**special author's note: after uploading this story precisely the way it was formatted in Microsoft Word, I have come across fanfiction-dot-net once again messing with my page breaks and spacing. As I have no idea how to fix this, I submitted the story as is so that the wait for Chapter 9 would not extend any further than it already has and apologize in advance. I'll try to fix the formatting at a later time, when the site and I have come to an understanding with one another.

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HAPPY ODAIBA DAY, DIGI FANDOM!

...okay, so I might be a few days off. To be fair, I truly did plan to have this done and completed in time. And I did spend the majority of the day typing out the last scenes and doing final edits and revisions.

But that aside...it's finally here. The Last Chapter. Ten Years' worth of work accumulating to this moment. To be perfectly honest, it feels almost bittersweet. Pandora's Box has been such an on and off part of my life for so long, that it's going to be a bit strange not having another part to work on.

I tried my absolute best to make the journey worth it for those loyal readers who stuck by me all this time, as well as for those of you reading for the first time. Are there sections I'm not 100% happy with? The perfectionist in me says yes, but the determination in me did its best to overshadow those uncertainties. In the end, I can only hope that it will bring even half as much enjoyment and satisfaction as it gave me to write.

With that said, I present to you:

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PANDORA'S BOX
(Final Episode - "Anatole")


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The only feeling worse than air being forcefully pushed from Taichi's lungs was the subsequent inability to replace it.

A hand around his throat. Human in size and shape but not strength. Tight enough to restrict all but the barest gasps of breath. Loose enough to spare his windpipe. For now. Even if he wanted to cry out, only choked sounds managed to escape his lips. His hands came up in van attempt to pry himself free, but it was of little use. Desperation settled in. His vision grew blurry. His lungs burned, feet danging half a meter above ground.

On the other end of the arm restraining him, Dagomon let out a low growl. With his free hand, he reached up to wipe at the trickle of blood on his chin. Ignored the very human feeling of pain. A throbbing cheek where Taichi's fist had landed, no doubt leaving a rapidly forming bruise.

"They were not wrong when they gifted your Crest, Courage." For perhaps the first time, the dark digimon felt neither boredom nor anger. Rather, it was a passive annoyance. Though, at the moment, it was more annoyance than passive. His head turned to one side to spit, and a spot of red hit the floor. "A pity, though, that they seemed determined to isolate a single trait to each individual. For what you lack in fear, you also appear to lack in brains, or else you would not have-"

"TAICHI!"

Yamato's cry rang through the air as he made a dash for his friend, succeeding in drawing Dagomon's attention.

But the dark digimon needed little more than to raise his free hand, casually sweeping it through the air to send a wave of power. As if struck by some invisible force, Yamato was thrown back, sliding across the ground several meters.

Far less than intended.

Dagomon frowned at the internal realization, finally dropping a gasping Taichi—who fell to his knees, hands rising to his sore neck with ragged breaths—as he turned to fully face Yamato. His eyes lowered to his hands for a time, holding the foreign appendages up and analyzing them with a narrowed gaze. Either oblivious to the fact that both Friendship and Courage took advantage of the distraction to rise to their feet, or simply not caring they had done so.

"Perhaps...a glitch..." Words muttered to himself, just barely reaching the two Chosen's ears. Seemingly satisfied with the explanation, he lifted his head once more and took a second glance at the blonde boy. A belated realization dawned on him: "You resemble him."

"Who?" Yamato spat out through gritted teeth.

"Hope."

Less than a second was all it took for Yamato to make the connection, and thought it still didn't explain much, he felt an ominous chill trickle down his spine. The way Dagomon was looking at him...so...impassively. Without a hint of fear or even disgust. Curious enough to make note of his observation, but reacting as if it was of no consequences.

He risked a glance Taichi's way. The other boy seemed just as unnerved at Dagomon's words. Swallowing a rising lump in his throat, he waited until their eyes met long enough for Taichi to shake his head. Don't listen to him. Yamato nodded back, but with far less certainty.

Dagomon, too, returned his attention to Taichi. If he thought anything of the boy's quick recovery, he gave no outward indication. In fact, it was their wordless conversation that seemed to pique his interest. The gears were turning as he looked back and forth between them, and were he a different digimon type, he might have let out a roar of amusement.

"Yes. There it is. A bond parallel to that of Hope and Light. Similar, but different in all but strength." Chin tilted just enough to better look down on them, Dagomon began encircling Yamato. A dangerous dance with no discernible goal, particularly as the movements between them eventually led Yamato closer to Taichi, until the pair were standing side by side. Close enough for Yamato to notice the marks on his friend's throat, and for Taichi to see the scratches along his upper arm. "I see it in your eyes, Friendship. That desire to protect. Even if Courage is stronger than you could ever dream to be. How fortunate for you, then, that you need not fear an impending failure...for it is not you who stands in my way."

Yamato's fists clenched so tightly at his sides, he could feel the sting of fingernails drawing blood.

"Not that it matters now." Seeing the boy's reaction drew a malicious smirk from him, and he continued his cruel monologue. Knowing well what the reaction to come would be, and cherishing the leadup to it all the more. "Mere Friendship cannot win you a battle. Nor Courage. Nor any other traits remaining in this world. Not when your precious Hope is dead."

"NO!" Yamato felt every inch of him go numb, ignoring both Taichi's cry of protest and the shadow of a hand on his shoulder as he jerked forward. Tears blurred his vision as his mind filled with hatred and an irresistible urge to strike a the one who claimed to have killed his dear baby brother.

Unfortunately for him, the attack was blatant and Dagomon spotted it coming with ease. Once more, he needed only to lift a hand, swiping at a sharp downward angle to send his power crashing into Yamato. The boy was knocked back with such force, he collided with Taichi and still managed to come to a crashing halt against the wall behind them. Both crumbled to the floor, unconscious.

And yet...it was a victory that still drew a deep frown from Dagomon, staring at the offending hand far longer than before.

Until the air beside him burst into static, that was, causing him to quickly side-step the large crack that appeared where he had been standing seconds prior. A single glance drained what little color was left in his borrowed face at the sight just beyond.

"...it can't be..." he hissed, all traces of confidence lost as he retreated back slowly towards the sounds of battle. No longer carrying the confidence they had moments prior.

oo

oo

Miyako shut her eyes tight as she crouched down, rocking back and forth. She would have covered her ears in attempt to drown out the sounds around her, but her arms were already busy cradling the unconscious Poyomon she'd rescued earlier. He'd fallen at her feet not long after Angewomon was struck down, herself devolving back into her Tailmon form. For reasons beyond her comprehension, Miyako's first instinct had been to pick him up—a decision she was both proud of herself for, and also a little terrified, given she'd had to put herself directly in the line of fire to do so.

"This isn't happening..." she murmured to herself, burying her face in Poyomon's back. "A bad dream. That's what this has to be. Just...a bad dream. And I'm ready to wake up now...any minute..."

A pair of warm hands came to rest on her bare shoulders, and it was then she realized just how badly she was trembling. Swallowing once...and then a second time, just to be sure...she lifted her head to find Ken kneeling in front of her. The look in his eyes was so similar to the one he wore when she'd first woken up, it caught her off guard.

Nervous. Worried. Fearful.

But not for himself.

"Why is this happening to us?" She asked him, voice barely above a whisper.

If possible, the pain in his expression worsened. Because he didn't have an answer for her. Lips pressed together, he slowly moved his hands down her arms until they came to rest just above her wrists. Careful of the creature in her arms, he moved to guide her to a stand. She obeyed without really thinking, and found herself now staring down at him by several centimeters. Despite the fact that she still felt so small in comparison.

"You saved Hope's digimon," he commented softly.

She blinked at the subject change, glancing downward as if only then realizing. "...I did."

"Why?"

Reflexively opening her mouth to respond, it took several breaths before she could find a response accurate enough: "Because it seemed like the right thing to do."

"We're not supposed to be doing the right thing," he reminded her gently. Though with a hint of a smile to his expression.

One she found herself mirroring. "I guess...I've never been the best at always doing what I'm supposed to."

They remained like that for several seconds. His hands still resting on her arms, their weight a small comfort. Even if only for a few seconds, he had taken her mind off the fear. Allowed her to focus on something good. A difference, however small. Perhaps it was fitting that the Chosen digimon she carried with her now was that of Hope, because right then, Miyako needed it just as much as any of them.

