Author's Note: Hello all, it has been a while, hasn't it? That's partially due to my slow writing, but this time I can also blame my two failed hard drives. The good news is that, though it took forever, I did manage to generate an almost-closing chapter that holds up to my standards. The first bit I liked better the first time I wrote it, but that's gone and this is the best I can remember. After that, though, I think I managed to make a substantial improvement over the lost original. We'll see what you all think, but generally I like it. It's big, but a) I figured you all deserved a big chapter for your patience and b) I think it goes pretty fast. Next up, the thrilling conclusion. Have fun!

Disclaimer: I don't own anything and am making no profit, so please no sue me. Thank you.

This body is new. Stiff. Hungry. I scream in anguish and rage, stretching my wings. They cut through the air, slice it like knifes. My feathers are blades. Hard, sharp, they crack as I move. Protesting the action, or enjoying it? No consequence; my body will do as I will it.

I take flight, aching shoulders working, skeletal tail flicking. My talons flex, my teeth part. They want something… something to crush… I circle and spot the object of their desires. A boy, long hair, blue jacket. Blue eyes. Another in red restrains him. Brown hair, goggles, says something I do not care to hear. He is of no consequence either; it is the other I want.

Warrior of Light, Minamote Kouji.

As he looks at me his lips part and he struggles to take in breath. He's in shock; his knees look weak. The other tugs on his arm urgently, but he does not run. Easy prey. My blood boils at the sight of him and I scream again, diving. Talons flex, reaching. Other yells join mine. Hands placed on his shoulder and chest, shoving. They fall clear. I impact rock.

A roar tears my throat, inhuman and monstrous. I take to the sky again, circling.

"Kouji, what are you doing!"

"Kouichi…" His voice is but a breath, yet I hear it. Animal instincts hone in and I pause, listening. The blow knocked him to the ground and he stares at me from his knees. That same shocked expression in navy eyes.

"Kouji! Are you alright?"

"Pull yourself together! This guys not playing around!"

He just stares at me. The other humans flock around him. Ants.

"Look, I know this is a lot to take in, but this is a really bad time to freeze up. We can't just sit here, we need to move!"

Too much talk. I reorient, hovering.

Deadly Gaze!

They scatter. Self-preservation wins and he rolls clear. The dark energy scars the earth. They reorient, standing their ground.

"Well, if we're not gonna run, there's only one thing for it." The one in the blue jump suit pulls out a blue and yellow device. Holds it ready.

"No don't!" Kouji is active. Suddenly he is beside the other boy. Strikes the hand holding the device with the back of his knuckles. The other yelps. It falls.

"What gives!"

"J.P. that's my brother!"

Frigid splitting in my head like skin breaking. I growl, hurting. Angry. His words… they cause this. I hurt and Kouji is the cause. Yet there is another feeling deep inside, a small, warm feeling, that understands these words beyond the pain they cause. That means everything and nothing. The growl rumbles deep in my chest. My wings beat. Frustrated, uncertain.

"Kouji, we don't know that for sure. Even if Kouichi's still conscious in there, when we met him he said he didn't have a brother. That might just be Cherubimon messing with his mind, sounds like something he would do."

"It's not."

"You don't know that! Zoe asked him straight up if you two were related in

Breezy Village. He said he didn't even know you!"

"He lied!"

"Hey man, I don't know anymore than you do, but even when Kouichi was, well, as normal as he ever was his memory was all wonky. Maybe J.P.'s right, maybe you are. We can't afford to waste time on it now; we have to Spirit Evolve and fight! Listen, maybe-"

"No, you listen! There is no doubt in my mind that Kimura Kouichi is my twin. That's what this is about, don't you get it? That's what it's always been about! My dad told me Mom was dead, but she's not- she can't be. He's been living with her all this time! I need to know what he knows, I need to..."

He breaks off, looks up at me. I sense the conflict within him, the emotions he doesn't understand but feels compelled to act on. He sets his teeth, making his decision.

"And if that thing has even a trace of Kouichi in it, then it's still my brother and I will not fight him! And neither will you!"

His words… they hurt! Sorrow deep inside me cries out, fueling my fury. I don't understand what he's saying, but it touches something within me. A mind inside my own, a figure within my thoughts. Surrounded by red mist, he sleeps. His dreams are of…

Cold! Behind my eyes! These humans- their words- I cannot allow them to continue.

Deadly Gaze!

"Apparently he doesn't feel the same way!"

"J.P., he's being used, he can't control his actions! Remember when you first got your Beast Spirit? Imagine that, but with a powerful Digimon pulling the strings. I can't even believe what I'm hearing! And you, Takuya. Aren't you the one that attacked your friends when you first got your Beast Spirit? And it wasn't even evil!"

