she collapsed on the floor.

o*0*o

Ken saw everything.

When Daisuke broke away from his ordered assignment, he'd wanted to be surprised. He'd wanted to be surprised when he then reappeared some time later on the dungeon's camera, where he undid Light's chains and led her off to parts unseen by the surveillance system. But he wasn't. Because he knew Daisuke, and he knew exactly where he had taken her. There was only one place he could.

He nearly considered going after them, when a flicker of movement caught his attention towards the bottom right. Nike and Bia had activated the Dark Ring, it seemed, without waiting for their third companion. Just as well. If his guess was correct (and he knew it was), then they wouldn't be seeing Zelus again anytime s-

The image of Nike's hand rose to her mouth, pulling away to reveal a significant amount of blood. Then she fell.

Ken's heart leapt into his threat.

His body moved of its own accord, leaping from the chair with such force that it nearly tipped over. His cape flew behind him as he dashed out of the room and ran down the hall at full speed. Past the long, chilling corridors. Past the countless rooms that each served limited purposes. Past each and every twist, turn, and sharp corner. The base was like a labyrinth he'd long ago committed to memory. They all had.

Not even when he made it to the Data Room did he stop, coming to a skidding halt as he half knelt, half crouched by Nike's side. Bia and Knowledge were still there, and while his mind did register their presences, he simply didn't care. He pulled Nike into his arms and swallowed twice before getting his voice to work.

"Nike." he called to her first, voice shaking with worry. It was impossible to remain calm. She was still bleeding; drops of blood had splashed onto his clothes from the movement. They stained his fingertips when he tried to brush the hair from her face. "Nike, wake up. Nike. Nike! Miyako-chan, wake up!"

Koushiro's brows rose at the name. One he recognized.

"What's wrong with her?" Ken looked up. Alternating between Knowledge and Bia. Not caring which of them responded, so long as one of them gave him something.

It was Koushiro who spoke up: "You didn't know?"

"Know what?"

"It's...it's her brain." He hesitated. Not because of a reluctance to tell them, despite knowing how grim the answer would be. Instead, he prolonged the inevitable with another question of his own: "Has she had any trauma recently? Was she hurt at all?"

"No. No, of course not. Why-" Ken cut himself off as a thought occurred to him. He paled. "...the Map Room."

Bia felt a sudden tightness in his chest. Knowing instantly which incident Ken was thinking of.

Shortly after Nike's failed assassination attempt, she'd come back to the cave. Her instructions were to go after the Healer, and naturally, she'd assumed that meant the one who was studying medicine. Reliability. Only the Master had yet to tell them exactly what the Chosen were capable of, and she'd had no way of knowing she was supposed to go after Purity. Really, the misunderstanding had been reasonable enough; any one of them could have done the same thing.

The Master didn't think so. He'd punished her with such a fierce blow that it sent her flying across the room. At the time...and even after she'd awoken...he'd made dry comments about checking to make sure she was still alive. But only because...he hadn't realized...

"She hit her head," Bia elaborated. The apathy was long gone now, his expression betraying a newly founded concern. "Hard. She was out for a while after. I don't know how long, exactly, but...she seemed fine, so we didn't think any more of it."

"She'd been getting headaches ever since," Ken corrected. He was back to wearing his fingers through her hair. If only to give his hands something to do.

"I didn't notice anything like that."

"That's because you didn't care enough to."

Bia's mouth clamped shut, but his eyes remained wide as those words—and their underlying implication—slowly sank in.

"I don't know what to call it, exactly. I'm not a doctor." Koushiro frowned at the admission. Then again, if he had known the proper term, would it have made a difference? Would it make describing what he'd seen in her Code easier or harder? "Her brain's swelling. Dangerously. Probably since she was first hit. That's why she blacked out; the pressure's gotten to be too much. If it isn't relieved soon..."

"...she'll die, won't she?" Ken finished for him.

Die. Not...be deleted. Not for the first time, Koushiro took note of his choice of words.

"There's a strong chance, yeah."

"So do something about it." Bia told him. "You know what's wrong, right? So fix her."

"I can't."

