"Oh keep on running, keep
Find out your reality."
Teenage Wolves, "Tobira"—Digimon 02
of Angels Who Won't Return
Epilogue, September 2007: "Keep on Running"
It was always a treat to see him fight. Though he was the celebrity of the class, he acted and was treated just like everyone else: no better, no worse. And that was just the way he liked it. He'd been given special treatment—be it good or bad—for a good four years now, never seeing it let up. He was often the outcast in school and among other former Resistance fighters. His coach had cut him from the track team, excusing the action on a lack of information from the boy's many changes in schools in the past year alone. He'd known the coach was lying, but he never said or did anything about it. It wasn't that he was saving face; he just didn't want to race on a team that didn't know how to cooperate. People always treated him differently just because of who he was. Sometimes he had to deal with stalkers, but one glimpse of the digivice he wore always scared them away. There were would-be assassins—only one of which had come close to killing him after the fall of the Digimon Kaiser. There were days when he returned home from school with a bloody nose or a cluster of bruises, but he dealt with it on his own. But it was a relief for him to know that there was one place he could go where he would be treated as an equal, and it wasn't just with his family or close-knit band of friends.
His opponent was his own sister, nearly five years old, and very skilled at the art of kendo. Despite the eleven-year age difference between them, they fought on the same level—without either of them giving the other a break. A year ago that day, she would have been a naïve child that needed to think the world around her was safe and that the people around her were immortal, but the assassination attempt the past October had caused her to change her thinking. But the changes in her hadn't shown themselves until the first time her brother had ended up in a fight at school. Her diction and thinking were clearer, but she held onto some childlike qualities just so she couldn't grow up too fast. She still loved playing her same old games, and still thought of her brother as a hero. She knew there were things that bothered him, but she didn't press him on the subject—that was everyone else's job. But like one of the friends that had saved him, she could sense his troubles in the way he fought. He didn't try to release his emotions through fighting—he used his music for that—but he was feeling something that he just couldn't express normally.
"Enough," their sensei informed. The siblings bowed to each other and then to him. "You both have proven your skills at kendo. To tell you the truth, I was afraid of giving you this exercise, but you both demanded to be treated just the same as the other students. You both did very well."
"If you'd please, allow me to be the judge of that," a male voice interrupted politely. The students turned to see a fourteen-year-old Japanese boy with close-cut brown hair and emerald eyes holding a kendo sword. He'd used that sword to defend himself on previous visits, and it was the only weapon—other than a digivice—that he would lift. He'd used a gun once, and he never wanted to see one again.
"And you are?" Sensei questioned, but the normally silent Resistance fighter interrupted.
"It's all right, Sensei. He's a friend."
The younger boy borrowed a helmet and approached his opponent. They bowed to each other and began the exercise. The newcomer attempted a high slash but was blocked. The other fought with old techniques from his five years of fighting while the younger fighter blocked each blow.
As he fought, the outcast student allowed all of his emotions and frustrations to slip away from the bamboo sword. He'd learned long ago not to let his emotions become his downfall. But as he fought, the words of a discussion he'd had with his father and stepmother echoed in his head:
"…I know you're too young right now, but when you're older, we'd like you to be her legal guardian."
"You've always been capable of taking care of her, and if anything happened to us, you're the one person that knows everything about her…"
He'd run out of the house without answering. He didn't stop until he reached the dojo, where he practiced in dark solitude for several hours before class began. He knew he owed his family an apology—he'd even run out on his mother and brother—but the discussion had been too much for him to take. He compared his life at that point to a set of scales—like what the Greek goddess of Justice held. Everything he'd faced for those five years was meticulously balanced out so he could retain his sanity. The proposition had been the single grain of sand that tipped the scale.
His opponent's sword stopped at his neck, ending the exercise.
"Still falling for the same trick," he observed. "You should have learned something after that year."
"Look down," he instructed. His opponent did so, seeing a sword uncomfortably positioned below his chin. Had they been using real weapons, a killing blow would have been scored on either side. It was a draw.
"You have improved," he complimented. They withdrew their weapons and bowed to each other before bowing to Sensei.
Once everyone had left, the three removed their helmets. The small girl had shoulder-length brown hair and deep blue eyes while her brother had long bluish-black hair and the same eyes, though his were stained with regret.