Her shoulders relaxed. She closed her eyes and took a step back, pulling herself away from his hold. In response, Ken lowered his arms and waited. Allowing her the time for a large, if slightly dramatic breath. Exhaling audibly, she opened her eyes and looked to him once more. The fear was still there, but so no longer felt like curling up in a ball of tears and denial.

After all...she'd already defied the odds and acted out of their previously assigned characters, hadn't she? So what was stopping them from going further? From making more than a small difference?

"We need to help them," she stated, glancing past him to the ongoing battle.

"Agreed," Ken nodded. If Miyako didn't know better, she would have thought he was holding back a smirk. "But what can we-"

He was cut off by the sound of wood cracking, following by the sharp screeching of a bird. A large one.

Spinning around-(and, without realizing, extending a protective arm out to defend the girl now behind him)-he braced himself...only to find Iori standing several meters ahead of them both, wielding a long, if slightly bent, branch. The dazed form of Aquilamon was shaking his head as if flapped off, barely able to recover before Birdramon took advantage of his stunned state and slammed her entire body into him, sending them both back and up into the air to continue their fight.

Ken and Miyako both stared after the young boy with wide-eyed expressions, mouths agape.

Iori took the silence as a cue to straighten his posture, glancing over his shoulder with an expression as impassive as his tone: "Apparently, I know kendo."

"...apparently," Miyako echoed back, still in awe. Until her brain caught up and she blinked herself back to the present. "Come to think of it...that gives me an idea."

"I'm almost afraid to ask," was Iori's rhetort.

Unfazed, Miyako shook her head before turning to Ken with a knowing look. "It doesn't matter. We all know I would just tell you both anyway."

The look Ken sent her in return could only be described as one of a great wariness...mixed with pride.

oo

oo

"I can't believe this room is still standing," Iori commented as they entered, glancing around. The sounds of battle continued to echo in the hallway behind them, and at one point, he could have sworn he felt the ground shake beneath them. Bits of ceiling crumbled down, validating his suspicions.

"Is there anything you do believe?" Miyako snapped back over her shoulder.

"Yes. I believe this is a really stupid idea. We might as well just walk up behind and hit him with a large stick."

"I think I liked you better when you were more Apathetic." Frowning at his persistent attitude, she made her way to the main computer. It took only a second's worth of visual assessment before she spun on her heel long enough to shove Tokomon into Ken's arms, only to turn back and crack her knuckles. The first set of keystrokes let off a few dangerous sparks, but though she flinched initially, her resolved steeled itself long enough for her to continue. "I know I used to be good at this sort of thing. I'm sure of it."

"At what, exactly?" Ken eyed her warily, alternating between her expression and her fingers. "You never did fully explain what we're supposed to be doing here. All you said was that we could use the main computer to-"

The large screen overhead blinked a series of digital code the three of them translated as ACCESS DENIED, and Miyako let out a cry of frustration in response.

"Argh!" She kicked at the bottom of the console, only to jump back as larger sparks appeared. This time, however, the console's retaliation added fuel to her anger, and she spun back to Ken with a heated gaze that caused him to flinch. "This is going to sound completely crazy, I know, but I swear I have memories of computer systems. Not like this one, exactly...the ones I'm thinking of come from this other world...but I'm sure the languages are compatible enough that I can get through."

At her explanation, Ken pressed his lips together, brows furrowing. Then he turned to hand Tokomon off to Iori before coming up to Miyako's side and initiated an input sequence similar to the one she'd been attempting. The action elicited a look of genuine surprise from the older girl.

"You…?"

Without looking back, he nodded.

She stared after him for a moment before daring to ask: "How...much do you remember?"

He pause just long enough to glance up, meeting her gaze through the dark reflection on the screen.

"Everything."

His cheeks burned a bright pink even the scrolling encryption couldn't hide, and that was when Miyako knew.

Still, there was no time to dwell on such a revelation. He returned to his work, fingers continuing to fly across the keys at an impressive rate, even by Miyako's memory's standards. Line after line of code scrawled across the screen, and in time, Miyako realized her previous error.

"Of course!" Eyes wide, she nodded with a renewed certainty before joining him at his side, taking over where he left off. "That's why I was having trouble. The language is supposed to be of this world, but the code isn't. That's why I couldn't find it."

"Find what?" Iori questioned, attempting to peek around the pair to see what they were up to.

This time, Ken lingered back, arms folding across his chest. As there was only one keyboard, he knew he would only be in the way if he attempted to help her further. Still...he followed the resultant lines with rapt attention until he realized what it was she was trying to unlock.

"It won't work, Miyako-chan." He shook his head, even as she continued to type. "The program was unique to Knowledge's Code. And there's no way He would have allowed the source to remain so easily accessible."

"But it has to be there!" She insisted right back. "Encrypted...fragmented...whatever security measures are in place, we have to break through. And we don't know if he even knows that we know how to maneuver the system. He tried to bury those memories. But we have them back, and at this point, they may very well be our only hope."

Her choice of words gave Ken pause. Enough for his head to lower. Fists to clench at his sides. Enough that even Miyako noticed, and ceased in her work long enough to turn back to him in silent question.

"Except all hope in the Digital World is dead now." His eyes shut tightly. "You know that as well as I do. It resided in the Bearer of the Crest. And we brought him here for the Ma—for Dagomon to kill. So if Hope is that we need to win...then we've already lost."

Miyako's breath caught in her throat. There was no denying the truth to Ken's words; the very computer they were working on had verified it earlier. It was fact, not supposition. Knowledge had refused to believe or take the message so literally, sure, but even one such as he could be blinded by bias. Hope was a friend. It was difficult to think of losing a friend like that. But the rest of them knew.

They knew, because it had been part of the Plan all along.

"...you two really are as big of idiots as the rest of them, aren't you?"

Iori's dry tone cut through the heavy silence, and the pair turned to him in question. Just confused enough not to feel offended. In turn, he stared them down with all the enthusiasm of something who looked one yawn aware from pure boredom.

But not before he motioned to the creature in his arms: "Or maybe you weren't paying attention to the fact that this guy here was a Poyomon until a short while ago?"

He gave them a solid three seconds to process the implication.

Realization struck them both so hard, they nearly fell over in shock. Once it passed, however, their spirits renewed, and they nodded in unison before turning back to the motherboard. This time, Ken hovered close as he monitored Miyako's progression. Correcting her only once when he noticed an error in sequence. Switching back and forth so precisely it almost seemed rehearsed, with half sentences and whole ideas exchanging between them in synch with fragmented words and visual cues, until…

The computer monitor light blinked.

Seconds later, a large cracked appeared in the air beside Iori; he turned, finding himself staring into a gaping abyss mere centimeters from his face.

Close enough to see what was on the other side.

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"Jou-senpai, look out!"

The warning from Sora came in time for the older boy to (ungracefully) dodge out of the way.

Twin harpoon torpedos went sailing over his head at such close proximity, he could feel the gust of wind across his skin as they sliced through the air. Adjusting his glasses, then taking them off to wipe some of the dust from the lenses, he replaced them properly before looking to Ikkakumon with a heated glare.

"Sorry," the digimon murmured, head bowed towards his partner, before turning back to the intended target.

Stingmon darted forward, the tips of his hands violently clashing against Ikkakumon's horn. Several seconds of back and forth exchanges ensued, each vying for supremacy of strength over the other, before they simultaneously broke apart. Stingmon retreated back just enough to allow a sharp dive inward. This time, however, Ikkakumon was able to dodge, and the dark digimon hit the ground at such a force, it left a cloud of dust. And a larger divot in the ground.

One that left a deep crack, splintering outward.

The visual was enough to cause him to flinch back, but once he got a better look at the ground, seemed satisfied enough to fly off again

...that was weird. Jou thought to himself.

Several meters away, Digmon too seemed to be struggling against his opponent, a very wily and very pissed off Tailmon, whose speed more than compensated for a weakened strength. Ear-piercing screeches that only sometimes made it out in the form of attack calls echoed in between strikes, including words that would have made Jou wince had he stopped to listen closely. Every swipe at the armor-evolved digimon made was just barely dodged, and after a well-placed Neko Kick, she managed to send him flying back into a nearby wall.

Back-flipping off his armor in the process, Tailmon landed on the ground in a low crouch. She rose to a stand long enough to dust off her paws before beginning a slow walk towards her opponent. Occasionally stumbling along the way. Her breath came out in labored gasps.

Above, Flamedramon continued to maintain the upper hand, deflecting Greymon's latest attack by sending him into what was left of the ceiling. A large chunk subsequently broke free, and Flamedramon caught it in time to swing it around and around, flinging it straight at Greymon. A nearby Birdramon's attack burst through the stone, sending the fragments harmlessly to the ground around them.