"Yeah, Zoe, I remember. I couldn't control myself and went after you guys, after Tommy! But luckily you guys cared enough to stop me before I could do anything I really regretted. That's all I'm suggesting we do for Kouichi. Maybe he's Kouji's brother, maybe he's not. It's kind of a moot point if he's manipulated into killing us all!"

"How can you be so heartless?"

"Listen, I don't want to hurt Kouichi any more than you do, but sometimes you have to fight someone to help them. He's being controlled by the Spirits, right? They're evil and they're making him evil? So all we have to do is get the Spirits away from him! Come on, guys, help me out!"

"But I…"

She looks at the one in red, then up at me. Her jade eyes show pain… regret. The one in red moves towards her, smiles a very soft simile. Places a gloved hand on her shoulder. She gulps and slips a hand into her pocket, resigned.

Their exchange is meaningless to me, a curiosity at best. But as the others (except Kouji) grab their devices and are enveloped in periwinkle data, I know what they intend to do. I cannot allow that to happen. As they Evolve I circle low to the ground, cutting a line into the stone with the tip of one wing. The Light boy watches me, fists and jaw clenched, navy eyes struggle. He understands the one in red, yet the sight of me still breaks him. Good. Let him be broken. Let him shatter and fade into nothing. Let him take my pain with him!

Dark Obliviation!

The bands of light dispel just as my dome of blackness begins to rise from the cut rock. They look around in a panic, alarmed by their sudden peril. I back away, anticipating the implosion. Breath hisses through my beak and I feel… something. As the darkness threatens to devour the Light boy I feel something strange. The Fusion Warrior of Fire, Aldamon, yells. Spurs the others into action- they scatter. He grabs Kouji in one massive hand and dives clear just as the jaws of my attack close. Its eyes widen for a split second, then reality collapses in a puff of dust. The sound is defining. I scream as it ripples through my body, exhilarated by the power and angry that the humans escaped. Four Legendary Warriors now stood before me, gawking at the destruction as red plasma cleared my crater.

Aginimon sets Kouji down roughly, out of the way. He fights to keep his balance as the uneven stones roll beneath him, grunting. His blue eyes are torn and, for the first time, I see true, unabashed fear in them. He sees my power and is terrified… at least, that's what I believe. The other inside me thinks differently, but his thoughts are alien. Human. I may be of his making, but I am not of his world. Kouji fears me, and that is enough.

"Takuya, wait!" His voice is almost frantic, his face pleading. The other ignores him; takes off towards me.

"Come on guys," Aldamon calls. "The sooner we take care of this, the sooner we can get back to the Rose Morning Star! Atomic Inferno!"

A thousand little rockets of flame come towards me. They seem insignificant, but my arrogance is costly. They impact. It burns!

I ascend higher into the sky, roaring in pain and rage. This sensation… it's unacceptable.

Dark Vortex!

He dodges and my attack leaves another deep crevice in the earth. I spy the others off to my left. One of them, the Warrior of Ice, is constrained to the ground. He will be less mobile.

Dark Vortex!

His bulk slows him and this time my beam strikes flesh. I hiss in pleasure, diving as he falls, talons reaching.


"Kouichi, don't!"

"Thunder Fist!"

It all happens so quickly. The lightning strikes me in the side, knocking me off course. It lacks the strength to hurt me, but I shriek nonetheless. I want to hurt them, I want to feel them crush between my talons. I swoop upward and rake those talons across the chest of the Warrior of Thunder, sending him to the ground. He doesn't even have time to get up before I'm upon him again, lifting him from the ground. I toss him easily and he skids. His form darkens for a moment and I expect him to fall back into his human form, defeated, but he fights it off.

Fine. I dive.

"Hurricane Gale!"

Pink bands of wind slice across my scales, largely ineffectual. Once catches me in the face, stinging, and I turn my attention to this more imminent threat. She floats before me, animalistic and yet strangely beautiful. The Warrior of Wind, Zephyrmon.

"I'm sorry," she says in a voice I almost recognize. I stare at her, turning my head slightly. "I'm so, so sorry… Kouichi."

That name… Something about that name hurts more than any of her attacks ever could. Pain sears in my mind and I charge her. She's caught off guard, easy prey. I fly directly over her and strike her with my tail, knocking her out of the sky. She lands hard, maybe hard enough to finish her, but I don't make the same mistake twice.

Dark Vortex!

She screams as the periwinkle bands surround her body, and her pain seems to lessen my own. When they suffer, I do not. I like it.