"Iori-san!" she greeted the newcomer, hugging him. "What are you doing here? You don't have another peace mission."
"Hikari asked me to give something to your niisan, Kouri," he replied before looking up at her brother. "Heard things have been tough for you, Kouji."
At the respective ages of sixteen and fourteen, Kouji and Iori had both changed very much physically as well as emotionally since January of 2003. Kouji had long ago given his bandana to Izumi, but he still wore his hair long and in a ponytail. Iori sported the same type of haircut Koushiro had worn since he was thirteen. Kouji was nearing six feet tall while Iori was about five-foot-six. Both found they could be themselves only around a select group of individuals: For Kouji, it was his brother, sister, Izumi, and sometimes the other Chosen; for Iori, it was Upamon, his mother and grandfather, and sometimes the other Chosen as well. But while Kouji had close ties to some of his friends, Iori had always been a bit of an outcast among his, preferring the company of older, wiser individuals than of the mixed lot of the six Chosen Children he called his friends. As anyone could have predicted, the two were very close friends.
"Things have always been tough," Kouji answered, rubbing his sore and burned hands, "but this time they're just too much."
"I heard about how you were cut from the track team," Iori commented. "And how your dog recently died. And about the Izumi thing." Kouji acted as though he hadn't heard. He and Izumi had just recently called a "cooling-down" period after seeing that they spent most of their time trying to sort through their chaotic lives rather than being together. The time apart would allow them to resituate themselves in school and at home after the long journeys they'd made. If they found new loves in this separation, it was fine, but the hope was that they would get back together after things had settled down. Unfortunately, Kouji knew that such a happy ending wouldn't happen. "Yamato and Sora did something exactly like that during all the fighting," Iori reasoned, "and they're back together again. Things will improve."
"I know they will. Sooner or later." When the decision had been made, he'd felt nothing. He thought that following everything that had happened to him, he'd moved into a state of being in which nothing more could hurt him, where he essentially existed without living. But a few days later when he began playing his music, it had all come out in confused, angry lyrics and an emotionally taxing melody. He'd taken the song and thrown it out, vowing not to let anyone learn about it.
"She was just letting you do what you needed," Iori explained gently. "She knows that even now, you sometimes need to solve your problems on your own or with someone other than her. She's just giving you space."
"I know. But as if all of that wasn't enough, I just made things worse."
"I ran out on my family today."
Iori stared at him in surprise. "Why? I've never known you to run away from a problem."
"I would have five years ago. My dad and Satomi asked me to be Kouri's legal guardian when I'm old enough. They want me to be the one to take care of her if anything happens to them. I guess they had the same types of thoughts I had back in Cell 24."
"Still, you shouldn't have done something like that. You could have hurt them more than you meant to." Leave it to Iori not to feel sorry for him.
"I didn't mean to hurt them… I just…didn't know what to do. I've never been told to take kind of responsibility before."
"That didn't stop you from fighting Cherubimon or Lucemon to save the Digital World," Iori pointed out. "It didn't keep you from protecting your parents, stepmother, and Kouri in Cell 24. It didn't prevent you from rescuing Taichi, Yamato, and Sora from Renamon or helping them rescue Kae, even though you faced severe beatings afterward. You still helped Toshiko escape with Archnemon's help. You still helped Takamoto after he was shot, even though he hadn't done the same for you. You still volunteered to watch over everyone at the caravan infirmary in the Digital World despite the fact that you were also sick. You still gave yourself up in exchange for Izumi's life and then helped Ken and the rest of us look for Kouichi's control center. Then, when you were captured, you single-handedly rescued sixty cellblocks of slaves before finally facing Kouichi. You still gave your sacrifice, as you and Osamu described it." He then handed over a file folder. "And you still kept searching for the answers, even though Hikari, Ken, and everyone else said it was a mistake."
Kouji silently took the folder. There was never any use in arguing with Iori—this much he'd learned in the course of a year.
"There's something more, isn't there?" Kouri asked.
A smile formed on Iori's normally serious face. "Yes," he replied. "And I need you both to follow me."