"Is it just me, or are we not losing anymore?" Jou asked Sora as she ran over to his side.

"We're not losing," Sora agreed. Her attention was divided between her partner and Jou, who unsteadily rose to his feet in the meantime. "But we're also not winning."

A series of screeches drew both their attention long enough to witness AtlurKabuterimon holding a very put-out Stingmon by the wings. Despite all efforts on the dark digimon's part to break free, AtlurKabuterimon seemed to have no issues in smacking him around several times before lifting him high above his head, only to throw him unceremoniously to the ground. Hard.

More cracks appeared, but Stingmon was too busy being unconscious to notice.

"...okay, not all of us are winning." Sora amended, very nearly smiling. After watching AtlurKabuterimon revel in his momentary victory, she shook her head before turning back to Jou with a more relaxed posture. "I don't suppose you've seen Taichi and Yamato-kun?"

Stingmon awoke not long after, taking to the air once more. This time, he went after Greymon and Garurumon, who had finally started to coordinate in their attacks against Flamedramon. The latter of the three was backed into a corner, yet was able to block Garurumon's physical attacks while still avoiding the increasing frequency of firebolts emitted from Greymon's mouth. Still, his defenses were weakening and opportunity for the two almost presented itself before Stingmon flew up behind Garurumon, knocking the wolf digimon directly into Greymon's latest attack.

The diversion not only gave Flamedramon the opportunity to escape, but badly singed Garurumon's fur..

Above them, feathers clashed as Birdramon went beak to beak with Aquilamon, the pair equally covered in scratches. Despite what should have been a clear power difference between the two, it seemed they had both devolved into petty bickering, exchanging blow for blow in a fight that almost seemed personal.

It was enough of a sight to distract Ikkakumon from his own fight. As such, he didn't see Digimon take the opening to send his drills burrowing directly into the ground. The earth beneath them warped and crumbled, and Ikkakumon lost his footing as he stumbled back, just barely able to avoid the piercing weapons as they emerged from the ground inches from his face.

The force was enough to widen the many more cracks forming in the ground, where they continued to spread...meter by meter...until they hit a far rock wall. From there, they traveled up...higher and higher...with bits and pieces of the structure crumbling...until-

"Mimi-chan!" Jou realized a second too late what was happening, and could only watch in horror as events unfolded.

Still unconscious, the young girl remained unaware that she was laying directly beneath the danger. A frantic Tanemon echoed Jou's cries as she tried desperately to shake her partner awake. Pull her aside. Too weak to manage more than a futile tug at her sleeve.

Chunks of wall and ceiling broke away. Heavy and sharp.

But then, at the last second, Jou saw a blur of black and deep blue throw it self over Mimi's sleeping form...just as they were both buried in the pile of rubble.

"KEN-KUN!"

A voice Jou just barely recognized as belonging to That Girl Formerly Known as Nike cried out. Full of terror and anguish. She appeared in his line of vision seconds too late, coming to a knee in front of the pile. Staring in frozen horror for a full second before bending down and beginning to dig. The stones cut into her skin, but she ignored the pain.

Only when a second pair of hands began digging as well did she stop. Eyes following the attached arms, she found her gaze meeting with those of the Bearer of Reliability. In the reflection of his glasses, she could see the tears brimming behind hers. A mutual understanding passed between them long enough to wordlessly nod and return to their shared task.

Ten seconds passed. The longest ten seconds of her life. The way her chest burned, Miyako wasn't sure she remembered to breathe in that time. Letting out a long exhale only when she saw hints of Ken's cape appear beneath the rubble. She swallowed the rising lump in her throat that threatened to form when noticing he wasn't moving. Continuing until she saw the fabric finally begin to rustle. Dust and bits of plaster falling to one side as he stirred.

He rose to his elbows and let out a haggard cough before turning his head. And saw her.

"Ken-kun!" Miyako let out a shaky laugh as she sat back, tossing the last of the larger stones to one side. "Don't you ever scare me like that again!"

"I'm sorry," he apologized in all sincerity. He would have moved to get up then, if it hadn't been for the sounds of stirring beneath him.

Mimi winced, head lolling from one side to the other and letting out a weak cough from all the dust in the air. Moaning softly, she blinked her eyes open. Giving them time to adjust before focusing on the blue haired-boy who was definitely kneeling on top of her. Then to the faces of Miyako and Jou hovering nearby. Altering back and forth between them in a tense moment where nobody was saying anything. Which meant, once again, it was up to her:

"...I missed something, didn't I?"

o

Sora watched the scene before her with one hand clasped gently over her chest. And a softened expression.

The way Miyako and Jou put aside past differences for the sake of those in danger. The mirrored frantic looks in their eyes, soon replaced by relief upon realizing their precious people were alright.

But beyond that...how Miyako immediately covered up any potential embarrassment at staring at Ken for so long, she instead chose to fuss over the minor scrapes to his skin and tears in his clothing his noble act earned him. How Jou didn't even both pretending to feel sheepish as he knelt at Mimi's side, smiling warmly as he offered her a hand. One which she was all too eager to accept, eyes never once leaving Jou's. And dear Tanemon, all the while, clinging to Mimi's ankle while crying unabashed tears of joy.

When Birdramon called out her name, breaking the trance, Sora realized one more thing: she was glowing again. That bold, red aura enveloping her person. The very same red as the strings she saw connecting her friends and allies to one another. Invisible to all but her, and yet...there wasn't a soul who could deny such connections. Warmth flooded her heart. Not happiness. Not even relief. No, it was a feeling that could only be described—if vicariously—as…

"BIRDRAMON...EVOLVE TO...GARUDAMON!"

Aquilamon barely had the time to register the sudden massive power difference between him and his opponent before the full force of Garudamon's fully evolved abilities took effect. Sending an attack so powerful, the dark digimon was sent flying clear across the cavern, slamming into the far wall before crumpling to the ground.

He did not get up again.

o

o

Taichi lifted his head just in time to see his childhood friend cheer for her partner's victory. Despite the throbbing pain he felt in his head and...well, just about everywhere at that point...he couldn't help a proud smile at the sight.

A hand appeared in his line of vision then, and he followed it to find Yamato wearing a similar expression.

"She's got the right idea." Clasping the other boy by the wrist, he made quick work of bring Taichi to his feet. "So...is that friendly enough for you?"

Taichi smirked back. "It'll do."

Together, the pair turned to call on their respective partners, bodies taking on a certain glow of their own.

o

o

This. Could. Not. Be. Happening.

Dagomon growled lower than his human host should have been capable of. In the span of just a few minutes, he'd witnessed what should have been impossible. Courage and Friendship, joined together in a partnered evolution, coming to the aid of a recently evolved Garudamon—a Chosen digimon of Love, of all traits—making quick work of those meant to serve him. There wasn't a single word in that sentence that should have come to pass

Evolution should have been a distant memory to the Chosen now. Their spirits, crushed beyond repair. One by one, they should have succumbed to their own personal darkness, giving up a fight they had no chance of winning. After all, without Hope, there was…

...and it was, in that moment's thought, Dagomon realized his error.

Black eye widening, a very unpleasant sensation began to settle in his host's stomach. More chilling than the deepest waters of the Dark Ocean itself.

Those Chosen nuisances weren't without Hope after all. Hope was still alive.

But...how?

Hiw answer would soon come in the form of an attack hitting the wall several meters behind him, sending a spray of dust and rocks his way. More nuisances to deal with, and more power to exert in order to shield himself from the worst of it. From there, he turned back to find the lot of them facing him now.

Courage. Friendship. Love. Responsibility. Purity. And, standing beside Knowledge...of all the eyes to be looking back...Dagomon found himself locking gazes with Apathy. The youngest child's lips were moving discreetly as he spoke to Knowledge of something too distant for his host's ears to pick up, but whatever it was, it filled Knowledge with a very visible air of confidence.

For some reason, that angered Dagomon all the more. Stepping forward, his eyes glowed iridescent once more, and he summoned some of his deeper, darker strength. Beads of sweat formed on his brow in concentration, and he felt the body struggling to contain such force. But the moment his ears picked up the sound of Courage ordering the group as a whole to attack...he threw his arms out, unleashing a wave of energy so powerful, it send everyone of them flying back. Chosen and digimon partner alike.

"You are nothing but audacious fools if you think you stand a chance of defeating me!"

