Actions

Work Header

Dreams of Discord

Chapter Text

The bell of the convenience store rings as a new customer enters the building. A dark-skinned boy, short for his age, with pale blue hair veiling half his face, walks around the store for a while, before settling for the magazine rack. Browsing the racks, his hand hovers through the myriad of choices until it picks up a thick comic anthology. Within the tome's pages are a variety of stories, mainly targeting young boys his age, filled with action, adventure, and an occasional bit of titillation for the older crowd. As he flips through the book, he comes across a familiar name: Mark Gambling.

Gambling—once known under the alias Moe Manga—was a teenage prodigy best known for co-creating Nana Silky, a series popular with the "otaku" crowd. It was frilly and girly on the surface, but packed with action and magic and some surprisingly heartwarming moments. Nana Silky lasted for several years, concluding on a high note. After it ended, the writer and artist split up, with Manga working solo on different genres. However, none could match Nana Silky's success, and he switched to a different magazine, using his real name full-time.

The boy recognizes the name and style from one of his older series, during the author's more experimental phase. The story in question was a mecha sci-fi with a strong emphasis on characters. While it caught on with both females and males, critics were mixed about the execution of the overall plot, and eventually, those holes grew too large to ignore, leading to its eventual demise. While the story didn't live up to its earlier legacy, the series still enjoys a cult following to this day.

Curious, the boy buys the anthology and starts heading for home. As he treks down the sidewalk, he starts to wonder what drove him to that purchase. Sure, he used to read Gambling's works, but he was in elementary school then, and a lot less picky about content and quality. Even at junior high, he has to admit to himself that he has outgrown these sorts of comics. So why?

"Oof!"

In a blink, he's on the floor, surrounded by papers. Pale hands scurry to pick them up, and he instinctively helps out. Picking up a page, he catches a glimpse of the contents. A comic?

"Thank you so much," the pallid owner says as he retrieves the last pages. "You saved my work, you did!" With blond hair tied up in a messy bun, decorated with pens and paintbrushes, and his eyes hollow with dark circles, he looks every bit like the stereotypical artist.

Thinking back to the page he picked up, he looks them straight in the eye and asks, "That comic… was that Arcade Master Technia?"

Taken aback, the artist replies, "Why, yes, it is. And if I don't get to the office on time, the editor's gonna have my head!"

"Oh. Well, don't bump into any more—" His advice is cut off by the manga author bumping into a telephone pole. Nevermind.

Chapter Text

Back at home, he drops off his bag and jumps straight to his laptop. Typing down the name of Nana Silky's creator into the search bar, he discovers some interesting results. Seconds later, he picks up his cell phone and dials a number.

“Hello,” the voice on the other end greets cheerfully. “What's up, Kaiser?”

“Adé! This is going to sound weird, but have you heard of Arcade Master Technia?”

“Uh, maybe? Why?”

“I think I might've bumped into a comic artist today. He spilled his manuscript all over, the idiot.”

“Ooh, didja see what he drew?”

“A little bit. I thought I saw Technia on one of the pages I picked up, but not much. Maybe I was wrong.”

Adé pauses for a moment, then asks, “Hey, is your mom out?”

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

“I was thinking we can come over and study, like.”

“You, study? I must be dreaming.”

“No, I'm serious! I even made something for you. 'Sides, you're way better at math than me. I haven't been doing too well.”

“What about Eugene?”

“He said he's busy today, so he can't join us.”

“I see.” With a sigh, Kaiser says, “Fine. I'll see you soon.”

 

Moments later, a dark-skinned boy sporting goggles arrives at the door, bagged food and study materials on hand. “Hey-o! I brought you something for you and mum.”

“Danke.” He opens the bag and inspects its contents. It's a basic seafood and rice meal, but the smell is fresh and the presentation lovely. “You really made this?”

“Eh, I can make a few things. Took me lots of tries to cook the fish right.”

“I'm gonna put this in the fridge. You can make yourself at home. Just don't make a huge mess of my room, ja?”

Adé kicks off his shoes and jumps straight to his friend's bedroom. As he set his books on the table, he spots something on the floor nearby. “Ooh, comics!” He picks up the anthology and flips through it. Eventually, he comes to Arcade Master Technia. It's essentially a gaming-themed magical girl series, replacing the frills with wires and spandex. He reads through the story in moments, but feels uncertain.

When Kaiser walks in, Adé interjects, “I didn't know you read this stuff!”

“I don't! Not often. I just happened to pick it up today out of boredom.”

“You like this Technia chick?”

“I haven't read it yet.”

“I did. I wouldn't recommend it to my dog.”

“You don't have a dog.”

“Exactly! It's terrible! It's got lots of cool stuff, but there's no heart to it. It's like it just dumps whatever looks cool and expects everyone to like it.”

Kaiser slams his books on the table and says, “We're here to study, not fool around. The sooner we finish, the better.”

 

For the next hour, they spend flipping through textbooks and scribbling down math problems in their notebooks (punctuated by the occasional “break” as Adé loses his concentration). As Kaiser checks through his Geordie friend's work, he realizes just how terrible he is.

Adé scratches his wavy black hair, befuddled. “Huh? I coulda sworn I got that one right. Lemme check your homework!”

“What? I'm not letting you cheat!”

“But you're way smarter than me! If I fail, I'll be kicked out of the football club!”

“Not while I'm alive!”

The two boys fight over the notebook, which flies in and out of their hands as they scramble. Lost in the fray, it flops down on the floor face-up, revealing a page of class notes, with doodles in the margins. Immediately, their hands scramble to grab it.

“You drew this, Kaiser,” Adé asks, pointing at a crudely drawn cartoon mugshot. “It's canny good, like!”

Flustered, Kaiser mutters, “It sucks.”

“Aw, c'mon! I bet if you practiced drawing like you did football, you'd be a pro just like that Mango what's-his-face!”

“Adé, even if I tried that, I don't want to draw for a living. I just do it when I'm bored.”

Perusing his friend's notes, he chuckles. “You must be really bored, then!”

“Gimme that!” He swipes the book from Adé's hands. “Let's get this stupid assignment done and over with.”

 

After another half-hour of tutoring and reviewing, Adé's homework is finally finished. They spend a moment on small talk before parting ways. Flopping on his bed with a sigh, he starts to read the comic that caught his eye earlier. As he gets deeper into the story, he finds himself becoming increasingly unattached to the characters as the plot gradually spirals downward into the realms of ridiculousness. Once he reaches the final page, he closes the anthology and sets it aside. “He's right—that was awful.”

A knock on the door, followed by a lady's voice muffled behind it. “Michael, are you there,” she asks in German. The door opens, and a blue-haired woman's head pops through. “I found food in the fridge. Did someone come over?”

In his native tongue, Kaiser answers. “Yeah. Adé and I had an impromptu study session. I should've called you about it, sorry.”

“Oh, that reminds me. You know how the last report turned out, right?”

Exasperated, Michael nods. “Ja, ja, I know. I'm trying to study harder, but science is just a pain.”

“I know it is, honey. That's why I hired a tutor.”

“W-what? I don't need a tutor, Mutti! I'm not an idiot!”

“Of course you're not. I just think you can use some help. You're always helping your little buddy, right? I think it's time someone did the same for you.” She walks in and sits on the bed beside him. “Just give it a try. I think you might like him—the way he talked about football reminded me of you.”

Michael's eye widens. He used to play? Maybe it won't be so bad. “I'll give it a shot.”

“Great! He'll be here tomorrow afternoon. Have your stuff ready by then.”

Chapter Text

Tomorrow arrives, and after a day of football practice, Kaiser is feeling a sense of excitement about the tutor. Perhaps he can bring up the subject and breeze through the session painlessly. What he sees when he enters the kitchen, however, gives him a sense of doubt.

His mother is nowhere in sight. Instead is a stranger, munching on a candy bar while lazing about. The stranger is a young adult with baggy, overtly casual clothes, as if he dressed himself in the dark while half-asleep. His most notable feature, besides his messy auburn hair and large, black eyes, is a pink-and-blue striped knit hat, with cat-eared points and braided baubles hanging off the sides. Is this seriously my tutor?

“Oh, there you are, Michael,” greets the stranger as he swallows the last bit of candy. “Your mother said she was going out for a bit, but she said I could make myself at home in the meantime. My name's Maxwell, but you can call me Max.”

“You don't look smart,” Kaiser wants to say. Instead, he mutters, “My friends call me Kaiser.”

“Kaiser, eh? That's an awfully big name for a shorty. You trying to compensate for something?”

“Are you really a tutor? You look like you just walked out of a dumpster.”

A mischievous smirk on his face, Max replies, “Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. But I bet I'm still smarter than you, teeny.”

“One bad grade doesn't make me an idiot, you Dumbkoff! You think you're so great, how about you prove it?”

All of a sudden, the atmosphere turns dark. Max's face is unreadable, as he stands up and slowly approaches the small German. The air is thick with tension as Kaiser's body is frozen stiff with terror. Then, Max reaches for him… and ruffles his blue hair. Max lets out a laugh, alleviating the air around them. “You got serious guts, kid. Nobody's talked trash to me like that in ages! I have to admire that.”

“Huh? But I...”

“Well, now that that's settled, how about we start our lesson?”

 

They whip out their materials and start studying. Contrary to Michael's expectations, Max is surprisingly competent. As they wrap up the assignment, a conversation strikes up.

“Hey, you're a Raimon student, right? I hear the football club's doing really well over there.”

“You can say that. Our team competed in Saint's Way. That first time on a field that big… it's amazing!”

“I know that feeling. Back when I was in Raimon, my team went to the Football Frontier.” His eyes brim with nostalgic sadness, he says, “It feels just like yesterday.”

“Wow…! I heard you like football, but I didn't know you were a Raimon alum!”

“Sure did! Me and Mark go way back. Same with Axel. Jude's not too bad, either, once you get past that stick up his arse.” The two of them laugh. “A lot's happened in ten years. Most of us stuck with football, and then there's my lot.”

Worried, Kaiser asks, “What happened?”

“Nothing life-changing or dramatic, if that's what you were expecting. The rest of us just had other things we wanted to do. My good pal, Timmy, he left to go train under some kung fu master or something like that. Jim's a librarian and damn good at his job, and me… Well, I'm a bum that teaches kids how to do stuff, I guess.”

“That sounds pretty pitiful.”

“It's not too bad, really. I worked lots of jobs since high school, but nothing really stuck. Over the years, though, I found out I really liked kids. I'm putting all the blame on Steve for that. Anyways, that's when I got my degree, and started tutoring for a living. It ain't easy, but it helps pay the bills and get the cats fed. Plus, I really enjoy it—I love kids!”

“But why childcare? Why not become an athlete?”

Max shrugs. “I love all kinds of sports, but doing it for a living ruins the fun. Besides, when that whole 'communist football' shtick ran its course, the idea really started to suck. It goes against every ounce of my being; playing like that would be like lying to myself.” Kaiser pauses, then responds with a silent nod. “So when I heard about Raimon's revolution, I couldn't help but cheer them on from the sidelines.”

“Now that football's back to normal, why don't you try going pro again?”

“Eh, it's too late for me. Well, maybe not, but I'm already neck-deep in this business, so why bother? Like I said, I just play for fun. I like having the freedom to try out different things. When you're an athlete, you're usually stuck doing one sport for as long as your body could take. Don't get me wrong, I loved playing for Raimon, but I couldn't imagine myself sticking with football my whole life. You're the complete opposite—you're completely devoted to it! Sure, you probably have other interests, but when you hear the word, your eyes light up. That's what it means to be an athlete.”

“You make me sound obsessed. And you talk way too much.”

“I know I do. But you don't say a whole lot, so I just fill in the blanks.”

Not long after he says that, Michael's mother enters. “I'm home! How's the session?”

“Peachy keen, Ms. Ballzack,” Max answers with a grin. “Your boy's got a good head on his shoulders.” He pats his student's shoulder on his way out. “Keep up the good work, Kaiser! See you Monday!”

 

By the time the session ended, the sun has begun to set, just the right time to wind down after a day's work. Michael shares Adé's gift with his mom, then bathes himself and settles down in his bed. After tossing and turning for a while, he drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

When Kaiser regains sight, he finds himself sitting before a round table, surrounded by knights in shimmering white armor. One of the knights next to him—fair-skinned and feminine, right down to their pink pigtails—puts a hand on his shoulder and smiles. “Are you well-rested, Sir Michael,” they ask in hushed tones.

That face, that voice. Could it be… Gabriel? “Uh, ja. I think. Where are we?”

“Why, King Arthur's castle, of course! We at the Round were discussing some very important matters—though it appears you missed it all.” Gabriel giggles; though a touch on the masculine side, its soft, airy tones further added to his femininity. “The King is about to embark on another venture, and he wishes for us to watch over his kingdom for him. The usual, really.”

“The usual?”

“You really are quite the jester today! While the Queen watches from the throne, our job is to patrol the villages, collect the taxes, and ensure that all is well. You understand all that?” Still in a daze, Kaiser nods.

Gabriel escorts Michael to the castle entrance, where two men—one with wavy ash-brown hair, the other with straight teal—await them. “It's about time you came,” the teal-haired one scoffs, his Spanish accent similar to Gabi's. “We've been waiting here forever!”

“Oh, calm yourself, Aitor,” the wavy-haired one responds, sporting an Italian accent. “Gabi, you'll be joining me as always?”

Shooting a brief glare at Aitor, Gabriel smiles at the other, then turns to Kaiser. “Sir Michael, you'll be paired with Sir Aitor. Please keep him out of trouble, si?”

 

Left without a choice, he follows Aitor to the village. With a small pouch in hand, his assignment consists of going from door to door, collecting tax money from the local population. (Apparently, the King is lacking in people willing to do that sort of work.) Based on Aitor's words and his own observations, it's a thankless job that requires more than a little intimidation to get what you need. It's no wonder people hate tax collectors!

On his route, he knocks on the door of a run-down abode, and is face-to-face with another familiar face. It's Adé, only instead of a school uniform and goggles, he is wearing a simple, brown tunic and a cloth around his forehead. “Forgive me, sir! We barely have enough to spare. My mother—bless her soul—needed medicine, and I spent what little money to buy it. Have mercy, please!”

His single eye staring deep into those pleading brown eyes, guilt wells up inside him. But before he can open his mouth to speak, Aitor reappears, his iron grip tightened around a scrawny lad with red hair tied up into twin tails. “Pay no heed to these miscreants! They're orphans who''ve stooped to robbing the poor.” He raises his hand, causing the redhead to wince as his own arm is stretched to its limits. “I caught this one trying to pick our pockets!”

Kaiser gasps in disbelief, then turns to the Adé lookalike. “Is this true? Answer me!”

Tears well up in the peasant boy's eyes as he mutters, “Y-yessir. I'm sorry. I know we've done wrong. We're poor and desperate...”

Aitor scoffs. “Excuses! Bring him to the captain; he'll be sure to offer the worst punishment for them.”

With the thieves in tow, they return to the castle, and back into the room with the large, round table that Kaiser woke up in earlier. At the far end of the table is the wavy-haired knight, a stern look on his face. Having heard his subordinates' reports, he orders them to bring in the offenders. Again, they plead their case, appearing even more pitiful than before. Michael turns his head away, unable to stand the sight of it. Might as well bring the axe on them now.

“Very well. We will spare your lives. However, you still must serve out your punishment. Until the King returns to consider further action, you will be serving for us. Report to the stables at dawn tomorrow.”

The teal-haired knight sputters, “But Captain—”

“What Captain Riccardo says is law,” Gabriel intervenes, his androgynous countenance harsh and cold like winter snow. With a scowl, Aitor turns and storms out the room. As soon as the door slams shut, the rose-haired knight's demeanor softens, his smile warm and reassuring.

 

An undetermined amount of time appears to flash by without notice. Kaiser is in the stables with Adé, while Eugene—the other new stablemate—runs off to retrieve food for the horses. Adé is grooming the captain's snow-white steed as he speaks. “I'm really thankful for what you did. Even if you didn't say anything, I knew that you wanted to spare us. You understood us, didn't you?”

Not thinking, Kaiser answers, “Yes. When I was just a boy, my father died. Killed by bandits. Mother died of a broken heart shortly after. I was alone and angry—and desperate to survive. I did whatever I could: robbery, assault, even murder. That King Arthur felt the need to spare me still astounds me to this day. He said I have a sense of justice—as if! I just pretend to be brave. Inside, I'm just a weak, sickening worm.”

Adé's jaw drops. “You were…? I can't believe it. You, a member of the Round Table…? B-but King Arthur spared you. That means he sees something in you, just like you did me and Eugene! You really are a good person, I know it! You just haven't had the chance to prove it yet!” Though veiled by his shaggy hair, a weak smile forms on Michael's face.

Another blur, and they're outside, welcoming the King. Only, it was not the King of Legend that Kaiser expected. Instead of a tall, broad-shouldered man, a young lad, his purple hair swooped over one golden eye, approaches, riding upon a black horse. His armor is black as night, with gold accents, and his long, flowing cape looks like a floating shadow creeping from his shoulders. His overall demeanor is a mirror opposite of King Arthur's: cold, aloof, and borderline frightening.

The mysterious young man stops to look down at Michael and the stablemates, then turns face and marches on. A chill creeps down his spine. Is this really King Arthur?

“Ben tornato, King Arthur,” Riccardo says with a lowered bow. “How was your venture?”

“It was dull,” the King answers, his tone blunt and uncaring. “And please, call me Douglas. Just because I bear the crest of McArthur does not make me the King of Legend.”

“Er, yes, your majesty.”

After stepping down from his steed, he changes the subject. “Captain, I have noticed two new faces in the crowd. Mind explaining?”

“Yes. Those two are the new stablemates I hired. They were caught stealing tax money, so we offered them service until you could consider a proper punishment.”

“I see.” Once again, he turns to the trio. What he says next makes everyone's blood run cold. “Sir Michael. I want you to execute these two thieves. Personally.”

“But your majesty—”

“I don't care what you do with them. Those who steal from the King must pay with their own lives. You have until sunset. It's their lives against yours.” Without another word, he disappears, leaving the rest unable to protest.

 

Sunset quickly approaches, and Kaiser, feeling the weight of his decision, can almost feel time moving faster around him. The blade of his sword quivers, its tip inches away from Adé's chest. Eugene lies on the ground, covered in bleeding, gaping wounds. When did that happen? I never wanted to kill either of them! Am I losing my mind? No… It can't be!

Standing behind Eugene's corpse is McArthur, his blade stained with blood. “I warned you of what would happen, Sir Michael.” His expression remains unchanged as his command rings out in the knight's ears: “Finish him, or I finish both of you.”

Kaiser turns away from the King's murderous gaze and towards the peasant boy before him. His brown eyes, how dare they stare him with such innocence! Does he not realize the stakes? No… He's telling a different message. The question is: is he brave enough?

He swerves, facing his black-armored ruler. Gripping his sword tightly, his lips mutter, “No.”

A twinge of emotion mars his otherwise neutral mien. “What was that? You choose to sacrifice yourself for this whelp? Have you lost your mind?”

Pause. Then, a smirk creeps up on Kaiser's face. “Stupid fool. I have nothing worth sacrificing. You, on the other hand, have much to live for. I believe I've made my decision.” Swiftly, he pounces. Sleek steel clashes as the knight and king duel. Their attacks parry and slice the air with blinding speed, far too fast for the mortal eye to see. A cut on the cheek here, a nearly-severed hand there. This is more than mere swordplay: this is a battle to the death, a test of Kaiser's bravery.

As soon as it started, it's over. The King lies on the floor, his opponent's sword sticking from his back. Kaiser, still dissatisfied, removes the blade and proceeds to further mutilate the body. His shining white armor is gradually stained red as he reduces his victim to a bloody pulp. When he steps back, he lets out an uncontrolled chuckle. “Finally… we are free.” He turns to face Adé—only to be confronted by infinite darkness.

 

Chapter Text

Kaiser wakes up, his body in a cold sweat. What the hell kind of dream was that? Thinking back to what he could recall, he assumed the dream was influenced by the fantasy novel he had been reading before bed. But that doesn't explain why Adé was there, or why Doug was a king, or everyone else's roles, for that matter. What sort of freaky Freudian bullshit could have led to that horrible nightmare?

He glances at the clock. 3 a.m. Damn. He flops back in bed, trying to calm himself. He flips his phone open. A new text, from Adé.

"Oi, Kaiser! Wanna go fishing later today?"

His thumb brushes over the buttons, but nothing comes to mind. He checks his notes and calendar. An appointment with his therapist at three o'clock this afternoon. This takes him by surprise—visits had been infrequent in the past year, to the point where he would almost forget he had a session scheduled. The thought of forgetting something so important ruined his mood further. How could he be so stupid?

Returning to the text, he types his response.

"Sorry, I'm gonna be busy. Maybe another time."

As the "text sent" notification pops up, he curls himself into a fetal position, his free arm wrapped around his pillow. It's going to be a long night.

In another part of Inazuma Town, Max waits with anticipation as the train pulls up. A crowd of people, all varying in every gender, race, shape, and size, flood out of the cars, all too eager to head home. He stands up on a bench and scans the throng for distinguishing traits. Lessee: bald head, long ponytail, total shrimp…

He feels something tugging at his pants leg, prompting him to look down. Standing next to him is a person matching the exact description in his head, and then some. The person, a short young male with beady black eyes and an odd case of having hair only in the front and back of his head, is a bit taller than he remembered, though not by much, and more muscular. The individual crosses his arms and smirks. "It's about time you noticed."

Max leaps off the bench to embrace him. "Tiny Tim, you actually came! I didn't think you would!"

"Don't call me that," Tim protests as he squirms in vain to escape. "And what makes you think I wouldn't?"

Letting him go, Max scratches his head sheepishly. "Sorry about that. It's been a while since I've seen the ol' team, 'specially you."

"Well, I'm sure everyone has their own lives to live. So, how's life been for you?"

"Same as usual. Working to keep the kits fed and stuff. Oh, and I got a new student. He's a member of Raimon's football team."

Timmy's bushy brows rise. "Really? So the football team's still kicking?"

"When aren't they?" The two of them laugh over the lame joke as they start heading out of the station.

They settle down at a bar, where Timmy offers to pay for both their drinks. With each shot, Max's loose lips become even looser, growing more incomprehensible as the hours fly by. The shorter one can barely hold his head up after a couple of shots. After rewarding himself with a good laugh or two at each other's expense, Max offers to carry him to his place, before almost collapsing from his seat.

Eventually, following what he learned on the way to the bar, he drags Max back to his place. As he opens the door, he is greeted by a mob of felines, mewing for their owner's attention. Everywhere Tim turns, there appears to be at least a dozen cats somewhere, all of them alive and breathing. How many cats does he have? I don't remember him having this many.

As soon as he reaches the bedroom, he drops Max's drunken self on the futon and flops down beside him. Watching him as he sleeps, he finds himself at peace. If Max took the time to maintain himself, he would be quite handsome. I bet he'd be a good kisser, with that mouth of his. A warm blush colors his cheeks, half from the drink, half from embarrassment for thinking such a thing. Once his body gets comfortable with the futon, he starts to slumber.

Chapter Text

Timmy wakes up to the sound of soft mewing and the feeling of a rough tongue against his cheek. He sits up, causing all but one cat to scatter. “G'morning, little guy,” he murmurs as he pets the black-and-brown tortoiseshell kitten pawing at his ponytail. His head turns to the empty space in the futon next to him. That exact second, the lingering smell of bacon starts to creep into his nostrils.

He follows the smell into the kitchen, where Max is slaving away at the stove. A stack of pancakes lays at the center of the table, and steam rises from the coffee pot. “Tiny Tim, you're finally awake! You're a pretty heavy sleeper, y'know that?”

Serving himself, he replies, “I didn't think you could cook.”

“This is pretty basic stuff. I can't do anything fancy.” He piles all the cooked bacon onto a big plate and sets it on the table. “Dig in!”

As they eat, they get involved in some small talk. “So what brings you back, Timmy? Did Sensei drive you out?”

“It's nothing like that. I was beginning to miss home, and it affected my performance. Sensei noticed and offered to pay for my travels.”

“Your Sensei must be one cool dude!”

“He's strict, but he always means well. He always tells us to push ourselves, but not to put our well-being before our art.” His sleepy face lights up, energized by the good food and conversation. “But enough about me. How's the tutoring business doing?”

“Not too bad, actually. It pays better per hour than the local convenience store. The biggest issue is finding work during school breaks.”

“Have you considered coaching?”

“Not full-time. But I did get some offers, and Steve said I'm welcome to help him out anytime.”

 

After breakfast, they head out to the town, where Max says a friend is waiting. They meet up said friend in front of a cafe, accompanied by a mysterious hooded figure. Max's friend, the silver-haired Jim, spots them and waves subtly with a soft “hey”.

Tim eyes the hooded figure. In contrast to the tall and willowy Jim, this figure is quite short and a bit on the pudgy side. Though not immediately recognizable, their overall demeanor reminds him of a rival team from their past. What was that team? Occult or something like that?

“This is Phil Noir,” Jim introduces the stranger. “He's my new assistant at the library. Noir, this is Tim Saunders. Say hi, Noir!”

Barely looking up from the treat in his hands, Noir mutters a barely audible “hi”.

“Weird” is the first word that comes to Timmy's mind. But in an attempt to be civil, he smiles and says hello back. “You remind me of someone. Have you heard of Occult Junior High?”

To his surprise, Noir nods. “I went there. I joined their football team. I wasn't interested in the sport, but the members piqued my interest.”

“He also joined Raimon in the fight against those so-called aliens,” Jim adds. “Or so Mark told me.”

That would explain a lot, Timmy says to himself. That time about ten years ago, the three of them were out of commission, so it's understandable he would not remember Phil well.

“I have to drop him off later, so he'll be hanging out with us today. I hope that's alright.” Jim pulls Noir closer.

“Of course it is,” Max says with a smile. “I love the little guy!” Noir makes a face disapproving of the height comment, but he looks more cute than intimidating, going over the cat boy's head. “If you'd like, we can drop by my place, and you can hang with my cats.” To this, the hooded young lad smiles.

Chapter Text

Inside the cafe, Mark Gambling is mulling away at his latest project. According to his editor, Technia has been anything but well-received. "However," his words echoed in Mark's mind, "the series is still new, so it's not too late to save it." Going over his story notes, he sighs. "How can I save this shit?"

When he came up with the idea for Arcade Master Technia, he thought it was a good one. Take the magical girl archetype and set it in the world of video games. When he talked about it with Arcade and Gamer, they were all over it; a pair of passionate gamers and fellow nerds could easily imagine protagonists that could take on the powers of Pac-Man, Sonic, and Super Mario. All the pieces were set. What could possibly go wrong?

Flat, one-dimensional, unrelatable. Those are some of the more commonly tossed around words in early reviews he stumbled upon. Despite its engaging concept, the writing fell apart due to stock stereotypes, uneven pacing, and groan-worthy plot twists. If his job didn't depend on it, he could always ignore the criticisms. But such is life.

He halts his work to look around. Out in public, when he feels himself running short on inspiration, he often would watch the interactions of the world around him—art does borrow from life, after all. The chatter of strangers, the clattering of coffee mugs and plates, these mundane sounds and details add life to the world of fiction when implemented properly. Scanning the crowd, he can create short stories about each and every face. The businessman in a rush, the mother taking a break from the morning rush, the kid he bumped into the other day…

Mark stops to do a double take. Cyan hair, earthy skin, sullen disposition—it is him! Small world. Looking down at his notes, he stops to wonder if he should approach him, even if just for small talk. He is an adult, after all—some witness could get the wrong idea and call the cops on him.

 

As the boy sits down in a window seat far from most of the crowd, Mark gathers his things and approaches him. He opens his mouth—and nothing comes out. The boy, clearly not in the best mood, glares at him. "Oh, it's you again. What do you want now?"

"Oh. I, uh, want to ask you something. Er, mind if I...?" The boy shrugs, and he sits down in front of him. "Have you heard of Technia?"

"Yeah, I read it in Weekly Comics. It looked good, but it sucked."

Ouch, right through the heart. "Mind telling me why?"

"I dunno. I guess there's just something missing. I'm not sure how to word it. Motive? Reason? It just felt like a bunch of random junk thrown in for the sake of being cool."

Mark pauses to ponder for a moment. Come to think of it, most of the plot was made up of suggestions from his otaku friends. Well, that's the last time I ask them for anything. Despite his racing mind, all he could let out was, "I see."

The boy's gaze is aimed at the world beyond the window, as if searching for something missing in his own life. His posture and expression in that exact moment feels so serene, so full of mystery and emotion, the artist has lost control of his own actions. The moment stops, as his model's attention is drawn to him. "Huh? Was zeichnen Sie da?"

Snapping out of his trance, Mark stops to look down at his sketch. The drawing is of a figure, short-haired and stern like his inspiration source, but with a soft, feminine feel to it. In his desire to capture the moment, he forgot to ask the boy's permission. "Sorry. My mind just started wandering…"

A subtle smirk forms on his face, like he can read his mind. "Hmm, not bad. He looks like someone that could fit into Technia."

He? Mark usually has women in mind when drawing aimlessly. It must be the proportions, or maybe the rough contours on the face. "Really? You think he should be in Technia?"

"Why not? He looks cool. I can imagine him wearing something similar to what the bad guys wear."

He shakes his head. "Nonono. I think he should work independently. He looks like a lone wolf that goes against the grain. He'd probably just work out of self-interest."

"If he's working alone, why would he get involved with Technia?"

His pencil tapping his temple, he responds, his eyes glimmering. "I bet he likes Technia and what she stands for, but doesn't understand his feelings yet! So he follows her around, challenging her to fights and trying to beat her at her own game." With great fervor, he scribbles down notes of the ideas beginning to take form. "Thank you so much for listening. Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."

Chapter Text

Three o'clock eventually arrives, with Kaiser wondering where the time went. Everything after his meeting with Mr. Gambling was a blur. Taking a deep breath, he tries to mentally retrace his steps. For most of the day thus far, he ran various errands for his mother, but those moments were punctuated by long periods of nothing interesting happening. Perhaps he should have gone with Adé after all.

Sitting in the waiting room of the psychiatrist's office, he flips his phone open and checks his history. Adé had left a handful of texts, plus a photo of him and Eugene holding a big fish the latter had caught. His heart sinks to the floor as he stares down at the brimming smiles from the tiny screen.

The office door opens, and in walks a hooded figure, accompanied by a tall, long-haired man. “Alright, Noir, I'll see you in an hour.” The taller man ruffles the shorter one's auburn hair and leaves. The figure—standing about a head-and-a-half taller than himself—sits a couple of seats away from him, reading a book. Michael recognizes it as a horror novel he once read.

“That's a pretty good book,” he blurts out. “I ended up collecting the whole trilogy. The middle's sort of weak, but the last book's the best.”

“Jim recommended it to me,” he responds, his voice slightly on the soft side. “He told me the same thing.” He turns his head to face him. “You like horror?”

“Well, yeah. I'm a bit of a fan, I guess.”

“I like paranormal stuff the most. But after reading so much of it, it's hard finding good stories after a while.”

“Yeah, most stuff is crap, unfortunately. And once you know all the twists and cliches, it becomes harder, so it becomes even more crap.”

The stranger cocks his head to one side, his shadow-veiled face staring at him until he starts getting chills. Finally, he says, “You're interesting. What's your name?”

He hesitates before answering, “M-Michael. But you can call me Kaiser. Well, if you want, that is. That guy back there, he called you Noir. Is it alright if I call you that, too?”

Noir nods. “It's cooler than my first name, anyway. Salutations, Kaiser.”

The two of them share a quiet moment of mutual understanding, until it's broken by a woman's voice. “Mr. Ballzack?” Noir snickers at Kaiser's expense as he stands and follows the woman down the hall.

 

“So, Michael,” she asks him as he settles down on the couch across from her, “how have you been lately? It's been a while since our last meeting, so sit back and talk all you like.”

He tells her about his session with Max, his run-ins with Gambling, and the impromptu study session with Adé. Once he exhausted those topics, he paused, a lump forming in his throat. “I had a weird dream last night. I was a knight of the Round Table, and I met some peasants that looked like my friends. Then the King arrived, and he turned out to be my old friend, Dodge. I was then forced to make a tough decision: take their lives or give my own.”

“What did you do?”

With reluctance, he answers, “I took a third option.” His hands tremble as he recounts what he could about the ending. The blood on his hands, though imaginary, briefly flash in his vision, becoming reality in that split second. “I'm not sure what it means, but it still gives me chills just thinking about it. Surely, I must be going mad.”

“It could mean something if you decide to interpret it so. But in the end, it's just a dream, an assortment of random memories, fantasies, and thoughts. You have a lot going through your mind, so it's most likely just a stress response. Speaking of which, how's the new prescription so far?”

“It's going better than before. I think I'll be fine with the current dosage.”

“Perfect! Let me fill this out, and…”

 

The session ends with Kaiser receiving the prescription form and walking out of the office. Alright, let's get this done and over with.

The entrance to the waiting room opens, and a pair of pink, cat-shaped ears pop out from behind. “Hey, Noir, you done yet,” asks Max as he walks in. As Noir follows him to the door, Max looks back and spots Kaiser standing there. “Oh, how convenient! Your mom told me to come pick you up. I thought you'd be hanging with your friends.”

“I would've preferred that,” he mutters under his breath.

“Well, since we're together again, how 'bout we hang out a bit? After we drop this little guy off, of course.”

Having no other choice, Kaiser follows Max to the car. After dropping off Noir, they stop by the pharmacy to pick up his prescription. Though he knows it isn't true, he can feel the looks of suspicion as he approaches the counter. The world always looked down on the invisibly ill, as if they suffered from sort of deformity. Am I that frightening to look at?

“Funny meeting you here.” A voice brings his train of thought to a halt. His accent doesn't sound like any of his friends, or anyone from his school, yet it still rings familiar. Turning away from the counter, he comes face to face with a pair of golden eyes and grape-colored hair. “It's been a while, hasn't it, Kaiser?”

Frozen stiff with fear, all he can say is a whimpered “D-Dodge?”

The muffled sound of a paper bag hitting the hard countertop catches Dodge's attention. “Oh, you're still taking those? I thought you got over that by now. Or do you still miss me?” Michael is speechless. He wants to protest, but everything that Dodge is saying hit too close to home. As if reading his mind, the golden-eyed young man pats him on the head. “Whatever. It's none of my business, anyway. See you later, K.”

As he picks up the bag, his phone rings, and his hands rush to pick it up. “Hello?”

“Hey, it's Adé! Sorry you couldn't make it. Did you get my message?”

“Yeah. Eugene caught a really big one, didn't he?”

“Sure did! He broke his last record with that one, like! Hey, if you still got time, maybe we can hang out a bit, just the two of us.”

His subconscious forcing a weak smile from him, Kaiser says, “That would be perfect.” In the background, Max clears his throat, snapping him out of it. “Sorry, something's come up. I'll see you tomorrow.”

“Was that guy your friend,” Max asks as Kaiser hangs up.

“Er, yeah, sort of. He was an old teammate of mine.”

“You two didn't look all that close.” His dark eyes narrow, as if glaring in suspicion.

“He's not a bad person! He taught me how to play better. I looked up to him. He was my friend!”

“And the person on the phone wasn't?”

Kaiser bites his lower lip before responding. “Of course! A person can have more than one friend, y'know. But I suppose you wouldn't know that, you sorry tramp!” No response. “What's the matter, cat got your tongue? I'll be going now. Don't follow me!”

He starts to storm off when Max finally speaks up. “Hey!” The carrot-haired man digs through his pockets and hands over some small slips of paper. “Noir wanted me to give this to you. Bring your friends over anytime.” Turning about face, he waves goodbye and heads for the car.

Chapter Text

The students of Raimon return to school for another slow day in class. During lunchtime, Michael's friends gather around his table to discuss their plans for after school. Recalling what Max and Noir gave him the other day, he removes the slips from his bag and show them off.

Adé inspects the elaborate eye-shaped insignia on the slip, then passes it to Eugene. "'Midnight Tarot Cafe'. Hey, isn't this that weird cafe we passed by the other day?"

"I think it is," Eugene comments, adjusting his thick-rimmed glasses. "Should we go, though? It sounds rather scary."

A mischievous grin on his face, Adé says, "What, you scared they'll sacrifice us to some demon or somethin'?"

"Of course not! If they wanted to do that, they wouldn't be doing business out in the open. Kaiser, how did you get hold of these?"

"A friend of a friend gave them to me. We met in the..." He stops himself—better not let them know the truth. "We bumped into each other the other day. We didn't talk much, but he gave 'em to me for whatever reason."

Eugene's expression shifts to one of skepticism, but he smiles and replies, "Well, we best not let these go to waste, then. Even if it turns out to be a bust, at least we'll be hanging out together. And I know I'll enjoy seeing Adé's face when he screams like a girl."

"As if, you sadist," Adé says with a laugh as he lightly jabs Eugene in the arm.

 

After school, they meet up at the shopping area in the city, then head down the market square, where, in an obscure niche to the left, is a small establishment adorned with a purple-clothed awning bearing a familiar eye-shaped insignia. As they enter, they are greeted by a pale, blue-haired figure dressed all in white. "Greetings, fellow mortals," the figure begins their introduction. "I am Styx, your guide to the other side. Follow me as I escort you through your trip into the realm of the spirits."

They follow Styx to their assigned table, and as he leaves to attend to his business, Kaiser and company take a moment to explore the atmosphere around them. The place is lit bright purple by the specially designed electric candles, hung on the walls, and the glass crystal balls used as centerpieces contrast by providing a white light, just bright enough to read the menu from. The tablecloths are all white, save for the unusual markings which, combined with the crystal balls, the circular shape of the tables, and the placement of the seats, are designed to resemble an occult ritual about to occur.

"This place is givin' me the creeps," Adé says apprehensively. "Whoever your friend was, they have freaky tastes!"

"They really went all out on this place," Kaiser replies, catching a glance of an animal skull hung up above one of the doors. "It's kind of cool."

"When you put it that way, it's proper neat, in a creepy way."

"Says the kid who believed they were going to sacrifice us in a ritual," Eugene retorts.

"Well, it could happen. And you look like you're about to piss yourself!"

"I'm not scared," Eugene says as he anxiously adjusts his glasses, Eugene flits his attention between the eerie, lifelike paintings and the talismans hanging from the ceiling. "I swear, Adé, you're as weird as the people that run this place."

"Best not provoke the spirits, young one," Styx's voice intervenes as he returns, "lest they follow you back to the realm of the living." Eugene claps his hands over his mouth. "While our ghostly chefs are preparing your meals, how about I perform some divination to pass the time? We offer a free reading to all our first-time customers."

Adé's eyes sparkle with curious wonder. "Divination? You mean like ouija boards and seances, like?"

"No, that's spirit work, and not something I would perform on most young mortals like yourself. Safety reasons and all. I wish to tell your future with this." Styx slips a hand into his sleeve and takes out a Tarot deck, marked with the same motifs littered throughout the cafe itself. "First things first: shall I perform individual readings, or would you prefer a group reading?"

Kaiser looks to his two friends, who nod in agreement, as if they could all read each other's minds. "A group reading's fine."

"Ah, I expected you to say that. You three are a tight-knit group; I sensed that the moment you walked through our door. Now, is there a question you all have in mind?"

To this, the group loses whatever mental link they once had just seconds ago, as they scratch their heads in search of a query. Recognizing the concern in everyone's faces, Kaiser asks, "Is there a chance we'll stay like this after we graduate? Or will something happen to break us up?"

"The cards cannot answer yes or no questions, nor can it provide dates or specific answers. But since you all share similar concerns, I shall do a simple reading to determine any conflicts that might occur. Now, then: close your eyes and hold your hands. Concentrate on your thoughts until you can come to a unified conclusion. My sixth sense will pick up on your signals, and I shall be able to perform my reading then. Three… Two… One…"

On cue, they lock hands with each other—Adé, in the center, grips tightly to Eugene and Kaiser, while the latter two reach across the table to connect hands. While initially skeptical, the physical stimuli motivate their brains to concentrate their mental energy into the end goal of union.

We're all friends, right? We may not know each other from childhood, but we can read each other like the back of our hands. Well, mostly. What about you, Kaiser?

Kaiser, you're gripping me awfully tight. Are you nervous, like?

You aren't answering. Are you okay?

I feel ridiculous.

We all do, Kai. Just pull through it for a bit, okay? We're here for you.

No matter what happens, we'll be together forever!

Together forever…?

As soon as Styx gives his cue, the trio opens their eyes and turn their attention back to him. "I sense you have become one. Good. Now I shall offer you a personal reading based on your union. See these three cards? The first will represent the current state of your friendship, the second will represent the obstacle that stands in your way, and the third will represent the eventual outcome." He hands the deck over to them. "For you three, I would like to do something a bit different. To start, each of you take a card and place it face-down." They do as ordered, and he resumes. "Good. Who wants to determine your pres…" He stops, as Adé, blissfully unaware of his mistake, already has his card turned face-up. "I see you're an eager one. Mind telling me what you got?"

"I got The Lovers. That's not weird or anything, right?"

"Not at all. The Lovers can represent any emotional bond between people, not just romantic ones. Who wishes to go next?"

Kaiser and Eugene eye each other, and with a sigh, the former turns his over. The image of a stone pillar on the verge of crumbling stares back at him. "The Tower."

"I see," the teller says in a low tone. "And how about you?"

Swallowing his nerves, Eugene turns over his card. Before him is an image of a blindfolded woman wielding two blades. "Two of Swords."

"I see. Based on these three cards you have chosen, your relationship is at a crossroads. Though you are currently satisfied with your friendship, it appears that one or more of you is looking for something different, something more. What that is, is unclear. But this desire will suddenly affect the balance you three have with each other. This will result in indecision and imbalance, one that can only be resolved by calling for a truce to whatever disagreements is creating the conflict. Only then can you mend the damage before it worsens."

"Howay, man, are you for real?"

"This is not a guaranteed vision of the future, merely an interpretation of one possible path in time. As with any form of advice, it is suggested you take it into question. Trusting it without deeper thought would be foolish." A loud ding can be heard from the kitchen. "Now if you'll excuse me."

 

The three of them receive their orders and finish them with relative ease. Once the plates are cleared and the bill split among them, they exit the cafe and are back in the streets. They're left to wonder what the heck went on in that place, especially with the reading they received, when a voice calls out to them.

"Oi, you lot! You look real close like. Howzabout you buy one of my special pendants? I can cut you the 'best friends forever' deal—three on the house." They turn around, spotting a man covered in rags sitting against the wall, and before him lies a rug covered in jewelry, their gems smooth and colored with all different hues, like a small piece of the universe encased in sparkling stone.

Kaiser inspects the street vendor's selection and glares at him. "What's so special about some pretty rocks?"

"Oh, but these aren't your mother's old trinkets. These crystals are a rare sort mined from an ol' island, rumored to hold hidden powers. They're said to be especially powerful when worn by two people with strong bonds."

Eugene picks up one of the raggedy man's products, a gold band adorned with a rock the size of a finger joint. Kaiser catches a glance of the redhead, whose gaze is concentrated on Adé. The image of Lovers card flashes through his mind as his eyes shift in the same direction. He clutches his chest, feeling a slight jolt of pain deep down somewhere he cannot reach. "I'll take this one."

Adé stares in awe at the necklaces and holds one to his eye level. "If he says it's free, I might as well bring home a souvenir. What do you think?" He picks up another necklace, then hands one over to Kaiser, only for him to swat it aside. "Hey, what the hell?"

"Come on, Adé, we're not little girls! What will people think?" The pain continues to sting, more than the sensation in his hand when he slapped Adé. "How's some stupid jewelry going to 'strengthen our bonds', anyway?"

"But Kai, this could be our chance to change fate! Even if that Pixie Styx gadgie is crazy, he isn't totally wrong. What if something happens that could ruin our friendship?" He hands him one of the pendants. "Just take it, at least as a reminder of what we have right now."

"What we have right now, more like what you two have right now. What do have? Just a bunch of annoying friends and false hope."

Adé's mouth is agape, unable to respond, when Eugene does. "Michael, what are you talking about? He's trying his hardest for all of us, and you keep pushing him away. If anyone's being annoying, it's you!" His voice drops to intimidating levels. "You will always be a freak."

Kaiser's hands ball up into fists, his one exposed eye twitching. Taking deep breaths, he mutters, "If that's how you really feel, fine! I'd rather be alone than with the likes of you." He turns and runs off, blinking away the tears starting to form.

They watch Kaiser disappear from sight, worried looks on their faces. A sudden weight falls upon Eugene's shoulders, and he turns to Adé, who is beginning to walk away as well. "Adé, I'm sorry! It's all my fault. Let me go after him—I can catch up to him easily."

Adé shakes his head. "No, this is somethin' I gotta settle with 'im. I'll catch up with you later, 'kay?" Before he can respond, the fisher-boy's already far from sight.

He eventually reaches the riverside, where a football field is set up for the local children to practice. Stepping down to the pitch, he spots a familiar scruff of blue hair standing by the river. "Kaiser," he calls out to the figure. No response. Did I get the wrong guy? No, I can't be wrong! "Kaiser!" By then, he's close enough to notice Michael's subtle turn of the head, at least briefly. "Kai, listen to me! Whatever I did wrong, let me make it up to you. Please…"

Adé's eyes well up with tears, causing his vision to blur. He stops to wipe them away, and when he looks up, his blue-haired friend is gone. No… Kaiser! Knowing what to do, he dons his goggles over his eyes and leaps into the river.

Chapter Text

White. All white. He reaches his hand out, only for it to be engulfed in the blankness before him. Is this what they call "Heaven"?

In a blinding flash, the whiteness disappears, revealing a sea of darkness. As his eyes flit back and forth, he can spot bubbles floating to the surface. But these aren't ordinary bubbles, as he slowly finds out: reflected upon their round, translucent surfaces are glimpses of his own memories. Memories of his childhood, his friends, his family. Good ones, bad ones, even ones he barely could recall during his waking hours. This, he realizes, is his entire life flashing before his eyes.

He inhales, and despite his expectations, he feels nothing rushing in. No water, but no air. Am I still alive? Accepting his fate, he closes his eyes as his body floats downward, deeper into the abyss below.

 

A second later, he's out of the dark water, his feet planted to the ground. Looking around, a wave of nostalgia washes over him. The old playground, the humble, single-story house, the fiery red sunset looming behind the rooftops. This is my old neighborhood!

He hears the chatter between a mother and child. The mother speaks softly, but clearly, in German. "I'm sorry, Michael, but it's for your own good."

"But Mama," the child cries out. "What about Papa? Where did he go?"

"Papa's where he belongs now," the mother replies, her tone turning cold. "You won't ever have to see him anymore."

A pause, then: "Are you sure?"

"Absolutely."

He doesn't need to turn around to know their faces—he had the entire script memorized by heart. When he was a young child, he and his mother were terrorized by a monster. That monster was his father. They lived their lives in fear, until one day, his mother decided to do something about it. Father was especially unstable, and took it out on him, ending with severe damage to his left eye. But before he could finish him off, Mother stepped in, risking life and limb to protect him. Their feud created a disruption that led to the cops being called, and Father was taken away. But his mother, still afraid, decided they had to leave. That was his life before Inazuma Town, before Raimon.

He takes another step forward, and the scenery around him changes. A grassy football pitch by the riverside, the same one he was in just moments before. A small child that looks just like him is playing by himself, when the ball bounces off-course and towards the river. The child rushes over to catch it, but it lands in the water before he can. That is when a figure runs by and jumps in. Kaiser knows what will happen next, but that compels him to move closer to watch.

The figure, a dark-skinned boy, climbs out of the river, his wavy black hair drooping from the weight of the water, and with one arm wrapped around the ball. After the other child mutters his thanks, the wet boy smiles and says, "You really love football, dontcha? So do I! My name's Adé, what's yours?"

Retrieving the ball, the other child answers, his voice a bit louder, "M-Michael."

"So Mikey, are you gonna join a team or something? I bet you're canny good."

"I'm not that good." Young Michael's eye stares down at the football in his hands as he continues. "But someday, I will. I'll be an ace striker—der Kaiser of the pitch."

"Der Kaiser?"

"It means 'emperor' in German."

"Wey aye, that's quite a name, like! I'm gonna call you that from now on, if that's alright."

"Better than Mikey, that's for sure!"

Kaiser watches as the two boys walk away, laughing and chatting as they disappear. The scenery fades, and he is back in the whiteness again. He tries to hold back the tears that are welling up when a hand reaches over to wipe them away. "Crying doesn't suit you, Kaiser."

He blinks, and looks up at the figure standing before him. Through the blinding white, he can see pale, feathery wings, and beneath their shadows, a familiar face. "Adé?" is all he can utter.

"The one and only," says the angel with a grin. "C'mon now. It's 'bout time you woke up." He reaches out a hand, which Michael sets his upon by blind instinct, and sweeps him off his feet, floating freely into the heavenly light.

 

As Kaiser regains consciousness, he blinks, then looks around. Still all white. Is this what they call Heaven? His vision clearing up, the white starts to take form: white walls, white bed, white sheets. He turns his gaze to his left, where, sitting beside him, is a woman with blue hair. "Mom?" His gaze shifts briefly to the redhead sitting next to her, then the right, where, smiling down at him, is the angelic boy from his dream. "Eugene? Adé? What are you doing here? Where am I, anyway?"

"You're in the hospital," his mother answers. "Your friend here saved you when you fell into the river."