Confused as to what he wanted to show them, they followed him outside, where a large black-and-brown puppy—easily mistaken for a full-grown dog, except for the fact that it needed quite a bit of taming still—was chained to a bike rack. Iori presented the collar and dog tags, revealing the Minamotos' address.
"Happy birthday, Kouji," Iori commented. "Don't bother asking how much we ended up spending on her—that's a secret not even Gennai can know."
Kouji was still a bit stunned at the sight of the dog that looked so much like the one that had survived the war with them. He didn't need to ask how the Chosen of the other world knew his birthday was September 27—his friends had probably slipped it to them.
It was strange for him to celebrate his birthday on the twenty-seventh. It wasn't just because it had been the second time he could remember that he and Kouichi had celebrated together, but for three years, he'd celebrated on the sixteenth of February: the day on which he considered he'd been reborn. In his eyes, he had done all of his growing on that day in 2003, and he could only physically age now.
"Osamu-san told you his birthday," Kouri realized, sensing it with her gift.
"Yes," Iori answered with a trace of a laugh. "Izumi told him, not realizing who he was."
"When was this?" Kouji questioned.
"March, four years ago," Iori replied.
He didn't need to use the small amount of the gift to figure out what had happened. He had always wondered about the site they now used as a memorial to all those who had died in relation to the war against the evil threatening the Real and Digital Worlds of all three known universes.
"I haven't seen Osamu since after the battle with Kouichi," Kouji confessed. "Did he move on?"
"Yes, but he still watches over Ken. I guess he thinks you're all right to handle things on your own. After all, you've been taking care of yourself for a while now, and you do have your own brother to turn to if you need help." There was an uncomfortable silence for a while. Kouri seemed oblivious to it as she played with the new dog. "We didn't name her, so you could think of any name you wanted."
"But she already has a name," Kouri protested. "It's the only name that feels right for her: Akemi."
Iori nodded his agreement, but Kouji could see tears in the younger boy's eyes. "Akemi it is, then."
"Thanks, Iori," Kouji commented.
"No," he argued. "Thank you. You helped me with something no one else could. I have my sanity back, thanks to you."
"But I did nothing…"
"You made your sacrifice, and more than it too. No one told you to have that overdose."
"But I didn't do anything! Dr. Iwahara kept injecting me, and I was so tired that I couldn't stop her."
"But you did, for a while. You kept her occupied for the few seconds it took me to get out of the bathroom. If you hadn't done that, you would have died, and I would have felt that I failed a friend once again. That was a sacrifice you didn't need to make. It was mine." Kouji stared at him in shock. Did he somehow suspect his role in the Mind Illusion? Or had Hikari, Kouichi, or Kouri sensed it? Or had Ken figured it out? Or, perhaps, had Osamu told?
But to the relief of both boys, Kouri changed the subject on them. "Notice anything different about Kouji's voice?"
"Yes, I did," Iori answered, "but I didn't want to seem rude by asking." He then directed his attention back to Kouji. "Your voice isn't as soft as before. Have your vocal cords healed?"
"No. They healed incorrectly a long time ago, but I'm taking voice classes for rehabilitation. It just hurts to talk a lot."
"I'll have to tell Yamato he won't have to increase the microphone's frequency. And your hands? I noticed you were rubbing them."
"Gripping the sword helps stretch the skin, but it's still painful. Only a year to go until I can hold things without pain, according to Dr. Linn."
Iori then bowed. "I'm sorry I have to leave so soon, but I have to let Hikari know I delivered the information. Tell Kouichi happy birthday for me."
"I will. Goodbye."
Kouri looked at the folder suspiciously. "What's in there?"
"Nothing you need to know. Let's get home. I need to apologize to everybody."
He'd had this nightmare before, but never like this. He was once again bursting through the doors of the operating room, calling out, "Niisan!" as he found the motionless figure on the table. This time, however, he saw no doctors, and his friends were not behind him.
He placed his hand on Kouichi's shoulder, desperately trying to get him to respond. When his attempts failed, he found himself crying, and a single tear landed on Kouichi's forehead. With his limited ability to see Light and Darkness, he was able to see the Power of Light summoning forth Kouichi's soul. Blank eyes filled with life and tears as Kouichi regained consciousness. But rather than appear joyous at the sight of his brother, his face became paler and terrified.