What was once a calm, detached manner of speech now came out in seething hiss. Teeth grinding together in between ragged breaths. His host was not tall for a human, but the aura forming around him would more than make up for the lack of height with sheer presence. As it was, he noticed Purity and Reliability's eyes widened in unmistakable fear. And, were he not too pissed to care, he would have reveled in those looks.

"Darkness can never be defeated. It will never be."

A step forward, the shock-waves from that single movement blowing a strong gust of wind aimed at Courage and Friendship, blowing them apart. They continued to roll back until their joined partner managed to catch them both.

A second step, this time sent towards Knowledge and Love. Only AtlurKabuterimon's last minute dive in front shielded them from the brunt of the attack.

The rest of them quavered in their spots. Altering gazes between fallen comrades and those potentially next.

"You may claim your singular victory over my lessers. You may stand against me. You may even keep your precious HOPE-" a word spat out in pure disgust. Even Apathy, no longer a visual embodiment of his Dark Chosen namesake, was wide-eyed as Dagomon rose both hands into the air. Preparing to summon his greatest attack yet. A final blow. "But just as the Light of this world must never be extinguished, so will you never be able to escape its sha-"

A loud, sharp crack cut through the air, the sound reverberating off what remained of the corridor walls.

Dagomon froze in place. Arms still raised. Mouth agape. Eyes glassy, staring at them all yet no longer seeing. He fell to his knees. Arms flopping to his sides. Then...he crumpled face-down in the dirt.

Behind him, Miyako stood over his now prone form, hair a mess, breathing heavily as she tossed the splintered stick in her hands aside.

"That was for nearly killing me," she spat out in a huff, straightening her posture as she reached up with one hand to brush the loose strands from her face.

Six Chosen Children stared at her in an incredulous silence. Nearby—although she couldn't see—Ken was mirroring their expression.

"...huh," Iori spoke first. For once, sounding almost impressed. "Go figure."

Yamato sat up further, staring down Dagomon at a distance with wary eyes. Already awaiting signs of movement. "There's no way it could be that easy."

Several more seconds of tensed silence passed. No one dared say anything. They didn't dare breathe too loudly.

A minute passed, and Dagmon didn't stir. Only then did they move to stand. Sora was the first to her feet, helping Koushiro up before walking over to see to Taichi and Yamato. Similarly, Jou and Mimi came to Iori's aid, though he brushed them both off in favor of rising on his own.

A piercing scream drew them all back to the spot Dagomon had fallen, where they saw Miyako struggling to escape a firm grip on her ankle. Firm, but weak enough that she managed to twist herself away after a few attempts, running straight into Ken's protective arms. Together, the formerly dark pair watched in wide-eyed horror as Dagomon slowly pulled himself to his knees. Head bowed. One foot plated itself on the ground. Then the other. Then, shaky but with a growing strength, he stood up fully...and when his head lifted, they saw the trail of blood trailing down his face where she'd struck him.

"No way!" Taichi exclaimed.

"I knew it," Yamato tensed, fists balling at his sides.

"You...will pay...for that..." Eyes flickering. Bearing a full row of teeth as he growled, the words barely coherent. Anger radiating off him in wave after wave of poisonous aura, Dagomon started for the couple.

They tried to back away, but all too quickly, Ken felt his back hit a wall. They were trapped, and he could do little more than to twist their bodies so that he would be between Miyako and whatever Dagomon unleashed upon them. Shutting his eyes as tightly as she'd already shut hers.

"I am not to be betrayed. I am your Master. The one responsible your pathetic existence. I gave you purpose. I gave you life. And I will just as easily take it back...but no...such a fate would be too good for the likes of you."

With every word, Ken held that much tighter to Miyako. His knuckles turned white as she buried her face in his neck.

Dagomon moved to lift his hands once more, sparks of black lightening charging at his fingertips...but then he stumbled. His ankle caught on some unseen force. Looking down, he tugged several times to no avail. It was as if the appendage had been frozen in place.

Then, there was a flicker of static.

His eyes widened. "No..."

It was weak at first, circling around the ankle. Then it spread. A single crack emitting from the ground, trailing upward. Slicing through the very air behind him, as if it were some transparent wall ready to shatter. A dim light shone through the crevice. But the light was Dark, and as the crack began to open, the world behind it was exposed for all to see.

"The Dark Ocean." Koushiro stated simply, drawing everyone's attention. "Dagomon's Pandora's Box. It's calling him back, and he can no longer resist."

"...just like the Prophecy stated." Jou's voice came out in an awed whisper, eyes nearly as big as the rims of his glasses. "Dagomon is practically Darkness itself. A being like that can't ever be defeated."

"But it can be contained!" Mimi exclaimed

Armed with that realization, the Chosen—light and dark alike—could only stand back and watch the display as it unfolded before them.

"I was so close!"

Frantically trying to free its ankle while simultaneously leaning back as far as the laws of biology would allow, Dagomon shook his head as he watched, helpless, as the crack widened further. Ocean waves coming through. The sounds as they crashed on a dampened shore. The smell of salt permeating the air. And in the distance, an all too familiar lighthouse emitting a certain black light atop the cliff it stood in isolation.

Calling Him home.

"I won't go back!" Further and further, the static traveled up his body, until it enveloped the whole of his person. "I refuse! I...NO!"

What happened next was a sight even Koushiro would have struggled to explain: Dagomon—or, rather, the form of Daisuke—began to flicker. Alternating between transparency, opaqueness, and a salt and pepper static shape vaguely resembling something humanoid. Then a second image appeared. Overlaying the form of Daisuke. A dark shadow with a large, bulbous head and burning red eyes. It, too, flickered in synch with Daisuke. At first. Until, soon, the flickering of the shadow began to pick up pace while that of Daisuke slowed. The desynchronization of their respective rhythms separated the two, until the shadow was left twisted and warped and...in the blink of an eye...was pulled back into the crack.

Which then sealed itself.

Daisuke's body crumpled to the floor.

While everyone else was still trying to figure out what happened, Ken was the first to move. Daisuke might have been host to Dagomon, but he was first and foremost a friend. And right then, his concern for that friend momentarily overshadowed any ongoing urge to protect Miyako. He came to Daisuke's side, cautiously nudging the boy with his toe at first. Then risking kneeling down long enough to place two fingers to the side of his neck. And one more from the opposite hand beneath his nose.

His eyes widened, and he looked to the others in alarm: "He's alive!"

"And free." For neither the first nor the last time, Koushiro stepped into the spotlight. He was staring down Daisuke's form with great curiosity, the glowing purple hue of his eyes giving further weight to his next statement. "Dagomon's completely gone from his code. The influence has all but faded." With those same eyes, he looked to Ken and Miyako, then to Iori. "From the three of you as well. It should be gone completely within the hour."

Iori shifted awkwardly in place, looking like he meant to say something in response, but choosing instead to nod his understanding.

Taichi crossed the room, swatting off a moment of concern from Sora when she pointed out his forehead, and instead came to kneel on Daisuke's other side, opposite Ken. Without a word, he took it upon himself to reach for Daisuke's arm and waited for Ken to do the same before hauling the shared weight up over their shoulders.

They barely made it to a stand when Plotmon's frantic voice rang out:

"TAICHI!" The group turned to find the Child digimon running towards them. Streaks of red stained her paws and left cheek, and her eyes were glossy with the threat of tears. "You have to hurry! It's Hikari! She's...she..."

But the little digimon never completed her sentence before succumbing to exhaustion, collapsing near the cavern entrance.

Seconds later, she devolved back into the prone form of Nyaromon.

Taichi felt his heart stop.

o

o

o

Sora's sharp gasp, hardly muffled by both hands covering her mouth, vocalized what nearly everything though as they gathered in the prison doorway. Each of them frozen in horror at the sight that greeted them.

Takeru was laying on the ground, unmoving, with a gaping wound in his stomach. Blood pooled around him. It clung to his hair and clothing, stained his unnaturally pale skin, and left the air smelling of a coppery sweetness that made Jou take several steps back, a hand over his mouth to quell the urge to vomit.

At his side was a weary Hikari, eyelids and head both drooping as she fought to stay awake. Both hands were pressed over Takeru's wound as the blood continued to seep through her fingers. Her face was just as pale as his, even before taking into account the aura of pure white surrounding them both.

"Hikari..." Taichi moved to run to his sister's side, but it was Koushiro who stepped in front of him.

"Takeru..." Yamato attempted the same, only to be stopped as well.