Fell in the river? When did that happen? For that matter, why would I do that? Tracing his mental footprints to the events that occurred beforehand only leads to further confusion. His reasons for running off—whatever they were—look rather petty in hindsight. But as he recalls those last moments back at the riverside, a swarm of emotions start to rise. The three of them—Adé, Eugene, and himself—have always been a small clique of their own, even when they're on the pitch with the rest of the team. But lately, some part of him had begun to drift further away from them, further accentuated by recent events, when he had considered himself too preoccupied to hang out with them. Then there was that run-in with Dodge. And come to think of it, he never touched his refilled prescription since then, had he?

A light pat on the head snaps him out of it. "Hey, Kaiser! You alright there? You were spacin' out, like."

"Ja, ja, I'm fine. I'll be back on my feet in no time." Michael's lips force a smile.

Adé cocks his head, unconvinced, but resumes. "Well, lucky for you, the doc says you'll be out by morning. We can celebrate together, our treat."

Despite the guilt dwelling in the pit of his stomach, Kaiser's smile grows more genuine. "Thanks."

His mother is about to speak up, when she is interrupted by the sound of a distant door slamming open, followed by footsteps storming in. A young man, sporting a stylish hat, storms up to the bed. "Ms. Ballzack, I got your text and ran right over!" His eyes catch sight of the fisherboy and redhead, and his posture changes, becoming like a cat watching a fish swimming in water. "Who're you?"

"This is Adé and Eugene. They're friends of mine from the football team."

Intrigued, the young man smiles. "Is that so? Name's Max. Former Raimon player and part-time tutor. Anytime you need a study buddy, ring me up." He whips out a business card—actually just a slip of paper with his name and number—and hands it to Adé. "Speaking of which, you're probably gonna miss class or something, right, Mike? If you guys are in the same class, maybe you can share notes or something, and we can go over them sometime tomorrow."

"I'm the best with taking notes," Eugene replies. "I can copy them and bring them over to his house."

"I have a spare key to the place, so if you'd like to help, we can form a lesson plan."

That second, Ms. Ballzack stands and places a hand on Max's shoulder. "Excuse us, Junge. We'll be outside having some grown-up talk."

The two of them exit the patient's room and head over to the balcony. Once outside, she confesses all that she knows about her son, as far as his mental state is concerned. "He seemed to be doing better since joining the football team. He made lots of friends and his performance is amazing. But it seems like he's slipping back into his old self again. I was warned this would happen, but I didn't think..." She sighs. "I was so happy for him, that I let my guard down."

"Hey, that's not your fault. Kid's got his issues to worry about. He tries to act tough, but he's just as scared as you are. Drugs or none, he needs to deal with his demons eventually." He averts his cat-like gaze, deep in thought, then glances at her from the side. "He's got good friends, that kid. I think he'll pull through."

Chapter Text

Tomorrow arrives, and Michael—finally out of the hospital—is sent home to recover, where Max and Eugene await his return. Half an hour into their session, the doorbell rings. Kaiser's mother rushes over to answer it, and comes back with Adé in tow.

“Sorry I'm late,” Adé says while scratching the back of his neck. “I was busy working on this.” He holds out a bracelet of colorful braided thread, adorned with the pendant gem from the other day. “I know you don't really like anything showy or bothersome, so I tried to make it a bit easier to carry around. But I guess you won't like this either—”

Out of nowhere, Kaiser swipes the bracelet from him and slips it on. “I like it. Thanks.” He cracks a tiny smile, which seems to coincide with the gem's shifting colors. Adé returns the gesture, his pendant mirroring that of the bracelet.

Raising a brow, Max glances at the baubles sported by the trio. “What's with the shiny? Is this some sort of new trend going around?”

“We bought these from a street vendor the other day,” Eugene answers. “He claimed they have special powers or something, especially when worn by those with strong bonds. I doubt his credibility, but Adé bought them for us anyway. I think that divination stuff got into his head.”

“Personally, I don't trust anyone that claims gems can give you superpowers, but to each his own.” He leans back on his chair, inspecting the kids' jewelry, then asks, “Where did you find that guy, anyway?”

“Just outside the Tarot Cafe, I think.”

Max gives a side glance. “Hm. Well, I guess I can give his stuff a closer look.”

Adé laughs. “You're really worried 'bout lookin' trendy, arentcha?”

Max doesn't respond to the jest, a grim expression on his face—a reaction that strikes Kaiser as odd.

 

Somewhere in Inazuma Town, Timmy treks down the sidewalk, walking as fast as he can to the location sent to him via text. He stops in front of a popular clothing chain, where a tall figure with curly orange hair waits patiently, bobbing his head to the music on his mp3 player. When the figure spots him, he removes his earbuds and flashes a grin. “Tiny Tim, it's been a while, hasn't it?”

“I'd like it if you didn't call me that, Sam.” His brows furrow. Even moreso than Max, he hates it when this man calls him by that nickname, as he came up with it in the first place. “Let's cut the small talk. You know why I'm here.”

Sam nods. “Cus I owe you one, right? Yeah, I get that a lot. So, what's the occasion?”

Hesitant, Timmy replies, “Job interview. And just everything in general. I didn't bring a lot when I flew here, but since I'm going to be stuck here for a while, I might as well shop for some new clothes.”

“Really? Cus you told me over the phone that you were shopping for Max. Changed your mind?”

“Oh, no. Max definitely needs a wardrobe upgrade. I just… Well, I have my reasons.”

“Whatever you say, Tiny Tim.” His words earn him a punch on the arm. “Well, excuse me, princess!”

They enter the store, a two-story establishment lined entirely with trendy-yet-affordable fashions of all sorts. Their motto is “Every style under one roof!” Timmy is blessed to be such close friends with Sam, as his own fashion sense is pretty much nonexistent. He is also blessed that Sam happens to not only know Max's tastes better, but is also equipped with an employee discount. But even with him nearby, a store this big can be overwhelming for a person so small. Sizing is also an issue, as much of the cooler-looking stuff hardly comes in his size, and even his friend would join in the mockery, showing off dresses and skirts for him to try. Despite all that, they manage to rack up an astounding collection.

Once finished with their search, they take their spoils to the register, headed by a handsome young man with mulberry hair. The employee's yellowish eyes glance at the two while checking out the mountain of clothing and flashes a smirk in Sam's direction. “Shopping for your kid here?”

The comment irritates Timmy, but Sam simply chuckles, seemingly unfazed. “Something like that. Doug, this is Timmy, an old friend of mine. We used to attend Raimon together.”

“Raimon, eh? Didn't you have another friend that went there?”

“Yeah, you're probably thinking of Max. The three of us attended the football team. Come to think, you were on the team last year, too, right?”

Doug pauses before answering. “Yeah. I was in Raimon for a while, but I transferred to Lunar Sea Academy during my senior year.”

“Right, I think I might've seen you guys while watching the Saint's Way tournament last year. That shit was crazy!”

“I guess you could say that.”

Ticked off by the cashier's dismissive attitude, Timmy asks, “So why did you transfer, anyway?”

Doug stops briefly to glare at him. “That's none of your business.”

“It's because of Fifth Sector, wasn't it? Don't bother hiding it; I heard it all from Max.”

“So maybe I did factor that in. What's it matter to you?” Timmy, taken aback, tries to come up with a justification, only to find none. As he waited for the reply, Doug's hands worked on the remainder of the load, and has just finished by the time of his own response. “That'll be sixteen thousand Prestige. Cash or charge?”

 

Walking out of the store with bags in hand, the two of them start heading back to Max's abode. “Man, that whole thing was awkward,” Sam says. “Like, what was your deal?”

His head hanging down in shame, Tim replies, “Sorry, Sam. It's just... I can't find myself to trust anyone who could betray Raimon like that.”

“Says the brat that once betrayed Raimon.” Another punch in the arm. “Shit! I guess I deserved that one.”

“Damn right you did! Don't you remember what happened back then?”

“You mean when we got manipulated into siding against Mark? Of course I do! How can I forget that?”

“You seem awfully casual about it.”

Sam stops in his tracks, and his tone suddenly takes a serious turn. “Timmy, I know how you feel. I regret the choices I made back then, but you know what? I learned to forgive myself and move on. Maybe you should, too.”

They silently continue onward until they reach the front door. As Timmy unlocks the door, he mutters, “Sorry for snapping at you earlier.”

Sam shrugs. “It's no skin off my back. Now, where'd you want me to put this?”

“Just leave it by the door, thanks.”

“Um, okay, I guess.” He sets the bags down. “Well, if you wanna talk, you got my number.” With a casual wave, he turns and walks off.

Chapter Text

The city, cloaked in the dark of night, is teeming with hidden evils. Criminals rule the streets, and innocent civilians flee out of fear for their lives. While many gangs run about, in reality, the city's seedy underground is dominated by two. These two gangs have been rivals for as long as anyone can remember. Of these two, the most notorious is the one known as Royal Flush.

Hidden beneath a thriving casino, Royal Flush consists of only four members: Spade, Club, Diamond, and Joker. Club is a bit dimwitted, but keeps the team together and works his magic in a fight. Diamond appears frail and cowardly on the surface, but when his comrades need him most, his entire attitude shifts, becoming a swift-footed assassin capable of murdering in cold blood. Joker, while physically competent, is right at home in a battle of wits, using his connections and intelligence to outsmart foes. And then there's Spade, also known as the Emperor, whose path is stained with blood.

Joker returns to the base and slaps a folded sheet onto the table. "These are the blueprints for Russian Roulette's lair," he explains as he opens the sheet. "As you can see, there are many hidden entrances we can sneak in from. Security's likely to be high, but if we make quick work of whomever gets in our way, we should reach the heart of it in no time."

Spade's single eye examines the map, taking in Joker's words. However, he is still skeptical about one thing. "How did you get ahold of this?"

"Let's just say I know somebody who knows somebody who works for Roulette. And before you ask, they are very reliable."

Diamond protests, "Surely, there's no way they would just hand over such vital info—"

"I have my ways."

"Very well, then," says Spade with a smile. "Gentlemen, prepare yourselves. We will end this war tonight."

 

In contrast to the secretive Royal Flush, Russian Roulette makes little secret of their hideout, using their leader's wealth and influence to silence those that dare to reveal their activities. Just outside the city limits is a large mansion, its pointed rooftops which aspire to reach the heavens. With no gate to prevent passersby from simply walking up to it, the gang compensates through stealthier means, with hidden traps littering the grounds.

Joker acts first, leaping onto a nearby tree. He then breaks off a small branch and tosses it onto the ground, triggering a land mine and attracting the attention of a guard. While the first guard is inspecting the racket, Diamond swoops in to snap the neck of a second one. Looks like this job will prove easier than expected, Spade muses as he and Club follow after.

As it turns out, it isn't quite that simple. The mansion, already a behemoth from the outside, is enormous on the inside, with numerous hallways and entryways. Even if they follow the map Joker was given, it could take them ages to reach their destination. Stuck without any other choice, they split up. Spade heads up the stairs to the left, while Club takes the right, and Joker and Diamond search the bottom floor.

Trekking down the corridor, Spade slowly starts to wonder how long he has traveled. He loses count of the doors after the first or second dozen, and long after that, he realizes that not once has he encountered a turn or anything indicating a shift in direction or dead end. He also realizes that, contrary to Joker's description, the mansion's interior thus far has been entirely unoccupied. Had they been tricked? The more Spade thinks about it, the more he feels as if he's being watched. That's ridiculous! There's no way that could be possible… right?

"Kaiser… Kaiser…" A voice echoes in the darkness, sending a chill down his spine.

Startled, Spade turns around. From the shadows, a familiar figure appears: Club. "Oh, Adé, it's you." His breathing slows down, though it does little to quell the beating of his heart.

"This is gonna sound ridiculous, but something's up with this place," Club says, his brown eyes shifting warily. "Like, I can't seem to find my way anywhere. And all the doors are unlocked. Looks like there's only one option left." He digs through the bag he's been carrying around, and takes out a bomb with a timer.

"You're kidding me! If you use that, our cover's blown!"

"We got no other choice! If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be lost in here forever! Do you want to die?"

Thinking it over, he nods and takes the bomb. They calculate the best spot to plant the bomb, then wait anxiously as the timer ticks down to zero. As the explosive bursts, they're blinded by a burst of orange light, which divides the corridor in half. Deep in the man-made abyss is a swirl of light, as if the building had, all this time, been housing a universe within its confines. Spade watches the glittering lights in awe, but snaps out of it immediately, grabbing Club's hand and jumping right in. Where this will lead them, even he doesn't know.

 

In the blink of an eye, they find themselves in a dark room, lit solely by the red glow behind a heart-shaped throne. The outline of a figure sitting on said throne stands up, then snaps its fingers, lighting up the area around him. Spade's eye widens as the figure approaches them. "Dodge—er, Heart? But I thought you were dead!"

"Yes, Spade, it's me, your old friend. True, I was captured by Russian Roulette, but I took that chance to change the system. Now I am the leader." His dull yellow eyes inches away from Spade's, he continues. "What's the matter? Can't handle being surpassed yet again?" Spade's fists clench, trembling under the pressure. He reaches for his weapon, but Heart grips his wrist tightly before he can retrieve it. "Ah-ah-ah! Can't let you do that, Spade. Or should I call you Mikey?"

All of a sudden, Heart's smug grin is wiped clean, as Club's fist makes contact with his face. Almost immediately after, Diamond and Joker appear behind them, standing beside Spade as he regains his strength. As Heart wipes the blood trickling from his lip, a group of shadowy figures step out of the shadows. Spade whips out his trusty dagger, and the final battle begins.

Spade and Club team up side-by-side, brawling and stabbing their way through the throng. Meanwhile, Diamond uses his polearm to effortlessly maneuver and beat down his pursuers, while Joker's clever eye and reflexes allow his foes to target each other more than him. One by one, the shadows disappear, until only their leader is left.

Heart walks up to the exhausted Royal Flush member and holds out his hand. "I have to admit, you're pretty good. How would you like a position in Russian Roulette? With two of the city's greatest powers combined, we can expand our horizons. Together, we can rule the nation, nay, the world! Join me."

Spade turns to his allies, only for them to dissipate upon eye contact. Diamond, Joker… Club is the only one still solid. For that moment, he appears to be shining brightly, his skin glittering as he reaches out for him. Instinctively, his hand stretches out, then past him, and he watches as Club's body is absorbed into his own. It is only at that moment that he realizes that the outstretched hand happens to be the one wearing the bracelet with the galaxy-colored gemstone. Did Adé get sucked in by the stone? It can't be…!

Recoiling his hand to inspect the bracelet more closely, he suddenly feels that strange warmth again. Only this time, the sensation has spread throughout his body, and his perception appears to have changed somehow. He turns to look at Heart again. "Sorry, but I already have a partner. Together, we will rule as one!" He reaches his hand, and the details on Heart's once-flawless face distort as he screams in fear.

Chapter Text

Kaiser's eyes open wide, and as his consciousness clears up, he notices his outstretched hand. The gemstone glimmers as it hangs off of his wrist. As he retracts his arm, his elbow accidentally bumps into something. He looks down and yelps. Curled up beside him is Adé, squirming about in his sleep. Discomforted by the lack of personal space, he nudges his friend. "Adé, wake up!" He nudges him harder, accidentally shoving him off the bed in the process. "Mein Gott! Are you okay?"

Mumbling in disgruntlement, Adé replies, "What the hell, Kai? You tryin' to kill me or somethin'?"

"It was an accident, I swear!"

"Like hell it was. You kept moving around, I could hardly sleep!"

"Yeah, I had a pretty weird dream."

That changes Adé's mood right away. "Really? What kind of dream? Tell me!"

"I don't remember much. But I think we were mobsters or something of that sort."

"We were watching that mafia flick last night. Maybe you were dreaming of that?"

Scratching his head of bedraggled hair, he mutters, "I guess so." Not that he can remember it in the first place. Then again, the human brain works in mysterious ways. "Say, when did we decide to have a sleepover?"

"Wow, Kai, you're really out of it, arentcha? We were up real late, so your mom said I could sleep over. You were out like a light by the time the movie's over, so I had to carry you all the way here. Then I was out like a light!" He lets out a chuckle. "But seriously, you're a real heavy sleeper when you take those pills. You sure you're alright with using 'em?"

"Not really. But if I don't take them from time to time, who knows what will happen." A sudden, throbbing pain causes him to wince. "Besides, this is nothing compared to what I do when I'm not taking them."

He frowns. "Well, if you think you're better off that way, I'm not gonna argue. But if you're ever in trouble or somethin', just come straight to me. As your friend, I'll do my best to help you out any way I can."

Kaiser parts his lips slightly, but nothing comes out. He leans forward, then falls to his knees on the floor, and wraps his arms around him. Adé, taken aback, tries to come up with something, but gives up and returns the embrace.

They serve themselves breakfast (quickly made by Kaiser's mother before she left for work) and discuss what to do next. Adé is the first to speak, "Hey, you said you wanted to go fishing, right? If you're not feeling up to it, we can do something else."

"Nonono, I'm fine with fishing! It's not like I have anything else to do." Not anything exciting, anyway. "Besides, when was the last time we were together like this?"

"It has been a while, hasn't it? And it was just boring homework. I tried to ring you up since, but you were busy."

An image of the photo with Eugene holding the fish flashes through his mind. "Yeah. I was at the doctor."

He slams his hands on the table. "Doctor? Kai, are you sick? You should've told us first! What if it gets worse? You wouldn't be able to play football, or…" His shoulders quiver as he tries to hold back his sobs.

Kaiser opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. Swallowing his nerves, he tries again. "I am sick. But not in the way you think. It's not anything that could affect my ability to play. As long as I take the medicine when I need to, I won't have to repeat what happened earlier this week."

Adé looks up, the pieces slowly coming together. Part of him wants to say something, but what if he comes across as insensitive? The disease is terrible, sure, but the way his friend is going about with the treatment is all wrong. At least, that's what he thinks. "You say you need that medicine, right? Do you always need it?"

He thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. "I suppose not. Sometimes I'd think I do, but then it would make things worse. So I would stop using them. Sometimes it works, but other times…"

"I'm not telling you to stop. If you need them, I can't stop that. I just worry about you relying on them so much. I mean, stuff like this, you can just talk it out, right?" A slow nod from the German kid. "Tell you what, if you need an ear or a shoulder to lean on, you always have me. You have my number, you know where I live, you can count on me." A sorrowful smile forms on his face, as he places his hand on top of Kaiser's.

Chapter Text

At the beginning of the following week, Michael returns to class, refreshed and frankly relieved. Once the day is finished and the weekend has passed, he walks into the classroom, expecting another normal day. Since his return, he's been hearing whispered gossip about him when his back is turned. Surprising, since he never stood out in any particular way until recently. Things get even weirder when the headmaster walks in.

“Good day, class! Unfortunately, your assigned science teacher will be unable to teach you for the rest of the semester.” The entire classroom is abuzz with questioning murmurs. “Thankfully, an outstanding young man has stepped up to take over. Mr. Carson, if you please.”

On the headmaster's cue, in walks Mr. Carson. His messy auburn hair has been brushed down to neatness, and his iron-pressed blouse and slacks—though still slightly big on him—are an obvious improvement compared to his usual baggy clothes. Most noticeable is his lack of headwear, which, when combined with everything else, makes him almost unrecognizable. He quickly writes his name on the chalkboard, then turns to face the class. “The name's Maxwell Carson. I don't really have a lesson plan, but once I finish grading your papers, I'm sure I can come up with something.”

“You sound awfully confident, Mr. Carson.”

“If I wasn't sure of what I was teaching, I wouldn't be teaching, would I? Besides, if there's one thing I know how to do, it's adapt to a situation.”

“If you say so. Well, then, I'll be off. Take care!”

The moment the headmaster leaves the room, class begins. Despite lacking a plan, he manages to come up with a topic and lecture, entirely based on the homework papers he skimmed through (mostly Michael's). On top of all this, unlike their last teacher, who droned on and on while leaving questions towards the end, Max encourages students to participate, whether it's writing on the board or reading from the book. It is an entirely different style of teaching—one which he claims to have learned about when conversing with friends from overseas—but it's kept them on their toes.

As Max wraps up his lesson and starts packing up the homework to grade, Kaiser approaches the teacher's desk. “Lemme guess: you think I set this up, didn't you?” Kaiser, lost for words, looks away. “I assure you, this is just sheer coincidence. If I was placed in anyone else's class, I doubt things would've gone over smoothly. But it doesn't seem like things changed much since I was a kid. Except this formula. Like, what the hell is this, quantum physics?”

“What I want to know is how you snuck your way in.”

“I didn't 'sneak my way in', I was hired. Unfortunately, that means I won't be able to tutor you anymore. A shame, cus I really liked your mom's cooking.” He slips the last paper into his suitcase, then stands up. “But if you still have questions, you can always talk to me after school.” And then he is gone.

 

All sorts of questions run through his mind long after the class's end, and it shows in his dribbling. One of the defenders slide tackles him, taking the ball away from him as he falls onto the turf. Adé rushes over and offers a hand. “Are you okay? I mean, you don't have to practice if you're not up to it.”

“I'm fine,” he says as he helps him up. “It's just...” Just as his tongue is on the tail end of his sentence, he catches a glance of a familiar face conversing with their coach.

“What's wrong, Kai? You look like you've seen a ghost. Oh, look, it's Max! Hey, Max!” Adé waves at him, and Kaiser shrinks away in embarrassment as he waves back.

After the end of practice, the three friends discuss how to spend the rest of their day. “As long as it doesn't involve creepy waiters taking our fortunes, I'm down with anything,” Adé says with a grin.

“Why don't we just go fishing?”

This question catches him and Eugene off-guard. “Huh? I wasn't expecting that from you, Kai. I thought you weren't into fishing.”

“Of course I'm not! I just… think we don't spend enough time together.” He bows his head, hoping no one would notice the flush of his cheeks.

The implications of Kaiser's words and expression does not escape Eugene. He adjusts his glasses as he tries to make up an excuse. “I just remembered I have a report to finish by tomorrow, so I won't be able to make it. I'll catch up with you later!” Without another word, he runs off, nearly tripping over himself in the process.

Watching Eugene disappear from their sight, Michael cannot help but smile. Finally, they can be alone. His hand reaches for Adé's, but he pulls away at the last second. However, the attempt does not go unnoticed, as Adé grabs hold of his hand and grins. He barely makes eye contact, but squeezes his hand to show his appreciation. For a brief amount of time, he feels a slight surge of energy emanating from where the two are linked.

Chapter Text

Once he finishes the last bit of paperwork for the day, Max rushes out the doors, ready for a night out on the town. As he stops by the pitch to chat with his former captain and old buddy, Mark, he spots Kaiser and Adé and decides to wave. The former's reaction is priceless. Heading out into the parking lot, he catches up with Sam, accompanied by Timmy and Jim. "Well, well, well. Looks like the gang's all here!"

"If only Steve were here, then he'd balance things out with his normal-ness," Sam quips.

"What the heck does that mean," Tim asks, peeved.

"Ah, didn't see you there, Little Timmy. Guess you'll have to do."

"Call me that again, and I'll break your legs!"

"What, Little Tim—" A swift blow to his shin cuts him off.

"Please don't hurt him too much," Jim cuts in. "He is our ride, after all."

 

Setting aside the jests for the moment, they hop into the car and make way for a bar near the outskirts of town. According to Sam and Max, this is undeniably the go-to spot for drunken nights with pals. The interior, however, implies otherwise, appearing rather shady, with minimal lighting, shabby furnishings, and the stabbing glare of the bartender. Tim and Jim look at each other, wondering what their friends see in such a seedy spot.

With no strangers hogging any spots, the four of them steal a row of stools up front. As they receive their orders, they chat about their work lives, especially curious about what Max and Tim are up to. "It took a bit of nudging—"

"A lot of nudging," Timmy retorts.

"—but I went and applied for a job at the school. I still can't believe I got it."

"I can't believe it, either."

Max shoots a dirty look. "Timmy, you're an asshole sometimes. You know that?"

The runt mirrors the cat owner's expression, creating more tension. In an attempt to alleviate the mood, Jim says, "Well, I'm happy you both found work in Raimon. Certainly, you feel a bit nostalgic, being back on the school grounds."

Turning his attention away from Max, Timmy replies, "Actually, it feels really weird. The school's changed so much, I could hardly recognize it."

Max swishes the beer in his cup before drinking. "At least the main building didn't change too much. I would've been totally lost otherwise."

"You had to ask the woman by the entrance for directions. I was there, too, remember?"

Max clearly does not take to this well, giving the cold shoulder in response. After some prodding from Sam, he switches seats with him. "So, what's your subject? I know Maxie here does science, but what about you?"

"Uh, well, I'm not exactly book-smart, so I applied for phys ed. I also dropped by the dojo after school; I heard the martial arts club needs a new coach, so I offered to help."

"Sounds like destiny, plain and simple. For all of us, I mean. You two are teaching at Raimon, Jim's working with books, and I'm still the coolest one." Everyone else laughs at Sam's comment, which he takes in stride.

Finishing his shot, Max turns back to Timmy. "Speaking of dojos, what happened to that fancy kung fu school you were training at? Don't you have to head back there?"

Tim's beady eyes widen, and he turns away. "I can't go back," he answers, his voice barely audible.

"What was that? You're gonna have to speak up."

His tiny body quivering, he finally snaps. "I said, I can't go back! I got kicked out, okay? Is that what you want to hear, Mr. High and Mighty?" He takes a couple of deep breaths, then steps off the stool. "I'll be outside if you need me."

After hearing the door slam shut, Sam stand up. "I'll go talk to him." Before he makes his way out, he whispers to Max, "Don't worry, it's not your fault."

With the middle two seats cleared up, Jim uses the opportunity to sit closer to Max. An awkward silence looms over them, until he finally speaks up. "Well, that was unexpected."

"You're telling me." He orders a refill, then takes a sip.

"Timmy doesn't say harsh things very often, but he has a lot of pride, and is rather sensitive. Judging by the way he acted, he must have been holding it in for a while."

"What I don't get is why he didn't bother to tell me. I'm his friend—we all are!"

A pause, then: "Since he's been away for so long, maybe he feels like he couldn't. Think about it. Remember how you were just a few years ago?"

Staring down at the liquid sitting before him, all the memories come flooding back. Though he never physically left, there was a time when he felt detached from all his friends. His faltering attempts to major in veterinary science, combined with his disdain for the then-current state of football, led to him becoming more emotionally numbed. After dropping out of college, he applied for a job at a pet store. But when he discovered the way the animals were treated, he tried to perform his own form of vigilante justice: by stealing a mother cat and her litter of newborn kittens. Unfortunately, he got caught in the act, and was banned from stepping in the store. If it wasn't for his friends' support, who knows what he would have done in those desperate times.

"Timmy said he got kicked out, too. Perhaps you two have more in common than you think." A tiny smile forms on his face.

Seconds later, Tim reenters the bar, reclaiming his seat as Jim steps back to give them space. Timmy's eyes shift to and from Max. "I-I'm sorry for blowing up like that. I should have told you everything from the start."

"Nah, it's alright. I assumed things were going well for you, and I guess I was a bit insensitive."

"A bit?"

"Well, maybe a lot. Tell you what: you tell your sob story, I'll tell you mine. That way, we're even. 'Kay?"

Slightly reluctant, Timmy agrees and listens as Max prattles on, making light of his own darkness. A few drinks later, he loosens up enough to spill everything. Throughout his years training at the dojo, he won the praises of his sensei, and for a while, it seemed that he would even become a master himself. But as age and illness caught up to the old master, his son returned, and the role was instead given to him. Envious, Tim saw nothing good in the new master, and even called out the clear nepotism behind the choice. To settle the matter, the son called for a match, winner takes all. Timmy lost, and was exiled from the dojo he once loved. Alone and desperate, he called the first person that came to mind… "And you know what happened from there."

Max stares down at the bottom of the empty glass. "Of all the people you could have rung up, you ran straight to me? Jeez, you're even stupider than I thought!"

"I'm not sure what I was thinking, either. Tod was busy, I didn't have Jim's number, and Sam… Well, I didn't want to bother him, I guess. But when I was looking through my contacts, I was drawn to your name." He looks up at his hat. "I don't know if I ever told you this, but you always reminded me of a stray cat."

"Yeah, I get that a lot." Well, the cat part, at least.

"You never stayed with one club, and whenever I saw you, you're always moving around. I never really understood you, no matter how much I observed you. But I guess when I rung you up that day, I understood how you thought, to some extent."

"When I heard your story, I honestly thought the same thing. Sure, our situations are different, but we felt the same way in the end. Perhaps Sam's right about that destiny stuff."

 

Satisfied that all is settled between the two, Jim offers to help pay half the tab. As Max and Tim start heading for the car, he catches up with Sam, taking a smoke break. "You know, after everything, I have to ask: did you really mean it when you said it was destiny?"

Sam shrugs. "Not really. I never thought much about things outside of my control. I just know everyone well enough to expect this outcome… mostly." He drops his cigarette and crushes it beneath his boot. "But perhaps something of that sort did occur. Perhaps God above rigged the system to bring us together. If that's what the world wants, I'm not gonna question it." He digs up the ring of keys from his pocket and hands it to Jim. "Mind if you drive? You're probably the only sober one here."

With a gentle smile, the willowy man escorts his inebriated friends back to the car.

Chapter Text

Days pass by without event, and for the first time in forever, Kaiser has never felt more alive. It's all thanks to him. Through texts and private conversations, he can confide to Adé as often as needed, in turn allowing him to view a side of himself that he rarely lets out. As their friendship grew, a long-dormant emotion began to stir up, and in his more recent interactions, it has started to leak through bit by bit. This has not gone unnoticed.

“You look happier these days,” Eugene comments as he starts preparing the equipment. He and Kaiser are paired up for a lab project for science class. Their last teacher never had them perform such things, but Max says hands-on assignments help students learn better. It's arguably just an excuse for him to watch something blow up, but they can't argue with fun. “I haven't heard one complaint from you this past week.”

“Really? I haven't noticed.” He slips on the safety goggles and passes one of the assigned substances to him. Just outside his peripheral vision, Adé is chatting happily with another student—a pretty young lass with silky hair and a sparkling smile.

“Kaiser, watch what you're doing!” The redhead scrambles to keep the substance from hitting the floor. Observing his lab partner, he turns in the direction he's watching. “I've been hearing rumors about those two. She seems to like him, but I'm not sure if he feels the same.”

Kaiser shoots a glare in the girl's direction, but stays silent. Now aware of his surroundings, his thoughts begin to grow darker.

Combining all the components into the glass tubes and beakers, the student pairs eventually create new compounds, some of which cause different reactions depending on the amounts and types of substances inserted. Once finished with the first part of their experiment, Eugene takes things a step further, setting the vial over the blue flame on the Bunsen burner. The liquid substance forms bubbles, and he methodically removes it to prevent it from boiling over. “There. That should do it.”

Max, who happened to be pacing around, inspecting everyone's results, stops to marvel at the liquid chemical. “Nice work, you two! Though perhaps this might be a bit dangerous for the average classroom. Just be careful when cleaning up, okay?”

Eugene thanks him and starts clearing up the table. As starts to clean up the equipment, he hears a loud scream, which causes him to almost drop everything. He turns around to witness the commotion. Adé's lab partner has her hands over her face, as another female student rushes over to treat her injuries. The crowd disperses to let the girls pass by, and distance themselves further when Max steps forward, with a stern look that's completely out-of-character for him. The teacher sets his dark gaze upon one student in particular, one holding a vial dripping with a foreign substance. “Ballzack! Meet me after class.”

 

Adé and Eugene wait outside as everyone else returns to the main classroom. They press their ears against the door to listen, but cannot hear clearly enough. A moment or two later, the doorknob clicks, and they pull back, feigning innocence. Michael's head is bowed in shame, but Max moves away too fast for them to see his face. “What the heck happened? We were canny one second, the next, her face was burning!”

“Sorry, I slipped,” Kaiser muttered, his voice absent of emotion.

“Seriously? Well, be canny next time, 'kay?” He ruffles his pale blue hair.

Eugene's sharp eyes stare him down, a mixture of feelings welling up. Was it really an accident? He knows it can't be. But is Kaiser really capable of such a thing? He never was one to disobey orders or cause trouble—not explicitly, anyway—but he has been acting rather odd. “If something's on your mind, you can tell us. We promise not to tell anyone.”

Kaiser raises his head, his one visible eye shifting between his two friends, then he smiles. “Nah, I'll be fine.”

“But what if the headmaster finds out? You could get into serious trouble!”

“Max will probably just report the incident as an accident and try to sweep it under the rug. He's more worried about his position than anything. And if I get into trouble, I won't mind. As long as Adé's safe, I'm happy.”

Eugene is clearly dissatisfied with the answer given, but drops the subject. Immediately, Adé tries to change it. “Howay, man, we better get back to class. We're gonna be late!”

Chapter Text

In the middle of class, Kaiser is summoned into the headmaster's office. While word of what occurred in there never got out, Adé and Eugene never saw him for the rest of the day. His absence is noticed during football practice, when Arion, the team's captain, and their fellow peers start asking questions. They answer as vaguely as possible, to the point of bluffing, just to avoid causing further concern. In the end, all anyone could do is ponder.

Later at Eugene's house, the two of them try to hold a study session, but their restless minds keep wandering, forcing them to hold off on that idea. They play games for a bit, but find no relief, and resort to just sitting around, reading comics and chatting.

"It feels weird, doesn't it?"

Adé grunts in agreement and flips the page of the manga anthology he's reading. "Normally, we've no trouble finding stuff to do with just the two of us, but after what happened, it feels like we're missing something." As his eyes scan the pages before him, he notices a detail in the story he initially overlooked. "Hey, doesn't this guy look like Kaiser?" He displays the pages and points at one of the characters, a handsome young male with short, messy hair and a sharp glare, sporting black clothes and an eyepatch.

"The resemblance is striking." Skimming the panels, Eugene chuckles at the character's expressions. "He even acts like him!"

"'Let's make this clear: I'm not here to help you. I'm only here to get rid of this inconvenience.' It sounds like something Kai'd say." The humor of the moment is ruined when Adé's mobile starts to buzz. He picks it up and reads the most recent notification. Speak of the devil. He stops to answer it. "Hello?"

"Hey, it's Kaiser. Did you get my texts?"

"Texts? I'll go check. Call you back." He hangs up and inspects his recent messages.

 

"Hey. Sorry for not returning to class. Got suspended. But I'll be back soon."

"I dropped by your house a moment ago, but you weren't there. Your mum said you're over at Eugene's."

"Why didn't you tell me? We could be hanging out together. Things are boring when you're not around."

"Heading over there now."

"Almost there."

"I'm right outside. Where are you?"

Looking at the time stamps on each of the texts, he notices that they were all sent around the time when he and Eugene were playing games. Meaning…

Another text, which reads, "Still waiting. Why aren't you answering?" Followed by, "Nevermind. Found the key under the rug. How cliché."

 

Adé drops his phone and runs out of the room. There, at the end of the hall, stands Michael. "Hallo, Adé. I take it you got my texts. It would be upsetting if you didn't."

"S-sorry, Kai. We got sidetracked, and I didn't see 'em 'til now."

"Sidetracked by what? Breaking your promises and abandoning your best friend?" As he speaks, he slowly steps forward, his blank gaze staring straight at him.

Adé steps back as Kaiser starts to loom closer. "It's not like that. We assumed after what happened, you—"

"You thought I'd what? Disappear? Tell me, Adé. Am I disposable? Am I not deserving of your attention? Answer me!"

Overhearing the commotion, Eugene bursts through the door, finding himself in the middle of the confrontation. "Wait!" The other two stop in their tracks, awaiting his response. "If anyone deserves the blame, it should be me. What happened back in the lab, it was my fault. I made the substance and didn't bother to clean it up right away. That was reckless of me." He smiles politely, but what lies behind it is a different story. "If you'll forgive me, we can make up for lost time." He holds out his hand.

A long pause, then: "Okay." Kaiser walks over, and gives the spare key to him.

Sighing in relief, Adé runs over to reel them in for a group hug. "Glad that's settled! Now the party's begun!"

Finally reunited, the trio proceed to eat, play, and be merry well into the evening. With a school-free day awaiting them, their parents consent to letting them stay over for the night. As the excitement winds down, the three of them start to settle down and get ready for bed. Adé is the first to go down, falling asleep the moment his head hits the pillow. Eugene is the next one, his lids drooping mid-sentence. Kaiser, always the insomniac, is awake even at unseemly hours. Once the redhead started dozing off, he spends the last of his time awake staring at Adé, then making small attempts at physical contact. Nothing major, just slight touches: brushing his fingertips against his cheek, combing his hair, and so on. As the last bit of his energy begins to wear off, he finishes off with a kiss on his lips, and with one arm wrapped over his slender frame, he drifts off into slumber.

Chapter Text

Elsewhere, on that same evening, a disheveled artist toils away at his latest masterpiece. Accompanied by his closest friends, they scramble to complete it before the deadline. Page by page, they work with ink and screentone, scrutinizing over minor details and fixing what they can. As they work, they strike up conversation. Much of it is related to each individual's personal interests, but one subject turns out much darker than their usual fare.

"Have you checked the news lately? There's apparently been bodies found in alleyways and stuff."

"Eh, that's nothing unusual in this day and age."

"Maybe not. But what's really weird are the causes of the deaths."

"Huh, really?"

"Yeah, the autopsies list most of the causes as blunt force trauma. Nothing unusual at first. But then a recent victim turned up, suffered from some serious burns. What makes this case so weird weren't the deaths themselves, but the weapon involved."

"The weapon?"

"Yeah. The last victim was discovered by a young boy who played for Inazuma Japan in the last Football Frontier International. His deductions, combined with tests performed by crime scene investigators, led to the conclusion that the injuries were caused by football."

"Football? I can see someone getting put in a hospital for it, but dying?"

"Well, if the injuries go untreated, it could happen."

"If the last guy got burned by a ball, it must mean the killer used a special move."

"I guess you could call it a 'killer technique'! Eh, eh?"

The artist, with a sigh, says, "We should hurry up with this thing. It's almost midnight. How many pages left?"

"Just two. Hey, Manga, what're your thoughts on it?"

The artist blinks, his sleep-deprived mind spacing out. "The pages? I think they're fine—"

"No, I mean the murders!"

"Oh. It's none of our business. We'll just have to be more careful walking around at night."

"I should've probably said this earlier, but there was another odd finding. According to the coroners' calculations, most of the deaths likely occurred during the day."

"What? You conveniently leave important stuff like that out? Now how are any of us gonna get any sleep, knowing that?"

The artist groans, "Just shut up and work!"

 

Through their combined efforts, they barely manage to finish an entire manuscript by twelve-o-clock sharp. The majority of the artist's comrades walk out, but one stays behind. Up until now, he had remained silent, focused on the work at hand, but alone with his beleaguered friend, he feels compelled to speak his thoughts. "You're just as worried as the rest of them, aren't you, Mark?" A nod from the artist. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. But whatever happens, know that you left your mark on this world. For better or worse, you proved to everyone that you're capable of something no one else can."

The artist smiles timidly and points at the manuscript pages strewn across the table. "Hey, Gamer? What do you think? Is this good enough?"

Gamer picks up one of the pages, inspecting every bit of black, white, and gray. "It started off rather weak, I'll admit, but you've grown quickly as both an artist and a writer. Leaving the studio that one day really did wonders."

Mark raises a brow and lets out a chuckle. "'That one day'? You really keep track of that stuff?"

"As I recall, the second you returned to the studio, you ran straight to your desk and started drawing. When I saw you, you had this spark in your eye, the same one you had when you were working on Nana Silky. It felt like forever since I last saw that from you."

"What? But I did all sorts of work between then and now. What makes Nana and Technia so different?"

Gamer shrugs. "Perhaps because unlike your other works, those two were what you felt the most passionate about. That small detail can make a big difference."

"That makes sense, I guess. But both times, I had help. Novel wrote the story for Nana, and for Technia, I got the idea from you guys. And Oculus was based on that one boy in the cafe, and—"

"But Technia's story is still yours in the end. Where you got your ideas doesn't matter, as long as you use that and make it your own. You of all people should know that."

He nods, then whispers, "Thanks. For everything."

Gamer smiles back, his harsh features softening in the artist's presence. Glancing at the time, he stands up, helping Mark up in the process. "Go get some rest. You deserve it." He kisses him lightly on the cheek and heads into the guest room. But instead of sleeping, he boots up his laptop and starts searching for more information on the aforementioned murders. The first result is an article on the death of acclaimed writer Light Nobel, who suffered from first-degree burns and blunt force trauma.

Chapter Text

Fingers rap on the keys, calculating the total of the purchase. "That'll be five-thousand," Doug reads the numbers aloud. The exchange goes off without a hitch, and another customer leaves satisfied. As he clocks out of his shift, he is approached by the manager. "Oh, hey, Mr. Kincaid. Slow day, isn't it?"

"Yeah. I hear something happened not too far from here. Something about a murder, I think."

"Certainly would explain all the cops. Well, less work for us."

"And less business, unfortunately." Doug is about to walk out when his manager stops him. "Hey, mind if I drive you home? It could be dangerous out there."

"Thanks, but I'll be fine." He waves him off and turns about face, only to be interrupted again.

"At least tell me where you got that necklace."

Doug, taken aback, briefly clutches at the bauble around his neck, a multicolored gemstone that shimmers like stars in the sky. "Oh, this? A friend of mine gave it to me. Unfortunately, he never told me where he got it, sorry 'bout that. You looking for a gift yourself?"

"Nah, just curious. Take care!" He waves him farewell and returns to his work. Something about that gem struck him as familiar, but he can't shake the feeling as to why. He thinks back to that day when he helped Timmy with clothes shopping, which then triggers a memory of an event from even further back. More than a decade ago, he and his friends were brainwashed into betraying their old teammates, out of desperation to become stronger. A major influence on that decision was the Alius Rock, a large, crystalline structure that increased one's power and intensified their emotions. While under the crystal's effect, they became victims of their own pride and envy, and for that, they were unable to forget about it. Perhaps that memory is the reason for the reaction he had. It's just a coincidence, he tells himself with a shake of his head. I can't let a stupid thing like that get to me.

 

The next day, after school, Doug catches up with an old friend of his, who offers to let him have dinner at his place. Samguk Han shares a nickname with his manager's real one, as well as similarly curly hair, which really threw him for a loop on his first day at work. To keep himself from confusing the two, he mentally refers to his friend by his surname. Try as he might, he still slips up every once in a while.

They chat about work and school and a lot of the usual, more mundane aspects of life. "Mum told me that one of her coworkers had gone missing, and she's been getting worried about it. Seeing how common it's become, I feel the same."

"Is that really why you asked me over?" Doug holds Han's hand. "Sam, you don't need to worry. Whatever happens, I'll protect you." He gives a peck on his cheek and lets go when the phone in his pocket starts to vibrate. "Gimme a sec. I gotta make a call." He steps out, then whips out his phone and quickly dials a number. "Hey, it's Dodge. What's the sitch?"

A boyish voice, slightly distorted by phone reception, answers. "Dodge, where are you? I thought we were going to meet up at the usual spot."

"Sorry, change of plans."

"Hanging with your boyfriend today," the voice on the other end asks in a mocking tone. "I thought so."

"I can't be hanging around you all the time. Besides, have you read the papers lately? It's not safe for either of us."

"Are you scared? Shame. I thought you were cooler than that."

"Shut it! I just need a break from everything." He tries to hold back a sigh. Stupid kid.

"I understand, I understand. Just don't forget about the mission."

His expression softens as he lowers his guard. "I wasn't aware we had one."

"Would he have given us these stones without a reason? He's testing our potential. We can't let him down!"

"Just lay low for today. We can catch up another time."

"Fine. But man, things are really boring without you."

Having had enough, he quips, "Make your own fun," then hangs up.

 

As Dodge enters the kitchen, Han, who had been cooking the whole time, turns away from the stove to face him. "Oh, you're back! Who was it?"

"Just a friend from Lunar Sea. Nothing special."

"You've been getting a lot of calls like that lately. You're quite the social butterfly!"

"Yeah, but it does get annoying."

"I can't disagree with that," he says with a grin. "Maybe it's just me, but ever since you graduated, you've gotten a bit more humble."

"You're definitely seeing things. I haven't changed one bit." He brushes his bangs aside, turning his gaze away.

Han, noticing the sorrow in his eyes, puts one hand on Dodge's cheek and moves his head to face him. "Hey, if there's something on your mind, you can tell me. That's what I'm here for."

His brows furrow. "I'd rather spare you the baggage. Besides, what I do in my private life is none of your business."

"It's completely my business!" He grabs both of Dodge's hands. "When you and I decided to be together, you made a promise that we would help each other out. It doesn't matter what it is, I want to make sure you're safe and happy doing so. Whatever you're not telling me, it's wearing you out, and I don't want you to get hurt by keeping it secret." He lets go, and continues, his tone calmer, "But I suppose I shouldn't force it. Whenever you're ready, you can tell me."

Doug lets his hands go limp, unsure what to do next. He bows his head, lost in thought, then takes a deep breath and stares at him. "Alright, I'll tell you."

Chapter Text

"Make your own fun," Dodge's voice snaps as he hangs up on the other end. Dejected, the young man shuts his mobile and walks off. Who needs him, anyway?

As he treks through the town, he suddenly feels a strange sensation, like a spark of static electricity. He stops to look around, then sets his sight on the source. Not too far from where he stands is a tall, lanky boy with red hair tied into two wing-like pigtails and round, thick-rimmed glasses. Stepping a bit closer, he can see something sparkly wrapped around the boy's ring finger. With a cat-like grin, he pounces.

"Hey there," he says as he gets closer, causing the boy to jump. "You're from Raimon, right? I can recognize that uniform a mile away!"

Recovering from the initial shock, the boy adjusts his glasses and turns to face him. His dark eyes widen, surprised by the person he's looking at. "Oh. Yes, I am. Judging by yours, you're from Lunar Sea, right?"

He nods. "A-yup! Come to think of it, you look familiar. Are you, by chance, part of the football team?"

"Yes, I am. I think I remember you from Saint's Way." His brows furrow with apprehension, most likely wondering the reason behind this conversation.

"Saint's Way, yes! That's where I saw you! You guys played a good game, by the way."

"Oh. Thank you. I don't believe I caught your name."

He gasps. "Omigosh, you're right! My name's Naga. Nobby Naga." He holds out his hand, which the boy reluctantly shakes.

With a nervous smile, the boy replies with, "Eugene Peabody. Pleased to meet you."

 

At Eugene's suggestion, they head to a cozy local cafe, where the two resume their conversation over drinks and sweets.

"I never expected you to be so full of energy," Eugene comments with a sip. "You look so serious when you play."

"I get that a lot," Naga says with a sheepish laugh. "Well, things were different back then, and I get pretty serious when I play."

"That's understandable. Once my friends and I started playing seriously, we started acting differently on the pitch. I'm proud of how far we've come, but..." His smile disappears as his gaze falls upon the liquid inside the cup.

"You still can't catch up, right? I know how you feel. When I joined the team last year, I was just a reserve player. But during our last match in the regionals, one of our players got injured, and I was sent in in his place. They really liked how I played, so I've been a regular since." Naga's face turns serious. "But even then, I know I'm not good enough. I have to be perfect, or else!" He slams his fist against the table, briefly inciting the attention of those around them.

Calming down, he resumes. "When I found out Doug McArthur transferred, I knew there was hope for me. I've always admired how he plays, so I trained really hard to be just like him. Well, not exactly, cus we use different techniques, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I tried to do everything I could think of to get him to notice me. But then he came."

Eugene, who had been eating in silence, put his fork down. "He?"

Naga opens up the collar of his uniform, then grasps the chain around his neck, gradually revealing the rest of it, ending with a round band bearing that familiar gem. "The traveling vendor, of course. He was selling them on the sidewalk, but he noticed my talents and gave me a couple on the house."

"For free? That can't be good for profits."

"That's what I thought, too. But he repeated exactly what I had in my mind: I wanted to be Dodge's equal, no matter what it took. Then he told me a very special secret."

A brow rises. "Secret? You mean…" He glances at the gem on his hand. "These stones are magic? But that's impossible!"

Naga nods. "It is. When two wearers share a strong enough bond, they can merge and become one—mind, body, and soul."

Astonished, he looks down at their stones. "If what you say is true, then that means…"

"With your powers combined, you and your besties can do anything! Ain't it great?"

Eugene still seems to be absorbing everything. "Wait, if you have one, then does Dodge have the other?"

"Of course! Well, I gave one to a friend of mine, too, but eh, stuff happened. What about you?"

"My friend bought three, one for him, myself, and…" He trails off, biting his lower lip.

"What's wrong? Did something happen to your friend, too?"

"Uh, it's nothing."

"Doesn't look like nothing. C'mon, you can tell me." He takes the decorated hand and cups it between his own. "After all, we're friends now, aren't we?"

With a sigh, Eugene confesses. At first, he tries not to delve into too much detail, but soon everything starts spilling out. The science lab incident, the break-in, and anything else that seems to come to mind. "I don't hate Kaiser, but sometimes I wonder why we're still even friends."

"Wow. He sounds like a real jerk! Times like that, you got to show him who's boss." He pauses for a moment, taking the time to peek at the sheen on Eugene's gem. "Hey, I got an idea! Do you have time after school tomorrow?"

Chapter Text

Days pass, with Kaiser's absence leaving an empty spot in an otherwise full classroom. His suspension was to only last for a week, but he would not return until the day after his assigned release. When asked about it, he would say "family emergency" and brush off the question. What the emergency was is something only his friends could guess.

As lunch period starts, the two boys converse as Kaiser exits the room.

"Man, things were really weird without Kai," Adé moans as he slumps over his desk.