"Kouji, behind you!" he gasped out.
He barely had time to act before a blade was plunged into Kouichi's heart. Kouji grabbed his own chest in pain, feeling the dizzying numbness of death fill all of his muscles. His eyes rolled back into his head as he fell forward to the floor.
Somehow, he felt the sensation of lying on his back. A bright white light was shining onto his body from all around him. Confused, he opened his eyes to see nothing. Some kind of white bandage had been wrapped around his eyes, and it would not come off when he tried to untie it.
He stood up, blindly feeling around for an escape from wherever he was. The walls around him formed a circle or dome and had the distinct feeling of DigiCode. He pounded on them as he tried to get out, but he only succeeding in cutting his wrists.
The blood kept streaming from his wounds, burning his hands as he tried to stop the flow. He felt uncomfortably cold as it became harder and harder to breathe…
"Kouji needs help!"
If not for that desperate cry from Kouri, Kouji was sure he would have suffocated. His chest was constricted, making breathing painful. He was surprised to see his light was still on across the room at his desk. His family appeared to be surprised too as they were squinting to see him.
"You fell asleep in your clothes?" Kousei observed. "You haven't done that since we left the settlement." Kouji looked at him, confused. "You had just come home from kendo practice and apologized to us, and to your mother and Kouichi on the phone. You said you needed to do some homework, so you came up here and…" Kouji's face still expressed his puzzlement as he glanced at his desk, seeing a file folder. All the pieces began to fall into place, and he tried to get up but found that his legs were nearly paralyzed, as though asleep. "Is something the matter?"
"I can't move too well," he confessed. His breathing sounded shallow. Following a hunch, Satomi came up to him and felt his forehead to see that it was warm. "It's just from sleeping with the light on…" he tried to protest, but he could not account for his clammy skin and constricted breathing. It was no sticky, hot, Tokyo night in summer; but a breezy, cool, Yokohama night in autumn. And he was sick.
"You're burning up," she stated. "Forget about school tomorrow and that concert Tuesday night. You're spending the rest of the week in bed."
"I can't. I promised the others…"
"Unless you improve by then, you're not going—regardless of your promise or not. Now, I'm going to find the thermometer…"
"No, you don't have to," Kouji protested, but the effort of talking caused him to choke. He covered his mouth as he continued coughing, feeling fluid rise up from his lungs. He managed to get his feet to the floor, but he didn't have the strength to walk to the bathroom. To his surprise, though, Akemi came over to help him keep his balance, just as her predecessor had on that January so many years ago.
"I'll get your medicine," Kousei volunteered despite his son's arguments.
It had taken Kouji several months after his first adventure in the Digital World to realize it, but he had a condition called an "idiopathic infiltrative lung disease" that caused the air sacs in his lungs to fill up with fluid—much like with asthma. Unfortunately for him, asthma was not the case and there seemed to be no explanation for his condition except that he'd probably developed it after facing down the Raremon when he'd first evolved. The condition had first shown itself there, so it was speculated that some of the polluted green sludge had somehow damaged his lungs. He normally didn't have much of a problem with it unless he strained his body too much or got sick with a cold or the flu. Over the years, he'd conditioned himself with his Resistance training to avoid the consequences of the condition, but he could not always prevent himself from catching a cold.
To combat it, he had to take an injection of a medication Takamoto and Dr. Yamamoto had developed. An inhaler proved useless as he could barely breathe once the coughing fits started, and pills were barely any better if he started throwing up. An injection to an artery in his upper arm proved to be the most useful solution, even though he'd despised needles since he left Cell 24 four years before. This time, Dr. Yamamoto decided to put him on a stronger prescription to see if any changes could be made sooner.
Kouri walked over to the desk and picked up Kouji's D-scanner. For a while, she had been afraid of it, knowing the Kaiser was imprisoned inside. She knew there were days when Kouji was afraid of it too, but the evil entity could not escape. And now, seeing the symbol of the Spirit of Darkness on the screen eased her fears a bit more; her other brother was trying to communicate.
"Kouichi niisan, Kouji's too sick to talk to you right now," she alerted.
"I know. I heard him fighting with Dad just a second ago. I guess Kouji's still not good with needles—not that I blame him after what happened last year and all those years before. I just wish there was a way he wouldn't be haunted by everything."