"We can't break her concentration." He insisted calmly, despite his own rapid heartbeat. For once, he utilized the full potential of his Crest to not only analyze the situation before him, but fade the world into little more than impersonal line after line of code. This allowed him the concentration he needed to properly read the situation at hand. "The Crest of Life brings Life, remember? Homeostasis-san even said as much. Right now, Hikari-san's powers are the only thing keeping him alive."

"But Takeru's not getting any better!" Yamato pointed out.

"And Hikari's getting worse!" Taichi added, weakly struggling against the single hand pressed to his chest. It was a testament to his willpower that Koushiro was able to hold him back at all. "Just look at her!"

"I am," Koushiro reminded him. Giving the full weight of implication time to properly sink into both their heads before risking lowering his arms. He was rewarded for his efforts by the pair deliberately walking past him all of five steps before coming to simultaneous halts. Turning to face them, he continued his analysis. "...and you're right, Taichi-san. Hikari-san is keeping Takeru-san alive, but she's not healing him. The Crest of Light doesn't have that ability."

"Then..." Jou stepped forward, surprising himself at how calm he managed to remain in the moment. "...if she's not healing him...she must be giving him Life."

Koushiro nodded. "Borrowed Life, in a sense. Several times over. His wound should have been fatal, and therein lies the problem: it still is. He's dying almost as fast as she can revive him. And neither of them have the power to break the cycle."

"...but I do."

Five pairs of eyes turned to see a trembling Mimi, fingers pressed against her lower lip in uncertainty. Normally one who thrived in the spotlight, for once, the bearer of Purity wished it were anyone other than her. And yet...she stared passed Yamato and Taichi to their siblings. The two youngest of the original Chosen. Neither of them yet in their teens. Precious friends who were perhaps the closest Mimi would ever have to siblings herself. And they were dying right before her very eyes.

But not without fighting with everything they had.

"They need..." Lowering her fingers, she steeled herself before turning to Koushiro for validation. "...they need me to heal him. That's what your saying, isn't it?"

A hand came to rest on her shoulder. She looked back to see Sora smiling gently. Words unspoken shining through the bearer of Love's eyes, conveying a message of comfort and solidarity. It was enough to get Mimi to smile back, however faintly and despite her lingering fears, as she placed her hand atop her best girlfriend's. Even offering a light squeeze of the fingers in silent gratitude.

Koushiro looked...a little more hesitant on the matter, especially after giving Mimi's own code a solid read. But by then, the decision was far beyond his reach, and he could do little more than step back as she walked passed them all, towards Hikari and Takeru.

Takeru was still. His eyes closed in threat of eternal slumber. Hikari's remained open, if barely, but she barely registered Mimi's approach. Her head was bowed even further, body lightly swaying as it fought against an overwhelming exhaustion. But she was nothing if not her brother's sister, with all the stubbornness that flowed through a Yagami's veins. She would not give in. Not when her dearest friend's life was on the line.

"Hi...Hikari-chan..." Voice cracking at first attempt, Mimi called to the younger girl. At first, it seemed as if Hikari could no longer hear her. "Hikari-chan...I need you to listen. I have to...I have to reach his wound. Do you understand?"

Silence. At first. Then-

"Can't...move." Her lips barely did, words coming out in a dreamy daze. "If I...move...I'll lose him."

Mimi very nearly broke down right there and then. Feeling the sting of hot tears at the corners of her eyes. The tremble in her hands, even before she lifted them. But she steeled herself and continued on. If Hikari wouldn't move...then she would have to place her hands over those of the younger girl's and...for a lack of better phrase...hope for the best.

For some reason, thoughts of the expression brought about a weak smile to her lips as she closed her eyes. Giving Hikari's fingers a squeeze not unlike those she'd given Sora's. She searched deep down for that now familiar power inside her. It took even less time to find it now, and she inhaled once before letting out a slow, audible exhale…

...and slumped in her seat as it faded back into the depths of her subconscious.

"I can't." She choked back a sob, unwilling to open her eyes and see the disappointment that would no doubt greet her. "It's too much. I don't...have enough power."

"Yes, you do."

A pair of strong, warm arms wrapped themselves around her from behind, and she felt the breath from Jou's lips brush across her ear. Mimi stiffened, her own breath catching in her throat at his unexpected boldness. The shock lasted only a second, however, before she allowed herself to melt into the comfort of his embrace. Opening her eyes, she saw his hands come up to rest atop hers.

Hands that were bathed in a faint, silvery-grey glow.

"You have more than enough, Mimi-chan. Because you won't have to do it alone. Not this time. You have me to Rely on too."

"And me." She turned her head in time to see Sora kneeling at her right side, offering a red-tinted hand atop Jou's. "We Love you too much not to help. For your sake. For Hikari-chan and Takeru-kun's sake."

"That's what Friends are for, after all." Yamato was next, kneeling to her left. Blue hand resting atop Sora's.

Less than a second later, Taichi's orange hand followed. He smirked from beside Yamato. "Though, I have to admit, it takes a lot of Courage to try this without us."

Koushiro was the last to step forward. Kneeling on Sora's other side, he gave a nod of confidence in Mimi's direction before adding his purple hand atop the rest.

"You Know what to do, Mimi-san."

She did.

It was strange how, in all the previous times she'd done this, Mimi never stopped to contemplate what her healing actually looked like. Mainly because her eyes had been closed. Her focus on every sense but sight. But this time, as she relaxed her body and allowed instinct to take over, it was her sight that led the way. A haze of green tinting the uneven darkness. Dim at first, but growing brighter and brighter as the warmth in her chest began to spread.

Only it wasn't just green. Surrounding the light that emitted from her heart—which was slowly taking the form of a teardrop—she could make out hints of Silver. And red. Blue. Orange. Purple. Each color wrapping itself around the last, glowing closer and closer…

….and in the distance, she saw...a star. Pink. Its glow faint, but clear enough of a beacon to guide her way.

Mimi reached for that star.

The resultant light that emitted from the Eight Chosen was so bright, it bathed the entire room in a pure whiteness. And when it faded, five of the Chosen unshielded their eyes to find Mimi slack in Jou's arms, and Hikari slumped over Takeru. Both girls were completely unconscious, and Takeru…

"Look!" Yamato gasped, motioning towards his brother's chest.

Even with Hikari's full weight atop, it was visibly moving. Slow, but steady up and down motions repeating without a single sign of struggle or pain. Because there was no more wound to cause any pain; the hole in his clothing now revealed a red scar. Angry and still raw, but sealed.

"She did it," Sora whispered as tears brimmed at the corner of her eyes. She reached up to wipe at them before they could spill.

"I knew she could," Jou looked down at the sleeping girl in his arms with pride.

"...okay, I take back what I said before."

The group turned back towards the doorway, where they saw the dark Chosen lingering just outside the room. Their presence was explained by the Nyaromon in Miyako's arms, and the Tokomon in Ken's. But it was Iori who drew everyoe's attention when the corners of his lips twitched upward in a smirk:

"Now I believe you're all the idiots who saved two worlds."

o

o

Navigating their way out of the cave proved far more difficult than getting in; their newest allies were content to guide them through the labyrinth that was once their base of operation, minimizing the search for an exit, but it was still a difficult journey to make. Even without carrying for unconscious human bodies.

Jou, Taichi, and Yamato had each taken it upon themselves to look after Mimi, Hikari, and Takeru, respectively. Each charge was hoisted onto their backs, and in turn, Sora and Koushiro offered to bear the weight of everyone's bags. Similarly, Ken was slowed by his carrying Daisuke, although Miyako had questioned him more than once why he seemed so determined to do so. His response each time was to shake his head and insisted he owed the boy a debt.

Even the digimon were having trouble bearing the load of their fallen comrades. Fortunately for them, the creatures once known as Flamedramon, Stingmon, Digmon, and Aquilamon had all devolved back into their much smaller baby forms. But with Nyaromon and Tokomon to look after as well, that left nearly each of them with one digimon apiece.

More than an hour passed before they finally reached the surface, trekking up that last steep hill as the smell of fresh air grew stronger with every step they took.

As did the presence waiting for them at the cave's entrance.

"Well done, Chosen. You have beyond exceeded our expectations." Pushing back the hood atop her head, the woman they had all come to know as Homeostasis made a point of smiling at each of them. The very picture of a mother so proud of her young. "For all our planning, never in our wildest imaginations could we have seen your victory to come so-"

Her speech was unceremoniously cut off by what appeared to be a dirty sandal hurled directly at her—no, through her, causing her transparent form to flicker.