"Honestly, I felt a bit more relaxed," Eugene replies bluntly.

"Are you still mad at him? I know he's been acting a bit odd, but he's still our friend."

"Yes. Friend."

"Eugene, are you alright? You're acting weird, too. I mean, you haven't been going to practice lately. Is something goin' on?"

"Believe it or not, I have a life outside of the team. I'm simply dedicating my time to other things for once."

"If you say so." Dejected, the fisher-boy drops the subject.

 

Kaiser returns from the canteen, drinks and sandwiches in hand. "Hey, I managed to get the last of the bacon sarnies. Here." He gives a drink and sarnie to Adé, then turns to Eugene. "Sorry, I wasn't able to get one for you. Guess I owe you one."

Eugene stands, not bothering to make eye contact with him. "No thanks, I can get my own."

After their bespectacled friend disappears, Kaiser blinks, then turns to Adé. "Hey, did you get my texts?"

"Yeah. I lost count after, like, a hundred. I haven't seen you talk this much since, like, ever!" Lowering his voice to a whisper, he asks, "Is it those pills again?"

Kaiser shakes his head. "I haven't touched them since the last time you stayed over at my house."

"What about your shrink?"

"I went to them once during my suspension, but besides that, I haven't gone in a while. After all, I have you." He smiles, albeit in a manner that Adé considers more unsettling than comforting.

"You sure you're okay?"

"'Course I am! Don't you trust me?"

Hesitant, he responds, "Yeah. I mean, we are friends. You, me, Eugene—"

"I don't trust him. Not anymore." His smile is gone completely, replaced with tranquil fury. "You remember that reading we got?" Adé nods, slightly confused. "That Styx guy mentioned that something about one or more of us creating an imbalance in our relationship. I'm beginning to think Eugene is the cause."

"What? I don't think he's—"

"Are you saying I'm the problem? I thought you trusted me. Have you been lying this whole time?"

With a gulp, Adé stutters a bit as he stumbles upon a proper response. "Of course not! If anything, I'm the cause of all this. I mean, you guys seem to be fighting over me, and…" He frowns and looks away. "Maybe if I left you guys alone, things will go back to normal."

Kaiser is at a loss for words. What can he say to that? He thinks back to the Tarot reading again. Crossroads… Looking for something different, something more. A desire that could ruin us. It's not about who caused it, but… "Maybe it's all three of us."

"Huh? But that doesn't make sense!"

"It does if you think about it. We're all looking for something, right? It's just a matter of what that is. Once we figure that out, we can resolve this easily."

"Well, when you put it that way, I guess it makes sense."

"So Adé, what do you want?"

He opens his mouth, but no words come out. Instead, he whips out his phone and starts typing. His text reads: "That depends. What do YOU want?"

Kaiser stops to read the text over and over before typing back. "You."

After a long delay, Kai receives a response. "Sorry, had to think for a bit." A second later: "You're weird, but I like you. I think I want you, too." His brown cheeks flush bright red as he snaps his phone shut. There is no way he can answer to that.

Chapter Text

Weeks pass by without event. Lab incident aside, Max has adjusted well to the school environment, and is enjoying it more than he had come to expect. As for Timmy, while he excels in discipline and ensuring everything goes swimmingly, he still has a ways to go when it comes to gaining the students' goodwill. As a matter of fact, the latter has become known as "The Tiny Monster of Raimon"—much to his chagrin. "Cheer up, buddy," Max would often tell him, as he is now. "They'll get used to you eventually."

"Yeah, when they graduate and leave the school," Timmy mumbles as his forehead hits the table. "Let's face it: I'm hopeless."

Frowning, he grabs Tim by his shoulders and shakes him. "C'mon, now! What happened to the Timmy who'd grin and bear it? The old Timmy never gave up this easily!"

He pulls Max's hands away from him. "The old Timmy was a stupid first-year in junior high. It's been ten years since then. I've changed, you idiot!" He turns and hops off the seat. "But you have a point. I can try to keep my chin up, at least until the end of the year. If things don't improve by then, I'll quit."

Up until that last remark, Max was prepared to argue. Instead, he smirks and says, "That's the spirit, Timmy!"

 

After taking their fill and splitting the bar tab, they head out to the streets, beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol. Tim, never the type to hold in his drink, has a stumble to his step, and has to be carried by Max. Thank God he's such a lightweight.

As he lugs his pint-sized pal back home, a voice tickles in his ears. "You there," the voice calls out. "I sense a strong bond between the two of you. Before you leave, would you like to see my offering?"

Max turns around and sees a cloaked figure stooped over a display of various baubles, all featuring strange, multicolored gemstones. "Thanks, but I think we've spent enough. We can't afford stuff like that as is."

"I do not mean to sell you. I wish to give you these." The figure holds out his hand, stick-like fingers unfurling to reveal two necklaces. "I feel the strong bond you feel with your friend, and for that, I wish to reward you. Take it, please."

Reluctant, Max swipes the jewelry from the stranger and pockets them. "Thanks, I guess," he mutters before walking off, still wondering what the heck just occurred.

 

Finally home, he quickly opens the door and drops Timmy off on the couch. Watching him squirm about to get comfortable, his face at its most relaxed, puts Max at ease. Despite being an adult physically and mentally, in the end, he's still the same person as he was ten years ago. Sitting besides him, he strokes the smaller man's hair with his fingers. Though mostly bald, what hair he does have is long, silky, and well kept; this trait is Max's personal favorite. Soon, his hand moves on to the bare skin of his arms, his fingertips gliding over his rippling muscles, and then to the soft cheeks on his cherubic face.

As soon as Timmy's beady eyes blink open, their noses are mere inches apart from each other. "M-Max," Timmy asks, his voice practically a whisper. Before he can say another word, their lips are locked, and he becomes trapped beneath Max, lost in a sensual trance.

Chapter Text

Max wakes up to the sounds of knocking on wood. As he shakes off his drowsiness and regains his clarity, he gasps as he finds himself naked, with Timmy lying on top of him. He wriggles out of the couch, careful not to wake up Tim, then slips on his pants and runs over to answer the door. Standing there is Noir, whose half-obscured face shows an expression resembling puzzlement. "Oh, Noir, hey! Sorry 'bout the mess. It's a long story. Come on in!"

He leads Noir in, and warns him about the sleeping mass on the couch as he starts preparing breakfast. Noir sits on a chair, watching Max set up as a small, orange cat curls up on his lap. When asked what brings him here, he answers, "Jim tried to call you last night, and started worrying when you didn't pick up. He sent me to check up on you."

"Well, lucky for you, we're alive and kicking." Max stops to rub at his temple. "Mostly," he mutters.

"If you'd like, I can prepare you some tea. Talisman taught me some recipes that will ease your migraines." After a moment's pause, Max lends Noir the reins. The small, hooded youngster prepares the tea, using what ingredients they can find, and as the water boils, Max cooks food for three, fighting through the stinging pain in his skull. Once everything is finished and served, Noir points in the direction of the living room entryway and asks, "Should I wake him up?"

"Nah, I'll do it..." Before he can even take a step, Tim slowly drags himself into the kitchen. "Oh, hey, Timmy! You're here just in time. Noir and I just finished." He nudges a cup of piping hot tea towards him. "Want some?"

 

The three of them, gathered around the dining table, proceed to serve themselves from the plates laid out, and they chat about all sorts of things, until the conversation takes a slightly darker turn.

"Hey, why's Jim so worried about us all of a sudden? It's not cus of those murders, is it?"

Noir answers after a slight delay. "Most of them have occurred in the general area we frequent. Styx himself claims he felt an overwhelming sense of death when he passed by the apartment complexes and alleyways."

"How many have there been?"

"Three bodies were found in the past month alone. Two of them have supposedly been dead for almost that long."

"Those must be some pretty gross corpses," Max comments, sounding more amused than disgusted. "But if only one body's fresh, that must mean the murders are slowing down."

"Or the killer's getting better at hiding the bodies."

"You really think it's just one guy doing all this? What if it's, like, a gang of them? I mean, the weapon's supposed to be a football, right? Maybe there's a killer team out there, punishing those who lose against them."

"That makes sense… except for the last part. There wasn't anything to suggest that sort of motive."

"But weren't some of the bodies identified as former players from local schools? There could be something there."

As Noir takes in Max's response, Timmy, discomforted by the subject manner, interjects, "It's probably just a coincidence. We should all get ready for work; we're gonna be late!"

"Oh, geez, I completely forgot!"

Timmy, a look of amusement on his face, watches Max swear and scramble out of the kitchen. "If you don't mind waiting, we can drop you off on the way. Friends got to stick together, right?" Noir replies with a silent smile and nod.

Chapter Text

On an island far, far away, a great expedition is taking place. Drills, miners, and construction vehicles populate the land, all its inhabitants driven away or imprisoned by the orders of Garshield Industries. Watching over the process Is a tall, sharp-eyed, red-haired man of middle age, followed by a tall, dark, young adolescent.

"How's progress," the young one asks.

"It has taken some time, but we have found an even larger source. Once we break it apart and refine its pieces, we can sell it to the masses."

A smirk forms on the youth's face. "Excellent. At this rate, we shall control the world of football with an iron fist." He slips his hand into his well-pressed blouse, and pulls out a pendant with a sparkling, miniature galaxy. "I will succeed where Father failed. His legacy shall continue with me."

 

Meanwhile, in Japan, a crochety old man climbs up the long, cobbled pathway, spiraling upwards through a tunnel and leading towards a temple gate atop of a mountain. Students and townspeople pass by, hardly sparing him a glance. Continuing onward, he is stopped by a trio of boys, all sporting the uniform of the esteemed Almighty Faith. The trio's leader, with black-and-white hair tied into a ponytail, approaches the man. "Hey, you need directions? Town's over that way."

The old man looked at the path behind him, his head turning slowly, as if oblivious. "Oh, thank you, but I intended on going this way. You see, I am looking for somebody to buy my wares."

One of the leader's friends, a boy with green hair, cuts in. "Whatever you have, we're not buying."

The other friend, a seemingly sleep-deprived child with his burgundy hair in buns, chimes in, "Hey, don't say that! We should check it out. It might be interesting."

Taking the duo's input into consideration, the leader asks, "Okay. What do you have?"

The old man puts one hand into his long sleeve, and digs out some pendants and bracelets, all bearing strange-looking gems. "These are special accessories for athletes who know the true meaning of friendship. Only those with strong bonds can unlock their true potential."

"Sounds like a bunch of bull," the green-haired child mutters with arms crossed.

"But Aum, look, they're pretty," says the bun-haired one. "Even if they're useless, I still want one!"

The leader inspects the wares. "Sounds interesting, but how much does it cost?"

"You're a smart boy, you. Since you offered me assistance, allow me to return the favor." The old man hands him three pendants. "I can tell you are close. With these, you can learn the true extent of your potential." Smiling beneath his hood, he turns and starts his trek down the mountain path.

 

Later that night, somewhere in the outskirts of Inazuma Town, Russel Walk, aka "Styx", is heading home after finishing his shift. He never was afraid of the dark, but ever since the murders began, he feels the lingering presence of the dead at every turn. On his way to the apartment complex he calls home, he finds himself passing by an empty lot—which, as a double-take would prove, is not so empty. In the middle of the lot are two short figures kicking a round object. Captivated, he stops to lean closer, wrapping his fingers between the holes in the chain link fence.

The two figures, upon closer inspection, appear to be children, and the round object a black-and-white ball. Styx remembers a time when he played that game. He was about their age, and that was where he met his fellow comrades, some of whom later migrated to Inazuma Town to open their niche cafe. He cannot recognize the dark, yellow-lined uniform on the taller child, but the other's is undeniably the trademark blue-and-yellow uniform of Raimon Jr. High. Watching the two duel, it becomes clear just how unbalanced the match is. The Raimon student, try as they might to persist, gradually loses their footing as the other player slams the ball into them repeatedly. After several more kicks, the Raimon student falls, unable to get up.

Styx stifles a gasp, letting go of the fence and stepping back. Just as he turns to run, he swears he saw the other player stare in his direction, those large, white orbs seared into his memory.

Chapter Text

The following morning, Michael and Adé arrive in the classroom and take their seats. Eugene, while hardly one to raise his voice unless absolutely necessary, has been more silent than usual, even ignoring Adé's repeated prodding. It's not until lunch break that they finally learn why.

"What do you mean, there's no practice today," Kaiser asks, a tinge of frustration in his voice. "What could be so important that it could affect club activities?"

Eugene answers in an 'of course you wouldn't understand' tone, "You didn't hear about it already? The principal announced it at the morning assembly."

"I was busy trying to wake up this Dumbkoff. That's why we were late." Kaiser points his thumb at Adé, who laughs sheepishly.

"Arion made a thread on InaLink the moment he found out about it."

Adé blinks, then checks his phone for an update. "What? This can't be…!"

His reaction has Kaiser curious about what's going on. Mobile at the ready, he opens up InaLink, and is barraged with a flood of messages from his fellow teammates.

"I can't believe it… Shun's gone." This is the first message in the thread, sent by Arion. Texts from JP and others respond, demanding context. Then Riccardo, the former captain and fellow third-year, sends a link to an article. The messages that follow show everyone's disbelief and grief, eventually ending with Coach Evans declaring the cancellation of today's activities to leave time for mourning.

Adé, at a loss for words, excuses himself and leaves the classroom, leaving the remaining two alone. Kaiser gets up, but Eugene stops him. "Leave him be. With everything that's going on, he needs space to breathe."

Kaiser shoots daggers in the redhead's direction. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Adé's not used to hearing this sort of news. The last thing he needs is somebody suffocating him."

"We're his best friends! The least we could do is be there for him!"

"Riddle me this: are you really doing this for his sake? Or do you have other motives in mind?"

"I could ask the same of you."

"How do you feel about Shun's death? He was one of our teammates, after all."

With a scowl, Kaiser turns and runs out. Eugene, alone, slumps over his desk, his dark eyes glazed over. So you finally show your true colors, he says to himself as a smirk spreads across his face.

 

Once school lets out, the trio walk out of school, pretending not to notice the emptiness of the outdoor field as they make way for the entrance. From a distance, Eugene can spot a figure standing outside the school gates, waving at him. His friends quickly notice, surprised when they see the slate-and-yellow uniform the figure is sporting. "Naga," Eugene mutters under his breath.

"Eugene," the figure exclaims as he rushes over to greet him. "So these two are your friends?" He gasps and points at Adé. "You! I remember you! You pulled off that Flying Fish move like it was nothing. And your dribbling—amazing!"

Adé, dumbfounded, stutters, "Thanks, I guess." His brown eyes side-glance at Eugene. "I didn't know you two were friends. Looks like Kai's not the only one with pals in Lunar Sea!"

The comment sparks a glimmer in the mysterious student's coal-black eyes as they shift to the cyan-haired boy. "So you're the one they call 'Kaiser'? The one with the Sidewinder? Dodge told me a lot about you. I didn't expect much from you, but your performance in Saint's Way really changed me."

Kaiser glares at the boy, but is interrupted by Eugene before he can retort. "Naga, this is Adé and Michael. We attend class together."

"You three are classmates? Gosh, I'm super-jealous of you! Me and my friends are all separated. Maybe I should transfer to Raimon. Then we can meet up during lunch and talk and—" He stops dead in his tracks. "Oh, I'm Naga, by the way. Nobby Naga. Nice to meetcha!"

Kaiser says in a low tone, "Yeah. Same to you."

Mesmerized by the younger boy's charisma, Adé brings up a suggestion. "Hey, how 'bout he hang out with us today? It'll definitely change things up!"

Eugene opens his mouth as if to protest, but Naga bursts in with, "That's wonderful! I know this great place not too far from here. We can eat something there and hang at the arcade or something. My treat!" Grabbing the bespectacled one by the hand, he drags him out, with his friends pursuing him.

 

Late in the afternoon, Max stops by the football pitch out front, only to find it empty. Of course. If something as drastic as a player's passing happened during his time, their captain would have done the same, possibly more. If only he had something to offer…

"Max?" Timmy runs up to him, stopping beside him. They take in the moment, absorbing all that they have just learned. Looking up at the sky, he comments, "It's getting cloudy. We should start heading out before it gets worse." Following along, Max—for the first time in a long while—has absolutely nothing to say.

Chapter Text

The next day at Raimon, a small tribute has been set up in front of the stadium in honor of Shunsuke Aoyama. Before the framed photo lies bouquets of flowers, a pair of worn sneakers, and letters proclaiming words of mourning. The sight distresses Michael as he passes by it, but not just for the expected reason. If the river successfully took his life that day, would he be missed?

Once the final bell rings and the flood of students rush out of the classrooms, his phone vibrates. He flips it open and finds a notification for a text from an unexpected source.

"Hey, it's Doug. Mind meeting me by the statue later? We need to talk."

He considers ignoring the text, even blocking the number, but next thing he knows, he's in front of the train station. In the center of the roundabout leading into the town is a tall statue of two feminine figures, proudly holding the earth, and standing before it is Doug. As per his usual habits, he's brushing his bangs to the side, but the expression on his face is abnormal, the complete opposite of the smug, standoffish Dodge Kaiser knew. It looks pained, remorseful, even. This causes Kaiser to stand his guard; for what little he knows of the situation, it could be a trap, or worse.

 

Doug waits anxiously for his arrival, checking the phone every once in a while. Despite knowing Kaiser for a long time, even he isn't sure of his ability to keep his word, especially after what he said the last time they met. In hindsight, he can't even remember why he said what he did: was it a poor attempt at humor, or a subtle attempt to call Michael out on his needy behavior? Perhaps both. When he brought it up, Han did not hesitate one bit to call him out on it. It was because of that consultation that he made the decision to confront Kaiser today. Though with the news going around lately, would it be bad timing on his part? Only one way to find out.

"Hey," Doug greets as Kaiser approaches him. "I heard about what happened. Sucks, losing a teammate like that, huh?"

Kaiser shrugs and mutters, "I guess." With half of his face covered and the other half turned away, his expression is unreadable. "But it's not like we were close friends or anything." That statement Doug cannot disagree with; during his time in Raimon, neither of them interacted much with Shunsuke, at least outside of club activities. Shifting his gaze to Doug, Kaiser says with an irritated tone, "So why'd you drag me out here, anyway? There's no way you'd text me just to tell me what I know already."

"Well… It's about our last meeting." Scratching the back of his head, he resumes. "See, what I said, it was really stupid. I just thought—"

A brown, outstretched palm cuts him off. "Don't bother. I get it. I know I'm a giant mess, and you were right: maybe I was relying on those drugs too much. I realize that. I haven't used them in a while, and you know what? I feel great! Cus now I found something even better. And at this rate, maybe someday, I can finally become a functioning member of society." As Kaiser says all this, his expression shifts, from a grim frown breaking into a wide grin, and his gestures are more lively, if all over the place. On the surface, he's ecstatic, but something about his mannerisms suggest something deeper, more dysfunctional, that sends a chill down Doug's spine.

Unsure of how to respond, Doug pauses to inspect his old friend more closely. His messy hair looks even more disheveled, and his uniform appears to be hanging loosely from his small frame. The less he tries to question his change in hygiene, the better. "You sure? Cus you look like a mess." Shit! Ran his stupid mouth again.

Kaiser's large eye bulges even more, then stares downward as his hands fumble with his outfit. "Come to think of it, I could use some new clothes. I have a date with Adé tonight!"

This catches the senior off-guard. "Date?"

"Ja, me and Adé are going out. Is that so shocking? Well, anyway, it's nothing real fancy, but I'd like to look presentable when we go out."

Snapping out of his shock, he responds, "I have some old clothes you can borrow. They might be a bit big, but I'm sure we can work it out. And you can use my bathroom, too. If you don't mind, that is."

Now it's Michael's turn to be surprised. Inspecting the looseness of his uniform once more, he utters his consent. As the middle schooler tails behind him, Doug cannot help but wonder if he made a terrible decision.

Once they reach Dodge's house, Kaiser sets off to shower and wash his hair. Awaiting him as he steps out of the bathroom is a neatly-arranged bundle of garments unfamiliar to him. To his surprise, everything fits without a problem—which makes him wonder if these were originally intended for him. With Dodge's help, his unruly cyan hair is dry and tame—or as tame as his hair could be without extensive styling—and soon after, he runs out, realizing what time it is.

 

Standing in front of the local aquarium, Adé stands, checking the time on his mobile when Kaiser arrives. Overjoyed, he rushes over to hug him, then grabs him by the hand and drags him inside. As they explore the expansive exhibition, they take photos of each other, take notes (this trip isn't just for fun: they have an assignment due by the end of the week, and Max doesn't react too kindly to missed homework), and comment on the aquatic wildlife swimming behind the glass.

After experiencing all they could, they walk back to Adé's place, where they start writing their essays. As they work on their assignments, they chat about everything they just saw, and the conversation shifts from one subject to another, until the fisher-boy mentions something off-topic. "Your new clothes look belter! Where'd you get it?"

"Oh, these? Dodge lent them to me."

"Dodge? You two still talk?" A twinge of worry sparks in his voice and face.

"Not much. But he helped me get ready for tonight."

"I guess that's nice of him. You looked like a total mess earlier—no offense."

Kaiser thinks back to when he was wearing his uniform earlier today. Had he been losing weight? He doesn't recall lacking an appetite. Then again, he doesn't recall much of anything that happened lately that didn't involve Adé. His mother might have mentioned something about his recent habits, but he cannot remember what it was.

"Kai, are you okay? You've been acting weird."

"Weird? How?"

"Well, for starters, you keep forgetting things. Eating, sleeping, bathing… And you've been acting… Gosh, how do I say this? Too happy."

Michael's brows furrow. "What? Of course I'm happy. I got you! Do you not like me being happy?"

"Of course I want you to be happy! It's just that, like, sometimes your smiles seem… fake? Like, you're trying too hard to look happy, and, well, it's a bit creepy."

"Oh." His head slumps over, his hair obscuring his face entirely. "So that's it, isn't it? You don't like it when I'm happy."

"What? No! I—"

"You promised to support me, no matter what. You promised to make me happy. Did you not mean all that when you said you wanted me?"

"Well, yeah, but—"

"Then what the hell do you want from me?" He slams the table with his hands. "Tell me!"

Silence loomed heavily over, its burdening presence suffocating the once-casual atmosphere. Adé, having the wind knocked out of him, takes several breaths before coming up with an answer. "Kai, I love you. The good, the bad, everything. But you really need to be more honest with yourself, with me. When you smile—like, for real, not forced an' stuff—you're adorable. But if you're not happy about something, you don't have to hide that. That's all I want, really."

Recoiling, Kaiser stops to absorb his boyfriend's statement. Had he really been genuine? How much of his feelings were real? Even he doesn't know the answer to that. His voice quivering, he says, "I can't make any promises, but… okay." Slowly, he breaks out into a smile—a tearful, but genuine one, for sure.

Chapter Text

Earlier that same day, Eugene treks down the riverside path when he spots the dark-skinned redhead stepping out of the train station. As soon as they meet eyes, Naga runs over to greet him. "Hey, you're early!" He pauses, blinking. "You let your hair down."

Eugene brushes his shoulder-length hair aside. "Oh, yeah. I wanted a change of pace. Does it not look good?"

Naga shakes his head. "You look great! So, we heading out or what?"

"Heading where, may I ask?"

"Well, with everything that's going on, Inazuma Town might not be the best place to practice. So we're heading to my place!"

"Y-your place? Won't your parents mind?"

"Nah. It's just me and Dad, and Dad's out of town for the week, so we're good to go."

Butterflies still festering in his stomach, Eugene follows Naga into the train station, which takes them to a strange, unfamiliar city, whose modern architecture is built in harmony with the region's ancient origins. Over the horizon, hidden among the fog surrounding the distant mountains, he can identify a fortress bearing the mark of Lunar Sea Academy. A gentle breeze sways over the nearby grass terrain, soothing him with its soft lullaby. "Wow," he mouths as he steps out of the station.

"Beautiful, isn't it? C'mon, my house isn't too far from here."

 

Grabbing hold of his hand, Naga escorts Eugene away from the city, down a dirt path that eventually leads to a quaint, cozy neighborhood. Among the more old-fashioned houses is his home, a two-story house that stands out from the others by blending Western details with a traditional Japanese foundation. "Well, here we are. It's not much, but it's home."

As he follows Naga into the house and through the halls, Eugene's face is constantly in awe, from the simple-yet-luxurious décor to the spacious rooms. While he expected a certain level of class from a Lunar Sea student, never in his wildest dreams could he imagine such wealth.

"We used to live in the more bustling part of the city," Naga explains as he starts up the stairs, "but Dad wanted to live closer to the countryside, so we moved down here to his summer home. I also started attending Lunar Sea shortly after, so it felt like a fresh start."

"New neighborhood and a new school? That must be scary."

"It was, but the guys on the football team made me feel at home. Captain il Grande was especially nice to me, and Dodge, too, when he transferred. Oh, hold on a sec." He runs ahead to rearrange some flowers in a vase on a nearby table. "There, perfect."

Walking over to the flowers, Eugene looks up and finds himself face-to-face with the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. With fair skin, large, obsidian eyes, and long, flowing crimson locks, the woman, painted and framed above the potted flora, strikes him as oddly familiar. "Is this your mum?"

Naga's dark eyes glimmer a bit differently than usual, lacking the usual joy behind them, despite his smile. "Yeah. Dad loved her more than anybody or anything in the entire world. When he talked about her, he called her the most perfect human being. Beautiful, intelligent, kind… she was everything. Sadly, I never got to know her well—she died before my third birthday."

Eugene lets out a gasp and bites his bottom lip, surprised but uncertain how to react. A simple "sorry" doesn't seem enough. After a moment of thought, he says, "You know, if she were alive, I'm sure she would be proud of you."

Hearing those words coming from Eugene—whose skin, eyes, and hair bear an amazing resemblance to his late mother—causes his tear ducts to leak. He turns away to wipe away the tears and regain his composure, then smiles back. "Thank you," he responds, barely holding back the tremor in his voice.

In an attempt to change the topic, Eugene suggests a study session before going out, which a bewildered Naga agrees to. In quick succession, they finish their respective assignments, with the former offering to tutor the latter (as Eugene has learned, Naga is terrible with maths) to get the job done faster. With that out of the way, they head outside to practice. Playing on the uneven terrain is tricky work, with the ball rolling down the shallow hills, while each swift movement tears the ground apart, causing dirt and grass to go flying. But their meeting is not all fun and games.

As they pass the ball back and forth to each other, they try to create a sort of harmony, their movements in sync with each other. Unfortunately, the terrain makes performing it much more difficult than necessary. In the end, they sit down on the grass, staring at the rugged mountainside. Naga's gaze turns to Eugene, whose red hair seems to glow when faced against the setting sun. No, he is the setting sun, a fleeting thing of beauty just barely out of reach. He lays his hand on top of the other's, causing the wrist to turn, and the two interlock fingers, a simple but profound gesture. In contrast to the chill of the gentle breeze, he can feel an immense warmth, brimming from where the two are locked and spreading throughout. He enjoys this feeling and wants it to last, and as if in mutual agreement, Eugene shifts closer, and soon, their lips are touching, the burning sensation growing as their bodies brush against each other. Blinded by a sudden bright light, he closes his eyes and lets instinct take over…

 

A second later, he blinks his eyes, disoriented and more than a little dizzy. He looks down at his hands—brown like Naga's—then stumbles to his feet. Legs wobbling as if he had never used them before, he treks up the path, heading back to town with a muddled mind. As they pass by the window of a nearby building, they catch a glimpse of an unusual sight. Staring back is a figure that is neither Naga nor Eugene, but some stranger vaguely resembling both. Dark skin, vibrant red hair flowing down in swirling locks, round glasses, dark eyes. Who is he? What is he?

Wow, Naga's voice echoes in his head. So this is what we look like combined. You look beautiful.

"What? No, I'm not!"

Of course you are! You've always been great. You're smart, you're pretty, you're nice and athletic. You're perfect!

"You're wrong—I'm not perfect!"

You are to me. Does that count?

His cheeks flush bright red. "I guess."

Well, maybe you're not entirely perfect. You are a bit pessimistic. And you frighten easily.

"You're not wrong."

But with my bright, shining personality and courageous spirit, that's not a problem at all! You and me… together, we're perfect.

Perfect… Encouraged by the pep talk, he stands up and continue walking. Digging through his pockets (apparently, he's wearing Raimon's uniform bottoms and Lunar Sea's top), he finds two cellphones, but only takes out one. Setting up the camera, he stops to take a quick snapshot. After double-checking the quality, he sends the photo to his own phone. "There. Now we both can remember the moment." Putting the phone away and picking up the football, he walks into town, muttering, "What to do, what to do."

From the corner of his eye, he spots a hulking figure about to assault a smaller child. Both are sporting school uniforms, the former of Lunar Sea, and the latter Milky Way. A glimmer in his dark eyes, he calls out to the larger student, "You there!" He kicks the ball in their direction, making impact mere inches away from their face. "Let's have ourselves a little game. Winner takes all."

Chapter Text

Meanwhile, in Milky Way Charter, the one-man Detective Club, Keenan Sharpe, has trapped himself in the cramped storage room, surrounded by books, printed articles, and other relevant items. Hanging on an easel is a cork board, tacked with photos, news clippings, and handwritten notes. Using a laptop borrowed from the Computer Club, he checks up on recent updates to local news, and compiles his data in digital form. Text document software at the ready, he starts typing out his report.

According to the last witness's statement, the suspect was last seen wearing a Lunar Sea Academy uniform. However, they were unable to provide a better description due to poor lighting. As such, the only lead available is the uniform. However, that students from other schools could be involved in the murders is still a possibility.

His mind is reeling as his eyes scan the photos of the murder victims tacked to the board. Nobel, Aoyama, Tuffnot, Lee… Lermer.

The last name stings him the most. Keenan Sharpe and Zephaniah "Zippy" Lermer became close friends when they represented planet Earth in the Grand Celesta Galaxy just a year ago. Even after the tournament's end, they kept contact with each other, and embarrassed as he is to admit it, he fell in love with the young mathematician. So when he turned on the TV and watched the news reporting on his death, his entire body froze up, his eyes glued to the screen throughout.

Shaking himself off his trance, he continues typing.

At first glance, the suspects share little in common. However, examining the individuals' backgrounds reveal a common link: all of them participated in a national football tournament. Of those identified, the majority of them are divided between those who attended and represented Raimon, and those who competed against them. The one exception, Tuffnot from Ivy Selective, was a participant in Saint's Way, a competition that Raimon participated in, only to lose to Pirate's Cove, whom at some point also fought against Raimon.

Taking the murder weapon, M.O., and above evidence into consideration, the following possibilities can be speculated: first, that the murderer—or one of them, if others are involved—has some connection with Lunar Sea's football team, whether as a member or supporter; second, that the killer holds a grudge against Raimon and/or the teams represented in the tournaments; third, that the murderer is proficient with Special Moves.

Unable to come up with anything else, he saves the document and closes the laptop. Despite all he had written down, the resulting deduction is still too broad to form a proper conclusion. While he's sitting around typing all this out, the police likely already traveled the same train of thought and questioning the students and staff of Lunar Sea and Raimon. But adult-child interactions are far different compared to interactions between peers. Even if he comes to the same non-conclusion, it's still worth a shot.

 

One lengthy train ride later, he arrives in the city where Lunar Sea is located. Unfortunately, with the time it took to get there, he may have been too late. With the exception of club activities, the only people available to interrogate would be the staff, and it's unlikely that they would permit him, or take him seriously. Not to mention the great possibility of him being caught trespassing on the campus. Lost for ideas, he checks over what information he managed to gather on some of the students. Since his initial plan is out of the question, he has no other choice but to resort to direct confrontation.

It does not take long for trouble to follow. What started as a calculated search turned into a run-in with a hulking figure in an isolated corner of the town. Immediately, he identifies the figure's outfit as the Lunar Sea uniform. Before he can speak a word, however, the student throws him against a wall. Dizzy from the impact, he cannot fully capture what he said, but he caught some accusation of being out to frame him for the murders, or something along those lines. Keenan is about to protest when, all of a sudden, a flying object zipped over his head, almost hitting the larger student. The object hits the wall and bounces away—a football, he realizes. The ball, rolling away, is stopped by the foot of a mysterious figure standing at the other end.

The figure stands tall and slender, with long, flowing red hair and a glare of light reflected from the lens of their glasses. Unless his eyes are playing tricks on him, he could swear that they are sporting the colors of two different uniforms. Their voice, assertive despite the boyish pitch, booms out in an odd manner, almost as if two people were speaking at once. (The last detail Keenan chalks up as a result of his potential concussion.) The Lunar Sea student gleefully accepts the stranger's challenge.

The duel begins with the larger one charging towards the stranger. The stranger, however, swiftly dodges their opponent and takes the opportunity to strike him in the back with the ball. Keenan can clearly see flames shooting from their foot, which transfers to the ball, transforming it into a burning meteor. But the opponent, bulky as he is, manages to get back on his feet with little trouble and charges towards him again. Again, another evasion and attack. The Lunar Sea student looks to be in trouble, barely able to stand with his comically undersized legs. The stranger, a smirk on their face, is prepared to strike once again when from Keenan's mouth, a word bursts out: "Stop!"

The stranger loses their concentration and the ball gently bounces off their knee. Their expression loses the mischievous joy it had just seconds ago as everything seems to click. To the Lunar Sea student, they yell out, "Scram!" He limps off right away, whimpering to himself all the while. Turning back to Keenan, they speak to him gently, "Are you okay?"

"Yes, I think," he answers, accepting the stranger's hand pulling him to his feet. Briefly, he notices their feet, sporting two different shoes. "Are you from Lunar Sea or Raimon? Either way, I bet you'd fit right in with the football team, if you haven't already."

The stranger, flustered, brushes their hair to the side. "Thank you. I try my best." In the span of a moment, they turn from loud and assertive to meek and soft-spoken. Perhaps they're not used to compliments?

"Say, er, mind giving me a name?"

Right away, their eyes widen and start shifting side to side as they stutter, their body practically trembling. "My name? It's, uh… Thing is, uh… Wow, look at the time, I should go!" They turn and run, disappearing in the blink of an eye.

Though the stranger moved too fast to catch, Keenan's curiosity does not end there. In their haste, they left behind their football, which he picks up and inspects. It looks pretty worn out, and there are specks of dirt and grass on it. Were they playing in the hills nearby before they found him? It seems likely, though other conclusions can still be made. Turning to the direction they ran off, he begins to wonder. Who was that person? Where do they live? Are they single? So many questions, and more keep piling up by the second. Whatever the case, it looks like he's found a new lead.

Chapter Text

A quiet, rainy day at school comes and goes, and the trio of friends head to the stadium to practice. A simple friendly between the main and reserve teams, nothing particularly special. But when one of the reserve players runs with the ball, Eugene rushes over to and slide tackles them, his momentum aimed straight at their legs. One of the managers, standing for the referee, blows the whistle, but he pays no heed and shoots the ball towards the goal. The goalie, caught unaware, could not react fast enough to make a save.

Eugene receives a stern lecture from the coach, which he tunes out of as his sharp gaze focuses on Kaiser, whose expression seems to mirror his own. As he turns and starts to leave the pitch, Adé lunges to grab his wrist. "Hey, where are you off to? We're not done here."

Eugene tries to pull away, but his grip is too strong. "I can practice in my own time. Now, let go!"

"No." Adé's voice and mien are harsh and stern, which look completely out of place on the casual, affable boy, and his grip tightens the more the other struggles. "We're part of a team, and lately, you haven't exactly been acting like it."

With some persistence and quick thinking, Eugene frees himself and takes a defensive stance. "Are you blind, Adé? I'm working my hardest to do everything for you—for all of us. The one not working for the team is him!" He jabs a finger in Kaiser's direction.

"He's not the one breaking people's legs and showing off. You are!" As he says this, he reaches out and yanks Eugene by the collar. "If anyone needs their eyes checked, it's you!" The captain tries to intervene, but his words are cut off with, "Back off! This is our business!"

Shocked, he and the others back away, though some of the more assertive members of their team keep at the ready in case a fight breaks out. Silence lingers heavily over them, eventually broken by a wry chuckle. "I get it now. Maybe I do need my eyes checked. Just let me go, and I'll take my leave right away." His dark eyes, large and pitiful, show a glimmer of shame and regret. Adé, with a twinge of hesitation, lets him go. Suddenly, he is knocked off his feet, and his head hits the ground. As he loses his focus, he can hear the sounds of shocked voices and footsteps, all of which dissipate as he blacks out.

 

Meanwhile, walking out of the dojo and trekking down the east side of Raimon, Timmy is ready to pack up and head home when a gust of wind rushes by him, turning his long hair into a tangled mess on him. As he brushes the strands aside, he catches a glimpse of the red blur zipping away. Curious, he starts off after it, but as he makes the turn towards the front of the main building, he bumps into something, cutting his pursuit short. "Hey, what's the rush, Tim," a familiar voice asks as a hand helps him up.

Barely able to contain himself, Timmy says, "I saw… something red… ran by me… I—"

"Woah, calm down, buddy. Breathe." Doing as told, Tim explains his earlier occurrence, which causes Max to give pause. "Red blur? I saw something zip by here just a moment ago. He can't be too far. C'mon!" Following Max's insight, they run out of the school and end up by the train station, where—to their dismay—they lose track of the mysterious blur. "Dammit, we lost 'im! But he'll be back. And when he does, I'll catch him in the act!"

"What makes you think he'll be back?"

Max's hand rustles through his pocket and takes out a gold ring, adorned with a gemstone containing a miniature galaxy within its crystalline confines. "Cus he dropped this on the way out."

"What do you mean, you lost it?" Naga grabs Eugene by the shoulders and shakes him. "You know we can't fuse without that!" He stops and shifts his hands to the barren fingers that once sported the possession in question. "Sorry, I just…"

"It's okay," Eugene whispers as he lays his free hand on top of Naga's. "I'll get it back somehow."

Chapter Text

Early the next morning, Kaiser wakes up to the sound of the doorbell. Slowly, he shuffles from the couch to the front door. "Max," he murmurs questionably, his vision still out of focus.

"Morning," the person at the door greets. Definitely Max, judging by the voice. "I was wondering if you recognize this?" Max holds out a small, circular object, which Kaiser notices vaguely resembles the ring Eugene bought from the vendor.

"Sort of. It's not mine, though." He pushes the door, but something blocks its path. He looks down—Max's foot.

"Hey, since I'm here, I might as well ask how you're doing."

"I'm doing okay, I guess. I'm more worried about Adé."

"Adé? You mean your boyfriend?" A low, barely audible growl in response. "What happened to him?"

"Eugene happened. He hurt Adé." His one eye veers off to the side as his thoughts are shown clear as day: Now he has to pay.

Max's demeanor changes subtly once he hears this. "I see. Well, I'll talk to him when I can. He is my student, after all—it's my duty."

Kaiser walks into class—on time, for the first time in a while—and sits down next to the empty seat that normally belongs to Adé. Throughout the morning, his attention wavers from the teacher's lecture to Adé's absence. Not a day has passed that he hasn't thought about him, and since they started going out, it has only escalated. But while he tries to maintain a sense of optimism, his cynical nature quickly warps his imagination, resulting in daydreams where someone would try to take his precious Adé away from him, or worse. The doodles in his notebook, already rough and gritty, reflect his darker, innermost thoughts, and his current sketches overtake a large portion of the page.

He snaps out of his trance as the homeroom teacher says, "Peabody, please head over to the headmaster's office right away." His gaze quickly shifts to Eugene, whose apprehension is clear on his face as he stands up and exits the classroom, taking one last glance at him before closing the door behind him.

 

Once he reaches the office, Eugene's eyes widen when he sees another person standing beside the headmaster. "Naga?"

"I see you two are already acquainted," the headmaster replies with a chuckle. "Naga here has transferred here from Lunar Sea Academy, and starting today, will be an official student of Raimon."

Naga approaches Eugene and gives him a bow. "If it's not any trouble, I would like you to show me around. I bet your school is just as good as your team!"

"Oh, you were from Lunar Sea's football team, weren't you? Now I know for certain you will fit right in with us!"

After concluding their meeting with the headmaster, the two boys start their tour of the school. As they explore the campus, Eugene would point out and explain the purpose of each building or field, and Naga would stare in awe and make comment. He occasionally compares Raimon to his old school, but apart from some minor details, reception has generally been positive. Of course, knowing the sort of person he is, this is nothing unusual. Naga's favorite spot so far is, unsurprisingly, the football stadium. "Omigosh, this thing is huge! You're really lucky, you get to come here almost everyday. I bet you'd wanna live here if you could. I know I would." Eugene replies with a warm, if slightly sad smile.

The two part ways after they arrive at Naga's classroom, and Eugene returns to his own, at the exact moment science class is about to start. He reaches for the doorknob the same time Max does. "Oh, sorry. I didn't—"

Max lets out a short laugh as he retracts his hand to scratch the back of his head. "Nah, it's not your fault. Say, I wanted to ask you something."

"Of course, what is it," he asks, his nerves turned on full force.

"Do you recognize this?" Max holds out a familiar-looking ring, pinching it betwixt his fingers in front of the bespectacled boy's face. "I found it in front of the school building the other day. So, is it yours?"

Taken aback, Eugene reaches out and takes the accessory. "Yes! Th-thank you." He slips it on, adjusting it as he enters the room.

 

Come practice time, the second Eugene and Naga walk into the football stadium, they are greeted with cold stares. Arion, the only one not giving the cold shoulder, walks up to them, a sad look on his face. "Eugene, I don't know how to say this, but—"

Eugene cuts him off. "I understand. I plan on sitting out for the day. However, there is someone who wishes to join our team."

Arion's expression turns to one of shock as the former Lunar Sea student steps forward and bows. "Name's Nobby Naga, but you can call me Naga. I look forward to playing with you, sir!"

The captain, reassured by his energy, allows him to test his skills out with the rest of the team. As Eugene watches from the bench, isolated from the rest of his teammates, he feels a bit proud of Naga, seeing him warm up to the others on the pitch. Then his gaze shifts to Kaiser, who briefly locks eyes with him before turning to Naga. Destroy him, Eugene's mind screams. Destroy him at all costs!

The gem on Naga's ring starts to resonate, glowing in sync with Eugene's heartbeat. He bunts the ball in Kaiser's direction, surprising him. Then, just as his foot makes contact, Naga suddenly reappears beside him, opposite of where he was just a second ago, and knocks him off. By the time Kaiser gets back on his feet, Naga has already scored a goal.

Teammates old and new praise Naga for his play, and a few younger members look up to him like a hero. Some argue about whether he should be left in the reserves or not. In the end, Arion decides to place him in the main team, albeit as a substitute. All eyes are on Naga, and despite the pressure placed on him, he takes it all in stride.

 

As Kaiser strips off his uniform and heads into the shower, he jumps back when he hears the sound of the curtain shifting. "Good game out there, Sidewinder," Naga's voice rings in his ears as his head pokes through an opening in the curtain. Kaiser, reflexively, pushes him away, with Naga continuing to speak regardless. "With a little more practice, you can out-strike your ace by the time you graduate!"

Kaiser glares at him skeptically. "Was that supposed to be a compliment?"

"Only if you take it that way. But even if you don't, it's still true."

The blue-haired boy winces at the beaming bundle of joy. Is this what Adé meant when he spoke about him smiling too much? "At the rate you're going, you can become an ace striker yourself," he says with an envious tone.

"Thanks, but I still have a long way to go." Though it can be easily missed, his happy-go-lucky demeanor seems to break just a little bit. That brief second of vulnerability is enough to soothe Kaiser into lowering his guard. Just as he does, Naga once again takes advantage of the opportunity, rushing in to grab his hand and holding it close to inspect the bauble around his wrist. "Wow, you have the same thing as Eugene. That's so cool!"

"Uh, thanks? Adé has one, too, but he's not here today."

"Adé? You mean Flying Fish Boy? Come to think of it, I haven't seen him all day. What happened?"

Michael opens his mouth to speak when Eugene's head peeks in, causing Kaiser to recoil even further back. Eugene pretends to ignore the reaction and holds out a towel for Naga. "Congratulations on making the team," he says, beaming with pride. "I knew you could do it."

"Aw, shucks, I can't take all the credit! I couldn't have done it without your help."

Kaiser listens to these two talk with curious puzzlement. "'Your help'? Eugene, what is he talking about?"

"That's none of your business—"

Naga puts his finger to Eugene's lips, his dark eyes cold and collected. "No, he deserves to know." He moves his finger away, and Eugene, quivering, backs off and leaves them alone. Turning his attention back to Kaiser, he resumes. "You see this jewel you're wearing? It's a physical representation of the bonds between two people. Family, friends, even lovers, this crystal can reveal the true potential of a close bond, and rewards its wearers with a power unsurpassed by any living being on Earth." He leans closer to Kaiser's face. "Tell me, Sidewinder, what's your relationship with Flying Fish Boy?"

Flustered, Kaiser grumbles, "We're just close friends, that's all."

"Aw, c'mon! I can tell when you're lying. No one can lie making a cute face like that." He stares Kaiser straight in the eyes, giving that same cold look he gave to Eugene earlier. "And how your heart goes pitter-patter at the mere mention of him… it's really quite endearing."

His entire body shaking, he lowers his head. "We're… we're lovers."

Appearing gleeful at the boy's embarrassment, he clasps his hands over his decorated hand. "See? Isn't it great, being honest with each other? Now we've become even better friends! I can't wait to play and chat with you again!" Happily, he slips out of the shower, while Kaiser is left as a drenched, trembling heap.

Chapter Text

Late that night, Adé tosses and turns in his bed, wide awake all this time. Too many thoughts and fears and worries flood his brain by the day, and the resulting feelings have left him sleep-deprived. His insomnia has ruined his concentration and clouded his judgment, turning him into a high-strung mess. His eyes slowly start to close, until they shoot wide open at the sound of something tapping on glass. Frightened, he turns around and sits on the edge of the bed, ready to run, when he sees a pair of large eyes staring at him through his bedroom window. His heart leaps to his throat, but quickly settles down as his night vision clears up and the image of the figure outside becomes more recognizable. "Kai," his quivering voice escapes his lips as he approaches them. He opens the window and drags Kaiser in. "Man, what the hell were you doing out there? I get you wanna see me, but don't go sneaking 'round at night."

Immediately, Kaiser starts barraging him with questions. "Adé, why weren't you at school today? Does your leg hurt? Are you sick? You don't look sick. Are you avoiding me?"

"Slow down, mate! I can't—" He falls over backwards, causing a sudden shock of pain to surge through the bandaged leg where Eugene kicked him the other day. Swearing under his breath, he looks up at Kaiser, who's kneeling over, brows furrowed in concern. Seeing this awakens his friendly instincts, and he laughs off the pain. "Don't worry, it's not that bad. My head's just out of sorts from the other day. So, how's school today?"

 

Michael gives him all the details, his voice a flurry of fear and frustration as he explains further. "He knows about… us! I insisted we were just friends, but he could tell I was lying, and…" He stops and puts his hands to his face. "It's like he could see into my soul. Those eyes of his…!"

Adé stares, uncertain how to respond. He never realized Kaiser was this insecure about their relationship. In this day and age, it's not that big a deal if someone happens to be gay or bi or what have you, even if marriage isn't legal in most of Japan. (At least, it wasn't when he last checked.) But the fear in his voice seems to suggest a deeper issue than being stuck in the closet. "It'll be okay," he whispers in a weak attempt at consolation. "If anyone starts judging you for being gay, we—"

"It's not that sort of problem," he hisses as he grabs Adé by the shoulders and shakes him. "Naga, Eugene, they're plotting something, I know it! They know something we don't." Letting him go, he stares down at the gem dangling from his wrist. "'A physical representation of the bonds between two people'. That's what Naga said this was. If he's right, then it would explain everything!" His gaze shifts to the bandage-wrapped leg, then into Adé's eyes. "If this power he spoke of is real…" Slowly, he crawls forward, until he's right on top of him. Staring straight down, his voice turns into a frozen drone as he asks, "Adé, do you love me?"

"Of course I do!"

"Truly?"

"Y-yes!"

"You're shaking. Are you afraid of me?"

He swallows and whispers, "A little."

"Why? Do you hate me?" Adé hesitates for a second, taken aback by the question, but before he can protest, a pair of hands wrap around his neck and his throat begins to tighten, as his head suddenly hits the ground repeatedly. "How fucking dare you! You gave me my name, you saved my life, you made me who I am today! After all that you've done for me, how could you turn on me like this?"

Fighting his way out of his grasp, Adé succeeds and pushes Kaiser onto his back, reversing their positions, holding his hands down to prevent further harm. "I'm scared of you because I love you! Kai, I am grateful that we met, really. And I know you're scared, but this isn't the right way to go 'bout it." He stoops down to kiss Kaiser on the lips, loosening his grip. "There. Convinced now?"

His earthy eyes and warm smile stare down at the German boy's fully-exposed, half-scarred face, now on the verge of tears. Lying beneath Adé like this, he had never felt more vulnerable. But unlike that incident with Naga in the showers, he likes this feeling. This is exactly what he yearned for all this time. Take me, he wants to say, but that doesn't sound right. No, he wants to take him, burn his brand onto his flesh, make him his own for good. Thrusting upright, he reaches out and pulls him into a tight embrace, as he whispers, "Yes." As his head lays upon Adé's chest, his vision is obscured by a bright light, and his body starts burning up from the inside out. Finally, I'm in Heaven.