"Zoe!" The Warrior of Thunder runs to her side, the large hands of his Digimon body hovering uselessly over her. She's conscious, rolling onto her hands and knees and resting her forehead on balled fists.

"Avalanche Axes!"

I bat them out of the air.

"Solar Wind Destroyer!"

It comes from behind me- above me. I am enveloped in burning fire, agony like that which I sought to escape. But my anger is stronger than my pain. I beat my wings furiously and thrash my body, howling, trying to dislodge the flames.

"Tommy, J.P., now! Quick, before he gets out of it!"

The Warriors of Ice and Thunder are injured; their reaction time is slow. Too slow. I spin about and ram full force into Aldamon, tearing at his chest with my talons and beating him with my wings. He holds up his hands, trying to ward off the blows, but that is the smallest of his concerns. Neither of us can fly like this and I take advantage of our fall to smash him into the ground. He yells in defeat as I press him into a crater. My roar of triumph drowns out the pathetic cries of the humans and I savor the moment. Blind, animalistic hatred seethes in sheer ecstasy within my mind even as the other looks away in disgust. He is weak, though. Inferior. This is my battle and I have all but destroyed my enemy.

Then I remember something. Kouji. I cease my assault on the Warrior of Flame and look around, seeking the object of my sudden discomfort. He's moved over towards the still glowing but stationary form of Sakakumon, inching his way towards the girl, Zoe. Fresh rage boils within me and I take to the skies again, circling. Beneath me, the Warrior of Flame slides back into his human form, battered but conscious.

"Kouji," he calls, following my gaze as he rolls to his forearms. "Look out!"

Kouji freezes and turns, looking first at the other boy Takuya, then up at me. That same terrified expression glitters in his eyes. He knows my plans, yet for some reason I do not understand, he will not try and stop me. He's trapped.

"Kouichi," he whispers, but I can hear him. I hear his words in my heart. "How could I let this happen? My own brother…"

Are they his words, or mine? A beeping starts and I think it's in my mind until Kouji's expression changes. He reaches deep into his pocket and pulls out a blue and white device. Then, hesitantly, his eyes widening, he replaces it and reaches into his back pocket. A new device, identical to the others but black and grey, emerges. Its screen is flashing a purple symbol as it beeps urgently. Kouji stares at it at first in confusion, but I cannot tolerate the noise. Something about that little box… it's dangerous. I sense that I must destroy it and him. As understanding blooms across Kouji's face I begin to dive.

My talons stretch out in front of me. He looks up, unafraid. I close in. He extends the device towards me, screen out. A beam of pure darkness shoots from the device and strikes me between the eyes. But there's no pain in this attack. Warmth spreads form the point of impact, a gentleness that sooths and comforts me. I slow my decent, and then land a few meters from Kouji. My head drops and I look at him inquisitively. What is this wonderful feeling?

"Onii-san," he says in a low voice only I can hear, still holding the device out like a protective barrio between us. It sounds strange, yet somehow right.

Then I remember-

"K-Kouji," I say in a voice I'd forgotten how to use. It's not like before; the memories are softer now, but the sadness is overwhelming. I understand that boy inside me and I are the same entity, and that this one before me is my younger twin. I remember my life as a human, my mother, my home. I remember that I want to go back. I want to make us a family, but… He won't let me go. I can't get away, no matter how hard I try. I need…


He nods, his face both hardening and softening at the same time.

"I will. I promise."

Kouji lowers the device and raises his other hand at the same time, reaching out towards me. The spell is broken. I lurch back, screaming as all the pain comes flooding back. I have to run, I have to escape. My wings propel me into the air and with a shriek of pure torment I retreat. I need to regain control, I need to be alone.

"Kouich," He yells after me. "Fight it! You have to fight it just a little longer!"

I roar my reply, long and dismal. It's so loud it almost drowns out Kouji's last words. Almost.

"I'm coming for you."

I didn't even make it to the ground before shifting, pushing the monster back into a cage I hadn't even realized was inside me. For a moment, Duskmon angled through the air, his body aiming for one of the low holes in a porous dome, but that form was still intolerable. Everything, this place, the dark, my own body, it all felt intolerable. Like I was smeared in some sort of noxious grime, covered from head to toe in a filth I couldn't get off. I wanted it gone- I wanted it all gone. I wanted him out of me so desperately it felt like every second he remained in my mind was a violation. So, even though I knew it was stupid, even though I knew it wasn't safe, I pushed the darkness further away.