"Don't care," Mimi muttered darkly before burying her face into the back of Jou's neck.

Homeostasis sent the girl an exasperated look, hands nearly rising to her hips, before turning back to the others...only to be taken aback when she realized they were sending her eerily similar glares. Only the dark Chosen remained impartial, though she couldn't help note the aura of discomfort surrounding the three still conscious. Nor the fact that the older boy was purposely carrying the weight of his fallen comrade all on his own.

Nor the youngest of either group. Where there had once been an empty abyss looking back, how Homeostasis could meet his gaze and see a greater curiosity. One that very nearly rivaled that of Knowledge.

"I'm with Mimi." Taichi spoke then, drawing Homeostasis' attention once more.

But he seemed to carry little interest in furthering the conversation, instead shifting the weight of his sister enough to ease the task of carrying her. From there, he continued onward, making a point of brushing so close to Homeostasis that her physical form once again flicked in and our of existence until after he'd passed.

"How typical." Yamato added, before following after Taichi. "Leave us hanging with only half the information we need, make us do all the work, then show up after the fact all smiles and congratulatory. You're worse than Gennai."

Taken aback by their attitude, Homeostasis watched them go without a word before turning back to the remainder of the original group. Finding no ally among them, judging by their looks of equal displeasure. One by one, with their respective digimon partners in tow, they took off in the same direction as their leader.

Except Knowledge.

When even the dark Chosen had followed the example of the rest, Koushiro lingered back long enough to activate his Crest. Homeostasis would not have to ask what he saw in her Code, although he nodded in understanding after a time. Recognizing her current instability as a direct result of the explosion at the castle. One which left her unable to manifest again until recently.

"He's not going to want to hear it, you know." Koushiro stated, with a strong enough assurance that Homeostasis knew at once he was speaking of more than her state of being, but hints of wariness that almost certainly had to do with the Chosen leader. "Hikari-san means more to him than just about anyone. The same with Yamato-san and Takeru-san. And this evening, they almost lost them both."

"I'm well aware of this, Knowledge, I assure you."

"In that case, I'm sure you can predict how Taichi-san will react to the news."

In the pause that followed, Homeostasis watched as the boy frowned. His eyes closed, brows furrowing together in thought as he folded his arms across his chest. No doubt, even in that state, his activated Crest would inform him the last of the other Chosen had disappeared through the brush of trees, yet he seemed to carry very little concern at the thought of being left behind. Perhaps because he realized it would be all too easy for him to find them now, even without Light's aid.

How fitting that it would be Knowledge to master his Crest first.

"I'll tell them." Prior insistence aside, it was Koushiro who again broke the silence. A heavy sigh was followed by an even heavier nod. "Once he stops screaming, Taichi-san will see reason." We can only hope. "These powers of ours...they may come from our Crests, but they'd do the Digital World little good if we took them home with us. And that's why we can't go back. Not until we find and awaken the true gods of this world."

"The Guardian Beasts." Homeostasis nodded, mildly pleased at his assessment of the situation. It helped to have at least one ally on her side, however begrudging. "You must stress to Courage just how important this is. The stability of the Digital World is at stake."

Koushiro peered up at her then, and for an instant, Homeostasis had a strong suspicion that Purty's influence over him was greater than he let on.

"Isn't it always?" He replied in a flat tone, before running off to catch up with the others.

o

o

o

o

Flames from the wall lanterns flickered across the small room, casting dancing shadows over Takeru's sleeping face.

A gust of wind blew through one of the cracks, teasing the bangs against his forehead. His eyes twitched. Lashes fluttering. Slowly, they opened to a blurred, unfamiliar setting. Twice, he blinked to clear his vision. There was a mattress beneath him. A blanket atop. There wasn't a hint of rock or stone in sight. And he felt...clean. No longer covered in the dirt and grime from the underground prison.

Silence greeted him, save for the sounds of stirring in a nearby corner. Water splashed. Fabric rustled. Both wet and dry. Somebody—he couldn't see who it was yet—was wringing something into a small basin. A washcloth, perhaps? Or some form of compress. That would explain why his forehead felt damp.

He moved to sit up. Grunting from the effort. His muscles felt like lead. Even so, he fought through the stiffness and finally rose. There was a slight tingling sensation in his lower abdomen. More blinking, and the world around him finally came into focus, as did the approaching figure.

"Oh good. You're awake."

Nike's smiling face greeted him. Warm and far too bright for Takeru's liking.

Gasping, he scrambled to his feet, kicking the blanket to the ground. The wall was too close behind him, but he pressed his back as far into the wood as he could. Opening his mouth to shout, though no sound came out.

Miyako realized her error and recoiled back, eyes wide in mild panic. "Shoot, I forgot. I-" Taking several steps backwards, she spun on her heels and flung open the door so she could stick her head out and call: "Yamato-san, get in here! He's awake!"

The confusion that followed was eclipsed only by the wave of sheer relief when, sure enough, the older blonde-haired boy appeared. Miyako was spared a single glance and nod of acknowledgment-(or was that gratitude?)-before making quick work of the remaining distance. Both hands were placed on Takeru's shoulders. Cautious of any lingering injury, he gave Takeru a solid once-over before risking a hug.

"How do you feel?"

Tense for the first few seconds, Takeru gradually relaxed enough to return the embrace. Holding his brother far tighter than necessary. Over Yamato's shoulder, he caught a glimpse of Miyako awkwardly shifting her weight in the doorway and wondered why she was still in the room. But then he noticed her shifting glances, and followed the line of vision to find his second surprise of the hour: the slumbering form of Motimiya Daisuke in a cot not too far from his own.

When Takeru didn't say anything, Yamato pulled back enough to meet his eye. It didn't take long to recognize exactly what had left his brother so dumbstruck, and he offered a look of sympathy.

"How...long have I been asleep?" Takeru eventually managed to ask.

Yamato gave a low chuckle in response. "You may want to hold onto your hat for this one."

o

Three days' time. Give or take.

That was how long it had been since he'd been stabbed. A wound that should have been fatal, but that he'd survived thanks to Mimi healing him. With the rest of the Chosen lending her their energy. But only after Hikari managed to keep him alive long enough for them to reach the prison cell.

If nothing else, it explained the heaviness his body still felt, even after Yamato's nearly half-hour long explanation, but...surprisingly little else. His mind could just barely wrap around the idea of some sort of Infection affecting the dark Chosen, who weren't technically human but rather some sort of digitally cloned copies that managed to regain a portion of memories of their original selves. And that it had been Nike—no, Miyako who knocked out Dagomon long enough for a portal to the Dark Ocean to catch up with him. A portal that was only able to appear because she and...Ken...were able to undo the firewall holding it at bay.

"Did I forget anything?" Yamato glanced over at Miyako, who shrugged back.

"And where are we now?" Takeru wanted to know, his voice slightly weak with shock, as he continued to take in their current surroundings. The style of the room reminded him of home—one of those traditional Japanese layouts.

"One of our safe houses," Miyako spoke up then, and Takeru noted how she deliberately maintained a significant distance between them. Either because she hadn't wanted to intrude on the brothers, or else she was worried he might freak out again. Even eye contact on her part was sporadic, at best. "We have several of them scattered through most of the main continent. Places where we could stay in between...er...assignments."

From Dagomon. The name went unspoken, but was understood all the same.

"The others should be gathered in the main room right now, if you want to see them," she added.

Takeru did.

o

It was dark as they made their way around the outer walkway of the house. Lanterns at each corner illuminated the path, although Takeru could have sworn he caught sight of a few stars twinkling from behind the trees. One of many different species of flora surrounding the home like a makeshift barrier. In the distance, he heard the faint sounds of water. Caught a glimpse of steam rising into the cool, night air.

A hot springs resort.

Three pairs of bare feet padded along the smooth wooden floor in an otherwise bewildering silence. Only when Yamato came upon one of the seemingly identical paper doorways and slid it open did Takeru recognize the voices of his friends coming from inside.

Or, to be more precise, their joyful cries upon seeing him. Four pairs of eyes immediate lit up as he shyly stepped into the room. There was Sora, looking about two seconds from getting up to properly mother over him, with a grinning Taichi sitting beside her at one of the four chabudais. Behind them, Koushiro bore a look of knowing satisfaction as he alternated his attention between the three newcomers and...of all people...the young Iori sitting beside him. They appeared to be pouring over something of great mutual interest on his laptop. On his other side, sat a very stiff looking Jou—even stiffer than usual—and it wasn't until he started to approach that Takeru realized the strange movements of his arm were a result of stroking a sleeping Mimi's hair. The bearer of Purity was smiling softly as she rested her head in his lap, a sight which apparently no one else seemed to think much of.