Chapter Text

In his apartment, sitting at his desk under the lamplight, Jim stares frustrated at the almost-blank text document on the laptop screen. Despite his desire to complete his latest attempt at a creation, he finds himself short on inspiration, unable to finish a single chapter. He tried dimming the screen's brightness, altering the text to something more comfortable on the eyes, even tried writing a later scene in the story he initially had in mind. But no matter what, nothing seems to work.

Outside his bedroom, he can hear the front door open, followed by the chattering of two voices, one of which he recognizes immediately as Sam's. He really shouldn't have given him a spare key. Ever since he did, Sam has picked up the habit of crashing into his home, more often than not bringing home some hot chick he picked up at whatever bar or club he frequents, and they would spend the night in the guest room, and Jim would have to suffer with hearing every disgusting noise through the night. Worst case scenario, Jim would bump into the two of them, and the woman would trap him into a social situation he wanted no part of in the first place.

 

But tonight feels different, somehow. Listening closely, the second voice also sounds familiar. It takes Jim a moment to connect it to a name, and he almost feels an urge to slap himself for his forgetfulness. Stepping away from his work-in-progress, he opens the door and sighs in relief when he sees the small, hooded young man. "Noir, good evening! I hope nothing terrible happened on the way here."

Noir's face shares the same relief, as he replies, "It felt a bit weird, riding a motorbike, but we got here safe and sound."

His comment piqued Jim's interest, as his attention turns to Sam. "You rode on your bike?"

"Ol' Harley's been sitting around, just begging for me, and I wanted to get together with her again," Sam says. "I'm still a bit rusty, though, so I had to be more careful."

"I see. Well, thanks for bringing him here. Futon's in the guest room if you need it." Noir thanks him as he turns and returns to his room. But mere seconds as he sits on his chair, he hears the bedroom door open and close shut behind him. "Noir, is there something you—"

Slumped in front of the doorway is Sam, whom he would have assumed has fallen fast asleep if he hasn't spoken up. "Mind if I talk to you alone?" Not seeing any reason to decline, Jim obliges. "When I said I was rusty, I meant it. I haven't ridden much since… You know."

Jim silently nods in agreement. Besides from Max, he is the only one who knows about the incident. Two years ago, back when Max still worked for the pet store, Sam got into an accident. He was riding his bike in the dark of night, as he often did, when all of a sudden, a drunk driver ran a red light and hit him. The doctors said he was lucky to have survived, but unfortunately, the accident revived an old injury he received back in middle school, worsening the bone structure. With physical therapy, he was back on his feet in a few months, but the injury left him with a limp in his gait, which he learned to hide thanks to years of drama classes and sheer persistence. He was always the one to lighten the mood for everyone, but Jim always knew when he was suffering.

"I thought about taking the car like usual, but when I went up to the driveway, all four of the tires were slashed." This takes Jim by surprise. Then he continues. "Just when things couldn't get any worse, I saw a message carved onto the side. 'You're dead, Raimon', it read."

Jim chuckles nervously. "You're kidding, right? Even if it was real, it's just some sick joke, right?"

Sam shakes his head. "I thought so, too, at first, but something wasn't right about it. So I got onto my bike and started to head out. Just as I was riding down the road, I saw this, this thing run by! It looked like a person—arms, legs, head, and everything—but it caught up to me in the blink of an eye." He pauses before saying, "The speedometer read seventy-eight miles-per-hour at the time. Seventy-eight. Whatever that thing was, it could run faster than most living creatures!"

Jim, caught up in the story, is now absolutely terrified. "Do you remember what it looked like?"

"Not much. But I remember it had long tendrils, like hair or something, and when the moonlight hit it at a certain angle, it seemed to have these big, round white eyes. But thinking about it now, it didn't look quite right when it turned away from me. Almost like it was wearing… glasses."

 

That last detail brings him out of the story, yet after a couple seconds of thought, a chill runs down his spine. That thing, capable of running God knows how fast, is most likely human. While his past experience playing for Raimon's football team exposed him to all sorts of unusual powers, he had never seen evidence of its potential unrelated to the sport. Unless an alien invasion is at hand, only one possibility rings in his head. "You don't think it's a rogue player, like the one responsible for the recent murders, do you?"

Sam shrugs. "Who knows? I'm not a detective. But even if I reported the incident, I doubt anyone would take me seriously." He sighs and walks over to the bed, then lands face-first on it. "Whatever. It was probably just my imagination."

Jim neither agrees nor disagrees, more concerned about his friend's weary state. He closes the laptop and helps him to bed, then lies down beside him. Though in most cases, he hated sleeping on the same bed as another person, he's willing to make a few exceptions.

Chapter Text

Garshield Industries Laboratory, a large, steely block of an establishment, built from the foundation of an abandoned prison. This is where company specialists test out their latest findings, the mysterious crystal with seemingly magical properties.

While the exact explanation behind the fusions are still unknown, scientists cannot deny that the effects are astounding. Through fusion, the result creates a being that shares the mind, body, and souls of two individuals. Though their supervising field agents—or "traveling vendors", as they're often called—suggest the users share a strong bond, lab testing has proven that, as long as the two are acquainted and exhibit a strong passion—whether for each other or a mutual goal—the fusion can still occur. The most common condition, aside from said passion, is motion, which, when in sync, sets off special vibrations from the crystal—vibrations that intensify with physical contact between two humans. Technically, only one crystal is needed to perform the fusion, but research has shown greater chances of success when both subjects each own one.

The head scientist rushes into the office, his wiry hair frizzled from panic and sleep deprivation. "Mr. Naga, something terrible has happened! Subject 286 is losing control!"

His superior, the sharp-eyed redhead, turns and stares down at him, his steely gaze freezing him solid. "Explain."

"Subject 286 is the fusion between Subjects 180 and 106, and one of the subjects chosen to test the effects of long-term fusion. And as you know, when two people fuse together, the result shares—"

"Get to the point."

"286 escaped from his cell and started attacking other subjects and our own men!" The scientist blurts this out, afraid of the punishment he would receive. Noboru Naga, as vice-president of Garshield, is the one who pulls the strings, maintaining control of all the worker ants while the queen, Dulana Rice, acts the role of Good Samaritan in front of cameras and media while looking down on everyone else. The perception most have of Naga are that of a cold, ruthless man, and in his striving for perfection, he lives up to that reputation. "We managed to restrain and sedate him, but unfortunately, the death count was rather high. Our remaining men are being treated as we speak."

"What caused the incident," he asks.

"A couple of weeks ago, 286 started reporting symptoms of psychosis and dissociative identity disorder. Soon after, he started reporting identity loss, claiming to be 286 instead of 180 or 106. It's likely that the mental strain was too much for him, and he snapped."

Briefly, his mien softens, just enough for him to command, "Go check up on the others. We cannot afford any more casualties." The head scientist, taken by surprise, freezes up. Immediately, Naga returns to his usual self. "Go!"

 

When the office door slams shut, Naga sits down on his desk, then whips out his cellphone and makes a call. From the other end, a young boy answers. "Papa!"

"Hello, Nobby. How's your first day in Raimon?"

"It's great! Eugene showed me around, and I got to play with their football club. They were so amazed by my skills, they put me in their main team."

A warm smile stretches across Noboru's face. "Really? That is amazing! How are the teachers? Is the education up to par?"

"They're really interesting! Especially science and PE. I think they used to play for Raimon or something. Well, that's what Mr. Carson said, anyway. I wasn't paying too much attention."

Noboru's voice turns cold. "Nobita. Pay more attention to your teachers." His smile returns, but the iciness has not left him. "Or you could miss something important."

The nuance not lost on him, Nobby answers in monotone, "Yes, sir."

"Good. Moving on, have you made any other friends at your new school? It's always important to have friends, after all."

The warmth returning to Nobby's voice, he says, "I got to see Sidewinder today. And guess what? He and Flying Fish Boy are going out! But that's supposed to be a secret, so don't tell anyone, okay?"

A short laugh. "Is that so? I won't tell a soul, then. Your new friends are very interesting. I'd like to meet them in person sometime." The desk phone starts to ring. "I have to go. I'll see you next week." He hangs up and switches to the desk phone. "Garshield Industries. This is Naga speaking."

The voice on the other end is also boyish, but of a lower timbre. "Hey, it's Dulana. What's the update on the lab testing?"

"We had a major setback, but it's being handled as we speak."

"Anything from the field agents?"

Flipping through digital and printed reports, he says, "So far, there have been a handful of successful fusions among the new subjects, but others have yet to learn of the crystal's potential. The adult subjects are especially ignorant, with no regular wearers or attempted fusions thus far. All the subjects are from different locations, but many of them have some connection to Raimon Jr. High, whether it's as a student or past competitor." The reports come with other details, including numerical stats based on scientific jargon Naga is not knowledgeable of, but Mr. Rice is more concerned with the general summary. In that sense, the line between overburdened corporate executive and easily-distracted child become blurred.

"Raimon?" Dulana's tone changes subtly, though Naga is unsure whether it's one of curiosity or contempt. "Interesting. Say, your son is one of the subjects, isn't he? How is he doing?"

"I'm proud to tell you he has been extremely successful thus far. Not only has he found a partner in a fellow subject, but the two have fused multiple times with few negative consequences. The distance between their schools had set them back, but I've enrolled him in Raimon to smooth out the process."

His boss lets out an innocent laugh. "Your kid's really something, isn't he? I bet his partner's just as amazing. Keep an eye on those two, Naga. They're gonna go far."

Chapter Text

Looking around, he sees that he is in a familiar bedroom. But something feels… wrong. Whose bedroom is this?

This is Adé's house.

Yeah, my house.

Wait, did he just think that? Both answers are correct, but it doesn't make sense. Nothing does. Putting his hands to his head, he shakes it. His sight is clear, yet he feels disoriented. When he closes his eyes, he can see flashes of visions. Thoughts of joy, sadness, anger. Happy memories of fishing, and horrifying flashbacks of domestic abuse. Dreams, fantasies, desires. It's all a disjointed jumble. Who am I?

He opens his eyes. Obscured by long bangs, yet strangely unfazed, he takes an unsteady step forward. Then another. And another. Once his legs adjust, he motions over to the lamp—or where he assumes the lamp is—and flicks it on. With no mirror in sight, he comes up with an immediate idea. He reaches for his phone, sets up the camera, and takes a photo of himself. Looking through the gallery, he almost drops the phone. Staring back at him is a frozen image of a human being, with dark skin and cyan hair, sporting goggles and a completely different hairstyle than usual. What am I?

I'm a freak. I'm a monster. I'm—

Kaiser, calm down! I know this is weird, but we gotta keep a level head if we're gonna get ourselves out of this.

Right. Deep breaths… Okay, I think I'm better.

'K, so you're you, I'm me, and we're both… whoever that is in the pic. Question is, what caused it?

He looks down at the bracelet, and recalls that brief second when he was engulfed by that bright, heavenly light. Did they die then and got reincarnated in the same body? No, that sounds ridiculous. After all, they're still in the same place they were before that moment. Then he suddenly remembers his encounter with Naga in the shower. Oh, how discomforting that was, his body pressed against his, his hand gripping his wrist like that. He really, really, really hates that guy. But Naga's words echo in his head. A physical representation of a bond…

Are you sayin' this dangly thing's responsible for this?

Naga seems to know a lot about it.

But that's impossible!

Do you have a better explanation?

Adé's mental voice shuts up. Kaiser's resumes.

Hey, your leg was injured, right? So why don't I feel anything?

I dunno. I guess these are your legs. But why don't I feel shorter?

I guess the fusion takes from both of us. The hair it gave us is pretty weird, but in a cool way.

It is pretty cool. Say, you wanna head out, rock the town? I could use some fresh air.

He smiles. I couldn't agree more.

 

He opens the window and jump out, running the instant his feet hit the ground. As they travel about the town, the voices in his head debate about where to go.

We oughta show Eugene. It'd blow his mind!

No.

Still holding a grudge, aren't you?

You know well what he did. He's not our friend anymore, Adé. Eugene is the enemy.

Maybe he's on bad terms with you, but he's still my best friend.

"No!" He skids to a stop. "You're my best friend. No, you're more than that. You're the reason I'm still alive. You gave me my name. You gave me life. You belong to me and me alone."

Kai, I dunno how to say this, but you're fucking crazy!

"'Crazy'? Is that what you think of me?" A grin spread across his face, he lets out a cackle. "I assure you, I'm completely sane. In fact, I've never felt more alive!"

Adé wants to speak up, but no words come to mind. Even though they share one body, his thoughts would go unheard. Kaiser is in control, and there's nothing he can do about it. Unless…

He takes a step forward, then another. And another.

W-what are you doing, Kaiser's thoughts yell out.

"Taking back my life. Starting now."

He stops, and turns about face. "After all that I've done for you, you're going to betray me?"

Another turn. "I'm not betraying you. I'm reminding you that I have a life, too! And like it or not, Eugene's a big part of that."

Again. "Eugene this, Eugene that. If you like him so much, then why don't you marry him? Just leave me to rot!"

And again. "You bleedin' idiot! You're both important to me! If you'd just listen to me, you'd know that."

"You selfish…!" Fists clenched, he punches the nearest hard surface—and flinches as his bones crack from the pressure of hitting concrete. The sharp pain resonates throughout his arm, the nerve endings spreading their message to the brain. Once the message is sent, he is struck by a sudden epiphany: this body—this representation of their bond—is about to fall apart, and it's because of him. "Fine. You go ahead." But don't blame me if shit hits the fan.

Cautious, but content, Adé takes full reign of the physical body and starts for Eugene's house. However, partway through their trek, a sudden gust of wind causes him to stumble. As he regains his balance, he catches a glimpse of the cause: a red blur of some sort, which might be human but moves too fast to be human. His curiosity on full blast, he starts running after it. Though not nearly as fast, his newfound speed surpasses that of his original body, and he catches up just enough for it to be within his sight. The red thing looks back, and he does a double take. Those dark eyes, staring from behind thick-rimmed glasses, and that red hair, tied in pigtails that flow in rhythm with the wind. "Eugene?"

Immediately, the figure stops and turns its body around. It looks a lot like Eugene, but the skin and length of hair suggest otherwise. "Adé? You fused?" Noting the color of his hair, its gaze turns cold, as if to say "with him of all people?", but then it warms up, his mouth curled up into a smile. "I'm so proud of you!"

"Proud? Fuse? Eugene, I think you owe us an explanation."

"Please, call me Eunaga." Kaiser internally scowls at mention of the name. "How are you adjusting to your new body?" Adé explains their experiences up to this point, with only Eunaga's eyes and brows reacting throughout. "I see. Since it's your first time, that's bound to happen. Sharing one body means sharing thoughts, memories, and mental functions. As such, it's usually recommended you pick a partner who's a little more… What's the right word? Stable."

"I am stable," Kaiser bursts out.

"If you say so. You two seem like a good fit for each other, so I won't protest." Kaiser really wants to punch that smug face right now. "But really, you caught up to us real fast. And if you're able to fuse with just one crystal, your bond must be especially strong. I'm looking forward to seeing what else you have in store." Before Adé or Kaiser could say a single word, Eunaga turns and runs off, disappearing from sight.

 

As he wanders, he thinks back to their conversation with Eunaga, and the voices in his head start talking again.

I thought those two were bad enough individually, but together, they're insufferable.

I guess I can agree with that a bit. But have you noticed anything weird about 'em?

Besides how annoying they are?

I mean, like, how they talk. They gave themselves a name, and talk about themselves like they're one person. They seem canny good at it. Perhaps too good.

They're just getting into the role. They are one person at the moment, so they have to act like it. Perhaps we should give this body a name. Any ideas?

Adékai, Kaidé, Mikébé Adékai's not too bad.

They're all terrible. But let's go with Kaidé for now. Sounds more like a real name than your other ideas.

Hey, Adékai could work, too!

Kaiser simply ignores him and continues onward.

Chapter Text

Sleep doesn't come easy for the two after the events of that night. Physically and mentally drained, they can barely budge out of bed, let alone walk to school. Having to explain Michael's presence in Adé's bedroom that night didn't help, either. But regardless, here they are, almost incapable of keeping their heads up during class.

Kaiser squints at the chalkboard, trying to concentrate on taking notes, when he hears a thud from an adjacent desk. "Mr. Kébé," he hears the teacher say, "if you're not feeling well, I'd rather you stay at the nurse's office than disrupt the class."

Eugene stands up to volunteer to take him, but Kaiser interrupts. "I can take him. I'm not feeling too well myself." The teacher looks at him suspiciously, but grants him permission. After dragging Adé's unconscious self to the nurse's office, he collapses on one of the beds and falls asleep instantly.

 

Adé's eyes open and shift about. Left, right, up, and down, there is nothing but emptiness. Blacker than the deepest abyss, so dark he cannot even see his hand in front of him. Darkness so pervasive, it threatens to envelop him like a ravenous monster. This is no ordinary darkness: this is a darkness that could only exist in one's nightmares.

"Hello," he calls out, covering up his nerves. Nothing, not even an echo. As if the inky blackness is thick enough to absorb sound. He repeats himself once more, then twice. Still nothing. Desperation starts to set in, when…

"Adé," a voice echoes in his head. He turns around instinctively. "Help me, Adé. Save me." The voice repeats these lines over and over, becoming louder and more distorted. Adé covers his ears, to no avail. Then, just as it hits its peak volume, it suddenly stops. Relieved, he sighs and lowers his hands, only to freeze up at the sight before him.

Kaiser—or what he thinks is him—stands before him, head bowed and limbs lax, like a marionette hanging loosely from its strings. Half-exposed, his brown skin is scarred with stitches, with bits of it missing or patched up with squares of different skin tones. More obviously, a gaping, bleeding hole in his chest. Before Adé can say or do anything, he lifts his head, his hair concealing both of his eyes. "Why do I feel so… empty?" As he speaks, he slowly shuffles towards Adé. "Save me… Complete me… Love me…" Tilting his head to one side, his bangs shift, exposing one wild eye as his lips spread to a manic grin. "Become one with me…"

 

Adé wakes up in a cold sweat, gasping for air. Groping his chest, his breathing slows down. Just a dream. Thank goodness.

"Are you okay," a familiar voice—thankfully, not Kaiser's—asks. "You're looking a bit pale."

Turning to face the voice, a wave of relief washes over him—Eugene. "Yeah. Just a bad dream, like. What's up?"

"You were out for a while, so I took notes for you. Mr. Carson was especially worried about you."

Adé glances at the beds to either side of him. Empty. "What about Kai? Is he alright?"

"He left just as I arrived. He hardly looked much better, but that's no surprise."

A throbbing pain surges from the back of his head. While the impact from the other night did hurt pretty badly back then, that it decides to make a comeback now feels like anything but coincidence. He tries to stifle a swear, not wanting to incite the nurse's attention.

"If you're still unwell, maybe you should leave early."

"No, I'll be fine, really!"

Eugene is about to protest when someone else enters the office. The nurse chats with the student as she fixes them up with bandages and disinfectant. Between the sounds of band-aids stripping away from its packaging, the student speaks. "Oh, hi, guys! What're you doing here?"

Taken aback, Eugene turns around. "Naga?" Inspecting the rest of the transfer student, he can count more than a half-dozen scrapes, cuts, and bruises all over. "What happened?"

"Oh, I got in a fight with a kid during PE. Boy, Mr. Saunders was fuming! But he let us off with a warning and made the other guy apologize, so it wasn't all bad."

"Can you still play?"

"Of course! I've been through worse. Speaking of which…"

Just then, another student enters. His tiny body is covered in bruises, his ash brown hair is in disarray, and he wipes a tear from his chocolate brown eyes as he walks over to the nurse. Compared to Naga, the kid is a complete wreck. Jean-Pierre Lapin is the name that echoes in Eugene and Adé's minds as they immediately recognize him. Once a defender, now the goalkeeper of their team, JP is a bubbly ball of energy, certainly not the type who would instigate a fight. They immediately come to one conclusion.

 

Dragging Naga outside, Eugene lets it all out. "What's wrong with you? JP is our teammate! What did he do to deserve this? Tell me!"

"We were just playing," he answers nonchalantly. "'Sides, he started it."

"It doesn't matter who started it. You of all people should know better. I don't expect you to apologize, but I do want to know why."

A long pause later, Naga answers, his entire demeanor a complete one-eighty from just seconds ago. "I hate him. That stupid brat thinks just because he has a powerful Spirit under his belt, he can call himself a great player. I needed to prove to him how a real soldier works on the battlefield."

Eugene knows that what he's saying about JP is far from the truth, but at the same time, the envious part of him feels that, perhaps, he deserved to get knocked down a peg or two. While most would protest against the comparison, he can see the logic behind it, and even sympathize to an extent. Sharing a body means sharing thoughts, ideals, and memories, and through the fusion process, he learned of a whole new perspective, one which—for better or worse—had since become partially ingrained into him. Stifling his emotions, he takes on the role of commander. "Like him or not, Lapin is still a key member of our team. Whether in football or war, it's important to work with the people you are stuck with. Let this serve as your lesson."

Naga, briefly, is taken aback by this sudden shift in attitude, but he nods, admiring it. "Yes, sir."

He softens his tone, whilst still retaining an air of authority. "As you might have noticed, things work a bit differently here at Raimon. People here only see it as a game. Most of them don't ever notice the comparison between war and sport. Whether you agree with it or not, it's important to take that into consideration, and utilize it in your strategies. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

A smile on his face, Eugene says, "Good." The bell suddenly rings, startling him. "Better get going. You wouldn't want to miss any more classes, would you?"

Eugene's warmth melts Naga's former demeanor, turning him into the excitable boy he ran into that one day. "Thanks for the pep talk, Genie. You're the best!"

As the bespectacled boy watches him run off, another voice rings in his ears. "That was proper belter, like. I've not seen you act like that in, like, ever."

His heart jumps as he turns to see the speaker. "Oh, Adé. You saw that?"

"Aye, all of it. You got a real knack with that kid, y'know? I doubt I'd have done the same."

"He's still adjusting to life at Raimon, so it's not surprising he would act out a bit. Following orders comes easy to him—he just needed a gentle touch."

"Geez, you sound more like his mom than his friend," Adé teases.

"Well, somebody has to," Eugene is about to say, when he spots something peeking from behind the corner of a building. A spot of blue hair… "We should start heading for class. Can't leave Mr. Carson waiting."

"Aye." As he follows Eugene to the third-year building, the conversation from moments ago resonates in Adé's mind. While Eugene has been slowly changing thanks to last year's anti-Fifth Sector revolution led by Arion, it wasn't until he met Naga that he feels he truly changed. Gone is the coward from the past, and before him is a person who, while still timid, is capable of standing on his own two feet when necessary. The Eugene he knew would never muster the courage to approach someone like Naga, let alone talk to them that way.

Could this be the result of their fusing? Or is it just a natural result of their friendship? It's nothing unusual if it's the latter. But if it's the former, that would be cause for concern, not just for his friend, but himself. Eunaga said something about fused individuals sharing mental functions, right? Assuming he can take that at face value, does that mean…? No. Keep it together, Adé. You're not gonna go crazy. Get your head together!

Chapter Text

It's a slow day at the Midnight Tarot Cafe, only picking up late in the afternoon, after club activities have ceased. The cafe has never been particularly popular due to its occult themes, but it's gained a loyal following of teenagers and young adults, who usually visit the place out of curiosity or as a test of courage. Whatever their reasons, they often end up staying for the entire service, whether for the food or the readings or both. But one regular customer has clear ulterior motives.

Sporting the uniform of Milky Way, the orange-haired boy is adorably chubby, looking a bit rounder this time than the last, and his green eyes, wide and ever-staring, are reminiscent of an owl in search of prey. Keenan Sharpe, Styx recalls his name. He started traveling to Inazuma Town around the same time as the murders, intent on capturing the killer, and only started visiting this humble cafe when the young Raimon student's body had been found. Though Styx was loathe to look back on that night, this boy prodded him into opening up about it, and for that, he is simultaneously relieved and paralyzed by his presence.

"The usual," Styx asks as he escorts Keenan to a table. Right away, he can sense something off about him.

"Yeah. But, eh, make it two slices."

Styx nods and sends the order to the chef. Minutes later, he returns with a latte and a plate holding two slices of strawberry shortcake, lovingly topped with cranberry sauce and a strawberry dipped in white chocolate and decorated to resemble a skull. The morbid visuals might seem inappropriate knowing current events, but this is how they run things, and the boy seems desensitized enough not to mind. "It looks like you have something plaguing your mind. Would you like a reading to clear your thoughts?"

A solemn nod cues Styx to summon his deck and start shuffling. "I lost a good friend of mine," Keenan starts off. "He was from a different school, but we met through some rather unusual circumstances. Things were rough at first, but over time, we became friends, and…" He trails off, but the waiter can read the sentiment perfectly. "So when I found out what happened to him, I… I couldn't believe it. I insisted on seeing the body, but they wouldn't let me. 'The body's too damaged', they said." On the verge of tears, he says quietly, "I just wanted to see him one last time."

Styx wants to point out that that's usually something that could be done at the funeral, but the previous statement makes him think that wouldn't be a great idea. "Wherever he is now, I'm sure your friend is smiling down at you. And I'm sure he will be proud of you for everything you're doing to help in his case. I cannot do much to help, but with these cards, I can offer some advice to stir you further along your path."

Wiping the tears away from his eyes, he mutters a simple "thanks". Though he had no interest in the occult, he admitted that he found the people interested quite curious, and with the face he's giving, he seems to be slowly understanding the appeal. The universe is vast and full of mystery, and as such there is much that mortal beings do not know. And for those who feel lost and uncertain in their life, there exist options to help guide them. Some attend therapy, others turn to the stars and spirits, and some who deal in both or choose other methods, some less savory than others. Though he cannot wrap his head around it, he understands that this is just one way to cope with the hands dealt by Fate.

Once he finishes shuffling, Styx lays down three cards, backside up. He turns over the first card to the left. Lovers, upright. Then the second. Hermit, reversed. Finally, the third. Hanged Man, upright. "You and your friend were close, correct? You, at one point, felt like together, you were unbeatable. With your collective minds, you were able to solve any problem. But after his loss, you may have felt that you aren't as keen and sharp as you once were. You may become suspicious of others, including those whom you once considered friends. Do not forget your friend's loss, but do not be discouraged by it, either. If you keep your wits up and pay close attention to those you choose to speak to, you will learn who to trust and solve this case."

Keenan stares down at the cards between them, his index finger and thumb to his chin like always. After a long pause, his brows rise, and he speaks up. "I better go now. Mind if I take this to go?" Once the leftovers are packaged, he thanks the waiter and exits. The advice he gave was brief and vague, Styx knows, but if it helps Keenan in the slightest, it's worth the time he spent performing the reading.

 

Styx's shift ends shortly after his meeting with Keenan, and his friend, Johan "Talisman" Tassman, offers to drive him home, which he happily accepts. When they enter his apartment, the first thing he usually does is check the guest bedroom. All seems well at first, with the lights turned off and everything left untouched, but then he hears the sound of whimpering. Stepping inside, he looks around. Huddled in a corner, uttering unintelligible words before an electric candle, is Phil Noir. Cautious, he approaches the young man. "Noir? It's me, Styx. Did something happen?"

Noir takes the candle and thrusts it in Styx's direction, only to back down, a sigh of relief escaping his lips. "Styx… I saw… something… Just like the one from the other night."

"The other night?" He remembers hearing Phil's account of the ride to Jim's apartment. "Was it the same one?"

He shakes his head, then picks up his notebook, opened at a page with a series of scribbles on it. Styx can barely make out the details under the dim lighting, but he can see what looks like a flame with large, sharp eyes, and a jagged grin beneath it. While the other enigma can be described as being somewhat humanoid, this one looks more monster than man.

"Another one? Where did you find this?"

Hands trembling, he answers, "Out in the lot, right before you came in."

Chapter Text

After locking up the library for the night, Jim drives Noir back to his apartment. As they step out of the car, however, they come across an unusual sight.

Over in the distance is a dot of pale blue, which appears to grow closer. As they stare, they begin to notice other things about it. Glowing eyes, which upon closer inspection appear to be part of some sort of headwear, its actual eyes concealed by a wave of cyan. A lanky humanoid body wearing a disheveled Raimon uniform. Most unusual, however, is its voice—or rather, voices—and disjointed speech mannerisms, as if it's talking to itself.

As the mysterious figure continues to walk in their direction, Jim pulls Noir behind him. If this… person… is like the one Sam witnessed, it could pose a threat. When that happens, he'll do whatever it takes to ensure Noir's well-being. But how? He has no weapons, and what athletic ability he had back in junior high dwindled with the years. He can try to pull off a special move, but as he pondered during that conversation with Sam, the possibility of doing that without a ball in sight is dubious. Perhaps if he concentrates hard enough…

Suddenly, the walking enigma stops, standing at arm's length of the two, and looks up at Jim. "Do I know you," it whispers, its voice like an echo of two different people speaking in harmony, performed to eerie effect. It turns its attention to Noir, who is peeking his head out from behind the taller man. "You… I've seen you before. You're Max's friend, aren't you?"

The voice's dynamics change slightly, creating an undercurrent of familiarity. With hesitance, he replies, "Yes…"

It tilts its head, then turns and walks away, muttering to itself. Jim, beginning to pity the poor creature, considers speaking up, but doesn't. As they watch it walk away, he's left with even more questions to mull over.

 

After leaving the lot, Kaidé continues to wander, exploring the familiar surroundings from a new perspective. While not capable of running as fast as Eunaga, he can still run faster than his individual parts, and his athleticism does not end there. At one point, he drops by the local park to practice his shooting skills. As he learns the hard way, his kicks are extremely powerful, without even executing a special move.

Looking at the destruction he created, his heart fills with glee. Kaiser has always wanted to become stronger, but his personal limitations always held him back. But now, with Adé's strengths adding to his own, he can finally achieve that dream. The question is, are they willing to sacrifice their individuality?

"Hey, you," an unfamiliar voice calls out to him. Turning around, he is blinded by a bright light, emitted from a flashlight held by a cop. "Park's closed. You better leave, or I'll…" The cop stops, their eyes shifting to the dented playground and bisected trees. "What the hell?" As they slowly start connecting the dots, a wave of fear washes over them, further perpetuated when Kaidé starts to approach.

 

The next morning, a park officer is reported to have died of blunt force trauma, as a group of students discover their bruised, mangled corpse amidst the wasteland once known as a bustling landscape for children to play. "… Police are speculating that this murder may have some connection to others in the area."

As the TV blares from the living room, Adé is paralyzed with fear as he tries to recount last night's memories.Why can't I remember? Why can't I remember anything?  Out of options, he picks up his cell phone and sifts through his contacts until he finds the only other person he can talk to. "Hey, Eugene? It's me, Adé. We need to talk. Can we meet up somewhere today?"

Later, around noontime, he waits by the entrance to the arcade when Eugene comes running over. "I received your call. But why do you want us to meet here?" As he says this, he glances over his shoulder at the shady-looking alley cats lurking nearby.

Swallowing his nerves, Adé confesses. "It's Kaiser. He… I… We…" He leans in to Eugene's ear and whispers, "I think we must've killed a man."

His face pale with shock, he steps back. "No. It can't be…! Are you sure?"

"I dunno. I remember being at the park, an' seein' that cop's face. After that…" He bows his head in shame. "Everything's a blank. You don't think Kai did it, do you?"

Eugene bites his lower lip as he thinks of what to say next. "Not to say for sure, but it is possible he took over and did something. Even if it was him, there's nothing to prove it. Look, maybe this is a sign you should, you know, spend some time away from him."

Hearing this sends Adé into a panic. "I can't do that! What if he tries to kill himself again? I can't have his blood on my hands! I promised I'd be there to help him. I promised…"

Putting his hands on his shoulders, Eugene speaks in a soothing voice. "Adé, calm down. Listen to me. He will not die. He will live. He's survived without you before, he can do it again. Trust me, this will help him in the long run." He lifts the Geordie's head. "If not for your own sake, then do it for me. Please?" Tears streaming down his face, Adé nods.

Chapter Text

Noboru Naga has been summoned into the president's office. Though he is known for his aloof and fearless demeanor, inside he feels his nerves threatening to surface. As he steps inside, he asks, "Mr. Rice, is there a reason you need me?"

Dulana Rice had his back turned when Naga entered, but when asked, he turns around and picks up a document from the desk. "After our last unfortunate incident, we've tightened our security, allowing for testing to progress more smoothly. The most recent reports have achieved more positive results, and we're considering starting mass distribution. Of course, the final product will differ from what we've been using in the lab, so undesired fusions shouldn't be a problem for us. But seeing as how your son is among the test subjects, I won't object if you have any concerns."

Naga takes the paper and scans through it, a wrinkle of doubt in his handsome features. "I see. Well, considering the consequences otherwise, my decision is clear as day." Taking a pen, he slams the paper down and scribbles down his signature.

Rice glances at the signed document, then Naga. "Color me surprised. I assumed you would say no."

"Yes, Nobby is important to me, but this is not solely for his sake. In the right hands, our discoveries could save the world. Granted, we will need to take further measures to ensure the safety of our customers. Which is why I'd like to ask for one condition before we proceed."

 

In the middle of the next week, the football team gathers around in the stadium's meeting room, expecting to hear from their coach. What they find instead takes them by surprise. Standing beside Coach Evans is a tall, older man whose crimson hair is streaked with silver. "Good day to you, children," the stranger greets them with a calming smile. "I'm Noboru Naga, Nobby's father. I thought I'd drop by to check up on my son and his friends." He moves his hands from behind his back, and shows off a box. "I also brought you gifts. There's plenty to go around, so take one!"

Curious, Arion approaches Noboru, rummages through the box, and takes out a smaller box. Inside is a pendant resembling a small galaxy attached to a golden chain. "This is for us? Really?"

Noboru nods. "Consider this a token of your friendship. Naga has told me how much he's enjoyed playing alongside you, and for that, I commend you. Garshield Industries will be distributing a new line of stylish accessories for athletes, and we have chosen Raimon to help with promoting our new products. Your performance and reputation make you the perfect representatives. Wear these during your matches, and you'll be the envy of every school in Japan." He offers an extra box to Coach Evans. "For the wife."

"Thank you, Mr. Naga," Evans replies as he accepts it. "I take it you'll be attending the match?"

"Of course! I flew all the way here just to watch my son play. What father would I be otherwise?"

As they receive their gifts, the team and their coach thank Mr. Naga. Eugene and Nobby are the last to receive their gifts. However, instead of the magical gem-decorated pendants and bracelets, they instead receive silver armbands lined with tiny white gemstones. When they're left alone with him, he goes on to explain their purpose. "These may look like regular bracelets, but they're actually power limiters. Our test subjects have experienced some… issues, with frequent use of the Galaxy Gems. So we had our best scientists manufacture special stones to lessen the side effects. Unfortunately, your combined strength when fusing will be weaker than normal, and fusion may not even be possible while wearing them. These are just prototypes, so I'd like for you two to do me a favor and test them out for my company."

"Yessir," Nobby says eagerly, followed by Eugene, who mimics him with a nervous quiver in his voice.

"Good. And one more thing. The two of you are Garshield's best agents. We expect a perfect score in the upcoming match. And every other match throughout the tournament."

Eugene, already apprehensive, becomes outright shocked. "Wait, a perfect score? But we'll be up against some of the best in Japan! The chances of that are—"

"Consider this a chance for you to prove your true potential. Besides, in case you've forgotten, you have an extra ace up your sleeve." He shifts his glance at Naga, who puffs up his chest in pride. "Do whatever you must to win. Make me proud!"

 

The regional preliminaries kick off, with Raimon going up against Milky Way Charter. Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to get in touch with other Raimon students, Keenan brings his wits along with his uniform.

"It's about time you showed up, fatso," one of Milky Way's players, an androgynous, violet-haired youngster who—as anyone with functioning eyes will notice—is just as, if not more plump, sneers as Keenan approaches. "Since you're finally here, lemme tell you what's up: we're short a few members, so you're stuck with me and Cy."

"You're on defense," Keenan inquires, brow raised. "I thought you played midfield."

His companion, a taller, more mature boy with long, peach-colored locks, replies, "Cy and I put him through intensive training over the summer. You can say he's a little more well-rounded these days." He smiles serenely as his subtle pun embarrasses the other. Their expressions imply something deeper, but Keenan doesn't see it as something worth probing into right away.

As the teams start heading out to the pitch, Keenan stops to inspect each of the players. The only ones he knew personally were Arion and JP, from the galaxy-wide tournament they all got dragged into. But when he turns his attention to the pigtailed redhead, their eyes meet, and both of them jump a bit. Did he recognize me? That's what both seem to think.

"Qué te pasa, Adé," Gabi asks as he readjusts his pink twin tails. "Your leg's better, isn't it?"

Adé is hunched over on the bench, rubbing at his temples. "Aye, I'm fine."

Frowning, Gabi says, "If you're not feeling well, you can always stay on the bench." His blue-green eyes scan their half of the turf and their reserves, thinking about how to fill the void, when his eyes fall on a scrawny boy with ashy blonde hair. "Hugh, can you take over for Adé?" Hugh blinks, taken by surprise, then nods and walks onto the pitch. "You rest easy now. When you're better, just say the word, entendido?"

With both teams in position, the match starts off without a hitch. In contrast to their match in Saint's Way last year, Milky Way's defense is much stronger. The reserve player they brought out is surprisingly competent, and, more surprisingly, Riker—the purple-haired midfielder-turned-defender—has learned to summon a different Fighting Spirit to suit his new position. Adé is unsure if that's even possible, but as he never could figure out how to summon in the first place, he refrains to look further into it.

What catches his attention, however, is Eugene's performance. While he's always been the fastest by a long shot, his skill in other areas hardly matched up to the rest of them (save for perhaps the reserve team). But it's clear as day how much practice he had been sneaking in, as his movements are smoother and his kicks stronger than ever. Some of the teams they went up against last year were notorious for playing rough, but Eugene's aggressive play makes them look pitiful in comparison. Then he kicks the ball, which zips right past the defense and into the net. No special moves or power-ups needed—just a simple kick. When did he become this strong?

By the end of the first half, the score is three to zero in Raimon's favor. Eugene sighs in relief as he stops by for a quick snack break. As he finishes off the sandwich in his hand, he spots a familiar face within his peripheral vision. "Adé, are you ready to head out?"

Adé scratches his head. "I, er, I'm not sure, like."

"Playing should take your mind off of Kaiser. And it would certainly improve our offense." He shoots a brief glare at Hugh, whose back is turned the whole time. "Besides, Naga's been desperately wanting to see you play. He'll never stop pestering me if you don't!" As he says this, a nervous smile forms across his face—one which Adé considers more like Eugene's usual self.

"Well, if it makes you two happy, I guess I'll play for a bit." He stands up and follows him out to the pitch, an uneasy feeling in his stomach the whole time.

Over the course of the second half, both teams amp up their game, knowing that at any second, the whistle would blow, signaling the end. Not wanting to let his friends down, Adé ignores the throbbing pain in his head and plows through the midfield. Without him noticing until the last second, he appears before the goal. I can't lose again, a voice in his head cries out. We must WIN!

He shoots the ball into the air, then leaps up and kicks it several more times to add more spin. On the final kick, the aura of a giant snake appears, adding an extra boost of earthly power to the projectile as it aims for the goal. "Sidewinder!" As he shouts out the name of the move, that creeping feeling comes back. Not once in his three years at Raimon has he ever learned that technique. That move belongs to only one person he knows: Kaiser.

Predictably, the ball goes in. In a blur, the game soon ends with a score of five to zero. But he cannot find it in himself to celebrate. The memory of his last goal still haunts him. He performed Sidewinder, seemingly out of nowhere. Staring down at the pendant swinging loosely around his neck, it begins to click. This fusion business is definitely not something to take lightly. More than just lending one's power, it's a union of two individuals, on a physical and psychological level. But if that's true, then…

"Adé, are you okay?" He barely raises his head, just enough to look beside him. Eugene, with a look of genuine concern, places a hand on his shoulder. "Look, I know it's confusing. We never expected this, either. But—"

Before he can hear anymore, the ebony-haired boy collapses, and the world around him fades to black.

Chapter Text

Around the same time as the match, Kaiser is sitting in the waiting room, counting down the seconds until he can finally leave this hellhole. He sends text messages to Adé's phone, to no avail. He expects this, but it doesn't make him any less upset. Anytime he's away from Adé, the emptiness inside him grows drastically, bordering on physical numbness. He knows this obsession has grown out of hand, but he can't help it—his self-worth is so direly minuscule, he has to rely on someone else to see some good in him. Before, he would hide his insecurities by projecting an air of aloof cockiness, a la Dodge, but he can only play pretend for so long.

Come three o'clock, he enters the therapist's office. She asks him about school, home, and life in general, and he answers them as vaguely as possible. He never wanted to be here, but his mother—worried about his erratic behavior—made an appointment for him. "How's your medication," the doctor asks. "Has it caused you any problems recently?"

He shakes his head. "No problems at all. In fact, I haven't found any reason to use them. For once, I'm actually… happy."

She parts her lips slightly, as if to ask "are you sure", but she stops to scribble down some notes on her notepad. "I see. Is there a reason for this happiness? A person, perhaps? Or did something happen with your team?"

His heart stops for a second. Then he answers, "I'm in a relationship with… someone. I used to consider him a friend, but over time, he became so much more. I couldn't stop thinking about him, and after all he did for me, I couldn't imagine how life would be without him. So I confessed… and he accepted me." Stifling tears, he resumes. "He accepted me for the complete screw-up that I am. For once in my life, I feel… important. Loved. I don't want to lose him—I cannot lose him!" He mutters, "I will not lose him!"

Jotting down more notes, she says, "I sense a bit of anger in your voice. Is there something that you feel might strain the relationship?"

Kaiser looks up. "Lately, he's been distant. He hasn't answered my calls or replied to my texts. He won't even look my way. I wonder if he hates me. No, I know he does. He's scared of me, scared I might hurt him. He thinks I'm crazy—he said so himself! But I don't know what I'm doing wrong. He says he wants me to be happy, but when I am, he's suddenly afraid of me. Maybe if I were more like him…"

"I see. And who is 'he', might I ask? Why do you compare yourself to him?"

"He was a close friend of ours. He's an okay player, but as a person, he's better than me in every way. Kinder, gentler, smarter… He even likes fishing and having fun. He's perfect… and I hate him!"

"Michael, nobody is perfect. Though sometimes we may look at someone and believe they are, in the end, they have weaknesses, just like you and me. Flaws are what make us human, and we all have to accept them."

Weakness. He despises that word. Yet it could also be his saving grace…? "Weaknesses make us human, right? So if I look past Mr. Perfect and see him for what he truly is, I can move on and live happily ever after, right?"

"If it works out for you, yes." She jots down her final set of notes. "I assume you want to keep the current dosage? Now, from now until our next visit, I recommend you take your medication. I understand they're not entirely pleasant, but they could bring you out of your worse moods, and I'm certain your partner will appreciate it."

I'm sure he would, he replies sarcastically to himself as he walks out of the office.

 

As Max drops by the office to pick up Noir, he catches sight of Kaiser heading towards the doctor's door. Up close, he looks like a wreck, more than the distant glimpses of him in the classroom. Whatever mental state he was in at the time of the lab incident, it must have regressed even further, to a point of concern. If he was to snap one day and start shooting up the school, Max would be terrified, but not surprised. Is it terrible for him to think of one of his own students that way?

After dropping off Noir at Styx's place, he later dumps his grievances on Sam, who invited him to a cozy cafe known for its cute waitresses. To Max's surprise, he seems to show interest in what he had to say. "I dunno what to say. I'm not a therapist or anything, so I can't really help you."

"I wasn't really expecting help, least of all from you." Max dumps a couple packets of sugar and stirs his coffee. "I just needed to get that off my chest."

"No, no, I understand, that's normal." He pauses to sip his coffee—Black and bitter, like your soul, Max would probably say in his usual, teasing manner—and says bluntly, "So, I heard you slept with Timmy. Is that true?"

Max almost spits out his drink, briefly choking on it. "Where did you hear that," he asks between coughs.

With a grin, he answers, "I have my sources." This Max can translate to "I pestered Timmy 'til he broke."

"Yeah, I did… I think. I hardly remember a single minute of it." Just trying to pull up the memory makes his head hurt. "We were so hammered!" He digs through his pocket and pulls out a pair of necklaces. "Oh, these were also in my pocket that night."

Sam takes one of them and inspects it. "Oh, hey, one of my coworkers owns something like this! Where'd you get it?"

"Some weird old man gave 'em to me. He said some mumbo jumbo about bonds and junk, I wasn't really paying attention."

"My coworker said a friend of his gave him his. I wonder if he got it from the same guy."

"That's not the end of it. That kid I was talking about? He and his friends also have them. Whoever this old guy is, he clearly has some sort of agenda. Kind of creepy, if you ask me."

"I think the real question is where that old guy's getting his stock from. This stuff looks pretty rare."

"I bet it's fake," Max comments as he taps the pendant, letting it dangle and swing from the chain as Sam holds it up. "How else does he expect them to sell, 'specially with kids?"

"Good point. I still think he's got style. Say, mind if I keep this?"

He shrugs. "Go right ahead. I don't care." In truth, he does care. He cares about the mysterious distributor, its origins, and above all, why they're being given away to seemingly just about anyone passing by on the street. There's so much he's curious about, that saying he doesn't care is nothing short of a bold-faced lie—one that Sam can see right through.

"Thanks, mate." Sam gleefully puts on the necklace, then stands up. "Well, I'm about to head out. Tell Timmy I said hey." Before Max can say a single word, he walks off, leaving him with the bill.

Chapter Text

Panic strikes as Raimon's team members scramble to bring Adé to the nurse's office. Once they lay him down, everyone disperses, save for Naga and Eugene, who watch over him when an extra pair of footsteps rings into their ears. "I've heard about what happened," Noboru's voice meets them as he approaches. "I came to send my condolences—and my congratulations." He observes the sleeping boy as he resumes. "So this is your friend, the 'Flying Fish Boy'? He's an interesting one. Keep a close eye on him—I have many expectations for this one. As for you two... how are your limiters doing?"

Eugene lifts his arm, showing off the damaged armband. "I tried to keep it clean, but I guess that's out of the question." Naga shows his off, the results identical.

"Is that so? Those stones were designed to be indestructible, and yet…" Observing the armbands more closely, he notices that several of the small gems are cracked, if not missing entirely. "I will have to take these and report the findings to R&D. In the meantime, you'll have to learn how to hold back without the limiters. That means no fusion until further notice."

"What?" Nobby steps forward, glaring at his father. "'Hold back'? 'No fusion'? But what's the point of all this?"

"Until we can prove that it is absolutely safe to use freely, we cannot let knowledge of fusion leak into the general public."

This time, it's Eugene's turn to protest. "But none of that makes sense! If these gems are being sold and given away, someone's bound to find out the hard way, which could lead to irreparable damage. This isn't a matter to take lightly!"

"I understand your concern, but we have already sent our approval to distribute the products. I cannot reverse that decision. However, I will bring your criticism to my higher-ups, and we'll see what we can do." A pause, then: "Nobita, you may go. Peabody, stay right here; I wish to speak with you alone." Naga looks confused and a bit worried, but does as he's told and exits. As the sounds of his footsteps fade in the distance, Noboru continues. "Your name is Eugene Peabody, correct? Are you by chance related to a Paul Peabody?"

This question takes him aback. "Yes. He's my uncle. Is something wrong? He's not in danger, is he?"

"Oh, no, everything's alright. I knew I heard your name somewhere, so I went and did a bit of research. He's an elusive sort, but talented nonetheless."

"I get that a bit from old Raimon fans—when they bother to make the connection, that is. He's the reason why I decided to attend Raimon." His coal-colored gaze turns to the floor. "But so far, I haven't done anything to live up to even a fraction of that legacy. I'm just another player, a disposable part of the team."

"You want my opinion? The old Raimon are overrated. At the rate you kids are going, you'll be miles ahead of the rest of them." He places one hand on the child's shoulder. "If Garshield didn't believe that, we wouldn't have given you this opportunity. So go on and win this tournament not just for my sake, but yours, too."

Since the match, the "Garshield Galaxy" line of accessories slowly make their way into the market, and sell out quickly. Most of its success comes from preteens and teenagers, who initially learned of them from watching the match between Raimon and Milky Way. As Noboru predicted, having such a renowned team to represent their product only serves to drive sales upward. Kids really are the future.

 

Eugene knocks the door and waits patiently outside of the Naga household. The small lanterns leading up to the front porch glow brightly, dotting the stony path as it stretches out into the surrounding darkness. Nervously, he adjusts the ribbons holding up his pigtails. They were a gift from Nobby, the same slate-and-yellow color as his old school uniform. He mentioned that they were especially popular with girls, and were sold at their school store alongside other supplies. He returned to his school specifically to retrieve a pair of these from one of his ex-classmates. To think, he did all that just to give him some ribbons. Well, they do look cute, Eugene muses. As a matter of fact, he liked them so much, he went out to buy some new clothes to match. While some would express concern over his sudden shift in fashion, Eugene himself considers it a sign of maturity.

The door opens, and Nobby happily escorts him into a room with a tatami-covered floor. In the center is a low table, with three cups of green tea sitting on top, and behind it sits Noboru. The two boys sit on their knees and grab a cup each, sipping in silence before the man speaks. "Thank you for coming, Peabody," he greets with a bow. "And how beautiful you look tonight. If only you were a woman, then I would have no reservations in marrying you off to Nobita. But no matter—I can always make arrangements."

Eugene's face turns as red as his hair. "Marriage? Isn't it a bit soon to think about that? We're still in junior high!"