"What do you mean you can't?"

"I mean, I can't." He spun on his heels with such a ferocity that the younger boy actually flinched back. Far too exasperated to feel guilty about that. "I'm not being stubborn. I can see what's wrong with her, but I don't know how to fix it. Your Code doesn't exactly come with an instruction manual, you know. Just...descriptions. Details. It's telling me the part that's been affected, and where her energy levels stand, but I'm not a doctor and I don't know what to do."

He gave Bia a solid three seconds for a comeback. When none came, he turned back to Ken. His expression softened upon seeing the pitiful way the boy was clinging to Nike. The pain in his eyes was genuine. His Code was a mess. Memories and emotions intertwining in such a way that...interestingly enough, there was almost no sign of the same viral infection as the other two. Traces, yes, but they were far weaker than the rest. And growing weaker.

"On the other hand...I do have an idea."

"What is it?" Ken asked.

"You're not going to like it."

Ken's eyes hardened. "Am I going to like it more or less than the thought of losing her?"

Miyako, wake up!

He'd used her name.

The thought had seemed too absurd at first. Given what (admittedly little) they'd all been told of the Dark Chosen. Even with Hikari's insistence that one of them bore too strong a resemblance to one of her classmates for it to be a coincidence, there had been nothing to confirm one way or the other. Human or humanoid Digimon. Or something else. Beings created by Dagomon, perhaps, for the sole purpose of doing what he was still incapable of.

Except...there had been the Vision. He was sure that's what it was now. A vision of a very specific memory. One that had taken place not in the Digital World, but the Real World, and focused almost entirely on the girl who called herself Nike.

Miyako.

He'd even used her real name when calling to her. He must have known. Because...

"No." Koushiro came to kneel beside him. "Not more than that. But...there's only one person who stands a chance of saving her now: a healer."

Less than a second. That was how long it took for Ken to catch on, and even less for the realization to fully sink in. His eyes widened. He glanced back and forth between Knowledge and Nik—no, Miyako. Knowing she would have absolutely hated this. Probably even made some dark joke about just letting her die before seeking out the very Chosen she'd tried to kill. Accidentally, of course.

"Bia, get Purity from the dungeon. Now."

Miyako could scream at him later. I wouldn't be the first time.

o*0*o

"How much farther is it?"

Somehow, no matter how deep into the cavern they'd seemingly transversed, there was still just enough light for her to see Daisuke's face as he turned back around to face her. Sending what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

"It's just up ahead. See that incline?" He motioned to what looked like a wall of rock. Rough and uneven. Hikari had to squint to get a better look, but the closer they came, the more it came into focus. It wasn't a wall at all. It was, just as he said, a sharp incline. "It's easier to climb than it looks. I swear. But I'll still go on ahead and help pull you up, alright?"

Again, the directions came out more like a request than command. Seeking her approval. And, again, Hikari found herself with little reason to protest. So she nodded.

Her compliance fueled him all the more, and he jogged the last few meters. A gloved hand reached up and found a solid grip. As she watched, he half-climbed, half-crawled until he was only partially visible. Hikari did her best to follow, albeit at a much slower pace. Her arms were weak with exhaustion, and it was only when he reached down for her like he'd promised that she was able to steady herself enough to make the rest of the climb.

Cold sand met her at the surface. Daisuke reached the top first, using both hands to help pull her up and onto (mostly) solid ground. As she paused to catch her breath, still on all fours, salty air filled her lungs. Biting winds occasionally blew across her cheeks, and she had to push the hair from her eyes as she looked up to get a better look of where he'd brought her.

Her heart dropped into her stomach.

"The...Ocean." She whispered weakly, rising to her feet. Her legs trembled beneath her weight as she stared at the waves lapping at the shoreline. "I don't...why did you bring me here?"

"Because I wanted you to see."

He looked so proud of himself. His eyes met hers, and even as he took in her reaction, there wasn't the slightest hint of faltering in his expression. Either he was oblivious or else he'd been expecting it all along. Both hands went to his hips, and he turned back to the ocean waves. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. The air was fresh. Way fresher than the dirt he'd been breathing in for the last who knows how long? He filled his lungs with that freshness several times before reaching up to place his hands behind his head.