"So you saw his nightmare too?"
Kouichi momentarily marveled at the change in his younger sister's vocabulary. She was slipping into her more mature persona again, only now she seemed almost permanently set in that way. "I'm surprised Hikarididn't see it. It was like an explosion!"
"And this is what I always see," Kouri explained, "when he tries to push me away."
"Don't take it too personally, Kouri. He does that to everybody—always has."
"But not like this. There's something he really wants to hide."
"Yeah. But he'll never tell what it is." Kouichi's voice held a tinge of guilt.
There was the sound of even more ferocious coughing from the bathroom. Both Kouichi and Kouri suspected that their brother was having a hard time staying conscious as the fluid left his lungs.
"Oh no," he moaned weakly.
"Sounds like he threw up," Kouichi observed.
"I don't think so," Kouri replied. "I think that was blood."
"Drink some water and then head back to your room," their father advised. "I'll phone Dr. Yamamoto and tell him this dosage is too strong."
"I get the feeling I won't sleep tonight," Kouri commented.
"Why is that?" Kouichi questioned.
"Kouji works really hard to build a barrier to keep our thoughts from overlapping—I think he says. It works most of the time, but if he's really tired or sick, the barrier collapses. I don't know how to make one yet, and you've been doing it for years, though you didn't know it; so now that he's sick, I'm going to be feeling everything, and you'll get nothing. In the daytime, it's okay, but at night…"
"Borrow his CD player and listen to it whenever the imagery wakes you up," Kouichi suggested. "It works for me when my barrier collapses."
"Okay." Kouji then walked in, coughing blood into a wad of tissues. "Kouichi wants to talk to you. I'm borrowing your CD player so I can go to bed."
Kouji took his D-scanner while Kouri left. "Yeah?"
"You sound terrible—worse than I thought."
"Thanks." The word dripped with sarcasm.
"Sorry. But what happened? You normally don't have dreams that vivid, even when you're sick." He was silent for a moment, but when he continued, his voice was much lower. "I assume Hikari found information."
Kouji looked down at the folder on his desk. "Yeah. It took her a while, but she found it all."
"What was there?"
"He was a child abuser and murderer and on death row for two years until you showed up." He took the folder and all of its contents and threw it in a small trashcan nearby. "Except for that last part, I could have told them all of it."
"Yeah. Releasing him was the biggest mistake I made."
"Why did he listen to you?" Kouji asked. "If he was having so much fun beating the crap out of me and killing everyone that tried to help me, why did he follow your orders? Why didn't he try to do the same to you that he did to me?" There was no answer. "Niisan?"
On the other end of the line, in his dark bedroom in a small apartment in Tokyo, Kouichi smiled. His twin hadn't called him that in five years. "Ototo-chan, I agree with you that Reiyama had no redeemable qualities, but the man did repay his debts. Because I set him free, he felt indebted to me and followed my every command. Of course, that didn't stop him from having some fun on his own once I wasn't around, but you already know that as well."
"Yeah," Kouji answered, remembering the time Reiyama had forced him to work with his parents on the day shift even though he couldn't see or walk. Renamon had to retrieve him, showing the first of two kindnesses she'd given him.
"Is that it?"
"No. Kouichi, there's something I've wanted to know. I've been trying to ask for months, but I never could."
"For three years I tried to convince myself that everything you did was the Kaiser controlling you, but I never could answer the question of why the Kaiser was able to do that. Then, when I fought him, he told me something I didn't want to believe, and it's been haunting me ever since. He implied that you did a lot of it on your own." There was silence on the other end. "He said that the gift—just knowing every moment of my life while I know every moment of yours—drove you crazy."
"It did," Kouichi admitted. "And it still does. I have a wall around my emotions, something that I use to keep from feeling pain when I lose someone I care for. That was how I felt little sorrow over my—our grandmother's death. Neither of us was meant to feel any type of closeness like that. It was enough to kill us slowly. We're developing these relationships finally, but we were never exposed to them before, making us vulnerable to these sorts of things."
"But you just said it," Kouji argued. "I was exactly the same: I shielded my emotions and pushed everyone away. I could never maintain friendships. Why is it that the Kaiser controlled you?"