"Quite the contrary, it's never too early to make wedding arrangements. Since the moment I saw you, I knew you were a perfect fit for my son. Your performance in that last match confirmed everything I needed to know. Eugene Peabody, you are welcome in our house anytime." He bows again, this time even lower.

"I-I-I… Thank you, Mr. Naga!" Eugene bows, but in his frenzy, he hits his head against the table's surface.

Nobby lets out a laugh at his expense. "You're acting even cuter than usual, Genie!" He stops when he catches his father's gaze upon him. "Sorry, Father. That was rude of me."

Noboru, his stoic expression unreadable, breaks as his lips curl up subtly. "All's forgiven. Nobita, would you mind showing Peabody to the guest room? I would like for him to stay the night—with his consent, of course."

 

After getting confirmation from his parents, Eugene follows Nobby into a small, but beautifully furnished bedroom of white. He explores his new surroundings, brushing his fingers against the vanity's surface, then stops before the nightstand, where a picture frame sits. In the frame is a photo of a younger Noboru and his late wife. "Sorry, I thought I cleaned up everything. Lemme get that for you!" He snatches the frame from Eugene's hands and embraces it.

"Naga, was this your mother's room?"

He hesitates before responding. "Yeah. Mum and Dad lived in this house years ago. When Mum died, Dad and I moved to the city because he wanted to focus on his job. But we would visit every summer until we moved back last year." He sits down on the bed and stares longingly into the photo.

Eugene sits down beside him. "You really miss your mother, don't you?" Tears start to well up in Naga's eyes. "That's why you showed interest in me, isn't it? Because I reminded you of her. I'll admit, it sounds pretty weird when I say it like that, but I don't think it's completely out of the ordinary. Besides, if we hadn't met, I…" He glances at Naga, who looks like he's about to burst out crying. Eugene wants to comfort him, to embrace him, but Noboru's words echoed in his head. No fusion. He cannot risk triggering one, or likewise land them into rough territory. Whatever he decides to do, it has to be small. He reaches out to wipe away the tears. "I'm glad that we met that day. You revealed a side of me I never thought I had. And I hope we can continue to be together like this."

Wiping the rest away, Naga smiles. "Thanks. You know, I always wanted to make Dad proud of me, but you did so much more. You're the bestest best friend I've ever had, and then some." He pulls Eugene close and kisses him on the lips, then whispers in his ear, "Please don't leave me."

The bespectacled boy's eyes widen when their lips touched. Cheeks flushed bright red and heart beating quickly, he can feel the heat rising within him. There is so much he wants to do, so much he can do, given his current position. But if they go any further… "I'm sorry, but I can't!" He pushes Naga, pinning him down against the mattress. "I don't have a problem with you. But marriage? This is going all too fast!" Calming down, he lets go and changes the subject. "And there's something else that bothers me. It's Adé…"

Naga crosses his arms and looks away, disappointed. "What about him?"

"He thinks he and Kaiser might have killed someone. I want to tell him otherwise, but I can't."

"Then don't." Eugene looks at him in shock. Behind those coal black eyes is a coldness that gives him goosebumps. "If you tell him, how will he live with himself? And what about you? What about us? If he learns the truth, he won't be your friend anymore. I know the guilt's killing you, but you have to keep this secret. We're doing him—no, we're doing the world a favor." He puts his hands on his shoulders and smiles. "You trust me, right, Genie?" Reluctant, Eugene nods, and they seal the deal with a kiss.

Chapter Text

Earlier that evening, as the sun sets behind him, Adé makes the most important decision of his young life. I have to break up with him. I can't live like this anymore. I really do care about him, but… He raises his hand to knock the front door, but freezes up. This feels strangely familiar, but how? Sifting through his memory banks, one particular incident pops up. Adé remembers that day well enough, but with Kaiser's memories seeping into him, he can see it in an entirely new perspective.

It was a calm winter day on Christmas Eve. The whole town was blanketed in a layer of snow, not the best weather for football or sea fishing but perfect for snowball fights and ice fishing. The events of the Football Frontier International Vision—which turned out to be known as the Grand Celesta Galaxy—was still fresh in people's minds, and they had not yet transitioned into the next grade.

"Hey, you're heading to Dodge's place, right," his past self asked. "Mind if I join?"

Kaiser's eye widened as he blurted out, "What? No! This is none of your business!"

"Don't lie to me, Kai. I know you like him, an' I bet you're off to tell 'im."

Pouting, he replied, "Fine. But don't let him see you."

They met in front of the McArthur residence later that day. He knocked on the door, and gave his confession then and there. The reception, however, was not well-received. "No? What do you mean, no? Since the day we first met, I looked up to you. I idolized you! I changed my hair, my clothes, even adjusted my play style to be just like you. You made me who I am! Why won't you accept me?"

Dodge, a touch of vexation in his normally detached attitude, responded with, "If you're so desperate for attention, you're better off asking someone else. I don't want anything to do with you."

"But—"

"Take a hint, freak: Stay. Away." He slammed the door shut, leaving his old friend alone in the cold.

For the next minute or so, Kaiser bashed his hands against the door, screaming incoherent words all the while. Eventually, he grew exhausted, and fell to his knees and wept. All Adé could do was watch.

Shivering, Adé lowers his hand and rings the doorbell. Ms. Ballzack answers the door and lets him in. As she leads him up to the living room, she says with a tone of relief, "You came at just the right time! Michael was worried when you didn't come to school today. I'll go get him now." She turns and rushes upstairs.

 

A minute later, she returns with Michael following behind her. He seems clean and sedate, a visible improvement over his last appearance, though Adé is unsure if he should feel relieved. Ms. Ballzack, having to finish an errand, runs off, locking the door on her way out. Now alone, the two stare awkwardly at each other until Adé finally speaks. "Sorry to worry you, Kai. I was in the hospital since the match. Bloody hell it was, like!"

As Adé gives the details on the match, Kaiser listens intently, reacting in surprise when he hears about Sidewinder. "You used Sidewinder? Without me?" A soft chuckle escapes his lips. "Now I really wish I was there."

"I'm sure someone recorded the whole thing."

"No, I wanted to be there, playing by your side. Instead, I had to go talk to that useless therapist and take these stupid pills." He frowns and mutters, "Even Mutter thinks I'm crazy. None of them understand what I'm going through. Then again, how could they?"

"Hey, if it means anything, I'm canny glad you're taking your medicine. You've been lookin', well, kinda sick. I know it's probably scary, but it's there for a reason. I mean, you feel happier now, right?"

Taking in his words, Kaiser answers, a tiny smile creeping across his face, "I am now that you're here." He stands up and walks over to the entrance to the hall. "I'm gonna get us drinks. You want anything in particular?"

Adé hesitates. Can he still trust him? But he has been taking his medication, and he has not done anything that would be cause for alarm, so he sees no reason to doubt him. "I'll have whatever you're having. I ain't picky."

Kaiser skips into the kitchen, and Adé waits patiently, wondering if he made a bad decision. Not too long after, the blue-haired boy returns with a tray, balancing two tall glasses of milk and a small plate of treats. "You're probably low on blood sugar, so I got you some milk and biscuits." He takes a swig and munches on a biscuit, as if to assure his friend that it's safe to eat. That seems to convince him, as Adé reaches for a biscuit. He watches him consume his offering, and at first, all is well. But before he can finish, he drops the glass, and it all goes downhill. "What's wrong, Adé? Was the milk spoiled? Damn, I should have checked the expiration date!"

"It's not just that," Adé mutters. He lays his head against his hands with a groan. "I got this killer headache all of a sudden. And now I feel… sleepy…" Before he can say another word, he collapses onto the floor, limp as a ragdoll.

Watching the raven-haired boy sleep, his lips part and stretch, forming a twisted grin. I can't believe it worked! He had plenty of his old prescription left, and when the opportunity arose, he took advantage of it. It was a lot of work, grinding the chalky pills down to an easily soluble state, and he had to mix in a bit of his mother's sleeping medicine to quicken the process, but it was well worth worth the results. Crawling on top of his body, he brushes his fingers against his cheek, then leans down and kisses him. He then pulls him closer and proceeds to kiss and bite his neck and collarbone. If only he was awake, he could enjoy the faces he would make as his teeth and nails sink into his flesh. But if he was conscious, he would protest, even pull him away. Kaiser didn't want that, thus he set up this gambit, which thankfully paid off. You belong to me now, Adé. You can never escape from me. The gem hidden within the confines of his uniform sleeve throbs in time with his quickening heartbeat as he closes his eyes and goes in for the kill.

Chapter Text

That same evening, Max arrives in front of the Ballzack residence. Looking down at the pencil case in his hand, he mulls over the events that led up to this moment. He found the case on top of his desk and wanted to give it back. Based on the seating arrangement and the cutesy fish pattern, he concludes it must belong to Adé. After sifting through student records in the staff office, he tracked down his home address. However, things didn't turn out that simple. One conversation and a long walk later, he found himself standing at the door of the place where he first met him. So it all comes back to this kid.

He knocks on the door, calling out Kaiser's and his mother's names, expecting one of them to answer. Nothing. He turns around, ready to leave, but before he does, he looks back at the house. There, on the top floor, where Kaiser's bedroom is located, stands the silhouette of a stranger, staring back. Max cannot see many details due to the poor lighting from his angle, but the wild eye peering through a veil of bangs will stick with him. As soon as he locks eyes with the figure, it disappears into the darkness. Was that Kaiser? Possibly. But where's Adé? Shouldn't he be somewhere? And shouldn't the lights be on? Something feels off about the whole thing.

His heart starts to race. Again, he knocks on the front door. Again, nothing. He jiggles the knob. Locked. The lower-level windows are likely locked as well. Should he call the cops? No, it would be too late by the time they arrive. Looks like I got no other choice. Whipping out his trusty lock pick, he gets right to work.

Once he successfully breaks in, he tiptoes around the house, groping every other surface he passes. The kitchen is completely dark, but the living room light, spilling though part of the hallway, is on. Warily, he approaches. There, laid out on the table, are snacks and a half-empty glass of milk. The spread seems to be meant for two, but the second glass is not where it should be. Instead, it lies on the floor, its contents spilled and soaking the rug. Seeing no reason to contaminate a potential crime scene, he turns back and continues upstairs.

On the upper floor, all the doors are closed, except for one. Max barges into the room. Football posters line the walls above the bed in one side, and in the opposite end, stacks of books and magazines, and a half-cluttered desk. The window that he saw the figure from is wide open, when just moments ago. Dammit, he got away!

With a sigh, he starts to head back out when something catches his attention. Looking past the organized chaos of a hard-working student, he spots an object that appears slightly out of place: a small jewelry box, embossed with the name "Garshield". Why does that name sound so familiar? His hand reaches for the box when, all of a sudden, he hears a low buzzing noise. In his brief moment of curiosity, he overlooked another important detail: the cellphone in the corner of the desk, vibrating as it flashes Ms. Ballzack's name on the caller ID. That phone is the last thing he remembers seeing right before a brutal impact blackens his vision.

 

Kaidé runs as far as he can from the house, escaping into the lower part of the neighborhood. Wandering down the barren roads, doubts begin to cloud his mind. Things were going so well, until he broke in. It was self-preservation, he tells himself. If Max found out what he did, what he's become, it's game over for him. At one point, he considered murdering him, but that would have led to more trouble. Not to mention his conscience kept holding him back; the mere thought of killing his teacher or any authority figure made him uncomfortable. But what can he do now?

His head starts to throb. When he came up with the idea, all he thought about was having Ade to himself, being in this new body once more. What he never took into consideration were the repercussions: sharing Ade's body comes with its own downsides, and right now, the effects of his concoction is starting to backfire.

Slipping through the dark alleyways, he falls to his knees and vomits beside some debris. He hates having his plan backfire, but on the bright side, at least the pain's beginning to subside.

His body jolts up when he hears a loud screech. What the hell was that? The noise threatening to split his brain, he raises his hands to cover his ears. Just then, hears another voice—from inside his head.

Kai…? What's going on? Where are we?

"That's none of your business."

Don't tell me, you… you fused without my consent? That's it! You've gone way too far! I want out NOW!

"Never! You're mine now, and I'm not letting go!"

I don't belong to anyone! Kai, I want to love you, but lately, it's getting really hard to do that. Not when I'm fearing for my life. I don't understand why you act the way you do, but if you really want to protect me, there are other ways to do it. Ways that don't put me at risk of dying.

"But—"

Think about what I have to go through. If I did the same to you, would you like it?

A crooked grin grows on his face. "If it's you, maybe."

You really are messed-up in the head, you know that?

"I know that now. But then again, isn't everyone?"

A sigh. Look, I'll keep it straight. If you want me to keep you safe, you gotta keep me safe, too. No spiking drinks, no choking me, none of that stuff. I'll listen to what you want me to do if you'll do the same for me. Got it?

"Verstanden." He uncovers his ears, only to hear more monstrous screaming, accompanied by the brutal sounds of bones crunching and flesh spilling out. Part of him is frightened, but another feels an odd thrill, one which piques him enough to turn and step out of that dark alley. But before he can go much further, he finds himself face-to-face with another person. Black-and-gold eyes, and short, wavy black hair obscuring half of a handsome, familiar face. Frozen with shock, all he can utter is, "D-Dodge?"

The stranger's exposed eye widens as they take a step back. "Kaiser," they ask out loud. The voice, despite its echo-y tones, brings a sense of nostalgia in him. It's not just Doug—it's Samguk, too. "You, too?"

"We're Kaidé, actually," he says nervously. "What's your name?"

He sputters a bit before getting to his point. "Why are you here? You didn't see anything, did you?"

Puzzled, he answers, slipping into Adé's voice, "No, but we heard something and—" Kaidé lets out a barely audible gasp as his downward glance catches sight of the stranger's blood-soaked shoes. "You didn't kill anyone, did you?"

The Dodge lookalike's eyes narrow as he whispers, "I'm sorry." Kaidé opens his mouth to say something, but is cut off with a blow to the gut.

Chapter Text

When Max opens his eyes, he finds himself surrounded by sterile whiteness. From the corner of his eye is a familiar face—several, actually. Timmy… Ms. Ballzack… Jim… "Sam? What the hell are you doing here?" Upon seeing his face, Max shoots upwards and jabs a finger at him.

Sam crosses his arms and says, "Oi, I'm paying for your bill, so you can quit whining about me owing you."

"Speaking of owing," Ms. Ballzack cuts in, "I think you owe me an explanation."

Scratching the back of his head, Max spares a second to think before responding. "Sorry, Ms. Ballzack. There wasn't any time. Someone was in the house, and…" He pauses as the image of the cellphone flashes in his memory. "Ms. Ballzack, where's Kaiser and Adé?"

A solemn look on her face, she says, "They've been missing since last night. I called the cops when Michael wouldn't answer the phone. One of the officers is waiting outside for you. Would you rather explain it to them?"

Crap. "Maybe later. I'd like a moment alone."

Pause. "I understand. If you need me, I'll be in the lobby." She stands up and walks out of the room.

Now alone, the four of them can finally talk freely. "She's a real cutie," Sam says, a sly grin on his face. "You wanna ask her out, or let me have her?"

Max almost bursts out laughing. "Sam, she's, like, twice your age. You really are desperate!"

Jim is the next to speak. "Max, are you alright? When we heard what happened, it really shocked me. I expected Sam to do something like this, but you?"

Sam leans towards Timmy, sitting next to him, and asks in a low voice, "Do you guys think that lowly of me?" Timmy, reluctant, averts his gaze, more or less confirming the curly-haired man's suspicions.

"I know it sounds weird, but I couldn't help it. I thought something was up, and next thing I knew, I was inside his room, and…" He chuckles. "That really didn't come out right."

"Regardless," Jim continues, "you tried to do what's right. Just be careful what methods you use next time."

Max nods, then gasps and starts patting his pockets. "The pencil case! Where is it?"

"Pencil case?"

"One of my students left it in the classroom. That's why I went over there in the first place."

"The police never mentioned anything about a pencil case being at the scene."

"What about a cellphone? I remember seeing it on the desk."

Jim shakes his head. "They searched top and bottom, but couldn't find it. They're sending out a search party for the missing children."

"Damn," Max growls under his breath. "This is looking bad for me."

"Well, if you need it, we can help pay bail."

"You won't have to do that," a voice, belonging to none of them, cuts Jim off. The curtain dividing Max from the neighboring patient pulls back, revealing a black-haired man sporting a red mask, accompanied by a tanned blonde female. Over the breast of their suits are matching golden badges indicative of the local police department. "We've taken notes of everything you said. If your alibi checks out, you're good to go. But if anything comes up that could help—" he digs out a business card from his pocket and holds it out, "—you can call this number."

Max takes the card and inspects it. Gerald Onimo, IPD, it reads, with a cell number listed. The most unusual feature, however, is the small bumps dotting the lower half. He looks up at the masked man's face, then down at the cane held in one hand. Though instinct drives him to pity the man, the police badge prevents him from doing just that.

"Mr. Carson, you're a teacher at Raimon, correct? My son and I went to the Milky Way match to watch his old schoolmate play, and he wouldn't stop talking about it. We wish you all luck in the Football Frontier." He turns and walks off, cane tapping against the tile floor.

An awkward silence looms over, until Sam says, "Well, I think you two could use some alone time. Let's go, Timmy."

 

Timmy is dragged out into the terrace, where he finally breaks free from the taller man's grasp. "What was that about?"

Pausing to light a cigarette, he then says, "Something's been bugging me for a while now, but I don't want Max hearing about it. You slept with him, right? I just wanna know… did you enjoy it?"

His cheeks burning bright red, he stammers, "What kind of stupid question is that? That's none of your business!"

"I'm doing this for your sake. Just answer the damn question!"

With some hesitance, he answers, "I don't really know. I just remember him on top of me, and… everything after that was a blur. I know I felt something, but I don't know if I enjoyed it. You're not going to get Max in trouble, are you?"

"No, of course not. I just wanna make sure you're safe."

Timmy crosses his arms in contempt. "Look, if anyone needs protecting, it's you. I can handle myself."

"If you say so." He takes a long drag and exhales. "Still, I'm surprised; I always thought you weren't into that stuff."

"I'm not. Well, not most of the time." Cheeks turning red again, he tries to hide his face. "Maybe if I tried it when I'm sober…"

"Hold up, you were a virgin?" Damn. "Not that I didn't expect it."

He grabs Sam by the shirt and shakes him. "If you tell anyone, you'll be the next one in a hospital bed!" Letting go, he whimpers, "Please?"

After recovering from the dizziness, he smiles genuinely and replies, "Cross my heart."

Chapter Text

Tension grows high as the regionals progress. Students all across Japan are talking about Raimon, their players, and—most importantly—the brand new accessories they're wearing. The Garshield Galaxy brand continues to sell like hotcakes, and these days, everyone and their parents have at least one piece from the collection. But as some have come to realize the hard way, they come with their own set of consequences.

 

A loud shrill echoes throughout the barren streets, as two bodies warp and morph, bones reforming as their flesh merges together. Due to the panic they feel throughout the experience, the resulting entity, a mess of mangled limbs, barely resembles anything human. The creature starts crawling, groaning in pain with each "step", only stopping when something steps in its way. It looks up, mouth agape as it cries for help.

Standing before the former human is a mysterious male figure, appearing to be close to its age. His long, wavy bangs flow over half of his face like a river of ink, obscuring one gold-and-black eye. His outfit is a hodgepodge of garments that he had on at the time: polo shirt with navy blue pants, different-colored socks and shoes. It does not know his name, but some gut feeling knows one thing for certain: that this person, like itself, is actually two people.

It screams out and lashes out at the figure. How dare this arrogant bastard look down at it, judging its incomplete form with contempt and pity? Whoever he is, he needs to die. Unfortunately for it, the figure is much too fast, and it hits the ground, unconscious.

What the hell was that, one of the figure's voices echoes in its head.

"I don't know. This is the first time I've seen such a thing."

Well, whatever it is, we can't leave it like this. Imagine how people will react. He raises his foot over the mutant's head. Dodge? DODGE, NO!

Doug's foot lands hard on its skull, crushing it and spilling its blood all over the place. "I'm sorry, Sam, but we had to do it eventually."

They were just kids—second years, probably younger! How do you live with that hanging over your head?

His two-tone eyes blank and emotionless, he responds, "I don't know anymore. The moment I killed Lee… my teammate… I just stopped feeling. Nothing's right in this world, least of all that thing."

Doug, you didn't kill Lee. Naga did. And he killed all those other people, too. Don't let him rule your life!

"Sam, don't you get it? When I fused with Naga the first time, he became a part of me. His thoughts, memories, personality… I gained a bit of all that and more. He marked his brand on me, and because of me, he's got you, too."

Maybe he did "brand" you, but in the end, you're still the man I know and love. The difference between then and now is that you don't have to suffer alone anymore. Tears start to well up in his eyes. Mind if I take over? Doug nods and retreats into the depths of his psyche. "There. You can rest now. You've done enough."

 

As he walks away from the monstrous corpse, hiding away in a dark nook, a figure watches, paralyzed by what they have seen. Once he has disappeared from sight, they approach the mangled body, then take out a picture with their phone. This thing used to be human, and that other person just killed them with little remorse. Listening in on the stranger's rambling, he seemed to be talking to himself. A split personality, perhaps? But more importantly were the contents of what he said. Could he be the one responsible for all the recent murders? He did just confess to killing Lee—at least, they're pretty sure he said that. But he also mentioned some other names. One in particular stands out: Naga. "No… It can't be…!"

"You know, eavesdropping on two people's conversation is quite rude, Jerry," a voice interrupts them. Shuddering, they turn around. A tall, bespectacled stranger with long, flowing waves of loosely-curled hair stands before them. They stand awestruck as the stranger's voice rings in their ears. The playful tone and the manner in which they said his name sound all too familiar…

"Naga?"

The stranger smiles serenely. "Yes and no. You may not know me, but I know you." The eavesdropper stares in shock and confusion, their brain trying to connect the dots. In their eyes is a brief spark of discovery. "Oh, you are as smart as they say—perhaps too smart. Unfortunately, I cannot let you off lightly." Their hands behind their back, they show off the reason why: a spotted, black-and-white ball, beloved by many. "Shall we play a game?"

Chapter Text

Jerry Onimo was found on the streets of Inazuma Town, his body bruised and bleeding. To his luck, a passerby discovered him shortly after his accident, and so was able to be treated in time. However, in his current state, he would be unable to play for Lunar Sea in the first match of the tournament. When some of his teammates came to visit him, his parting words to them were: "Beat Naga… for me." This particular wording caused the others to scratch their heads.

"I can't thank you enough for saving my son," Officer Onimo says to Max as he follows him out into the lobby. "Had you not been present, he would have been another case file, and I don't think I could withstand it if that were to happen."

Max tries to shake off the compliment. "It's nothing, really. Thank the guys in the ambulance for arriving so soon. But Mr. Onimo, I have to ask: why was your son out so late at night?"

"From what my partner and I have gathered, he and a student from Milky Way Charter had been performing their own investigation. They've traveled out of town via train, and would occasionally meet up to share intel. I must admit, for a couple of kids, they're quite the budding detectives."

"So your son was withholding information from you? Isn't that, like, illegal or something?"

"Not necessarily. He hasn't been interrogated or put under suspicion, so he has the freedom to do so. But it is disappointing for me as a parent that my own child can't even trust me with his secrets. No matter how absurd they might have been, I would've listened to him regardless."

"'Absurd'? Mr. Onimo, what—"

"I'm afraid I cannot reveal anymore until the rest of the department has investigated the case in greater depth." He pats Max on the shoulder. "As an educator and citizen of the public, it is your duty to ensure our children are in a safe, healthy learning environment. Leave the protecting to us."

 

As the days roll on, the regionals come and go, with Raimon claiming victory over Kanto. Then, finally, it arrives: The Football Frontier nationals start at the Roulette Park, with Raimon Jr. High versus Lunar Sea Military Academy. Roulette Park, a massive structure holding six different stadiums, has received a major overhaul in the past year, making its already shifting gimmicks even less predictable. The first match is set in an open-air stadium, themed after the interior of a large, dormant volcano, with slight indentations on each side of the turf; and surrounded by a series of smaller, inter-connected islands leading players and audiences across the body of water to the main stadium.

With their main team dwindling in numbers, Lunar Sea barely has the minimum number of players, their bench consisting entirely of reserves. As the younger members start muttering their concerns, the tall and imposing captain, Alessandro il Grande, steps forward to give his speech. "Everyone, I know that in the wake of all that's happened these past few weeks, you may be thinking all is lost. But ask yourselves: would Onimo want us sniveling before the enemy like this? Would Lee want to look down at a bunch of cowards, or an army of warriors? The entire nation will be watching us. My question to the rest of you is: are you ready to fight?" The team shouts in unison. "Follow the tactics, fight your hardest, and settle the score!"

The two teams get into position on the field, and as soon as the whistle blows, Victor kicks off, setting the match into motion. Naga speeds into the fray, marking himself as an open target. But just when two opposing midfielders close in to trap him, he turns and passes the ball to Riccardo, who immediately passes it to Arion. The young captain rushes ahead, performing air-based techniques to pass through Lunar Sea's offense. Just as he starts to reach the penalty area, he spots a flash of red from the corner of his eye. Naga? No, it's… Eugene? While midfielders are known for being versatile, the way he's been playing recently, one would have easily mistaken him for an aggressive forward. Should he give him the ball? That's the question running through Arion's mind when, suddenly, an odd indentation on the field opens up and emits a tall burst of fire, blocking his path. Taken aback, he falls onto his rear, losing his footing and control of the ball.

One of Lunar Sea's defenders takes the ball as it rolls in their direction and kicks it to a midfielder near the center of the pitch when a blur of red stops it midair. "Would you look at that? Naga stole the ball right beneath their noses," the spectator's voice blares out over the speakers.

Twisting and turning past each obstacle, living or otherwise, Naga soon finds an opening and channels the energy inside him into his right foot as he winds it back. "Katana Kick!" all the welled-up energy is released, creating a blade-shaped streak of destructive light in its wake.

"Fingers of Gaia!" Leaping up into the air, il Grande then swings his arms lumberjack-style, summoning a row of mountains. The ball hits the side of the mountains with all its might, only to bounce off and fly halfway across the field. Once the rocky fence is retracted, il Grande stops to catch his breath. Naga's gotten a lot stronger since he left the team. Can I handle another shot like that?

Clenching his fists, Naga shoots a glare at Eugene, who nods and steps back into position. Meanwhile, in Raimon's half of the pitch, the defenders are entangled in battle with Lunar Sea's players, trapped between pillars of flame. Back and forth, the ball is passed from one side to the other, until Gabi, upon regaining possession, kicks it to Roma on the center-right. Before Roma can get it, however, Eugene leaps in to steal it.

As the redhead rushes into the enemy's territory, Roma follows close by, fueled by anger. "Hey, what the hell was that about? I had that ball!"

"You weren't fast enough," Eugene says bluntly before leaving him in the dust. In the blink of an eye, he zips past the midfield into the penalty area and prepares to shoot. Using the momentum from his running speed, he powers the ball with the force of wind. "Sonic Shot!" Though this technique alone is not particularly strong, with the strength he gained from his training and fusing, even that meager kick could rival an ace striker's most powerful technique.

"Fingers of Gaia!" Once again, the rocky mountains deflect Raimon's shot, sending it flying across the field. Soon after, the whistle blows, signaling the end of the first half.

As the other players pause to take a water break, Eugene drags Naga out of earshot to talk with him alone. "That shot should've made it in—both of our shots ought to!" He looks down at the armband on his wrist, then rips it off and throws it away. "Damn limiters work too well. Even at my lowest, I can do better than that. You know it too, don't you?"

The burning passion behind his coal-black eyes takes Naga by surprise. "Yes." Captivated, he removes his armband and tosses it aside. "Let's win this together, for real!"

They clasp their hands and grin, but the celebration is sadly short-lived as Riccardo approaches. "Coach Evans just gave out an order. You're both in the bench."

"What," the two redheads yell in unison.

"Kaiser and Adé are taking your place. If you have a problem, take it up with the coach."

Swearing under his breath, Eugene slumps on the bench, clearly trying not to cry. Naga, unsure how to deal with this sudden moodiness, lays one hand over his and squeezes it. "Don't worry, Genie. We'll get our chance soon enough. We'll show everyone what we're truly made of."

Everyone returns to their positions, with Kaiser and Adé replacing Naga and Eugene, respectively, and the second half begins. Kaiser mows down the front line, knocking Lunar Sea's best forward off his feet. But once he hit the midfield, he finds himself in a bind. Surrounded by an army of powerful tanks, the problem only worsens when one of them summons their Fighting Spirit. "Victor," he calls out to the pale blunette catching up as he kicks the ball to him. Right on time, Victor brings out his own Spirit, Lancelot, and proceeds to pummel every obstacle that crosses his path. Once he arrives in the penalty area, il Grande quickly awakens his Gigante, and utilizes its Titanium Shield to block the knightly Spirit's sword-like blast.

Il Grande throws the ball back onto the field, and Kaiser, taking the ball back from an opposing player, kicks it to Adé. Even if his shot gets blocked by Gigante, he can at least wear down the Summoner, leaving the net wide open. What happens next, however, surprises everyone. Adé stretches his leg back to an almost absurd angle, as green light gathers around him. Then, like an ancient projectile weapon ready to launch, he fires. "Ballista Barrage!"

The earth-powered ball aims straight for the goal—no, straight at the goalie. He's not just aiming to win—he's aiming to kill! That was il Grande's first thought as he readies his Titanium Shield. The ball hits the metallic surface of the shield, fighting back against his resistance. But the strain from Raimon's earlier shots have gradually shown their effects, and the more he tries to protect himself and the goal, the more the cracks in his defense start to grow. I have to protect the goal! I must…!

His head hits the ground, and his vision flashes white, then black. He can hear the whistle blow, and muffled voices, all fading away to nothing.

"Goal!"

The crowd gasps, then cheers as the ball bounces off the net and gently rolls across the pitch. Meanwhile, members of Lunar Sea gather around their captain's unconscious body. The referee orders a time-out, and right on cue, a group of doctors and nurses run over to carry il Grande away on a stretcher. The stadium's excitement simmers down, as the weight of the situation suddenly weighs down on everyone. Kaiser, paralyzed with shock, turns to face Adé, who blinks, equally surprised, then flashes a grin. Should he feel relieved, or worried?

With il Grande out of commission, their reserve goalie, Hilda Yoshi, is swapped in. However, despite her intimidating appearance and innate abilities, her lack of training makes her little match for the raw strength of her opponents. By the end of the second half, the score is three-zero, in Raimon's favor. As the teams disperse, Lunar Sea's members are left to wonder who will confront Onimo with the truth.

 

Later in the hospital, Ohnepart, accompanied by Hilda, step up to the task, apologizing for their failure. "It's alright," Jerry says, a tad mournful. "I saw the whole thing on the telly. There was no way you could have known."

"I knew Raimon was strong, but not this strong," Hilda comments, a quiver to her cuter-than-she-looks voice. "Did we miscalculate? Was our info outdated?"

Onimo shakes his head. "I believe there's something else to it, something that's stronger than anything in our arsenal."

Ohnepart intejects, "What could Raimon have that could be stronger than Fighting Spirits?"

"I don't know myself, but I know someone who might." His brows furrow, making his sharp eyes even more intense. "Naga."

Chapter Text

After the team part ways, Naga and Eugene regroup by the train station. "It's not fair," Naga vents while stomping his foot on the ground. "We should've been the ones to make that winning shot. I wanted to show the old captain who's boss!"

"Calm down, Nobby," Eugene interjects. "Kaidé may have had their chance in the spotlight, but in the end, Eunaga is still stronger."

Taking a deep breath, the underclassman says, "You're right. We are the better person. So what do we do now? We can't just get rid of Coach Evans, but he'll never let us play at this rate."

"That may be so, but I have a plan. Meet me in the park tomorrow."

 

The next day, after school, Naga heads over to the park, where, in the shade of a nearby tree, stands a familiar redhead, with gray-and-yellow ribbons in his hair. As he steps closer, he notices that, behind the thick spectacles, his eyes are lined with smoky eyeshadow, matching his black lipstick. "Genie? Are you really wearing makeup? It's…"

"Beautiful? Elegant? Mature? Thanks, I tried my best." He flips his bangs to the side, a behavior more akin to Dodge than Eugene.

"New. So why did you bring me here?"

"I've been thinking, maybe we've been approaching this from the wrong angle. Nobby, you can still summon your Spirit, correct?" A nod. "I never thought I would have to do this, but I think I might have to use my own secret weapon."

Naga's eyes widen. "You don't mean…?"

"Yes. But I'll need your help."

They trek down an unmarked path into the surrounding woods, in the midst of which is an empty, grassy space perfect for practicing. Eugene orders Naga to step back, then takes a deep breath and starts to twirl. As his body is in motion, a gust of wind picks up around him, and from him, a purplish-black aura grows and takes form. As the purple gradually washes away, pale blue feathers peek through, eventually revealing its true self: an anthropomorphic bird-like Spirit. The Ferocious Bird of Fable, Roc. Relieved by the results, he retracts his Spirit. "So I can still summon. Thank goodness!"

Naga is dumbfounded by the sight of the creature. The last time he encountered a Roc summoner was his ex-comrade, Lee. But Lee is gone now, and things are a lot better now. Still, he cannot help but freeze up whenever he saw one; it reminds him too much of his past sins. "How come you've never told anyone about this? You'd be the envy of all your friends."

"I planned on showing it off at the FFI, but I never had the opportunity. Besides, I doubt they would take to the news well." Especially not Kaiser, he almost says, before immediately reminding himself, We're enemies now.

"So why did you drag us all the way out here? There's gotta be more than that."

"When we're fused, our souls share a body, right? After watching Kaidé's performance in the match, it got me thinking: if we can use each other's techniques, then what about Spirits? There's nothing to prove for certain it'll work, but there's nothing that says we can't try."

The idea slowly clicks, as Naga grows giddier by the second. "What are we waiting for? Let's try it right now!" He takes Eugene by the hand and pulls him close. Their minds, bodies, and souls one-hundred percent in-sync, they start to merge…

Now standing as Eunaga, they contemplate on how to perform the next step. Summoning one Fighting Spirit is already a test of one's will, but two? And who knows what could happen next? Taking a deep breath, he sets one fist against his heart, then raises it towards the sky. A cyclone of flames surround his clenched hand, as the purplish aura channels itself through the fiery funnel. The aura grows and expands like with Roc, but the form it takes is somewhat different: instead of one pair of wings, it appears to have two, colored red with bits of gold and blue, and instead of two arms, it has four. Most drastic of all is its head, more monstrous than ever, with four differently-colored eyes and a long, jagged beak, its edges pointed like protruding teeth. Staring up in awe, the majestic creature's name rings in their head: Immortal Avian of Embers, Phoenix.

Satisfied with the outcome, they reverse the summon and defuse. "We did it," Naga shouts with glee as he picks up Eugene and spins him around. As he sets him down, he says softly, "We really do make a perfect pair. I knew something was special about you the day we first met. After all we've been through together…" A sudden flash of various images cuts him off. Kiss on the lips. Fair-skinned fingers touching a face that doesn't belong to him. Despite knowing that this is mere fantasy, that does little to mend the pain in his chest. "I need to know. Do you love me? Like, truly, from the bottom of your heart?"

Eugene opens his mouth, then purses his lips. If he tells the truth, it would break him. But he can't lie, either. "Of course I love you! But as you might have known, I still have some unresolved issues. That's why I need you, Nobby. I need your help so I can move on. You say I'm perfect, but I'm only human, flaws and all. As my future husband, you'll have to put up with the best and worst of me. My question to you is: are you ready for that commitment?"

Naga pauses, staring down at his feet. Future husband? So does that mean…? Wiping the tears from his eyes, he faces Eugene head-on and answers, "Whatever happens, I'll be ready. You can count on me!"

Chapter Text

The next round is set in a stadium that resembles a gigantic greenhouse, with sunlight shining through the glass overhead onto the surrounding greenery. At first glance, the pitch appears to be safe, but knowing the reputation of Roulette Park first-hand, there's no telling what gimmick will be thrown at them this time.

Watching the match from high above, at the top floor of the Zenith Stadium—the Park's central structure—is Seymour Hillman, the aging Holy Emperor of the Youth Football Association. Though Roulette Park was once a symbol of Fifth Sector's past rule, he found the premise all too enticing to resist, and thus made it a central part of the revised Football Frontier. Of course, he alone could not afford to make such a drastic change without financial risk. It was actually the idea of Garshield Industries's young president, Dulana Rice. Rice is an unusual character: though he shows no outward passion for the sport, he has put forth so much money, time, and energy into supporting it. Perhaps a little too much, Hillman thinks.

 

Right this moment, as he sits on his throne, in walks Noboru Naga, Rice's right-hand man. "Mr. Hillman, I've sent Mr. Rice the replay footage from the last game. He was especially excited to see the park's gimmicks functioning properly, and more so seeing the players adapting to the changes." Following behind him is a lady servant, holding a silver tray with a bottle and two glasses of red wine.

"Mr. Naga, don't you think these new hazards are perhaps a bit too hazardous?"

"I assure you, if anything in the plans were considered too dangerous, the Association would have rejected the plans upon sight. As dangerous as they might appear, they are, in fact, no less safe than the hazards present in past tournaments. I've put my hands through those flames—they're but mere illusion, a trick of the light. Everything you see here are innovations from Garshield's research and development team, designed specifically for this purpose."

With hesitance, he utters, "If you say so." Hillman accepts the wine offered to him by the servant, then resumes. "Mr. Naga, there is still one thing I'm curious about. What does football mean to Mr. Rice?"

Watching the game commence, Naga's stoic face turns colder. "Look at what you see before you. Look at the formations, the players, the passion. Once you get past the fact that they're just kicking a ball around, does it not strike you as familiar? This is no mere game, Mr. Hillman. This is war." Turning his attention to the shocked old man, he says, "I know what you're thinking. 'That's madness! These are children playing!' But hear me out. I have served in the army overseas for many years. I've seen things no man should ever see. But I've also learned much about honor and discipline and what it means to be a man. Whenever I watch this game, I'm reminded of the battles, the wars I've grown used to. But compared to what I've been through, these children are learning all the physical and ethical necessities within the safe and entertaining confines of sports." His dark eyes wistfully glimmer with nostalgia. "Football is truly a beautiful game, isn't it?"

Hillman does not answer the question. Instead, he sips from his glass and absorbs those words with a burden on his shoulders. However good Naga's intentions are, he has let his rose-tinted memories of the military corrupt him. And what of Dulana? "You technically haven't answered my question."

A flush of warm modesty spread across his face, the crimson-haired man chuckles. "I suppose I didn't. Well, it's hard to tell with Mr. Rice. As a matter of fact, I recall him mentioning once how much he hated football."

The older man becomes intrigued. "Really? I wouldn't have thought so. Though considering his father's history, I suppose the boy would naturally come to that conclusion."

"It is ironic, though. Once or twice, I caught him playing by himself. Whatever his reasons for loathing the sport, they don't change the fact that he's still willing to put everything he has into it."

The features on Hillman's face turn stern and harsh at the last statement. "Everything, you say? Well, I suppose he's still a child; it would be more worrying if he lacked the passion and recklessness of one. But I do wonder why he would put so much into something that tore his family apart."

"Who knows? Perhaps he wishes to restore his name by providing for the players. They are close to his age, so it's likely he would like to befriend them someday." Naga swirls the red liquid in his glass before drinking it. "Speaking of which, which team are you betting will win?"

A cough, then: "I do not make bets, but I have supported Raimon from the first moment, and will continue to do so until the day I die."

"I see. It seems we're all on the same page, then. As they say these days..." He raises his glass. "May the odds be ever in their favor."

Hillman's hand picks up the glass, but a numbness, which had felt minimal just a moment ago, spreads to his entire arm, causing him to drop it. As the glass falls to the floor, so does he, with the shattering noise ringing in his ears as his vision blurs and darkens.

 

Naga rushes to check Hillman's pulse. "He's not long for this world." He turns to the lady servant. "Call emergency services. Tell them the Emperor has fallen. And let Mr. Rice know that his reign will come to fruition."

The servant, calm and stoic, cracks a tiny smile, and as her lips part, a young man's voice comes out. "Good work, Mr. Naga. May the odds continue in our favor."

Chapter Text

Looking up at the hanging vines and encroaching greenery around the stands and bench, Jean-Pierre cannot help but express his awe at the unusual sight. "It's like we're in the middle of a jungle! I wonder what's going to happen next. I'm at the edge of my seat!"

Arion nods in agreement, then turns to Coach Evans. "What do you think…" He stops himself as soon as he notices the phone to his ear.

Mark Evans speaks to the caller on the other line in hushed tones, then hangs up. "Sorry about that. Anyway, we're going up against Barn Jr. High. They haven't much of a track record so far, but things could be different this year. And with all the renovations to Roulette Park, it's more important than ever to be mindful of your surroundings. Play your best, and work together to win. Now, go out there and play football!"

Raimon's teammates belt out their excitement and rush out into the field. Meanwhile, sitting on the bench are Eugene and Naga, keeping at more than arm's length of the other members. "Stupid coach, benching us again," Naga mutters as he crosses his legs impatiently. "We could be out there, tearing up those wimps. I bet we can five-O them before the first half's over!"

"Patience, Nobby. Let's see how things unravel first. If things come to a head, we'll be back on the pitch in the second half."

"If you say so. I still think it's unfair."

Eugene is about to reply, when his eyes catch something in the stands, forcing him to double-take. There, near the front row on the other side, is a stout young man with moss green hair, accompanied by another man of equal height, with a head shaped like a chestnut. Uncle Peabody? Fists clenched, he whispers, "Damn it, Evans. You better let us play."

 

The game starts off with little event. However, as Arion dribbles the ball down the field, in a flash, he finds himself ensnared in a vine's grasp, watching as a pair of Farm's players also become trapped. This only happens for half a minute at most, but that bit of time could make the difference between victory and defeat. Luckily, Riccardo, who likely expected such an outcome, rushes to take the ball back before Barn could try to claim it.

With everyone becoming aware of the stadium's gimmick, the rest of the first half continues at a smoother pace, with Barn proving to be spectacularly weak compared to their previous opponents. Though it makes one wonder how they even managed to progress to nationals, considering their obvious lack of skill. As Naga predicted, Raimon manages to score five goals by the first whistle.

As the teams prepare for the second half, Eugene starts to approach Evans, only to freeze up at the last second. Evans, noticing this odd behavior, walks over to him instead. "Eugene, I know this is going to upset you, but I think you're better off staying here. You and Naga have a lot of talent, and it's obvious that you worked really hard, but as a coach, I need to ensure that everyone gets their chance to play. You understand, right?"

After a brief pause, he sighs. "I understand. Thank you."

 

Predictably, Naga's upset by the news, but after talking it out, they conclude that Barn isn't worth the trouble. Sure enough, Raimon breezes through the second half with a score of ten to zero. As the rest of the team celebrates their victory, they stand back and quietly observe their coach, wrapped up in another phone call. Hanging up and pocketing his phone, he turns to his team. "Sorry, guys, but something's come up. Ms. Hills can bring you back to the bus. I'll catch up later." He walks off, leaving everyone scratching their heads.

As they head back to the entrance of Roulette Park, they're greeted by not only Ms. Hills, but two shorter men. JP and Arion are the first to recognize them. "Tod Ironside? Paul Peabody?" They run up to them, eyes sparkling with wonder. "Can we have your autographs?"

Peabody smiles bashfully as he backs away. "Maybe later. We flew all the way here to watch the nationals, and just happened to run into Ms. Hills on our way out." Looking around, he asks, "Say, where is Mark, anyway?"

"Coach Evans said he had to do something by himself," Arion answers, "but he'll catch up with us later."

The other man, Tod, crosses his arms. "That man never stands still, does he? I can't even get in touch with him on my phone these days."

Just then, someone's phone starts ringing. "Hello? Celia Hills speaking." Her blue eyes grow wide as the voice on the other end speaks to her. "Er, yes, I'll let them know." She hangs up and turns to the others. "Unfortunately, it looks like Coach Evans won't be joining us. But he did ask Tod and Peabody to take his place—if they're willing, of course."

"Seriously?" With a sigh, Tod says, "Well, anything for Mark. Peabody, you up to it?"

With a sheepish grin, Peabody says, "Like I got anything better to do."

As the students line up and start heading into the bus, Peabody stops to pull Eugene to the side. "Great game out there, kiddo."

Eugene blinks, confused. "But I was on the bench the whole time. I never even got to play."

"That doesn't matter. You're on Raimon's main team—that's proof alone that you have skill. And hey, I've been benched quite a bit back in my day. Kicked to reserves, even. But it's not cus I wasn't good enough. Sometimes it's just better to save the best for last. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I guess."

One brow raised, Peabody points out, "Hey, you look a bit different. You change your hair or something?" A sly grin spreads across his face. "Who're you trying to impress?"

His cheeks turn bright red as he blurts out, "I'm not trying to impress anyone! Besides, I'm already engaged." Realizing what he just said, he covers his face with his hands.

Peabody's smile drops, his tone more apprehensive. "Engaged? To who?"

"Th-that's none of your business!" He runs into the bus, face turning redder with both anger and shame.

Chapter Text

Later that evening, Timmy catches up with Peabody and Tod at Hobbes's Hut, a local restaurant in southern Tokyo. His other friends would have joined, but Max and Sam were working overtime, while Jim was busy babysitting one of the Occult alumni's children, leaving him to go by himself. It's probably for the best, though—for Tim, four's a crowd, and six is absolute chaos. They order noodle dishes and sake, and reminisce the “good ol' days”.

“So I hear you're coaching the karate club now,” Tod says. “It's pretty fitting. But what happened to that dojo overseas? I remember you saying you were dead set on becoming sensei.”

Timmy, hesitant, replies, “Things didn't really work out. But I learned a lot of neat things there, and I'm a sensei now, anyway, so it doesn't matter.” Turning to Peabody, he lightens up. “So what are you up to these days”

“I'm not playing or coaching like you guys, but I do work for the Football Federation. Mostly sorting records and organizing meetings, dull work like that. I even helped with setting up the Roulette Park renovations.”

Tod's buck-toothed grin grows wider. “Really? So you had a first look at the blueprints and everything?”

“Sort of, yeah. But the final decision goes to the Emperor and the chair members up high. That's why I found that Rainforest Stadium so weird.”

“You mean those vines weren't in the plans?”

“They were, but I assumed they were just for show. The gimmick listed was completely different—the plans I saw had a river cutting the pitch in half. Someone must have changed the plans after I sent them out.” He downs his sake, a twinge of frustration in his brows.

“Hey, you told me earlier you had a big announcement. So what's the holdup?”

With a chuckle, he says, “Well, I was going to wait 'til we got the band back together, but I guess I can spoil it for you guys.” He shoves his hand into his coat pocket and whips out… nothing. Though upon further inspection, something has changed: in his pinky finger, a golden band, shimmering under the overhanging lamps. “Ta-da! I'm engaged! The missus planned our wedding for Christmas Eve and our honeymoon the day after. And of course, you're all invited.”

Watching their moss-haired friend singing with joy, they congratulate him, and then Timmy chimes in with, “You were always popular with girls, this is just the logical conclusion.”

“Don't count yourself out, Tim! You had your fair share of crushes back then, too—you just never noticed.”

“There's a reason they called you 'No Type Timmy',” Tod comments.

Red-faced from sake and vexation, Timmy says, “'No Type Timmy'? What the hell does that mean?”

“Just a nickname Sam made up back in high school. He always talked about how you never showed interest in anyone, guy or girl, and the name just stuck.”

“Of course he would come up with a stupid name like that,” Timmy mumbles.

“'Course, it was pretty weird just how often he brought it up. Especially when you're not around.”

“He totally had the hots for you,” Peabody says, matter-of-factly. “It was pretty obvious, the way he talked about you.”

“Really? I thought we were just friends.” Tim's attitude changes, becoming more demure with the shift in topic. Knowing this, it certainly would explain their conversation at the hospital terrace. He crosses his arms and hardens his tone. “Well, he's probably not all that serious if he's sleeping around all the time. He's a coward and a thief, too. He's definitely not my type at all!”

Leaning in towards each other, the two other men speak to each other in hushed voices.

“Is this that 'tsundere' thing I hear about in anime?”

“I think this is called 'being in denial'.”

“Not that I disagree with him. Sam can be a bit, uh...”

A loud slam jerks them out of their conversation. “Hey, if you wanna say somethin' 'bout me, say it to my face!” Timmy, clearly drunk, closes in on them, his beady eyes stabbing right through their souls.

Later that evening, the three of them leave the bar, with Tod and Peabody dragging their plastered friend out of the Hut. Tod, having booked a hotel nearby, parts ways with Peabody after helping Timmy into the car. Before starting the car, he decides to make a quick call to an old friend.

 

It happened ten years ago, during summer break. Timmy was feeling rather restless when he heard the doorbell ring. He rushed over and opened the door, eyes growing wide when he saw who was there. There stood Sam, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Though he had his tracksuit on, he could not hide all the bruises. “Hey,” he said, a sad smile on his long, freckled face, “Mind if I come in?”

 

When Timmy wakes up from his sake-induced coma, he looks around, becoming increasingly confused by what he sees. The bed covers smell like cigarettes, a half-opened closet on the far end shows designer-brand clothes he might have recognized from a magazine, and the walls are lined with metal bands and scantily-clad women… and a photo of the Raimon Eleven from eleven years ago, hanging on a cracked frame. As his addled brain slowly connects the dots, the door opens, and in walks Sam. “Hey, you're finally awake. When you came in, I almost thought you were dying. And thank goodness, cus I'd rather not call 119.”