The third table was occupied by what could only be described as a digimon smorgasbord buffet. Seven familiar child forms seemed to be introducing food item after food item of delectable to four faces Takeru did not immediately recognize. Although the math provided a clue as to who they might be.

But it was the eighth that momentary drew the whole of his attention, as Takeru found himself week in the knees as Patamon came running towards him. He collapsed to the ground just in time to greet his best friend, wrapping him in a tight hug. The world around them momentarily faded into silence as he listened to Patamon crying his name over and over again. Saying something about waiting and Tailmon and watching over the others until Takeru came back.

"I'm sorry it took me so long," was all he could muster in turn.

They remained like that for several heavy seconds. Long enough for Takeru to realize his arms were trembling from holding his digimon partner so tightly—despite a lack of protesting on Patamon's part—and that his eyes were stinging and his cheeks felt hot and wet with tears.

Only movement behind him drew Takeru back to the present, and he looked up in time to see Miyako quietly excusing herself before making her way over to the remaining table. Ken was sitting in isolation, a bowl of rice in hand and a small plate of roasted fish in front of him. He paused in his meal only when she approached, coming to sit beside him. They shared a look and from the way they smiled at one another, there may as well have not been anyone else in the room with them.

Takeru couldn't help catch sight of Iori sending them exasperated glances in the meantime.

"Is Mimi-san alright?" Takeru looked back to his brother as he stood up.

Yamato nodded. "Koushiro-kun says she'd fine. Just exhausted. Apparently, she pushed herself too far with her healing. I think Jou-senpai tried to stop her, but she insisted she wasn't done until every one of us was feeling better."

He started for the table with Taichi and Sora (who seemed to be in the middle of some pen and paper game he didn't recognize, yet could tell Sora was marginally winning), and Takeru reflexively followed suit, wiping at his eyes and face along the way. All the while, continuing to eye Mimi's slumbering form that much longer. This time, in partial wonder.

At one point, the young girl stiffed, drawing Jou's attention. Murmured words were exchanged between them, too soft to reach Takeru's ears, but loud enough to earn Mimi a bright smile and nod as Jou reached for one of the smaller bowls on the table. It contained freshly-picked berries, and he grabbed one of them at a time and began feeding them to her.

"I still don't get those two," Taichi stated with a sigh as Takeru sat down across from him.

"If you ask me, Mimi-chan's milking it way more than she needs to at this point," Yamato added as he took the spot on Sora's other side.

"Love is weird," Sora commented lazily, chin in hand.

Taichi and Yamato nodded their agreement.

After a few seconds more of the Mimi and Jou show, Takeru finally turned back to the trio...and was taken aback when he noticed Sora staring at him expectantly. He blinked twice, waited for her to say something. When she didn't, he blinked again.

"...what?"

Rather than answer his question, however, she instead turned her head to look at Yamato: "Did he ask yet?"

For once, Yamato seemed to understand her perfectly, shaking his head. "Not yet. To be honest, I've been waiting for it."

"Waiting for what?" Thankfully, Taichi also seemed to be out of the loop and turned to the pair with a suspicious eyebrow raise.

Taking advantage of the opening, Takeru glanced around the room once more in hopes of finding a clue of some kind. Most of the others had resumed their tasks, although he noted that some of the digimon were starting to fall asleep—no doubt from overeating, judging by the size of their distended stomachs. There were a pile of cots in the far corner that went ignored. Ten, in all. Which made sense, when Takeru stopped to properly count. There were eight Chosen and four (formerly) Dark Chosen. He and Daisuke had been in a separate room, their cots accounted for. That left ten. Miyako, Ken, Iori, Taichi, Sora, Yamato, Koushiro, Jou, Mimi, and...and….

Realization hit him with a wide-eyed gasp, along with a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach. One of guilt. How could he have not noticed before then?

But when he turned back to Sora, mouth open and ready to apologize...she only smirked back. A knowing grin that her brother was mirroring with an eery degree of accuracy.

"She's out back, in the courtyard." Yamato gave a sharp jerk of his head to indicate the general direction.

"She woke up before you did," Sora answered before Takeru had a chance to ask. "She's fine. She said she just wanted to get a bit of fresh air."

o

o

She was sitting atop one of the spring bounders when he found her, wrapped in a light pink yukata. Legs dangling off the edge as she stared out into a small clearing through the thick forest, where Takeru could make out a dark horizon. A light breeze blew through her hair, heavy and darker than usual, indicating it was still damp. But the coolness was refreshing rather than cooling. Just as the sounds of water swirling in the pools nearby no longer brought about feelings of fear or uncertainty

The air smelled of mineral-rich steam as Takeru closed the distance between them, further purifying his lungs with every breath he took, including a deep inhale when she turned towards the sound of his approach.

"...Hikari-chan," her name passed through his lips in little more than a breathy exhale.

She looked as healthy as he'd ever seen her. Any traces of illness or a weakened state from having kept him alive for so long replaced by rosy cheeks and a warm, bright-eyed expression. She smiled softly at him, and it was then Takeru was struck by how unsurprised she seemed at his sudden presence.

He came up to the spot beside her, climbing onto the same rock and allowing his own feet to dangle off the ledge. A glance down confirmed that the ground was not so far as it appeared from the other side, verifying that neither of them were in any danger.

"I wanted to be there." Hikari's voice pierced through the silence, drawing his attention to her once more. But she was no longer looking at him, instead turning her eyes downward to where her hand rested on the rock between them. Mere centimeters from his own. "When you woke up. I knew it would happen soon, but...Sora-san insisted I'd feel better if I freshened up first."

That couldn't have been so long ago, Takeru figured, given how the ends of her hair were still occasionally dripping water. Idly, he wondered if that meant Sora had known he would wake up, too; he didn't bother asking how Hikari knew. Because she always seemed to know things like that. It was one of the countless reason why he…

He reached up to scratch at his cheek. "It's alright, Hikari-chan. Although, I do admit, it might have been easier seeing your face first. Instead of Miyako-san's."

Hikari's eyes widened then, and for a split second, Takeru wasn't certain if she was thinking of a way to apologize, or just trying not to laugh at his expense.

"Are you feeling better?" He took pity on her predicament and asked instead.

It was enough to visibly quell the urge for the time being, and her shoulders relaxed long enough to nod. "I was never hurt. That's why I woke up before you did. All I needed was to restore my energy."

"Did Mimi-san help you with that at all?" He wondered, thinking back to the older girl's condition.

"No." Hikari shook her head. The corners of her lips twitched. "She didn't need to. Besides, she was a little busy helping the others with the last of their viral infections." She risked a glance upward. "I'm guessing she's still using Jou-senpai for a pillow?"

His head tilted to one side at the question. "Ah...yes, but-"

"I'm happy for them." Hikari blatantly cut him off then, returning her gaze to the distant horizon, and Takeru could have sworn she sounded almost...amused. "I thought it would take longer. But then, considering everything that's happened to us this week, it's not so surprising."

"It's...not?" Takeru looked to her curiously. "Wait...you knew?"

"You didn't?"

Takeru opened his mouth. Then closed it. Unsure if her question was genuine or if she was teasing him.

(Knowing them, it was mostly likely some combination of the two.)

Silence took over for a time and, despite the exchange that had preceded it, it was a relatively comfortable one. Takeru, too, turned to the horizon, curious as to what about it had captured Hikari's interest so intently. As he'd suspected earlier, there were a few sparse dots peppering an otherwise sea of navy blue. One which...had looked so much darker not too long ago; curious, his eyes turned upward, then back to the horizon. Confirming those suspicions.

All they had to do now was wait.

"...Hikari-chan?"

"Hmm?" This time, she seemed less prepared, as her tone was a bit more distracted than before. However, when Takeru didn't immediately respond back, she turned to look at him. "What is it?"

Even with her eyes upon him, he didn't seem in any rush to answer. If anything, Hikari could see the gears in his mind turning and—for once—couldn't begin to guess what he was thinking.

"I was just wondering..." he began, words chosen carefully. "What you said before. About...everything happening to us this week."

He paused, and she nodded for him to continue.