"Kouji, there's something you need to understand. You were much more compassionate than I was—remember when we were in the Digital World? Your first thought was of every person on the team. I was always protective of you, just the way a brother should be, but I couldn't be as tightly emotionally attached to anyone: not you, not Izumi, not anyone. With your help and Kouri's and Ken's and Sakiko's and everyone else's, I'm no longer isolated; I can become attached to people without fear of losing them. There was a long period in my life in which I hated the side of my family I didn't know. But when I found out about you, I thought it would be the chance to understand our family, to learn who we were. But there was that same part of me hating you, something Cherubimon exploited. No matter how much I've been through, I can't erase that part of me. And that's what the Kaiser used. There are more reasons, but I don't know what they are, and you shouldn't try to find them. Until either of us can answer why Cherubimon used me as Duskmon, we'll never know why I was the second Kaiser." It was Kouji's turn to be silent. "I'm sorry."
"No. I understand it all a lot better now. And I don't blame you for what happened."
"Thank you." An uncomfortable silence ensued. Was this the way their lives were destined to be? Awkward silences and cruel truths? It was the harsh reality they could never run away from.
"Why is it that we never end up with anything good happening to us?" It was Kouji who asked this, not surprising the other twin. "Whenever something good does happen, it's immediately followed by sorrow. Why is that?"
"I don't know. I wouldn't say it's Destiny after learning how much Osamu hated that excuse." Kouji nodded, remembering well the spirit of the dead eleven-year-old boy who had "adopted" them as younger brothers. "It's probably just another lesson to us so we can cope."
"A cruel thesis," Kouji commented, remembering a song with a similar title.
"Well, we'd both better get some sleep. I heard what Satomi said about the concert. It's in five days; are you sure you'll be better by then?"
"I made a promise to everyone that I'd do it, and I have no intention of breaking it now."
Kouichi smiled. "And this coming from the person who actually did surprise Izumi on her birthday by being alive. You're always good with your promises."
It seemed that for once in their lives, something good was finally happening to them. As long as they had each other to depend on, as long as they had their family and friends, they didn't need a fairytale ending. They could live happily ever after even with these losses.
"A few steps more… Just a little more…"
"Daisuke, I can do this. I've been blind for four years after all."
Natsu guided herself toward the six new people, using her white cane. Her honey-colored hair was cut to just below her earlobes and was offset perfectly by her sightless amethyst eyes and matching blouse and cardigan. With them, she wore silky black pants and a gold necklace. Beside her was Daisuke, dressed in denim cargo pants, a black T-shirt, and the flame-covered jacket he'd finally gotten back from Ken. Naturally, atop his spiky auburn hair were his goggles.
Takeru stood behind them, wearing Taichi's old coat with the paw-prints, sand-colored khakis, and a rust-colored turtleneck reminiscent of Ryo's. A bit further away from him was Hikari, who wore her dark purple jacket-shirt combo from New York, a black skirt embroidered with a rose, and her beige beret. Beside her was Iori, donning a coat like his one from the Digital World, a white shirt under that, and dark brown khakis. Standing almost at eye level with him was Miyako, who wore the same turquoise blouse and sea foam skirt from Australia, but with a white velour jacket and no hat. A bit behind them all was Ken, who opted to wear black jeans and a dark gold T-shirt with the jacket once worn by both Ki and Amistad.
The older, more "adult," Chosen stood in back. Yamato wore all black: jeans, tank top, and shoes. At his side was Sora, who wore a silky cream-colored long-sleeved blouse and pale blue jeans. Taichi wore the headband he used to wear with his goggles, and sported a black shirt with a blue-and-white plaid flannel shirt and a pair of navy blue nylon cargo pants. Koushiro wore an orange T-shirt and zipped-up black fleece jacket with a pair of tan pants. Jyou was dressed in a buttoned white shirt, a pair of jeans, and a black nylon windbreaker. Mimi was absent, and would receive a tape of the concert.