“How did I get here? Where's Peabody and Tod? Why…?”

“Peabody dropped you off here and left. Why he couldn't just take you to Max's place is beyond me. How're you feeling?”

“My head hurts like mad, but I'll be fine, I think.”

“Max shared me this awesome recipe that's great for hangovers. Want some?”

Moments later, Sam brings over some tea and sits on the bed beside him. Staring down at the greenish liquid in the cup, Timmy asks, “You didn't do anything funny while I was asleep, did you?”

“What? Of course not!” He scratches his head and sighs. “Well, maybe I pecked you on the cheek a bit, but that's it.” Timmy gives a skeptical look, which vexes Sam. “Look, think whatever you want of me, but even I have standards.”

“That's not what I meant! I was just thinking about something Tod said.” He takes a sip, then says, his voice a quiver, “Sam, what do you think of me?”

Sam tries to say something, but the words are caught in his throat. After a second's thought, he finally speaks. “Timmy, do you remember that time I came to your house out of nowhere?”

It takes a second for him to know what he was talking about. “You took me by surprise when you showed up. But at the same time, I was happy. Things were really boring without the team. I didn't think too much about how you got hurt or why—probably because I didn't want to—but I knew if anyone could make a dull day special, it's you.”

“I see,” he mutters.

“We let you stay for the night, and we had a lot of fun. But then I woke up, and you were gone. I never got to ask about those bruises. Though I suppose it's better that way.”

“… Mum.”

Timmy blinks, puzzled. “What?”

“My mum gave me those bruises. My dad remarried sometime before my third year. She was an alcoholic who'd beat me up if I pissed her off in the slightest. Not that my own mum was much better, but at least she kept her distance. It took what little courage I had to leave that house.”

His beady eyes widen in shock. This kind of thing? From Scaredycat Sam? Sam the cheat? How can he respond? “You're pulling my leg, aren't you? If you're just trying to get a reaction out of me, that's low, even for you!”

A long silence looms over them, as the weight of Timmy's words slowly take in. “Believe what you want. I don't care.” He stands up and walks over to the door. “When you're done here, you can leave anytime.” He exits the room, slamming it shut behind him.

Timmy, slumped over, empties the cup and sets it on the nightstand. He then clutches his head, gritting his teeth and stifling his tears. Dammit, why does it hurt so much?

Chapter Text

Elsewhere that night, Tod is walking back to the hotel. Unlike Timmy, he can hold his drink, and save for slightly impaired reflexes, can pass off as sober. Had Peabody not made plans to spend the night at his sibling's house, they could have gone together. In hindsight, perhaps he should have gone with them—the streets, while not barren, is sparse of people, creating an eerily lonely atmosphere.

As he treks on, the noise around him dies down, leaving behind a heavy, suffocating silence. Perhaps it was the heaviness of the atmosphere or the slight breeze blowing through, but Tod cannot help but feel goosebumps. He stops to look around. Nothing. Is he just paranoid, or is he truly being watched? He sighs in relief and is about to take another step when a soft, sudden sound breaks through the air.

Footsteps. Shoes crunching against concrete. He turns around, and is paralyzed by what's staring back at him. A humanoid figure with long, tendril-like hair. Where he stands, he can barely make out its face, but he can tell that it's staring directly into his eyes. The figure takes a step forward. "Tod Ironside. Your time for judgment has come." The figure summons a round object and gently kicks it in his direction. "You played for Inazuma National, did you not? Prove to me that you are worthy of that title." Before Tod can react, the figure suddenly starts running towards him.

 

Back in Inazuma Town, in the Ballzack residence, Adé and Michael are spending the night together. As Adé washes his long, wavy hair, conflicting thoughts race through his mind. For the past few days, he could not get Kaiser out of his head. While he had been a frequent subject since they first became friends, these thoughts have become increasingly obsessive as of late. It's unnatural, he knows it, but it's uncontrollable. Now he has to make a fundamental decision: stay with Kaiser and go mad, or break up and lose him forever.

After he finishes with the shower, Kaiser steps into the bathtub to soak. Burying half of his face beneath the water's surface, he closes his eyes and allows his mind to drift off like a boat at sea.

Suddenly, he feels his head being forced down into the water. As he flails about, his hands reach out to grab the edges of the tub and pull himself up, resisting the pressure from whatever is pushing him down. Eventually, he's let go, and he hangs limply over the tub, gasping for air. That is when a familiar voice speaks to him. "Still alive, aren't you? You're a lot more stubborn than you let on."

Kaiser looks up. "Adé? Why? Why would you…?"

"I don't know. I was just thinking about how much you wanted to die, and then I thought, 'If that's what you want, that's what you'll get'." His body starts to shake. "I must be going mad. No, I am mad. There's no hiding it anymore: I'm a monster, a horrible, horrible monster!"

A slap in the face snaps Adé out of his trance. "Reiẞ dich zusammen! I'm the freak here, not you. I always think that I want to die, but every time I try, I always get scared." He lets out a soft laugh. "I'm such a coward. A weak, filthy coward."

Adé interjects, "No, you're not! You're brave and strong and decent. I'm the filthy one here. Here I am, doubting you this whole time. You're scary as hell, I'll be honest. But you're always looking out for me, and I'm grateful. I was scared at first cus I didn't understand you, but now… I'm beginning to understand. It's weird, 'specially since you tried to choke me an' stuff, but lookin' back, I think part of me liked it a little. Not everything, mind you, but most of it... felt thrilling. Like nothing I've felt before."

Kaiser stares at him, completely baffled. This isn't the Adé he knew. The Adé he knew would have known how twisted that sort of thinking is. Hell, even Kaiser knows how insane that sounded; he had tried for years to suppress those sorts of fantasies and pretend that they never existed. At the same time, however, he feels oddly relieved, finding a sense of belonging with an individual who is just as messed up as he is.

Before he can say anything else, Adé continues. "I dunno if this is the proper time to ask, but I need to know. The night we were at the park, when we were spotted by that cop, what happened after that?"

When he hears that question, a brief image flashes in his mind. "You trust me, don't you? Because you're probably not going to believe me." With Adé's approval, he transitions into his account. That night, when the officer's flashlight shone upon them, he felt like a deer in the headlights. His protective instincts kicked in, suppressing Adé's consciousness as he approached. He wanted to calm the officer down, or at least knock him out long enough to escape. But before he could take action, the cop was suddenly knocked to the ground. Ricocheting from the back of their head was a black-and-white ball, which bounced and rolled back to its owner. Though the mysterious attacker's face was hidden beneath shadows, under the moonlight, he could see enough features to recognize them.

Adé's brown eyes grow wide with shock. "I can't believe it," he says in a low voice. "Eugene is the killer."

"It's not just him. Naga's involved, too; he might even be the main conspirator. They're both in it together."

"But I don't understand. What would make him kill someone? He'd never do anything like that!"

"That's what I want to know." He averts his gaze, an anguished look in his eyes. While he expected this to happen, the pain of the betrayal is much too great. This leaves him conflicted: if he gives Eugene a taste of justice, Adé will be hurt by his old friend's absence, but if he doesn't, then he and Naga will continue his murdering spree, and Adé may be on the receiving end of their bloodlust. Whichever he chooses, he must protect Adé at all costs.

Chapter Text

Sunlight shines through the window, landing upon the half-exposed legs of Max as he rests on the mattress. Cats of all colors, breeds, and sizes surround their owner, licking him with their rough tongues and curling up against him. Timmy, upon entering the bedroom, watches in exasperation before motioning over to the bed. "Max, wake up! You're going to be late!" He gently shakes his shoulder, jostling his unconscious friend.

After a few shakes, the orange-haired young man raises his head, mumbling something unintelligible before shouting, "What? Noir's my kid? And Jim's the father?" Timmy, startled, yelps as he falls on his backside, the resulting noise snapping Max out of his daze. "Oh, mornin', Timmy. Didn't see you last night. What happened?"

As they eat breakfast at the table, Timmy gives his account of last night's events, leading up to his return home. "There's no way I can face him again!"

"Let's not assume the worst here. I know Sam well enough, he'll calm down in time."

"You sure? I said some pretty hurtful things."

"Yeah, you can't take back what you said, and apologizing might not work if your timing's off. But if you can prove that you really do mean what you feel, he'll turn around soon enough."

Max's words seeping into Tim's thoughts, he nods and sips his coffee in silence.

 

In a certain clothing store in Inazuma Town's shopping district, Sam is in the back office, managing finances, stock, customer feedback, and much more. The workload is daunting and tedious for a man of his disposition, but after his conversation with Timmy, he needs something to take his mind off of things.

Halfway through the morning, the desk phone starts to ring. "'Ello. This is Sam. Sure, I'll be up." He heads out of the office into the main floor, meeting with Doug behind the register. After a lengthy, heated debate with a disgruntled customer, the matter is settled.

"Something wrong, boss? You sound irritable."

Sam is taken aback. He thought he hid it well, but apparently not. "Just some stuff at home, nothing much."

"You sure?"

After a second thought, he replies with, "Get back to work."

He eventually drops by during Dodge's lunch break and gives him a quick run-down of the previous night's events, skimping out on the details of his own background. Part of him is anxious, believing that confiding in his coworker, especially one younger than him, would make him look weak. But as he goes on, he can feel the weight lifting from his shoulders, and Doug listens patiently, even during brief moments where he loses his temper and raises his voice. "I can understand Max, but Timmy? We used to be good friends, but…" He sighs. "He probably thinks I'm a load of shit."

Doug waits a second before speaking. "I can't say I know him well, but if I was in his situation at the time, I probably would have said something similar. I mean, your best friend confesses to you their biggest secret, something they've been holding in for a really long time, and when it comes out, it just feels so out of left field, you end up having this knee-jerk reaction to it. Not that you mean to hurt them, but when you get hit with something unexpected, sometimes you say or do stupid things." He sips on the canned coffee in his hands. "I had a friend confess to me once. Told me he loved me for a really long time. Unfortunately, I didn't feel the same way, so I told him off—rather harshly, I might add. Since then, I keep thinking to myself, 'Was it right to say that'? I mean, even with his creepy behavior at the time, I could have put him down nicely. There's no way I could have lied, that's for sure. But now I'm wondering if I damaged him somehow."

Damaged? Isn't that a bit much? "Maybe I have been a bit harsh on him. I'll talk to him sometime." He stands up and thanks Doug before leaving the break room. As he heads back into the office, one question stands out in his mind: Is it too late for forgiveness?

Chapter Text

The previous night, when Peabody went to Eugene's house, he hugged his brother and sister-in-law, then turned to his nephew, only to find out he's not there. "He's been spending more time at his friend's house than his own," said Ms. Peabody, hiding her concern under a teasing tone. "But he should be back in the morning."

Mrs. Peabody's troubles soon escalated when the doorbell rang. Paul's brother answered the door, to a stern-looking older man with messy red hair. The man, Noboru Naga, came over in search for his son, Nobby. As Naga gave his account of Nobby's activities, Paul, his inebriated brain clouding his judgment, muttered, "They're eloping."

"What was that?" Naga asked, his coal black eyes narrowing.

Raising his volume to a more audible level, he elaborated. "You heard me: they're eloping! They're young kids in love, of course they'd be stupid enough to do it."

"Nobita is a smart and capable young man. He would never do anything like tha—"

"Mr. Naga, how old is your kid?"

"He is fourteen, well into his second year."

"If you expected him to not do anything stupid at his age, you're a lot dumber than you look." Naga opened his mouth to express his outrage, but was cut off. "But I understand your concern. As a parent, you have to look out for your kid. That's why you need to hang out with him more often, learn about what he likes and how he behaves."

Taking a deep breath, he simmered down. "Perhaps I don't know my son as well as I thought. Thank you." He stood up and bowed before resuming. "I have a friend in the police department. I'll call him up and send for a search party. We can settle the rest later."

"You don't have to do all that—"

"Our children's safety is of utmost importance. Besides, it's the least I could do for intruding upon your home. This is the result of my son's irresponsible behavior, so I have to deal with him the best way I could." He briefly turned his gaze at Paul before commenting, "I've met Eugene and saw him play; he truly does live up to his lineage."

That comment echoed in Paul's head well into the morning. Barely staying awake, he drags himself out of bed and prepares himself for his meet-up with Mark later in the day. He never considered himself as part of a "lineage", nor did he ever intend for his nephew to live up to it. Could that pressure be his reason for running away? Could his "friend" be equally burdened? Eugene's relationship with Naga's son is obvious, but everything else is unclear.

 

He travels to a grassy lakeside area in the outskirts of Inazuma Town, where its signature landmark can be found. An aging steel tower, still standing tall after many decades, marked by a gigantic lightning bolt, it represents the town itself and everything that it stands for. With its peaceful scenery and beautiful view, the structure and the area surrounding it are a popular gathering spot for friends and family. Gripping the rungs of the ladder, he proceeds to climb up the tower. Up on the balcony is Mark, his brown hair swaying in sync with the gentle wind as he looks over the expansive cityscape below. Mark turns to face him, flashing his lovable grin. "Hey, you're late."

Peabody chuckles, aware of this inside joke shared between close friends. "So what's the holdup? I thought you were busy."

His grin dissipates, his expression replaced with a grim look. "I was. But something else came up. Tod's in the hospital. His condition's gotten better, but he's unlikely to be out anytime soon."

"What? How could this happen? He was just fine when he left."

"The police are looking into the case, but from what I've gathered, he was attacked by the serial killer. He was lucky to get out of it alive."

"The infamous 'Inazuma Killer' was there? I've been reading up about it, but I didn't think it could happen to any of us."

"It's because of us that the murders are occurring in the first place. I spoke with a few investigators, and as it turns out, the one thing linking all of them is that all the victims have competed for or against Raimon. They're still looking for more information, but I think the motive is clear enough."

The pieces start to connect in Peabody's brain as he says, "They want to destroy Raimon from the inside out. By attacking members of the Inazuma Eleven, they can lower the morale of the students and players, and by spreading the damage to past and current rivals, they can raise suspicion towards Raimon, eventually leading Japan's youth football into a downward spiral. But I have to ask: why?"

"It wouldn't be the first time someone plotted to destroy football, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. Chances are strong that whoever is behind this is holding a grudge against Raimon. I can help the authorities to narrow down the suspects, but it's all muddy from there."

Peabody scratches the back of his head nervously. "I don't see why you called me up here. You seem to have everything handled."

"Not quite. Remember the message I left for Celia? Raimon still needs a coach."

"But Tod's a professional coach. I don't even play anymore!"

"It won't be for long, I promise. And there's something more important that only you can do. There's more to being a coach than just teaching them how to play—a good coach looks out for the team. Your nephew plays for Raimon, right? That's all the more reason to take the job." A beeping sound emits from Mark's digital watch. "I have to go now. Can't leave my wife waiting." As he approaches the ladder, he pats Peabody's shoulder and smiles. "Take care of yourself."

Chapter Text

Despite the Youth Football Association's attempts to cover it up, news of Hillman's death eventually broke out, causing a frenzy. “Not even the Holy Emperor is safe,” some have cried out. “Football is on the verge of collapse!” Of course, most consider these claims pure hyperbole, the concoction of conspiracy theorists rattling on about the dangers lurking within the confines of the world of sports. Regardless, the incident has left many across the country worried about what the future holds for football.

While Japan mourns for Mr. Hillman, the Association is forced to move on and choose a new Holy Emperor to represent them. After much debate, they make an unexpected decision. “Introducing your new Holy Emperor, president of Garshield Industries and renowned Saint of Samaritans, Dulana Rice!”

Stepping forward to center stage—or center pitch—he smiles serenely as he gives his speech. “Thank you, thank you. As some of you might be aware, Garshield Industries has not had the best history. My father, Zoolan Rice, once tried to use this beloved sport for his own selfish means, and sullied our family name as a result of his crimes. As his successor, there are those who expect me to follow in his footsteps. Well, I stand before you in defiance. I will not ignore or deny what's been done eleven years ago, but I will learn from the experience and use football to unite people and make the world a better place. I, Dulana Rice, will make football great again!”

 

Sam turns off the television and turns to Tod, sitting on a hospital bed. “I dunno what it is about that kid, but he just rubs me the wrong way.”

“I can't disagree with you,” Tod replies. “But that kid did get me out of a tight spot a couple of years back, so I can't hate him, either.”

“You've gotta be kidding me,” he mumbles under his breath. Out loud, he says, “They're calling him the 'Saint of Samaritans'. You gotta admit that's pretty ridiculous in itself. I mean, what is he, the second coming of Jesus?”

“I doubt he wanted that name himself. But compared to his dad, he does look pretty saintly.” Tod pauses to look at his curly-haired friend as he stands up and starts walking. “Sam, is there something wrong? You can talk to me… Hey, wait! Where are you going?”

Sam heads out onto the terrace for a smoke, but instead of feeling calmer, he feels unusually cold. Not cold as in aloof or insensitive, but almost literally cold. His fingers tremble as he picks out a cigarette from the pack, and not even the warm flame of the lighter can soothe him. There's an air of constant unease, one that threatens to kill him faster than any carcinogenic substance. This air continues to grow colder and colder, until…

“Hey,” a soft, chilling voice whispers in his ear.

His heart leaps straight to his throat, causing him to drop his cigarette. Slowly, he turns his head to face the source of the voice. A tall, shady-looking figure looms over him like a shadow, or perhaps the grim reaper himself. But the longer he stares at the figure, the more his heart rate drops, as he comes to recognize who it is. “Oh, Jim, didn't expect you here. So what's up?”

“I was on my way to visit Tod and give him this.” Jim holds up a gift basket, filled with fruits, flowers, and packaged sweets. “And you?”

“Same, minus the fruit basket.” He crosses his arms. “Hey, is it possible for someone to be a saint?”

The willowy man, blinking behind his blinding bangs, asks, “Pardon? I'm not following.”

“Lemme rephrase the question. It's impossible for anyone to be perfect, right? So why do certain people come across as such?”

Jim twirls his hair with one hand as he comes up with an answer. “Well, it depends, really. But I guess if you don't know someone well enough, they can appear perfect because you don't see their flaws. On the other hand, you can know a person and see them as perfect, despite or even because of their flaws.” He takes out one of the flowers in the basket—a yellow rose—and holds it close to his face, taking in its fresh, subtle fragrance. “Roses have thorns that prick and bleed if handled improperly, yet people love them regardless, and some learn how to handle them so they won't get hurt. On second thought, maybe that wasn't the best example—I mean, one can remove the thorns from a rose, but you can't do the same with a person.”

“I thought it was pretty good, actually.” He swaps out the box of cigs with his cellphone. “You can go ahead; I got to make a call.”

 

In the gymnasium of Raimon Jr. High, Timmy is about to start class when his phone starts to buzz. He checks the name on the small screen, and puts it away. It's probably not important, he tells himself. But he's not fooling himself one bit. He cannot point it out, but something about that call feels off-putting, like something bad will happen if he takes it. After the fifth buzz, he caves in and picks it up. “Hello,” he says with a quiver.

“Hey, it's Sam. Are you busy after school? There's a great cafe we can go to. There's this green tea cake that's to die for!”

Tim bites his lower lip. That does sound delicious. “I can't talk much right now. Can you text me the address?”

Once school and club activities ceased, Timmy follows the typed address to a currently-popular cafe known for its cute waitresses. He never quite saw the appeal of these sorts of places—as long as the food's good, does it really matter how the servers are dressed? His question is answered the second he spots Sam, shamelessly flirting with a petite brunette sporting the cafe's trademark uniform. Apparently, food quality isn't of absolute importance. Expectations swiftly lowered, he takes the seat in front of them.

As they wait for their orders, Timmy speaks up. “About last night, I just wanted to apologize—”

“No no no, it's my fault. I shouldn't have kicked you out like that, 'specially after throwing that big bombshell on you. If anything, I should've expected that sort of reaction.”

“Why are you apologizing? You told me your deepest, darkest secret, and I just brushed it off and called you a liar. I was the rude one, not you!”

“Knowing how scummy I can get, I honestly deserved it—”

“You're still my friend, scum and all! I should have trusted you in the first place.” Eyes overflowing with tears, he wipes them away with the back of his hand, but stops when Sam hands him a clean handkerchief.

“You were half-right about last night,” Sam says as Timmy takes the handkerchief. “Even with everything that's happened to me in the past, I shouldn't have let that affect how I treated you lot. Hell, the fact that you still consider me a friend is a surprise.”

Cleaning himself with the hand cloth, he smiles softly. “Yeah, Jim does lose his patience with you sometimes, and Max likes to tease you about it, but you're not nearly as bad as you think. We don't know you as well as you do, but we know more about you than most people. For better or worse, you're a friend of ours, and that's all that matters.”

Sam takes in the small man's words for a moment, then says, “Hey, you never said what you thought of me. Was that intentional?”

The comment stabs Tim right through the heart. He slings his long ponytail over his shoulder and starts combing through it with his fingers. “I never really understood you, even back then. But for whatever reason, I managed to put up with you, and…” He grips his hair tightly. “You might even be my best friend.”

“'Best friend'?” His voice lowers, as if to hide his disappointment.

No further words are said until the waitress returns to give them coffee and green tea cakes. The young lady, eying Timmy, says to Sam, “Is this that friend you've been talking about? He's even cuter in person.”

“Didn't I tell you? He's got a great personality. His jokes are terrible, though.”

“I don't need to make any when I got you,” Timmy retorts.

She giggles, and her smile spreads to Sam. “You two should form a comedy duo, you work so well together! Anyway, here's your bill.”

Reading the bill, Sam says, “Hey, how 'bout I take this one? It's the least I could do.”

Timmy, flustered, blurts out, “No, I can't let you do that! I'll pay!”

“Suit yourself.” With a smirk, he slaps the slip of paper in front of Timmy, changing his mood for the worse.

“What? No way! You pay for your half, at least!”

Tapping his chin, he shrugs and says, “Okay. How 'bout this: you pay for my half, and I pay for yours?”

“That's basically the same thing.”

“Huh. So it is. Well, anyways…” He fumbles through his wallet and slaps some change. “That should cover my half, plus tax. See ya!”

Timmy counts the money Sam left behind, mentally calculating the remainder, when he notices that some of the bills and coins are a larger amount than at first glance, enough to cover the bill to the last cent. “Stupid Sam,” he mumbles, feeling slightly cheated.

Chapter Text

As Raimon's players gather on the bus, Kaiser sits by the window and scrolls through his texts. Adé's last few texts, made in the wee hours of the night, read: “I've been thinkin' a lot 'bout the other night, and I really don't wanna hurt you again. I think we need some time apart. Sorry.”

Snapping the phone shut, he continues to mull over Adé's words until a tiny, French-accented voice speaks. “Excuse me. Can I sit here?” Kaiser, his eyes concealed by his unruly, overgrown bangs, peers in the direction of the voice. JP. As annoyed as he is with his suffocating optimism and obsession with football, Kaiser always found him a bit more tolerable compared to Arion. He nods, and JP hops onto the seat next to him. “I hope you don't mind me asking, but is something going on with Adé and Eugene? They hardly talk to each other, and Eugene…”

“Hurt Adé,” he mutters under his breath.

“Ouais. And you might laugh at me for it, but Naga scares me. Whenever I see him in class, I would freeze up or try to run away. He scares me so much.”

“I hate Naga. He made Eugene hurt Adé. He needs to pay.” JP stares at him in confusion, but nods in agreement. Even if the context doesn't make sense to him, the general sentiment is mutual: as good a player as Nobby is, his behavior has been ruining team morale. It is almost as if he intended for this to occur.

After exiting the bus, the team heads up to the railway, where, standing on the opposite platform, is Almighty Faith. Kaiser's eyes grow wide when he spots some familiar baubles hanging around the necks of three: captain, goalkeeper, and striker. He turns to look at Naga and Eugene, who appear equally shocked. Are they faking it, or are they just as surprised as he is?

“It can't be,” Naga whispers. His father told him about the case studies being performed on students past and present, particularly those with connections to Raimon. He further pointed out that, while both are aesthetically similar, the biggest difference between these test subjects and the average consumer is the amount of radioactive energy emitted from the minerals. While the energy is nonlethal, the effects it has on the human body and mind are considered too drastic to thrust upon those unaware of its potential. As a result, the mass-produced variants of the jewelry, such as the ones worn by the majority of the Raimon Eleven, contain far less of the actual mineral, making them less “pure” than their prototypes. However, despite this, there have been recent reports of failed fusions occurring amongst the general population—many which have resulted in death, whether via suicide or forced euthanasia. Though the distance is too great to tell for certain, a strong feeling in his gut tells him these three are on the same page as he and Eugene.

Snapping Raimon out of their trance is Almighty's captain, a boy whose hair resembles a cross between a shark and a skunk. “You're probably wondering why we're here despite you beating us in regionals, aren't you,” he asks.

Riccardo says, “It is rather peculiar. We were supposed to go up against Mirage.”

“Well, unfortunately for them, stuff happened, and they weren't able to attend. But Dulana managed to pull some strings and got us to stand in for them.”

Riccardo's ashy brows rise. “Can he do that? I assumed they would just disqualify them and move us up towards the semifinals. Then again, last year was hardly any less unusual.” To that, the Almighty captain can only nod in agreement.

 

The awkwardness resumes in the rail, as both teams are forced to spend the ride sitting across from each other. After remaining silent for what feels like hours, the bun-haired member of Almighty Faith speaks up. “Yawn! This is so boring! Hey, how about we try to guess the pitch's new gimmick? It's definitely more fun than trying to murder each other with dirty looks. Don't you agree, Aum?” The green-haired goalie doesn't reply. “Aw, you're no fun! Hey, Cappy, you wanna take a guess?”

The captain ponders for a second before answering, “The last two pitches seemed largely inspired by nature, and they seem to be trying to do something different from last year, so maybe something based on the ocean?”

“Really? I was thinking of that pinball stadium from last year, and it got me thinking 'bout power plants! No, wait, wind power! No, they did that last year, too. Darn it! Aum, help me out here!”

The bun-head grabs him by the shoulder and shakes him as he spoke. After letting him go, Aum, completely unfazed by this rough gesture, turns to the young redhead staring at him and says, “You're Naga, correct? I've heard your name before. Your father works for that big company, Garshield, right? I'm willing to bet you know a thing or two about the Park's design.”

This statement catches Naga unawares, taking an extra second to process the query before shaking his head. “I don't know anything about the Park. The last match took me by surprise.” He grins bashfully as he scratches his head.

“Really? Huh. I thought since you had connections with the Holy Emperor, you would know of the hazards. I suppose it was foolish of me to make that assumption.”

As this conversation occurred, the captain, observing the rest of Raimon's roster, hears an odd sound coming from that direction. Skimming the entire row before him, his eyes stop on his target: a dark-skinned boy with wavy raven-black hair falling over his shoulders and halfway down his torso. The sound, he realizes, is the boy muttering barely audible sentences to himself. What little he can hear seem to pertain to the topic at hand. “You seem to have something on your mind. What's your idea?”

The boy, Adé, stops mid-sentence, then brushes his long hair aside. “I was just thinking, since the stadiums are based around nature an' stuff, I thought maybe the pitch could be, like, a graveyard or somethin'. I mean, death's something that happens naturally, right?” Everything turns dead silent for a moment. Realizing what he just said, he chuckles and waves it off. “Not like that'll ever happen.”

Almighty's captain's response takes everyone by surprise. “That is surprisingly profound. Perhaps a bit too morbid for an event like this, but still. And creepy stuff like this is nothing new to the Football Frontier; I read up on an old school team that specialized in the occult arts. Heck, even today, we still have schools in that spirit, like Mirage.”

Becoming increasingly amused by this shift in subject matter, the bun-head chimes in, “If that creepy occult school still exists, I'd definitely like to play against them!”

Due to the actions of one eccentric youngster, the entire mood of the ride has shifted. Almost everyone, it seems, has a thing or two to say, whether it's speculating the stadium's new quirks or discussing the history of past Frontier contestants. By the end, every other player has walked out of the rail with a smile on their face. Unfortunately, that is not to last, for as soon as they step out to witness what awaits them, that warm joy dissipated into cold fear.

The path before them is dark and dreary, lined by lifeless trees and veiled by a thick, heavy fog. Dotting what little could be seen of the distant grounds are what appear to be tombstones of various shapes and sizes. They trek down the path for a while, then stop at the foot of a river, where a hooded figure offers to ride them across on their boat. After crossing the river, they enter the stadium, where their greatest fears are confirmed: the football field is dead center in the heart of the underworld.

Chapter Text

"A bit morbid, don't you think, sir," Noboru asks as he watches the teams enter from the screen. "I don't recall seeing any of this in the original blueprints."

Dulana, watching from the Holy Emperor's throne, shakes his head. "Nonsense! They're hardly any older than I am, and I find it quite interesting. I rejected the original plans because they looked boring. But don't worry, Mr. Naga: this pitch is among the safest in the Park."

"I see. So the danger aspect is purely aesthetic, like the volcano stadium."

"Mostly. There's still one extra detail I threw in for… atmosphere." This last comment causes Naga to furrow his brows in apprehension, but keeps his lips sealed and turns his attention to the events down below.

 

Raimon's members look around, soaking in every dark and dreary detail. From the arched gateway entrance to the candle-lit halls leading to the pitch to the stone gargoyles looking down on them from the front row, the stadium exemplifies every stereotypical graveyard in history, and then some. Roma, however, is more inquisitive for a different reason. "Adé, are you psychic or something? Nobody would've guessed this!"

Adé hesitates, uncertain whether to speak or not, when Eugene approaches. "Leave him alone, Roma! It's not like he wanted to be right. It's just an unlucky coincidence."

"Unlucky" is a major understatement, Adé muses nervously. "Well, lucky or not, I'm gonna give it my all today!"

"That's the spirit," Peabody's voice cuts in. "Now, I don't know you folks too well, I'll admit, but I trust you'll know what to do when you step up. Gene, you and Naga will be on the pitch for the first half. Looking forward to seeing my favorite nephew play!" He ruffles Eugene's red hair and walks away.

Roma stares at Eugene, taken aback. "Favorite nephew?"

Eugene lets out a gasp of realization. "Oh, I never told you, have I? Peabody's my uncle. I know it's a big deal for some of you, but I didn't want anyone to think I was bragging or—"

"You've got every right to brag," a familiar voice cuts him off. "Raimon's legacy lives on through him. If you can't deal with that, you can—"

"Naga," Eugene says sternly. "That's enough. We'll talk later." Nobby looks at him, pouting a bit before stepping back, and Eugene turns back to his teammates. "I apologize for my friend here; he means well, but can be a bit rambunctious. But I should have been more honest with you guys."

Roma crosses his arms, skeptical, but a pale hand, belonging to Hugh, taps the redhead's shoulder. "Hey, Eugene, I know you've been working really hard lately, so I went over to the coach, and he says I can take over for the second half, if it's alright with you."

Eugene blinks, taken aback. "Thank you, but I think I can handle it." He turns away, dragging Naga off to the side. "What were you thinking? You embarrassed me in front of everyone!"

"Embarrassed about what? Being related to one of the most famous players in youth football? You should be proud of that! Most kids would kill to be like you. Captain's not related to Mark Evans, is he? Neither is that snob, Riccardo—as if money can make up for a lack of prestige. If anyone deserves to be captain, it's—"

"Naga, listen to me. I am proud, but not for the reasons you think. I'm proud of how much stronger I've become, how much of a better person I am, how much I've achieved this past year alone. And I'm proud to have you for a husband." He blushes shortly after hearing the last word register in his head, with all that it entails. But one look at Naga, his large eyes shimmering and brown cheeks red with elation, and he knows he truly means it.

"Howay, don't leave us hanging!" Stirred by Adé's words, they rush out onto the pitch.

 

Kicking off the match is the team's ace striker, Victor, who passes it to Riccardo. His wood-colored eyes scanning the faces nearby, he kicks it to Arion, who gets ambushed immediately by Almighty's aggressive front line. It was a play he normally would never consider, but considering the alternatives—Naga and Eugene—he preferred to put his trust elsewhere. To his luck, Gabi happens to be nearby, taking the ball back with little effort. However, what occurs shortly afterward threatens whatever hope they had up to that moment.

A thick fog rolls over the pitch, stopping Gabi in his tracks. This isn't at all like Mystic Mist, or anything I've seen before. No, this is something far, far worse. Breathing in the mist, he can feel his chest tighten, his senses heightened to a point. Then, piercing through the fog, a small light catches his eye. The light quickly takes shape into a massive pair of eyes, as a shadow looms over him.

Not too far off, Arion hears a muffled screech through the clouds and turns around. Cautiously, he takes a step forward, but is stopped by something tapping against his foot. He looks down and sees something round. As his mind starts to register the object, his mouth lets out a scream.

Soon, the fog dissipates, and players from both sides are left paralyzed with fear, wondering what just happened. Those that recovered faster take the lead, and the others follow. Arion, having kicked the object that scared him, realizes to his horror that he had given the ball to the enemy team.

Smirking, Maxi wastes no time in summoning his Fighting Spirit, the clownish magician Trickster, and mowing over the defense, scoring a quick and easy goal. Upset, Eugene concocts a plan in his head.So that's how he's going to play, is it?

 

As the teams return to their starting formations, Victor, the goth-like ace striker, feels an odd chill as he passes Eugene. His gold eyes catch sight of the redhead's face, and he realizes why. In his time serving under the now-fallen Fifth Sector, he learned how to summon and utilize Spirits, and while he cannot sense Summoners outright, through observation, he found subtle differences between them and other players. A Spirit represents the heart and soul of a person, and those with strong hearts are the ones who can successfully summon. In that split second glance, he can see the fire in Eugene's eyes, but he can also sense something much darker. That look of his… He's not satisfied with merely winning. He intends to crush all who stand in his way.

The game resumes, and as Raimon and Almighty's front liners duke it out, Eugene lets the welled-up energy overflow, a gust of wind whipping up around him as the purple aura escapes him and begins to take form. "I summon you, Ferocious Bird of Fable, Roc!" His voice echoes throughout the stadium, attracting all eyes on him for a moment before he vanishes. Maxi shifts his position, deciding where to move, when he gets knocked off his feet, losing possession of the ball. Eugene, ball at his feet, rushes out of sight, disappearing as those dreaded clouds cover his path.

Eugene maneuvers his way through the fog, avoiding what players he can based on his memory of everyone's location. Eventually, he catches up with Naga, calling out his name as he grabs him. At first, Naga cries out in protest, likely affected by the hallucinogens, but as soon as he hears Eugene's voice, he understands instantly what to do, his ring flickering in response.

Over in the penalty area, Aum's sharp eyes shift back and forth, keeping his guard up. He already had his Spirit, Goliath, out, knowing full well that Raimon had several Summoners on the pitch. But that last Summoner, he can hardly remember; that player never stood out in any way before now. Whatever that kid has up their sleeve, he better be ready—

Wait, what was that? Raising his guard up, he listens closely. Footsteps rustling on the turf. A vague, blurry shadow appears from within the fog. As the stranger approaches, another feeling wells up inside him. A warm, familiar feeling, emanating from the gem around his neck. Another fusion. No matter, he thinks with a smirk. I can take it.

The stranger runs out of the fog, long, red tendrils flowing in the wind as they move. Behind them is a monstrous, bird-like beast, a Spirit like no other seen before. The Spirit's four eyes glare down at them briefly before the fused player jumps into action. Leaping high into the air, they spin downwards, one foot pressed against the ball, giving it a boost of momentum before sending it towards the goal with the other. "Phoenix Missile!"

As the ball falls closer, Aum activates his Spirit's power. "Titanic Shield!" The metallic giant seals the two halves of its shield, creating a barrier to protect the goal from shots, super-dimensional or otherwise. The ball slams against the shield, its force propelling itself forward. The goalie, try as he might, starts to lose feeling in his arms, as his energy slowly drains from his body. In the end, he loses his footing, and is flung straight into the goal along with the wind-powered projectile, tearing the nigh-indestructible threads of the net.

Soon after, the fog clears, and there, in front of the penalty box, stands the two redheads. A smile creeps across Eugene's delicate face, and he whispers something incomprehensible before collapsing. The referee blows the whistle, pausing the game to summon the doctors from standby. Peabody rushes over to check up on his nephew, but Naga stops him, offering to watch over him during remainder of the match. Saddened, he lets them go, and as he returns to the bench, he finds himself having to fill not one, but two spots. He mutters a bit, then turns to the benched players. "Ballzack, you go up front with Victor." Kaiser nods in affirmation and steps forward. The coach's gaze turns to Hugh, and he puts his hands on his shoulders. "Baudet, you remember what I told you earlier, right? Well, now's your chance. When I said I saw potential in you, I meant it. So do me proud, kiddo!"

Chapter Text

With the missing players substituted and broken net replaced, the game continues without further delay. Everything starts off swimmingly well, with Gabi's Spirit prepared early and their offensive going in strong. Kaiser is relieved by this turn of events, confident that he can help carry the team into the finals. Then he starts hearing something, which causes his heart to drop.

At first, the sounds are muffled, indistinguishable from the surrounding white noise of rubber-soled shoes on false grass and echoes from the audience. But as he runs onward, the sounds increase in volume and clarity, as if the source is right next to him. Voices, whispering in his ear. Much of it is incomprehensible, and what little is not is plain word salad. Nothing like this ever happened to him before. Is this a lingering side effect of that weird mist? From the corners of his peripheral vision, he can catch glimpses of the world he once knew slowly falling apart: spots of colors, shadowy figures, swirls and cracks in the visual surface. He tries to shake it off and deny it, but it refuses to escape him. This is more than a trick of the fog—this is his new reality.

Forced to endure this new perspective, Kaiser continues. Halfway through, his progress is halted by a sudden presence. The figure before him appears vaguely familiar, but their features are distorted to the point of not being recognizable. A defender, most likely. Luckily, facial features matter little in the middle of a game. "Acrobatic Keep!" While still dribbling the ball, he leaps into the air, spinning horizontally, vertically, all directions, then lands with a hard thud, scraping the turf as he rushes past the opponent. Around him are strange silhouettes that barely register as human in his warped psyche. Who should he pass to? Who can he trust? I can't trust anyone. Nobody except… He looks around in search for a familiar, unmarred face. A twisted grin mars his own face as he propels the ball with a strong kick. "Adé!"

In that moment, as if he could read his mind, Adé catches the ball perfectly, then runs forward like a raging tsunami. He leaps into the air, performing a backspin before knocking the ball with the force of his knees. "Flying Fish!" Like a school of airborne fish, the ball zips towards the goal. As with most of the others on the field, the goalkeeper's appearance is warped beyond recognition, its aura further distorting its features. The disjointed metal monster raises its shield to protect itself, but as it does, its armor breaks bit by bit, losing its form and transforming into a shapeless mass of blackness before dissipating.

"Goal," the announcer shouts joyously as the ball lands in the back of the net. "And Raimon moves on to the next round. Not letting the pitch's tricks deter them, they stepped up and showed us what Raimon are truly made of!"

The voices around him fluctuate between clear and clouded, as are the features of the figures approaching him. One of the figures, an ivory-skinned beast with blood-red tusks, closes in on him, but he slaps it away, screaming, "Fassen Sie mich nicht, Sie Monster!" This gesture causes the humanoid deformities to back away, muttering in fear, while the tusked beast covers its face, screeching in pain. Cackling madly, he says, "That's it! Run away, you freaks! You'll never take me alive!" His laughter continues even as a pair of hulking monsters grab him and drag him out of the pitch.

Meanwhile, Adé is watching his boyfriend get escorted out by the misshapen blobs, terrified and worried. The Kaiser he knew would never act like this, but then again, he hasn't been himself for a while now. Even less so, thanks to fusion. At this rate, he may end up spending the rest of the school year—or his life—in a padded cell. And what about him? Is it possible he could he end up like his friend over there? I don't wanna hurt you again… I think we need some time apart. Those words he wrote kept echoing in his head…

A hand on his shoulder startles him out of his daze. "C'mon, kiddo, we're leaving." Unable to register the voice as anyone familiar, yet too oblivious to respond to it proper, Adé nods and follows the stranger back into the bus.

 

When Kaiser returns to school the next day, the entire class turns silent. His former classmates—boys and girls who, at one point, never paid him any mind—now stare at him, not bothering to hide their contempt. He walks over to his seat, then looks over at Eugene's. Empty. He then turns to look at Adé's. Nothing. He truly is alone now.

The buzz in his pocket startles him. He picks it up. One new message. He opens the phone and reads it.

"I'm at the doctor right now, so I'm not goin' to class. Wanna have a study sesh after school?"

A mix of worry and relief flows through him, and he replies with, "Of course! Your place this time?"

He anxiously waits all day, but Adé never responded once. Dismayed, he starts heading straight to his house. After his psychotic breakdown yesterday, he was sent to the hospital, where they performed various procedures to clear out remnants of the neurotoxins hidden within the stadium's fog and look for any potential psychological damage. Due to his history of mental illness, he was ordered to spend a night at an institution and provided with anti-psychotics for the short term. While he was far from the only player to receive this sort of treatment, his public display was witnessed by many and he was labeled as a potential threat, turning him into a social outcast overnight. Could the stigma be the reason for Adé's silence?

To his surprise, someone familiar is waiting for him at the door. "Hey, man, sorry I didn't text back. They kept me up a proper long time. But I'm back and ready to play!"

Kaiser raises a brow and says teasingly, "I thought we were studying."

"Oh, yeah, that, too." His grin is so adorable and charming, it's infectious.

They head over to Adé's bedroom, where Kaiser lets him copy his notes and helps break down each of the sections into layman's terms as they work on their respective assignments. Adé never was good with studying, not excelling in any specific subject, but as Kaiser has noticed, he seems even more unfocused than usual. Eventually, he closes his book and says, "I think that's enough for today. How are you feeling, by the way?"

After a moment's pause, Adé answers with, "Sick." Noting the look on his face, Kaiser waits as he rushes to the bathroom. Flipping through the monthly comic anthology he lent Adé a couple of weeks back, his vision blurs as his head starts to spin. I thought my usual medicine was bad enough.

Adé comes back a short time later, carrying two water bottles in his hands. "God, that was awful, like! I thought I'd never get out of there." He sets down one of the bottles next to Kaiser. "Mum let us have these. Says staying hydrated will clear our heads. Say, are ya readin' Technia? It's proper belter, like. Like, the latest chapter ends with Oculus gettin' framed for murderin' an NPC, an' Technia has to clear his name." He stares downward, saddened. "It hits a bit close to home, honestly. I mean, that could be us any day, the way things are goin'."

Kaiser does not respond, taking a sip from his bottle while his eyes rest upon the black-and-white pages of Technia. Through sheer coincidence, he happens to have flipped to the cliffhanger of that very scene.

A sudden knock on the door jolts them, almost spilling water all over. Unnerving them further is the voice on the other side. "Inazuma Town Police. Open up." Trembling, Kaiser motions over to do so. Behind the door is a masked man sporting a glimmering officer's badge. With little notice, the man enters the room, his walking stick leading the way. He is followed after by an attractive, tan-skinned blond, also in uniform. Neither of the boys know what to do or say in this situation, save for offering him a chair to sit on.

Feeling lost, Adé speaks up. "So, uh, what're you here for, officers?"

The masked man's unreadable face shows a brief hint of surprise, until the woman whispers something in his ears, resulting in him nodding and muttering "I see" before resuming. "Kébé, is it? Apologies for intruding upon your household. To answer your question: we have received a witness report that claims to have seen Michael Ballzack in the park on the night Officer McDowell was killed. If he can come with us peacefully, we can continue this interrogation at the station."

Kaiser's eyes widen. "Witness? Who—"

Adé cuts him off. "He was with me that night. We had to cram a lot for a big test, like. We were at the park, yeah, but we never killed anyone!" In his outrage, it takes him a moment to register the implications of what he just said.

The stone-faced officer takes in Adé's words and turns his head to his general direction. "'We'? You mean to tell me you were present as well? In that case, I would like to speak to the both of you. I would also need to consult your parents and guardians. If your alibi checks out, we may not have to bother. Until then…" He stands up and taps his cane hard against the floor. "You're both under arrest on suspicion of murder."

Chapter Text

Earlier that same day, Naga skips morning assembly and rushes straight to the hospital to visit Eugene. As he heads upstairs and passes by the hospital beds, he catches sight of Onimo, who glares at him the second their eyes lock. He returns a dirty look—I know what you're up to, and I won't let you get away with it. He turns his attention back to task and approaches Eugene's bed. “Genie, you're awake!”

The fair-skinned boy, his glasses set aside on the nightstand and his shoulder-length hair flowing over the pillow like threads of red silk, bears a resemblance to a fairy-tale princess waking up from years of slumber. “Skipping school today? Naughty boy.” He lets out a soft laugh, only for his smile to turn downwards again. “I'm sorry, Naga. I overestimated my strength, and let you down in the end.”

“No, it's my fault! I should've taken better care of you. I kept pushing you, and never thought about how you felt. At this rate, you'll…” As he says this, he stares at Eugene, his visage shifting between the boy and the mental image of his bedridden mother, and his vision starts to blur from the wet tears welling up. “I don't want to lose you, too!”

Eugene blinks, bemused. Slowly, he reaches and grabs Naga's hand. “Naga, I know how it might seem, but trust me, I'm a lot stronger than I look. This is my price for not taking care of myself.” He grips it tightly. “Don't worry about me. Focus on winning the next game. I'll catch up with you later.” He wraps his pinky finger around Naga's. “I promise.”

Properly consoled, Naga wipes his tears away and kisses Eugene before leaving. After the underclassman is out of sight, he closes his eyes and enters the world of slumber.

 

He finds himself in the middle of a hallway with lots of doors. Something about this hall feels familiar, but the details are too vague to pinpoint to any one location. As he treks on, he sees small details suddenly appearing from the distance, similar to how far-away objects and backgrounds would pop up in older video game graphics. In any other situation, this would cause him worry, but for some unknown reason, he is unfazed.

Eventually, he stops before a blue door. Illegible carvings mark the door's wooden surface, yet somehow Eugene can read them, even if the meaning escapes him. Out of nowhere, a gut feeling tells him that something—or someone—dear to him is right behind it. He twists the knob. Locked. Frantic, he pounds at the door while continuing to fiddle with the knob. Just as he is reaching the peak of his panic, another sound catches his attention. His heart pounding, he slowly turns around.

Another door, this one a traditional sliding panel, has suddenly appeared behind him, cutting off the long hallway he just passed through. The sliding door is open, but he cannot see through the darkness inside. A wave of confusion and fear start to take hold, but curiosity wins him over.

As he steps inside, the darkness appears to gradually fade, as he comes to recognize the room he is in. It is the guest room in the Naga household, with a few furnishings moved here and there. Looking around, he sees nothing overtly unusual—until he turns to face the full-length mirror in the corner. Slowly, he approaches, unable to see his reflection clearly, but as he steps within arm's length, the muddy image clears up. There, reflected in the glass, he stands, dressed all in white. A wedding dress, sleeveless with a translucent shawl draped over his shoulders like wings of an angel or bird. His hair flows down, barely reaching his shoulders, exuding a sense of mature femininity. He stares, awestruck by his own beauty. Then, the mirror shatters, and his heart stops.

Catching his breath, he steps back, wondering what just happened. The glass, broken through some inexplicable force, starts falling to the floor like raindrops, some of the larger pieces breaking into even smaller ones upon impact. Then slowly, the tiny shards start to come together, piling on top of each other, merging into a single entity. Now, standing before him, is the embodiment of Eugene and Naga's bond: Eunaga. Its large, black eyes reflect no light, and its flawless face shows no warmth, even as its lips curl up into a smile. “What's the matter, Genie,” it says as it approaches, its two voices seamlessly blended into one. “Frightened by your own perfection?” Eugene stammers, speechless as it continues. “Come now, you'll be late.”

Finally able to speak, he asks, “Late for what?”

“Your wedding, of course! Everyone's waiting for you. Uncle Paul, Dodge, Adé, and of course, Na—”

A distant scream cuts it off. “What was that,” Eugene asks, his voice quivering. Something felt vaguely familiar about it, which only makes him more afraid.

“Oh, just some fool who got in our way once. But he's long gone now, don't you worry.”

It takes a moment for the scream to register in Eugene's head. Images of Doug flash through his mental vision. Memories shared by Naga, along with a few of Doug's—memories of events he never realized occurred. Eugene once compared this side effect of fusion to a computer device sharing data files when it connects to another, or something along those lines. These remnants of his former teammate, though arguably out-of-date by now, still represent a part of him that is now attached to Eugene himself. One image suddenly flashes by, causing his heart to jump: another Lunar Sea student, getting brutally murdered. That was the sin they committed together, and now their memory is ingrained in him. He starts to cry.

Eunaga slaps him, then cradles his face in its hands. “Stop your whimpering. You'll ruin your beautiful face. You don't want to look bad in front of everyone, do you? Not on your wedding day. Forget about that boy. Forget about all those whose lives were lost. They were just pawns standing in our way. Once the Traveling Vendor gives the word, you can wipe that blood off your hands and live happily ever after.”

As it lets go of him, Eugene looks down. His hands, along with the dress he's wearing, are stained with blood. Then he looks up and gasps. Eunaga is gone, and in its place is Adé, a gaping wound through his chest. He opens his mouth to speak, small streams of blood spilling from his lips. “Why did you do it, Eugene? Why?” A grin creeping across his face, he grabs one of his hands and presses it against the open wound, reveling in the sensation as his friend's fingers mingle with his soft innards. “This is what you wanted, isn't it? To be mine, mind, body, and soul? But you were too late, so you tossed me out. You threw me out and caught another one in my place. Kai was right: you are a monster. I should've never trusted you.” With Eugene still in his grasp, he pulls the hand back and lets go, watching him as he falls into the eternal abyss.