Hikari, too, shut her eyes tight, her mind awash with so many thoughts just as her heart swelled with emotions. And regret. She felt it pounding in her chest, so loud it was a wonder 'Daisuke' didn't hear it. What had she been thinking? Letting him take her. Away from the others, where she had been the closest to safe circumstances allowed for.

Her hands trembled as she opened her eyes and looked down at them. Turning them over in search of any signs of fading. She checked her breath for smoke. There was some, owning to the low temperature, but nowhere near the amount she'd exhaled the last time. Not yet. They were at the Ocean...but Dagomon hadn't called for her.

A sudden warmth fell upon her shoulders. She looked down and saw silver trim. He'd given her his jacket without a second thought. Or a single comment; when she looked to him in question over the gesture, he simply smiled before turning his attention back to the grey clouds above. And the jacket itself...it was still warm from his body heat. There was still an unsettling pit in the bottom of her stomach, but she accepted the gift with a weak smile and pulled it a little more securely over her frame.

"You called me Daisuke-kun," he finally spoke up, head tilting to one side. "Why?"

She offered exactly the same answer as she had earlier: "Because it's your name."

"Well, yeah. I know that." He resisted the urge to roll his eyes, given the company he was keeping at the moment. "But what I want to know is why you know that. We've never even met before now."

"But...we have," she corrected him, and awaited the impending argument or dismissal or...continued ignorance of her statement altogether.

Instead, he laughed. Loud and open and full of great amusement. It was like a dam had burst, the sound pouring out of him with all the energy of an overwhelming flood. Whatever it was he found amusing at her answer seemed to carry with him even after he calmed down, because in the next moment, he turned to her with a sparkle in his eyes. Hikari flinched as he abruptly closed the gap between them, hands reaching for hers before holding them up between them. Keeping her from retreating back any further.

"I knew it! I just knew it!" He was nodding over and over. Barely able to contain his excitement. "I knew I wasn't going crazy. There was no way. And when I found out the others were having them too...and now you. You did seem them, didn't you? The Dreams?"

"Dreams?" she echoed.

"Yeah. Most of them were about you. Not all, but the good ones. Three, four times, maybe. I remember every detail. It's always the same, you know—at least, it is for me. Maybe for you it's different?"

He was rambling, and she had no idea how to stop him. Or make sense of what he was saying.

"But this proves it! You and Me. The Master must have made sure of it. Each time he was Calling for you...he always said he just wanted your power. You and Knowledge. We weren't to hurt either of you. At first, I thought that was a little weird, but now I get it. He knew. He knew that we were meant to be together, and he wanted to ensure your safety for our sake. Why else would he make sure we Dreamt of each other?"

Just like Cratus and Nike, he almost commented, except he remembered at the last moment that he'd made a promise. And, regardless of his feelings towards Nike, Cratus was the closest thing he had to a decent ally among the other three. He wanted the other boy to know he could be trusted.

Hikari...didn't know what to say. Now, more than ever, she was frightened. The things he was saying...and the worst part was that she could understand why it might make sense to him. Why he would want it to. His heart ached for the reality in which she accepted him without question. She almost wanted to, for that reason alone. To ease that little bit of suffering that came with the not knowing. Fear of rejection.

If she hadn't known better...if her heart hadn't known better...she might have been inclined to believe him, too, which was what made this all the more difficult.

"I..."

He was looking at her so intently, awaiting a validation he was sure would come.

She swallowed and...gently pulled her hands away, taking a step back. "I'm sorry, Daisuke-kun. I...can't."

Hurt washed across his face. Followed by confusion. "What do you mean, you can't?" Clearly, he hadn't even considered the notion that she might not see things his way. "The Dreams..."