After three years and so many changes, things were slowly going back to normal for the inhabitants of both worlds; however, the ramifications of the revolutions still remained. Nations such as China, Cuba, Iraq, and many others that had been under dictatorship or Communism before the rise of the Kaiser had enjoyed their brief stint of freedom, and refused to go back out of fear of another crazed ruler. The Chosen who had fought the original Kaiser assured their friends that something similar had occurred following the Second Gulf War and the capture of their version of Saddam Hussein in Operation: Red Dawn back in December of 2003. The United Nations and the former Resistance were working together on peace talks to set up democracies in these countries so the people could embrace the freedom they'd finally been allowed to have. And as more and more "halfling" children were being born to human and Digimon parents, civil rights laws were put into effect that would allow both Digimon and half-Digimon hybrids to be accepted as equal citizens on Earth while the hybrids and humans were to be accepted as equals in the Digital World. In that aspect, the existence of the Digimon Kaiser had been quite beneficial.
The Chosen Children themselves were permanently marred by their battles. Kouji, of course, had quite a bit to deal with and few people to lean on, but in addition to that, he was an ambassador to the other world along with Kage and Sakiko. Izumi was busy settling in with her family after being separated from them for so long, finding that she had to readjust to speaking Italian with them again. The three who had accompanied Kage in the Digital World were finally out of their remedial classes and assisting in teaching the next generation of soldiers the values of the tight bonds the Resistance had learned to form. Kouichi had been on trial for his war crimes, only managing to avoid prison or the death sentence by forging a compromise: psychiatric help once a month for the next fifteen to twenty years. If he missed even one session without a reasonable excuse, he would be immediately arrested. He assured that he would not miss a session.
Takeru and Hikari never made up. True, they could now tolerate each other, and they were no longer enemies, but they were still distant when it came to friendship. Miyako had begun a successful relationship with Ryo Akiyama while Wallace and Mimi remained as they had been for those years. Ken, Daisuke, and Iori were the ambassadors representing their world in the Legendary Warriors' home, and they occasionally lived there for a few weeks at a time. Daisuke's role as leader was reaffirmed; though he was still unable to do the things he once had been able to. On his stays, he regularly assisted other people who had become disabled due to the war and became one of the most beloved of the other world's Chosen. Iori of course formed a good friendship with Kouji, as both had lost the most in the five months after BelialVamdemon's defeat and Kouichi's becoming the new Kaiser. The two sparred each other in kendo whenever one visited the other's world, no longer fighting against their pasts but fighting for a hopeful future. Ken maintained a friendship with Kouichi and Kouji, but he most regularly kept in touch with Archnemon, surprising even himself with the action. He never once saw Osamu again after the meeting in the Railroad, but he felt his brother's presence watching over him at all times.
"Natsu Kiyosaki, meet Takuya Kanbara, Junpei Shibayama, Tomoki Himi, Kouichi Kimura, Izumi Orimoto, and Kouji Minamoto," Daisuke introduced.
"Nice to meet you all," she replied, shaking their hands. But when she reached Kouji, she observed something out of the ordinary. "Your palm's sweaty. Are you nervous?"
"No," he answered, pulling it back. "I've just been sick all week."
"I'm sorry to hear that. But I'm glad to see that you were able to make it. You're different from other people, and you don't give off the same radiance Hikari does. Sometimes it's hard to look at her."
"But I thought you were blind," Izumi interrupted.
"I am legally," Natsu explained, "but in some ways, my vision hasn't been worse. I can differentiate light and darkness even if it's just the manifested energy from the Digital World. Hikari positively glows with it, but Kouji seems to keep it inside."
"That's Kouji all right," Takuya replied. "He keeps everything on the inside. Nearly impossible to read him."
"Do you mind if I ask you to describe what you're wearing?" Natsu interrogated. "Daisuke gave descriptions of you all, but I'd like to have a clearer mental image."
Takuya looked at everyone. "That would be all right, I guess."
"Okay. Kouichi, I'd like to start with you. I've heard you look a lot like Ken, so I'd like to prevent the images from overlapping."
"All right," he answered. "I'm wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and brown sneakers."
"Yellow T-shirt, gray athletic pants, a blue fleece jacket, and white sneakers." Momentarily, he glared at Yamato, Sora, and Taichi for finding clothes exactly like the ones he wore in Cell 24. They just smiled innocently in response.
"Your hair is tied back, right?"
"Yes, with something a friend gave me once."
