The pang of deja-vu tightened Roy's chest the closer he got to the chapel doors, but he wouldn't let Gabi see anything other than a stoic smile. Her bravery lay in her clenched fists and her failed attempt to make her own face stoic. Her ticks never wavered as Roy walked her into town, and the citizens blinking at her only made them worse.
"They have to engage their aesthetics just so they don't have to see my ugliness," she said with a defeated smile. "Do you think the baptism will fix me?"
"I wouldn't use the word "fix" but I do think it will help you," Roy replied, smiling through her unsure eyes. "For what it's worth, I think you're pretty whether you have them or not."
"Huh…" She turned red, and nearly opened the chapel door to escape before flinching at it. Finally, she faced him with a sheepish grin. "Thanks, Roy. I wish you were my aesthetics officer. That kind of flattery would boost anybody's fortitude."
Roy chuckled, his own cheeks warming up. "Well, I may not be your aesthetics officer, but I can make sure Felix is. We'll take care of you, and more importantly, you're going to do great for yourself, here."
"You think so? Even though they rushed me? I've been here for a year, and now they're suddenly saying I'm ready."
"I believe it's because you are," Roy replied. "Have faith in yourself. I've seen how capable you are on stage."
"What if I don't remember my singing? I have no idea if I'll even remember you, or Dmitri, or Rocks, or Hai, or Ken, or El…" She bit her lip, and glanced up at the bell tower high above. Roy's eyes followed, and for a split second, there looked to be something leaning over the roof of the tower.
"Your passion won't go anywhere, no matter what else changes," he replied with a grin. "I have a feeling Ken's going to be watching you on TV in no time."
"What about you?" she asked, blinking at him with puckered lips.
"I'll be watching, too, of course," he replied, chuckling.
"Okay, good," she said, winking as she took a deep breath and gripped the door handle. "I'll see you soon."
An hour later, he returned to meet Gabi outside the chapel, nursing two bandaged fingertips. She hardly remembered him, but listened to every word he spoke about her friends with piqued interest. She laughed, smiled, and never once twitched as they met Dmitri and Rocks at the new glass fort. Hai stopped by donning gray fatigues, his eyes still pink, and joined Roy in walking Gabi back to her dorm after a few drinks. She bid them goodnight, leaving the two to trek the dimly lit road.
"Are you happy to be a soldier?" Roy blurted out, to which Hai smiled.
"Yeah, I always assumed I would be one. But I never expected them to take me as a quartz. I guess when you're of age, baptism isn't a necessity for a soldier."
"Because you'll get your red eyes on the battlefield eventually, huh?"
"Seems like that's the idea," Hai replied, smiling flatly. "Speaking of, Roy. I don't know if I should be saying anything, but it seems like Akos and Emery are gearing up for something to happen."
"Like what? Surely Mika hasn't come back from cyberspace…?"
"I have no idea," he replied. "But there's been a lot of movement. Preparation. Maybe it's just a precaution with the firewall being damaged, but it feels like something big. I just wanted to let you know. I know you're looking for Ken, so if you do find him, try to make sure he's on our side, okay?"
"That's the plan," Roy said. "I have no idea what he's thinking, though."
After saying their farewells, Roy returned to Aesthetica, overly watchful of any movement in the streets and alleys.
Ken, can you hear me? If you can…
Roy, it looks like I'm no longer connected to Ken's navi…
"Right," he muttered with a grimace. "I should have known he'd do that."
After returning home, he met up with Felix at his favorite underground bar, and drank until they were asked to leave. That night, he slept soundly, without any dreams.
The next morning, he awoke at the usual time, and brought food to Rocks at the new fort. Though reluctant, he let him spend most of his day helping him build the makeshift tower, nary a word passing between them. Dmitri showed up and ate the rest of the food, but left not long after.
Eventually, Roy met with Gabi, and escorted her to her new apartment in the heart of Aesthetica. Her blue eyes gleamed as she checked out her new place, which Roy helped her decorate. By the time he left, the sun had begun to set, and storm clouds were on their way in.
In the morning, the clouds came to fruition, as a heavy downpour blanketed the streets. Most people stayed in at the instructions of the feminine voice on the TVs dotted inside and outside of every building. Roy, however, trusted his unbending umbrella to protect him. Instead of going to work, though, he had somewhere else to be.
From a block away, he could hear the rain pounding against the chapel's dense stained glass. When the doors came into view beyond the veil of rainfall, Roy almost lost his umbrella in the wind. In the doorway, a lanky black-haired boy stood. His hair was cut to Hai's length, but the black hoodie was unmistakable.
Roy broke out in a run, shouting, "Ken! You made it in time!"
I had a feeling you'd be here, Roy.
Our connection is back! Ken, I'm so glad you're here! You're making the right choice!
I've had a lot of time to think... about what really is my better way.
That's wonderful, Ken. We have a lot to talk about. Can you wait for a bit?
Promise me one thing, Roy.
What is it? Won't you stay and talk?
See this through to the end. When you see me next, don't look away.
What are you...
The rain stopped as abrubtly as the door shut behind Ken, leaving Roy reaching at the empty air between.
The bell's toll carried a lighter ring this time, their welcome rhythm bringing a smile to Roy's face.
The main road was still empty aside from the cleaning bots who frantically zipped across the cobblestone mopping up puddles. The avatar on TV reappeared, announcing it safe to come back out, and the smiling faces once again piled into the street.
The TV screen cut to a shot of the sun emerging from the clouds, and Roy found himself smiling at each passerby.
See, Aesthetica is still as beautiful as ever.
Even with its ugliness?
I think I can appreciate it even more because of all its ugliness. Ken was right about that too, wasn't he?
He deserves a happy life here, too.
Everyone does. I'm lucky I had your help getting here. Thank you for that, Navi.
It was my duty as your mother. But Roy, aren't you wondering what he meant about not looking away?
Yeah, mysterious as ever. But I've already decided to see this through to the end.
"We're happy to report clear skies for the next thirty to-" The voice cut out suddenly, sending all eyes to the closest screen.
Each screen cut to an unfocused, blinking perspective. That of someone standing, sweaty hands folded in the middle of a dark chapel hall.
Shrieks of terror sprouted from those who had just been grinning from ear to ear, as the screens wobbly perspective finally fell on a lanky boy, chained to the floor on his knees and writhing in agony. Two of his fingertips had been reduced to raw nail beds, dripping blood on the brick floor.
"Ken's baptism... Why is he showing me this..."
No, Roy, he must be broadcasting this to all of Aesthetica!
Roy's fingers danced with the painful reliving of having his nails ripped off, while the terror-stricken faces all around him blinked at each other desperately.
"He's going to destroy it all..."
Ken fought the pain with gnashed teeth and hot pink eyes that looked for no mercy, instead challenging the bespectacled man who spread his lips into a thin smile as his eyes shone bright with the blue light of the tablet he read from.
"Now, Ken Jitsuo, you are ready to hear The Truth."