My almost-human body shot through the hole and landed hard on a ledge within, skidding. I felt the wind leave my chest and, for a moment, all though of darkness went with it. Bittersweet pain flooded every nerve, reminding me of a time I could hardly remember. A time when this human fragility I now savored had turned my stomach. Back when I'd willingly embraced this parasite. Yet now, powerful as it had made me, I struggled with all my being to reject it. I smiled a little at the irony, curling into a ball on my side and waiting for the paralysis to pass. Had I been truly human, I probably would have broken something. Maybe even died, though death didn't sound too bad. Stupidity and sin such as mine deserved punishment of equal or greater severity.

I'd thought such terrible things… Done such terrible things. All in the name of what? Justice? Vengeance? A mother who's suffering consumed my soul or a secret that crushed my heart? Power, hate, apathy? Why had I become this and, better still, how had I allowed it to happen… I didn't know anymore and, really, what did it matter? I was in a pit of my own making and in my selfishness I'd drug others down with me. But I was going to make it right.

With Kouji's help, I would make it all right.

I groaned loudly and rolled to my hands and knees, my eyes squeezed shut as nausea rolled in my stomach and my head floated away. Shivers ran up and down my arms and my muscles tensed with cold. My body felt terrible, about the way I'd expect any body would feel after crashing onto a rock, but my mind was the clearest it'd ever been. There was a power inside me like a little… flame is the wrong word. It was more like a warmth, black as night but soft, gentle yet unyielding. A residue from my encounter with the black D-Tector. I felt wisdom there, kindness long forgotten, and strength. My strength. Not Duskmon's, not something that belonged to the Spirit of Darkness, but a power intrinsic to me. A power I would use to eject the corruption in my soul and courage to bring the pieces of my shattered dreams back together.

Shaking, I stood up, keeping my eyes closed. I didn't want to see with Duskmon's eyes, nor feel with his hands. I wanted my body back. My right hand reached across my chest, clawed fingers hesitating for a moment, then grasping the horn that burst from my left shoulder. Gritting my teeth, I pulled, willing it to yield. Then… it did. My eyes snapped open, irises glittering navy blue. With a horrible sucking, tearing sound and a stab of pain like ice, I felt the horn come away in my hand, bringing shreds of avian flesh with it. I cast it aside without looking at it, throwing it off the ledge on which I stood and ignoring the dull thud when it hit the floor.

Chilled air tickled the freshly exposed human skin, pricking the small hairs there on end. My right hand returned to my shoulder, fingers probing anxiously. I couldn't quite bring myself to look at what was under the dark shell; at least, not yet. The edges of the avian amour were raised and hard, like a thick crust that encircled my entire arm. When I slid my nails under it and pulled, though, it came away easily, ripping like fabric. I peeled it off in strips, working quickly from shoulder to wrist. The newly exposed flesh felt damp and slick, rising into goose bumps almost immediately after meeting the air. In an almost frenzy, I grabbed hold of one oversized, bird-like finger on my left hand and tugged. Fingers cracked and joints protested, but the three-fingered distortion came away like a glove, releasing five, very human fingers into the cold.

Black veins still webbed my skin and the flesh still felt cold as stone but, for the first time since I'd accepted the Spirit of Darkness, the arm was mine. I flexed my fingers, experimentally touching each tip to my palm, then reached up and grasped the metal mask. That, too, had to go. My breath came in short pants though my nose, muffled and claustrophobic, urging my fingers onward. It protested vehemently as I pulled, adhering to my face like it had little hooks buried into my cheeks and fastened behind my ears. This is what you are now, it seemed to say. Don't fight it; embrace it. Return to it. The coils of darkness reached once more for my heart, trying to entice me back into submission. I shrugged them off, pulling harder at the mask. I could remember my own face, what it looked like and felt like to be me, and I wanted that back.

I wanted to be Kouichi again.

With the high-pitched shriek of twisting metal, the mask released me. I stumbled, slightly shocked, and dropped it. It bounced once, clanging a fatalistic note that resonated through the stone dome, then rolled at my feet. My blue eyes followed it, pleased but somehow unable to smile. I knew what came next and, as much as I yearned to be permanently free, a large part of me feared how I would get there. Shaking off a curse I should never have accepted was an accomplishment, but it would be short lived. My little rebellion undoubtedly had sent ripples of unrest through the darkness and Lord Cherubimon would be here soon. If he wasn't already lurking in the shadows.

I knew my current relief, like my body, was artificial. A construct of my state of mind, not the reality of my physical form. Duskmon was still a part of me, a personality that was still mostly dominant over my own. Lord Cherubimon would emerge soon and like a stone in the ocean I would again be lost in his depravity. The inevitability soiled the moment, but it could not spoil it. As surely as I knew Lord Cherubimon would reclaim my soul for darkness, I knew Kouji would come and save it. He'd promised he would, so it had to be true. I trusted that it was true. Cherubimon could break my body, my will, he could even break my mind, but there was nothing he nor any other force of good or evil could do to break that trust.