Chapter Text

A week has passed since the two of them were brought to the police station for interrogation. The memory of that stark white room still gives Kaiser chills. The questioning came and went faster than expected, as they ended up giving similar stories, despite having different recollections of that night. (“We were going out to practice football on our own.” “We were tryin' to learn new moves, so we thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny if we used each other's shots?'” “It's no walk in the park, but then again, neither is Saints' Way.”) Of course, they left out all details regarding their fusion—they look and sound crazy enough as is—but they did bring up the other individual they—more precisely, Kaiser—witnessed. Once the questioning was done, Officer Onimo and his partner, Azura Zul, gave them their business cards and told them to call if anything important arises. But they didn't get off scot-free: they were lectured extensively about the dangers of going out alone, as well as the consequences of rebelling against one's parents, and so on. They tuned out the majority of it.

The days that followed were thankfully uneventful, though mired by tension, as their peers, and even teachers and faculty grew further away from them. If not for the support of their more caring teammates, they would have gone mad (well, more so). Not to say life had been easier for the rest of them: everyone on the team received mandatory counseling since the last match, and a handful of them, like themselves, were prescribed medication. Which one was which took some time to discern, though it appeared their beloved captain got the worst of it, his bright, blue eyes losing their former glimmer.

Now, here they are again. Standing on the Roulette Rail platform, waiting anxiously to be sent away to yet another torturous game. How could they dread playing a game they all once loved so much?

As the rail slows down to a halt before them, the Raimonites can spot an unnerving oddity through the windows. Where the other side of the platform was empty just seconds ago, now, staring back at them, are a group of players whose appearance, while humanoid, can best be described as “uncanny”, with a handful bearing face-warping deformities. Something about their eyes (or absence thereof in some cases), the lack of depth or emotion on their faces, everything about them is off-putting. Like last time, Naga can sense familiar vibrations emanating from the crystals donned by the strangers.

Inside the rail car, the mysterious team sits across from Raimon, intimidating them through mere presence alone. “So we meet again,” the captain says cryptically, his voices low and rough. His tri-colored hair is a mash-up of a crashing tide, devilish wings, and tentacle-like dreadlocks. Arion lets out a “huh”, triggering this response: “We are the Great Old Ones. You Raimon lot've avoided punishment for far too long, and now we seek vengeance.”

One of the other members, a lanky figure whose head is almost entirely obscured with aged, leathery bandages, booms, “Only with proper sacrifice can you repent for your sins.” Another teammate, with blue-and-pink hair and uneven eyes, snickers, unable to keep a straight face (not that he could, what with the way his crooked mouth is wrapped around from ear to ear).

As they step off the platform and start heading for the stadium, Raimon feel relieved, if only for not having to deal with those creeps for another minute. The path to the stadium starts off straight, but soon starts to spiral upwards across a mountain's surface. They pass by other paths, none of which seem to go anywhere, and the landscape is adorned with cacti and other sparse desert plants. Already, some are assuming that this area used to house the Desert Stadium from the previous year, though what used to be which continues to be debated even as they enter the mountain cave.

 

Back in the hospital, Eugene is watching the match with a mixture of anticipation and dread. The former because of what he's seeing on the telly, the latter because of the audience surrounding him. To his misfortune, his bed is within close proximity to the two surviving victims of the Inazuma Killer's attacks: Jerry Onimo, in the next bed over, and Tod Ironside, right across from him. As they wait for the opening commentary to end, an interesting conversation strikes up.

“You know, I've been thinking,” says Tod, “with all these things about Spirits and the like, I'm beginning to wonder if it's really fair for everyone. It's not like everyone can summon.”

“Non-Summoners can still go toe-to-toe with Summoners,” Onimo replies. “Spirits or not, it still comes down to the player's skill.”

“I guess so. But when a striker can just summon a Spirit and score an instant goal, it gets predictable. It feels like it's less about strategy and more about raw power.”

“But even summoning has its limits, so there's still some strategy involved. I never really thought much about it. Perhaps it's because I grew up expecting that sort of thing—players who can summon and the like.”

Tod sighs. “All this talk makes me wish I knew how to summon.”

“Plenty of studies have cropped up in the past decade discussing Spirits and Summoners. Perhaps one of them might help.” Onimo turns his attention to Eugene. “You're from Raimon, correct? I don't believe we've properly met. I'm Onimo. Jerry Onimo.”

“Peabody. Eugene Peabody.” He smiles nervously. Is he onto me?

“I have to say, your play in yesterday's match really surprised me. I never realized you could summon. Did you learn that recently?”

“To tell you the truth, I've been able to summon for a few months now. But I was afraid of losing my friends, so I never told anyone. Naga was the only one who knew my secret.”

“Nobby seems to care a lot about you, doesn't he? He doesn't act like that around a lot of people, so I'm glad he's getting on well at Raimon.”

“He mostly acts that way around me.” Eugene's cheeks flush a bright pink. “It's a bit complicated.”

“I don't think it's that complicated,” Tod cuts in. “It's clear across your face.” Eugene yelps and covers his face. “Relax, kid. I'm not judging you. I think it's pretty sweet.”

Onimo's pinkish eyes turn away, lost in thought, then turn to the television. The cameras focus on the two teams as they count down the seconds until the match's start. As the camera transitions to Raimon's side, he focuses on Naga, who's talking to a platinum blond with red scratch marks on his face. “Peabody, what's your relationship with that boy?”

“You mean Hugh? We get along fine. We were classmates last year, along with Shun and the rest of my friends.”

“What about the rest of your friends? Are they on good terms with him?”

Eugene hesitates. “We used to hang out together on occasion. Adé gets along with everyone, but Kaiser… he always has difficulty opening up to anyone.”

Onimo nods. To his knowledge, “Kaiser” is the nickname of Doug's old friend. Having watched the tournament since his injury, he watched every last recorded moment. He knows it's going to hurt, but it has to be said. “Was Ballzack known for lashing out?”

The redhead turns to face him, a mix of anger and pain visible in his eyes. “No! I mean, he's prone to insulting others, and he does have a slight temper, but he never meant anyone harm.” He grabs a handful of the bedsheets. “Not until recently.”

“Were you always aware of his mental state?”

After a short breath, Eugene opens his mouth. “I—”

Tod shushes them and points at the screen. “The game's about to start!”

Chapter Text

The stadium pitch is a flat, rocky surface lined with cracks—a thinly-veiled disguise of a gimmick, he speculates—surrounded by the audience seats, designed to blend in with the rugged mountain exterior. His biggest concern, however, is the opposing team. With the lack of any sort of background information or history and coming out of nowhere, he has nothing concrete to base a strategy around. Taking these details into account, Peabody sets up the team formation, opting for an offensive strategy focused on utilizing the full potential of its midfield. It's a rather basic model, one that he set up to experiment with the playing field during the first half. Scanning the heads of his team, he makes a final note. “Dark, you're up front.”

Dark squeaks in surprise, timidly following his fellow peers onto the field. Peabody sits next to Naga and sets one hand on his shoulder. “I know you're upset, I understand. But after what happened in the last match, I can't take any major risks. You're a great player, and I'm only doing this for your sake. You get me?”

Naga nods in agreement. Though he is disappointed, a small part of him is also relieved. Between his failure to live up to his father's expectations and guilt for exhausting Eugene to his breaking point, having a moment where he does not have to fulfill a role for someone else is oddly appealing. He clenches his fists, feeling the gem on his ring finger throb in sync with his blood circulation. Whether it's because of his own heart rate rising or not, but it feels as if the gem is reacting to something. He felt a similar sensation when the Great Old Ones appeared before them, and Almighty Faith's captain and his two top flunkies. Could this fancy rock be reacting to them?

As the game commences, Raimon charge forward, passing the ball among their front line and midfield in an attempt to keep it away from the opponent. But a wide gap between two of their players leaves an opportunity for the Great Old Ones to strike back. “Oh, and Nug-Yeb takes the ball,” the announcer belts out. “He passes it to Ithaqua—now he's passing it to Cthulhu.”

The instant the ball makes contact with his foot, Cthulhu calls out his Spirit—“Key Guardian of the Watery Gates, Janai'ngo!”—then proceeds to immobilize Raimon's defenders with its special move, Song of the Ancients, an inhuman noise emitted from the misshapen mouths on two of its hands. JP stares up at the Spirit, trembling with fear. Multiple limbs, two of which have hands resembling the three-pronged head of a trident and two of which have those horrid round mouths, a malformed face covered in misshapen eyes and lips, and a half-crustacean form which barely qualifies as humanoid, Janai'ngo is an abomination whose very appearance could strike fear into one's heart.

A sudden blow strikes JP dead-center, propelling him straight to the back of the net. “Goal! The Great Old Ones win the first point of the game. But worry not, for there's still plenty of time for Raimon to redeem themselves. If the Old Ones will let them, that is.”

The teams switch sides, and the Old Ones take a slow, sweet moment to stare down at their opponents before resuming the game. Raimon's central players focus on slowing down Cthulhu's progress, wearing down his Spirit, but the Summoner, with quick reflexes, kicks it to Hastur, a tall, golden-haired shepherd with intense eyes that betray his calm expression. Thankfully, Hastur is taken down by Hugh's Vac Attack. Hugh runs closer to Adé and passes it to him. With his assistance, Adé proceeds past the middle of the field and aims the ball in Lucian's direction. But just as Lucian is heading for the goal, the ground below him starts to split. He jumps back and watches as the lost ball falls down into the growing dark abyss. He hears no impact.

Everyone on the pitch starts to panic as the cracks divide it into uneven segments, separating players and benched allies alike. The stage gimmick is more widespread than expected, they realize, making it another factor to consider as they play. After the segments return to their original spots, a replacement ball is tossed in, and the game continues.

 

“How in bloody hell is that safe,” Tod shouts at the telly from his bed. “The Football Association have officially lost their minds.”

“This isn't all that different from the Raft Stadium last year,” Onimo points out. “Besides, if the safety hazards are so blatant, it would not have passed the early stages of development. There must be some sort of cushion at the bottom, right on top of the main foundation.”

“Whoever designed these have a sick sense of humor. Last year's gimmicks were hindering, but no more dangerous than what we'd expect from a regular game. If they're trying something new, they've gone way too far.”

Eugene ignores the ongoing conversation, his attention focused on the game. His fingers tighten around a handful of bedsheets, his brows furrow and twitch, and his teeth clench and grit. How could his own team be so incompetent? His uncle learned everything from the legendary Mark Evans himself—he should know better as a coach. The memory of Noboru Naga's words from their past encounters still ring in his head.

“The two of you are Garshield's best agents,” he recalls him saying. “We expect a perfect score… Do whatever you must to win. Make me proud!” After the Almighty Faith match, however, his tone changed. “I let you two off easily when you ran away from home to do God-knows-what, but this level of disobedience cannot be allowed. Because of your recklessness, now people are becoming curious about you, me, and the rest of us here at Garshield. Not only did you break your promises, but you put yourself and the rest of us in grave danger. Let this be a reminder of your actions.”

After that brutal chastising, he dragged Nobby away, putting him on an even tighter leash, while Eugene was left with immense guilt. Fusing on the pitch was his idea, and now he's in a hospital, questioning his own judgment.

“Peabody?” That familiar name snaps Eugene out of his trance. The harsh features on Onimo's face have changed subtly, to a softer look of concern. “Are you alright? You seem to have something on your mind.” He passes a handkerchief to him, which he accepts. As he wipes the tears from his eyes, Onimo slides his legs to the side of the bed, then grabs the crutch leaning against the wall beside him. “Would you like to go somewhere private?”

They head out onto the terrace, a lengthy balcony-like structure that doubles as a miniature park, grass and benches and all. They sit on one of the benches, taking in the fresh air for a moment before talking. Eugene confesses everything he had been feeling the past few weeks—minus the whole “being a serial killer” bit, which he tries to cover up with something less suspicious—as streams of tears pouring from his eyes. “I thought I had become stronger. So why do I feel so weak?”

Onimo isn't sure how to handle this sort of situation. When he invited Eugene to the terrace, he had the image that he could let him spill everything, and he would make it better. But now that it's actually happening, his mind is drawing a blank. He takes a moment to breathe and absorb the Raimon student's words. “First off, you're both delusional. If you and Naga expect a perfect game every time, you're going to have a bad time. Second, you're not nearly as weak as you believe. The fact that you can summon a Fighting Spirit is physical proof of your inner strength. Third…” He stares eye-to-eye with Eugene, cheeks flushed bright pink and mouth in the shape of a small 'o'. “You two complement each other well. Like partners in crime?” Right after he says that, he mentally scolds himself for losing track of what he really wanted to say.

Silence befalls them, with only the breeze swaying through the trees breaking it. Then, a small, delicate laugh slips out of Eugene's mouth, and he brushes his bangs aside. Onimo is about to ask what was funny when, out of left field, Eugene wraps his slender arms around him and gives him a peck on the lips. “Thank you,” he can hear him say in a soft voice. As he slowly breaks away from him, the redhead's voice changes, more cold and aloof as he whispers, “You can play cop all you want, but the law will not save you next time.” For a brief second, Eugene's features seem to resemble the sudden shift in vocal tone, his black eyes hiding a glimmer of mischief as a sly smirk spreads across his face. He looks like he's plotting something devious, but is oddly attractive despite or even because of it.

Eugene walks off, eventually disappearing from sight. Jerry puts a hand against his chest, his heart beating faster from the shock. Once he's calmer, his fingers fiddle about until he feels the rectangular lump against his torso. The lump, a tape recorder, is attached to a wire, ending on a small microphone that he tried his best to conceal within the confines of his hospital blouse. He started recording when they sat on the bench, and recorded the earlier conversation, when Tod brought up the topic of Summoners. Now that Eugene is aware, is it worth trying?

Then there's his statement: it sounded like he knows something. No, he does know something. Something important. Whatever that something is, Onimo will stop at nothing to get it. Even if it means prying it from Eugene's cold, dead hands.

Chapter Text

Back in the stadium, thousands of spectators watch with hotblooded passion as the two formidable teams battle it out. Among the more collected members are Styx and Noir, joined by two of their non-Occult friends.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Jim says to Styx as he passes the popcorn bucket to Noir. “We're lucky to have the day off the same day as the game. But what about you two?”

Styx waves him off. “Aw, don't worry about me. Freddy and the others can run it without us. Business has been more manageable these days. You on the other hand...” He swings around to the person next to him: Mark Gambling. “Shouldn't you be working on your manga?”

“Hey, cut me a break,” Mark bursts out defensively. “I worked my butt off just to be here.” He sighs in exasperation. “Between manga and game design, I hardly have any time for myself.”

As the others are chatting, Noir stops munching on the popcorn and tugs at Jim's sleeve. “Jim, look,” he mutters with a quiver in his voice. “It's him.”

Jim, perplexed, stops to look at the pitch down below. In the direction that Noir is pointing at, a cyan-haired runs about on the field, assisting another player. He had not noticed him earlier, having been so focused on the others, but seeing him now, something instantly clicks in his head.

You… I've seen you before. You're Max's friend, aren't you?”

It can't be. They may look a bit similar, but there is no way they're the same person. But no matter how much he tells himself that, he cannot shake the feeling.

 

Meanwhile, on the opposite end, four students from Milky Way's football team have joined in the hype, being lucky enough to catch seats close to the action. The skunk-haired Cylon yells at an Old Ones player for a clearly-illegal move, while Janeway tries to rein him in. Riker takes no interest in his friends' tomfoolery, his attention instead turned to Keenan capturing pictures, taking notes, and observing the game in a manner unlike any sports fan he knew. “This again? Seriously, you need a hobby.”

“This is my hobby,” Keenan says nonchalantly. (It's a lot more than that, but that's a story for another time.)

“I mean a real hobby. Chasing after a ghost doesn't count.”

“You wouldn't understand, Zaphod. This isn't just for me—this is what Zippy would have wanted. If I can't at least try to solve his case, neither of us would rest easy.”

Crossing his arms, Riker asks skeptically, “Are you sure your friend would approve, or are you looking to stroke your own ego?”

Biting his lower lip, the owl-eyed boy turns his gaze downward, staring at the phone camera photo of the mysterious Spirit. “You're right. Maybe I am just looking for self-satisfaction. But if Zippy were here to say something, he would agree. He knew me well enough, and he would understand why I have to do this.”

Zaphod glances at Keenan, ready to make a snide remark, when Cylon's gruff voice cuts into his ear. He looks down at the pitch below and lets out a small gasp.

 

Cthulhu, accompanied by Nug-Yeb and the pharaoh-like Nyarlahotep, all have their Spirits out, and are rampaging through Raimon's center defenses, knocking Lucian down in the process. One has to wonder how the referees have not called foul yet. As the unholy trinity head closer to the goal, Hugh can do nothing but watch from the wings, knowing that even if he tries to rush in, he would not be able to make it. Or can he…?

Without consciously thinking, his feet start moving, kicking the turf as he steps between Raimon's main defenders and the Old Ones' captain. Gabi and Aitor block off Nug-Yeb and Nyarlathotep, leaving Hugh with Cthulhu alone. “Vac Attack!” With one swift kick, he opens a rift, summoning a black hole which sucks up the ball and sends it straight to him. This one action manages to exhaust the last of Cthulhu's Spirit, its aura dissipating as he collapses to his knees. He cannot help but laugh; he cannot believe that worked.

Progressing up the field, he checks his options. Roma's a powerful player, but he's closed off by Hastur and the leather-faced Ghatanothoa. Meanwhile, Riccardo and Arion, both extremely capable in different ways, are in the middle, easily within range of their foes should they mark either of them. Then there's Adé, who's completely open and well-balanced. Question is, can he trust him? He has to act fast, or else.

He passes the ball to Adé, who immediately uses Flying Fish. Adé's shot, while able to attack from halfway across the pitch, gets weaker the farther he is from the net. It's simple physics. However, he is not alone, as Kaiser rushes to boost the shot's power by chaining it with Sidewinder. Unfortunately, one of the enemy defenders, Yog-Sogoth, summons a thick fog, which slows the ball's momentum, and the goalie, Tsathoggua, easily deflects it with Fingers of Gaia.

Roma catches the ball in midair, and passes it to Riccardo, who says, “Everyone, get ready! Thunderbolt!” As the ground starts to shift, Victor runs down the pitch as Rick, Hugh, Gabi, and Aitor pass the ball to each other, charging it with electricity as it zips through the air in a zigzag motion. Victor then finishes it off with a powerful kick, which creates a blast of lightning that incapacitates the opposing defense.

Kaiser, who happened to be close by as the field broke in half, catches the ball. He approaches the penalty box, then bends his leg back, the apparition of a medieval weapon in sync with his movements. “Ballista Barrage!” The black-and-white projectile zips by too quickly for Tsathoggua to react. With the score tied at one point each, thus ends the first half.

 

During the intermission, Hugh eyes Kaiser with suspicion as he sits in the far end of the bench, next to Adé. Those two have been friends long before they joined the team, he knows. But their recent odd behavior has become problematic, despite what benefits it might bring to their game. Sure, Kaiser's been more cheerful than usual, but as proven in the last match, something is clearly not right with him. Worse yet, some of him might be rubbing off on Adé, too. Unkempt and restless, he is hardly at ease unless Kaiser is within sight. He has also become more soft-spoken, and would bring up darkly unusual topics out of nowhere, like what occurred in the rail with Almighty Faith. Their relationship may have made them stronger, but judging by their increasing detachment from everyone else, especially long-time comrade Eugene, it is anything but normal.

The salty sweat trickles down his face, red marks stinging. He wipes it away and, at one manager's suggestion, applies a cream to soothe the pain. Though it could be anxiety spinning a tale in his head, part of him is aware these wounds would never heal, leaving him with a constant reminder of the betrayal and descent into madness. As if he didn't have enough of those already.

“Coach, you have to let me in,” he can hear Naga pleading. “I have to do it, for Genie's sake!” Hugh spots Roma rolling his eyes, and he himself cannot disagree with the gesture. Naga, skilled as he is, has a childish arrogance that rubs everyone else the wrong way. Moreover, he only has eyes for Eugene and idolizes him, at the expense of the rest of the team. But with Lucian's injury confirmed, they're now forced to deal with him. After receiving a short lecture on teamwork and getting along with his other teammates, Naga turns and walks up to Hugh. “Hey, Vac Attack!”

Speak of the devil. “Please, call me Hugh. What's the matter?”

Naga's perky demeanor cools down, becoming a bit more modest than usual. “I was watching you play, and you reminded me of Genie. So I was thinking…” He bows low, far lower than necessary. “Please let me play alongside you!”

Hugh flinches, perplexed. What caused this? Surely, one measly lecture could not change his attitude this drastically. Is it because of Peabody's position as coach, or their mutual connection with Eugene? Most likely both. Whatever the case, he has to respond quickly. “If Coach Peabody is okay with it, sure.” A tiny smile forms as a strategy starts to bud. “Riccardo, mind switching places with me,” he asks, calling out to the wavy-haired ex-captain.

 

Watching the players take position, a tanned young boy leans over from his throne, his delicate fingers lightly brushing against the glass. His focus is on the pale, blond boy, running side-by-side with the team's fiery redhead. “So you've won over the approval of that one, eh? You are a curious one, brother.” Of course, I would have done the exact same, he muses.

Chapter Text

Back on the pitch, as Naga stands before the Great Old Ones' captain, an uneasy feeling washes over him again. These players already gave him dread, especially after watching them play for the first time. But this sensation is different, much stronger than before: it closely resembles what he felt when he first encountered Kaidé that night. He can sense the chaotic-yet-united strength of Kaidé's bond back then, but with this individual, there is an overwhelming sense of pathos, as if the souls of the merged are fighting for dominance, or something much deeper.

Nug-Yeb's eyes glance at Cthulhu, whose body trembles as the corners of his outstretched mouth twitch, sharp, gritting teeth in full display. “Captain,” Nug-Yeb whispers, his distorted face contorted with worry. “Pull yourselves together…” A ball to the torso cuts him off. The referee's whistle blows, but alas, its cries of foul fall on deaf ears. Of one thing, Nug-Yeb and his teammates are aware: Cthulhu is too far gone, his soul irreparably corrupted by the power of the gemstone.

Naga's dread solidified by this sudden twist, he rushes in to deter the rampaging Cthulhu, only to get shoved aside like he weighed nothing. Hugh, following close behind, tries to fend him off, but fails. Thankfully, Arion had his Spirit reserved for such a moment, and with Riccardo's and Adé's assistance, he is able to steal the ball back. But alas, this only serves to ignite Cthulhu's wrath, and he spins around to pursue him, like a wild predator on the loose. As he ran, the Great Old One's footsteps created deep marks in the rocky turf, and he deftly sidesteps the emerging fractures. Adrenaline pumping in full force, Arion leaps across the canyons, nearly slipping into one, then kicks the ball to the first opening in his peripheral vision.

Quickly retrieving the ball, Naga, accompanied by Hugh, make way for the goal. Naga kicks the ball high into the air, then does a somersault as Hugh winds back his balled-up hand. As the redhead's feet press against the surface of the clenched fist, the frail blond punches with all his might, turning his partner into a living rocket. “Warhead!” Naga's head collides in perfect timing with the ball, propelling it with fire-imbued energy as it shoots straight for the net. Yog-Sogoth quickly steps in to weaken the shot with his Mystic Mist, but the shot proves too much for the increasingly bewildered goalie. Jumping for joy, Naga turns to celebrate their shared goal, but Hugh is nowhere in sight. “H-Hugh-ey…?”

 

When Hugh comes to, he looks around, then up. A sliver of the sky—the only source of light—slowly closes up, enshrouding him in darkness as the muffled sounds of the world above grow more indiscernible. Did he fall through the cracks? Retracing his steps, the memories come back to him. He teamed up with Naga for Warhead, then… His hands press against the surface beneath him. It's soft, like a mattress of feathers, and feels lighter than air. He sighs in relief—until a sudden noise causes his heart to drop.

Footsteps. Two pairs, at least. Or is the ambiance messing with his head?

Hugh turns about face. A crochety old man, holding a lantern, stands, hunched over, the dim, orange flame lit against another person's youthful countenance. The blue-eyed boy, making out the younger stranger's face in the sharp contrast of light and shadows, quickly recognizes them. “Dulana Rice,” he lets slip, his voice slightly louder and more wracked with nerves than he intended.

“The one and only,” Dulana responds with a gentle smile. “Hugues Baudet.” Hugh is taken aback—How did he know my name? “Do you believe in destiny? Because the moment I saw you stepping in to defend your allies, I knew we were meant to be.”

A shiver runs down his spine. “What do you mean? I'm not special. I was just doing what I had to. Why would somebody like you notice a nobody like me?”

“Because I lost someone important to me, too.”

He pauses to take in the weight of the statement. “You mean your father?”

Dulana shakes his head. “More than that. Mother, brother, sister… Even my best friend. All of them, gone. If not for Noboru's kindness, I would have been alone forever.”

“I… I'm sorry—”

“Don't. They're long gone by now. But your friend, he was your everything, was he? You knew him since childhood, you were inseparable. You were, what's the word, 'soulmates'? Yes, he died a cruel, merciless death. Sad part is, he didn't even have reason to die. The world really is a terrible place.” A glimmer of pity is reflected in his dark eyes. “Hugues, what if I told you I know who killed him?”

Hugh's eyes widen, as his fingers curl inwards, forming fists. He stands up and steps threateningly towards Dulana. “You're lying! I bet you don't even know—”

“McArthur.” Hugh's feet stop, as if frozen in place. “McArthur is the killer.”

“But that's impossible. Why would Doug…? How…?”

“McArthur murdered his former teammate, Robert Lee. Since then, he's been driven by his own self-destructive guilt. Shunsuke Aoyama was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He holds out his hand. “Let me help you. You can trust me.”

“Shun…” Falling to his knees, he starts to sob. After a minute of cursing his friend for his stupid, pointless fate, he wipes the tears off his face and looks up. In his blurred vision, the light shines upon Dulana like a holy aura, giving him an angelic appearance. “Please… help me.”

Chapter Text

“Coach Peabody, what do we do now,” Lucian asks, his boyish voice cracked with panic.

Peabody scratches his chin, inspecting the pitch. Like pieces on a chessboard, football is a game in which each player fills their role however they must, at times sacrificing themselves for the greater good. The downside to such plays is that it creates holes in the defense, increasing their chances of losing. But these kids are more than pawns, bishops, and knights: they're human beings, capable of independent thought and freedom. As demonstrated by the opponent's most powerful piece running rampant, no one aspect of a game can be controlled absolutely. What can we do?

“Timeout!”

He calls Raimon's players together, forming a circle where the coach lays down the plan. “Alright, team. We're one fresh apple short of a basket. Unless Hugh suddenly shows up again at crunch time, we're gonna have to cover our bases the best we can. You lot work best on the offense, so that's where we'll put our manpower. Sherwind, you and di Rigo are protecting center. Nishiki, Ballzack, Blade, Naga, Kébé, I'm moving you all up front. Your goal is to exhaust their attackers and exploit every opening while scoring. Midfield and defense will incapacitate the most aggressive targets and make openings for easy passing. I can't suggest anything else as far as tactics, so from here on out, you're gonna have to rely on your instincts and drive to win.”

They break the circle and return to their positions. However, staring back at them are the Great Old Ones, minus one, arranged in a similar fashion as them. As the offense line up at center field, Ghatanothoa takes a whiff, and he pulls down the bandages over his mouth, unveiling an insane grin spread from ear to ear. “I smell a second soul residing within you, small one. Yes, I can see it in your eyes. That lust for power, the desire to destroy. You're exactly like us! Question is, can your strength alone rival the power of the gods?”

Kaiser is about to brush off the comment when his eyes meet Ghatanothoa's. In the figure's two-colored eyes hides a cold, sadistic soul—a reflection of Ghatanothoa or himself? They break eye contact when the ball kicks off. Focus, he tells himself as he runs alongside Roma and Victor, passing the ball amongst one another. You scored against them once; unless they pull another stunt, there's no way we can lose.

His confidence is short-lived, however, as he feels an ominous chill compelling him to run faster. He glances back and his heart jumps. Cthulhu trails close behind him like a shark in search of prey. Trying not to let this get to him, he shifts his focus to the closest defender, Dagon, a small-but-beastly defender with long hair and even longer arms. “Queen of the Deep Ones, Mother Hydra,” Dagon bellows out as he summons a blank-faced serpentine figure with pointed fins and an array of sea life bound to its body—rugged coral litter its surface, with fish and eels slithering in and out of its many holes. This Spirit is a spiritual epitome of the sea in all its mysterious and frightening glory.

Pursued by the Summoner and the mad captain, Kaiser has to think fast. I can't do it. Yes, you can. Two conflicting voices bicker back and forth between his head, followed by several others. Thinking back to Ghatanothoa's words, his thoughts become mixed. What did he mean? Am I really just like them? Can I really do it alone?

No, you're not alone.

Kaiser's heart stops. Adé? He turns his gaze to Adé, who is quickly approaching.

He turns around, facing Cthulhu while Adé stands right behind him. They share a brief glance, and a crooked smirk creeps upon his face as he says, “You want this? You can have it!” He kicks the ball, then disappears from sight. Moving in sync, he and Adé run circles around him, forming a funnel of rushing water that knocks their target off his feet. “Whirlpool!

With him out of the way, Adé passes to Roma, who summons his samurai Spirit, Musashi, and wipes the floor with Dagon and the goalie right after. Though relieved that his team is winning so far, he cannot help but feel bothered. Not disappointment from not scoring himself, but trepidation for what's to come.

 

“Yes, they're finally turning things around,” Tod shouts as he pumps his fist in the air. He shifts his focus from the television to the empty bed next to Onimo. “What's taking that Peabody kid so long, anyway? He's missing all the best parts.”

Onimo looks at the entrance, reminiscing his earlier conversation with Eugene. The Raimon student went at length about his personal weakness and inability to live up to his and other people's standards, two deep-rooted issues shared with Naga. Though their bedside interactions display a strong attraction to each other, one has to wonder if it is as healthy as they let on.

He turns his attention back to the screen as the game's commentator announces an unexpected turn of events. The Great Old Ones' captain is attempting to summon his Spirit again by borrowing the energy force from his comrades. Judging by their expressions, however, it's obvious this is without their consent or concern for safety. But that's not the only thing that catches his attention. As the camera shifts briefly to Raimon's bench, he can spot hints of a figure hiding in the shadows. Is that…?

 

Back on the field, Raimon are trembling at the sight of Cthulhu as the aura of his Spirit emerges from his back like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. The mad captain mutters in a low, guttural voice, but his words are incomprehensible, as if spoken in a language unlike any other on this earth, living or otherwise. The rest of his team writhe in agony, with some almost collapsing from exhaustion. Hastur yells at him to stop, but his command is cut off as Cthulhu ignores the starting whistle and rushes forward. Victor, acting on reflex, summons Lancelot, and the two Spirits clash weapons. He glances up at the scoreboard, watching the seconds tick down. Even if he fails this duel, if he can stall them for long enough, they will not have time to reach the net.

Janai'ngo activates Song of the Ancients, paralyzing Victor, and Cthulhu continues on, ignoring the strain on his body. “Must… win… We must win!” He overpowers Riccardo, then Aitor.

Watching the Great Old One steamroll through his friends, a fire awakens within Gabi. “Standard-Bearer Brynhildr!” A green energy surrounds him as the familiar purplish black aura materializes into a beautiful lady of war. “Valkyrie's Signal!” At his command, he waves her flag-bearing lance and stabs it on the ground, summoning a wall of earth that causes Cthulhu to lose his footing. With the ball in Raimon's possession, the whistle blows, thus ending the match.

As the two teams disperse, the few Great Old Ones still standing, their captain included, turn to Raimon, twisted grins on their faces. Gabi is about to check on Riccardo and Aitor when, all of a sudden, he feels himself being pulled back. Cthulhu, grabbing one of Gabi's pigtails, throws him to the ground and raises his hand, long nails ready to strike. The rose-haired Raimonite flails about, only to be held down by Ghatanothoa and Nyalathotep. Before Cthulhu can make his move, however, his eyes roll back, and he collapses, his lackeys following after.

Everyone, player and spectator alike, watch, confused and startled, as a swarm of men in black suits pour in to gather the fallen players. As the enigmatic men drag them out, the commentator says, “Goodness gracious, what a shocking twist! Garshield's personal security have stepped in to escort the Great Old Ones out themselves. After a heart-pumping battle against the gods, Raimon proceed to the next round by the hairs on their necks!”

 

Elsewhere, Hugh walks alongside Dulana as they meet with the men in black. As they exit the stadium, he feels a sudden breeze pass through, and he instinctively turns around. The source of the breeze stops and looks over their shoulder. Red hair, black eyes set behind thick-rimmed glasses. They look like Eugene, but something about them feels off. Their stare too cold, their stride too confident, eerily reminiscent of… Doug?

Dulana leads him out the Park entrance, where a limo awaits. As the patient driver opens the door, Hugh looks back at the mob of men, shoving the barely-conscious players into steel-reinforced trucks, and asks, “What are the Great Old Ones, anyway? What do they have to do with all this?”

“They're students who were chosen to participate in our special training program. Sadly, after what happened, we may have to suspend field testing until things recover.”

“Testing? What kind of test—”

“That's classified, I'm afraid.” Dulana steps in, then holds out a hand toward Hugh. “Would you like to join me for tea? The view is lovely where I'm going.”

 

Meanwhile, as the rest of Raimon's football team refresh themselves in the locker rooms, Naga steps out to search for Hugh. As he walks down the hallway leading to the exit, he hears the sound of whimpering. His focus towards the direction of the sound, he lets out a gasp when his eyes catch sight of a red-haired youth wandering around. “Genie, how did you get here? You're supposed to be in the hospital.”

Eugene turns to face him. His features are as beautiful as ever, but there are subtleties that catch Naga's attention: his dark eyes lack their usual shimmer, the corner of his mouth tenses slightly upward, and his brows curve downward, just a bit closer towards the bridge of his nose. Details so small, that yet could somehow change one's impression of an individual so drastically. He answers, a slight coldness behind his compassionate tone, “I was, but I came all the way here just to congratulate you. It's a shame I was not here sooner, or else I would have joined you.” He flinches, and puts his hand on his forehead. Despite clearly being in agony, he tries to hide it behind a smile. “Don't worry about me, Nobby. I'll be alright. Just… let me… play…”

Eugene's legs give way, and Naga rushes over to catch him. As he loses consciousness, he can hear Nobby's voice, accompanied by other voices, distorted by reverberations. These alien voices overlap each other, creating a hellish disharmony that threaten to split his brain in two before it abruptly ceases, leaving only deafening silence.

Chapter Text

In an unmarked location somewhere are woods thick enough to block out sunlight. Amidst the surrounding forest is a flat plot of land, where a large, foreboding facility stands, bearing the trademark 'G' of Garshield Industries. This building—part of Garshield's Japanese branch—is designed for research and development of their products. The steel trucks line up at the gated entrance, and as soon as the gate opens, they drive through, one by one in a rhythmic motion.

The building is divided into four levels, three above ground, and one below. The ground level of the facility is split between two functions: product manufacturing, with larger, machine-driven processes performed in an interconnected segment located in the back end of the building; and the Garshield Project, where young athletes chosen by Rice are brought in to participate in a special training program designed to "improving oneself through the strengths of others" (or something of that sort, Dulana was rather vague). Above that is the first floor, where the offices are located—"Nothing exciting happens here," claims the young Emperor. Upstairs, the top floor consists of an extravagant suite, complete with a balcony allowing for a clear view of the horizon. This suite is where Hugh has tea with Dulana, unaware of what lies below.

 

Down in the basement level of the Garshield building is a series of hallways, some lined with doors leading into lab rooms, others lined with prison cells. Occupying several cells are the members that make up the Great Old Ones. Tempted by the pride and hunger associated with vengeance, they accepted the traveling vendor's offer and were dragged into their current situation. Unlike others who took up the same offer, these boys were given more in return for their services—though, as they discovered, this came at a greater cost than any of them would have expected.

"Hastur is successfully contained," one man in black reports as he and his partner throw a short, blond-haired boy into a cell.

A scientist jots down the notes into a clipboard. "Good. That makes nine out of eleven subjects defused." They turn to another fellow in a lab coat. "How goes the rest of them?"

"Nug-Yeb's separation was unstable, worsening the physical condition of their bodies. They will require treatment and surgery, but restoring them to their former states is not impossible. Cthulhu's situation is unique—and dangerous. They're attempting to separate them as we speak, but at this rate, the chances of all or any parties surviving is unlikely."

Overhearing this, the blond boy crawls up to the cell bars and looks around. Trapped in groups of two or three are students from from various teams known for their past bouts against Raimon. Mirage Academy, Pirates Cove, Alpine, and a few others, including his own team, the Black Templars. He spots one of his teammates, whose face is covered in leathery bandages to hide his deformities. If not for his heterochromatic irises and bits of green hair sticking out from between the wraps, he would have been unrecognizable. (The less said of his cellmate, the better.) Due to the excessive amounts of fusing performed—many done with dubious levels of consent—many have suffered increasingly severe consequences, ranging from mental illnesses to physical mutations. He heard rumors of test subjects with conjoined hearts and three eyes and appendages in places where none should be. In comparison, he and his comrade got off lightly.

 

As soon as the Garshield employees leave their sight, he immediately starts by trying to remove his collar. When they were escorted into the trucks, they were forced to wear metal collars lined with artificial stones designed to inhibit the body-merging process. Besides from suppressing their newly-gained strength, they are also extremely uncomfortable. After failing to get it off, he resorts to pacing around, sharp eyes examining every corner of their prison as he murmurs to himself. Soon, even his calm and collected cellmate, a tall, carrot-haired youth, starts getting annoyed by his behavior. "Bay, quit moving around so much. If you keep this up, they'll find it suspicious."

The blond stops and spins to face the other. "Would you rather I go mad like the rest of them? You heard what they said about May and the others—that could be us one day. Flam, we have to get out of here!" Sitting against the closest wall, he starts to cry. "I don't want to die."

Flam shifts his attention to the room around him. High up in a dark corner, above the cracked, mold-infested sink, is a gated vent, just wide enough for his small-framed friend to fit into. If Bayonet is as observant as he's known him to be, he probably noticed it, too. But in his current state, more likely not. He walks over and sits down next to Bay, petting his long, straw-like hair until he calms down. "You're not going to die," he says in a low voice. "Not by my watch."

Chapter Text

At the library on a clear Sunday, Jim is tending to the shelves when he stumbles upon a slim paperback without a label. Examining the cover, he realizes what it is. A Move Manual? But how did it get here? Manuals, containing information about how to perform advanced techniques, such as special moves or Spirit summons, are normally sold en masse in stores or made by more innovative athletes for personal use. Rarely would a library have manuals available, and when they do, they're often in very limited quantities. He sets it back on the rack and continues putting the books away. I'll look at it later. It has to belong to somebody, right?

Later that evening, as they wrap up for the day, he brings the manual for him to inspect. "I was looking for this," Noir says, surprising Jim when he immediately gives it back. "Here. This is for you."

Jim flips through the manual, puzzled. "But this is a goalkeeper's move. Even if I wanted to play, how will this help me?"

"I'm sure you can think of something." He smiles in a peculiar manner, as if hiding a secret that Jim is unaware of.

 

Meanwhile, down by the riverbank, Sam, riding his bike, is on his way to pick up Noir when, down at the pitch, he spots a gang of hooligans surrounding a frail young boy. Sam stops and looks around in search for someone else who can deal with the problem. Alas, not another soul in sight. Cautiously, he approaches. This goes against every last bit of his character, but when he looks at the child, bruised and beaten into submission, he sees himself at that same age.

One of the hooligans kicks the boy in the face. "Aw, what's the matter? Can't fight without your partner? Stand up and face me like a man!"

Watching this commence sends Sam's blood to a boil, and he rushes over to confront them. "Hey, pick on someone your own size!"

A twisted grin spreads across the thug's face as he turns to him. Now that Sam can see them more closely, he realizes they're all younger than him. "Oh? I can say the same of you, old man." He eyes his senior up and down, sniffing the air with satisfaction. "Well, well, well. Today's our lucky day. We got ourselves ol' Raimon blood here!"

The orange-haired adult gulps, his courage slowly washing away. Could these rogues be related to that serial killer? If that is the truth, then… "You think you're so tough? Then let the kid go and fight me instead!"

The lead hooligan throws the first punch, which Sam deftly evades, and the rest swarm in to follow. Dodging blows left and right, he strikes back just hard enough to throw them off. As time goes on, the throbbing sensation in his leg grows stronger, but in his adrenaline rush, his desire to fight drowns out the pain. Most of the thugs give up and flee, but their leader refuses to surrender. Instead, he sweeps his leg in a low kick, attacking Sam's Achilles's heel. Watching his foe fall to his knees, the rogue steps up and kicks him down. But just before he can raise his foot again, a large projectile strikes the back of his head, at a force so strong, it cracks it wide open, spilling blood and brain matter all over.

Frightened by the gory sight, Sam slinks away, then turns to face the child. The child, barely able to stand, stares back at him with wide eyes, then flashes a grin—or what can be made out as one, what with his long hair obscuring part of his face.

 

After calling to cancel his previous errand, he drives the small boy back to his apartment. While the boy cleans himself up, he washes his ragged garments and hands him some fresh ones to wear. As he enters the kitchen, the pain in his leg starts to overwhelm his other senses. Unable to bear another moment, he sits down at the table and rolls up his jeans to inspect the damage. Swearing under his breath, he tries and fails to regain his footing. Before he has the chance to try again, the boy reappears, bandages in tow. "You really don't have to do this," Sam protests as the child tends to the injured limb.

"It's the least I could do after all you've done for me," he replies. Even in Sam's smallest T-shirt, the garment fits more like a nightgown on his tiny frame. "I'm used to breaking things, so I've gotten real good at fixing." He pauses to scratch an itch near the metal collar around his neck.

The older male points at a door partway down the hall and says, "Tell you what: get me the toolbox in the closet, and I can help get rid of that thing. I'm pretty good at fixing and breaking things myself."

After Sam helps unlatch the collar, the boy prepares tea and grabs some snacks for them to munch on while they converse. Based on what he could gather, the boy, Bayonet Gunne, was a student of Raimon and a follower of Fifth Sector until its dissolution. He also mentions having a friend that resembles him, whom he was forced to part with when he made his escape. Everything else sounds more like the ramblings of a madman: lab experimentation, forced fusion, Garshield Industries.

He would have shrugged this off had the child not expressed himself so seriously. The look in Gunne's eyes, his ability to put on a brave and cheerful face despite the frightful situation he was put in, he finds it admirable. So he lets the child talk, and talk, and talk, while only responding in nods and short sentences. Once he's had his fill, Gunne lets out a loud yawn and drags himself to the couch, where he falls asleep instantly. As Sam limps over to obtain a spare blanket from the closet, he muses, Y'know, for a kid who brutally killed someone, he's kind of adorable. Laying the blanket over the boy, his thoughts turn grim. But if all that weird stuff he said was true, then we're in more trouble than I thought. Damn, what have I gotten myself into?

Chapter Text

That night, Adé finds himself lost in a world of darkness. He tries to step forward, but his legs are paralyzed with fear. Silhouettes sprout from the darkness, forming a towering circle around him. The silhouettes start conversing, slimy grins on their blank faces as they stare him down with contempt.

“Look at him.”

“What a freak!”

“Just looking at him makes me sick.”

“Why won't he just leave?”

“So creepy…”

“Just die already!”

“Monster!”

The insults keep going as the first stone is thrown. Pure, translucent white, like a grain of rice. At first, the stones are small and practically harmless. But as the voices grow, so do they. Unable to bear another second, Adé turns and runs, heading further into darkness.

The voices gradually dissipate, but the tension remains. As the silence returns, he skids to a stop. A low rumble threatens to trip him off his feet, and a low growl causes his heart to stop. Reluctantly, he turns around.

Towering over him is a giant ogre-like shadow with curved horns and long tusks. The shadow, wielding a large bottle like a club, hisses as it speaks. “Running away again, are you? I'm ashamed to have you for a son. You deserve a punishment worthy of cowards.”

Adé tries to make a run for it, but the shadow grabs hold of his hair and pulls him close to it. With its other hand, it slams the bottle against the ground, breaking it. It brandishes the jagged edges of its weapon before proceeding to bash and slash him with it. Half of his face mutilated and soaked with blood, he starts to cry just as the object strikes his face one last time.


He wakes up, gasping and touching his face. Just a dream, he tells himself. Since their first fusion, Adé started having strange nightmares. Influenced by Kaiser's memories, these nightmares revealed a significant part of his history, one which took root and corrupted his view of the world. Seeing the trauma occur over and over, unfortunately, had corrupted Adé as well.

The world is a cruel, disgusting place, full of sick, selfish people. That is truth. The world is a beautiful place, with lots of good, helpful people. That is also truth.

His and Kaiser's viewpoints are in direct conflict with each other, and living day after day, attempting to find a balance between the two, exhausts him physically and mentally. Sometimes he wonders if life is still worth living in this state. Then he thinks of Kaiser, his best friend and the love of his life. His sole purpose in life. I have to protect him. If it makes him smile, if it makes him happy, I'll keep on living.

At the break of dawn, the sleep-deprived boy drags himself out of bed and down into the kitchen. After a few bites, his appetite diminishes, causing his mother to worry. Her words fall on deaf ears as he lumbers back to his room to dress up. As he buttons up his jacket, the room around him starts to distort, and whispered voices tickle his ear. In his addled state, he almost forgot an important component. The surroundings continue to warp as he heads down to the bathroom. As his hand reaches to open the medicine cabinet, he jumps at what he sees in the mirror. For a brief second, his reflection changes, and staring back is Kaidé, grinning widely. Then the illusion breaks, bringing him back to reality. Shaken, he fumbles to grab the medicine bottle, a small chuckle spilling from his lips as the chalky white pills fall onto his hands. He takes one last glance at the disheveled face in the mirror, then swallows the pills and sulks out the door.

 

When he arrives at the campus, he sees a large crowd gathered at the front gate. Students whisper among themselves, and faculty members stand present to stave off the ravenous paparazzi. Adé steps around the throng, avoiding the commotion, when a hand taps his shoulder. “Excuse me, but are you Adé Kébé?” Adé turns around in response. Standing behind him is Dulana, clad in the yellow-accented blue uniform of Raimon. He smiles meekly as he says, “So very sorry, but would you mind pointing me towards the second-year classrooms?”

Adé points at the main building. “Second-year classrooms are on the first floor…” His brown eyes widen. “Eh? You're younger than me? B-but you're so tall, and mature!”

He giggles softly. “I get that a lot. Hopefully, that won't interfere with your perception of me.”

“I'd worry more about those gadgies out front.” He scratches his chin, one brow raised. “But how'd you know who I am?”

“As Holy Emperor, I know everyone who participates in Saints' Way. Your team's performance really moved me, and I decided to transfer here. I also get to live with my brother, so it works in my favor.”

Perking up from the conversation, Adé blurts out, “If you like how we play, you can drop by and watch us practice. You can even try out if you want.”

Dulana's sharp eyes glimmer knowingly as he says, “Will do. Thank you, Kébé.”


The classroom is abuzz with news about the new student. Teenage girls gush over his good looks and kindly demeanor, while the boys bemoan his wealth and popularity. When Adé steps in, The atmosphere instantly grows heavier. The students, cheerful and boisterous just seconds ago, are now muttering among themselves, sniping sharp glances at him. Burdened, he heads straight for his seat, Kaiser's presence lifting his heart. But just as he reaches it, his legs turn stiff like concrete. Sitting at the desk behind his own is Eugene, healthy and makeup-free. Part of him is wary about what he'll do next, but part of him also feels overjoyed. “Eugene, you're back! Does this mean you can play?”

The bespectacled youth smiles gently. “The doctors say to take it easy for now, but I should be fit to play soon.”

Adé shifts his gaze over to Kaiser, who looks at the redhead skeptically. “Why not take it easy, then? We can skip practice and hang out, just the three of us.”

He returns the shorter boy's gaze, brows furrowed with sympathetic concern. “What do you think?”

This takes Adé by surprise. Why would Eugene try to contact Kaiser, after everything that's happened? Could it be he's trying to reconcile?

Kaiser turns to the window, silent for a long while, then turns back and shrugs. “Try not to cause trouble.”

Chapter Text

In the stadium's meeting room after school, coach Peabody and the team are about to discuss tactics the when the door opens. "Pardon me for interrupting," a voice says as a tall, purple-haired young man enters the room, "but is this the football club?"

The moment the figure steps in, Naga stands up and storms up to them. "Dooley, what are you doing here? Haven't you stuck your neck in my business enough?"

Dulana, an innocent smile on his face, wraps an arm around Naga's shoulder. "Aw, Nobby, how you jest! I'm here because I wish to try out. Don't you like playing with your brother?"

A long moment of silence, then…

"WHAT? Brother?"

"First Eugene is Peabody's nephew, now Naga and the Holy Emperor are brothers. Whose family tree are we gonna learn about next?"

"Calm down, calm down," Peabody speaks up. "Lucky for you, we're looking for new members. Everyone, go change and meet me in the pitch. Rice, I'd like to speak with you first." The rest of the team exit the room, leaving him and Dulana alone. "Alright, Rice, tell me the truth. Why are you really here? You never showed an interest in football before, and you know well enough how your position could complicate things for us."