"Okay, Izumi, I'll go onto you next."
"I'm in a light blue Chinese-styled blouse, light purple velour pants, and brown Roman-styled sandals that tie around my ankles. A few strands of hair in the front are tied with a beaded leather strip."
"Swamp green T-shirt, black pants, and red tennis shoes."
"Green-and-red plaid shirt over a white T-shirt and green pants."
"Orange T-shirt, red surf shorts, and a black leather jacket."
"And your goggles of course."
"Well, we'll see each other again after the concert," Natsu realized, observing the sounds of restless fans. "We'd better get back to our seats. Till then, bye!"
Kouji watched the whole concert from backstage, half-anticipating and half dreading his cue. With him was a slightly older boy by the name of Hiroshi, who was one of the Dark Seed Chosen Children.
"Will you relax?" Hiroshi begged. "You'd think an attack was about to happen."
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "But you're going up too. Aren't you a little nervous?"
"Nope. Been in band for six years, even though I'd rather draw manga. It's really not much to worry about, so relax and enjoy everything. Remember: nobody knows you out there. You're not hero of the wars, you're not a halfling curse, you're not an ambassador from another world, you're not 'the Kaiser's brother,' but you're just a regular guy who's getting a break others would kill for. Once the music starts, you won't even remember where you are anymore."
Nodding, he tried to enjoy himself. The Teenage Wolves were performing several recognizable songs: "Hitoribotchi no Shīsō," "Tobira," "Walk on the Edge," and "Negai Kanaeru Kagi." But there were a few that were new, like the blues song "Life is a Fatal Condition." Yamato had apparently written it during the winter of 2003, during a hard time in his life. Kouji knew exactly how he must have felt; that winter had been hard for him too. The more the songs dwindled down, the more anxious he felt. He'd never sung on stage before; his music had always been private.
Finally, "Tobira" ended, yielding to a loud reaction of applause from the audience. Yamato patiently waited for the cheering to die down before he continued.
"Thank you, everyone. We have something special for you all tonight—something so special we had to call in a member of the Jonan High School band." Hiroshi walked out, toting his saxophone. He waved at the audience before taking his position in front of a microphone. "Now, Hiroshi has agreed to help us with this because the lyricist and singer wrote this song to have a jazz quality, something that we can't capture alone. My friend Taichi, my girlfriend Sora, and I all owe our lives to this person, so I offered to give this world a taste of his sound as a way of saying thanks. Everyone, Kouji Minamoto!"
A wave of vertigo splashed over him as he walked out on stage and took his place in front of the mike. Hoping his voice didn't sound too nervous, he informed the audience, "This is called 'In the Blue,'" and tried not to be sick. It was ironic: Nothing could stop him from fighting that war against his own brother, but he couldn't find the nerve to sing in front of a group of people.
But when the music started, he found himself completely enthralled in it. The enchanting melody he'd created for that purpose removed him from this terrifying hell of an auditorium and placed him in the one place where he felt most confident.
It wasn't at home.
It wasn't in the Digital World.
It was in Cell 24.
How ironic. The song had been sung in order for him to forget being there, and yet he found himself half-wishing to return when he felt somewhat afraid.
But rather than seeing a dark and damp hellhole, he felt himself sitting against the wall in that corner again, the light of the Fox Leaf Arrowhead lanterns illuminating the scenery around him while a shaft of moonlight streamed down on him from a window that had never been there. He soon saw past the image to a few rows in the auditorium, where his friends sat. They had always been there, and always would be. Encouraged by what he saw, by what he knew, he took hold of the microphone.
The "cruel thesis" thing is from the Evangeliontheme (coincidentally, "Cruel Angel's Thesis" is also the title of the sequel).
End couplings count: Sorato. Implied Daisuke/Natsu. Wallace/Mimi. Ryo/Miyako. Jenrya/Alice. Implied Jurato. No Ryuki, Kouzumi, Takari, or any other popular couplings.
And, though it took me a whole year, I finally remembered where I got the idea for the change of Kouji's birthday: Briar's decision to choose a birthday when he stopped being the thief Roach from Deadman's District and became the kid mage Briar Moss (Circle of Magic: Briar's Story). Took me long enough to figure it out.