Something swirled in the darkness beneath my ledge and my eyes moved to track it, but I did not turn. The cruel and mirthless smile I had learned from Duskmon curled my lips as I recognized the presence emanating from the shadows like a mist.

"You're too late," I said coolly, lifting my head. "Kouji's already on his way and there's nothing you can do to stop him, Cherubimon-sama."

Even as I said the name I hated it. Sama, master, an honorific to refer to one's superior. But I couldn't bring myself to call him anything less. Good or evil, right or wrong, as long as I held the Spirits of Darkness, Cherubimon was my master. As long as my heart belonged to the Dark, I was nothing but his servant. My hatred couldn't change that, no matter how desperately I wanted it to.

An unexpected chuckle rumbled in the stone.

"You presume much, Son of Darkness," came a low growl of a voice. It froze in my chest and constricted around my insides, like some kind of serpent made of ice. "I cannot decide whether your arrogance is refreshing or annoying."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I spat back, still refusing to look for him. My goal was simple: hold on long enough for Kouji to arrive. Stop running, stop hiding, and just let him see me. If he could see me, I knew he could save me. Another laugh shook my confidence as the snake coiled inside me.

"Come now, Duskmon. You honestly believe your brother will rid you of the darkness? You think you can just walk away from the Spirit? Even if that were so, even if all you dream came to pass, you would regret it. Not that I intend to simply let you leave."

I saw a tendril of dark like one clawed finger reach over the ledge, but jerked away from it, stepping back and spinning to face him.

"My name," I said firmly. "Is Kimura Kouichi. And I don't belong to you. I don't even belong in this world."

"That's where you're wrong." Red eyes like thin slits of sunset opened before me, narrow and unreadable. "You may have been born in that other world, but your destiny lies here. Your soul is here. In the Dark. With my help, you could become great. Under my guidance, you could rule both worlds…"

"I don't want that. I never did."

"You deceive yourself, Son of Darkness, but I know what is in your heart!" His voice sharpened with sudden rage and I couldn't help but flinch away. "Even now it burns with anger and hatred, feeding the darkness in your soul. That is what you are. That is where you belong."

My gaze dropped, almost defeated, as I exhaled. Claws of shadow reached from beneath the ledge, curving around me like a cage, and this time I made no attempt to evade them. I couldn't deny it, and I wasn't going to pretend that I could. The wrath in my chest twisted and clawed at my heart, distorting the world around me like a broken mirror. Feigning ignorance would only give it more power over my actions. I knew that and so did he. Cherubimon-sama laughed again, a smile coming into his red eyes. There was a sick gentleness to the way he enclosed me, something one could almost call affection in his voice…

"Ah, yes… You know I'm right. You can feel the power inside you and can't help but accept it. Can't help but like it. I understand that sensation Kouichi. There was a time long ago when I was like you: lost, confused, lonely… abandoned."

"I'm not like you," I hissed, but my attempt to sound venomous came out weak and hollow. I couldn't meet his gaze.

"But you are. The proof now lives within you- it is you. Do not think you were simply a convenient host; I offered the Spirit of Darkness to many before you. It rejected them all, consumed them until they were but husks of their former selves. You alone were strong enough- dark enough, to wield its power."

"You misunderstand," I said, the slightest bit of force returning to my voice with a chill. My eyes narrowed and my brows knit in budding determination. A faint, ironic smile curved my lips. "There may have been a time when I was like you, when I first came to this world. Maybe even before then. And a part of me may always feel betrayed and angry.

"But that's not who I am now. You turned me into this monster. You've been using me, using my weakness, like a pawn in some greater scheme I can't even begin to imagine. And I want no more part in it. I wish I'd never met you. I wish I'd never come to this world."

"But I am glad to have met you. You're very cruel, Kouichi. It's one of the reasons I like you. Beneath that innocent façade you're as ruthless and heartless as I am. You know who's responsible for that, even if you no longer admit it to yourself."

His fingers were at my back, maybe a meter away from the dark shell that masqueraded as clothing, his thumbs curving around to my chest. As if he planned to smash me between his palms. Red mist seemed to seep from them like breath on a cold day, surrounding me with subtle numbness.

"I've only ever wanted to help you. Trust me, darkness is the only comfort for your pain. Vengeance is the only way to rid yourself of that burden. Vengeance against those that did this to you: your father, that other woman… Kouji. The freedom you so desperately seek can only be found by destroying their lights. Until you accept that, embrace it, your torment will endure."