Dulana's smile disappears, and his eyes lose their shine. "I've heard rumors that Raimon have become corrupt. As the Holy Emperor, it is my duty to uncover the source and steer them back into the light." His gentle demeanor returns, as he rests one hand to his heart. "Since I took over my father's company, I've never had the chance to interact with my peers. All I ask is for this one opportunity to play alongside my adoptive brother and his friends."

Peabody crosses his arms, lost in thought, then replies, "Head to the club room and change. There should be a spare uniform in one of the lockers." As Dulana walks out, the tone of his voice changes, as his expression turns grim. "But if I catch you doing anything funny, you're off the team."

 

When the stadium doors open, the members of Raimon stare awestruck at the stuffily-dressed youngster in their trademark yellow and blue uniform. Dulana himself seems to feel the same, a bashful look on his face as he steps foot on the artificial turf. "This is a bit odd," he says. "I've never played with a team before. Usually, it's just Naga and me."

"That doesn't matter," Arion replies. "As long as you love football, football will surely love you back."

"Football… will love me?" A laugh slips from his lips. "So that's your secret to success. You really are something else, Arion Sherwind."

They split up into two different teams of five and take to the upper half of the pitch. This particular setup was an effort designed by the coach to test new players' abilities and cooperation with other members. Counting the number of players present, the plan aligns almost perfectly with the formation he had in mind. Due to a shortage in capable goalies, Peabody volunteers to fill in himself, standing opposite JP. On his side are Naga, Roma, Arion, and Aitor. On the other are Victor, Hugh, Riccardo, and Dulana. Both teams are arranged identically, purportedly to allow everyone's skills to be observed and tested fairly. After the managers assist in assembling the substitute goal and spray-painting marks to present the center line and penalty box, the half-sized game can finally begin.

The warm-up match is a chaotic back-and-forth between members of both sides, with the ball exchanging hands as everyone fights for the ball. Naga recaptures the ball and dashes towards the goal. But as soon as he comes face-to-face with Dulana, he suddenly disappears. He looks down, then behind him, cursing himself as his more regal brother runs off with the ball. His every movement delicate and graceful, he nonetheless can run, pass, and kick as competently as any other player.

After some more back-and-forth action from his other teammates, he soon finds himself before Roma, rushing towards the goal. With a smirk, he slices the air with his foot. "Vac Attack!" A rift opens, revealing a black hole which sucks the ball back into his possession. While his opponent is distracted, he passes the ball to Victor, who scores a goal.

A blow of the whistle ends the match. "Good game, Rice," Peabody compliments as he slips off his gloves. "You got more in you than I expected. We could always use defenders like you."

While more praise is heaped on the new defender, one person expresses his disdain. "Dulana, I know you better than this bunch of jokers here. You couldn't learn a special move even if you tried! So when did you suddenly learn how?"

Placing his heart to his chest, Dulana's eyes start to water. "Big brother, that really hurt. All my life, I wanted to be just like you. Now I finally learn where I belong, and you're mad at me? Nobby, you're the worst brother ever!"

Everyone else mutters in confusion and pity. Finally, Hugh steps up. "I have a confession. I taught Dulana that move. He saw me playing in the last match and personally asked me to help him. So if you're going to be mad at someone, take it out on me!"

Naga opens his mouth to protest, but seeing the contemptuous looks on the rest of his team, he averts their gazes and storms out. Once he reaches the parking lot on the side of the school, he checks his phone for new messages.

"Sorry, I won't be at practice today. There's a personal issue I have to settle."

He puts his phone away and slumps. It's official: Worst. Day. Ever.

Chapter Text

"I'm going on break. Be back in thirty." Doug switches out with his coworker and steps out of the clothing store. As he makes way for the shopping plaza, he hears a distant voice calling out to him.

"Dodge! Hey, Dodge!"

He turns around and spots a pair of hands waving wildly in the air. "Naga? What are you doing here?" He notices Nobby sporting the good ol' Raimon blue, and he scratches his head, thinking back to a time when he himself once wore that same uniform. "So you really did transfer. Isn't it inconvenient for you?"

"A little bit, but I'm having a lot of fun here, so I don't mind." His smile falters, as does his tone. "But some days, I miss being with my old friends. Al, Jerry… but you most of all."

The older boy finds himself at a mental crossroads: after what happened between them, can he offer him pity? The fluctuating sensations emanating from Naga's gem is getting under his skin. "Want me to take you somewhere? There's a noodle shop not too far from here."

They trek over to Rai Rai Noodles, where a scary-looking young man serves them a bowl of noodles each. For several minutes, Naga's food is hardly touched, too wrapped up in his ranting to eat. "Since I got that text, I keep thinking that Genie might be cheating on me. He admitted himself that he's still not over him. What if he doesn't love me anymore?" As he speaks, he fiddles with his ring, a forlorn look in his pitch-black eyes. "I've dreamed of marrying somebody beautiful, kind, and smart. When I met Genie, I thought I met that perfect person. Was I wrong? Did I make the right decision?"

Doug listens intently, then speaks, despite still chewing his food. "Love isn't something you can control or decide; if it happens, it just happens. And when two people are together for a long time, it can be easy to take their presence for granted. When that happens, anything can happen, not always for the best." He swallows the last bit of noodles and sets down his chopsticks. "I think this is something you should talk to Eugene about. Sitting around thinking about 'what if' won't solve your problems."

Naga blinks, quiet, then bursts out laughing. "Dodge, you look so funny when you do that!"

"Doing what… Oh." Cheeks red with humility, he wipes a trace bit of sauce from his chin with a napkin. He really needs to quit doing that. Sam calls him out on it every time, but it's hard to stop. (He should probably lose weight, too; he's been looking a bit husky.)

"You do lots of stupid, silly things, but Sammy still likes you. And I think you're fine just as you are." He picks up his chopsticks and plays with his food a bit. "Genie feels bad for what happened, and needs somebody near him. I want to be that person." His phone buzzes, and he reads the text notification. "I have to go now. See ya later!"

 

One long and boring commute later, he returns home, wanting nothing more than to lie on a comfy bed and have sweet, peaceful dreams. What he finds as he is about to step into the washroom is something he wasn't expecting. Clad in pink-striped pajamas with long, purple hair flowing over the shoulders is Dulana. "Nobby, welcome home! Bath is ready when you are."

"What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be sleeping in a fancy suite somewhere?"

"Oh, brother, how you jest. Father offered to let me stay over while I'm attending school here. He even let me borrow the guest room down the hall. That wedding dress in the closet is especially beautiful."

Naga drops the bundle of clothes in his arms. "You shouldn't be in Mum's room. You don't belong there!"

"Why not? Your mum doesn't live here anymore. I think I have free reign to do as I like." A devious expression spreads across his face. "Unless there's a specific reason you don't want me there."

His dark cheeks flush a deep shade of red, which he tries to hide by stooping down to pick up the dropped garments. "You can borrow my bed. I can set up a futon for myself."

"You don't need to do that, but thank you." He walks away, passing the door to the aforementioned guest room and heading up the stairs.

After a quick shower and soak, he enters the guest bedroom, where the spare futon is stowed away. On the way to the closet, he gets distracted by the picture frame on the nightstand, and picks it up. His mother's hair is long, falling down in long, spiraling tendrils, and while she lacks the thick-rimmed glasses, the resemblance is uncanny. It doesn't require much imagination to see Eugene in that same wedding dress, and himself in his father's tux.

"I knew you would be here," a familiar, unwanted voice chimes in. "Your little complex is something else, did you know that?"

Still holding the picture frame, he turns and yells, "It's not a complex, it's destiny. Genie and I are going to be married and live happily ever after, and I won't have to deal with you anymore."

His voice drops a bit, becoming more serious. "Naga, have you heard of Oedipus Rex?"

Confused, Naga shakes his head. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"I suggest you look it up. Maybe then you'll learn how creepy your obsession is." Suddenly back to his chipper self, he says, "I'll be heading to bed now. Don't want to be late for school tomorrow. 'Night!"

Once the sound of Dulana's footsteps dissipate, Naga lies down on the bed and cradles the photo in his arms, a wave of doubt washing over him. "Mama, it's not weird to like someone that looks like you, is it?"

Chapter Text

Stars dot an ink-black sky that stretches over the horizon and blends in with the shadowy silhouettes that surround Kaiser. The stars expand, then flash a bright ray of light upon him. Squinting, he can make out another figure standing under a spotlight. Kaidé, donned in a flashy ringmaster outfit, announces to a non-existent audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the freak show! We start today's show with our amazing contortionist.” With a wave of his staff, Kaiser suddenly finds his view of the world turned upside down.

With each gesture Kaidé makes, a part of his body bends at an unnatural angle, until it becomes compressed into a small box. While the pain is less excruciating thanks to his freakish flexibility, the resulting helplessness that comes with losing control of his body and being forced in a cramped space creates a mixture of fear and discomfort. The fused counterpart steps up to the box and stares down, glimpses of two different eyes visible through pale blue bangs. “I do love being in control. And I know you do, too. So why hold back?” Struggling in vain to get himself loose, Kaiser can feel his blood boiling. “What do you want with me? Why go to all this?”

“You're an interesting specimen. So full of potential, but you can't even see it. You… and him.” He turns his gaze elsewhere, the large, brown left eye in prominent view. “The sooner you two find it, the better. Until then...” Shifting his focus back, a wild grin grows on his countenance as he slowly closes the box. “Good night.”

 

Kept awake by the terrors of the previous night's dream, Kaiser is ill-prepared for today's match. Checking the InaLink messages, he finds a new thread welcoming Dulana onto the team, as well as one discussing Eugene's fall. During lunch break, however, a new thread pops up, created by Victor.

"Hey, I know this is a bit sudden, but an old friend of mine wants to join the team. Please give him a warm welcome when you see him."

Right away, the chat thread updates, with Naga and Dulana signing in.

"I just met him today. We're in the same class! Isn't that cool?"

"You made a new friend, Naga? That's wonderful! Unfortunately, something has come up at the company, so I won't be able to meet him. I'll see you all at the Park later."

"Go to heck, Dooley!"

"I love you, too, brother."

This bit of sibling rivalry is oddly amusing, even if Kaiser has trouble wrapping his head around the two being related. No matter how much research he does, he cannot find solid evidence proving the statement. Is he not trying hard enough, or is this a family secret that only the club members know?

The football club meet up at the school entrance, where Coach Peabody is accompanied by a short, blond boy. The boy looks up at the coach, who nods in approval, and he takes a deep breath before introducing himself. "I'm Bayonet Gunne, former member of the Black Templars. I know I'm joining at the last minute, but I promise I won't let you down."

Most of the team show signs of reluctance—this is an ex-Fifth Sector supporter, after all—but Arion steps up and offers his hand. "You don't have to be scared. Anyone who loves football is a friend to us."

Gunne glances at the crowd, his gaze slightly longer on the genuine Gem users, then smiles and shakes his hand.

The caravan parks in front of Roulette Park, where Dulana stands, waving at the team as they step out. The second his eyes lock onto Gunne, he rushes over to him, causing the smaller boy to hide behind Peabody. "I cannot believe it! It's been a long time, hasn't it, Bay?"

Peabody asks, perplexed, "You two know each other?"

"Of course! We bumped into each other when I arrived in Tokyo." He returns his attention to Gunne, an unusual glimmer in his eyes as he holds out his hand. "Don't be afraid. You can trust me."

Feeling the tiny hands clutching his jacket, something suddenly clicks in Peabody's head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Rice, but it'll take some time before he can open up."

Recoiling his hand, Dulana mutters in disappointment. "Well, that's fine. I understand. Maybe playing together will help build our trust."

Everyone steps onto the rail, where, on the other side of the tracks, stand students clad in the red-and-black shirts of Kirkwood. Among them is their coach, Byron Love, whose angelic appearance and godly strength once earned him the nickname "Aphrodite". Scanning the crowd of yellow and blue, Aphrodite's red eyes catch sight of Peabody. "So you're the successor of Mark Evans," he says—a bit bombastically, one might add.

Peabody waves off this comment with a modest reply, "I'm just a stand-in while Marky-Mark goes off doing whatever. Sorry you're stuck with this ol' fool."

"On the contrary, this livens things up. I look forward to seeing how you lead."

As the two coaches happily chat like they're old pals, the young players stare intensely at each other. Kaiser recognizes most of the faces in the Kirkwood crowd, and thankfully detects nothing unusual. After Lunar Sea and Barn, this is the first team they have gone up against without a single Gem owner. In fact, none of them seem to have anything made under the Garshield brand. It seems so serendipitous, as to seem suspicious. Between this and Dulana's recruitment, he cannot help but feel a pit of dread in his stomach.

In the train car, he notices Gunne sitting as far away from Dulana as possible. Not that he can disagree. Meanwhile, Naga and Eugene are also doing their best to ignore his existence whenever possible. Arguably even more understandable, due to them sharing part of the same consciousness. But whenever he so much as snipes a glance at the kid, he, too, feels a strange urge to run away from him. It's like he emits an aura that naturally repels Gem users. Wait a second… He turns his head to Gunne, clutching at the shirt fabric hanging loosely over his chest. Could he be part of a fusion, too?

 

Once the rail stops, they step out and head to the stadium, a series of steel block and tall pipes, with wires and steel towers silhouetted against the dull, fog-covered sky as they stretch down the concrete path. Every once in a while, a sliver of bright light will streak across the wires, creating the illusion of surging electricity. The team enter the main building, and the interior—a two-story setup with metal ramps and ladders leading down multiple paths and doors. With the help of some clues pointing to the right way, they end up in the heart of the place: a field of silver, each corner lit by tall poles topped with flashing balls of bluish-white plasma. Upon closer inspection, the pitch itself has neatly-cut cracks throughout, overlapping at points where the indents appear slightly larger. Peabody eyes this detail with suspicion, uncertain whether the final product will match the original blueprints or come with its own set of hidden traps.

Raimon's coach goes over the strategy, reviewing their new formation. "Eye of the Storm", as he calls it, has Victor in the lead as the sole forward, with most of the defense close to the middle. Surrounded by his teammates, Dulana's design is to slow down any striker who attacks straight-on, while the others team up to assist. The one objective weakness is the lack of defense in the wings. As Peabody names each player, however, another chip in their armor starts to emerge. "Peabody, I want you to help Rice out. Are you up to it?"

Eugene, clearly avoiding Dulana's existence, steps back. "I'm sorry, but I still need a few days to recover."

"Right, you just stepped out of the hospital, didn't you? Naga, can you—"

"I'd rather break a leg than play with him."

Peabody, vexed by this sudden rebellion, says sternly, "If you don't wanna play, you can spend the rest of the match on the bench." Once the redhead (reluctantly) complies, he turns to the rest of the team. "Listen, I know some of you have a beef with Rice, and I won't argue if you do. But if you're going to throw the game cus of him, you'll be letting down everyone else—including yourself. You don't have to get along with him, but for the next hour or so, all that matters is trying to beat Kirkwood."

Arion shifts his gaze back and forth between Dulana and a frightened Gunne before looking up at his coach. "Coach Peabody, can I switch places with Gunne? I can assist Dulana and Gunne can focus on protecting the wings."

"I've got a better idea," Riccardo interjects. "I'll take Adé's spot in the right wing. Arion, you take the left. Gunne, Adé, you'll be assisting Victor up front. Roma's and Hugh's abilities should compensate for Dulana's inexperience."

Briefly consulting the clipboard and making the necessary edits, he nods and orders everyone on the field. He stops Bay for a second, putting a hand on his tiny shoulder. "Hey, I still can't wrap my head around what you told Sam, but I'm gonna look into things further. If Rice or his goons do anything funny, I'll keep you safe."

"But—"

"Don't worry about me, kid. It's part of my job. Just tell Sam he owes me, OK?" He winks, and Gunne replies with a nod and grin.

Chapter Text

The game starts off normally. Pass, receive, dribble, block, kick. Kirkwood may be a long-running rival of Raimon's, but they're no Royal Academy. Of the entire team, only a handful can be considered a challenge, with the rest serving as decoys. While brushing off one of the latter sorts, Roma steps on one of the wider cracks in the ground. In that instant, a jolt runs through his body—literally. His body shakes and jitters, unable to do much else other than scream as his vision flashes and blurs. Once the sensation ceases, he falls to the floor, his nerves incapable of feeling anything other than dull, throbbing pain.

Roma's teammates call out to him, running to his aid as he stumbles about on his own two feet. He takes a few steps before collapsing again, a cue for the first aid team to drag him away. As he watches the entire incident occur, Kaiser, standing from the sidelines, notices a subtle shift in Dulana's face. His thin lips curled upwards, he looks at the calamity with sadistic glee. Continuing to stare, his heart jumps as—for a blink of a second—Dulana's dark eyes turn in his direction.

Cursing under his breath, Peabody turns to the bench. Luke and Eugene are still recovering, and Naga is unable to budge. That leaves… “Ballzack, you're up.” In an attempt to reassure the small child, he smiles and says, “Just watch your step and you'll be fine.”

The coach's words did not reassure him. Standing a short distance to his right is Dulana, whose presence makes him physically ill. He focuses his attention to Adé, positioned in front of him. Adé, without turning back, gives him a thumbs up, releasing a bit of the tension.

The starting whistle blows, and everyone rushes into action. Gunne tails Victor closely, warding off anyone who tries to steal the ball from him. As they progress towards the goal, he spots a sliver of bluish white creeping across the ground. “Victor, look out,” he cries out. The navy-haired striker, beginning to catch on, sidesteps onto smooth, solid ground, and a Kirkwood player takes the hit instead. While the player is down, Gunne passes the ball to Victor. Lifting the ball with his foot, he gives it two swift strikes, unleashing a bluish-black, blade-like projectile aimed for the goal. “Doomsword Slash!” Having used the move plenty of times in the past, the power of the shot increased substantially, overpowering the flustered goalkeeper.

After Raimon's score is accounted for, the referees and nurses do a quick test on the electrocuted Kirkwoodian. Surprisingly, he had already recovered and is back on his feet, as if nothing happened. This causes speculation among players from both sides, comparing the two circumstances. The most common theories are that the shocks vary in intensity, or hit Summoners the hardest (the Kirkwood boy is a non-Summoner). What theory is the correct one is irrelevant: getting struck at all is a hindrance to both player and team, and should be avoided at all costs.

Kaiser is about to step on the field when a voice stops him. “So you're the one they call Michael Ballzack, yes?” He turns around to face the source. The Holy Emperor continues, his features softening. “I hear people whispering your name, calling you a monster—” Kaiser's hand twitches, “—but I don't see that at all. Beneath your rough, weathered surface, I see a small, helpless child.” Dulana steps forward, holding out a hand, only for Kaiser to step back reflexively. “Don't be afraid. I simply want to help. You can trust me.” In that moment, something in his voice changes: a slight echo or vibrato, as those four words trigger an inexplicable reaction.

Kaiser feels oddly distant, numb to the sensations that acknowledge his physical presence on this earth. His hand slowly starts to lift itself…

“Kai!” A familiar voice registers in his brain, snapping him out of his trance. Adé has his hand shackled around Michael's wrist, shooting a glance at the young Emperor before resuming, shifting to his former cheery demeanor. “How, man, we have to head back now. Mustn't be spacin' out like that.” Still a bit out of it, Kaiser nods and follows him back on the pitch.


Back at Raimon Jr. High, in the teacher's lounge, the faculty are watching their school's team in their latest match against long-time rival Kirkwood. Between grading papers and scheduling lesson plans, Max is able to catch a side glance of the game. When one of the teachers yells in surprise, Max jumps in shock, his reading glasses slipping in the process. He regains his composure shortly after, but is interrupted by the ringing of his phone. Muttering under his breath—the cutesy ringtone is rather embarrassing to listen to when his coworkers are within earshot—he picks it up. “Hello?”

“Hey, it's Jim. Are you busy?”

“Yeah, but I'm finishing up now,” he replies while sloppily shoving everything into his suitcase and rushing out the door. He cannot recall the last time he had Jim to himself; whenever they met up, they were often with friends, with less time for each other. Whatever Jim wants, he hopes it's good news.

When Max approaches the front gate, he stops in his tracks. Standing mere feet away is Jim, accompanied by a tall young man with long, messy orange hair. “I know this is a bit awkward, but this kid came up to me as I was heading out and I'm unsure what to do. I'm not sure what his reasons are, and he won't speak.” The boy crosses his arms and averts his gaze.

“So you want me to talk to him?” Jim nods, and Max sighs, shooting a glance at the stranger. “I guess I'll try my best. Follow me.”

He leads them to his house, where a horde of cats greets them at the door. After giving a quick tour of the place, he leaves the boy to his business, starting with the attempted removal of the strange metal collar. Several wrecked pieces of silverware later, the collar is removed, and he finally says his first words to the men. “Sorry for not saying anything earlier. That damned thing kept bothering me. I suppose you'll want an explanation. Long story short, I'm looking for a friend of mine. Bayonet Gunne. We ran away, but got separated. Then I learned he was at Raimon, and that's when I arrived here.”

Staring in a mix of shock and confusion, Jim says, “Uh, excuse me, er…”

“Flam. Berger.”

“Berger? If you're lost, we can try contacting your parents, and—”

“We don't have parents. It's been just me and Bay for a while.”

The lavender-haired man stammers a bit as Max steps forward. “So this Bay kid, he's like a little brother to you, right?” Flam tilts his head skeptically, then makes a soft noise with his mouth to indicate affirmation. “And from the sounds of it, you want to protect him, yeah?” Another subtle yes. “I have a little brother myself, so I know how it's like. Tell you what: I'll help you get back together with him. 'Til then, you can stay with me.” At that exact moment, one fluffy feline knocks the broken collar out of the way, turning it into another cat's new plaything. “You don't mind cats, do you?”

Watching the same cat approach Berger and rub its soft fur against his leg, he mutters, “I like cats.” Though his face is partly obscured by the hair hanging over his shoulder, Max can tell he's smiling.

Chapter Text

Kaiser takes his position on the field, and the game resumes. With everyone growing aware of the stage hazards, they play with haste and caution. By the end of the first half, the score is two to one. Dulana, while hardly in the direct line of action, proves his usefulness assisting his fellow teammates while they block and dribble their way to victory. Even Kaiser—loathe as he is to admit—can see how skilled he is.

The second half is where trouble begins. Early on, Kirkwood's captain, the midfielder Bay Laurel, summons his Fighting Spirit, the King of Beasts, Leon, and wreaks havoc on Raimon's front lines. As he heads towards Dulana, Kaiser notices a blue streak flashing across the ground, catching up to his pace. Dulana, in a rare display of recklessness, runs up to the Summoner, making way to where one of the hidden traps are located. Before he can react, however, another figure collides with the Emperor, pushing him aside just in time. The violet-haired young man adjusts his monocle and looks up. “Bay, I—”

“Lemme make this clear,” Gunne says with a growl. “Me and Flam still have business to deal with you, so you better watch your back.” Watching him turn and walk off, a distant-yet-forlorn look shows on Dulana's face.

 

As Laurel is sent off to receive first aid, a reserve player immediately replaces him, and the match continues without further interruption. With their worst fears confirmed, Raimon's Summoners are on high alert. At his command, Gunne passes the ball to Riccardo, who gracefully motions his index fingers, directing everyone's plays like a conductor would direct an orchestra. “Everyone, Virtuoso!”

Several passes later, Kaiser has the ball, and is well into their opponent's midfield. But an important detail in their formation strategy had been overlooked: their opponent's. In contrast to their appearance in the previous Saints' Way, several of their players have changed positions, and as a result, one of their other Summoners, Langford Ash, has him on his sights. For a brief second, he looks down at Langford's wrist. An armlet, lined with tiny, ink black gemstones, and shimmering in the light is a multicolored jewel with a familiar pattern. How did he not notice earlier? His mind flashes back to their reunion back at the rail. Langford stood behind his other teammates, obscuring the accessory from sight. But that does not explain how he could not sense it the same way he did with other owners. Is there something he doesn't know about?

“Armored Cavalry, White Knight,” Langford shouts as he unleashes his Spirit. Looming over the battlefield is an ivory-armored knight with a horse's head for a helmet. Knight's lance at the ready, he knocks Kaiser off his feet, stealing the ball from him. Lying on the ground, he can only watch as the Summoner catches the rest of his team off-guard and lands a point for Kirkwood. A flicker of purple flares up betwixt his fingers as they tense up, nails scratching against the hard surface.

As both teams switch sides in preparation for the next kickoff, a strange sensation floods through Michael's body. What is this feeling, he keeps asking himself, caught in a trance until the starting whistle blows.

The ball gets passed around, eventually ending up in Adé's possession. However, Langford catches up to him and aims straight for his ankle, taking the ball. Welling up with rage, Kaiser leaps straight into action. You can knock me down all you want, but I won't let you hurt Adé anymore. “Bringer of Dreams, Sand Man!” The sensation gradually seeps away, taking the form a purplish aura, surrounded by green energy as the aura molds itself into a four-armed humanoid being. The being is a blue-skinned clown with a long, beak-like nose and a wide, devilish grin. Kaiser, his face mirroring that of the clown's, rushes to attack the Knight's wielder.

Sand Man and White Knight clash, the former's magic wand versus the latter's steel lance. By a mere hair, Sand Man wins the duel, wiping out the last of White Knight's energy. While Langford collapses to his knees, Kaiser raises his foot, ready to kick him down. This is for Adé…

“Kai, stop!” Kaiser halts mid-action, then slowly backs down. “Don't waste your energy on that bastard. I'm open.” His Spirit retracted, he turns to face Adé, already back on his feet, and passes it to him. Adé swiftly kicks it to Victor, who breaks the tie and puts Raimon in the lead, just as the final whistle blows.

 

As Raimon celebrate their victory and hit the showers, Naga runs up and tackles Kaiser, wrapping his arms around him. “I can't believe it! You really did it, you summoned!” Pulling away from him, hands on his shoulders, he continues. “Every time I see you, you keep getting stronger, and I want to grow stronger, too. It makes me proud to call you my rival.”

Taken aback, Kaiser blurts out, “Rival? But my Spirit's not that great. It's not cool or strong like yours.”

“Don't say that! There's no such thing as a bad Spirit, just bad Summoners. As long as you keep working at it, there's no way you can lose!” Letting him go, his tone turns slightly darker. “You remember what happened earlier between you and that Kirkwood kid? If you wanted to, you could've gotten away with it.”

“How? Even if the refs didn't notice, everyone watching us would notice.”

“Sand Man is an illusionist, capable of warping people's perceptions of the Summoner and his allies. They can play as roughly and unfairly as they want, and no one would be the wiser. As far as I can tell, you have the more useful Spirit. Though it brings up the question: why can we summon the Spirits we have? Is it a coincidence, or fate?”

Discomforted, Kaiser looks around. “Hey, where's Adé?”

Naga points at the exit. “I saw him and Genie talking outside.” A solemn look on his face, he resumes. “I didn't catch much, but it sounded pretty heated.” His brows furrow, face contorting into revulsion. Kaiser questions this expression when he is suddenly struck with an urge to throw up. He felt this before, and immediately recognizes it when another voice chimes in.

“My, my, you two are quite engaged,” Dulana says, grinning as he places his hands on Naga's shoulders. “Mind if I join in?” Naga shakes him off, his brother unfazed by the action, eyes locked on Kaiser instead. “I see you have something on your mind. Don't be afraid to speak up. You can trust me.”

Thinking back to what he saw earlier, Kaiser speaks up, barely aware of what he's saying. “That bracelet on Langford looked different from anything I've seen before. I didn't sense anything off with him like I did with the Great Old Ones. So how…?”

In a moment of self-awareness, the German trails off, noticing Dulana's sudden absence. Then a voice rings in his ear. “That's the result of Garshield's newest product.” Dulana, his serene, if slightly pretentious, smirk barely visible as he swiftly shifts from one ear to the other, elaborates further. “Those enrolled in our training program are qualified to test out future products. That armlet Langford Ash was wearing allows one to conceal their true power while still allowing them to tap into it as they so wish. The only downside so far is…” He giggles, putting a finger to his lips and winking. “Well, that's a secret.”

Kaiser turns around, demanding more information, but Dulana has disappeared completely. Giving up, he turns his attention back to Naga, the contempt visible in his eyes. “Sidewinder, do me a favor. No matter what anyone else says, don't listen to Dulana. He'll just turn you into another one of his puppets.” Before he can ask, Naga storms out, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Meanwhile, Gunne, still not comfortable around his teammates (especially Dulana, for obvious reasons), grabs his bags and heads home. Arion approaches him, inviting him over to his home for a welcoming party, but he declines and runs out. When he returns to Sam's apartment, he immediately goes to wash himself. As he steps into the shower, letting the water drench him, he grips the hanging bauble around his neck. “Please be safe, Flam.”

Chapter Text

Flam tosses and turns in his sleep, disturbed by memories of the recent past.

"Subjects Nemo and Hookson have been successfully separated and in recovery. But despite our best efforts, we were unable to save Jones. We're currently performing an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death. Results should come up in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours."

From behind cell bars, Flam could see and hear everything the scientists and his neighboring inmates were up to. New members, status updates, and, most frighteningly, terminations. Unfortunately, cases similar to Cthulhu's had occurred, with users found dead in their cells or uncovered elsewhere on a regular basis. Those still surviving would be barely hanging by a thread, fearing the day where they would be deemed useless and terminated. It's not uncommon to go mad in a situation like this, not helped by the natural effects of holding multiple consciousnesses.

Since Bay's escape, things had gone quiet. Too quiet, some might say. Usually, there would be some conversations, whether with their cellmates or whoever else was nearby. But the chatter had gone quiet, with the scientists' voices being the most audible. Flam, more concerned about Bay's well-being than all else, tuned out the majority. However, the past couple of nights, as he laid in bed, he could hear the incoherent mutterings from one of the cells across from his, barely within sight. Ghatanothoa… Howie… Dirk…

He shot straight up. What was that noise? Crunching, chewing, tearing, laughing. What the hell is going on?

As it turned out, he was not the only one who noticed. Those awake that could hear the sounds turned away, ears covered and faces contorted in anguish. Then a group of Garshield employees ran in. Two security guards, plus one scientist. One of the guards commanded Howie to stop what he's doing, threatening force. When Howie failed to comply, they opened the cell door and rushed inside. A fight broke out in the cell, and a moment later, the guards dragged a blood-soaked Howie out, giggling and rambling about the wonders of the cosmic gods. Soon, more employees arrive, bringing, among other things, a stretcher and body bag. Of all the things he had witnessed, that was his breaking point. He had to leave this bedlam, lest he suffer a similar fate.

Unable to sleep, he gets up and heads over to the kitchen. When he opens the refrigerator, the light blinds him as his shadow stretches out behind him. Squinting, he inspects the contents inside. Juice, fruit… cat milk? As if on cue, a bundle of fur rubs up against his leg. A tiny calico kitten with large, blue eyes stares up at him, asking to be petted. Then a voice arises from behind him, causing him to jump. "Sam? What are you doing here?"

Flam turns around, trying to make out the details of the stranger with the light from the fridge. A young man, small and childlike in appearance, mostly bald save for a long ponytail, bangs, and sideburns. Judging by the state of his clothes, he had just returned from a night out after work. Max told him a bit about his friend, but never met him face-to-face until now. But did Max ever tell his friend about him?

The small stranger's expression changes as soon as he sees his face. "Oh, sorry. I thought you were someone else. I'm Timmy," he says. "When Max texted me about it, I thought he just brought in another cat. Never thought he'd resort to kidnapping."

"He didn't—"

"Hey, I was just kidding." He pauses to look him up and down. "You really do look like Sam. Are you related?"

Flam shakes his head. "Max said something similar. Well, it was more like, 'You look like if Sam and Jim had a baby'." Pause. "You look disappointed. Were you expecting him?"

His beady eyes widen, and he averts his gaze, cheeks reddening. "N-not really. I'll be going to bed. Close the fridge when you're done."

Before he can turn away, Flam blurts out, "Wait! Please, stay with me. Just for a bit."

Timmy hesitates, but upon hearing the tremble in his soft voice, pulls up a seat. "Shoot."

 

Back in the Peabody household, Eugene is sitting up in bed, staring at his phone screen when Paul enters the bedroom. "Hey, kid, how're you feeling?"

Staring down at the bruises on his legs, he mutters, "I've been better."

Brows furrowed in worry, he sits down beside him. "What's wrong, Eugene? I thought you were excited about the tournament."

"I am. I was just thinking about other things."

Peabody catches a glance at the image displayed on the phone screen: a photo of Eugene and Adé, the latter holding a large fish. "I see. Well, I know you're nervous, but that'll go away when you step on that pitch." He rustles his nephew's red hair. "You'll do great, whatever the score." Suddenly, the phone in his pocket starts to vibrate. He excuses himself and steps out to answer it. "Hey. What's up?"

The voice on the other hand is gruff and stern, different from those of his friends, but still recognizable. "This is Officer Onimo from the Inazuma Town Police Department. I have some unfortunate news about your friend, Mark Evans. We recently found his body under the bridge by the riverside. From the evidence gathered at the crime scene, he was attacked by the Inazuma Killer."

Barely able to grasp the phone, he says in a shaky voice, "It can't be! You must have mistaken him for someone else."

"It's no mistake, Mr. Peabody. Mark Evans is dead. I'm sorry."

That stabs him straight through. "I see… Thank you." He hangs up and lets the phone fall, collapsing right after.

Chapter Text

News of Mark's death spread like wildfire, and overnight, football fans all across Japan are mourning for him. Raimon have been hit especially hard, having lost not only a famous alum, but a coach and person with whom they formed a strong bond. The football team gather in the meeting room, where Peabody awaits.

“Unfortunately, due to circumstances surrounding recent events, I'm gonna have to step down.”

Arion pounds his fists against the surface of the table. “But Coach, we're in the final round. You can't leave us now!”

“Arion,” Riccardo interjects. Turning to Peabody, he says coolly, “Coach, please stay with us one last time.”

“I'd really love to, but that's not possible,” Paul replies. “Between the murders and the controversies surrounding this tournament, the Football Association's got their hands tied.” Slowly, his lips curl up into a smirk. “But don't think I'll be leaving you in the dust.”

The door slides open, and a pair of footsteps break the silence. Climbing down the shallow steps is an auburn-haired young man, sporting his trademark cat-eared knit hat. He stands next to Peabody and turn around, revealing his face to everybody in the room. “Name's Maxwell Carson—Max for short. I'll be your new coach for Saints' Way. But I won't be doing it alone.”

On cue, in follows a short, mostly-bald male, clad in a stylish sports jacket and track pants. “My name is Tim Saunders, and I will also be your new coach.”

Recognizing the confusion on the team's faces, Peabody goes on to explain. “After hearing the news, we got together and had a discussion on who the new coach should be. Taking both of their skills and work schedules into consideration, I decided to bend the rules a bit and split the work between them. Max will assist you during the tournament, providing strategies and advice. Timmy will act as your personal trainer, creating training schedules designed to bring out the best in each player. But before I pass on the torch, I have one last announcement.” He jabs his finger in Dulana's direction. “Rice, you're off the team.”

“Coach Peabody,” Arion protests, “why kick him out now? We need him more than ever. We can't afford to lose any more players!”

To these news, Dulana simply shrugs. “I expected this outcome. My duty as Holy Emperor and Garshield's president must take priority. I hope you understand.” He stands up and follows Peabody out, but not before giving one last glance to Hugh.

 

The team try to practice, but the heavy fog of depression looms over, affecting their concentration, and in the end, the coaches decide to cease the day's session. Before leaving, Timmy asks Celia for one last favor. With a key in hand and Max by his side, he walks over to a stout storage shack, worn and rusted by weather and time, and unlocks the door. The second they step inside, they are flooded with a sense of nostalgia. Though the building had changed over the years, there are still hints of the times of old to be seen. In one corner is the whiteboard where Mark would draw up formations and strategies. In others, tables and chairs where they and their friends would sit or set their items on. Dusty footballs and boxes stuffed with untouched equipment litter the cracked tiled floor. Even the rusty lockers, which look a lot smaller than they did in their youth, bring back memories. Most eye-catching, however, is the back room, where, scrawled on the back wall, are the words “Victory is ours”, accented by the lightning bolt, a symbol of their school and town.

Gazing at the writing on the wall, Timmy breaks down crying. Memories rush through his brain: the day he and Mark first met, the day they won the Football Frontier, even the day when he was possessed into fighting against him. The good, the bad, everything he experienced in those three years, he never realized how much of an impact Mark had on his life until that very moment. He never even got to talk to him one last time. “It's not fair! Why did Mark have to die? If any one of us deserved to die, it should be—”

He feels a hand on his shoulder, fingers digging into its flesh. “You finish that sentence, and I will hit you.”

Clenching his fists, he bites his lower lip, resisting the urge to scream. He takes a deep breath and mutters, “Hit me.”

Timmy waits for the impact, but nothing happens. Instead, Max loosens his grip. “I'm not the right man for the job. Have Sam do it for you.” He turns and walks out, slamming the door behind him.

 

On the hospital terrace, Tod sits on the bench, watching the clouds slowly drift by. Grasped tightly in his hands is a crumpled football magazine, with a young Mark standing alongside his teammates from the Inazuma National Team. Lost in a trance, he hardly notices Sam's presence until he speaks up. “Sorry. I was just…”

“It's fine. I know what you're feeling right now.” Sam looks up at the sky. Tod tries to guess his expression, but with obscured eyes, monotone speech, and a lack of tears, he may as well be staring at a statue. “I can't believe it, either.” The curly-haired man takes a lollipop out of his pocket and puts it in his mouth.

“Part of me is expecting him to come back from the dead, like Ray Dark did. But the rest of me knows that's not gonna happen. He told me himself the last time we spoke.”

“Hm? He told you?”

“Not directly, but something about the words he used, and the way he said them…” He trails off as he thinks back to that last conversation. They were on the phone, chatting like old friends, when for some reason he cannot recall, the topic shifted to Mark's fame and reverence.

“I have a lot of enemies, perhaps more than I have friends. When you're known all over the world for your achievements, good or bad, it's bound to happen. The moment I led all of us to victory, I marked myself as a target. You were hurt because of me.” Mark's voice cracked, melding with the white noise emitted from the phone. The sound of a train in the background broke the momentary silence. “I have to go soon. But before I go, tell Peabody and the others to keep their heads up. As long as they believe in football, there is still hope.”

“That sounds like Mark, all right,” Sam says with a wry grin. “A football freak to the end.” He slams his fist against the bench, startling Tod. “Fucking idiot, what the hell does that mean? How can he leave us hanging like this? What's football done for me, anyway?” Simmering down, he stands up, wobbling as his limp leg nearly fails to support him. “You're a coach, right? I'm sure you can relate to it more than I do.” As he starts walking off, he adds, “Anyway, I have to meet up with Paul. Later.”

Chapter Text

The previous evening, at the Football Association headquarters, Noboru Naga, Dulana Rice, Paul Peabody, and several other key members were gathered together in the boardroom, discussing various aspects of not only the final round of Saints' Way, but youth football as it's currently established. When Fighting Spirits came into light, rules were changed or added to complement this new discovery. With the new stage hazards growing more dangerous and the murders targeting students and alums alike, demands to provide increased security for past and present players and inspect or outright ban future stage designs had arisen. After an hour of heated debate, little progress was made, with everyone agreeing to strengthen stadium security and wait until the end of Saints' Way to come to a unified decision.

Heading out to the car park, Dulana let out a loud yawn as he held onto Noboru's arm for support. “Do I really have to attend all these meetings? They're so boring, and they make me sleepy.”

Eye twitching, Noboru replied, “As the Holy Emperor, you are the one who determines the ultimate course of youth football. These meetings, dull as they are, are part of that duty. But if it will make you better, I can attend a few of the meetings in your place.” He resisted the urge to mutter, “Like I always do,” knowing the consequences should his adopted son hear him.

“Aw, thanks, daddy!” He wrapped his arms around Naga's and leaned his head against it. Looking up at his father, his shadow-veiled profile in stark contrast with the pale moonlight, he mused to himself, The moon is lovely tonight, isn't it?

They step into the car, and Dulana slipped into the backseat while Naga took the driver's seat. During the drive back, Rice's phone started to play a chipper tune, and he cut it off before it finished its first loop. “Hello?”

The voice on the other end answered, “I did the job. The Hero of Football is dead. Now where's my vessel?”

“Relax, relax. It'll come in time. Just leave the body where it is and my men will take care of the rest. Until then, just lay low and stay as far from the crime scene as possible until further notice. Bye now!” He snapped his mobile shut and tossed it aside to play with his pendant chain. “Soon, the chosen mortals will ascend to godhood and take what they rightfully deserve.” Gazing upon the multicolored gemstone, a wicked smirk spread across his face.

 

At school assembly the next morning, the headmaster and members of the faculty offer their blessings to the recently deceased, much of which Kaiser tunes out. Throughout the day, the people around him become passing strangers, and words become meaningless noise. As he loses contact with himself and the world around him, the voices in his head are gradually muted, even as they cry out in desperation.

“Michael?” That instant, he is brought back to Earth. His beady eye looks up at the source of the voice. Large, black eyes, partly obscured by the lining of colorful headwear, stare back at him. “I want to meet with you after school, if that's alright with you.” Dumbfounded, Kaiser nods, and they pat him on the back. “Great! I'll see you later, then.”

Once school lets out, Max escorts Kaiser to town, ordering donuts and drinks to go. They reach the park, where they stop to rest on a bench, watching children running and playing from afar. Noticing the boy's solemn mood, Max takes the opportunity to speak up. “You haven't touched your food yet.”

“I'm not hungry,” Kaiser mutters under his breath, ignoring his grumbling stomach.

“Hungry or not, you're not gonna feel better if you keep starving yourself. Take one bite, at the least. If you throw it back up, I'll make you eat that, too.”

Grossed out by the imagery, he bites into the donut in his hands. He chews and swallows, though it's clear on his face that it's anything but comfortable for him in his current state. Regardless, he continues to eat it, if only as an excuse to stay silent.

“You're upset about Coach Evans' death, aren't you? I can't say I understand what you're thinking, but I can sympathize. Mark was more than a coach or captain—he was a friend to everyone. I remember your mother mentioning how much you looked up to him.”

Dropping the remainder of the pastry, Kaiser raises his voice. “Mark wasn't just any old athlete—he was a hero. He was everything I wished I could be. Now that he's gone, what does that make me?” Tears start streaming down his cheeks. “Who's gonna miss me when I'm gone?”

“With or without Mark, you're still you. Even if you can't see it, you're important to somebody. Me, your mum, Adé, your whole team. There are lots of people who care about you, more than I can name. So don't give me that bullshit that no one's gonna miss you!” He lightly slaps Kaiser on the back and stands up. “C'mon, let's go home.”

 

As the sun sets, Adé stands by, watching as a cloak of orange light washes over the taped-off crime scene. Memories of all the times he passed by this area, playing on its turf or fishing in the river, flash by. To think the life of anybody, much less somebody he knew personally, would be taken on this very land is unthinkable. Seeing the deep scars in the dirt, he cannot help but feel as if some part of his soul had been corrupted. He held neither strong admiration nor ill will towards Mark, but he knew how Kaiser felt about him, and that hurts him more than Mark's death itself.

Kai needs me, he thinks while he turns his gaze downward. In his hand, the photo Kaidé took of himself stares back at him from the tiny screen. Seeing the photo brings other images: the nightmares that haunt him every night, the hallucinations that follow him during the day, the brief glimpse of Dodge's bloodshed which he could not shake off.

Out of nowhere, two arms embrace him, and a familiar voice—or pair of voices—tickles his ear. “You're afraid, aren't you? But not because of Kaiser—you're scared of what you might do with your combined strength. Don't be. Embrace yourself for what you can become. Let your heartbeats become one. You can try to hide all you want, but in the end, you are Kaidé. The sooner you accept that, the better off you'll be.”

Frustrated, Adé shakes them off and turns to face them. “You can't fool me this time, Eu—” He cuts himself short at what he sees. Nothing. He collapses to his knees, clutching at his thick, wavy hair. On the ground beside him is his cellphone, still opened to that damned image. Taking deep breaths to calm himself, he picks up the phone and texts Kaiser. “Kai, meet me by the goddess statue. I want to become Kaidé again.”

Chapter Text

The riverside was peaceful that starry night, the moon's pallid face smiling down at the barren pitch. A tranquil breeze set the still scene into motion, bobbing the boats in the water and the leaves in the trees. Mark Evans stood on the center line, taking in the atmosphere. Mobile phone pressed against his ear, he made what he knew would be his final call. As the conversation reached towards its end, the rail station's last train screeched to a stop. “I have to go soon. But before I go, tell Peabody and the others to keep their heads up. As long as they believe in football, there is still hope.”

He hung up and pocketed his phone. The sound of grass crunching disrupted the tranquility. Without looking at the source, he said, “You're Garshield's agent, aren't you? If you're looking to silence me, you're too late. The police already know about the missing bodies, and are looking into it as we speak. My only question is what your intentions are.”

Behind him was a stranger whose face was obscured by thick, leathery straps, exposing only his two-colored eyes. The stranger spoke, voice hoarse from lack of or excessive use, “You Raimon lot are the one obstacle between us and godhood, especially you. But once you're dead, we can earn our vessel and ascend. This world will become ours to reform, the people ours to control.” He pulled down his mask, exposing his deformed features and jagged grin. “After all, what better soul to sacrifice than the most beloved figure in football?”

Listening to the agent, memories of events from over ten years ago flashed through Mark's mind. To think, even now, people would exploit young children in order to gain control of the world. But between the murders of innocents and delusions of godhood, this was a step too far. He turned around and stared at the humanoid abomination dead-on. “If it will save Raimon… no, the world… then I shall sacrifice myself for the greater good.”

The agent's grin grew wider, splitting his face in two as he dropped a round object to the ground. “You're a brave person, Mark Evans. The Old Ones will be pleased with you.” He took a deep breath and whistled. From the ground, a line of blood red penguins shot out, zipping through the air until they bit into his reared-back leg. As their sharp beaks dug into his flesh, the round object—a football—glowed with a fiery energy. “Emperor Penguin No. 1!” Mark, unfazed, watched as the ball, accompanied by the penguins, flew towards him like a fleet of missiles. A loud, bright explosion destroyed part of the pitch, in the center of which was the half-charred corpse of Raimon's greatest player.

 

As the shock of Mark's death wears off, Sam is left to ponder over his final words. 'Believe in football…' I kinda get what he's saying, but…

“Hello, Earth to Sam,” Doug calls out, waving his hand in front of his face. “There's a customer right in front of you.” Snapping out of it, Sam assists the customer with their issue. As he turns back, however, his co-worker halts him. “Are you okay? You've been out of it all day. You aren't on something again, are you?”

“What? Of course not! Let's talk later, 'kay?”

They meet up behind the store during lunch break, and one long explanation later, Doug comes to his conclusion. “Well, this is Mark Evans we're talking about. It's not surprising that he'd use football. It sounds like he's telling you guys to have faith in your friends and keep going at it, or some mushy junk like that.” He takes a bite from the rice ball in his hands. “By the way, what's with the lollipops? I expect you to have a smoke by now.”

“I'm trying to quit—emphasis on trying. I have a kid now.”

“A kid?” He thinks back to the past few days, when Sam suddenly started buying children's clothes. But those looked too big for an infant, so how old are they? Doing the math in his head, the implications become unfortunate.

“In case you're wondering, he's not mine. I'm just letting him stay 'til me and Max settle the living arrangements.” He gets up, then adds, “By the by, I nabbed a ticket to the final round of Saints' Way, but I'm kind of mixed 'bout leaving the shop. You wanna take my place?”

“Thanks, but my boyfriend's already got me one. Maybe another time.”

Scratching his chin, he thinks out loud, “I can always let Hans take over. He's shit with finances, but he's got a way with people.” He helps Doug up, and notices something different. “Hey, nice earring. Where'd you get it?”

“Oh, these? I had someone crack the old gem and fix a pair. Thought it'd be a nice anniversary gift for Sam and me.” His cheeks flush bright red as his golden eyes turn away. “I should get back to work. Later.”

Watching him enter the store, Sam scratches his chin, a curious look on his partly obscured face. Would Timmy like earrings? Or perhaps a bracelet? Does he even like jewelry? That man needs better fashion sense, that's for sure.

 

Doug returns to his post at the register, and the day chugs along like normal. The chime of the doorbell rings, and his instinct kicks in, when his heart sinks. Stepping through the door is a teenage boy with messy green hair, tan skin, and eyes of two different colors—brown and green. Inspecting the contours of his face and the way his bangs are brushed to the side, he utters under his breath, “Shun?” He shakes off the thought before the other could react in kind. “Welcome! How can I help you?”

The Shun-like stranger says nothing and turns to the clothes racks. After picking out an eclectic selection of garments, he approaches the register. As Doug rings up the order, he glimpses at the lookalike, staring back at him with dead eyes. Unnerved, his gaze turns downward, a familiar-looking pendant hanging around his neck. In his momentary pause, a soft voice catches him off-guard. “Despicable.”

“Excuse me, what?” He turns to look at the stranger, eye-to-eye. Still staring blankly, though his eyes display a subtle hint of pain. After a moment of silence, he proceeds with the order. “That'll be—”

The Shun lookalike cuts him off, cracks of anger showing through his echoing drone. “First you abandon your team. Then your best friend. And when I needed you most, you left me to die. You can play hero all you like, but in the end, you cannot save anyone. You're just a selfish, useless bastard. When the time comes, you will be the first to go.” He snatches the bag of clothes and turns away.

Doug, tongue-tied, fumbles with the register. “Wait, you forgot to—” The bell chimes, and the stranger is gone. By the door is the bag of clothes, carelessly tossed aside.