"Well, it got me kind of thinking. I guess. Since I woke up—no, I suppose it was even before that." Recognizing he was close to rambling, he turned away and allowed himself a deep breath to better gather his thoughts. "I never thought I'd say this, but...I think I can kind of relate to Jou-senapi and Mimi-san. Because...there are certain feelings I've been ignoring or putting aside or...I'm not even sure. Maybe because I was afraid or wasn't ready. But I know I'm ready now."

He turned back to find Hikari staring at him expectantly. There was a degree of wariness in her eyes, yes—almost disbelief—but he noted there was also a distinct lack of redness to her cheeks.

So he continued.

"So I was wondering if...you'd help me with a certain confession when we get home?"

Hikari felt the air leave her lungs then, and she could only imagine what she must have looked like to Takeru in that moment. Her jaw was slack, mouth open. Eyes wide. A shiver traveled down her spine. Far colder and more unpleasant than anything the Dark Ocean had ever made her feel. She turned away so her staring wouldn't be so blatent and dipped her head down in order to hide behind her bangs.

"Of...course I'll help you, Takeru. You're my best friend." To her credit, there were no signs of wavering in her voice. Her tone was soft and even. If slightly...demure. "Do you mind if I ask...what this person is like?"

More silence followed.

Long enough that Hikari was beginning to wonder if she'd overstepped.

But then: "She's amazing." Takeru's voice sounded as much at ease as it was difficult for her to hear. "Strong. Brave. Forgiving—in fact, I'm not sure I can think of a time when she held a grudge for long. She's too kind-hearted for that. And we've known one another for a long time. Since we were kids. There's never been anyone else like her in my life."

Something about his words sounded...vaguely familiar, but Hikari swallowed a rising lump in her throat and instead nodded for him to continue.

"She's clever, too. Smarter than me. Well...most of the time." He sounded a little too amused at that for it not to be some kind of private joke. "Even though I wish she'd use that cleverness to take better care of herself. I mean...just a few days ago...I heard she very nearly risked her life in order to save mine."

A proverbial pin dropped in the immediate seconds that followed.

Hikari gasped. Sharply. Her head rose with a start. True realization struck her then, and it was as if the air was simultaneously vacuumed from her lungs just as a crushing weight left her shoulders. She could have kicked herself for letting herself be fooled so easily by a simply manner of wordplay. Just because Takeru had chosen to phrase things a certain way...she really let herself think...even for a moment…

He was grinning at her. She could see him through her peripheral vision. Looking a little too pleased with himself.

"...I'm sure Mimi-san will be flattered to hear you think so much of her, Takeru-kun." Her tone was nearly identical in both timbre and pitch as before. "Although Jou-senpai might have a few things to say about it."

It was Takeru's turn to go wide-eyed with shock, the panic already rising from within as Hikari's eerily calm response hit him like an Air Shot to the face.

"N-No!" He practically squeaked in defense, hands waving in front of him in attempt to dismiss her train of thought. "That's not what I...what..."

But he trailed off when he noticed Hikari's shoulders shaking. A hand soon rising to her mouth in vain attempt to hide her giggles.

"...you're teasing me again, aren't you?" Resigned, he slumped in his seat. A pout initially appeared before it melted into a weak smile of his own. He shook his head. "I guess I had that one coming."

Still holding back her laughter, Hikari could only nod.

Several seconds passed before she managed to settle down again, this time looking back at Takeru with a much more confident, content smile. In the dim light of the distant, flickering lantern, Takeru thought he caught hints of a tear glimmering in her eye. At that proximity to her, he could see the reflection of his own expression. It mirrored hers entirely.

One last breath, and Hikari was the first to break contact, allowed herself a slow exhale before turning back to the horizon one last time.

"Takeru-kun?"

"Yeah?"

Close as they already were, Hikari needed only to lean slightly to one side to properly rest her head against his shoulder. A move which caused him to glance down at the top of her head in surprise before relaxing. Smiling softly. Compared to the weight of protecting her all these years, she felt lighter than a feather.

"When we're home again..." she echoed his earlier condition, a mutual, conditional understanding passing between them then. Now was the time for promises, but not action. Not yet. Not when Koushiro had already hinted that their current digital adventure was far from over. "...I might need your help with something too."

Unspoken sentiment received loud and clear, Takeru allowed himself a second's worth of pleasant surprise before he gave a soft vocalization of acknowledgment in response.

Together, the two best friends sat in their new-found moment of peaceful bliss. Staring out into the far corner of the digital world, where the first rays of sunlight began to emerge. A new dawn of a new day, and a Promise of many more to come.

Hopefully, each one brighter than the last.

o

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~~FIN~~

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OMAKE

"How cute!" Mimi let out a hushed squeal from her position behind the bush

"Shh! Mimi-chan, they'll hear you!" Sora hissed, placed a finger over her lips. "...wait, weren't you half-asleep in Jou-senpai's lap?"

The younger girl offered a half-hearted shrug. "I got better."

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea." On Sora's other side, crouched down to the same height as the girls, Yamato hesitantly chimed in.

The comment was met with twin flat expressions.

"You're one to talk," Sora stated. "You were the first one out here."

"Yeah, we just followed you," Mimi added.

Having no adequate comeback to that, Yamato laughed sheepishly as a bead of sweat appeared on his forehead.

"Personally, I think it's very sweet." Miyako, who was beside Mimi opposite Sora, heaved a dramatic sigh as she turned back to the young couple. For a split second, they could have all sworn there were literally hearts in her eyes. "He just wants to be there for his younger brother during such a crucial moment in his life."

"That doesn't explain what we're doing here." Ken shifted awkwardly, even more awkward a move given his own crouched position, from directly behind her.

"I was curious!" Miyako smiled back a bit too brightly for his liking.

"Alright. Then it doesn't explain what I'm doing here."

"Because you followed me, Ken-kun."

"You mean you dragged me out here by the sleeve."

"But you LET me!"

"I couldn't even-"

"What are you all looking at?"

Five muted 'eeps' rang into the air as the crouching Chosen froze at the sound of Taichi's voice. Slowly, they turned to find him standing nearby with his hands on his lips. Lips twisted and head tilted in a bemused expression, he met each of their guilty expressions in attempt to figure out which was most likely to give him an answer. Even more slowly, the five then rose to a standing position.

Glances between them were all exchanged until—to the surprise of absolutely not a soul present—it was Mimi who stepped forward. A gesture which instantly made both Sora and Yamato nervous, as it was accompanied by innocently clasping her hands behind her back.

"Oh, nothing of that great importance. Really." She sent Taichi her best smile. He raised an eyebrow back. "We were just watching Takeru-kun finally confess to Hikari-chan. That's all."

"Is that so?"

The response came a little too calmly.

A solid three seconds passed.

Sora and Yamato's eyes met, their thoughts echoing one another's in near perfect synchronicity.

3...2...1…

"HE WHAT?!"


To answer the question I 100% know is on your mind at this point in time: no, there is not a sequel in the works. As those of you who are longtime readers of mine may recall, I've always been bit on open-ended endings.

That being said, do I have more digimon stories in-progress? Absolutely! For the time being, I may or may not stick with one-shot scenarios, as they are significantly less time-consuming and do not require the levels of commitment that these longer epics mandate.

I have been dabbling with the idea of a TRI total remake for some time now. I didn't want to rush into anything, and I realize I will be far from the first to think of such a thing...but once upon a time, I "specialized" in doing episode rewrites and kind of miss those times. In this case, the idea for me would be to switch out Meiko for Wallace. You know, that one guy from the Digimon movies. Apologies to Meiko fans, except not completely sincerely because I can't really do much with a character who existed more as a cutesy plot device than an actual character. But the ideas I have for Wallace would tie TRI not only all the way back to the original movies, but incorporate some really unusual headcanon lore involving Hikari and her weird, inexplicable (even by Koushiro) "powers".

Now, initial plans DID involve including the Dark Ocean...but I'm reconsidering because it was such a presence in Pandora's Box that to do another big story with it would feel redundant on my part.

What do you, the reader, think? Are there any other elements you'd be interested in (re)reading about? I'm always open to ideas, even when I have a fairly solid path of my own to take.

Besides that, my other main project brainstorm would take us all the way back to the early 2000s, when Midieval Digimon stories were all the rage. I don't know why they were all the rage, nor what made them so enjoyable to read, but I've been going back and rereading some of my favorites from that era and formulating some ideas of my own.

So, in short...this is not the last you will hear from me, fanfiction-dot-net. Like Arnold, I will be back. Again and again and again.

Much Love,
Tsubasa Hane.