I tried to step back, but my back met his ice-cold hands and pushed me forward instead. The chill made my limbs uncooperative and unsteady and I stumbled, landing hard on one knee. The pain came from the fact that it didn't hurt…

"Your wrong," I said as firmly as I could. Even as my eyes met his I knew they were fading to red, but I forced myself to confront him anyway. "You're wrong!"

"No I'm not," he cooed softly, tightening his grasp. "You know it and, more importantly, he knows it. He's seen you, Kouichi."

An old fear tightened in my gut and constricted around my throat.

"What did you think that little outburst would accomplish? Did you think it would change what you are? Did you think it could erase what you've done? If anything you've only given him more reason to hate you. You've betrayed him in the worst possible way, his own brother out to kill him; do you really think he'll forgive you?"

It sounded so unlikely when he said it, so absurd in his voice.

"No," I whispered, my eyes falling to my left hand. Yes, it was human shaped, but the network of budging black veins and shining residue, it looked as fake as anything. As inhuman as anything. "No, I don't expect he'll forgive me. I hope he will, but I don't expect it."

He snorted in laughter and I felt a flare of anger lash out at him.

"But I'm not looking for his forgiveness, am I? He has no reason to accept me as a brother and I'm not brazen enough to ask, I just want to get away from you. All I want is to be myself again and I know Kouji will help me do that. He's coming for me and then, he's coming for you. You can't stop him."

A smirk brightened my face as I spat out that last part, breathing heavily through my nose. My voice was calm and matter-of-fact, my gaze hard. The mist seemed to hang in the air, uncertain and unwelcome.

"I remember everything from before and I've seen what his life is really like. He didn't mean for any of this to happen and he certainly never tried to hurt me. He didn't even know I existed; our parents lied to us both. Kouji's not the person you made him out to be and neither am I!"

My body was shaking all over, but I couldn't tell if it was from cold or fury. I knew the Spirit fed on my anger and I knew such feelings would only help him control me in the long run, but I couldn't help myself. I felt strong, stronger than I'd ever been even when the Spirit of Darkness had me fully enthralled. Maybe even strong enough to wield the Spirit in my own right. If I could turn it against Cherubimon, so much the better.

"He's suffered enough. I won't hurt him anymore."

"Your obstinance is very trying," growled Cherubimon, the sweetness leaching from his voice. "Not to mention your total lack of gratitude."

"Gratitude," I said, disbelieving. "You made me fight my own brother and you want me to be grateful?"

"I've made you do nothing," he snapped. I felt the lash of his words in my mind, like a sudden crack to the skull. "Everything has happened according to your desires. You sought power and I granted it, simple as that."

My brow knit in shame and, had I been my human self, I would have flushed. He sensed my receptiveness and the red mist began to pour from his palms once more. It seeped into my body like rain, sucking away my will to fight. In the end, despite my outbursts and protests, the best I could do was resist. I'd let it in and now I couldn't get it out. Not on my own.

"I wanted to make things right," I whispered, more to myself than to him. "I just wanted to make us a family."

"But you were too weak to do so. You say you remember everything, but is that true? Do you remember what they did to you-to your dear mother? Do you remember the pathetic creature you were when I found you? Do you remember your true pain, that debilitating agony that left you so totally alone and defenseless? The crushing sadness and rage that chained your heart? I'm sure you could, if you tried."

A boy with a long ponytail and a blue jacket runs out the beautiful wood door, tugged along by a happy dog. He laughs and smiles and his joy kills mine. How can he be so happy while I am so sad?

Sudden pain split my head, a dull throbbing that quickly escalated into a hammering like a thousand pickaxes. I gasped in surprise, hands raising half against my will to cradle my splitting brow. Spikes of cold were being driven into my eyes, powers beyond my comprehension slowly crushing my skull. I grunted and moaned, curling myself into a small, kneeling balls, but the pain was unrelenting.

"See ya latter!" He swings a book bag over one shoulder, a small grin playing on his lips. His father places a large hand on the other as they walk off. A woman in an apron, short brown hair and glasses, runs a few paces after them. She smiles and waves.

He lets out a long breath, wiping sweat from his brow with a towel. His arms shine as he walks out into the sun, sword clutched tightly against his chest. Kendo lessons… he has kendo lessons…

A woman loosens her shirt and allows it to slip off one shoulder. Her skin is so pale, like moonlight and death in one, and as the harsh fabric falls, angry sores are laid bare. Blisters and bruises and rashes… She flinches when they are touched, trying her best not to let the agony show. It's my job to pretend she's succeeding and patch her up. For what? So she can go out and hurt herself again? So we can keep pretending nothing's wrong? Why, I wonder, do we live like this?