"The Dreams were real. But they weren't Dreams. They were only memories." Only memories. That made them sound so trivial. Like she didn't cherish them for what they were. "You and me...we were friends. We are friends. Back home, we go to the same school. Don't you remember? And you and my brother played at the same summer soccer camp. "

She tried to get him to see reason. Letting him down gently by...not letting him down at all, but merely reminding him. What he thought...it wasn't so much a lie as it was...a misinterpretation of the way things were. Which was...okay. Because it proved that there really was something of her friend in there. Bits and pieces that were desperate enough to shine through that they were sending him mental images he had otherwise forgotten.

"Friends..." For half a second, it seemed like he was processing the word. Then he looked down at her and frowned. "That's...no, that's not right. You don't get it. We...you just don't know yet. You haven't figured it out. But—it's okay!" He took a step back from her. Desperation bleeding into his voice. "Light-chan...I'll show you. We'll show you."

...we?

She felt the effects before she saw them. A prickle against her skin that didn't coincide with the latest gust of breeze. Her chest tightened. Her legs stiffened. She couldn't move. Her vision started to blur, only...not like before. There were no clouds this time. No fog. Her eyes instead gradually shifted in and out of focus, the world around her losing more and more of its definition with each oncoming pulse.

Lines blurring between this World—the Digital World—and...

And there was no one to save her this time.

o*0*o

"Alright, alright, I'm going!" Mimi's shrill voice carried into the room long before she appeared in the doorway. "Jeez, talk about your short—Koushiro-san?"

The boy in question glanced up, sending his fellow Chosen a meek smile and wave. "Hi."

This...was not what Mimi had been expecting. Not at all. Then again, she also hadn't expected the pint-sized brat to shake her awake so soon, either. Mumbling something about needing her healing ability. The first time, she'd been groggy enough to shove him away before rolling over. Something something a girl needed her beauty sleep, right? Even if the bed was impossibly hard and her pillow was...nonexistent. Never would she had thought she'd miss the grassy makeshift beds from their days camping out in the digital world. Heck, the dirt piles in their cave would have been an improvement over-

The next time, he kicked her. Not hard enough to leave a bruise, more more than enough to get her to sit straight up. Daggers were sent his way until he, unaffected, calmly explained the situation.

Well...some of it.

"Umm..." She began, alternating her gaze between Koushiro and the boy sitting on the ground just behind him. There was someone laying in his lap. Probably the person who needed her help. But, first things first: "...you...do know you're glowing again, right?"

"Yeah. I know."

"And you've got a...metal...thing on your head."

"I'm aware of that as well."

"And we're okay with this?"

"For the moment."

"Oh. Well, then I'm good." She finally stepped inside, circling around the couple on the floor in order to get a better look. "Now, who is this person I'm supposed to—oh you have got to be kidding me!"

Every conscious person in the room winced when her voice rose more than half an octave, parts of it coming out in frequencies only some Digimon would be able to hear—before ending in a low growl. Ken, at the least, had the grace to look sheepish. He was all too aware of what he was asking, and of whom. A small part of him feared she would refuse, and an even bigger part of him wouldn't have blamed her in the slightest if she did. Bia, meanwhile, looked the closest to amused that Koushro had ever seen him, while Koushiro himself...took a casual step backward, raising both hands in the air defensively.

"Just hear us out, Mimi-san, okay?"

"Why?" Mimi folded her arms across her chest. One foot impatiently tapped against the stone ground as her eyes narrowed. "I don't know if you've heard recently, but she's the one who tried to kill me."

"Technically, it was Reliability she poisoned," Bia pointed out.

Mimi spun on her heels just long enough to glare at him-"You. Not. Helping."-before turning back to Koushiro. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't walk out that door right now."

"Please."

It wasn't Koushiro who spoke up then, but Ken. Everyone's eyes turned to him, but he met none of their gazes. Especially not Mimi's. He couldn't. If he did...he might not have been able to go through with it. Pleading. Begging. He never begged. None of them did. They took what they wanted. It was the way they were programmed. Nike would have understood that. Her strong, willful personality could overcome any obstacle. (Well...almost any.)

Recently, her demeanor had seemed like more of a nuisance than convenience, but he could still recall a time when it was one of the things he..admired most about her.