I knew what he was doing- what he was trying to do. The Darkness controlled me through my emotions, through the secrets I could hardly stand to admit to myself. Because, really, isn't that where Darkness is born? The sadness and anger from those memories had led me down this path… ultimately turned me into this disgusting hybrid. If I felt that again, here and now, with Cherubimon poised to push me back into the abyss, there'd be no turning back. He was using my own mind against me, I knew that.

I had to remember the good with the bad, the new revelations that had saved my soul with the devastations in which I'd lost it. Kouji was coming. I had to hold on, just a little longer. I had to-

"Look, it's that boy again. The one who looks like Minamoto Kouji."

"Why does he keep hanging around here? It's creepy!"

"Maybe they're related and he's waiting for Minamoto-san? It wouldn't surprise me; I mean, look at him. He could be his twin…"

"Don't be ridiculous, Kouji's an only child. This guys been coming around for however long and Kouji hasn't so much as looked at him. Besides, just look at his cloths and bag, he's gotta be dirt poor. Kouji wouldn't give the time of day to someone worth while, let alone trash like that."

"Aki, that's a terrible thing to say! What if he heard you?"

"Like I care. The truth hurts and besides, if he ever actually does talk to Kouji, I'm sure he'll hear worse."

"This isn't about last Valentines Day again, is it?"

"Shut up!"

"Aki, you were like the tenth girl to give him chocolates…"

I'm in line for the check out and, though I know better, my eyes are drawn to the candies on display there. The last temptations to spend money before the store releases you from its clutches. Dango and mochi and melon cakes all nicely packaged and stacked. A crumpled paper crinkles in my left hand, reminding me that such luxuries are not on the list. Rice, leeks, and the almost bad fish that was on clearance, those are the only things allowed in my little basket. Those are the only things the wad of yen in my pocket can afford.

"Hey kid." It's my turn. I look up, startled. "You want some?"

I look at the cashier, then back to the sweets.

"No," I lie, placing this week's food before him. "I don't want any. But thank you."

"Please," I begged to no one. "Please… stop." Worms squirmed in my stomach, nausea tightened my throat. Tears burned in my eyes and my mind felt like it was going to shatter. My heart hurt; I wanted to tear into my own chest and rip it out. I remembered that feeling. I hated that feeling.

"Hey kid, whacha lookin' for?"

"You wouldn't by any chance have just a pack of E-strings, would you?"

"Acoustic or electric."

"Electric for now, but I am saving up for a Taylor."

"A Taylor, huh? Your parents must be loaded."

"The E-strings?"

"Keeps snappin' on ya?"

"Yeah. I'm sick of having to go out and buy a new one every week, so I figured I'd just take a day to find a store that sold them in bulk."

"Well, search no further, we've got a 20 pack of just E-strings over here. How's your amp system?"

"None of your concern, I just want the strings."

"Sheesh, I'm sorry if I offended you Mr…"


"Hey Kouichi, wait up! A bunch of us are gonna hit the arcade before cram school, wanna come?"

"I'm sorry, I…"

"If it's money your worried about, don't. I've been saving up, I can cover you."

I flush a deep red and stare even more intently at the pavement.

"No, I just have to get home is all. My mother-"

"Is expecting you. Right."

Silence. I turn to go.

"You know Kouichi, I'm trying but you have to let people in every now and then. If you ever want friends you'll have to start trying too."

He sits out on a park bench, arms draped over the back, knees splayed. Slouching. A small smile plays on his face as he thinks about one perfect aspect of his life or another, eyes closed. Maybe he's envisioning the dinner cooked by his new mother, or the toy purchased by his doting father. Maybe he's just enjoying a moment in the sun… a moment that I can't spare. He'll stay here in this little bubble of sunshine while I… It was time for me to return to the shadows. I could think up a lie to tell our real mother on the way.

"So your memory is incomplete; I should have guessed," said Lord Cherubimon darkly. "If you truly remembered how wretched you were, what a sad little human you made, you would not be so eager to return that life. I've never been your jailor, Kouichi. I'm your savior. It was I that freed you from your miserable existence. I gave you power, purpose… happiness."

Something like fire shot down my spine and I yelped, bending closer to the ground. I couldn't think over the pain anymore; his words were the only thing in my mind. They sounded neither true nor false, right nor wrong. They just were. Like the fabric of reality they just were. And, though it was more like the sensation of memory than a memory itself, I remembered what it was like when I'd just accepted his offer. The relief he brought me, the twisted yet wonderful tranquility of not having to feel. Not having to think or remember. The Nothing hadn't hurt or criticized and his commands required no justification.

How easy it had been… How easy it still could be… To be Duskmon.