Rather than face their, no doubt, judgemental looks, he instead focused on Miyako. On her face. Knowledge had said something about her brain swelling. Putting pressure on the inside of her head. It explained the headaches. It explained everything, including why she'd tried so hard to downplay the pain. Ironic, how the most minor of things would have brought about an endless tirade of complaining from her, while the big things...the things that matter most...those were what she chose to keep silent on. Had she known something was wrong?

Just a couple hours ago, if that, she'd been sitting on his lap, letting him stroke her hair. His fingers weaving in and out, providing enough relief that she's not only felt no pain, but had been content. SO he tried it again now, even though he knew it would do very little. She needed more than a massage, and yet it was all he could do. He was helpless otherwise.

"Please," he begged again, voice coming in in a hoarse whisper. His throat felt tight. His eyes stung. He still couldn't look at Mimi. "Help her. She'll die if you don't."

Mimi sobered at his words. Not just what he was saying...but the way he was saying them. Desperate. It could have been another ploy, perhaps. A trick. But for what purpose? What could they possible get from her they weren't already openly asking? Even Koushiro seemed far more convinced than one in his position should have, and Mimi suspected it had something to do with the fact that his eyes seemed to have taken a perpetual state of purple.

He must have seen something she didn't. Unless...unless, for once, they were actually looking at the same thing.

Her mind was made up.

"What do I need to do."

A sigh of releif escaped the boy's lips, and he nodded. "Focus on her brain. There's swelling. You need to cool it down and releive the pressure."

"...a swollen head. Figures." To her surprise, the boy holding Nike actually chuckled. "Alright. I can't promise anything, but...I'll try."

Pressing her lips together, Mimi came to sit by the other girl's side and scanned her prone form up and down. There was blood. Not much, but enough for concern. A few stains here and there on her dress. Under her nose and lips. The fingers of one hand. Even—even the boy holding her had gotten some on him, not that he seemed to notice. Or care. Mimi herself might as well not have been there, for all he ignored her in favor of stroking Nike's hair, his lips moving but no audible sound coming out.

"You care a lot about her, don't you?" Mimi found herself asking, though her voice was low enough that only the two of them would be able to hear it.

Ken froze for a short time. He glanced at her only once, for less than a second, before nodding.

"That's good enough for me."

Early, Mimi had had a revelation about her healing. That it wasn't about her—that it shouldn't have been about her, and whether or not she wanted to heal someone, but about how much she was needed to. Much as she had cared for Koushiro as a friend, she'd had to stop and realize how he'd needed her far outweighed her feelings for him. Just as Nike's—no, this boy's need for her to be able to heal far outweighed any personal grudges.

So she gently placed a hand on either side of Nike's head, and focused on that need. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Exhaling slowly. Then she took another breath. Then another. Each time, slower than the one before it. Allowing her own mind to enter a state of calm, free from her own selfishness. Tapping into that power deep inside her.

On the fifth inhale, her eyes snapped open. They were glowing a bright green.

o*0*o

Help me. Somebody. Please.

Her voice wouldn't work any more. She tried to call for Daisuke, to ask him to stop. To do something—anything—to keep Dagmon from taking her. The words never came. Her lips moved, but there was no sound. And Daisuke himself seemed all too content with the situation. Waiting expectantly, even.

He wanted this. He wanted her to be taken. So that he...they...

Her eyes shut tightly, fists clenching at her sides. She thought of her anchors. The people closest to her. Her remaining connection to the World around her. One by one, she echoed her names in her mind.

Oniichan...Sora-san...Tailmon...

But it was the last name whose face briefly flashed in front of her.

Takeru-kun!

o*0*o

Takeru awoke with a start, gasping as he sat up.

"Hikari-chan..."

She was calling to him. He heard—no, felt it. Though the last remnants of sleep, he hastily looked around, only to have his heart skip a beat when he realized she wasn't there. Nor was Mimi. They'd both been taken while he was out, and he-

His head jerked upward, staring at that single beam of light above. He couldn't explain how he could hear her, or where she was, or what was even happening. He only knew that his best friend needed him.

"I'm here."

His eyes began to glow yellow...

o*0*o

...as did hers.