"That's right, Kouichi. That's good. Right now you're confused, but I can fix that. I know you as no one else can. I alone understand you, I alone care about you, and I alone can help you. Heed my words, obey me… and hate everything else. Give yourself once more to Darkness and return to my side."

As he spoke the pain faded, submitting to his words. I felt my mind lean against his, old temptations gnaw at my resolve.

"I sense your desires because they are the same as mine. Trust me, Kouichi, in it's purest form what you want is power, the power only I can give you. It is only though this power that you will find justice. Only shadows can bring you happiness. You've barely tasted a fraction of the true power of darkness. I can give you more; I can give you everything you've ever wanted. All you have to do… is destroy the light."

"I don't want to fight anymore," I breathed, looking up at him. He smiled down at me, his white fangs glinting in the half-light. The red mist poured from his chest now, surrounding me on all sides. I could feel it taking effect, like some kind of drug, hazing my thoughts and bending my will. It was so hard to stay awake…

"I don't know if I can fight anymore. I don't understand what you want me to do."

"Simple: Kill Kouji."

"Kill Kouji?"

He nodded, still smiling. My gaze fell and I stared at my left hand. It felt strange, tingling and throbbing. The mist made it hard to think or feel anything beyond what he suggested and the longer I was exposed to it, the more sluggish I felt. But I remembered Kouji, beyond what Lord Cherubimon wanted. I remembered what he'd shown me, what I'd seen in his mind. The images were blurred, the sounds mere echoes, but what I'd seen there was Truth. It was the other side of Light.

"Back in the human world," he was saying reluctantly. "I used to get this feeling sometimes. Like I was being followed by someone I could never see or hear. I just knew he was there, watching me from somewhere close by. I miss that feeling."

"You miss being stalked?" The other boy, Takuya, looked confused and a little disturbed. Kouji ignored him. His eyes were distant, contemplating.

"It wasn't stalking. I mean, yeah, I'm pretty sure I was being followed, but I was never worried or anything. It's more like… there's someone who wants to get to know me, but isn't sure how. Like there's someone out there who cares about me, without even knowing me."

He misses me too.

"I will not."

Cherubimon gasped audibly, pulling away from me for just a moment. As if I'd struck him.

"Kouji's right, I do care about him. I don't want to kill him; I want to know him. I want us to be a family and I understand now that he wants the same thing. He wants to meet me and I think I'm ready to let him."

"You're a fool!"

The pain returned full force and I couldn't help but scream, curling back into a ball in a futile attempt to block it out. Yet in his haste to unleash the pain, he let the shroud slip and my mind cleared.

"Do what you want with me," I said through gritted teeth. "Torture me, brainwash me, force me to remember or forget at your leisure. You can never change the fact that Kouji and I are brothers! I can't kill him. I won't!"

"We'll see how long your determination lasts once you're once again overwhelmed by the Spirits of Darkness. You'll destroy the light, you'll kill Kouji, and then you'll understand. You'll see your soul belongs to the Darkness."

My hand felt like it was suddenly in a bucket of ice, drawing my attention. The wound on my palm, the hurt from my first hours in the Digital World, stood out against my pale skin. It was an angry red, but bloodless gash, puckered edges grotesquely swollen and obvious. Something beneath it, inside me, was… moving. I held it before my face in utter disbelief. Black avian skin crawled from the gash, working its way across my palm and towards my fingers and wrist.

"No," I breathed as four fingers knit into two and talons burst from their end. "NO!"

My right hand shot up to my mouth, trying desperately to preempt the mask I knew would appear there, but already the skin felt cold in metallic. He'd switched tactics, given up on subtlety and chosen a more direct route. One I couldn't fight. While I rejected the Spirit, it was far from rejecting me. It wanted me back; I could feel it. And now, fueled by Lord Cherubimon's power, it would get its wish.

"Please, please don't do this! Don't make me do this, I beg you!"

Everything inside me felt cold and wrong as my body both rejected and embraced the changes the Spirit caused. I felt my mind detach from it all, separate itself entirely for the first time as my body twisted into something unrecognizable.

"It's for your own good," Lord Cherubimon hissed, his voice fading to a place far away. "I will free you from this parasitic humanity, Duskmon. I will put your heart at ease and make your duty simple. You will have everything I promised; you will fulfill your destiny."

"Stop it!"

Bird-flesh crawled up my arm and Velgamon's tusk burst from my shoulder. I cried out, my right hand flinching towards the new wound, and the metal mask took the opportunity to cover my nose and mouth. I choked, arching my back and staring up towards the ceiling with black and red eyes.

'Kouji,' I thought as my vision faded to red mist. 'Hurry.'