Daisuke's jacket fell from her shoulders as a new warmth enveloped her small frame. One stronger and far more comforting. A small whimper escaped her lips, and in that moment, she knew she was safe. The world around her came back into focus. Her body relaxed. She didn't know how, or why, but Takeru's Hope had surrounded her once more, shielding her completely from Dagomon's call.

"No!" The boy that looked like Daisuke was far less pleased about this latest development. "This can't be happening! What's...how...?"

It was then Hikari looked and saw that his eyes had turned black. Not just the pupil, but the whole of his eye. It was like looking into an endless pit of darkness. And the voice that came out of him...that low, feral growl...

"Hope."

The word was spat out in a fit of disgust. In a voice she knew. One that had been haunting her ever since her return to the Digital World. Only now, it was no longer confident and foreboding. It was angry. Livid.

"Dagomon." She turned to face him, but was not afraid. The creature occupying her dear friend's body could not hurt her. Not anymore. "Let him go. You've already lost."

"He's protecting you, isn't he?" Her command was blatently ignored in favor of a scoff. "I should have guessed. A slight miscalculation on my part. One I will rectify immediately."

Hikari's glowing eyes widened at that, but before she could ask what he meant, Daisuke vanished into thin air.

o*0*o

First Kabuterimon. Then Togemon.

It hadn't been enough that the two Digimon inexplicably woke up halfway to their destination, startling everyone in the group. Without the aid of their partners' digivices. But, within moments of awakening, they just had to go and show the others up by evolving. Not once, but twice. First, to the Child Form. Then Adult. Tailmon, of course, had seen this all once before, and knew imediately what it meant.

As did the others.

"They're okay!" Sora smiled down at Piyomon, whom she was still carrying in her arms. The little Digimon's beak, too, twitched upward. "Thank goodness."

Taichi adjusted his goggles as he puffed his chest in pride. "Better than okay, I'm guessing. I'm almost starting to feel sorry for whoever they're up against right now."

"No kidding," Jou muttered behind a grin of his own. Beside him, Gomamon shuddered a little.

"Maybe they won't even need us by the time we get there," Yamato partially joked, to which Gabumon gave a nod.

"Some thanks we get." Taichi turned to him, and though the boys shared a look of silent releif between them, he continued with, "Typical. We do all the work of fetching their partners for them, while they're off having-"

He was cut off by Sora's scream.

"Angemon! No!"

The rest of the group turned in time to see the Angel Digimon, who'd been flying just ahead of them, collapse to the ground in a large heap. They ran to their fallen comrade with concern and confusion, and were horrified to see...once the dust settled...not Patamon...but the still form of Tokomon laying in the small crater.

Yamato went pale.

o*0*o

"There is an old legend."

The voice echoed into the high ceiling above. Low and dark and filled with a mixture of contempt and distain. As if he were mocking the notion that said old legend even existed.

"It tells of a girl. One who would release all the Darkness into the World. She need only open the final Gate, and its influence would spread to all corners. And reign. As it should. There was one thing that could stop it, of course—isn't there always? The girl's supposed Saving Grace. Hope. That one, pitiful thing she and the rest of the creatures could desperately cling to. Unless someone were to deal with that Hope once and for all."

Dagomon twisted the knife once before pulling it out. Blood sprayed from the young boy's wound. Takeru's eyes—wide with shock—could only stare up at the vision of Daisuke's sneer...the coal black eyes staring him down...before he collapsed to the ground.

"By Killing it."

o*0*o

Pain.

It shot through Hikari's lower torso She doubled over, hand rising to her stomach, as her legs gave way beneath her. She collapsed onto the sandy ground in a limp seated position, and when she pulled her hand away...there was no wound. A phantom pain.

The tears, however, that flowed freely down her cheeks were all too real.

"Takeru-kun..." Her breathing grew labored. Deeper. She swallowed a huge lump in her throat that refused to go away. "It...can't be..."

Except she knew it was. Because she'd felt it.

"TAKERU-KUN!"

As she screamed the boy's name...a cry of pain and sorrow and...loss...for the third time in her life, Hikari's whole body exploded in a wave of blinding, white light.